Afternoon, January 1, 2011
My victory over Kilimanjaro was short lived when the realization dawned on me that I had to hike downhill another eight hours or more from Uhuru Peak to Horombo Huts. I estimated that we had about more 20 kilometers descending about 10,000 feet on the Marangu (Coca-Cola) Route before we could stop for the day. Although hiking downhill is usually easier than uphill, it’s no less difficult when you’re already worn out by 12 hours of hiking.
I savored my time on top of the “Roof of Africa.” I was too tired to keep standing and plopped down for over half an hour on a stump-size lava rock looking out over the horizon toward the bluish-white South Glacier. Kay, Tom and all the guides except mine, Manda, had already spent about 30 minutes waiting for me. They were ready to head back down but graciously gave me time to enjoy the view. Conditions at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) were balmy; we could not have picked a better time to reach the summit. The sun was out, the weather mild, and there was no snow around us to speak of, which is reportedly an infrequent occurrence on Uhuru Peak. An estimated 50-100 climbers at any given time milled around the flat top, took photos, and admired the view. I probably dallied longer than I should have. Kay reminded me that it wasn’t healthy at this high altitude to linger for long periods of time. I was loathed to move again. The long trek ahead of us was an added disincentive to get a move on.
Finally, at about noon, we started hiking again. This time we went down together as a group. I had more strength on the descent and bounced ahead so as not to hold up our group; the others marveled at how well I had rebounded from my earlier ordeal. My physical condition was still tenuous, and the moderate climb down to Gilman’s Point was a welcome respite. We stopped once for snacks and boiled glacier water diluted with artificial flavors that masked the silt. It didn’t taste too bad despite the gritty texture. A few minutes later we were off again. I recall crossing over some patches of ice made more treacherous by my failing motor skills.
We reached Gilman’s at about 1 p.m., over an hour faster than we took to reach the summit, and stopped for about 15 minutes to take photos. By that time I felt better than I did at any time since midnight at Kibo Hut, and I meekly posed for some memorable photos overlooking the expanse below. The sun cast a bright glow across the land and sharpened the outlines and shadows of ridges and rock outcroppings so starkly that it looked as if the view had been painted by hand. I beheld Kibo Hut far below me. It looked so tiny from here! It was an incredibly long way down. Some say that it’s good to conquer Gilman’s in the dark so that you can’t see how high you’re climbing. They’re certainly right. I can’t believe how high and steep the mountain face was. While the ascent was not technically challenging and did not require the use of mountaineering gear, the surface was so steep and riddled with loose gravel and rock that it could have easily doubled as Black Diamond. All we needed was pairs of skies to fly down the mountain.
Kay, Tom, and I went down with the guides in pairs. At first Manda “helped” Kay while our lead guide August assisted me, but after 15 minutes of being yanked downhill Kay protested and refused to let Manda touch her again. August and Manda switched places, and I had the unenviable pleasure of being dragged down by Manda. His hands were like a vice grip on my arm. He pulled me downhill much faster than I wanted to go, and several times I pulled back and advised him to take it easy and cautioned him that at any moment I could crash or physically collapse. Unfortunately, he did not speak English and I didn’t speak Swahili, so I communicated my displeasure by ripping my arm out of his hands and scolding him harshly with words and hand gestures I’m sure he understood nonetheless. He seemed use to such diatribes, undoubtedly soliciting similar responses from all his clients. Kay had no trouble going down with August. I occasionally stole a glance toward Kibo Hut and marveled at Tom and his guide barreling downhill fast and furiously. They skied fearlessly downhill at speeds I guesstimated were in excess of 20 kilometers per hour! On a steep, gravely slope such as this, it was easy for inertia to get a hold of you and cause you to slide downhill at breakneck speeds. If you didn’t care about crashing or seriously injuring yourself, you could make it down the face of Gilman’s Point in about 20 minutes. Tom and his guide motored down so fast that they made it to the base in what must have been a land speed record. When I asked him later about the experience he responded that it was “incredible” and “scary.”
About halfway to Kibo Hut, Manda and I lost our balance and crashed, and for the first time on our climb my knees and hips began to hurt as if I had sustained a serious injury. I felt sharp pain in the tendons and joints around my kneecaps and hips, and I wondered if I would need medical attention when I made it back to civilization. My knees felt like Jell-o, and I wobbled, slid, and fell repeatedly. Each time Manda’s strong grip threatened to rip my arm out of its socket. We finally made it down after about an hour, but not without a series of exasperating lectures on working with me rather than pulling me like dead weight. I wasn’t about to let him carelessly drag me into oblivion or leave me with permanent body damage; he was going to do it my way, or I would sit down right then and there and refuse to move. He finally acquiesced, and the final half hour of our descent was much smoother.
At the bottom of the slope I stopped and looked toward Kibo Hut. It still seemed so far away! I looked back at Gilman’s Point now high above us. Did we really hike that far during the darkest hours of midnight? I couldn’t believe how far we had gone and was amazed that I had found the strength to climb as far and high as I did. I was exhausted once again and couldn’t wait to get back to our tents to rest. I resolved to convince August to spend the night at Kibo Hut rather than press on to Horombo Huts. How would I ever find the strength to hike another 4-5 hours? I was frustrated with August for what I considered poor planning for coercing us to go on after spending all day climbing up and down Kilimanjaro’s summit.
Kay, Tom and their guides had already disappeared, and Manda and I continued on by ourselves. We didn’t have much to say to each other, which would not have done much good given the language barrier between us. We arrived back at Kibo Hut at about 2:30 p.m. just in time for lunch. I was without appetite, too tired to eat anyway, and immediately went to my tent to collapse. If I was going to make it to Horombo Huts by nightfall, I needed to get some much needed rest. Even though I had hardly eaten anything all day and hadn’t had a decent meal in over 36 hours, sleep was a much higher priority for me. I ignored the cook’s voice when he announced that lunch was ready.