Last Autumn I went on an epic walk with Exodus to the summit of Mount Kenya. It took five days to reach the top, where I had a little cry. Let’s blame that on the altitude.
Here’s my pretty much verbatim diary of a trek through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet whilst wearing dodgy socks and eating ginger biscuits on a tactical basis.
I am obsessed with Mount Kenya. I’m spending a month working on a farm in the Kenyan highlands, and my days are spent exercising safari ponies and helping with the garden. It’s bliss. But I’m obsessed with Mount Kenya. Everywhere I walk and ride the peaks of Africa’s second highest mountain rise above me on the horizon, and the view is different every day – sometimes the snowcapped summit stands proud against a blue sky, sometimes it is wreathed in a gauzy scarf of clouds. In the evenings it is lit up pink by the strong equatorial sun. When we ride the horses on the plains the mountain is ahead of me, framed by my pony’s ears. When I brush my teeth at night outside my tent and hear our local leopard stalking in the darkness I can’t see the mountain. But I think about it.
3 October 2015
I’m still on the farm and I’m still mad keen on Mount Kenya. An extinct volcano of ancient lava and slow-forming glaciers, its triple peaks may be a shade lower than Kilimanjaro but it’s still a formidable beast, and I’ve decided to hike to the top of its highest trekkable point with Exodus, who take international groups up the little-used Burguret route to snowcapped Lenana at 4,985m. Above that are Batian (5,199m) and Nelion (5,188m), technical climbs first conquered by Mackinder and Shipton in 1899.
Next week I’ll leave Olepangi Farm and spend five days walking into the heart of the mountains. Exodus have sent me a kit list and it’s made me realise that impromptu plans to climb massive hills are a bit silly – I have none of the stuff I need down here in sunny Timau, besides some summer hiking boots. Hmm.
5 October 2015
Just back from Nanyuki, our local town, where I found a very nice guy selling sporting goods in a shack. He flogged me some ancient salopettes, a surprisingly great base layer, a down jacket and some very questionable woolly socks, all for about £30. I’ve got a dodgy head torch from the hardware shop and I’m borrowing a sleeping bag. What could go wrong?
10 October – Bantu Lodge (1950m)
Last night I arrived at Bantu Lodge, a big base camp in the foothills of the mountains. It’s still warm down here – fluffy colobus monkeys hang in the trees and there are crocodiles in the pond. I met my hiking gang and my lovely guides, Peter and Cyrus, and then took advantage of my last brush with civilization by drinking Tusker beers as the sun set then retiring to sleep under a mosquito net. So far this is all very nice indeed.
11 October – to the Giant Bamboo Forest (2600m)
And so it begins! I’m writing this by headtorch deep in the heart of the bamboo forest, my very nice tent-mate Julie snoring gently next to me. This morning we piled into a big Land Rover and drove to the beginning the little-used Burguret route, ready to wind our way to the summit. Peter says we’re unlikely to see anyone else for the next four days – I can’t decide if that’s exciting for ominous.
In a pine forest which reminds me more of Finland than Africa we meet the team of porters who are hiking up with us – there’s a cook and a first-aider as well as the guys setting up our tents. They all have enormous loads on their backs (we have tiny day sacks) and cheerfully tell us of the countless times they’ve summitted. I’m immensely glad they’re coming too.
We begin the walk and I’m enchanted by the forest, which opens up into a green oasis of potato plants, their flowers dusky pink. Tiny huts made of logs and moss make it look like a fairytale land.
The mountains are high above and I want to stride ahead but Cyrus has me practising slow steps, which he calls ‘pole-pole’, so that I adjust to the altitude. As we climb, the landscape changes – we walk past enormous blackened trees and then into a dense bamboo thicket. It rains and fat drops fall from the bamboo onto our hats. Lovely Dave, the youngest guy in our group, hands out ginger biscuits any time we looked a bit tired and I look forward to biscuit breaks with a worrying intensity.
After six hours we reach a tiny clearing in the jungle where the porters have set up our tents and prepared an amazing meat stew which we eat with thick savoury pancakes. After dinner we sit around the big fire, warming our feet on the embers and listening to the noises of the forest. My weird socks have completely coated my feet in wool but no blisters so far. I don’t want to tell Julie I only brought one pair in case she refuses to share a tent with me in future.
12 October – to Highland Castle (3700m)
Waking up early in the bamboo camp we hear elephants crashing about somewhere in the undergrowth. We follow Peter through the bamboo and up a sharp incline – suddenly we’re out of the tree-line and high up, looking out at the Kenyan highlands and the far off Aberdare mountains. Higher still it feels colder and we walk into a dream-like land like something from a dinosaur film – enormous prehistoric plants rise up from the plains, including wild lobelias as big as me and odd water-filled giant cabbages. I feel the altitude begin to press down on my nose. Dave walks behind me in the line and has started to sniffle and suffer from bad headaches.
I forget any pain when we crest a ridge and spot Highland Castle spread out before us. Our camp for the night is by the mouth of a big cave in a cliff face rising steeply from a valley. The porters are setting us up dinner, and whilst they built a fire I walk off and climb a big boulder, enjoying being alone and looking out at the valley far below – the farm is down there somewhere.
I doubt I’ll eat dinner anywhere as wonderful as a candlelit African cave. My hiking boots got completely soaked today and Harrison the porter insists on holding them patiently over the fire to dry them for me.
Dave has gone white in the face, even his lips, and can’t eat dinner. Peter says altitude sickness affects young fit men the most.
It’s cold up here now – I’ve got a sexy balaclava bought in the market at Nanyuki on. When night falls more stars than I’ve ever seen before stud the sky, and when the others go to bed I stay up and watch their tents glow orange against the rocks and the night sky.
13 October – to Shipton’s Camp (4236m)
The good news is that my hiking boots are completely dry. The bad news is that Dave definitely has a bad case of altitude sickness, even though he heroically pretends he doesn’t. He’s so bad we’re not letting him share the ginger biscuits stash anymore.
We trek past a beautiful lake, which reminds me of Snowdonia’s tarns, glassy and black. In front of us is a steep scree slope of epic proportions. I question this until Peter leads us on a painfully slow but effective zigzag path. It’s like walking on porridge, and each few steps forward results in one sliding back. But we make it. Dave slips a few times and does not look well but the rest of us are ok. I begin to oddly like I’m hungover.
At the peak of the horrible scree thing I laugh out loud – below us is Shipton’s camp, our final stop before the summit, and above it wreathed in snow are Mount Kenya’s triple peaks, ready for the taking tomorrow.
We reach the camp and spot rock hyraxes watching us from behind the lobelias. I escape again and sit on the rocks watching the setting sun turn the white snow on the peaks blood red. Summit tomorrow!
I. feel. terrible. We’re leaving at 2am tomorrow and I feel like death. Dave is much worse than me and neither of us can get warm. The wonderful porters have given me hot water bottles, anti-altitude medication, food and a sleeping bag liner but I still shiver.
14 October – to the summit of Point Lenana (4985m)
It’s 2am and Peter wakes me up for the summit. I put on all the clothes I have and wish I could wear my sleeping bag up the mountain. Dave is dead to the world and staying put but the rest of us are taking on the final trek. We set off and it’s a relief not to be able to see where we’re going, because each step is agonisingly hard. I concentrate on the ribbon of little lights from our headlamps as they dance up the hill above me. Every twenty minutes I stop for water and deep breaths.
Near the summit the sun rises suddenly, as it always does in Africa, and we are facing one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen, of perfect mountains, lakes painted gold and the neverending valley below us.
Cyrus walks next to me, talking to me as gently as I imagine he talks to his little daughter, and despite our scramble being technically easy I need help just putting one foot after the other. Steve has started to suffer too, and slips the few times. I feel like I’m walking in treacle and blink back tears of exhaustion.
Suddenly we round a corner, I’m using my hands as well as feet to climb and then after agonising final steps we’re at the top. The very top!
We stand on the top of the earth, Mount Kenya’s two other peaks silhouetted against the blue sky. I have a sit down and allow myself a little cry. We take pictures and laugh with dizziness. Peter only allows us five minutes to savour the view, though, because we still have to climb down.
The descent is tough on my legs but I feel better and better with ever metre we drop in altitude, and when we finally arrive in camp I lie on the ground in the sunshine with Julie, completely spent but overwhelmingly happy. I’ve done it. Now I know how far I can push myself, I know the punishment of altitude sickness. And I know the overwhelming and indescribable beauty of Kenya’s highest peak.
GO CLIMB MOUNT KENYA
I trekked Mount Kenya with Exodus, who provide a fantastic eight-day package including flights for £1,899 and excluding flights for £1,099. The trek includes all food, all accommodation, transport and a team of experienced porters and guides and is your best bet for getting safely and happily to the top of the mountain.