"Everybody wants to reach the peak, but there is no growth on the top of a mountain. It is in the valley that we slog through the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enables us to summit life’s next peak". Andy Andrews, Highest Mountains
At 4am on Boxing Day, after another particularly boozy and busy Christmas day, I set off, cold and half asleep, into the dark to Heathrow airport to fly to Kenya. On the flight, I ended up chatting to the guy next to me who was British but lived in Kenya with his wife and they were not only climbers but had both attempted Everest as well as a number of the same mountains as I had - such a small world and felt like a positive sign! After a long flight via Amsterdam, I emerged into the sunshine and the heat of Africa, with mountain tales still reeling around my head, excited about the trip ahead.
Mount Kenya is the highest mountain in Kenya and the second-highest in Africa, after Kilimanjaro. It is regarded as the throne of Ngai, god of the local Kikuyu people. Traditionally, all Kikuyu home were built to face this sacred peak and some still go to its lower slopes to offer prayers. They call it Kirinyaga, or place of light. The highest peaks of the mountain are Batian (5199m), Nelion (5188m) and Point Lenana (4985m). The peaks are named after several Maasai chieftains - commemorating Mbatian, a Maasai Laibon (Medicine Man), Nelieng, his brother, and Lenana and Sendeyo, his sons. The majority of the 15,000 visitors to the national park each year climb the trekking peak Lenana. In contrast, approximately 200 people summit Nelion and 50 summit Batian. Although Mount Kenya isn't one of the higher mountains I've attempted, I was keen to combine my technical rock climbing skills with a mountain expedition, particularly testing how 18 pitches of climbing would be effected with exposure and altitude over 5000m. We would be taking the Mackinder's route on the South East face.
After meeting my teammate, an Australian called Rick, in the capital city Nairobi, the next day we drove for almost five hours up into the heart of Kenya, around 150km north-northeast of the city. On the way we picked up our guide, Schaniela ("Ella") from African Ascents, and a number of porters. Rick and I then set off on foot on a dirt track uphill for about an hour until we reached Chogoria Gate at 2950m, where we ended up camping for the night.
The next day we set off with one of the porters, Washington, deeper into the Park. Mount Kenya National Park has the rare honour of being both a Unesco World Heritage Site and a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. The scenery around us was beautiful as we walked through forests of rosewood trees and glades of montane forest. Washington shared his raw sugarcane with us to keep our energies up! After almost four hours we reached our camping spot at Lake Ellis at 3400m where we had lunch and spent the afternoon playing cards and chatting with Rick and Ella, sharing some more mountain stories.
It was a blue-sky day as we ate breakfast by the lake then set off uphill, with views across the Park all the way back to our first campsite by the gate. This region is known as the Afro-alpine zone with plants including giant groundsels and giant lobelias, which looked from another world. Ella also pointed out leopard and zebra droppings. Most importantly, we passed the spot where Ella met Alex Honnold last year and shook his hand (an awesome film of him in Kenya with Cedar Wright "Of Choss and Lions" is here)!
Following the ridge line we joined the main Chogoria trail and then traversed round with views above the Gorges Valley. From here we could also see Point Lenana. The temperature dropped as the mist came in and we made it down to Lake Michaelson at around 3900m as the rain began to fall. We were joined by another group a few hours later who hadn't been so lucky and got absolutely drenched. However some hot chocolate, banana bread, and popcorn cheered us all up! Despite the rain it was a stunning setting, with a blue lake surrounded by imposing red cliffs.
We followed a stream uphill the next morning and then through a field of giant lobelia for a couple of hours and up a scree slope until we reached Simba Tarn at 4600m. Reaching glacial moraine, there weren't any plants or greenery on the tarn although hyraxs (large gerbil like creatures) scrambled around on the dark rock. We again arrived just in time as rain and hail fell in the afternoon and took shelter in the mess tent. Our climbing guide, Matt, arrived and, once the weather cleared, we trekked up a scree slope to help acclimatise and take in the stunning views over the Mackinder Valley.
We had discussed setting off for sunrise the next morning on Point Lenana, but in the end decided to set off around 7.20am up the steep rocky slope to the peak. Although not a tough hike I was certainly starting to feel the effects of altitude and breathe harder than I had been before. After only 1.5 hours we reached the peak at 4895m and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves the only ones up there, so took the time to relax and enjoy the views together. It was such a clear day we could spot groups ascending Nelion, as far back as Lake Ellis, and Ella even pointed our Mount Kilimanjaro 320km away in Tanzania!
After a short 30min scramble down to the Austrian Hut (4790m) we had the rest of the day to relax in the sun and make sure we were eating and drinking plenty of water. The hut was very basic but comfortable enough - with three rooms of bunkbeds (each sleeping 6 people). A lot of groups arrived that afternoon as the weather again worsened, mainly from Japan and Italy. Our other guide, Julian, also arrived - with some wine given it was New Years Eve! Rick wasn't feeling well so went to bed, but the rest of us had a few cups of wine and shared travel stories. I sat outside for a while and marvelled at the clear night sky, it felt like you could see every star, and the peaks around us illuminated by the moonlight. What a special place to bring in the new year.
The next morning Julian, Ella, Matt and I set off across the moraine and past the glacier (which is rapidly retreating) to recce the South East face and climb part of the route up Nelion. Unfortunately Rick was still feeling unwell so had to stay behind. We had left a couple of hours after the crowds to avoid any bottlenecks, so surprised to see some groups moving slowly up ahead of us on the rock. The first pitch was straightforward, then we made a traverse with a tricky reach-around move at the end. We then traversed to the 'Rabbit Hole', which we climbed through to reach the upper chimneys, and after two hours we reached the Baileys hut at 5000m.
I was really enjoying the company (and the views!) so we took some time to relax above the hut after stashing our stove and water, and have a snack and sandwich before taking six abseils back down to the start of the climb. We got to the bottom about midday then scrambled back over the moraine to the Austrian Hut where I downed a lot of water to rehydrate myself! Rick still wasn't feeling well and with an O2 stat of below 60% Julian decided that the only remedy for his AMS would be to take him back down the mountain. Sad to see him go but it felt for the best in the circumstances. Matt, Ella, and I sorted our kit for the day ahead and then settled down for an early night in the hut.
However the next morning, both Ella and I were feeling unwell so made the tough decision to take a rest day, descend and see if we felt any better. Part of the issue we put down to the gas fumes from the cooking stoves in the small hut, so we elected to escape for the day and walk down a steep scree slope for an hour to the MCK hut. After a day resting in our sleeping bags and listening to audiobooks, we felt a lot better so trekked back up the slope late afternoon. Such a slog up though it ended up taking almost three hours! Relaxed in the hut then got an early night, feeling excited about the summit day ahead.
A 4am start but felt a lot better than the previous morning. We ate some porridge and ensured we had enough water for the long day ahead. We started the climb at 6.30am after a dark and difficult crossing over the moraine. The first few pitches felt easier the second time around, with Matt leading and Ella on the rope behind me, so we made good progress. We reached Baileys hut again within two hours although it was mistier than before so the views weren't as good. After a quick sandwich break, we walked to the crux pitch of the route - the De Graafs Variation (5.8 / HVS). Although I could technically climb it, the rucksack, big boots, and altitude made it tough going and I felt out of breath after each big move. Matt did a great job of protecting the route and belaying / encouraging us from above. I reached the top of the pitch elated!
The next few pitches were more straightforward and then we reached the "amphitheatre" - a grand traverse. I'm not a fan of traverses but with Matt ahead and Ella behind, their encouragement really helped. Looking down, the North face was covered in snow and the weather seemed to be worsening by the minute as the mist came in. There was a tricky exposed move round a bend before a steep couple of moves up onto a short ridge.
A couple of gullys followed (one with a tight chimney with the bag!) and then two short pitches led to Nelion point at 5188m. It was snowing heavily so we quickly made our way over to the little tin Howell Hut and firmly closed the door! The hut had just enough space for the three of us and we congratulated ourselves with a big bar of Dairy Milk after five hours of climbing.
As it was midday we theoretically had time to do the c.three hour traverse to Batian and get back down before dark, but with the weather coming in and not everyone feeling 100% it seemed like an unnecessary risk. I also knew in my heart that I didn't need to reach the true summit only 11 metres higher than we were in order to have had a successful climb. For me, doing the 18 pitches was the achievement that I'd wanted. The mist had really come in as we began our descent and route finding was difficult at times. With the icy and wet rock it made the abseils tricky at times and even a bit nerve wracking in the conditions! Finally we reached the base of the climb five hours later. The walk over to the MCK hut was awful as our tired legs slipped on the loose rock and scree. We were eager for a cup of tea and a well-earned rest as we reached the hut and the sun began to set over the Teleki Valley.
Enjoyed a bit of a lie in the next morning with a full fried breakfast in the hut! Just before 10am we set off for the plod down the Teleki Valley following the Naro Moru route, with giant lobelia and everlasting plants surrounding us. Through boggy mud, heather, then lush forest, Matt, Ella and I had a relaxed walk down over three hours to the Met Station at 3050m, chatting along the way. We sorted out the porter's tips then drove down to the Naro Moru park gate at 2500m.The road was newly built and the others told me how difficult it had been in the past on the old road, especially when wet and muddy. It was nice to sit back in the 4x4 with a cold can of coke and emerge back into civilisation! That evening I stayed in the gorgeous country-club-style Soames Hotel in nearby Nanyuki where I was very happy to have a hot shower and proper bed again! Rick was also at Soames and, along with Ella and Matt, we all had a celebratory meal with a few drinks in the hotel that evening.
Over the next few days I was also lucky enough to visit Ol Pejeta game reserve and see a lot of big animals - including lions, chimpanzee, elephants, rhinos, hyena, and giraffe.
A friend asked me on my return if I was disappointed not to reach Batian. However I believe how you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top, and if you view the peak (or the finish line) as the measure of your achievement, you will always set yourself up for a personal disaster. It is what we learn along the way and the highs and lows of the journey that shapes and enriches the experience and ultimately our lives. Overall I had a fantastic trip - an exhilarating technical climb, hiking in a beautiful landscape with such varied flora and fauna, a cultural experience, and meeting some fantastic people along the way. Hopefully I'll be back to Kenya again!