Itinerary: 8-Day Lemosho via Western Breach and Crater Camp
Company: Destination Tanzania Safaris (www.detasa.com)
Sat (Kili Day 7):
The summit day had finally come. I had slept well with no periodic breathing to cause any anxiety or interruptions. The plan was to leave by 5A and be at the summit to witness the sunrise. I woke up early to get myself ready in time. I could not stuff my sleeping bag in its sack today. The cracks on my thumbs and forefingers were bleeding by now, so it was not just a matter of stuffing it slowly. I could not apply much pressure with my fingers. After spending several minutes and managing to stuff it only a third of the way, I decided to not waste any more time and ask whoever was outside to stuff it for me while I took care of the rest of the packing. Adam mwana was there and stuffed it in a few seconds. We had a quick breakfast and the six of us (like yesterday) were on our way at the designated time.
The going was slow for me and I told Mhina that I did not care if I reached the summit in time to see the sunrise or not but I was going to walk slow and stop as needed. He said ok. As I trudged up, the sky started getting lighter and I could see the silhouette of the crater wall against it. I was utterly at peace with the thought that I would not be able to see the sunrise from the summit. What had looked like "not all that much to climb to reach the summit" when looking up from the camp yesterday took me over an hour and a half. This was to scale the 500+ feet (only!) of the crater wall from the crater to the top of the rim. The Uhuru Peak summit sign was a few hundred feet further ahead on almost level ground. I felt blinded by the intense brightness at the top after being shielded by the crater wall while climbing but adjusted to it slowly. The sun had been up for a while. By the time I reached the summit sign, it was almost 7A. LV and Ari had reached the summit about 40 minutes earlier and witnessed the sunrise. There were several people at the summit sign posing and taking pictures. More were arriving by the minute, all from the Stella Point (east) side of the rim. They had been climbing for hours in the freezing cold. The final climbs on the other 2 summit routes that pass through Stella start around midnight from the respective last high camps on those routes, each of which is at a little over 15K'. I was glad not to have taken the other summit route available to Lemosho climbers.
Mhina was rushing us and told us to take photos quickly and start descending. I understood the need to be done with the photos quickly since it was going to get more and more crowded at the summit sign if we didn't make haste but I did not quite understand the haste for descending as both LV and I were feeling absolutely fine and not showing any ill-effects of the altitude to be in any danger if we lingered here for a bit. The time at the top was somewhat unreal for me. I had no emotions, no particular elation. I had not been under stress, so there was no relief either at having made it. There was some level of satisfaction, of course, but I've had more joy at lesser achievements than what I felt upon making it to Uhuru Peak (19.3K'). It was as if I was looking at it in a detached way and not absorbing the moment or the experience. I wonder if it would have been different had I just sat there for a while taking it all in. I had been much more engaged with the surroundings, lived the moments and felt exhilarated at the rest stop while ascending on the Western Breach yesterday than at the summit now.
We got our photos taken. Then started walking east towards Stella Point since the descent from the summit is made that way even if you came up from the Western Breach. We crossed a steady stream of people walking slowly towards the summit, most looking clearly exhausted. In about 20+ minutes, we reached Stella Point, which is some 700' lower than the summit but still on the crater rim. LV and Ari had already gone ahead. I stopped at Stella Point to put on my knee braces and get my trekking poles out because after this, the descent was steep for several thousand feet on scree and gravel and other loose, slippery stuff.
My nightmare had begun. From here, it is totally crappy terrain all the way to Barafu camp and further down, some 4-5K' of descent. When it is not loose and slippery scree, gravel or rocks, it has natural steps. I descended slowly and carefully. It was not difficult or anxiety-inducing, even for my knees, in terms of steepness or slipperiness but it is a massive pain in the culata. The young and the reckless were going down fast, some slip-sliding on the loose gravel and scree, some running down. I don't do any of those things. I had read in more than one place on-line that this part of the descent is like downhill skiing. Clearly, whoever wrote that has never skied and/or has copy-pasted stuff in the manner of all truths propagated on the internet (and I would like their hide after I ask them some technical questions for the basis of this comparison). It's nothing like skiing at all where I have no trouble or any need to proceed gingerly though I'm not an advanced level skier. Not that I was planning any simulated downhill skiing moves on Kili. I continued my careful and steady pace that was coming to near full stops any time I had to take a big step down. People are known to twist their ankles or get worse injuries on (careless) descents (not just on Kili) and some have to then be assisted/carried down.
I did not find the views of the surroundings to be particularly beautiful or inspiring. You could see Mawenzi peak to the east. After a couple of hours of descending, we stopped for a short break. I saw the young man from Austin here again and we exchanged a few words. He had also summitted and was on his way down. After descending slowly for some 4-5 hours on this wretched terrain, we reached Barafu camp where lots of tents were set up. This is the highest/last camp for people ascending via some routes who summit via Stella Point. They start their summit push from here around midnight to make it to the summit by sunrise. We continued on down past Barafu. As the scree ended, vegetation started showing up slowly around us. The descent lost most of its steepness but it seemed endless and there were frequent steps to add to the joy. I could sense Mhina's frustration at my progress but he did not say anything to me and only talked with Steiner. He was getting calls on his cellphone, probably from the rest of the crew waiting ahead. Gerald had to leave us and go ahead as he had received some news of a family emergency. The Gamow bag was not going to be needed now anyway.
After descending for about 8 hours from Uhuru Peak, we finally made it to the Millenium Camp (12K'). Crappy terrain. This was to be our lunch break. Everybody was clearly waiting for us. When someone said "good job" to me, tears welled up in my eyes but I managed to stay composed and only gave a nod. I could most certainly not accept this "good job" even if it was as good as it gets for me for this kind of terrain. It had taken me an average of more than an hour to descend each 1K' :(. Did I mention that the terrain is utterly crappy? LV and Ari had reached here 4 hours ago and after waiting for a couple of hours for us, they had eaten their lunch. They left soon after I arrived at the Millenium camp as did some of the porters. Our tents had to be set up at the next camp, so it was imporant for them to get there on time and stake out the necessary real estate. After eating a quick lunch, I was ready to move on.
We had 2000 more feet to descend before we reached Mweka camp, our final destination for today. It was past 3P now. Mhina said we had to reach camp before dark and it would be difficult to do so at my pace since the trail between Millenium and Mweka camps was mostly in the form of natural steps and not an incline. Joy joy joy. So he suggested that two porters help me along. Another layer of my dignity peeled off. I am not ready for assisted living yet. When that day comes, I will accept it just as I accept all my other limitations. In peace. Joachim, who used to carry my duffel, took one arm and Steiner, the other arm and down we went. My duffel was taken down by some other porter since, by now, most of the food supplies had been used up and there was less total load left for the porters to carry. Joachim and Steiner carried my poles in their free hand. If the trail got too narrow for the three of us to walk abreast, they used to let me do the steps on my own and then I would sneak in a little distance unaided when possible before they would come back and help me go down faster. They were aware that their assistance had been very reluctantly accepted so they were being indulgent, I think, to let me have my way occasionally. The vegetation increased as we descended but the trail was rocky and uneven for the most part.
This is a crappy crappy crappy route. Can't say it enough. Nobody ever talks about how crappy it is, nobody describes it in their blogs or climb reports. As if descents don't count on a mountain climb. IMO, this route does not test any of your strengths or abilities but only your tolerance and willingness for masochism. I take on challenges on my own terms. To set those terms, you need to have a good grasp of the situation. I knew this was a 9K' descent. That is non-trivial, of course, but I have done considerable descents before in good time without risking injury. But never on trails that were crappy almost the entire way. In spite of all that I tried to find about the Kili climb, nowhere did I come across the nature of the ^%$#* Mweka trail. Thudding down tall steps at high speed to cover the necessary distance in time, risking injury to my knees or running downhill and killing all my toe(nail)s or breaking my leg is not my idea of a job well done. Many people wear such injuries as badges of honour. Not my style, not my ambition. Harming my body is *never* in the equation. Driving it hard at times, testing my limits, yes. That's one reason you climb, that is the joy. No pain, no gain is understood and you endure some discomforts along the way. But I know where the line is and I don't cross it.
After a couple of hours of stepping, I saw a group of porters walking up towards us with empty buckets and I figured that we were nearing camp and they were on their way to fetch water from the water source, wherever it was. The trail had smoothed out somewhat and the rocks lessened as we got closer to the camp. We soon arrived at Mweka camp. It was still daylight. This had been a 2K' descent over a distance of about 2 miles after the lunch break. So, quite steep. Not as steep as the WB but steeper than my climbs on all other days. Given that there were almost no rampy sections, the steps-steps-steps was the only way to descend that much over that short a distance. I could possibly not have stepped down this fast on my own using my poles for support without harming myself. I have no idea why one does not descend the way one came up (i.e. via Lemosho). I understand that there is no descending via WB. But the other route exists. The steps on Lemosho are not as painful or plentiful at this utterly crappy Mweka route. Have I said "crappy" often enough? A friend once talked of a painful experience of her life as being something for which there was no language, no right words. She could never explain to others what she felt. I feel that way currently about the descent from Uhuru Peak. It's not physical pain.
The Mweka camp is another crowded campsite as people who ascend via one of the 4 (of the 6 possible) routes to climb Kili descend via this route (Mweka) and this campsite is their last camp on the descent. Climbers on the remaining 2 ascending routes use a different route for their descent. The elevation here is 10K', so there are trees everywhere and the campsite is not in an open space like the ones at higher altitudes. As we walked past the tents of various companies, I wondered if I would hear our camp before I saw it. Semeni, our cook, had a voice that he projected well. When I had heard it at first, I thought he was scolding his underlings or something. No, he was just talking. If anyone else was also talking, it could not be heard when compared to his voice, so it did not sound like a conversation. One often heard him from a distance. Someone had joked that he would make a good politician, considering his oratory skills. But today, he was quiet. So I walked on till I saw our tents.
It got dark soon after I washed up and settled down after this 9000+ feet of crappy descent. However much I was miffed about the descent, at least, it was nice not to be breathless anymore. This was our last dinner on the climb and Semeni produced avocado vinaigrette as the pièce de résistance to mark the occasion. The guy is good! There wasn't much to be done now. I was soon in my sleeping bag and out.
Part 8 to be continued...