Climbing Kilimanjaro, Day 5 – The Descent
In my personal opinion, getting to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro was the easy part. Climbing Kilimanjaro had taken us four days, but it was now time for our descent.
After climbing for hours before sunrise we finally made it to the top. The breath taking views will stay with me always. When I reached that point I felt like I had accomplished what I wanted, and now I just wanted to go home. I was ready to say my good-bye’s and go lie next to a pool enjoying a Gin and Tonic with my feet in the air.
Little did I know what was waiting for me.
What goes up must come down.
Our descent started suddenly and quicker than I expected. With the icy winds blowing through our layers of clothes, every body part numbed by the hours spent in the cold weather, it was time to start the real descent. What took us hours to climb in the dark would soon be over.
We didn’t have much time to say good bye or even realise what was going on. My dad started falling as if his legs would not cooperate and he started slurring as if his tongue fell into a deep sleep. I knew something wasn’t right and the guides started assisting him. Going down that first part was scary, as I walked behind my dad I felt a huge lump in my throat. Seeing my dad, a strong healthy fit man, struggling the way he did. It killed me inside, but I had to toughen up in the moment and be strong.
He’s a proud man and didn’t want to accept much help from the guides but I am happy to say that he allowed help where it was needed. There were areas where one wrong move or slip to the left can become a very long, even fatal fall.
We rested for maybe a minute or two at Stella Point and from there moved along as quickly as possible. Although we are not a hundred percent sure what exactly caused my dad’s sudden condition we think it could have been the lack of oxygen up there. We were at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. It may even have been a combination of things like the speed we walked all week whilst climbing Kilimanjaro. It could also be the fact that he didn’t eat much either. That, along with the lack of oxygen at the altitude were all possible factors.
Decent to Barafu Camp
It went fast. My dad slipped a couple of times. I landed up laughing about it eventually. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know if it was nerves or just really funny. His left leg just wouldn’t cooperate with the rest of his body.
The black landscape I remembered from that morning changed completely and I was surprised at how different it looked during the day. The loose ground under our feet made it hard to not fall at least once. I fell a couple of times myself. If I could make a suggestion to make Kilimanjaro experience more enjoyable, I would suggest someone builds a nice long slide down, so you can just sit and enjoy the scenery. Our legs were tired but our hearts were full.
About an hour into the descent my dad started feeling and looking better. Much better. I stopped worrying about him and had to change my game plan.
It was time to keep up with the old man.
The moment I stopped worrying about my dad I realised I had a slight problem myself. At first it was minor but the more we went down the more I felt every braking step. I call it a ‘braking step’ because you literally have to hit the brakes with every step you take to prevent a free-fall. My knees were aching and in that moment I had my regrets about being an athlete all my life.
Although I cut my tow nails on Sunday, it was now Friday and my toe nails apparently grew too long in those few days. I couldn’t even brake anymore. I felt every step down. My knees were working hard trying to protect my poor toes. Some steps were slippery, some were high but it was always down. Every step rested on my two big toes and my knees took strain in the motion of trying to protect what ever was going on inside my shoes. If you think one millimetre makes no difference to the length of your toe nails, think again. It makes a huge difference and if you ever plan to climb Kilimanjaro I suggest you walk with nail clippers in you day pack. All I knew was that I was in trouble and I just wanted to be finished.
In the midst of everything I was thankful for the beautiful weather. We had no rain. The sun was resting gently in the sky and although it was icy, I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face.
We Did It!
We arrived at Barafu Camp with song and dance. What a wonderful huge moment it was for us. All of us felt very proud and very happy.
We made good time with our descent but I was finished. If I could I would have walked down on my hands I would have.
Climbing into my tent for a rest felt so good. I mean, I did it. I made it. That feeling of accomplishment was amazing. In that moment I didn’t want to be anyone else but me. For months I had been dreaming about that moment, and now finally I was living that dream. I had actually done it. I had climbed Kilimanjaro!
Surveying The Damage
It was time to take my shoes off and evaluate the damage. I wasn’t even sure if my toe nails were still attached to my actual toes but I had to look. I slowly removed my shoes and then my three pairs of socks. More relief as the layers came off and then I saw it. It was bad. It was really really bad.
I tried cutting my nails immediately but the excruciating pain stopped me from finishing the job. They were still attached but loose. There was blood resting on the nail bed underneath the nails, and the actual nails had turned a light grey colour. I saw big problems for myself for the rest of the day.
It was bad. But I had to look at the bright side. They were still part of my body and I didn’t have to worry about finishing without toe nails. With over ten kilometres left for the day, and of cause it being a massive decent I had no idea what to do about my new problem at 4673 m above sea level. I lay down and fell asleep for an hour. It was a good nap. However, when I woke I still faced the same problem.
It was time to tell my dad what was going on.
I walked over to his tent without any shoes and when he saw my toe nails he wasn’t happy with me for a second or two. You know how parents can be.,
“Why did you not cut your nails? I told you to keep your nails short!”
You know, like a typical parent. Saying everything we know, and just rubbing it in and for a moment to emphasise the point. I felt like a kid on the chopping block again because I didn’t listen and because he had said so. In my head I was thinking maybe that’s exactly what it was. I didn’t listen. Did I forget toe nails grow?
Both of us were unsure of what to do, my dad wrapped them trying to cover it so that I won’t feel the pain once I put my boots back on. He basically told me to suck it up, put on my boots and just walk through the pain. Completely submissive to my dad I did just that. I gave myself a little emotional pep talk in the tent, straightened out my attitude, reminded myself what I accomplished only a couple of hours before and did exactly as my dad told me.
Descent to Mweka Hut Camp And High Camp
Only another 13.5 kilometres to go.
As we started walking again my steps became torture and I wanted to cry like a baby. I stopped after only 500 metres and told my dad I could not walk with my toes covered. They were throbbing, and it was killing me.
I tried walking backwards and that provided me with so much comfort and relief but in the process I nearly fell a few times. This is a descent from a mountain. It’s not a smooth road built by engineers. I decided right there that I was going to complete my descent barefoot. Although my dad said no and that I was crazy, I decided it was crazier to keep my shoes on. I was dying.
Our guides were stunned by my bold move and quickly realised they had to make a plan and quick. They started looking for open shoes to help me. I carried on walking without any shoes. The bottom line was that I had to walk, I had to finish. There was not other option. The ‘how’ to me was however I could, with the least amount of pain.
A Dangerous Move
I knew it was dangerous to descend without ankle support but I didn’t care. My toes needed to breathe. Nothing could touch it. After about ten minutes Peter got me flip flops. Wearing white flip flops that belonged to our chef Ziggy felt so good. For the first time in hours I felt like I had regained power. I was in control again. YES!
As we all know nothing in life is just smooth sailing, and of course, it started to rain, AGAIN. Not just a slight drizzle. The heavens opened up and it was pouring down. My toes were freezing.
Have you ever walked with flip flops in the rain on a rocky muddy mountain descent? I have and it is not easy. Slipping is an understatement and the once life saving flip flops became a huge safety hazard as it turned into a slip and slide for my feet. I stopped. Again. With our hands in our hair we stood there on the mountain in the rain and, for the first time, I just wanted to give up. I wanted them to air lift me and take me far away from the mountain.
Our Guides Saved The Day
Our wonderful guides came up with a plan. One that could actually work.
I didn’t care what I had to do, or wear, I just wanted to walk without pain. Peter was kind enough to give me one of his trainers which was already on its way out. The sole of the shoe wasn’t even attached to the actual shoe anymore except for the heel part. I didn’t care. It was a size nine, which made it about three or four sizes bigger than my feet. They then took a pocket knife and cut open the top of the shoe so that nothing would touch my toe from the top. They strapped my foot into the massive shoe with tape.
Sopping wet we started our walk again and for the first time in hours I was walking with complete contentment and comfort. Finally I had my shoes. My solution.
Thank you Peter and Salim, you guys were awesome.
I’m sure at this point my dad was just as happy as I was. Our walk continued in the rain, endless kilometres, endless rain. The ground turned into mud all around us and the rocky landscape was slippery. With each step I grew more and more grateful for the shoes. As we went lower the landscape changed again and we were back in the moorland.
The Longest Day
I’ll be honest it was the longest day I spent on the mountain. It was the toughest day mentally and for the first time I was struggling physically. I kept asking Salim “Are we there yet?” His answer always the same, “not long now…”. Which, by the way, wasn’t true. We just kept walking and walking, and it never stopped. The rain did eventually stop, for a little while at least, and I could feel my hands warming and my clothes getting lighter as it dried. It wasn’t too long before it started raining again.
We arrived at High Camp in the rain.
We arrived at our final destination after twelve kilometres just before 17.00. I don’t think I was ever so happy to see my tent, my home, my little place of rest. Everything was wet and muddy but I just wanted to get in there and lie down.
I was exhausted. Probably more so because of the emotional baggage that I had carried all day. It was my last night in the tent. Our last supper. Everything was ‘the last’. I think if I had energy I would have carried on walking that day, to the end, just to get out of there. But I had nothing left inside myself. After being awake for sixteen hours and walking most of the day I was thankful to rest and closed my eyes at 19:30 that night.
Finding The Humour
Just before lights out I had a good giggle to myself, and that helped put my mental and emotional state back on track.
My dad was having his own struggles. Being a fussy eater he was at a point where he couldn’t stomach the food anymore. While I was enjoying supper he got sick just outside the tent. I sat in the tent, giggling like a grade eight school girl. I know. It was so wrong of me. But by this time everything is either funny or you cry. Extreme emotions make their way through your entire being and at that point I just laughed.
We laugh about these things now, but at the time it was really tough.
I closed my eyes on day five of climbing Kilimanjaro, knowing and understanding the survival strength we all have inside us. If we have to survive, we can. We will.
I struggled to get comfortable because it was still a little cold and I couldn’t get into my sleeping bag because I didn’t want anything to touch my throbbing toes. But once I fell a sleep, I slept like a baby.
This day leaves a smile to my face. Although it was probably one of the toughest days I’ve ever faced in my life, it was a good day and it was the day I accomplished my goal. It was the day I reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, The Roof of Africa.
It was surreal in a way. Was I really there? Did we really make it?
I met a guy from Netherland who had also just finished his summit that day and I was amazed at the stories he was telling me. They chose the eight day route where we walked a six day route. He started on a complete different route, going up from the other side of the mountain. He told me they never had rain, and had their first bad weather on arrival at Barafu Camp. This was the day we arrived in the massive snow storm. I can’t remember the name of their route, but I can remember him telling me they came from the other side of the mountain.
This just confirmed my theory about this mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro.
She hides secrets that you only find once you are there. They say it’s one mountain and it sure looks like one mountain but once you start climbing her you find mountains within the mountain. She offers extreme heat, which we completely missed and then a day later you find yourself in snow. Her landscapes are something to write books about, forever changing, forever offering something new. She is a beast but in a silent way. Her history tells tales and I will never forget how she made me feel. An intense feeling of achievement, gratitude and amazement.
At the end of this day I felt like we were friends. You can’t live through a day like this without seeing God everywhere around you. Our creator created something indescribable.