Long Way Down, aka “Highway to Hell”

Jul 19

We woke at 5 am, an hour before wake up. We had gotten a good nights rest thanks to our level of complete exhaustion and the fact that I was still so dehydrated that I didn’t have to get up and pee at all during the night. We were packed and ready just as some of the group were rising. I was ready to get down the mountain to a shower. 7 days of caked on dust was starting to take its toll. My teeth, though I had been brushing them, felt like they had a thin layer of fuzz on them. Nasty. I hated to think how I smelled. The good news is that we all pretty much smelled the same so I don’t think we noticed. We smelled like the porters. Its kind of a musky scent, if you know what I mean. Earthy.

April was in a LOT of pain this morning so the decision had been made to take her down on a stretcher. This contraption was a rather frightening looking vehicle. We were about to descend 6,000 feet over very difficult terrain. It would take us about 6 hours. We were told the porters would get April down in under 2 hours. The prospect of her journey was utterly unimaginable. The stretcher was made of metal and had one large wheel under the center of it. There were something like 4 porters/guides on each corner. They were going to “run” down the mountain. I am not sure this pace was really necessary but that’s how they do it. Later in the day after making it down April said they if there is someone with a broken bone or some other painful thing that they should just ask to be shot at the top. It was a completely crazy ride down to the bottom. The porters were running in to bushes and shoving people to the ground all the way. It was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to the power of 10. I only wish she’d had a video camera running all the way down. We should have thought to put Sierra’s action cam on her head to get the film. Oh well.

Eric told us this trail was a real knee tweaker. What an understatement. 6,000 vertical feet of pure hell. You could not design a trail that would be worse for a person’s knees. We started off with Aloisein the lead with a a large group and were told to stay together – no spreading out like on other days. Later I realized this was because they wanted us to come through the gate at the bottom together where all our staff would be singing for us. In the beginning Gina, Jeff and I were at the front. Jeff was telling me about his two girls. Its funny how all these days climbing there is so much focus that we often didn’t talk much about our families back home. One of his girls works as a ranger, I think, in Alaska, in an area he took her as a little girl when he was doing a book on Alaska. He really fostered a love of nature in her and she’s is a wilderness girl. His other daughter is an actress/theater lover – just like my daughter, Mary Mac. We talked a little bit about that until the pace was getting too much for me and I dropped back with John and Daniel. Daniel talked a lot about the work their foundation is doing and how we might work together when we get back. We have some formed some great bonds on this trip. We finally make it through the last rocky part of the Heather and drop in to the rainforest at Mweka camp. We have to sign the book again. It starts to rain a little bit. Tina and I cover our packs and put on our rain jackets. As we leave this camp I walk along with Tina, Monique and Sierra. We talked about John’s biking program and helping him finish getting it going when we get back to Denver. I think the critcal thing is getting people on a bike first. If they can’t ride at the pace of Jay’s program that’s not as important as the fact that they are riding, eventually, they may be able to get there. Sierra tells me that Jay’s protocol will exclude 90% of the people with PD. So we talk about how to do something that is more inclusive but will help more people eventually reach a higher level and maybe be able to do the 80-90 rpms. I think it is possible to be too rigid and exclusionary with things and alienate people from things that would really help them. John and I will talk about it when we get back.

I really start to struggle with the slippery, muddy, uneven steps. I am concerned about throwing out my SI joint and that makes my steps more tentative. We joke about being on the Bataan Death March. John starts calling it the Stairway to Hell. He is way ahead but they keep having to stop to wait for me. I am going too slow and that makes it hard for Sierra so she pops ahead for a bit. I try to pick up my pace.

Finally, we are off the steps and just on the slippery, muddy road – this is better but still not good. Our gators are getting caked with mud. Paula drops back with me and Stephanie and Ben catch up from the group behind. Ben goes on and its now just Paula, Stephanie and me. Stephanie starts walking down backwards and says it is really helping. Paula and I hobble along with our painful knees. We round a corner and the group is waiting for us at a bridge. We wade in to the stream and wash our boots and gators off a little bit and continue on. We are almost there – they have told us that several times now – so I no longer believe them.

Finally, we make it to the gate at the bottom and all our support crew is there singing to us. The funny dancing guy (orange jacket at Shira Camp) is out in front jamming. He is pulling the girls out one at a time to dance with him. We each get a lei of orange and yellow flowers. Suz is jamming away with him and I scramble for my camera but miss the opportunity. Tine dances with him and get her on video. Then its my turn. I think John got it on camera. I wonder how long my knees will last with the moves this guy is having me do. It is fun and we are laughing but my legs are killing me.

The singing winds down and they take us over to the “holding area” where there are chairs and the food buffet is set up. The porters, guides and kitchen crew are standing around watching us. Our boundary bags have been washed and they are set aside in the lush green grass. There are chairs sprinkled around. We sit and enjoy a beer. Two guys are washing our boots and gators. I take mine off and hand them over, only to find out that I have handed them over to a scammer who has slipped in to our little coral. He brings them back and wants $2. I light in to him – telling him I am not going to pay him, its his problem if he wants to run a scam on me, I am not going to pay him and he better not mess with me because I have just climbed the mountain and I am in no mood to mess around. It think I shock everyone with the vehemence of my protest. This is a side of me they haven’t seen on the mountain. It only comes out when I pushed too far. This is the side I was holding back on the night at Pepe’s when Tina asked John if I was praying. Oh well, after seven days the guard starts coming down. We will all see aspects of each other on the safari that we held back on the climb. We have another delicious meal and a Kili beer while we are waiting for Nan, Doug, Lori and Neil. They send a truck up the last bit of trail to pick them up. They arrive and we are all together again.

We have to sign out in the hut and I see August is signing some certificates. We will get a summit certificate at some point later tonight. We are then scurried out to the cars and mayhem ensures as everyone tries to find a truck. John and I hop in with Nan, Doug, Sarah and our driver Usia. Turns out he’ll be our driver/guide throughout the safari and he is great! I tell him there’s money it for him if he gets us their first – I want a shower BAD. Little do I know that he’s been instructed by Eric not to arrive before Eric’s truck. We leap frog around a few cars that are ahead of us but trail behind one that we never pass. He pretends a few times that he is going to pass it but never does. Turns out it is Eric. I think it was a couple of hours back to the Arusha hotel. Sarah is an astrophysicist and is studying at Harvard. John is fascinated by this and asks her a million questions on the way back. It makes the time pass quickly listening to them banter about science and the stars and life beyond the earth. I think she’s looking for life on other planets using light waves – sounds pretty cool to me.

At last we are in the drive at the Arusha Hotel. Eric is standing there giving out room keys. We grab our key and point the porter to our safari and boundary bags. Our room is on the second floor all the way at the end. I am not sure if my legs will go up stairs but I force them. My calves are burning. It not good to have the kind of exertion we had and then sit in a car for 2 hours without moving. We get to the end of the corridor and open the door to find TWIN BEDS! How is it possible that one only a handful of couples gets the twin beds. I complain but decide I want a shower more than I want to hassle with trying to change rooms.

I dig through my bag for shampoo and climb in the shower. I start washing my hair and the grey dust pours out on the shower floor. Its gross. I was it again and again – 4 times. Finally the water looks like its running clear. I start on the rest of my body. There is no wash cloth so I use the hand towel because scrubbing is necessary to get off the layers of dirt. I scrub and scrub and the white hand towel gets grayer and grayer. John’s got an interview at 5:30 so he jumps in the shower too and we try to maneuver around each other. He had pile driven his toes on the way down the mountain and is in excruciating pain. I accidently tap his toe and he just about comes out of his skin. This tiny shower isn’t big enough for two dirty people trying to scrub themselves clean. I decide I am clean enough and leave the shower to John. I wrap my hair in a towel and start sorting through my bags. I want to get sorted and repacked before heading down for dinner. I don’t realize at this point that I am supposed to be in the interview as well. John finishes up and rushes down to the interview. I continue my packing frenzy getting a call to come down for the interview just as I am finishing.

We are doing a group interview with PD folks, sans Glen, who is still packing, and Sierra and Monique who are really responsible for getting the PD folks included in the trip. They really have an amazing philosophy of healthcare. I wish more doctors would consider their model. it was a nice interview. I hope we will get access to it because I want to put together a PD documentary from some of this footage and various photographs. The documentary that is being done is focused on MS but I think we should be able to get access to the footage on the PD group if we pay for it. I will work that out when I get home. Then I think we can do follow up interviews with Glen, Nan, John and Nathan. After our interview we had to wait while they did a group interview with the MSers. This was a big group so it took quite a bit longer. Eric wasn’t aware of this and he was hungry and starting to get frustrated. Not sure if there was really any better way to do it though. It was just a tight schedule all the way around. We finally got ready to head out to the restaurant – The Baobob Tree Restaurant. It was going to be a buffet so less of an issue than Pepe’s. We got there and they did not have a large table set up for us. We were going to have to sit at separate tables. Eric was upset but at this point we all just wanted to eat and we didn’t really care. There wasn’t much fanfare again. I thought there might be champagne and a toast or something. I wish I had thought to order some bottles and make a toast – fatigue really impacts brain power. John and I sat with Nathan and Daniel. We had really enjoyed being with them on the trail off and on this past week so it was a fitting way for us to celebrate. We ordered a bottle of wine and enjoyed the buffet. After diner I wandered around to some of other tables to talk for a minute or two. We didn’t have time for much of a safari briefing. Eric handed out the itineraries and said a few brief words and it was over. We loaded back in to the bus and back to the hotel. Off to safari in the morning!

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