Mt. Kenya Climbing Trip - January 13-26 2003
Another long awaited trip has come and gone. After the two climbs in Europe I wanted to find a mountain that was a bit higher than Mont Blanc but at the same time, remain somewhat of a technical climb like the Matterhorn. Mt. Kenya seemed to fit the bill. It was a little over 17,000 feet and was rated as a class IV climb which was the same as the Matterhorn. After the climb, however, I came to the understanding that there are different levels of class IV rated climbs and it was obvious that Mt. Kenya had that higher level rating. Mt. Kenya has three summits. One summit, Pt. Lenana (4985 meters/16,355 feet), is known as the tourist summit because there is no technical climbing needed. The other two are sister summits and stand within 150 feet of each other. The first is Nelion (5188 meters/17,021 feet) and the true summit is Batian (5199 meters/17,058 feet). The goal of the trip was to climb Batian. Because we would be attempting the Southeast Face, we would first have to summit Nelion before heading to Batian. Batian is only 11 meters higher than Nelion but it would take approximately three hours to go from the top of Nelion to the top of Batian and back. This climb was going to be different from the other climbs because it was going to take several days to hike into the park before we got to the actual peak. A couple of the days would also be used for acclimatization and then a couple of days for getting out of the park. It was also going to be different in that we weren't going to some posh and comfortable city surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks like our last trip to Chamonix and Zermatt. All in all we would spend ten days in Mt. Kenya National Park without the creature comforts that have spoiled me. I went on this trip with Andy Harrah, who went with me to Europe in 2001.
We left the D.C. area on the 13th and had a layover in Amsterdam before arriving in Nairobi about 9:30 PM on the 14th. All told it was about 19 1/2 hours total. We left the cold weather behind for a pleasant 66 degrees. The hotel that we stayed in was inside a gated 'compound' just down the street from the University of Nairobi. We had been picked up from the airport by two Kenyans from the tour company that booked our guides and porters, James and Robert. We found it odd that there names were so....... English. It seemed that just about everyone else at the hotel was named Paul, Robert, Peter, James, etc. We found out later that they would go by there Christian baptism name around foreign guests to keep things simple. The next day were going to be picked up in the morning and start our excursion by traveling a couple of hours to a small town not far from Mt. Kenya National Park called Nanyuki.
We left the next morning around 10 AM. One of the guys that picked us up was a Kenyan named Paul who would serve as our general guide for the entire trip. He was originally from Nanyuki but now lived in Nairobi. The porters that we would pick up in Nanyuki were all friends of Paul and had worked as porters for some time. Driving through Nairobi and its outskirts revealed some sights that we did not see the night before due to the darkness. It was somewhat an eye opener to see how poor it all seemed. It was pretty dirty and you would see people just hanging around the streets either trying to sell something or seemingly doing nothing. All along the roadway there would be numerous tin or wooden sheds/stands where everything from fruits & vegetables, clothes, shoes, trinkets, etc were being sold. You would see people hauling wood on their bicycles or cutting crops with machetes. It seemed though, that most people were gathered in small groups just hanging out. The whole scene just gave you the impression that these people just didn't have anything to do. No job, no money, nothing. Just hang out with your friends. Some of the women would be carrying their small children on their backs wrapped in some sort of shawl.
One thing that you would see which would be sort of a theme from Nairobi to Mt. Kenya was the abundance of Coke. It seemed that Coke was being sold in just about every stand. Every so often you would see something that looked like a shipping container that would serve as a Coke distribution center. It was a bit amusing to see how poor everything seemed to be but yet you could always get a Coke. There also seemed to be an abundance of churches. They were everywhere. Most places (buildings,houses,etc) were run down or in some state of disrepair.
Along the way we developed some radiator problems in the van. We had to stop a couple of times to temporarily fix it. We finally had to stop to get a new hose or we would have been stuck somewhere along the road. We stopped in this pseudo auto repair shop in this small town. It was crowded with people just hanging around. When we pulled in to the place it didn't take long before someone was hooking up a new hose. No need to make an appointment or wait for some part. They seemed to be pretty good at improvising and helping each other out. It always seemed that if someone was stuck on the side of the road that there would be a handful of people there helping them out. Maybe it had to do with fact that many of the people simply didn't have anything else to do ...... or maybe it just was that they hadn't lost the concept of helping out someone in need.
We learned from Robert (one of the guys taking us to Nanyuki) that English was one of the official languages of Kenya. We had been wondering why just about every sign was in English. They also drove on the left side of the road. I guess the British left a couple of things behind when they exited the country.
We finally made it to Nanyuki and to our hotel, well sort of a hotel. I guess it was probably typical for the area. The town itself was pretty small and run down. The hotel fit right in. Our room had two beds and a bathroom. The bathroom, however, had its problems. No toilet seat, toilet paper, or towels. The shower didn't work but if it did the water runoff would have flowed across the bathroom and enter a drain by the toilet on the other side. Later in the evening water from the sink was turned off. There were iron bars on the window even though we were on the top floor. It didn't even have electricity. It really was quite a sight.
One of the things we didn't have good info on before arriving was that of water. We were told that we could get water for the mountain before heading into the park. We found out from Paul that we would only be bringing in about 2 liters of bottled water each. We would get the rest of the water from streams but that we would have to get some purification tablets from the 'chemist' here in Nanyuki to take with us. I guess we should have realized that and brought our own iodine tablets. As it turned out, all of the water purification tablets where chlorine tablets and that they were mainly in the size that was used to purify 20 - 30 gallons at a time. We finally found some 1-liter tablets but were not too excited about having to use chlorine (rather than iodine) tablets. Prior to actually going to get the tablets, we found ourselves with an 'attachment'. His name was John and was 7 or 8 years old. He would take us around to the different chemist shops. We found out that one of the things that the newly elected government did was institute a system of free education. This meant that John was supposed to start going to school. The only problem was that he couldn't go to school until he had a uniform. Well, we opted not to whip out the cash and buy him a uniform but he did love my tootsie pops. I was also a bit leary of buying him a Coke for fear that all these kids would come out of the woodwork, but it all worked out okay.
On our way to eat lunch we entered this area of connected tin shacks that all sold wood carvings. One of them was labeled as being 'hassle-free' but that is where we got our first taste of their unrelenting sales tactics. As you would leave one shop, the others would try to lead you to theirs. They would even come into the shops with you and let you know that when you were done here to come next door for a good deal. They all knew each other and were really pretty nice. They all basically had the same stuff. It was actually pretty neat stuff and was relatively cheap but we told them that we were heading into the park the next day and didn't have room for any of the carvings. That didn't deter them though. They knew that our guide could arrange that the stuff be brought back to Nairobi and that we wouldn't have to carry it with us. I tried time and again to rebuff their sales tactics but in the end I think I bought something from just about each place. I even went back to try to barter three t-shirts and a bag of loose candy (I had to loose some things for some much needed space in my pack) for a carving. That plus a $20 bill got me a good sized lion carving. A couple of them even threw in a 'good luck' necklace with some small animal carving for being such good customers.
We finally did make it to lunch. You could tell that Westerners were frequent guests as the menu was comprised of things like spaghetti, fried chicken, french fries, etc. Each meal cost about $1.50. After we gave the order, the guy mentioned that we can come back in about half an hour to get it. Needless to say, the dishes didn't come out exactly as we had hoped.
Later that night we repacked our stuff to prepare for heading into the park the next day. Paul indicated that we would drive for about an hour before we would reach the gate at the entrance to the park. We would then hike about 6 miles to our first hut. In the morning we would first pick up our three porters. The porters would take our packs and use them to carry their stuff and the food (aside from our stuff). We would only have to carry our day packs. What a deal!
That night I thought about the people there and how poor they were and how they lived in conditions that we would find pretty intolerable and I wondered if they harbored any ill feelings toward tourists and their (us included) seemingly lavish lifestyle. I mean, we probably carried more cash with us than most of them would see in a month (or longer). It made this trip seem like such a selfish endeavor or frivolous whim (which I guess it was) when you see these people just try to make it from day to day. I don't think that I felt bad about it but it did add a different perspective to the trip, at least temporarily.
Woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of the Nanyuki night owls. There always seemed to be a caravan of trucks and crowds of people just outside our hotel, not to mention a period of odd sounds from the donkey that was tied up outside. This went on for quite some time. In the morning we went to eat breakfast and meet Charles, our climbing guide. He came into Nanyuki to meet us but then wouldn't meet up with us again until the day before the climb. He would bring all of the equipment that was needed. One of the things that we had worried about were the boots that we would need for use with the crampons. The boots were not on the list of technical equipment items that I had received. I inquired about how to rent the boots and was assured that we could rent them when we got to Kenya. Anyway, we asked Charles about these and he felt that he could get some and bring them with him. All he needed were our shoe sizes. Not trying on the boots beforehand wasn't the best of things but there was little choice. Anyway, I mention the boot situation because it will come into play later on.
I had booked the trip through a tour company headquartered in Nairobi and had them deal with finding the guides and porters. In my correspondence with the company I had asked if the climbing guide was certified or had some sort of professional association with a climbing organization. The response stated simply that they were competent. As it turned out, Charles got his climbing experience through being a member of the Mt. Kenya rescue team. As part of their training they had be able to climb every route on the mountain and in any condition. He also works for the park service as a conservationist. He is responsible for animal counts such as spotting elephants from the air. He also is used in anti-poaching roles. They seem to have to work every aspect of the park. I think we felt pretty comfortable with his abilities and knowledge of the mountain.
After breakfast we gathered our gear and packed everything into the van. We picked up another couple who were heading to the park as well. The van seemed pretty packed when we stopped to pick them up. I guess there is always room somewhere. It took about an hour to drive from Nanyuki to the parks entrance where we would enter. There are only a few main entrances into the park and the one we were taking was known as the Sirimon route. There really are two parts to the Mt. Kenya area. The first is the Mt. Kenya Forest which is a rain forest. Then there is Mt. Kenya National Park which is surrounded by the rain forest. Each has its own gate you must enter. On the Sirimon route, you only have to pass through a very small part of the forest before getting to the park's boundary. We drove to the gate for the park. The gate was at 2655 meters (8650 feet) and the latitude was 00 00 333 degrees north. We were standing almost on the equator. We would end up crossing the equator a couple of times. At the gate the guide and porters unloaded the food and started to tedious process of packing up everything so that it could be carried in some way. They seemed to have a ton of food, mainly fresh vegetables and fruits. There was even a carton of 24 eggs. Not one egg would be lost during all the days of hiking. Paul, our guide, turned 28 that day. His birth name is Kamau. Our three porters included John (aka Kibanya - 32), John (aka Maina - 22), and Steven (aka Muchangi - 19). Steven was just old enough to start working as a porter.
Finally, everything was loaded. It was pretty amazing that they could pack all of the food and their stuff in two relatively small packs and the use of our fully loaded packs. As we left they were even carrying things in their hands. Not only did we (or actually they) have to bring in all the food but also the fuel needed for the stoves. The younger John was carrying my pack. It was huge. I had brought a sleeping bag that had a rating of minus 15 degrees F. While I'm pretty sure I stayed the warmest during the nights, my bag couldn't roll up into a small, compact carrying item like everyone elses did. Having it inside at the top of my pack made it look like the pack had some extension on it. The top was well above John's head.
We stopped for lunch along the road. For the first day we would follow a dirt road suitable for motor traffic. The road would essentially end at the hut where we would spend the first night. Lunch was bread, butter, bananas, sour oranges, sliced tomatoes, passion fruit, and something that resembled a large avocado. It looked like an avocado but it was huge. We found out later that it was indeed an avocado. They were pretty surprised to hear how much one of our small avocados would cost. I think one of theirs would be more than enough to make a very large guacamole dip. I started to get the feeling that this trip was not going to have my favorite foods and that I would somehow have to brave the vegetables or starve. I told them that they should have had Andy and I accompany them to the store when they bought everything. We could have saved them from having to carry that extra weight from the fresh foods with more delicious items such as chips, chocolates, etc.
These guys were pretty funny. As we hiked along we took several breaks. During these breaks they would break out a cigarette. I know they carried far more weight than we did and required more rest stops so it was just surprising to see them just want to smoke. We joked about that a lot. We finally arrived at the hut (Old Moses hut) which was at about 3300 meters. As it turned out, it was much better than our hotel room in Nanyuki. At least this hut had a toilet with a seat. There weren't many other people there that day so Andy and I had a room to ourselves. Each room had about 4 sets of bunk beds. Just after we arrived it started to sprinkle a bit nut not enough to make you run for cover. The clouds had covered the main peaks and so were really not visible that day. They (or we) were getting closer though. Once we got there, there was not much to do. Essentially you can walk around a bit or take a nap but generally you have to find something because it is hard to just sit there doing nothing.
I was eagerly waiting to see what dinner was going to be. I hadn't eaten much lunch but I really wasn't too hungry. I was hoping though that it would be something good. They first brought out some soup which was not bad. Then the main dish came. I couldn't believe what was on the plate. Each of us had a plate which had five whole potatoes (pseudo fried), a side dish of beef with chopped peppers, onions, etc and a side of some veggie mix. Later would come a plate of fruit. Needless to say, neither of us could finish the meal. During the trip they would always make too much at each meal. Little by little they would reduce the portions as they realized we wouldn't that much. I don't think I ever finished a full meal (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) during the whole trip. I believe Andy did but only on a couple of occasions. The whole food thing was a pretty good topic for running jokes during the trip.
I decided to take one diamox pill that night for help with any altitude problems. I would start taking two a day starting the next day. I was really hoping that I could avoid the whole altitude headaches, nausea, etc. We would be spending more days acclimatizing and at a slower pace than the climbs in Europe so, although this mountain was higher, I hoped that we wouldn't really feel the nasty symptoms.
Well, so much for avoiding the effects of altitude sickness. Last night I awoke and felt pretty nauseous. The rest of the night was pretty miserable. I never did get sick but just the queasiness was enough to make it a bad night. After getting up the next morning and moving around a bit, the nausea slowly went away. I hoped this wasn't the beginning of a week plus of bad nights.
We left the Old Moses camp about 8 AM. We were going to hike further into the park to another camp called Shiptons. Along the way you could see beautiful plateaus and valleys. It was pretty scenic. We stopped for lunch along the way. While we were just sitting around and talking I decided to try to pick up the pack that was filled solely with food. It consisted of pineapples, oranges, peppers, onions, etc. I knew it was heavy but I was surprised as to how heavy it really was. We were all joking about it but the next thing I knew John (the younger one - who was carrying the pack) put on my day pack and we started to move out. I still don't know how I gave the indication that I actually wanted to carry it for awhile. It was at least 60 - 70 pounds. Luckily, the route was pretty flat. Even so, I still had to walk in a slightly bent over fashion. I guess I may have lasted about 1/2 mile before deciding to give it back to John. I knew these guys were use to carrying a lot but I had some new found respect for what they do. Never once on the whole trip did I see them in anything but a jovial mood.
While we were back at lunch, the issue of food was a big topic. I had asked them what they would do if we didn't eat all of the food that they brought up because we weren't eating everything that they served us. Paul mentioned that they typically leave some food at each of the camps for the caretaker of the place. As they get a feel for how much is being eaten, they will leave a little more or less. The caretakers have no way to communicate via phones (or whatever) so every couple of weeks they must take a couple of days to walk out of the park to get supplies and then haul it all back. The food that they leave for the caretakers help them a lot apparently.
We finally arrived at Shiptons about 2:30 that afternoon. It took us about 6 1/2 hours to get there. Shiptons sits at 4236 meters (~ 13,800 feet). That is just slightly higher than the top of the Grand Teton (13,770 feet) that dad and I did a few years ago. The plan was to spend two nights here. The next day we would hike some at higher altitudes but come back to sleep here to help with acclimatization. The hut that we would go to after this one, the Austrian hut, was another 1500 feet higher. We decided that the next day we would try to get to the top of Point Lenana (4985 meters). Pt. Lenana is Mt. Kenya's 3rd summit (tourist summit) and does not require any technical climbing. The majority of the people that come into the park usually try this summit. As we would find out, it was a pretty common thing to find people head out from Shiptons at about 3 AM to reach the top of Pt. Lenana for the sunrise views. Each night we spent at Shiptons, a large group would do this. Unfortunately, we all were staying in the same room and when they got up at around 2 - 2:30, so would we.
This hut was a bit more crowded and the room we stayed in was pretty packed. The rest of the day was spent just relaxing and talking to the other people who were staying there. From the camp you would view the North Face of Mt. Kenya (both Nelion and Batian peaks). We were pretty close to the mountain now. During the day when the sun was out, it was pretty comfortable but when the sun started to set it would start to get a bit cold. Typically people would start to head for the sleeping bag around 7:30. There simply was nothing else to do and it was much warmer in the bag. I was really hoping that the diamox tablets I took would keep me from having the nausea that I had experienced the night before. Only time would tell.
Good news, I eluded the nausea bug for the most part. I would wake up during the night several times. Each time I would force myself to drink some water which seemed to help. The only problem with drinking the water is that you eventually are faced with having to go to the bathroom. Getting out of a nice warm sleeping bag, getting some additional clothes on, and going out in the cold was a bit irritating. The one result of going to bed so early, though, was that you were able to sleep (off and on) for the better part of 10-12 hours.
Since we were going to spend the night here again, we didn't have to pack up our stuff. We headed out for the hike to Pt. Lenana around 9 AM. It took us about two hours to make it to the top. Besides Andy and I, Paul led the way and John came along for the fun of it. Neither of them carried a pack which meant they didn't bring water or anything else. They never seemed to get tired either. The other John and Steven were just going to relax and hang around the camp. Originally, Paul mentioned that it would take about three hours. Most of the route was pretty steep (for hiking) and up scree slopes which were really a pain. It was pretty tiring but just like the other times, you just keep your eye on the path in front of you and keep going. The top had some beautiful views all around. From the top you could see the Austrian hut where we were suppose to head to the next day. We also were now facing Mt. Kenya from the southeast which gave us the side of the mountain that we would climb. That side was essentially the Nelion side. We tried to find the route but couldn't quite figure it out. It looked pretty tough but we knew that they all look that way from a distance. We also spotted the Howell hut at the top of Nelion. This hut stood above 17,000 feet and was a small (fit 4 people) structure that was used sometimes if you couldn't get down from Nelion before dark. One option that we had for the climb was to spend the night in the hut if we didn't have enough time. Ideally we would like to avoid that because it would be very cold, windy, and at a higher altitude. We would know more about what our plan for the climb would be when we met up with Charles in a couple of days.
On the other side, there was a great view of the beautiful plateau that we would head out of the park on after the climb. You could see a deep valley dropping from the plateau. It really looked neat. Heading towards Mt. Kenya from Nairobi, it just seemed that the 'mountain' was a very large low sloping hill with the peaks in the center. It looked rather dull and featureless. As we have hiked around inside of the park over the past couple of days, it really is a different picture all together. There is a variety of features to the mountain and with such detail and relief. Beautiful valleys, peaks, and plateaus. It didn't have the towering, sharp peaks at every turn like Chamonix or have a unique and powerful mountain structure like the Matterhorn but it was very interesting in its own way. It couldn't really be compared with the Alps or the Rockies. Paul also mentioned that if the sky was clear, you could see Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Unfortunately, while it was sunny, there were cloud banks between us and Kilimanjaro so we that we could not see it. We stayed at the top for about an hour or so. It was a very pleasant day and we just relaxed.
It didn't take us as long to get back down but it was much more irritating because of the scree. Going up the scree was just tiring, but going down you would still be tired but also do a lot of slipping and sliding. By the time we got down we were pretty exhausted but pleased that the scree hike was done. I would have given just about anything for a nice cold bottle of Gatorade. All that we had was water but the water we had was a bit tainted by our chlorine tablets and you could not take more than a few gulps before it started to burn a bit. The taste of the chlorine was a bit nasty as well. One of the guys brought us a thermos of hot water for tea (like I needed that) and I decided to fill my water bottle with the hot water as the boiling of the water would also purify it. I then put it in the stream that was flowing just outside to cool it off. I think we decided at that point that we would only use boiled water instead of Chlorinated water for the rest of the trip. Once it cooled off, it was fresh!
That afternoon I went into the kitchen area where Paul and company were hanging out to see what they were going to cook for dinner. I really was never hungry even though each day the hiking was a good workout. I mentioned that it would be better if they continued to cook less so that they could leave more behind for the caretakers. Although I say I was not ever really hungry, I did realize that if they handed me a bag of Doritos I could sit back and enjoy a fulfilling 'meal'. I mentioned that I wished they had brought up some cokes and that I would have paid dearly for one. That's when I found out that the last hut (the Bandas hut) we would stay in had a canteen which sold cokes, chocolates, etc. I had been thinking about the return to Nairobi and a cool soda. Now I could get it a day early. He mentioned that they also would have hot showers if you wanted to pay for one, or a cold one for free. A hot shower, however primitive, sounded great after spending nine days without one. That got me pretty psyched!
We decided to change our plans slightly. The original plan was to hike to the Austrian hut the next day and then spend an additional day there before the climb. It was only suppose to take about three hours to get there and so Paul decided that it would be better if the next day we would do the circuit hike around the main peaks and spend a third night at Shiptons. That sounded like a good plan as the circuit hike sounded interesting and we felt we wouldn't want to do it after getting to the Austrian hut the next day (would have require us to do the whole circuit plus about 1/4 more of it again) or do it the following 'open' day as we would not want to have a really tiring day the day before the climb. The circuit hike was supposed to be something that Paul said would take about six hours. We read later in our Mt. Kenya guide book that most people take three days to leisurely do it. Anyway, we liked the plan as it meant another day of not having to pack up our stuff for a change in camps. We would just head to the Austrian camp the day that we were supposed to meet up with Charles.
Since we got back from the hike to Pt. Lenana in the early afternoon, there was A LOT of time to pass away. I spent my time cooling my boiled water in the stream, taking some leisurely walks in the nearby area (but not anything that would require me to go uphill), or talking to the others who happened to be there as well.
Slept off and on for about 12 hours. Another large group had gotten up about 2:30 AM to head to Pt. Lenana. The goal today was to do the circuit which was a 'trail' that allowed you to circle the main peaks of Mt. Kenya. It really wasn't a well-defined path but rather several different trails that were kind of connected if you scrambled up some scree slopes here or down some there. When we started out from the camp the terrain was relatively flat........ until we circled around a bend and there were slopes heading uphill in each direction. Not just uphill, but steep uphill (relative to hiking). It was going to be a long day. Just as we had suspected (unfortunately), the circuit held very little flat ground. It was basically all straight up or down. It didn't matter how fast or slow you went, you were still always tired. I really should say me (and Andy) because Paul, John, & Steven never did seem to get out of breath. After doing four separate uphill hikes, we came to the Austrian hut. We would come back here tomorrow and leave for the climb from here. The Mt. Kenya rescue team always has two of its members staying in a small hut here as well. Although the huts throughout the park don't have any power, the hut used by the rescue team uses solar power panels to maintain a radio. Going on past the Austrian hut we came upon a very long downhill slope/trail that was mainly scree. The guidebook mentioned that going up this part of the circuit is "the worst hike in all of Mt. Kenya". Luckily we were going downhill on it. The mountain was pretty much covered in clouds so we weren't able to get a good look at it as we went around it. I wished the clouds would move on out so that I could get some good pictures from the different angles. We had several more steep uphills and downhills before finally getting back to Shiptons. It took us a little over six hours.
It was another exhausting day but today we were better prepared to have some cool fresh water waiting for us when we got back (unlike our chlorinated water the day before). The toughest part, at least mentally, in all these days was that after a long, hard day there was nothing to look forward to. As you were sweating it out on some trail you could not think about the comforting things that await you when you are done as it usually was back home. Such things as a nice hot relaxing shower, ordering a pizza, watching a movie, etc. just weren't in the picture. All there was was some more water, a dinner that may or may not be what you want, and then waiting for the time to crawl into your sleeping bag. On the other hand, we did meet a lot of interesting people who were from various parts around the world and were there in Kenya for a variety of reasons. You didn't want to go to bed too early for fear that you would wake up in the early AM and not be able to fall back asleep. My watch had broken at the airport in Amsterdam and although I didn't realize it then, it probably was the best thing for me. Without my watch I couldn't check what time it was each time I woke up in the middle of the night. That saved me from going crazy I think.
We were spending our third night at Shiptons and it was getting a bit mundane. We were really looking forward to heading out the next day and moving to another hut. It also meant that the climb was getting closer as well as that much anticipated Coke and hot shower that we could at the Bandas hut. Besides those creature comforts that we could obtain, getting to the Bandas hut after the climb was mainly a gentle downhill trek (about 26 kms). That would be a great change from the steeper hikes we have been doing over the last few days. Sometime tomorrow afternoon we would meet up with Charles and figure out our plan for the climb. The one thing that we were still a bit nervous about were those boots that he was supposed to bring up for use with the crampons. If they didn't fit, we weren't sure what would happen. We also kept talking about whether we felt we could do the climb in one or two days. The itinerary had always listed two days with a night at the top on the mountain. When we talked to Charles back in Nanyuki, he mentioned that when we meet again we can see how things are going and possibly just plan to do the whole thing in a day. If we planned to do it in just the one day we could avoid hauling up our sleeping bags, extra food, extra water, etc. If we felt we could do it in one day and went too slow, however, we may have been forced to turn back without reaching any summit (Nelion or Batian). We would get a better feeling about this when we talked to Charles.
Woke up with another nausea-free night. So far so good as far as altitude sickness goes. We weren't going to head out until 10 AM or so, so there was no need to rush in the morning as we packed our stuff. We would take the same route that we did yesterday to get to the Austrian hut. On the one hand, we weren't looking forward to the four long uphills that we would have to do again. On the other hand, this was going to be the last main day of having those nasty uphill hikes. As it turned out, it didn't feel as tough as yesterday. It took us about the same time as yesterday but maybe we were more mentally prepared for what was in store for us. Anyway, we arrived sometime after noon.
The Austrian hut sits at 4790 meters (15,720 feet) which is just shy of the top of Mont Blanc. I started to take three diamox tablets a day. That was what the doctor prescribed so I decided not to take any chances on getting that nausea back. The hut here is much smaller than the other huts but much better in terms of keeping the wind out and comfort. There were only three rooms and Andy and I had one to ourselves. Unlike the first two huts however, there was no running water via streams. This meant that there were no flush toilets. There was a single outhouse which I would try to stay away from at all costs.
Paul relayed to us that he got word from Charles (via the rescue team's radio) that he couldn't find a size 11 boot (for Andy). He could only get a size 10 or size 12. What this meant for us was that Charles would not be able to make it up to the Austrian hut that afternoon for us to start our climb early the next morning. We didn't know why he just didn't grab one of the two options and come on up. Paul told us that Charles felt he could make it up to the Austrian hut by early the next afternoon and that he felt we could start the climb and spend the night on the mountain before finishing it and coming back down the following day. The news was a bit disappointing but it sounded like Charles had every intention of getting here the next day in time to start the climb in the afternoon. We would at least be on the mountain tomorrow instead of having to wait till early the morning after that. That was some consolation.
Because Charles wouldn't be arriving that afternoon, Andy and I decided to do a little exploring. We wanted to head down to the glacier and get a closer look at the mountain and our starting point. We knew that before the actual climb, we would have to cross the glacier (about 100 yards wide) and then scramble up some scree. Without any crampons we didn't want to try to cross over the glacier that afternoon so we tried to scramble down some rocks and meet the glacier where it ended. Then we could go around to the other side and go up the scree from there. It sounded like an easy plan. As we were trying to find routes to where we wanted to go, the clouds started to roll in and it even some small ice crystals started to fall. By the time we finally made it to the end of the glacier we noticed that we had come down quite a bit and it would be a long haul back up the scree from that side. Because it was getting late we decided to skip it. At that point we decided that instead of backtracking the way we came, it might be easier to continue straight and head over to the scree slope that I mentioned earlier as 'The worst hike on Mt. Kenya'. We finally made it to the pseudo path after getting caught up in some other rock slide debris. It was a long haul back to the top and the hut but we finally made it. We were not sure if what we tried was a neat side adventure or something that was just plain stupid.
We were really hoping that we would indeed be able to start the climb the next day. It would be our only chance to try the climb as a two-day attempt. That night we tried to think about the best ways we could haul everything up that we needed. We were pretty anxious that the climb was finally here.
The day had come for the climb. If we were on schedule we would have already been on the mountain by the time I woke up. Yesterday I had decided that my sleeping bag was going to be too big to try to haul up the mountain. I couldn't attach it to my day pack in any fashion. I decided to switch bags with one of the porters because I could squeeze his into a much small package. Mine was just too thick. I would definitely miss its warmth though. That was something I found out when I slept in the thinner bag last night. It was not nearly as cozy. I don't remember sleeping a whole lot. I don't think it was so much the sleeping bag but maybe my nervousness and anticipation. We ended up staying in bed that night for 11 1/2 hours.
We had a leisurely morning waiting for Charles to arrive. The weather was perfect. Hardly a cloud in the sky. As I was lying around I felt that I was feeling pretty good, physically-wise. I had no blisters or aches/pains. The past several days had worn me down a little bit but I felt as good as could be I thought. I had not had any headaches or nausea (since the first night) so the diamox was working well.
At one point I noticed that Paul was listening to a radio which was blasting out music. I asked him about what he normally listened to on the radio or watched on TV. He said that he (and the others) prefer English stations and avoid the Swahili ones. As the early afternoon came and went we got a bit nervous as to whether Charles would show up at all. We didn't know what was taking him so long. We knew though that if he didn't show up that day we wouldn't have enough time to make even one attempt at the mountain. Finally, at 5:30, he arrived. We knew by that time that we would not be able to start the climb that day. We would have to wait until early the next morning. The climb now was a day behind schedule and there was no longer an option for a two-day attempt. The only good thing that came as a result of not being able to use the full two days was that we wouldn't have to spend the night on top of the mountain and thus didn't have to bring all the extra stuff that would be needed.
When we finally got to talk to Charles he told us that he didn't come up the day before because he had today as the day he was suppose to arrive. We had thought that he was delayed because of the boot situation but I guess he really was delayed because he thought he was on schedule. We still don't know how there could have been a mix up as we all had a long talk about it back in Nanyuki. As it turned out, we didn't even need the boots that he brought up because the crampons could fit on the shoes we were wearing. We had thought all along that we needed the type of boots that had a lip on the front and the back for the crampons to clip into but the crampons Charles had were different. Andy could even put them on his tennis shoes that he had been wearing. Oh well.
We got outfitted with the other gear, trying on the harnesses, crampons, etc. The new plan was that we would get up at 3 AM and head out by 4. Charles felt that we could be at the top of Nelion by 9 or so. That meant we could try for Batian and be back on top of Nelion by 12 or 1. We would then be off the mountain by 4 or 5 that afternoon. The plan sounded great and it seemed that although the climb was a day late, we were still on target. We had also decided that when we got down from the mountain that we would all pack up and try to head down to the Mintos hut which was about 1 1/2 hours away. That would allow us to actually start our descent early as well as get to a little lower altitude.
We were pretty psyched about the plan. Dinner would be french fries, sliced pineapple, and some veggie mix. We relaxed a bit and talked about the plan for the following day. Earlier in the day I had heard a group of three young Frenchmen that had just arrived talking and were going to start the climb in the morning as well but leave about 4:30 AM. It was good that we would head out before them. I believe a third group would also head up in the morning. I was feeling pretty good about the situation but, as usual, was a bit nervous thinking about being on the mountain because of my fear of heights. I just hoped that there would not be too many exposed spots.
We woke at 3 AM as planned. We had some eggs and got everything prepared. Before leaving the hut we put on all of our gear, including the crampons. It would be easier to just walk with the crampons the little bit over the rocks rather than trying to put them on in the dark by the glacier. That morning Charles gave us each a rope to put in our pack to carry up. As we were packing it we realized that it would have been extremely hard to have packed the extra gear if we were going up for two days. At least we didn't have to worry about that now.
We crossed the glacier and were scrambling up the scree towards our starting point. By that time we could see the headlamps of the three Frenchmen coming across the glacier. As I watched them setup camp the day before (they stayed in tents outside the hut), I got the feeling that they were pretty experienced mountaineers. I knew that they would pass us fairly quickly. By the time we got to our starting point, roped up, and started the first pitch, they had already caught up to us. They passed us on the next pitch. Another team of two climbers also caught us and were trying to get past us. The problem with these guys however, was that as they were trying to pass us, our ropes kept getting a bit tangled. They seemed to be a bit rude about it. Anyway, they were soon passed us and that was the last we saw of them.
As we started to climb we quickly realized that this was much more technically challenging than we had anticipated. The various ratings for many of the pitches were mainly II's and III's with only a couple of IV's. The Matterhorn was rated a IV so we thought that this should be okay. It was very challenging. There were a lot of hand and foot holds but they were not always in the places you would have liked them to be. There were several areas that we had to traverse rather than go straight up. These traverses were the scariest because they usually involved a bit of exposure at some point and the way the protection is done, if you fall you essentially would swing and at the end of the 'swing' there will usually be some impact. The exposure was greater than I would have liked in some spots. Most places had fairly straight drops. There was one section that started with a traverse and then you had to 'walk' down this rock slab to be able to turn this corner. At the bottom of this downward leaning rock slab was a straight drop down. I couldn't figure out how to turn the corner. The rope would have saved me from a 'free fall' but it would have hurt! There were some old slings attached to a bolt that I used to hold on to so that I could get a better look around the corner. Once you finally made the corner there was a scary vertical climb that looked tough. We saw Charles pause and re-route himself several times in this area. If he had issues of finding a good route I knew it would be worse for us (even after seeing the line he took). Anyway, I finally made the corner and the rest of the pitch.
It was excruciatingly tiring to make this climb. With the physical exertion to perform the climb itself, combined with the higher altitude, it made for a seemingly torturous demand on the body. While it was indeed challenging I don't believe it was really out of our abilities to climb. The problem was having to constantly regain your breath. This sometimes made it hard to concentrate. We finally made it to Bailey's Bivy. This was a small tin hut that you could see fairly clearly from the Austrian hut (a different hut that the Howell hut). It is situated roughly at the midway point on Nelion. Looking at the hut I could hardly believe it was the same one that we saw from below. It was so small. The guide book did mention that it didn't recommend staying the night there.
We decided at that point that we were not moving fast enough to be able to make it across to Batian in time to make it all the way down by the end of the day. It had been such a tough climb up to that point that we weren't even sure that we would even make the summit of Nelion. This was a bit disheartening but with the way things were going we would be ecstatic to make the top of Nelion. Because we weren't going to try for Batian, we were able to leave several items at the hut that we would no longer need. We would pick them up on the way down. We continued our way up. It was more of the same: big exposure, very technical (according to my abilities), and an indescribably fatigue factor. Every once in awhile I would think about why I was so tired. It always came back to the same thing: the altitude. It was a bit humorous when we were on the plane ready to take off from the DC area and see the screen in the cabin show that we were sitting on the ground at under 300 feet above sea level. We were going to have to try to go above 17,000 feet. The body just wasn't use to it. The weather was great though. Once the sun came up you could see a long way out. There weren't any clouds. At one point we were stopped and Charles pointed us to Mt. Kilimanjaro, which could be seen far off in the distance in Tanzania. Pretty neat.
Up and up we continued to go. I had to rest during and after each pitch. I remember being very tired and needing to catch my breath after most of the pitches on the Grand Teton climb but this was even worse. Finally, at 11 AM, we were at the top of Nelion. I was pretty happy when I had finished the previous pitch and Andy had mentioned that Charles said this was the final pitch to the top. An extra surge of energy seemed to flow from nowhere. The top of Nelion is 5188 meters (17,021 feet). It was higher than I had ever been before. We were sooooooooooooooooooooo happy to have made it. Charles felt the day before that it would take us about four to five hours to make this point. It took us seven. At the top was the Howell hut. Just like Bailey's Bivy, it looked very small. You could only crawl in, maybe you could hunch over on your knees inside. It would have been a very interesting night if we would have stayed the night up there. While I think we could have made it over to Batian (technically wise)during a two-day climb as originally planned , I don't know how we would have made it with all the extra gear (which would have included sleeping bags, extra food/water, the equipment we left at Bailey's Bivy, etc). Even though it was only 11 AM and there was still quite a bit of time left in the day I don't know if physically we could have made it over to Batian and back that afternoon. We had gotten so tired up to that point that to try it would have risked being stuck on the mountain after dark without the necessary gear. I guess this is what Charles realized back at Bailey's Bivy when he made the call. The top of Batian is only 11 meters higher than Nelion (5199 meters - 17, 058 feet) but in order to get those 11 meters you needed to descend Nelion into the 'Gates of the Mist', traverse some snow and ice to Batian, and then ascend Batian. The return trip would have involved a snow/ice climb back to the top of Nelion. The round trip is suppose to take around three hours but who knows how long i
We took some summit pictures and relaxed a bit. Andy had brought up some dog beanie baby type thing that he takes pictures of on all his adventures. I had brought a picture of Ruby and Zambo and had a picture taken of me with the picture. I topped off the morning summit with my Mt. Dew brought especially for the occasion. From the top, you could see Shiptons camp on one side and the Austrian hut on the other. They looked so far away. I remember that I thought I felt pretty good up there. At least I don't remember feeling any ill effects. I had some crackers but was not really hungry. I would pay for this later came to believe.
Getting down the mountain would entail abseiling the majority of the way. This was good because I could not imagine down-climbing the pitches we had come up. The abseils would either be a full rope length (essentially two ropes tied together in the middle) or half a rope (one rope doubled in half). I believe a full rope is about 150 feet. Although you were going down, the abseils were a bit tiring as well. It is a bit scary (at least for me) at the top of each rappel due to the exposure but once you are heading down it is a bit fun. After each one I still had to rest and catch my breath. At Bailey's Bivy we collected our. gear. I had to remove a couple layers of clothing as I was starting to feel extremely hot. My hands were pretty hot as well but I didn't want to take off the gloves due to the rope. I was second on the rope and Andy was last. On a few occasions Charles would indicate to Andy to have the rope go over the rock at a certain point so that it would not get wedged and stuck. On the second to last rappel (a full rope), the rope got stuck in some crack (we were never sure though). We tried pulling on it but that probably only made it worse. We probably spend about 15 minutes in that spot. It didn't look good that we would free the ropes. We only had three ropes and now two were stuck. In the end Charles decided that we could finish the descent with only the one rope. He would leave the stuck ropes there for the time being. Later that day we found a guide and two climbers at the Austrian hut that were going to try the climb the next day and would try to bring the ropes down.
We finally made it to the bottom of the base of the climb. It was good to feel the solid ground but I was totally exhausted. I mean I was on total empty. I don't think I really felt it until I finished the last rappel. We still had to get down the scree and cross the glacier before really finishing. I felt like a zombie. I could hardly function. I didn't feel like moving but little by little we made our way back. Charles even had to put my crampons on for me. By the time we got back to the Austrian hut it had taken us 5 1/4 hours to descend. That made it a total of over 12 hours on the mountain. I can't explain how tried I was. The combination of the physical exertion and the altitude wreaked havoc on my body. Looking back at it I believe my lack of eating while on the mountain really played a large part on my body's fatigue. I had a total of 4 crackers during the whole climb. Andy was a bit smarter as he took several energy bars.
While the actual climb was more challenging than any I have tried before, I also believe that if the mountain sat under 6000 or 7000 feet instead of 17,000 feet, it would be a fantastic rock climb. When we got back to the Austrian hut we had a bit to eat and drink. We had talked previously about going down to the Mintos hut after getting down from the climb in order to get us to a lower altitude as well as actually start our exit from the park. The Mintos hut is at 4297 meters which was only slightly higher than Shiptons. We had not planned on being so tired though. I believe I was feeling much more worn out than Andy. I really didn't want to move at all. I felt horribly tired but we both felt that it would be best to try to make it down. The Mintos hut was 4 km away and was suppose to take about 1 1/2 hours. There would be a couple of uphill hikes but mainly it would be downhill. When we set off I was in that zombie state and didn't know how I would fare on the uphills. I had started to cough a lot and my breathing was very heavy at times.
We finally made it to the Mintos hut but by that time it was dark and getting cold. There were many (a few dozen) tents strewn out everywhere. Apparently there were two large groups camping there. By the time we actually got to the shelter, we found out that it was full. We would have to sleep in the one tent that they had brought. They brought a tent because they thought that they would have to use it at the Austrian hut for themselves. They didn't have to though. As Paul and company were setting it up I just sat there in the cold thinking how miserably tired and cold I felt. As I was sitting there I did notice (as I had on previous nights) how beautiful the night sky was with so many stars. It was so crisp and clear. I would have loved to spend a warm night under that sky with a star chart. When the tent was finally ready, I simply put my packs inside, got undressed, and got into my sleeping bag. I drank a bit of water and then just wanted to fall asleep. I was still coughing a lot and thought I had a fever. I just hoped that I could get through the night and feel better the next day.
In the morning I awoke to a seemingly good night's sleep. I did remember coughing some during the night but I think I got a lot of sleep. By the time I got up (8 or so) all of the tents from the two groups were packed and gone. Later in the morning I walked down to the shelter to take a look at the inside. I immediately realized that the tent was a much better choice. Unlike the other huts we stayed at, the Mintos hut was unmanned which meant it didn't have a caretaker. Half of the room was just rocks and the other half was two sets of racks where people would lay their sleeping bags. It was in a pretty bad state.
Soon we were packed and heading to the much anticipated Bandas hut (Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge). It would be a 17 km hike of mostly downhill that would take us from the highlands to the start of the rain forest. The lodge area was at 3017 meters. It wasn't a bad walk at all. I was feeling pretty good but still had a bad cough. The scenery as we went was spectacular. Wide open vistas, deep valleys, high cliffs. It was also mostly green from low lying green scrub brush.
The Bandas hut was a large complex of about a two dozen buildings. It was pretty much deserted except for the people that worked there. The weather was perfect and it felt so good to just relax. The one thing (actually two things) we were looking forward to once arriving there were the Cokes and the potential hot shower. There was a small canteen store that sold a few items. We started out with some Cokes and I also got a couple of candy bars. It really tasted great, especially on such a warm and lazy day. Later I decided to take that hot shower. It cost 100 Ksh (about $1.30). It was sort of like an outhouse shower. The barrel of water was heated from a fire. I gathered my last clean clothes and went for a long, refreshing hot shower. It felt great after nine days in the mountains. The hot shave and a shampoo would have to wait until we got back to the hotel in Nairobi the following day. After the shower I celebrated with another Coke.
The rest of the day was spend just lying around. The rooms there didn't have any beds. It was simply an empty room. They did have some mattresses that they would rent for 100 Ksh. Andy decided he wanted to have one. Essentially everything there cost 100 Ksh: Coke, water, hot shower, mattress. It felt good to think that tomorrow would be the last day in the mountain area. It will have been a long 10 days. The plan for the next day would be to walk 15 km where we would meet a van that would take us the rest of the way down to a small town called Chogoria Town. From there Paul, Andy, and I would be picked up by the tour agency van. The two Johns and Steven would catch another ride to go the opposite way back to Nanyuki.
In the late afternoon we all were sitting around by the canteen store drinking Cokes and beer. It was a celebration of sorts to be almost finished. This had been the longest single outing for Paul, Steven, and one of the Johns. The other John had been on several expeditions of two weeks or more.
We left the Bandas hut about 8 AM and were eager to start our last day in the park. The weather was great and the hike itself was relaxing enough to be just mundane. The road was a big mud trap for vehicles in wet weather. There were huge tire ruts that were pretty deep. I don't know how a vehicle could navigate the road even when it was dry. A little before the 15 km mark we saw the truck coming to look for us. I guess he had other things to do some he didn't want to wait till we got to him. We packed our stuff in the back and off we went. It was a bit nerve racking on those roads. The guy was a pretty good driver though. I was very glad when we finally got to some generally flat roads and then eventually to the little town which was our destination.
We waited about an hour or so at a little restaurant drinking sodas until our van showed up. We said our goodbyes to John. John, and Steven and then they departed for Nanyuki as we headed for Nairobi. It was suppose to take us only 3 hours to get back but it took us 4 1/2. Just as we were entering the Nairobi limits there was a huge traffic jam on the road. As we came up to the back of the pack we saw vehicles just go off road or even start a traffic lane on the other side of the highway. It was like total chaos. No one stayed in their lanes and people were going in all directions to make forward progress. We have traffic problems here in DC but this was nuts.
Once we got into the city we first were going to drop Paul off. As we got into the middle of the city it started to take on a new life. It was so crowded. There were no traffic lights. People were walking everywhere. People were setting up their stands to sell their goods in a lane of the street. People were walking in the in the traffic lanes. It was such a chaotic scene. Finally we made it back to the hotel. It felt so good to take another hot shower, shampoo, and a shave. Our plane didn't leave until 11:30 the next evening so we spent the whole next day lying in bed watching the movie channels.
Looking back at the climb I thought of a couple of things that played a part in how things worked out. It was so devastatingly tiring but I didn't realize it fully until we were off the mountain. I really don't think I have felt so exhausted. It was more than just being tired. My problem, I now believe, was that I didn't eat while on the mountain. I was never even hungry but I paid the price once it was over. When we reached the summit I felt great. I was tired but the joy of making it gave me some extra energy. I really can't believe how much I was drained of all energy at the end. The other thing is that our route was on the Southeast face and is known as the normal route. This 'normal route' is the route of choice during the dry season, which is when we tried it. I believe it is the only route that requires you to summit Nelion in order to get to Batian. All the other routes (the North face is the main route in the wet season) to the top of Batian would not involve Nelion. If we had tried any of these other routes we would have either made the summit or no summit at all. The other routes are listed as a bit more technical than the route we took so I think we were lucky to have chosen, by chance, this route.
As far as some statistics on how many people try the various summits of Mt. Kenya, the guidebook states that about 16,000 people visit the park annually. Of those, most climb Pt. Lenana, and probably 60 percent make its summit. About 500 a year attempt to climb the Normal Route on Nelion, and about 200 of these reach its summit. Only an estimated 50 climbers per year reach the summit of Batian from the Normal Route.
Although we did not make our intended target in summiting Batian, we are very grateful to have made its sister summit, Nelion. It was much tougher than we anticipated but, at least for me, it made it that much more rewarding. It was a great adventure. Although the scenery for the European climbs was more spectacular, I believe this trip was much more of a mountaineering excursion and much more of a rock climb as it was definitely the most technical I have tried.