Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mt. Kenya (Part II)- The Summit and Descent

10,000 ft- 13,800 ft

            After another solid night sleep, we awoke to a breakfast of sausage, pancakes and tea. We quickly packed up our gear and threw on our daypacks and hit the hill at 7:30 am. It was a warm morning so we delayered quickly and were down to t-shirts and light jackets. We made our way quickly along muddy tracks, crossing the occasional washed out road and in an hour or so had made it to one of the few manmade landmarks: Africa’s third highest weather station. It was powerless for the time being but a very clear and regular line of tall wooden poles wove its way down the mountain and was presumably waiting to be strung with electric line to make the station fully operational. Kimau told us not to hold our breath on the weather station becoming operational; the project was already ten years in with no end in sight.
            After passing the weather station, the rain started. It was a persistent rain that varied in intensity throughout the day and did not stop until early the following morning.
            Mt. Kenya is a beast of a mountain. Our ascent was taking us from the base of the mountain to Point Lenana, the third highest peak on the mountain and the tallest point accessible with out technical climbing. Our over all elevation gain on foot was 11,847 ft. But overall, in 72 ½ hours, our elevation gain, from Mombasa to Point Lenana, was 16,335 ft. To counteract the effects of altitude, we were told to drink water, as much as possible, all the time. Those that know me, or have travelled on long car rides with me, know I drink a lot of water as it is. So when I was told it was necessary for me to drink lots of water, I guzzled it down. I probably went through 12 liters on that second day. Out of control. But I felt great the whole way up! If only that feeling had lasted…

            The farther up we climbed, the stranger the landscape became. We soon left behind the low lying shrubs, and entered a fantastical landscape of lotus-like plants and large tree like plants that almost defy explanation. They sprout leaves continuously in the middle of the plant while the older leaves wither and die and allowing the other leaves to flourish. The plant grows higher and higher on the dead leaves and forms an ominous, human-like (especially at dawn and dusk) pillars up to 15 ft. high. These plants cover the landscape like silent sentinels guarding the valley they inhabit.

            The wildlife up there was fascinating as well. I saw one bird, picture below, the likes of which I have never seen. It had a long black double tail with a radiant green chest and an elegantly curved beak. It perched on a tree for a while as if posing for us as we walked by. We also saw the rock hyrax. Besides having a great name, these critters look like giant guinea pigs with the face of a koala (That may be a stretch). They are related very closely (somehow) to elephants. Apparently it is all in the feet. The hyraxes were extremely comfortable with our presence and allowed us to get incredibly close.

Rock Hyrax

            Aside from the wild animals, we also ran into some people on their way down from the summit. They had reached the top but with limited visibility and they seemed disappointed with the conditions. We had received word the as well that the day before a British military group had attempted to summit and were turned back because of harsh conditions and heavy snowfall. Our path to the summit looked that much more daunting.

            In spite of the rain, our hike was a pleasant one but I could feel the altitude starting to affect me. I kept trucking along and crested the last ridge at full speed, I was afraid that stopping would only make me realize the symptoms of the altitude even more. I reached the camp first out of our group an achievement that would end up being the root of my downfall.
            The rest of the group trickled in and soon enough we were all gathered around the table, drinking tea and catching up on the day.
Night fell. I started to feel a headache coming on so I drank more water. Nausea set in. It came in waves. Every five minutes or so I would pause, start sweating, strongly consider running outside and vomiting, calm down and the feeling would pass. Our cook served up dinner: minestrone soup, veggies, spaghetti. I tried to eat but I every bite I took caused my stomach to heave so I ended up skipping dinner all together. I stopped all conversation and had, according to my fellow hikers, a dour look on my face and pale complexion (not that the pale is out of the norm). I was well and truly in the grips of mountain sickness. Gioko suggested that I had not rested enough on the way up and that my pace didn’t allow me to acclimatize appropriately. Reasonable enough. He also said a few hours earlier, my tongue had been blue, apparently a sign of oxygen deprivation. I felt terrible and in a conversation with Lindsey made very clear that if I was to continue on in this vein, there was no way I was going to attempt the summit.
The summit attempt was planned for a 2:30 am wake up and a 3 am start. I went to bed at 7:30 pm. I made note in my notebook in hastily scrawled chicken scratch, “undecided as to whether I will attempt summit. Altitude sickness.” I attempted sleep from 7:30 onwards but, thanks to my legendary amount of water consumption, I woke up to pee every single hour at least once. Every time I flicked on my headlamp, gingerly lowered myself down from the bunk, tiptoed my way around the other beds, and stood in the windy, cold latrine, my head throbbing from the headache. Each time I woke up, Lindsey or Amal would ask, “you coming?” To which I would grumble in reply, “I dunno yet.”
Two o’clock rolled around and I was still feeling miserable, although less so than before. I lie awake, staring at the four cold metal staples holding the plastic roof in place eight inches from my face on the top bunk, while I tried to fight the feeling of nausea and the ebb and flow of the pounding in my head.
I really wanted to climb this mountain, but I kept rationalizing in my head, “hey, you’ll be in Kenya for the next two years, you’ll have another chance, no big deal, just sleep in, by the time you wake up they will be back already as if it never happened, no sweat, just sleep, come back next year.”
Two-thirty struck. I heard Amal, Jacob and Lindsey shifting in their sleeping bags. I stared at the ceiling. Waited. Rolled out of bed.

13,800 ft.- 16,355 ft.

            Breakfast consisted of three biscuits and a cup of tea, hardly fortifying and the only food I was able to consume since 14 hours earlier. We hit the trail at 3:15 am, headlights blazing through the dark night. The sky was cloudless and moonless. Even a quick glance up at the stars was enough to instill a healthy sense of awe into each one of us. It is a rare occasion to be so far away from any sort of light pollution as we were that night, and we all recognized the beauty of the heavens as we lumbered up the steep scree slope.
            We were seven in number: Amal, Lindsey, Jacob, Gioko, Mkongola, Kimau and I. George, Nicole and Kristine had opted to stay behind. Their progress thus far had been admirable in itself. Kristine had powered up the mountain, her first, with out a single complaint and with a smile on her face even through the wettest and steepest situations. Nicole had just conquered malaria a few days before our trip so her ability to push through the pain and make it up to Shipton, our second camp, was remarkable. George, I think, could have made it up to the peak, but he seemed completely happy to be up amongst the clouds in the shadows of the snowy, craggy peaks.
            Guided only by our headlamps, we slogged through trails sodden from the rain the day before. Before long, we began to see patches of snow. The going from this point on was slow. The altitude was taking its toll on many in our group meaning we had to take frequent breaks to catch our breath and take our bearings. Amal, easily the most athletic of our crew, began to struggle around the 4 am mark and Lindsey soon began to feel the same. The hour between 4 and 5 stretched on and on. The group was silent. Mkongola had not slept well the night before and was not his usual bubbly, energetic self, but a few months back he had promised Linsdey that he would take her to the top of Mt. Kenya and he was not about to renege on his vow. Amal set a marker for himself, if he could make it past 5 am, he could make it to the top. I became fixated on my watch, checking every 30 seconds. The closer it got to 5, the longer it took the seconds to flick by.

Amal tore his pants as you can see clearly here.

            Soon enough, however, we conquered time. There was no turning back now. The sun began to light up the horizon and by 5:45 we could turn our headlamps off, our path illuminated by the shades of red emanating from beyond the sea of clouds. The break of day lifted all of our spirits and before long we were cruising towards the peak. Our movement was now slowed, not from fatigue, but from our constant stops to glance around and admire the alien and stunning landscape before us. In the early glow of morning, the sharp ridges of Mt. Kenya were softened and the tarns and snowfields sparkled. The red orb of the sun was perched in the soft wool of the clouds.

            We began the final stretch and had to carefully work our way over and through exposed rocks until the peak was in sight. We were all exhausted but with final bursts of adrenaline we scampered across narrow paths, clutching cables embedded in the rock, towards the rebar ladder build into the six feet of rock that constituted the summit.
            We popped our heads up over the rock wall and were buffeted by wind. We had made it. The wind was a welcome sign of our arrival to the top of the world (or so it felt). Lindsey ran over to tall pole that marked the actual summit and held on and gazed out over the endless landscape. She turned back with tears in her eyes and I looked on, confused, until I too looked out.

 I was overcome by emotion. I was so struck by the beautiful panorama before me: Bation peak across from us with its cloud halo, the rigid sharp spine of the mountain ridges, the blood red sun, the pink and white quilt of clouds and the snow glazed glaciers. I was moved to tears. Nature got me something good.

16,355 ft. – 10,000 ft.

            After our initial moments of awestruck admiration, we realized how cold it really was and started snapping photos so we could start heading down. I have what might be called a tradition at this point of bringing a Tennessee flag on my most exciting hiking trips to fly high above the mountain I have just climbed. So naturally, I hiked it up to the top of Mt. Kenya as well. The past few times I have been accompanied by Samir Sheth, one of my best friends from Bowdoin and a fellow Tennessean. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), he is helping out the Obama campaign in Denver right now and could not take time out of his busy schedule to take a light hike up Mt. Kenya. I’m also a proud recent graduate of Bowdoin College, as is Lindsey. This past weekend was Bowdoin Homecoming but we were thousands of miles away from Brunswick so to celebrate Homecoming we brought up a Bowdoin banner to the summit as well. Many epic pictures were taken.

The victorious crew, best group shot I have on the peak, we'll get it next time

We made it!

            After the photos, we quickly scurried down the ladder and back to the snow encrusted slopes. With adrenaline rushing through our veins, the descent started off quick and cheerful. The snow was slick enough that I was able to slide down a lot of it on my rear and conserve some energy and have some fun at the same time. Energy ebbed the closer we came to camp but in two hours we were sat at our breakfast table, celebrating with sausage and toast. Dark clouds were forming so we packed up quickly and hit the trail at a break neck pace. In our haste, we forgot to snag our pack lunches, while led to a grueling and less than cheerful descent. As we lost altitude, most headaches eased away, but hunger still remained. Conversation ceased early on in the hike as determination to get down took over. I made full use of my iPod and listened to podcast after podcast to block out the pangs of hunger and the cold rain. After the rain set in, we had a few injuries, and we had not had a substantial meal for ten hours by the time we reached our lower camp. We wolfed down our dinner and all fell into coma like sleeps lasting about 10 hours.

10,000 ft. – 7,000 ft.- 0 ft.

            The next day we had a leisurely walk out. I hadn’t mentioned it before, but the early part of the trail had us cross the equator! Exciting stuff. We ran into a large troop of Baboon along the trail who followed us on the final part of the trek down to the Sirimon Gate. We sprawled out on the dry grass and relished in our achievement.

One more night at the base of the Mountain and we were back off to Mombasa. As we drove away, I was struck by how colossal Mt. Kenya actually was. It dominated my field of vision, blocking out the horizon. We all felt a great sense of accomplishment as the mountain receded behind us. Our next challenge is to find something to top Mt. Kenya.
            A brief plug for the mountain itself and the climbing experience. The mountain everyone thinks of when they think of East Africa, or Africa in general, is Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro generally costs $300 per person per day with most trips lasting 5-6 days. That price is without transport, with out visas and without pre- and post-trip accommodation. It really adds up. All things told, our six day Mt. Kenya trip cost us ~ $350 per person for the whole trip including: Guides, Porters, park fees, food, transport to and from Mombasa, and accommodation. Our guides, who lead on Kili as well, said Mt. Kenya was a much more interesting climb. If you are thinking about visiting East Africa to experience the natural side of things, consider Mt. Kenya. It is a bargain and an excellent hike.

Thanks for reading,
-Mzungu still riding the feeling of conquering Mt. Kenya


  1. Chase - this is amazing! Can I send a link to the people at the Bowdoin Sun? I bet they'd like to borrow that picture of you guys holding up the Bowdoin banner atop the mountain... Really enjoying reading these!
    --Steve Perkinson

    1. Hey Professor Perkinson!

      I certainly wouldn't mind if you sent it along. I'm appreciate that you have been following along. I hope I am keeping it readable and engaging! I've been meaning to send you an email, so I will get on that asap. I hope all is well in Brunswick! Thanks for reading,