I think you all know that the volcano series ends with me at the bottom, alive. I just wanted to get that out of the way, though, in case you were worried. For a bit, I was worried too.
When we last checked in on this story, I was gasping for air at 14,960 feet, marveling at the majesty before me and a little delirious with excitement that I had actually made it to the summit of Meru. Margareta, having expended the last of her reserves getting to the top, took a few pictures then quickly started her descent. Few by few, the remaining summiteers, all of whom had reached the top before us, took their leave. Teri and I lingered, along with a group of freshly minted medical school graduates from the UK. Hey, if you’re going to collapse at altitude in Africa, best to do it with a vet and 4 doctors, right?
The adrenaline soon dissipated, we decided in fairly short order that it was time to descend. My brain, having spent the previous six hours focused on sound and the two feet in front of me, was rapidly overwhelmed with the visual input of OMG WHAT THE HECK DID I JUST CLIMB. No one told me we had made it to Mars.
Descent is, in its own way, more challenging than ascent. There’s a reason most climbers who perish, do so on descent. For one, my knees were much more tolerant of the work of lifting than the impact of dropping. I needed to place each foot with care on the scree, as falling down the mountain is generally considered less pleasant than falling up. Second, I had now ingested approximately 200 calories over the last six hours of hard work, and my legs were turning into mush.
Julius, our ten foot tall guide, quickly grew bored with our pace and started talking to friends on his cell phone. Talk about a mood killer. Here I am in the middle of nowhere, enjoying the feeling of being off the grid, and out of the corner of my eye I see the guide texting. Unable to maintain our slow and steady pace, he would hike ahead for half a mile, then sit and wait while we caught up, gabbing to his friends and pointedly mentioning that the other group was jogging down the mountain.
His run and wait approach would be fine, except for the fact that this left me without him in view for a good 10 minutes at a time, which is fine when you’re cruising your neighborhood but a bit dodgier when you’re picking your way with jello legs down a razor sharp crater 8,000 miles from home. I wondered to myself, not for the last time, what would happen if I were to fall off the side. Was the lava soft enough to leave a vet-sized depression in the silt? Would they find the groove carved into the mountainside marking the point at which I took the first and last Involuntary Mountain Luge of Doom straight into the ash cone?
Teri, who had been suffering some mild altitude induced pulmonary edema at the summit, was improving minute by minute even as I deteriorated. She soon noticed me struggling a bit. If you’ve seen any of the myriad movies with decrepit stragglers with wind-chapped lips staggering through the desert dunes, this is pretty much what I looked like by this point. And even though her official job as team leader with World Vets wouldn’t commence for another two days, she made it her job to get me down the hill.
She slowed down, pointing out the green dots marking the path on the rocks that were now visible in the light. She pressed Honey Stingers into my hand, little glucose shots more precious than gold by this point. With a little sugar in my system, I could think clearly enough to get my camera out without risking falling over. And oh, what a sight it was. There is a reason people say this is a prettier hike than Kilimanjaro.
It was around this point that my big toes started to protest the descent. The front of my toenails were banging into the toebox of my Keens, slowly and insistently creating a blister in the matrix of my toenails that would turn them a hideous shade of black that persists to this very day. At any moment, they’re going to fall off. The ladies at the nail salon exclaim in horror every time I go in as if I had presented them with gangrene.
It’s probably a good thing we couldn’t see where we were on the way up. It’s better not to know. I turned and looked behind me at the towering walls of the crater looming above me, incredulous that just a few short hours prior, I was on top of it. The path was very narrow in places.
I think taking a video was probably ill-advised, truth be told, and more likely than not to be documentation of the last minute of my life when they pried the camera out of my cold fingers at the bottom of the crevasse, but I just couldn’t resist. The pictures don’t do this vertigo inducing traipse justice.
We made it to the Crappy Traverse, catching up to the joggers who were now in dire need of frequent breaks. We passed Rhino Point, too tired to do more than give it a quick “ohcoolrhinobonesweird” before moving on.
A good spell after the rest of the climbers, we made it to Saddle Hut. I was the dead last person off the mountain. I didn’t care. Julius prodded us off the ground where we had collapsed, gave us some food, then pointed us to our beds. I peeled off my rain pants and the most ridiculously sweaty, gross long johns that ever existed in the history of the universe, hung them up to dry, and collapsed into my sleeping bag for the most glorious two hour nap of my entire life. It was 11 am.
All too soon, we rose again, and went back to the dining hall, where the cook had prepared lunch. I don’t remember eating in my zombie like state. After all of that, we still that afternoon needed to descend to Miriakamba Hut. My entire body squealed in protest the whole way down.
That night, the cook presented us with a feast to celebrate our successful summit. I looked at the pile of rice in front of me, and forgetting I was actually in the company of other adults, started carving the rice into the shape of Mt. Meru. Teri, of course, joined right in. Everyone else just stared.
I stacked a row of peas along the edge. “Mizungus,” I said to Julius, invoking the word for tourists.
He laughed, knocked the peas off into the depths of the ash cone, and stacked a row of fat pinto beans in their place. “Mizungus,” he corrected. We all burst into peals of laughter, though in my case it was more of a sort of hysterical relief that I had not joined the peas in their final resting place in the ash cone.
The last day was nothing, a pleasant stroll through the lowlands back to the base of the mountain. We saw waterfalls.
I goofed off.
I admitted, to an incredulous Teri, that the last time I camped overnight somewhere was in junior high with the Campfire Girls.
On the way down, we stopped at the famous Fig Tree Arch. Despite what it looks like, this is a natural formation, the result of two strangler figs meeting up and deciding to join forces. Much like Teri and I. Trouble and trouble.
I wasn’t the fastest. I wasn’t the strongest. I was the least prepared and the most scared. And despite all of that, this was one of my greatest triumphs.
I didn’t bring my little plastic Carl to the summit like I had planned, but I know my scrappy grandfather was right there with me, having a beer in my honor in that great sitting room up in the clouds above Kilimanjaro.