Climbing Giants in Kenya
Nanyuki is a small impoverished town 50 kilometers north of Mt Kenya. The “matatu” ride there is full of jarring metal thuds and seatbelt-popping jerks, and takes about three hours from Nairobi. We pass mountains of red dirt and earthmoving machines, large cement blocks and workers constructing the new superhighway that will cut the journey time in half. Men with silt-filled crow’s feet stand sweating through tattered shirts in the early African sun. Shovels. Rebar. Bulldozers. Dirt.
Our guide, Moses, a 32-year-old Kenyan with 13 years of experience leading hikers to the summit of Mt Kenya, sits close to my right and my wife, Amber, is on my left. We are squeezed into the metal matatu like a child squeezes plastic figurines into a toy truck. The reckless hand of youth forces the van over rough terrain, and the heater inside slowly cooks our legs and feet.
The matatu pulls into the bus port of Nanyuki and we are immediately swarmed by peddlers and pushers and desperate family people who only want to make a buck carrying our bags to the hotel; but in the afternoon glare and shimmering heat we can’t distinguish and we grab our bags and follow Moses down the cracked dirt road to Nanyuki Simba’s Lodge, home for the night before morning departure to Sirimon Gate.
After lunch at Simba’s lodge, Jespat, part of the tour company, greets us for an acclimatization hike that turns out to be a slow stroll through a variety of tourist traps, vendors and equator photo ops, and goes no further than a few kilometers around Nanyuki (where the elevation is actually lower than that of Nairobi, where we spent the last two days). The excursion culminates with a walk through a local slum where Jespat offers to point to a door where we can buy ganja and chang’aa (a local moonshine that causes blindness or death). He cannot come with us. Both substances are highly illegal in Kenya. But he knows of a place where we can procure both substances, as many of his clients like to do. We respectfully decline.
In the morning a taxi drops us at Sirimon Gate at the base of Mt Kenya; a cool breeze adds further chill to the overcast morning. A sea of porters wait for work. Our crew is packing and shuffling and repacking. Moses our guide. Elijah our cook. Samuel our porter. This is the first time Amber and I will hike with porters and guides. We feel conflicted. The glory of summit earned on the backs of others. Cheating. We have hiked for days before this trip, through mountains with bear canisters and collapsible stoves and instant food and pots and pans and surfboards and wetsuits and bags that weigh over 50 pounds. For the first time someone else will carry our load. We feel guilty, and have one piercing thought: How are these guys going to carry all this stuff? After the trip, we tip double and give the crew hiking gear.
The first nine kilometers are a rutted and rock-studded fire road. Moses walks at a turtle’s pace and patiently answers our questions about the mountain, Africa and his life. His red hat is a beacon rounding each turn. He methodically paces himself and barely drinks water. A slow but steady climb through the lowlands and we reach Old Moses Camp (no relation to our guide) at 3,300 meters (11,000 feet). The semi-permanent hosts, sitting on a rocky bastion and, strangely, texting on cell phones, greet us. Old Moses Camp is a U-shaped structure made of wooden walls, corrugated metal roofs and simple glass windows. Two solar panels sit on tall poles in the courtyard. The entire structure is painted pine green. A radio broadcasts a Kenyan station. A mix of reggae and African and Island music and the occasional banter of the DJ permeates the thin air.
Accommodations are six dorm-style cubbyholes with four bunk beds pressed into each room, two flush toilets missing their seats, and a row of picnic tables for eating and storytelling. Outside there are benches made of rocks with planks of wood stretched across, with sweeping views of the scrublands below us and the ominous mountain tips looming before us. The cloud cover dissipates for a flash and we catch a glimpse of the peaks, but otherwise we are socked in with intermittent blasts of sun ripping through small punctures in the clouds. We pass the time playing cribbage on a hand-drawn crib board and slowly adjust to the wispy air.
The fraternity of porters is gathered on a rock prominence, talking and smoking. Their existence is difficult to comprehend. Surviving by walking up and down these trails and peaks and twists and turns, three times a month during the high season. In a country that every cab driver and shop clerk promptly declares corrupt, where an endless barrage of eyes full of scorn and pain and wild forlorn pierces your conscience, there are few alternatives.
We leave Old Moses the next morning and catch glimpses of the peaks of Mt. Kenya. Batian, at 5,199 meters, and Nelion, at 5,188 meters, both require technical climbing and a fair amount of technical experience. Ropes. Carabineers. Crampons. Special knots with special names. We are accessing Point Lenana at 4,985 meters by foot, but the immediate ridges before us hide our target. It is the highest point in Kenya that can be accessed simply by walking, and the second tallest peak in Africa behind Mt. Kilimanjaro. The sun blazes on us as we meander through high elevation scrubland. We cover two small ridges in three hours and float soft conversation with another couple and their guide.
After stopping for lunch we follow a valley and its river upstream and slowly climb toward the summit directly in front of us; the clouds pass and we are awarded snippets of all three peaks. The landscape is Martian. Dense green groundcover and tan dirt. Jagged little rock cliffs sporadically dot the valley walls surrounding our path. Giant Lobelia freckle the valley adding spikes of green along the sloping walls. Like plants from a Dr. Seuss book, Lobelia has a thin stalk of grayish brown fibers that support the wide green plume of broad leaves on top. The classic spiky broad leaf, longer than a foot, sitting in layers reaching for the sun, and the older layers from pervious years forming a decaying brown clump between stalk and mature leaf. They are everywhere once we climb above 3,600 meters.
The final push to Shipton Camp at 4,200 meters is a slow ascent through the last kilometer of the valley. Shipton is almost identical to Old Moses. Green barracks with bunk bed dorms and a long stretch of picnic tables for eating and storytelling in front of a fireplace. Charred bricks speak of campfires passed, but there is no wood to fuel the hearth tonight. We take tea when we arrive and sit outside, directly below the summit. Interspersed cloud cover persists through the afternoon. We are in striking distance of the summit. Jagged purple cliffs loom over us and the sun sets at our backs and the endless clouds sweep in and disappear and sweep in and disappear. The most beautiful spot for afternoon tea.
The next morning we wake to clear skies wrapping the peaks that horseshoe around Shipton Camp. A silent cadre of jagged volcanic rock piercing the deep blue. Not a single cloud molests the morning sky. Today is an acclimatization day that will allow our capillaries to further adjust to their newly constricted existence, and tonight we take those capillaries to the summit.
After breakfast we set out over a ridge to the west, to Oblong Lake. The peak of the ridge lies about 300 meters below Point Lenana, a creviced tease coming into sharp focus through the zoom lens. We walk with Moses “pole-pole”, slowly slowly, and the towering peaks of Mt. Kenya rise beckoning to our left. Like methodic elephants we climb the ridge of loose rock and gravel, sucking air that is thin but pure. Moses walks ahead, for the first time putting some distance between us, and meets another guide on the spine of the ridge. Amazingly, shockingly, the guides are talking on cell phones when we arrive; they are using the ridge as an opportunity to solidify the exit details of our party back to Nairobi and for the securing of the next trek up to the highest point in Kenya.
From the ridge, Shipton Camp is a green speck hugged into the head of the valley behind us. Ahead of us is Oblong Lake, and another lake shimmering in the morning glare, the name of which Moses has forgotten. The descent to Oblong Lake, bounding and launching through large deposits of ping-pong-ball-sized rocks and smaller filler gravel, combined with the stabilization of our trekking poles, is quick and exhilarating: African skiing. The pitch a perfect steepness. Dropping low and leaping in long strides with the knees bent. We crunch down the pitch with the cool breeze rushing up and quickly reach Oblong Lake. A spring-fed lake about the size of two football fields. It is moss green and dark brown and deep shades of slate blue and absolutely inviting. We ask Moses about the safety of the lake and after confirmation we quickly remove our clothing and plunge into the freezing blue. The swim is brief but exhilarating, our first bath in days, the perfect morning swim on the roof of Kenya. After snacks we climb back to Shipton and have lunch and play cribbage, followed by tea and an early dinner, and then we are in bed. We leave at 3 a.m. for the summit in order to arrive at sunrise. At sunrise we will watch the slopes of Mt. Kenya fall away below and feel the pulse of the giant heartbeat of the slums and ghettos and bustling metropolises, of the children and adults and lions and zebras and wildebeests, and everything else caught in the arteries and veins of East Africa.
At 2 a.m. we wake up and have ginger snaps, hot tea and toast. It is difficult to eat at this hour, at this elevation, and on this morning. We walk outside to black, crisp skies with tumbling stars and a soft crescent moon in the east. The Milky Way peeling directly off the peak of Mt. Kenya. A sparkled rooster tail pulsing through the heavens. Wearing thermal underwear and long pants, a down jacket on top of a fleece jacket, gloves, two pairs of socks, boots, wool hats, head lamps and trekking poles, we set off for Point Lenana in the darkness.
It is only three kilometers from Shipton to the summit, but we move at a crawl. Sucking wind with every breath and meticulously placing one foot in front of the other, one pole plant synchronized with each crunching step. We pass a group of two dozen British students, and that is the only time Moses intentionally picks up the pace. Otherwise it is pole-pole all the way. Our headlamps illuminate a swatch of mountain one step ahead. The face is visible but the features are absent.
My headlamp goes out, and goes out again after replacing the batteries, but it is not needed. The moon and the stars and the pre-dawn light are enough to illuminate the slope. The air is shallow. Hard to find. Coordination is difficult and takes concentration. When I slip, I catch myself but it feels clumsy and awkward like I am falling through water. I’m not afraid of falling or sliding down the mountain, but I am definitely not firing on all cylinders. Mild dizziness and nausea and the mental battle of this feat. The mountain feels more alien then ever in the mix of headlamps in front of me and moonlight above, and the group of students we passed now looks like a centipede below us slowly slinking up the switchbacks – an LED bulb atop each body segment. We continue our ascent.
The first pink shadows of dawn on the horizon. A thin lip of orange and pink dust on the cloud line. The mountain is a dull gray in the first glimpse of a new day. We can see the summit proper. Some mild bouldering is required during the last pitch. The breeze starts to pick up. The ambient light is brightening, but the sun is not over the cloud line yet. We will make it for sunrise, for daybreak on the ceiling of Kenya.
Around one last turn and we pull ourselves up onto the flat peak of Point Lenana at 4,985 meters and the first razor-thin sliver of sun rises above the cloud line that softly floats over Kenya covering the country in a thin marshmallow blanket and we are standing above the morning rituals commencing below; the sun quickly climbs and throws its light on the cold rock of Point Batian, proudly lighting up behind us, and the sky lights up like a deep blue dome over our citadel. This is the highest place I have ever stood. This is the top of Kenya.