There is one fact that is sometimes forgotten when climbing a mountain: What goes up, must come down. After the euphoric elation of reaching the summit at a little past seven o’clock, the reminder of the long, difficult hike back down hit me like truck. I was exhausted, famished and at an emotional high that would soon dwindle as I began my descent down to our base camp for some much-needed rest.
Our group of nine had split up into different pace groups, and I was alone with another climber from our group named David. Despite being as fit as can be (David just completed a marathon in Africa a few days before setting out on our climb), being in shape does not always guarantee your body will acclimatize properly. There are a number of reasons why you can get altitude sickness but it is never certain what exactly sets it off. Poor David reached the top of Kilimanjaro and promptly vomited behind the trail. He needed to get back down and fast.
David’s stamina and strength were rapidly deteriorating which made me nervous. We had little food or water left over save a few Cliff Bars and gel packs which I gave to David to ensure he would make it down the long, steep and seriously brutal 4-5 hours back to our base camp. The hike down was slippery, difficult and painful. By that point in the hike, the earlier injury to my left leg and knee was throbbing in swollen pain (I had slipped in a rice patty the day before leaving for the climb and seriously injured my poor left leg). I was dehydrated, cranky and hot but my biggest concern was making sure David would make it because I certainly wouldn’t be able to carry him down.
We began descending at a pretty fast speed but both of us kept slipping and falling on the dangerous rock. It was by far the worst part of the entire climb. My legs throbbed and David continued to get worse and worse. I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it without me going ahead and getting help. But he continued on, weak and determined to get to the camp. I was amazed.
The rest of the descent to Kosovo Base Camp, where we left ten hours before at one in the morning, was a blur. I remember stopping several times wondering how I would go on. But the realization that we would have food, water and our tents to sleep in kept me going. Plus David’s determination to get it over with pressed me forward.
It felt like we walked down the same path for hours watching many other climbers struggling just the same. Some were better off and some were worse. No one was in great shape at that point, though.
Finally, at close to eleven o’clock we saw our camp in the distance. I was elated. I kept moving one leg in front of the other praying for it to be over. It was a tease to the eyes as it was of course much further to reach than it appeared. But finally we made it and I nearly dropped to the ground in relief. I was done and had nothing left.
After eating, drinking and taking my boots off I fell rapidly asleep inside the comforts of my tent. I had made it. Well, at least I made it to the top and safely back down to around 15,000 feet at Kosovo Camp. Unfortunately there was still an awful lot of walking left to go.
Furthermore, the day was not over yet. We would have another three to four hours hike down to the last camp where we would spend our final night on the mountain before finishing up with a short three-hour hike to the gates. As much as I wanted to get back to the amazing comforts of my hotel and a hot shower (after seven long days!), I was too tired and sore to even think about it.
Before I knew it, my eyes were closed and off I dozed. David was sound asleep in the tent next door while the remaining seven in our group were still climbing back down.
Oh, how I wished it was over.