I had some time to think the other day, a lot of time. As a matter of fact, I was sort of walking in solitude. What had become a deafening sound was a mix of loud swooshes and then a slogging dragging noise. The noises were all related to the deep mud that I was walking in. It was over twenty-four hours since I had started down Mt Kilimanjaro and I would have been telling a lie if I’d said that I did not feel a great sense of accomplishment. However, with about five minutes left before entering the Millennium camp, where we would settle in for the night, I had twisted my left knee. After looking at the knee, which was bruised and a little hot to the touch, it was clear to me that I could have bruised it earlier when I had been coming down the Caldera wall. Now only minutes from the Millennium camp I could not put my full weight on it. After a short, five minutes or less, respite, I walked into the camp. I thought to myself that tomorrow would be my last day on Kilimanjaro and I would be back in the USA soon. My last tasks would be: to rest my leg, go to tea time, eat some dinner, and then walk the final six hours down the mountain in the morning.
The evening was uneventful and everyone retired to their tents early on this final evening to rest up and to take stock of the last eight days. I was no different; I lay back in my tent and looked straight up at the ceiling of the same. I must admit that I was happy that I had almost completed my task. There had been months of preparation and then of course execution and now it was almost done. I had; climbed the highest free standing mountain in the world, which was the highest volcano in the world. It was not only the highest mountain in Africa, but also was higher than any peak in the lower 48 states. So as I lay there I enjoyed a brief smile and relative silence. The silence however did not last and with a thundering crash the rain started hitting my tent. It seemed to rain for about an hour during which time the campsite was quickly transferred to an area with mud and some small rivers of water. But as quick as the rain came it left and I fell asleep. It was July 18th, just one day since I had summited Kilimanjaro.
Waking up I put on a knee brace that I had purchased, found advice on how to tighten it and I was ready to begin my final hike down the mountain after which safari vehicles were waiting to transfer us to our next stop, yes I was almost done. At the morning briefing we were told there would be lots of rocks and pseudo steps down leading us off of the mountain. We were told that there would be mud and lots of it as we passed through the rain forest on our final day of the Mt. Kilimanjaro trek. So with an eager and energetic start we all turned on our headlamps and started to head down the mountain.
After about an hour the sun had risen, the group turned off our headlamps and we just kept walking down the mountain. The hike had started at about 6am and was to end at around 12pm. The trip report was accurate as the start of the trail was filled with rocky paths and beautiful vistas and the ground was quite dry with all of the rain apparently having just run off the path. We came to the first stop and had to sign in before taking a break and moving forward out of the Alpine area and down to the forest. There were these country run camps that we had to sign in at along the way, I suppose it was the best way to keep track of the campers and trekkers. We signed in and took a break. It was around 9am and we had three hours left to the hike.
When our break completed we walked through a forest camp, it was relatively flat, and then started heading down the mountain again. The path had changed now to stairs made out of fallen or cut trees, locked into place with large branches cut to be pegs and laid down into the ground. This trail was specifically for going down the mountain. Because of the rain the night before the trail was a mess. The path was basically mud that we had to walk through to get off the mountain. In some cases you would step in the mud and you would sink into it up to your ankles. This was an uneventful slog and I took great care to protect my knee while walking through the mud.
It was 11:30 and I heard our main guide radio in that we should be arriving at 12-12:30. The whole group, 12 of us, was walking slowly and together as the mud was a mess, and as it got a little better and the group separated into two again and I was in the second group at the front. There was great conversation and much joy. We were now about 45 minutes away from completing the journey of a lifetime. My knee had held up it was almost over. I am not sure why or how it happened, but while I was chatting with Suzanne, a woman in our group, I was not looking where I was going for a moment, twisted my left knee under me and had a moment of intense pain. I tried to move and I could not. I had no idea what I had done but I knew I had to take a break. I waved my friends forward and around me to continue their trek and I said I would catch up. One of the guides stayed behind and the group moved forward.
It took about five minutes of rest and some water before I was moving again, but when I say moving it was not the same as before. I would take a step and then move my left leg with me by lifting it slightly and then dragging it forward through the mud. I actually became good at this and there was a rhythm to the sounds that the mud made; swoosh, slog, swoosh, slog-slog-slog. The sounds were related to the size of the steps. The longer steps would have more dragging, slogs, than shorter ones. So, with 45 minutes to go I could no longer put any pressure on my left leg and I continued down the hill.
Coleman, the assistant guide, approached me and said that in 15 minutes we would be at the dirt road and for the final 30 minute or so walk to camp he could have a car pick us up as my walking was now more like pain and dragging versus walking and my trekking poles were more like crutches. I sternly refused and said that “I had walked onto this mountain with my own legs and I would walk off it with the same”. He looked at me and said; “OK” and we continued. I have to add here that from this point on the pain had become so bad that I had to focus hard on anything I could to keep myself from thinking about it. What kept me going was that I was going to complete this task that I set for myself. I knew that while I had reached my goal of Summiting Kilimanjaro, it would be incomplete until I had walked off the mountain.
We arrived at the dirt road and continued walking at a much slower pace as there was no mud to drag my left leg through so there was considerably more pain. After about ten minutes we saw a Landover Ambulance approaching. I felt the beginning of rage inside me as I thought my Guide had called it, and I would refuse to get in under any circumstances. I was relieved when it drove right by and I kept walking. The road was supposed to take 30 minutes or so to walk and after this was the main gate at which you would sign in and your trek was done. I looked down at my watch and noticed that I had been on the road for 40 minutes already and according to Coleman I was only half way to the gate. I continued and was passed by many people who were walking with two good legs. I smiled and waved as I hid my pain.
As I approached the gate I heard laughing and singing and then I saw a familiar face. Hebron was the man who had set up my tent for me every day and greeted me daily to say “Good Job.” Each day along the trail he had taken my bag and walked me to my tent and then he would say; “welcome to your home for the night”. He was there waiting for me now and he ran up to me on the road, grabbed my bag and said “good job.” There would be no tent tonight! As I walked, I saw members from our sister team, the elephants, we were the Lions, and they waved and welcomed me as I walked by them. It had taken me in the end about one and a half hours to walk that final half hour on one good knee.
I walked up to the hut and was all smiles and then queued up to sign in to complete my trek. After signing in Colman, Hebron and I walked over to where the Lions were having lunch. I was excited to be there, my team let out a big cheer/welcome and I knew that my personal journey that was Kilimanjaro had come to a close along with eleven of my newest friends. I walked over to where Pascal, the waiter, stood and soaped up my hands so that he could use the teapot to put hot water over them, allowing me to wash. I thanked him, sat down and began to celebrate. A teammate got me a Kilimanjaro beer and I sat with the biggest smile on my face and laughed with my friends. A few said they had seen that ambulance go up and had worried it was my leg and another said he was getting ready to go back up the road and find me and bring me back. As we sat there we saw three of these ambulance go up the road and bring people back. I worried because inside I knew it had to be serious to get someone to agree to go the last 30 minutes in a car.
A few at the table asked why did I not take the ambulance ride and others just knew. I had gone to Africa, I had summited Kilimanjaro, and I hiked back down afterwards. I completed the trek and with that my journey. I doubt seriously that I would have had the same sense of accomplishment if I did not endure the pain and walk off the mountain. You see, we form habits in life, and if there is one habit of mine to which I hold most strongly, it is that I never quit. On this final day I had the capacity to endure great pain on my way to completing my journey, Kilimanjaro. I washed my hands, ate my final lunch with my teammates, got my certificate and smiled both inside and out. On day one as I headed up the mountain I had said that I would not fail, I would not quit, and it would have to be my body that failed because in my head I had completed my task the second I set foot in Africa. So my body did bend a bit but my spirit never quit. During this time of laughter I felt a hand tap me on the back of my shoulder, it was a young Tanzanian boy. He asked if I wanted my boots washed, three dollars, and I replied sure. I looked down at my feet to take off my boots and I noticed the mud pattern. The right boot had caked on mud evenly and the left boot had mud built up on one side and on the inner side you could see the side of the boot, this was the side that I dragged down the mountain. It was almost a shame to get rid of this memory of my hike. I handed the boy my boots and thought to myself, “Never Quit, No Regrets”