We started back down.
It was done. Everything from this point forward would quite literally be downhill.
The walk back to Stella Point was torturous. There was no more adrenaline. All I wanted was my cocoon of warmth and happiness. There was no amazing goal, only impatience and exhaustion. These two emotional elements mix about as well as absinthe and LSD. From Stella Point back to camp is supposed to be about a three hour trek. I was devastatingly thirsty and the sun was now rising fast into the sky.
Martin led Glenn and I. Mike and Julianne quickly trailed with Dixon. The good news about going downhill: gravity is on your side. The bad news about going downhill: gravity is on your side.
The scree that we had been walking up through the last little bit of the trek was now warmed and loose. We started “scree surfing”, or sliding down with the rocks. I would take a big step or two and then slide with the rocks before kicking over to my other leg and sliding with that foot. It was a bit like slalom skiing without the skis, or the snow for that matter.
Almost immediately the burning in my thighs was unbearable. I slid onto my back, sprawling out on the scree, I laid still for a minute trying to catch my breath. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I had hoped. I summoned up my strength and we started again. Jump. Slide. Jump. Slide.
I was using my hiking poles as I would use ski poles to initiate the turns as though I was in deep powder. I’ve skied in high altitudes plenty, but never at 19,000 feet. Every slide stirred up a hurricane of dust, making breathing all the more difficult.
I tried to trick myself into believing it was fun, and had there been anything at all left in my tank it probably would have been. But my mind was well over tricks, I just wanted to get off this gargantuan equatorial rock.
We pushed on, or rather down, for about a half hour and then I sat. Martin looked back at us.
“Glenn, I’m going to sit here for a bit. I feel like I’m going to die.”
“I think I can deal with that,” Glenn said.
And we sat. And Martin stared back at us from about 100 feet downhill. We had veered off the main trail and were now in a river of scree. The sun was high enough in the sky to heat the rocks and us. I was sweating, I unzipped the top three layers I had on. Steam poured from my chest. I could feel rivers of sweat pouring down my back.
Martin emphatically waved for us to continue.
“I think he’s on orders from Dixon to keep us moving,” Glenn said.
“I don’t care, I f*&%ing hate him right now. I’m not moving until I’m ready,” I said, my inner princess unleashed.
“I’m staying here! I’m going to be sick, I need a minute!” I shouted down to Martin.
He just stared blankly back at me and waved for us to keep moving. He had no idea what I was saying.
After a few minutes, we started moving again. In the daylight nothing was recognizable. I could see that the main trail was to our right on a ridge about thirty feet above us. In the light I realized just how dangerous that trail was, there were pretty sizable dropoffs within just steps of the trail at regular intervals. Our path down began to separate more and more until there was no longer any sign of the trail. The topography returned to its Mohave-esque feel, minus the plant life. This could be trail among the ridges of Nevada.
We slid downhill for another half hour and Martin stopped. He looked uphill and downhill and started scratching his head.
“I think he’s lost,” I said to Glenn.
“No, I think he’s fine. It looks like he’s just trying to get his bearings,” Glenn said.
I didn’t believe him. I thought that we were way off track. The possibility of being lost was overwhelming. My brain was too tired to control my emotions and I could feel a wave of panic wash over my body.
Martin started forward again.
“How can we be sure he’s going the right way? We haven’t seen anyone for over an hour. I think we were supposed to stick to the trail,” I said to Glenn.
“I’m sure he’s fine. He’s done this a few times give him some credit.”
We followed behind him for another few minutes, my anxiety growing. And then we saw two people surfing down the scree above us. They were moving at a pretty quick pace. It was Michael and another of the assistant guides. Given how beaten he looked the last time we saw him I was shocked to see him moving so quickly.
“I guess I got another wind,” Michael said as we welcomed him into our little group. He said that Julianne was fine, just moving slower with Dixon a little behind us. I was happy to see Michael, and in good spirits. It fueled me with a little more motivation to keep on going.
Even so, I was overheating. The sun was beating down on us, combined with 18 layers of clothing and a constant cloud of dust in low orbit, the whole scene was very Dantesque. There was no water, my camelback (in spite of the sun) was still frozen. Had I been smart I would have put the reservoir on the inside of my jacket to keep me cool and warm it up. I’ll have to save that tip for the next time I climb Kilimanjaro (ha!).
This was probably the thirstiest I’ve ever felt in my life, and it just seemed that camp would never arrive. The alpine mountain of a few hours prior had become instead a sweltering desert. It didn’t make sense.
Nor did our route back. Nothing looked even vaguely familiar, but everything looked the same. I became convinced that I was in an old western where they recycled the desert scene behind the actors to make it seem as though they were moving on set.
The trail spun before us, clear now. We had left the scree field and thousands of boots before us had etched a human signature into the mountain.
My boots had performed wonderfully, they kept my feet warm and they kept the rocks out…until this last little bit. We sat down and I took my boots off, pouring out enough rock to make a land bridge across the Chesapeake. I took off the outer layer of wool socks and put my boots back on. It was a delight, it was like when you move from a cramped college dorm to a wonderful four bedroom house. There was space, and my feet were cool again.
We continued on. It felt like an eternity since the tent shook me awake to start the summit hike. That wasn’t the same day, hell that wasn’t the same decade as far as my mind was concerned. Right now I just wanted to get back to that tent. I wanted to crash on my sleeping pad and not wake up for a week. I could feel that sensation of lying flat on a comfortable surface, letting gravity pull my limbs into submission, laying my head on a balled up sweatshirt and disappearing from conscious reality.
Instead, I’m still hiking through the middle of nowhere. My attitude sucked, and I realized it. But this was just one of those moments where I didn’t have anything to say to myself to cheer me up. I didn’t even care that I had just summited the world’s highest freestanding mountain…I wanted my bed!
And I was thirsty.
We spotted two men sitting on rocks ahead trail on the trail. It seemed funny that these guys would just be sitting there, alone. They looked like porters and as we got closer they walked up to us. They had juice! They were just offering up little sips of juice. I took some oversized gulps, and we walked on. Just about fifteen minutes later the trail met back with the main trail that took us up the previous night.
Even though it had been dark there were key aspects of the trail that stuck out in my mind. It’s remarkable how human senses work sometimes. Robbed of full light I had been paying closer attention to the feel of the trail, the pattern of the switchbacks and the outline of the rocks we encountered. I knew this to be the same trail only in daylight.
Still though, it looked considerably different than I had imagined it. For whatever reason, in my mind I envisioned a wide gently inclining plain leading to the summit. In reality, it was a sharp spine only 15 or 20 feet wide at points. The grade was steep, with huge “steps” marking a jump in elevation. Basically my eyes saw something radically different from my mind, but I still knew it was the same.
The switchbacks were steep now. My legs shook with every big step down a switchback. I detested every step I took larger than my foot. I just wanted to jump and roll to the bottom. As in all the way to the bottom, all the way to Moshi and my little twin bed and my trap of a mosquito net and a bar stocked with warm Tusker.
I sat down at every switchback. Mike and Glenn moved ahead, camp was now visible and they took that as motivation. I wanted to be motivated, but I was too pissed off at the twenty or so switchbacks in my way. Small fries compared to the few hundred I had just gone up, but now significantly more important and difficult.
I cursed every step. I fell twice. My legs shook like a toddler taking his first steps. With each step closer I told myself, You’re one step closer. But there was an inversely proportional relationship between the pain of my steps and proximity to camp. Below I watched as Glenn made it to the tent. I was jealous.
I summoned up one final push and made it down those swtichbacks. I walked into camp, went straight to my tent, laid on my mat and exhaled.
“I don’t know how long they’re gonna let us sleep but I’ll go…” Glenn was talking, but I was already asleep.
“Come on buddy, you gotta get up now. We have to move,” Glenn was shaking me awake.
I felt as though I had just emerged from a coma. I was awake but I couldn’t quite get my arms and legs to respond to an order to move. I had no idea how long I had been asleep. I had no idea what time it was when we got back. And I had no idea what time it was now. I was covered in sweat, the sun was beating down on the tent and I still had thirty layers of clothes on.
I rolled off my mat and out of the tent, sitting on my knees relishing the cool breeze outside the tent. I sat there for a minute trying to regain my balance and coordination. Once I stood up I walked down to the toilet tent, an expedition in itself. The tent was downhill, at a steep pitch, and we were camped amongst a field of boulders. There was no easy way there, and the way back took even longer. Looking at my tent before walking back the distance seemed to multiply. It was like a scene from a movie where the perspective changes to reveal a suddenly distorted and elongated path.
Nothing was meant to come easy.
I staggered back up to the tent and sat down outside.
“Well we made it!” I said to Glenn. We talked about the highlights and the lowlights. Glenn admitted that there were a few times he thought about turning around, and I the same. Truthfully, hearing him admit that made me feel a lot better about myself, just knowing I wasn’t alone with those thoughts.
We slowly packed our gear, it was messier than most days thanks to having to dig every bit of gear out. The altitude was still extreme at 4600 meters and our brains were more than a bit fuzzy.
We packed everything and headed down to the mess tent. Amazingly, I was actually a little hungry now. I had managed to keep some bits of food down that I had eaten along the descent, and I was feeling a bit more confident that I was getting better. I ate just a few bites, not wanting to overdo it.
As a group we reassembled and left Barafu behind. I looked back up at Kibo and smiled. I had made it. And that fact was slowly starting to creep in.
Everyone looked exhausted and elated. The faces were windburned, eyes glassy but mouths smiled. The Swedes looked particularly in pain, both of them had nasty blisters on their noses. Peter was wearing a bandana across the middle of his face, while Tomas used a t-shirt to shut out the sun.
At this point everyone seemed to have something out of order. Regardless, the chatter was positive and victorious through the hike down. We talked about the moments we thought about giving up. We talked about what it felt like to reach the summit. We talked about how much we hated the trip back down.
Claire and I straggled a bit. We had become pretty good friends through this ordeal.
“I was so happy when I saw you and Emily near the summit. I didn’t think Emily had made it up,” I said.
“Yeah, she was actually pretty good. We were so happy to see you, we all thought that you had turned around,” Claire said.
“Believe me, I thought a lot about it.”
We kept talking and walking, each step bringing deliverance from the altitude. My tank was still on empty, but the exuberance that comes with victory provided all the energy I’d need.
The trail down is different from the one up. This trail is more direct. The objective of this day was to get back below 10,000 feet and into a safe zone from any form of acute mountain sickness.
After a few hours of walking the sun disappeared behind a vail of clouds. The temperature dropped, but not by much. The trail’s features changed in reverse, seemingly undoing what had been done. Life slowly returned.
More and more oxygen started to fill my lungs. It became a drug. With every step I became more intoxicated with each inhalation. It made me giddy. It filled me with energy. It made me feel invincible. There was a tangible feeling each time my lungs filled, and it felt good. I started to smell the air, it had a scent again. I’ve never noticed the scent of air, but there were elements of life immersed in the thickening atmosphere.
First some sprigs of dried grass, then some small bushes then some groundsels and finally some smaller trees began to grow by the trail. I wanted to hug all of these plants, I wanted to just love them. We stopped less frequently, I think there was an unspoken plan in all of our heads to finish this thing as soon as possible.
We reached Millenium Camp, we all new we wouldn’t be staying here. It served as kind of an emergency camp for people being rushed down the mountain, or for others who had had a very late departure from Barafu.
We apparently must have almost been in the latter group. It was around 3:30 and the original plan called for us arriving into Mweke camp by around 4pm. We also hadn’t seen any other groups on the trail, we had been the last to leave.
We sat for a few minutes at Millenium before moving again. It was clear that Dixon wanted to pick up the pace a bit. Five minutes down the trail we came upon a vista. Dixon pointed down to a building in the distance.
“There is Mweke camp, that is were we stop,” Dixon said to all of us. It seemed close enough.
“How much longer?”
“A little more than an hour,” Dixon replied with the standard answer.
“That’s definitely more than an hour away,” Claire muttered.
I decided to venture from guessing. This mountain was a tricky, fickle beast. And one of her great powers is the bending of space and time. What seemed like a short trek often became epic. I really didn’t want to set a standard in my mind only for it to be shattered. At this point I had given up on trying to figure this mountain out.
The trail merged with a dried streambed. If it were the wet season we’d be walking alongside a running creek. Instead, we darted from boulder to boulder trying not to trip on the last leg of this journey.
The elevation was dropping rapidly, and the oxygen high was started to balance out. My feet throbbed in pain and every muscle in my legs burned. I hit another mini-wall. And almost on cue Emily took out her iPhone and started playing crappy top-40 music out of it’s miniscule speakers. It was exactly what I needed, a little pop music. The three of us trailed behind again, listening to the music sharing more stories and keeping each other’s minds in positive territory.
Rumbles of thunder resonated around the mountainside and the sky looked ominous just off to our east. Magically, those clouds would stay off on our left as the setting sun punctured the clouds again. The moisture in the air smelled sweet.
Dixon caught back up with us. He had gone back to Millenium Camp for some reason. We talked some more as he trailed with us.
“You should be proud, you are very strong. I did not think you would make it,” Dixon said, it was directly honest and unexpected.
“There’s no way I could have made it without you, thank you so much,” I said back to him. I was being as directly honest.
I was surrounded by the two most important elements for a successful climb of Kili, or anywhere else for that matter: good company and an excellent guide. Gear is nice, and it will keep you comfortable, mindset is important and it will keep you motivated, but the fellowship of those with you on the mountain will boost you up when your mind has given in and your gear has hit its limits.
I couldn’t be thankful enough that a week earlier I had randomly sat with Emily and Claire for breakfast. We became a mini-gang devoted to helping each other through this adventure.
Dusk was starting to reign over the sky. The stream bed turned muddy. There were, what appeared to be landscaped steps built into the trail, except they were irregular and torn up.
“They tried to pave this section of the trail a few years ago, but once it rained it only made the water flow faster and it destroyed what was built,” Dixon explained.
And now the trail was littered with the hazards of unintended consequences. As the mud thickened we slipped and fell. Our legs and concentration weren’t there to meet this new hazard.
It got dark enough that I had to pull out my headlamp. We could hear voices through the forest, and it was clear that we were approaching Mweke, but every turn only brought another section of trail. Kili wasn’t giving up without a few more tricks of the mind.
And then we finally broke through, we made it to camp. We trudged into the ranger’s cabin and signed the registry. This was proof of success.
And then we all collapsed in exhaustion on the front steps. We sat there, and sat there and sat there. In the darkness there had been some confusion over where we were posted and Dixon was trying to sort it out.
All around us was the air of celebration. All the groups were eating and sharing their stories of success. Dixon came back to lead us to our tents. We walked, and walked and walked some more. It was one last cruel joke. It seemed as though our camp was a mile outside of camp.
But when we got there, we where there! This was the end of nearly 36 hours of hiking. Earlier in the day we had done some crude calculations on how many calories we had burned in 24 hours, and the number was close to 11000 calories. There are weeks when I don’t burn that much energy, much less in a single day.
We had a meal prepared by some of the local women. I’d love to go into great detail about each delicious bite, but as soon as I walked into the mess tent the smell of curry sent a wave of nausea through my body. My appetite fled. Everyone gathered around the table, I wanted to be a part of it, but my stomach couldn’t take it.
“I’m sorry guys, I can’t be in here. I’m going to head to bed,” I said.
I walked back through the lattice-work of trees to my tent. The camp had a very spooky appeal with moss draping all of the branches. We were still at around 10,000 feet, but it felt like sea level to me. I unzipped the tent, stepped in and zipped into my cocoon of warmth for the last time on Kili. Glenn came in just a minute after me.
“Yeah, I can’t do that yet,” he said about the meal.
We talked for a minute, and then there was a ruckus outside the tent. Glenn stuck his head out to see what it was.
“They’re digging a trench around all the tents in case it rains,” Glenn said. I was amazed at how these guys just didn’t stop working.
In seconds I was out. I woke only once to rain pounding onto the tent, I smiled and fell back asleep.