Friday, August 12, 2016


2am arrives quickly. It is chilly and damp getting out of our sleeping bags, but the excitement of what is ahead, and Kenyan tea, warms us.

Mt Kenya or Mars?
We put on multiple layers, grab our trekking poles, turn on our headlamps and start the climb upwards in single file. Aside from the headlamps twinkling on various parts of the mountain ahead, it is very dark. The stars are bright above, as is the moon which is surrounded by a huge hazy corona. The portents are good; it will be a night to remember.

The first 45 minutes are relatively easy going. Then we hit the shale. Our guides spread out to help us negotiate the moving rocks in the darkness. My headlamp has been getting increasingly dimmer which really annoys me because I purchased fresh batteries and put one in an hour ago. Evidently, moisture from the deluge two days earlier is affecting the battery. When my headlamp goes out, Darrin and David, our Athletes in Action father-son duo, give me a spare hand flashlight, which is very kind of them. But it, too, doesn't know its job description, and keeps flickering weakly. I beat it with my trekking pole and it cooperates for a while till it dies out, or I kill it, I know not which. Stumbling around in the darkness, Benson, our guide has pity on me and gives me his headlamp. 

Dawn breaks near the icy summit of Mt Kenya
Fifteen minutes later, dawn slowly begins to break. All around us, appearing as if out of nothing, are the majestic peaks of Mount Kenya. It is not a single cone like the slightly higher Kilimanjaro, but a multi-peaked stratovolcano. The two highest peaks, Batian and Nelion, are technical climbs requiring mountaineering skill and technical climbing equipment. Of course, I can't even get my flashlight to stay on. Good thing we are headed toward Point Lenana.

Did Sir Edmund Hillary wear his New Zealand beanie?
We scramble and climb and clamber. There are some large rocks to negotiate and some very slippery spots where ice conspires to send the novice places he definitely doesn't want to go. But we are almost there. The last obstacle is an iron ladder pounded into the rock, caked with ice. "Hold very tightly," Joshua says. He gives the same advice for a rope strung between two precarious points, also heavily covered with ice. This is not where I intend my final resting place to be so I hold on for dear life which is kind of hard to do when you have to move along the rope and let it slip through your fingers. Then, we are up!

This is what we have come for. The spectacular view. The rush of adrenaline. The sense of danger which fools court in order to feel brave for an hour or two.

Point Lenana, 4985 meters, 16355 feet above sea level

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Long Walk

After an early rise and a substantial breakfast, we repack and set out again on the Sirimon Trail for, Guide Benson tells us, a "long day." He is not wrong. But the longest day is still to come.

We start our journey in a circle, with prayer. It is great to be united in faith in our common Savior. Or two guides, Benson and Joshua, are volunteer pastors in their congregations in Nairobi. This is how they support themselves and their families.

Today's hike is 17km, mainly up. We trudge through a boggy marshland shrouded in mist. It seems endless as we slosh and splash through mud and peat and rocky streams. Drizzle comes and goes with the clouds that kiss the mountain continuously. We long for it to clear so we can see this mountain we have traveled so far to see.

Finally, after about four hours, the veil is lifted. The mountain is magnificent, stretching in all directions. But this is still the base of the mountain; the peaks are hidden from us by the valley we are in.

We start to notice more around us. The Alpine vegetation is unique, the valley cliffs, majestic.

On the path we spy some hyena scat. Josh, who has trekked this mountain for 30+ years, explains that the hyenas like to follow hikers. To them, swinging arms look like loose pieces of flesh about to fall off. Hyenas are very hard to spot, however; when they see you turn to look, they quickly disappear behind a bush.

On a roll, Josh explains how to evade other animals that live in the mountain. If attacked by a buffalo (the most dangerous of all animals), you are to run as fast as possible. If unable to escape, you are to lay down and pretend to sleep. Then the buffalo will lick you, trying to wake you up to stomp on you or gore you. Remain asleep until the buffalo goes away.

Elephants have sensitive trunks that do not like the feel of human skin. If you are clothed, they will pick you up, throw you and stomp on you. Take off all your clothes, and you will be fine, if a little self-conscious.

After absorbing this very practical jungle lore, we make our final climb to Shipton Camp. Above us, in the clouds, is Mount Kenya's Lenana peak. A little drier and warmer than the previous evening, we go to bed early in preparation for our 2am rise for the final accent.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Thunder on the Mountain

We pass many Kikuyu, young and old, who look at the wazungu (white people) bemusedly. Why they would want to climb the mountain is a mystery to them. Their name for it is Kirinyaga, Ostrich, so named for the black and white plumage of the male. The mountain from a distance is a black silhouette, the snow, white.

At the Sirimon Gate we off-load everything from the van to distribute  among the packs--the packs that the porters, cooks and guides will carry, that is. We four clients carry day packs with water, some food, sweatshirts, wet weather gear, etc. Ours are 8-15 lbs max. I don't want to imagine the weight these guys are carrying. They are tough hombres, which, not knowing the Swahili word, is the best I can do.

We set off on our first climb, which our guide terms the "easy" climb. It is 11 km (6.83 miles) of non-stop up. It is hot. Things are going well until they're not. It turns chilly and cloudy, then dark. The wind picks up and the rain comes down in torrents. Lightning flashes, thunder booms. Rain becomes hail which becomes rain turning to hail again. Despite sheltering under a tree and putting on wet weather gear, we are soaked, our bags and their contents are soggy, and we are shivering in the cold. This is two hours in to a four day trip--an ominous start.

Just as quickly as it comes, the tempest leaves the mountain and replaces it with the burning colors of an angry sunset. The mountain has spoken. We joke that it is warning us: "No washing on the mountain for the next four days!"

We arrive at Camp Moses as the dark sets in. It is primitive, cold and very damp. But soon our cooks produce their magic and we are eating streaming bowls of soup and African fare, and suddenly life does not seem quite so bleak.

We also drink lots to help stave off altitude sickness but this means frequent trips to the facility which offers a choice of a toilet with no seat or a hole in the floor. The sleeping bags are damp; Jonathon's is wet in a few places. Morning comes, but not very quickly.