Report by Raymond Kröger
Somewhere in the year, my wife (Michi) and I started toying with the idea of taking some undeserved sabbatical-style time off, going to Kenya or something… and well, climbing a mountain there if we could find one. And so we did, discovering Mount Kenya. Now numerous South Africans we know have ventured over to the peak, some successful, others not so successful, and all seemed to have the same advice: It snows!!
After having semi-exhaustively read all the trip reports I could find, studying the Cosley-Housten Route Guide and emailing friends and strangers who had ventured there. We eventually plucked up the courage and coughed up the money to buy tickets to Kenya. We went via Zanzibar with cheap 1-Time tickets and then flew Fly540 to Kenya, a low-cost East-African airline. Needless to say this method took us a full day to get to Nairobi (the double entry Visas for Zanzibar still worked out cheaper than the direct flight and we got to spend a week there after relaxing on this amazing island).
A day of shopping in Nairobi equipped us for our adventure, and we stayed at Wilde Beest Backpackers, who were very busy but very friendly and helpful. They organized our airport transfer and our porter, James. We then set out for the town of Chogoria. We got there via matatus (the local taxis) which are really cheap, but they do inspire and require much prayer.
James is actually a guide, but we had only asked for a porter. Turns out he was desperate enough for work as a porter and the price he quoted us was far cheaper than anything we had been quoted in South Africa (by about half price). He ended up carrying our ropes (or as he pronounced “lopes”), our tent and our empty daypacks for the climb.
The Chogoria route up Mount Kenya is apparently the most challenging route, a bit longer than the other routes, but more rewarding in terms of scenery and we had hoped to use the time to acclimatise by slow altitude gain. This advantage was kind of ruined when James refused to walk up to the Park Gate and cornered us into taking a costly 4×4 trip through the forest belt from about 1700m to 2900m in 3 hours. His main reason being wild animals (elephants in the forest belt), but it was good regardless and our opinion of him only improved!
The following day we began the trek in, day 1 being 17km and 1400m altitude gain to 4300m at Minto’s Hut, which was a bit of a killer. We were really grateful for having spent 5 days in the Berg escarpment around 3000m (in the snow funnily enough) a week before the trip to semi-acclimatize and get fit. The scenery however was fantastic, as we rose above the cloud level that seems to sit around 1500m most of the time. The going was slow the closer we got to the 4000m level. Minto’s Hut is more like a campsite and we slept in our tent on a rather windy night while all the guides and porters slept in the tin shack (we were joined by about three other groups there).
We slept in a bit the following morning and headed out around 09:30 to ascend to the Austrian Hut (Top Hut) at 4800m – a short day, but slow nevertheless. Here the vegetation starts to get a bit sparse, with little besides the eerie lobelias. We set up tent on a rocky patch outside the Austrian Hut at about lunchtime and settled in for an afternoon nap, when the first snow for the trip arrived. It snowed all afternoon and evening. We woke the next morning around 4AM to snow-covered peaks around us and clearing skies.
After a frigid tent-pack up, we headed up the short scramble to Point Lenana, the hikers peak of Mount Kenya and were quite pleased at our progress up to now. We didn’t really struggle with the altitude apart from very slight headaches and nausea the night before.
After summiting just after sunrise and fighting our way through the crowds up on the peak, we headed down to Shipton’s Camp which is about 800m below at 4200m, the common starting point for Batian, the highest point on Mount Kenya which is reached via a 16-pitch rock climb/scramble.
That afternoon after another nap, we headed out to the start of the climb for a quick recce. The approach is a frustratingly steep and long moraine/scree gulley, that apparently used to be a glacier – now it is just loose rubbish. About an hour up this, you veer right into a side gulley to the start of the climb. We climbed with our boots/trailrunners on about grade 14, hoping to familiarize ourselves with the climb for the following day’s summit attempt. We expected to get five pitches up, but we got snowed on after two and evacuated with our tails between our legs and wet ropes from the water flowing down the gulley… aaargh!
The snow cleared by the time we reached Shipton’s again and I was really stressed about the unpredictable weather and the terrible conditions of the gulley. To describe that gulley: loose, unstable, treacherous and chossy! And now with snow, downright fantastic!
Eventually I stopped wimping about and we headed out the next morning early. We reached the first pitch by sunrise, equipped with a rack (10ish nuts, 8 cams, a couple of slings, 10 draws (some extendible), our “lopes” and lots of fruit-jubes. Michi was carrying a school-style rucksack with an emergency sleeping bag and some energy bars.
The gulley is five or so pitches, one that had some reasonable climbing at about grade 15. It is mostly hazardous with flying rocks hurtling from above (presumably from snow melt?). In retrospect – it would have been better to solo the grade C’ish pitches in the gulley as belaying slowed us down. By the time we got to the top, we were already at least an hour over our time guide.
Exiting the gulley we veered left – the first being an awkward chimney with chock-stones to pull on and no-feet. Chimneys, especially when carrying a daypack have never excited me. The top of this pitch is also confusing when compared with the route guide – still I don’t know what they mean about a ‘traverse out right‘ – the traverse I saw looked stupidly crazy for a grade 15, so I climbed out left on easy ground and rejoined the route on top. From here we scrambled easily to the amphitheatre.
Near the top of the amphitheatre the route gets steep again, with a bit of an akward pitch to attain the base of Firmans tower – where we put our climbing shoes on. This pitch has lots of old fixed rope. At the base of the tower, the weather started deteriorating with cloud-cover setting in and reducing our visibility.
Thankfully, it remained dry.
Here we made a mistake in the route that resulted in us climbing an entirely different line up Firman’s Tower than stated in the route guide. The guide says “traverse right 15m at the top of the pitch below the tower” and so we did. We then climbed a pitch that matched the description perfectly, but was.. well, wrong.
Thereafter, the description talked about an open book flake with an old fixed rope – there was both an open book flake and old fixed rope. Hmmm… so we only figured out at the top of this pitch that we were off-route. Anyway, the open book crack that was supposed to go at 17, possibly a bit easier and a fantastic climb. A highlight of the route as the exposure started to mount up. We then spent around 30 minutes trying to work out where to go next. At this point we were ‘kind of confused’ and watching the time tick by.
Eventually, we decided to climb a chimney to the left that didn’t match the RD which went well, but brought us to a ledge with really precariously balanced rocks. Many of them had seemingly been used to abseil off before (due to tat wrapped around them) – something I would not have trusted unless I had to!
Again the RD didn’t make sense, and we were on our own with one particular line straight up. A cubby-hole ending in a crack that seemed go-able, but a challenge. The other option was an off-width flake that didn’t look like fun. Running out of time, I climbed up to the top of the cubbyhole and tried three or four options in order to get higher and I was just about to give up but the thought of retreating off of the balancing rocks below motivated me and I finally managed to pull through the stopper move, which went at about grade 19.
We were elated to pull through this pitch, which brought us almost to the top of Firman’s tower and gave us some good satisfaction, the climbing had been really enjoyable. The only problem now was the time – close to 4pm, we were committed to our emergency bivvy as we were not going to make it down. The following few pitches included an abseil down an easy 15 pitch and then lots of scrambling to the highest bivy ledges which we reached just before sunset. Thinking we could still reach the summit, we left one rope and pushed on along the summit ridge, which includes one short tricky traverse and a loose/chossy climb. About 80m from the summit, we realised that we were not going to make it and headed back to the bivvy ledge, reaching it just as it got dark. A bit disappointed that we still needed to complete the distance the following day, we squeezed into one sleeping bag with our makeshift plastic bag on top (the one that our mattress had come in) and settled down for a fairly sleepless night. Supper was one and a half cheese wedges each, together with a sachet of rehydrate! Ironically, as dawn came, sleep finally knocked on our doors as we needed to wake up.
The decision that night to give up and just head down was quite surprising, since we were so close, but my wife would have none of it. The weather had been really good to us, clearing during the night and so we headed out at sunrise to do the last scramble again, weaving in and out of the summit ridge peaks for an hour to finally attain our prize: Batian in clear skies (and fruit jubes to celebrate)!
During the descent the cloud came in again and we were left to complete about 16 long abseils on tat (mostly good condition slings left behind), this time discovering the RD route down Firman’s Tower (and the horrible looking grovel chimneys we were grateful to have missed) – our route seemed like a much cleaner and nicer line!). While descending, we passed two climbers and a local climbing-guide, who seemed in no hurry to get to the top. They later made the decision to turn around and they ended up abseiling above us in the dodgy gulley while sending a few loose rocks our way!
We finally exited the gulley at about 3pm onto the moraine slope and as we headed down we heard a large rock-fall above us. Thinking it was on the moraine we ran to the side and the noise stopped thankfully. Later that afternoon at the camp, we found out that it had come from the descent gulley – a rock from the large rockfall had broken one of the descending climber’s legs (who were just behind us). We had just missed the rockfall by about 5minutes!! The injured climber was carried out 24km by about 15 porters later that night. Snow had put a halt to any chances of a helicopter rescue – respect to the Kenyan Mountain Rescue!
Day six of the hike came and we were back with our relieved porter, James. We were tired of paying US$55 per person per day for park permits and thus we headed out early covering 22km before hitching a ride with a Land Cruiser to the town of Nanyuki for a fantastic hotel meal and a less fantastic matatu ride back to Nairobi, followed by a week in Zanzibar.
We made sure to finish our descent from 5199m to ‘0’ meters with a swim in the sea 🙂