Kilimanjaro-Day 6: Descent

September 24, 2007

Uhuru Peak to Mweka Hut

Total Distance: 8 Miles
Total Ascent: 9,340 ft.
Ending Altitude: 10,000 ft.

I was feeling much better physically, probably owning to the knowledge that the up-hill portion of the climb was complete. We exuberantly exchanged congratulatory hugs and handshakes all the while gushing gratitude to our guides. Finally, after all the photos were taken, Kambona motioned that it was time to start back. I looked around me one last time, took a last deep breath of the clean cool air, and we began to descend. The trip back to Stella Point was much easier in this direction. As we walked I examined the familiar blue within the cracks of the glaciers to our right. Diana looked to be doing better now and was making good time. We all cheerfully hurried along with the guides.

We stopped for a moment at Stella Point. Kambona instructed me to go down with Zuberi. Tad, Melia and Caroline had already started down by the time we arrived. I checked my watch, had some water and we stepped off the rim.

The sandy trail made going down awkward. There was enough scree on the trail to make it very slippery. What I wanted most was to go into cruise control, but I had to concentrate closely on each step. At this rate it was shaping up to be a slow descent. I looked up and Zuberi was facing me. He pointed to a chute of loose scree leading away to the left of the trail and asked which route I’d prefer to take. Sizing up the choices, I pointed to the left and told him I’d do my best to keep up. Although steeper, the left looked as if it had better footing. This turned out to be the right decision. The surface consisted of deep gravel, which allowed us to take large steps and still keep traction. Soon we were taking huge strides towards the bottom. Occasionally the gravel would become shallow and we would have to slow down in order to keep from slipping. But then it would get deep and soft again and we were back to giant moon steps. With each step we would plant our boot and then slide several feet before the next stride. Before long we caught Melia and Caroline, then we saw Tad. But Zuberi just kept going so I followed. After a while my thighs were burning, but we were making such great headway that I didn’t want to slow us down. So I determined that I would keep up as long as I could.

This went on for nearly an hour, and it was great fun. It reminded me of times as a kid when we would run down shale slides and sand hills in the mountains above my house, except those experiences usually lasted a few seconds. Finally we reached the bottom of the chute. My thighs were screaming, but it had been such great fun I was a little sorry that I had to begin to work for my distance again. Zuberi sat down to empty the gravel from his shoes and looked up with a big smile.

From there we followed a trail up a slight incline, which cut diagonally towards the top of a ridge. We emerged on an overlook and I saw the familiar structure of the hut at Baranco camp. There were people milling around and I couldn’t believe we had arrived so quickly. It was starting to settle in that I had been to the summit. I was walking along caught up in my thoughts when someone stepped out in front of me. I looked up and it was Adam. He wore a huge smile and reached out for my pack. I heard someone shout my name and looked up to see the rest of our porters sitting on a nearby rock. They asked if I had made the summit, and when I gave them the thumbs-up, they let out a big cheer. It was a perfect welcome-home committee. Although it was close to midday, the weather was still spectacular. As I walked into camp, Douglas the cook and a couple other camp hands emerged from the tent. Zuberi began to talk to them in Swahili. They all gave me a handshake and congratulations with big Tanzanian smiles. I looked at my watch. It was one hour and ten minutes after leaving Stella Point. What had taken eight hours and forty five minutes to ascend had taken about an hour and a half to return. Incredulously, I told Zuberi how long it had taken. Araztu looked at me and then turned to Zuberi for clarification. Zuberi asked me again, “how long?” I repeated the time and we all shared a high five.

Douglas the cook brought out some food, and I ate a little. Then I retired to my tent to relax for a moment. I felt great. The sick feelings I was experiencing on the approach had dissipated immediately as we started down. The altitude here felt like home compared to the summit. I lay down in my tent, content with the accomplishment and dozed off.

I woke up about an hour later as others from the group were arriving. It was a great scene full of well earned congratulations. After everyone was present we ate some lunch, all the while energetically reliving the details of the morning.

But the day was still not over. Kambona pointed out that we needed to break camp and get underway to Mweka Camp. Mweka was the last camp of the trek. It was still a five thousand foot decent from Barafu, and Kambona estimated that it would be about a five hour walk.

I packed up my gear and set it outside the tent. When I emerged, everyone else was ready to go. I gave Adam my duffle and stepped over to line up with the group. Zuberi was busy with the others breaking camp, but stopped to ask if I would be willing to wait five minutes and go with him. I looked at Kambona, who gave his approval. So I told the group to go on and that I was going with Zuberi and some of the porters. Someone in the group reminded me to consider what I would feel like at the end of a porter-speed march. But it seemed like a fun opportunity and I decided to give it a try.

I helped Zuberi drop my tent and get it packed. Then we headed out; Zuberi, Araztu and myself. I’ve hiked with a lot of guys, most in better shape than myself. But I’ve never hiked with anyone who kept such a fast pace. By my standards we were moving along at an extremely aggressive rate, but I was able to keep up with them if I worked hard. I hoped that I was actually keeping up with them; however, I really had no way of determining whether they were holding back for me or not. In retrospect I think it’s a strong possibility. As we walked we passed other climbers and soon caught up with our group. This was the chance to bail and slow down, but I wanted to keep going so I followed on by.

The trail traverses a flat plateau and is good and smooth through this area. As we walked we made our best attempt at conversation. I knew only a few basic Swahili words and their English was pretty rough also. But we were able to make ourselves understood, and doing so helped pass the time. We were walking so fast that I wasn’t even using my trekking poles, and was carrying both poles in one hand parallel to the ground. Araztu walked up beside me and asked if he could borrow my poles. I handed them to him and he started swinging them at his side in an exaggerated way. The poles weren’t even touching the ground, just swinging back and forth in rhythm with his stride. I finally asked him what he was doing. He smiled big and answered that he wanted look like one of us, referring to the climbers. We both laughed, but Zuberi, who had been watching in silence, grumbled something in Swahili. Araztu immediately dropped his head, handed me the poles, and picked up his pace leaving us quickly behind.

The trail became steeper and rockier as we left the plateau. My feet were beginning to feel the effects of the day, but still I tried my best to keep the pace. I was pretty sure I was beginning to wear a blister on my foot. But I knew that the longer I could keep up this pace, the quicker we would arrive at Mweka. I didn’t want to stop to tape my foot, but finally I did ask if we could slow down. Without any hesitation Zuberi slowed his pace, and we continued on still making great time.

The vegetation was becoming more dense and the path was getting more rocky. It seemed as if it would never end. The time passed slowly. Soon Zuberi pointed across a gorge to the roof of a hut in the distance. He explained that we could now see our destination. However, true to the Kilimanjaro experience, it looked much closer than it was. I asked him how far, and he said we still a couple of hours to go. It looked so close, but it was still so far.

At times the trail dropped steeply with the rocks arranged into pseudo stairs with uneven consistency and height. My trekking poles were now coming in handy as we stepped down these sections of the trail. The rocks were hard on my knees and feet, but I knew that we were simply into the part of the day in which you endure the pain until you can stop. All I could do is keep going.

Finally we started to hear voices and I knew we were approaching the end of our march. Knowing that we would be stopping soon gave me renewed strength and finally we strode into Mweka camp – nine thousand feet below the summit. We arrived 5 ½ hours after leaving Barafu. The altitude at Mweka is around 10,000 ft. However, the air was sultry and the atmosphere seemed thick.

Zuberi took me to the hut to sign in. There they were selling soda, water, and beer as people waited in line. I realized that the registration line was more a revenue source than a government requirement. The thought of warm soda didn’t appeal to me, so I waited my turn and signed in, relieved to not have to walk anymore.

As I walked from the hut to our camp, I could see the summit which was framed in an opening of the branches of the trees surrounding our clearing. It looked a long way away! The porters were busily setting up camp. They gave me a chair which I gladly accepted. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits – them because they were near the end of their toils for the week – and me because of the day’s accomplishments.

At last my tent was ready so I took my gear and ducked inside. Except for the quick nap at Barafu, I had been up since 11:00 p.m. the previous night. I thought that I was doing pretty well, but once I lay down for a minute I went out like a light.

I was still asleep when the rest of the group arrived, but I was awakened by the call to dinner. I felt a little bad that I hadn’t been up to greet everyone as they arrived. We were all exhausted and sore. Dinner was good, but we were eager to get into bed. I was worried that by having napped before dinner, I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. But I had no problem returning to a deep sleep for the night.