Descents

Final Days on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Every hiker knows that once you reach the summit you’re only halfway. Unless there’s a gondola waiting for you at the top—anathema to peak baggers—you’ve got to hike back down. And often that hike is harder than the one that got you to the top.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

After reaching the very top of Africa, we took about 35 minutes to soak it all in. The weather was spectacular, so we took pictures and cherished the view. But you don’t hang around too long at 19,000 feet. The lack of oxygen starts getting to you. So down we went.

We made it to Stella Point in about 20 minutes; half the time it took to get up to the summit. There we met our friends from the Amani Children’s Home trek who had just arrived and had the last push up to the summit ahead of them. (They all made it!) From there we could see the scree field, and unfortunately, the build up of clouds that we’d been just ahead of the entire day.

Hiking down scree is a lot like skiing, except on your hiking boots. You take large steps placing your heel down and using your hiking poles to guide you, helping you do a controlled slide. It’s fun and scary, and, unfortunately, a bit tiring. The further we got the better our breathing became.

And the foggier it got.

Soon a cold light rain settled in. I had taken off my rain pants much earlier in the day so to not overheat. The rain was just enough to be annoying, not enough to pull out the rain pants, or so I thought. Soon my legs were getting really cold, and the fatigue set in too. It had been a long day already, and we had more hiking in front of us.

On the way back down to Base Camp we encountered another camp through the fog, one that I and the others didn’t see on the way up. We thought we were back and could get out of the cold wet mess for a bit. Instead we had to trudge on in the mist.

I could write so much more, but it’d be more of the same. After the high of accomplishing this dream, life still went on. The journey continued. Beauty and hardship both were encountered. We got wet, and finally had a chance to rest at base camp. But after the short break we had to begin a trek to our next camp two hours or so of hiking further down the mountain. The air got thicker, which helped, but it still was cold and wet, and I was more and more exhausted until I finally crashed at Millennial Camp.

The next morning before we headed down to the final gate, all of our crew—the porters and guides and chef and the camp manager and all the rest—got together to sing us the Jambo song of Kilimanjaro. It’s exuberant and filled with joy. They danced and swayed and filled the lyrics in Swahili with our names—”Papa Noah” for me and then “Noah” which raised the enthusiasm a great deal. The mountain lay behind them, far off in the distance now, as they sang heralding all that had happened in the past week. I stood next to Noah and could hardly believe it once more. After they finished, we all took a photo together, our Tusker friends and us. We posed in the morning light, the mountain towering in the distance, and our faces effusive.

We rarely get to say on top of the world for long. We continue on. We drop the kids off at college, or we get past the euphoria of a new job. We come home after the amazing trip. Honeymoons end.

But that’s the essence of life. We couldn’t stay on the top because we’d run out of oxygen. We’ve got to keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other. The moment happens so fast that our hearts catch, and we can hardly believe that it now lies behind us. We’ll hold the memories deep inside, unpacking them later. But we have to come down to the places where we live.

We have to descend.

But the memories, the accomplishment, the love sustain us. And the song lingers on.