Mt. Kenya: a Diary

This article originally published in Spring 2011 issue of Adventure Insider Magazine. The author and new friends at Old Moses Camp

Day 1 (16 January 2011)

Nairobi – Nanyuki – Old Moses Camp

Lunch of pepper steak and chips followed by greetings by trekking guide, Daniel, and technical guide, Kim. Team photograph (2 guides, 2 porters, 1 cook) in front of 4×4 before setting off in it to Sirimon Gate @ 2650 meters above sea level. Rearranged packs at Sirimon Gate, swapping out the 80 liter Lowe Alpine pack for the 35 liter Berghaus day pack that Tom gifted me some years ago (old lover, old backpack) to one of the porters. Handed one of my Black Diamond Women’s trail lite compact hiking poles to Daniel and started the trek to Old Moses, where we spent our first night on the mountain. The Sirimon route leads up from the Mt. Kenya ring road some 14 kilometers east of Nanyuki. The route climbs over the northern moorlands. It’s renowned for wildlife and dry, green scenery and it's the most frequently trekked route up to Lenana. En route to Moses, I met a group of Bible-study Norwegian youths, spreading the word of Christian God throughout Kenya, and a Kenyan-Danish couple. Admittedly, I totally had a crush on one of the Norwegian Christian kids (ok, fine, two – Rune and Gisle, who, incidentally, is from Iceland but speaks Norwegian). First night’s dinner consisted of fried fish, potatoes, and veg. Didn’t have much of an appetite after my big breakfast of muesli, eggs, yogurt, fruit (not to mention the pepper steak lunch) but nibbled a bit. Finished up night with warm water wash and exfoliating cloths – luxury at its finest.

Howell's Hut
Day 2

Old Moses Camp (3300m) – Shipton’s Camp (4200m)

Early AM start through Ontulili River up Mackinders Valley via Liki North Ridge. Big breakfast of eggs, toast, sausage, porridge, passion fruit, pineapple – far too much to digest at 630 Kenyan time! Trekking proved to be harder than I thought – already at this point below 4000 meters sea level, and I had to slow down my pace or my heart would not have forgiven me. The itinerary called for 7 hours but my pace got me there in about 9. Stupid endurance. Began to get annoyed with guide at this point, with his frequent mobile phone chats and somewhat disregard for my pace and frustration. When it was finally time to lunch circa 14:00 at the ‘lunch point,’ it couldn’t have f*cking come sooner; I was starving and exhausted and the ‘picnic lunch’ was well deserved. And certainly munching on my ham cheese and butter sandwiches and Ribena in a surreal Joshua Tree-like setting below towering peaks and glaciers, furry rock hyrax (think non-spiky hedgehogs) and sunbirds was appreciated. At 4,000 meters, one really begins to notice vegetation that exist only here and at a few other lofty points in East Africa as a result of the combination of altitude and a position astride the equator, for example, the ‘water-holding cabbage,’ ‘ostrich plume plant,’ (whose skeletal remains would make for fantastic silver grey goth bijoux) or ‘giant groundsel,’ seemingly designed by some 1950s science fiction writer when first encountered – surreal indeed. Shipton’s camp: infested with bunk beds and rats – how is it possible that these f*ckers survive at 4200 meters when I nearly ripped off my head due to high altitude-inducing pounding hangover times hundred thousand headache? Napped for about twenty minutes upon arrival, only to be thwarted by obnoxious, burping, snoring, farting Czech tourists. Learned how to play kickass Icelandic card game. Sympathized with Norwegians and Danish and Kenyan couple for their upcoming 3am assault on Lenana (4985 meters). I would get my taste only a few hours later…

Much deserved lunch break
Day 3

Shipton’s Camp (3300m) – Point Lenana (4985m) – Austrian Hut (4700m)

MISERABLE SCREE. headaches. lemon tea. snow. ice. tears. nausea. Awoke many times through the night with a pounding headache and perturbed by the presence of rodents @ 4200 meters, rummaging through my pack in search of Clif and Luna bars. Breakfast of lemon tea with orange blossom honey, sausage, pancakes with peanut butter (or was that the day before?), eggs, bit of a rest, and greeted the Christian Norwegian kids goodbye before pushing straight for Lenana (which Lonely Planet describes as a tough 3.5-5 hour slog via Harris Tarn and the tricky north-face approach). Looking back after having summited, I suddenly don’t feel so crap about my pace. Also, I can’t help but laugh maniacally at myself after having realized just now I bagged both Point Lenana AND the bloody Summit Circuit on the way down from Lenana to Austrian Hut in the same bloody day: ‘While everyone who summits Point Lenana gets a small taste of the spectacular Summit Circuit, few trekkers ever grab the beautiful beast by the horns and hike its entire length. The trail encircles the main peaks of Mt Kenya between the 4300m and 4800m contour lines and offers challenging terrain, fabulous views and a splendid opportunity to familiarize yourself with this complex mountain. It’s also a fantastic way to acclimatize before bagging Point Lenana.’ Splendid and spectacular my ass! All I could remember on the way (incidentally, I took the Summit Circuit on my way down from Point Lenana so there was no such ‘fabulous’ acclimatisation opportunity) was MISERABLE SCREE! ‘Depending on your level of fitness, this route can take between four and nine hours. Some fit souls can bag Point Lenana (from Austrian Hut or Shipton’s Camp) and complete the Summit Circuit in the same day.’ Well, that was dumb, and I’m not _that_ fit but apparently my Kenyan guide (who did not want to insult me and my ‘level of fitness’ and hence agreed to take me up to Point Lenana then Austrian Hut the back way, trekking across MISERABLE SCREE) believed that I was. 8.5 grueling hours, headaches, vomiting, tears of anger, fear, and frustration later, I reached Austrian Hut after having summited Lenana 3 hours prior (~14:45).

The author and her guide pressing for the summit of Mt. Kenya
Day 4

Austrian Hut (4700m) – Nelion (5188m) – Austrian Hut (4700m)

After the previous day’s debacle, in which a planned summit of Lenana and slog across scree to Austrian Hut (to better acclimatize and alleviate my AMS by climbing high and sleeping low) had taken 80% longer than anticipated (9 hours vs. 5 hours), I was rather uncertain about my ability to bag Nelion. The thought of an alpine start (4:00) after having suffered consecutive sleepless nights, headaches, nausea, aching quads, swollen fingers, and sheer exhaustion was not exactly the most exhilarating. I had spoken the night before with my technical guide, Kim, about the real possibility of turning back and abandoning the ascent midway if the AMS persisted and my pace and endurance were to take a toll (read: turn to shit) as a result. Surprisingly, I slept through the night and made sure to be diligent about striking a fine balance between hydrating sufficiently to battle the effects of altitude sickness and over-hydrating, resulting in countless trips to the bathroom (which, in the case of Austrian Hut, was a precarious uphill trek from the lodge across icy boulders in below freezing temperatures to the outhouse) in the middle of the night. Kim woke me up around 4, only to be greeted with a painfully pounding headache for the second day in a row, coupled with the pleasures of altitude-induced nausea, which resulted in a supreme loss of appetite; I had absolutely zero interest in putting away the hard-boiled egg, sausage, toast, pancakes, porridge, pineapple, and passion fruit that my cook, Joseph, had prepared for me, but forced myself to fuel up for the Nelion climb with a piece of toast, egg, fruit, and heaps of lemon tea to sooth the headache. Also, after much resistance, I finally succumbed to treating the effects of altitude sickness with Diamox, swallowing the bitter pill to cope with the headaches and nausea. 5:30: so far, so good. We trekked downhill before reaching the Lewis Glacier, where we strapped on our crampons and armed ourselves with ice axes for the trek across icy terrain. After having been on the mountain for three days, this was the first time that I had really experienced ice or snow, and it was stunning to see the peaks rising out of white pockets of snow deposits. According to the Mountain Club of Kenya’s Guide to Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, the Normal Route (via Nelion South Ridge, South East Face and Summit), is ‘rather complex, and much of the climbing is not above grade III (5.7)…Throughout the climb care is needed to avoid dislodging loose stones.’ Sounds straightforward enough. The apres-Lewis Glacier approach was itself an adventure, before the route finding even began: ‘From the Austrian Hut cross the Lewis Glacier and scramble up the scree, which has many precariously balanced boulders and can be dangerous in half-light.’ Awesome. More scree? And by the light of dawn? My favorite! After MISERABLE SCREE PART DEUX, we finally reached the base of the crag circa 7am, and began to gear up for the climb. Although my badassedness is usually in full effect when I climb, I was completely sketched out when Kim asked me if I wanted to ‘scramble’ (read: free solo) the first two pitches ropeless and I insisted that we rope up (my nerves were in full effect, tingling like mad, due to the effects of Diamox). The route starts up a side groove about 55m left of the Brocherel Couloir and although the first two pitches of climbing were indeed short (18m and 25m respectively) and easy, I could barely keep my eyes open and myself from yawning every 22 seconds, and couldn’t tell if this extreme exhaustion was a byproduct of Diamox, high altitude, the intensity of activity the last few days, or a combination of all. Even the most basic tasks (e.g. securing my Metolius PAS to the anchor system) required some assistance, because I felt myself fumbling with the 'biners and having a difficult time concentrating at times (blame it on the limited/lack of oxygen going to my normally big brain). The climb consisted mostly of cracks, chimneys, and traverses, and I was grateful to Kim at pitch 4 or 5 for his consideration of my rather weakened and pathetic state, asking whether I wanted to follow the more aggressive route involving a wicked overhang (my response: no thanks!) or climb a more conservative route. This kind of backing off was somewhat out of character for me, but there were too many unfamiliar elements and conditions at play, and the tendency to prove myself departed rather swiftly on the mountain (circa day 2, if I recall correctly). After climbing what seemed like 10+pitches (but was, in reality, probably only 6 or 7), we reached a tin shelter (Baillie’s Bivi) just below the notch beneath Mackinder’s Gendarme on the main ridge: ‘This is approximately half-way up Nelion.’ Please be kidding me. Again, the climbing was not technically difficult and weather was certainly on our side, but these 5.5- 5.6ish moves felt more like 5.10-5.11ish given the effects of high altitude. Also, although the weather conditions were friendly by mountain standards, I had packed only my hot pink Evolv rockstar climbing shoes and North Face Summit Series waterproof in my mountaineering bag to the summit, naively leaving behind my Scarpa mountaineering boots and down jacket – a move I came to regret as snow flurries greeted us on the traverse across snowy terrain to get up higher (and therefore colder) points. Luckily, I was clever enough to pack a pair of merino wool socks, which came in rather handy at the summit. A large gully, two short chimneys, and some traverses later, we reached the summit of Nelion circa 15:00. I was thrilled to discover a gem of a hut (Howell’s Hut) on the summit. Ian Howell built it in 1970 and boy did I feel like one lazy mofo as I crawled into the hut, sat down, and lunched on my packed ham, cheese, and butter sandwich and piece of Kenyan chicken leg whilst listening to my guide explain how the structure was built. The corrugated iron for the hut was dropped onto the Lewis Glacier by helicopter and then this Howell dude CARRIED it to the summit in thirteen solo ascents and built the hut. BADASS! One of the stark differences between rock climbing in my own backyard (aka The Gunks) and on Mount Kenya – aside from the obvious fact that the former is a ridge of bedrock in Ulster County, Sullivan County and Orange County in the state of New York, and the latter is a 5,199m stratovolcano created approximately 3 million years after the opening of the East African rift – is the descent. Gone is the luxury of a two or three pitch rappel when you’re on a mountain. This might seem self-evident (like, duh!), but it wasn’t to me (again, blame it on the high altitude), and I was less than thrilled to discover that we had to abseil 14 or 15 pitches down to the base of the crag. The abseiling wasn’t quite the walk in the park that I thought it would be, due to the weather changing on us (it had gone from sunny and warm to snowy and cold by mid-afternoon), somewhat sketchy down-climbing and traversing to get to the abseil bolts, and the fact that we were now a party of 5 (I had met up with the Polish couple I knew from the Lenana trek and their guide en route to the summit), increasing our rappel time. And the downward approach from the base of the crag is no simple Gunks ‘StairMaster,’ but another 1+ hour of precarious trekking down scree by nightfall, in the cold, with a headlamp: score. You can imagine my enthrall of having to put on crampons and trek uphill across Lewis Glacier after having descended scree (I guess icy scree > rock scree?) and 15 pitches; I kept myself motivated with the idea of being greeted by hot soggy ramen and Kenyan tea back at Austrian Hut. Certainly the descent was not pretty (but neither were any of my ascents) so I slogged on, often leaning lazily on to my ice axe and nearly toppling over on to the ice (at some point, I’m certain that I did, and Kim had to help me back up at least once or twice). Around 21:00, I returned to Austrian Hut cold, wet, bloody, and famished, at the awe of Daniel, my trekking guide: ‘You made it back! I did not think you would summit but felt very glad in my heart when I saw a dot on the mountain top through my binoculars and I knew that it was you. Here, let me take your pack.’ Thanks for the vote of confidence, buddy. And damn, that apres-summit soggy Kenyan ramen and hard-boiled egg hit the spot! As did my 20F down sleeping bag that night.

Day 5

Bandas Huts near the base of Chogoria (2950m)

Newbie mountaineer mistake: you do not conquer the mountain; the mountain conquers you. A hard lesson learned, 100 kilometers and 5000 meters later, having battled equatorial sunburn, AMS (acute mountain sickness), blisters, swollen fingers, chapped lips, aching quads, greasy hair, and damn, this Tusker lager and bar of Spruengli Grand Cru Criollo de Maracaibo I picked up from Zurich airport consumed by the fireplace in my 1BR hut (Bandas) near the base of Chogoria gate (~2900 meters) tastes good.

The author ready to attempt Mt. KenyaAbout Jeanne Fu

Jeanne suffers from a chronic case of wanderlust and is constantly in search of the next adventure. She has bouldered in France, climbed crags in California, China, and Colombia, surfed shore breaks and point breaks in Costa Rica and Peru, and trekked mountain trails in South Africa and rain forests in Argentina. Born and bred in New York, NY, she spent summers in Shanghai – her parents’ hometown – and spent extensive time abroad, studying philosophy and languages in Scotland, India, Germany, and England. A former Fulbright Student Scholar, she earned her B.A. in Philosophy from Colgate University and M.Phil in Philosophy from University College London. She speaks fluent German and Shanghainese, decent Spanish, aspires to brush up on her (now) very rusty French and Italian, and learn Portuguese to prepare for her upcoming surfing and climbing adventure in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.