Going down the mountain from Uhuru Peak began around 20-30 minutes after we had arrived in Uhuru, the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Such is the story of ascending Mt. Kilimanjaro for many. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could picnic up there or, at least, at Stella Point and soak in the achievement? Yes, it would be except the thin air would begin doing a number on most people so it is not recommended. Being well-led, after all the picture-taking at Uhuru, we began the descent from the summit of Kilimanjaro. Coming down from the summit would be a process that would take about 8 hrs that day (YES, that SAME day we had just walked up 8 hrs without a full night’s sleep) and about 3-4 hrs the next day. Think about it, 5 days and 8 hours to go up but about 12 hrs to come back down. In reality, altitude issue aside, Kilimanjaro can be climbed within a day or two. But altitude acclimatization requires time and lots of good sense if one wants not just to make it to the top, but to survive the experience…
Starting the descent of Kilimanjaro
We passed Stella Point again on the way down but, this time, without much fanfare – or picture-taking. We were now on a mission to lose altitude quickly. And quickly it was to be!! I had not been prepared for what came next. We supposedly had crossed a field of scree (small pebbles) on the ascent (which I mentioned not remembering that part; or perhaps there was another path up without scree?). Well, it was time to come DOWN the field of scree. I was very unprepared on what technique was required here. All I knew is that it was like skiing except you had to watch out to not pop out a knee (a terrifying thought, really).
So I began to walk down the scree, putting one foot down, using my hiking pole to stop its slide (as you step on the scree it shifts down, taking your footing with it), then moving the other foot and repeating. Well, this was taking a little bit of time and other trekkers were passing me fast. After maybe five minutes or then of this, the same guide who had carried my daypack on the ascent, locked arms with me and proceeded to take me down the scree. Drive me down maybe is more like it. It was an exhilarating and scary ride!! We were going very fast and we were mainly sliding downhill, much as you would do when skiing.
At any given moment, either of us would lose his balance but Said, the guide, would ensure neither one of us fell. That continued to be true pretty much for the next 3 hours with the exception of certain patches where there were rocks and the sliding paused for a stretch. The only people moving faster down that field was a trio consisting of a guide and two trekkers (husband and wife), one of which had begun to have severe nausea and the other two were on either side of the trekker taking her down the mountain STAT in case it was a symptom of something worse (thankfully, it was not and she was fine by the time we got to basecamp for our lunch stop). They flew past us and continued the high-speed scree-field crossing at that very fast pace. I have never experienced this mix of thrill and almost-panic at the same time. Looking back, it was rather fun.
A break at Barafu Camp – just a break, not a stay
Soon enough we sighted Barafu Camp from which we had departed not quite 12 hrs before. A break was coming! This was where we were going to have lunch, change out of the warm clothes we had worn for the ascent, and replenish water bottles, etc. There was a little delay in the lunch being prepared so the stop was about an hour longer than expected.
On my way down the scree, I failed to pay attention to my feet and two-thirds of the way down, I realized I had a blister and was at risk of getting two more. I stopped, got some duct tape, and took care of things, as I learned from the Trekking for Kids lead when I hiked in Romania last summer. Once at camp, a fellow trekker had some magical thing she had gotten at REI and she SO kindly took care of fixing the blister. Whatever it is she had gotten at REI worked like magic (I have never had to use moleskin before but she said this was better). The remainder of the hike after lunch, I did not even feel my blister!!
Though we were tired, we had to keep going to our camp for the evening, the Mweka Camp, named for being the first camp on that route for those who enter the mountain through the Mweka Gate. Some were asking why couldn’t we stay in Barafu to overnight. I was quite happy not staying for several reasons:
- We had arrived before noon. Staying would represent a loss of an entire afternoon of moving and getting closer to exit the mountain.
- Getting to a lower camp meant Day 7, the last day on the mountain would be a short one: a downhill hike of 3-4hrs and – bam! – off to the hotel, a great lunch, and most important: the first shower in a week!
- I hated the inhospitable environment of Barafu Camp with it being so rocky and so dusty. I was done with the dust and didn’t want to have a fall like I almost had suffered the day before when I tripped on a tent cable while minding the rocks I was stepping on.
So I was quite happy with moving on. If I had only known what was coming our way…
Rocky road to Mweka Camp
Pretty quickly the second part of our descent on Day 6 became a nightmare of sorts. Though the views were great most of the time, the terrain was rocks that you had to navigate carefully (at least those not super experienced). Some of us started feeling that our knees were being hit hard and had to slow down some. My legs were extremely tired at this point and the knees, though not hurting yet, were wearing out with every step.
After a couple of hours or more, we saw in the distance a colorful array of tents. Yes! We weren’t terribly far! To which our guide quickly replied: “That’s not our camp, that is base camp for the Mweka Route ascent and we are not allowed to stay there since we are no longer on the ascent; you see that piece of metal over there (he pointed to a structure far, far away)? That’s where we are going.” Our collective jaws dropped (and almost hit rocks, I am sure). NO WAY, José! (OK, his name was Luis, not José.)
We continued our descent and, at times, it felt that that piece of metal was actually getting further away (I swear that it did look that way!). A couple of times our path became a smooth dirt trail which would thrill us tremendously only to turn a corner and resume the very rocky terrain. It was an exhausting, frustrating, and demanding-on-the-knees 4.5 hrs hike – I almost wished I was back in Barafu, resting and breathing dusty thin air at 15,000 ft+ altitude… But not quite. It helped me push forward knowing that what we were doing was the best approach.
The most difficult part of my climb – the descent
Most of these 4.5 hrs were the most mentally and physically difficult part for me of the entire 7 days. Yes, the accelerated heart rate on Day 4 slowed me down and made me worry. Yes, on ascent night I wondered if I would make it when I had to surrender my backpack. Yes, we were getting more and more oxygen on the descent as we went – to the point where, somewhere along these 4.5 hrs, we must have reached an altitude to which our body had acclimatized (I am sure were not adjusted to 15,000 ft though we had spent part of the day on Day 5 there). But, I just didn’t see an end to the rocky path on Day 6 and the Mweka Camp kept looking very far away any time we spotted it. It was a true test of will power for me to finish that path.
But, all good things come to an end (!), and we reached the Mweka Camp. The customary “signing of the guestbook to prove we had been there” done, we approached our tents for a final night of camping. Hot water was brought to us and I happily washed off my face and did what I could to clean myself before having dinner.
That meal may not have been spectacular by some standards but we were exhausted and we loved sitting around that mess tent, eating and reflecting on what we had just done. I didn’t linger – I was tired and wanted to get everything ready and go to bed.
Getting off the mountain
On Day 7, we woke up all ready to go: This was our freedom day! Don’t get me wrong, I was eager to climb Kilimanjaro and enjoy the mountain. But once we had reached the summit, we were ALL about getting to the hotel and a nice shower.
We trekked down for maybe about 3 hrs from 10,000 ft or so to the Mweka Gate at 6,000 ft (3,800 m). The climate zone went to full forest again, as we had experienced on Day 1.
The clothing was lighter and so was our mood. Someone even rode the emergency stretcher that was laying about during one of our breaks…
I found my happy place: the Mweka Gate hut!
Finally, the sight we wanted to see: the Mweka Gate hut where we would sign in one last time, proving we made it to that gate AND the place where we would sit around for an hour+ to wait for the certificates that would prove we HAD climbed Kilimanjaro (though there was no book to sign at Uhuru Peak…). We were not getting those certificates just yet… Zara Tours would also be issuing one and we would receive them both that evening at the celebration with our guides and porters.
While waiting, folks would come by selling us stuff but we knew we could get all that cheaper elsewhere.
However, one of my fellow trekkers eyed a beer seller and he looked at me and, of course, I wouldn’t leave a buddy drinking on his own. Especially after a week of no alcohol and a hike of 3 hrs… That’s when the first beer was bought. Others in the group looked at us like “really?” 20 minutes later, most everyone had a beer in their hand! And off we went to the bus, to get to the Springlands Hotel and back to being clean!!!
The descent, as you can see, was a mixed set of emotions and terrains. It is amazing how little time it takes to descend. The feeling of accomplishment once you get to the Mweka Gate is incredible. And so is the entire experience of spending 7 days on this incredible mountain, home to the roof of Africa: Kilimanjaro!
(If you are planning your own climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I would appreciate letting me know via the comments if the info here (or in my other posts about Kili) has been helpful or what else may help you dream of or plan for the hike!)