Climbing Mount Kenya

I want to die… someone, somewhere please kick me in the head! My head aches and the dry heaving is now getting old. Damn, I hate the altitude. For some unknown reason I have an inherent inability to operate above 4000m without serious acclimatisation. Tyrone and Hannes are fine, minor headaches and that’s all. Shmucks.

It’s day two of our trip to climb Mt. Kenya some 180km NW of Nairobi and the second highest peak on the African continent. As with most of the other worlds mountains, the second highest peaks on each continent are far harder technically than the highest. The massif of Mt. Kenya has three main summits all volcanic in origin. Batian is the highest at 5199m and Nelion is just 10m lower at 5189m, both require some technical climbing with ropes. The third highest is the trekking summit, Lenana at 4985m. Almost all the peaks are named after local tribal leaders and their families and have now been Anglicised to give the names we are familiar with.

We arrived in Nairobi on the 19th August in the evening and where met by our guide Hiram a local Kenyan who has been great keeping contact with us over email for the last couple of months as we have planned our trip.

We stayed at a nice little hotel in a very seedy part of town but the rooms were clean and the food was good. At 5am we left Nairobi for the long bumpy trek to the town of Naro-Moru with the 180km taking us over three hours. It was there that we met our two porters Benson and Joseph, great guys who worked hard lugging our gear up (and down the mountain). Just before we arrived in this little outpost in the midst of the dry Kenyan landscape we got our first glimpse of the peaks. They looked somewhat disappointing but were gently reminded that they are still more than 30km away from Naro-Moru.

Packing our taxi at Nairobi Airport

Packing our taxi at Nairobi Airport

We had a Primus Omnifuel and a MSR XGK expedition stove that both burn almost anything. We found that benzene is not available readily in Kenya and we wanted to avoid petrol because of the smell. Other fuels like diesel and kerosene would block fuel lines and jets and so we finally settled on home dry cleaning fluid. I am still not sure what it contains but it burns well and fairly clean, a little less so than benzene but it will do. It has a noxious smell that I am sure is not healthy at all.

First order of business before we hit the mountain was to find fuel for our stoves

First order of business before we hit the mountain was to find fuel for our stoves

Brent, Hannes and Tyrone at Sirimon gate

Brent, Hannes and Tyrone at Sirimon gate

Around 11am we arrive at the Sirimon gate our entrance to the national park and we hurriedly packed and the first 10km got underway without a fuss.

We spent the first couple of hours walking through a wonderful forest with giant mountain cedars, ancient and twisted by nature over hundreds of years of slow growth.

Mountain Lobelias some over 200 years old

Mountain Lobelias some over 200 years old

The view from our tent of the main peaks

The view from our tent of the main peaks

Later as the altitude increased and air got ever thinner and drier we moved into different vegetation zones and all around us were the most fantastic varieties of flora, outlandish and weird and unlike anything back in Cape Town, we all found ourselves captivated by this strange high altitude landscape just kilometres from the equator.

The walk to Old Moses camp was uneventful along the steadily climbing jeep track and we soon found ourselves at the hut, before long we had commandeered a room and had begun to settle down to the serious business of getting a brew going.

By nightfall the crowds coming up and down the mountain had all seemingly converged on this little outpost. Slightly irritable we headed outside and pitched our tents instead so that we could enjoy the peace and quiet.

At lunch the next day we cross the 4000m mark and almost at the same time my body begins it’s rebellion against the low air pressure and the lack of oxygen.

For those who have not had the privilege of mountain sickness, imagine a migraine headache coupled with sea sickness, hence my plea that someone would put me out of my snivelling misery. We headed up to 4200m to the camp at Liki North. The weather was very cloudy and quite cold. The camp is very remote and the starkness of the landscape has a surreal beauty about it. Tyrone decides it is time for a bath. He comes back shivering but smelling quite clean.

With my defeat to the elements, I cannot face the food and can barely drink any water so an early retreat to bed is on the books and the smell of dinner makes we want to hurl so I head off to my pity party in the tent…

don't puke, don't puke, don't puke

Don’t puke, don’t puke, don’t puke

Liki North camp site

Liki North camp site

The silence in camp is almost deafening as our group of six is the only human life for miles.

I awake on day three with my headache still there and the nausea lurks behind the scenes, but other than that I feel ready to hit trail. We head over a high ridge before we descend into the huge MacKinders valley and the gently climbing trail.

Day three is the day we finally get to Shipton’s our base camp for the climb. The day is wonderfully beautiful with the three of us weaving our way in and out of forests of huge lobelias, almost human and menacing in the mist that swirls around us. We get to Shipton’s camp at the base of the main peaks with an altitude of 4300m with me still nauseous and unable to eat at all. It has now been 24 hours without any food and very little water. I am dehydrated and now burning fat (not a bad thing!) The camp is fairly busy and the accents tell us quickly that there are a whole bunch of international people here.

Shortly after arriving we hear some ooh’s and aah’s from outside and step out of the hut to see the main peaks of Batian and Nelion in all their splendour.

Sendeyo and Terere

Sendeyo and Terere

Nelion and Batian from Shiptons camp

Nelion and Batian from Shiptons camp

We all stand transfixed as our eyes wander across the immense granite faces that make up the summit. The walls are huge and the sense of scale is hard to grasp. As I trace the North Face Standard route across the amphitheatre and along the summit ridge my heart skips a beat or two with anticipation of climbing our dream. This baby is huge and far bigger than anything any of us have climbed before and so we start to pray that the weather that has been quite inclement at times will hold for a few days.

We had a great supper and retired to bed. Around nine pm we hear a buzz as a Spanish woman arrives back in camp after summiting Batian at 1pm. Hearty congratulations are passed on to the tired climber. I remain in bed slightly nervous in the knowledge that even with a guide the route has taken her 15 hours camp to camp.

Day 4: We’re supposed to be resting today. Blissful rest…instead my lungs are screaming as Tyrone, Hannes and I fly up the first half of the route to the amphitheatre as a warm up for tomorrow our hopeful summit day if the weather holds.

Scree slopes heading to the base of the route

Scree slopes heading to the base of the route

I am feeling great, the nausea is gone and and I relish the sun on my back and the rock under my fingers. We were going to do only the first two or three pitches, but you know how competition gets between friends!

First pitch off the scree

First pitch off the scree

The climbing is mostly very easy and we unrope for 6 of the nine pitches finding the gear necessary on only three of the pitches. The rock is mostly good solid granite, if you can avoid the tons of rubbish that years of erosion, wind and ice have thrown down this gully. Rockfall here would be hard to miss and there is a constant awareness when others are below us.

We make it back to camp 5 hours after leaving, having climbed half the route and abseiled back down again. We are chuffed with our speed and any thoughts that we may have had of bivvying on the route are now long distant memories.

We decide to leave at 4:15 the next morning to avoid two other teams who also want to try the route. The first is a UK, US team of two with a guide. We have spent dinner talking to them and they seem really nice. The other team are the ones that really worry us: Two frenchies who have never climbed before and are doing this as their first route…I hope they make it; but this is not a route to be messed with if you are inexperienced. If things go wrong you are in real $#!%. They hassle trying to make harnesses fit and it is clear that they are not experienced at all…sigh when will the madness stop.

Cold but ready to climb at 5am

Cold but ready to climb at 5am

Early in the morning we begin the slog up the scree slopes to the base of the route. By the time we reach the base of the route an hour later, it is just beginning to get light on the horizon and the temperature is quite reasonable at -4C and we find ourselves warm after the stiff walk. We start the climb with our gloves on and in our mountain boots until the sun comes up.

Seneyo and Terere from the amphitheatre

Seneyo and Terere from the amphitheatre

The first pitches fly past in the dark with the pools of light from our headlamps reflecting off crystals of ice making the rock look like diamonds in the inky black of the morning. Finally at 6:30am the sun comes up and the temperature rises a bit. But with the sun too comes the wind and it is cold as hell and so our beanies stay under our helmets and our windproof shells stay on.

We motor up the easy pitches to the amphitheatre and make it to the base of the crux of the route in good time. We stand looking up at the first obstacle of the day, Firman’s tower; the crux of the north face standard route. Many parties take the ‘cheat’ route around the south side of the tower, we take the bull by the horns and Hannes leads us up the grade 17 crux of the route.

We leave our mountain boots and some gear and take only a single backpack and we climb in our rock shoes. The pitch consists of some cracks and then two long chimney pitches. They seem quite hard in the very cold temperatures my hands are aching with cold and the backpack makes some of the chimney sections a hell of a lot harder than they should be. The rock is still great with great friction on the granite crystals.

Coupled with the cold is the constant wheezing, panting and gasping reminder that we are nearly 5000m in the sky, the air is thin and any exertion leaves you breathless. We exit Firman’s tower and a 10m rap gets us onto the summit ridge proper.

Soloing the last part of Firmins tower

Soloing the last part of Firmins tower

Into the sky above Firmins tower

Into the sky above Firmins tower

The ridge is amazing. It is around 300m to the summit and the climbing consists of a serrated knife blade of granite pinnacles that weave and wander towards our target the 5199m summit of Batian.

Along the summit ridge with about 4 pitches to go

Along the summit ridge with about 4 pitches to go

Some sections of rock are immaculate granite, pinky-orange and solid as the mountain itself. Other sections are loose and chossy, making us nervous as we bang against rock with our hands to test its solidity. At points we choose the lesser of multiple evils; we pick the handholds that seem the least loose and trust our lives into them as we zigzag across this ridge to the summit. The climbing is awesomely exposed; with the wind and the occasional cloud bank you realize that this is a real mountain, not a bolted sport crag near the sea. We alternate soloing with simul-climbing and we move quickly and carefully across the rock towards the summit.

Around 80m from the summit, Tyrone makes what is the bravest and hardest decision of his climbing life; to stay put as the exhaustion from climbing finally takes it’s toll on all of us. The ridge has to down-climbed and so 80m quickly turns into 160m of climbing which at 5100m above sea level is a lot climbing for anyone to contemplate when exhausted. We leave Tyrone in a small alcove sheltered from the wind and Hannes and I head for the summit weaving in and out of pinnacles and gently making our way up snow covered ledges. The lack of oxygen keeps our speed down to a steady plod across the ridge and up the final gully.

Suddenly there is nowhere left to climb, all around is fresh air, the wind that has been blowing all day has stopped as if time itself has slowed to an imperceptible crawl.

The implications of where we stand don’t immediately settle in our minds – it will take some days for us to realize that we have gotten to where we have been dreaming for weeks and months. We shake hands, snap some pics and shout to Tyrone just a short distance down the ridge from us.

The descent is relatively uneventful, but we move carefully to avoid dislodging any of the many loose rocks along the ridge.

Hannes and Brent on the summit

Hannes and Brent on the summit

The rap anchors are mostly well slung horns of rock. One or two anchors give us the heebie-geebies and we back them up with spare prussik. The weather closes in a little giving us some sense of fullness of the mountain experience and it is still fairly cold, but the adrenaline of summitting keeps us warm. We see the one other party on the descent and land up having to wait a little for them to clear each rap anchor. The frenchies we later learn only got three pitches up and then the guide pulled the plug. There is much discussion at camp about who is at fault and the tensions between them and the guide rise considerably.

Abseiling off the summit of Batian with the summit ridge in front of us

Abseiling off the summit of Batian with the summit ridge in front of us

Three of us get to the base of the route some 11½ hours after setting out onto the rock.We are tired but happy and the sprint down the scree slopes makes certain that we sleep well that night. We get back to camp to hugs from our guides and they are in high spirits to see their clients successful. They tell us that it has been some time since anyone got back to camp this early and so for the three of us these comments add to our elation (and probably to our inflated egos!)

Heading across to the Austrian camp

Heading across to the Austrian camp

The next morning we head to the Austrian hut and the hiking is wonderfully striking with barren scree slopes giving birth to the granite faces reaching into the sky. We get incredible views of the main peak that allow us to see quite clearly our route to the summit.

Horsing around on the Darwin glacier

Horsing around on the Darwin glacier

The landscape makes it hard to get a grasp of the scale of the mountain and we constantly remind ourselves that the route is longer than from the lower cable station to the summit of Table Mountain. The hike goes up. And up. And up.

North Face summit route to Batian

North Face summit route to Batian

And as we round to the south side of the mountain the snowy glaciated sight that greets us is fantastic and so different from the dry north that it is hard to believe that we are on the same mountain. During the August period the north is dry and six months later the south is the preferred route to the summit hence the difference in appearance.

The Austrian hut is situated on the side of the Lewis glacier, the biggest of the ice masses on the mountain but even that fact is not helpful against the onslaught of global warming. Each year this frozen giant looses tons of water the heat of the African sun. All the glaciers are getting smaller and smaller as too they are on Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa. We hike up to point Lenana the next morning in extremely cold conditions.

Sunrise from Lenana (It is -8C when we get back to camp an hour and a half after sunrise.)

Sunrise from Lenana (It is -8C when we get back to camp an hour and a half after sunrise.)

The view from the summit is out of a picture book with the sea of clouds below isolating the small crowd of adventurous spirits on this pinnacle of rock in Africa from the rest of the world below.

Looking across to Nelion. The North face Standard summit route follows the skyline The vertical bog

Looking across to Nelion. The North face Standard summit route follows the skyline

The vertical bog

Looking across to Nelion. The North face Standard summit route follows the skyline

Looking across to Nelion. The North face Standard summit route follows the skyline

For these few days there is no thought of the rest of the world and the fellowship of the mountain binds us all together in a common union. The dream to walk and climb the ancient mountains that mark the landscape of the globe is what has brought us and others to this magnificent peak in Africa.

As with all trips to the mountains, it seems all too quickly that our trip is over and as we meander through the muddy landscape of the vertical bog, behind us stands the peak, unchanged by our visit save for a few footprints and a dislodged rock or two.

Batian and Nelion form MacKinders camp

Batian and Nelion form MacKinders camp

But we have been changed, perhaps forever. Each meeting with the mountains does this to us. We test ourselves against nature, and once in a while she is gracious enough to let us have our way. There is no thought of conquests of mountains in the arrogant language of some climbers, simply put the mountain politely and kindly allowed us to climb her.

We walk down the time eroded slopes towards home, contented, tired and ready to set foot back in the mad world of normal living for whatever that may mean. The mountain has changed us all in our own way and the memories of the trekking and climbing will remain with us forever. It is hard to explain to the folk back home the fullness of the experience. Unless you have trod and climbed that path for yourself the mountains will remain a mystery that can never be understood in full.

The rain forest on the hike out

The rain forest on the hike out

Further details

We had a guide and two porters for our nine day trip. Our guide Hiram was SUPERB and I would highly recommend him to anyone who wanted to hike or climb mount Kenya.

He is not a technical guide. You can contact him at: munuhe@mail.com and you will find his response quick and very knowledgeable.

All our contact with Him had been over email without any telephonic contact at all. And he was there to pick us up at the airport.

For further info mail me at:

brussel at bpc.org.za

For a complete route description visit Cosely and Houston climbing guides

The web site contains a good detailed description with pictures and a pitch by pitch account of the route.

We found it fairly accurate and easy to follow although for the most part the route was fairly obvious.

The abseil anchors on most pitches where well equipped with many runs of sling backing each other up. Some needed another sling or prussik and I would advise taking some cord up for this.

As for gear we climbed with a fairly complete rack 7 draws 7 cams and a selection of nuts. We took up about 6 slings medium to long.

We climbed on double ropes and this is needed for the long abseils as well as the wandering nature of some of the climbing.

Rock shoes are used for the top pitches although you could get away with boots if you liked. Firmins tower in boots and a pack would be VERY entertaining!!

No comments yet.

Leave a Comment/Reply/Review