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Strolling up Mount Kenya (not)


You know you’re in deep shit when the so called experienced Guide turns to you three quarters of the way up a Mountain hike and says in a worried tone: “Looks like we are in trouble. It is late and the sun is rising fast. That means the snow will melt, we can slip and the coming down will be dangerous”

I stared at him with a this-can’t-be-true look on my face. The summit looked like it was miles of steeply snowed slope away. And in my stupidity I didn’t even have crampons. Damn!!

High on Mount Kenya: cold and icyMy first thought was panic. The second was to curse my bad luck. And Thought No #3 was to curse myself for not ordering my Guide to start the climb earlier; I mean I knew my pace was always slower than average. If we had started off earlier the risk of snow melting would have been less. I was already shredded by the steep climb; 4 hours up nearly 45 degree slopes didn’t leave me feeling like the Energizer Bunny.

But hold on. I haven’t told you what this is all about. Its always this way. You go off on a tangent and before you know it readers are clampuring for clarity. A quick rewind then….

Back in the summer of 2012 I had a cunning plan. Why not trek up a decent sized mountain for New Year? It seemed a cool idea at the time and I had a bias for high altitude hiking having summited the 5,895 m tall Kilimanjaro in Africa (2011) and the 6,153 m high Stok Kangri in Ladakh, India (2012). The northern hemisphere was tres cold at that time of the year so India and Nepal were out of bounds. I immediately looked at Africa. Mt Kenya is the second highest mountain on the continent. Plus my plan to trek up Mt Kenya in December 2011 had been blown to bits by a busted Achilles (thanks to my not so bright idea of running the Dubai half marathon with a sprained ankle and painkillers). So Mt Kenya it was. I’m not a technical climber hence Point Lenana @ 4985m looked good enough.

Of course the all-important issue of naming the Hike (or Project as I call it) was next. Kili was Project Elevation (well.. self-explanatory). Stok was Project Six (6,000 metres). Kenya was christened Project Zebra.

The road to Chogoria, kenyaI landed in Nairobi on 28 December 2012 and the next day took a Matatu (Micro bus) to Chogoria town. To anyone who has never taken this ride before it’s a must do if you ever wander by Kenya. I had a rollicking conversation with a young Kenyan with foot tapping Congolese and Nigerian music blaring from the loudspeaker with Rihanna and Nicki Minaj occasionally chipping in.

We reached Chogoria where I ran into Tony (my Guide), the two assistants and a small food mix up. You see I am a pure vegetarian (Don’t be judgmental now) and a health freak (no processed foods or white bread ) so the hike team had to off load most of what they’d bought and scurry desperately around town for brown bread, honey and other edible stuff.

Now in my burning desire to be different I’d chosen the less used route (up Chogoria down Sirimon). I do now truly understand the meaning of “Be careful of what you wish for”.

Day # 1 was camp at Chogoria Gate. But to get there we first had to suffer for our collective sins in The Ride From Hell in an ancient, creaking, rusty Land Rover Defender which was probably used by Monty in his 1943 campaign on what couldn’t be called a “road” even in its broadest sense. We held on with both hands for dear life as the LR bounced like a yoyo and swung wildly sideways on a surface that was a horribly unique mix of deeply rutted trail and river of flowing mud. The numbers say it all- 6.5 hours to cover 32kms. Frankly we’d have been better off walking.

Could do this forever.. by car

Day 2 was a 3 hour easy to moderate trek from Chogoria Gate (2,650 m) to Lake Ellis, a rise of approx. 800 m. The setting was idyllic- by the shore of the (very) modest lake that was ringed by a carpet of green heath. I said to myself that this was very tolerable. I could do this forever.

Sadly it didn’t last. Reality hit very hard on Day 3 with a 6 hour gradual climb to Base Camp at 4,200 m (aka Minto Camp). It wasn’t supposed to be non-stop but ended up as such thanks to a dreadful mix up between the Guide and the Cook. The Guide thought the Cook would prepare lunch half way and the Cook thought not. End result was I tottered into Minto Camp at 2pm, exhausted, dehydrated, and full of nasty vicious thoughts about the retarded Cook. The Base Camp was pathetic, a clearing shrouded in mist with a dark hut in a corner and one lonely looking tent. Not exactly an encouraging sight for a cold, wet, shredded and starving hiker. My arrival was not a minute too soon; no sooner had in entered the Hut than the heavens let loose a perfect hailstorm. If we had stopped for lunch….

I was wolfing down something vaguely edible when I realized with a nasty shock that the summit attempt was at 3am i.e. in less than 12 hours! This was a major cock up in strategy and planning. What an idiot I was to plan for the climb so close to an exhausting hike! To make it worse a young Kenyan porter in the hut scared the crap out of me by saying that Mt Kenya was really steep, far steeper than Kili. No one had warned me of this before!

This was undoubtedly the lowest point of the hike.

The porter seemed impressed though.

Easy. Says Binod.

Porter: “You walked all the way today from Lake Elis non stop in just 6 hours”
Me: “Yes”
Porter: “Most people do it in 7.5 hours. And you are planning to start your climb tonight?”
Me: “Yes”
Porter: “You are a tough guy!”
Me: “Not tough. Simply very very stupid”

The run up to a summit attempt is always tense. You doubt your ability, fear the terrain and suspect all kinds of ailments. I donned my battle gear, zipped up my sleeping bag and lay awake, waiting for the call at 2am for the 3am start. I have never been so nervous before any hike. The word “steep” kept recurring.

At 1:40am Tony came to the tent door and whispered “Sir, time to go”. These are probably the three most dreaded words in a hike; its almost like being called out for your midnight execution and you never really get used to it. I clambered out of the tent, walked to the kitchen hut and forced down a mini brekkie of brown bread, honey, water and dates. Soon it was 3am and our brave Quartet comprising of Me, Tony, the porter and the cook was off. The plan was that the last two would take the down road to Shipton’s while Tony and I continued up.

The first hour was easy, walking on flat, marshy ground with a few ups and downs. It was totally dark with the path lit up by our head lamps. No one talked. I asked Tony to remind me to drink Isostar/Water every hour- no way I was going to get dehydrated or cramped this time.

We hit the first of four steep climbs and I deliberately slowed down to save myself for what I knew was the tougher part ahead. It was one step, then pause, then next step. By 530am Tony turned to me and said “We are very slow”. I nodded. I knew. I paused and looked around. For the first time I saw Mt Kenya, un obscured by clouds, glistening in the moonlight with freshly clad snow like a chocolate cake with icing.

The East African dawn had started by the time we crested our second rise. I turned around and this was truly spectacular, a collage of white clouds, orange light and dark mountain peaks. Kilimanjaro had nothing on this!

We continued and soon hit the first small patch of snow and them another till we ended up walking on the solid looking white stuff which I learnt not to love after Stok Kanuri.

Mount Kenya: snow

At about 7 am we reached the base of the mountain itself and I looked up and was aghast. Almost the entire slope was covered in snow!! How the heck was I going to make it, bereft as I was of walking sticks or crampons?? And then of course Mr. Antony Mwoka, Esteemed Guide, had to make his bloody apocalyptic remark.

I controlled my panic and somehow croaked: “Let’s move on. Let’s deal with this at the summit”.

The next hour was a cautious zig zagging uphill and meeting lots of hikers who’d made it to Point Lenana and were on the way down. I crossed paths with a few teenagers and geriatrics and got even more fired up to finish the climb- this was getting to be embarrassing.

The final hundred meters was mostly on hands and knees over rock and ice.

The last bit was a metal ladder. I asked Tony to go over it and then I went up and there was no one else at the top and the Kenyan flag was fluttering and I saw the yellow colored sign boards that confirmed that we’d finally reached our destination. Tony and I grinned at each other and we high fived.

Mount Kenya: the summit

Mount Kenya: Usain at the summit

I looked at my watch- 8:07 am. I’d made it to the second highest point in Africa on New Year’s Day 2013. As a start to the year it was decent. And then I did my Usain Bolt pose for the flashing cameras.

The next time I get an urge to do something at the close of a year I am going to be calm and settle for something different; like a slow easy walk at sea level around Safa Park.

Trip specs (budget travel)
Flight: I flew Emirates Airlines economy from Dubai to Nairobi and back
Accommodation: Was at the new Troy Hotel in the Karen area of Nairobi
Route: Up Chogoria and down Sirimon
Climb: Organized by Bonfire Adventures (including hotel, Guide, 2 porters and Mt Kenya park fee of USD 270)
Overall damage: Approx. USD 1,800 including local travel, food and sightseeing in Nairobi

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