Sunday, January 19, 2014

Conquering Kenya

In the past three years I've seen a lot of Kenya. I've camped in the jungles of the South Coast and hiked through the Northern Deserts near Ethiopia. There's just a few things I would like to do before I leave Kenya and move back to the UK. The main one on this list is to conquer the mountain that gave the country its name. 
My colleague and friend, Andrew Kinzer, who I've worked with for the past 2 and half years spared time in his last week in Kenya before emigrating to America, and joined me on the mountain, along with our A Rocha's new research director Jaap. 
We entered the park north of Nanyuki to follow the Sirimon Route, which starts at 2500m, ending at Point Lenana 5000m above sea level. The hike would take us 4 days and over about 55km of terrain that does not look like it is in the right continent. Starting in the Olive and Cedar belt, we quickly got above the tree-line at about 3200m where night-time frosts begin in earnest. Our first night camping at Old Moses was shockingly chilly for me even coming from the UK, but especially for Jaap who had left tropical Watamu and sea-level just the 2 days before. We woke to frost on our tent and clear view of the snowy peak in the distance. 
Moss covered cedar
My walking buddies as we crossed the eqautor
The second day we walked through the heath zone over several ridges until we reached the stunning Mackinder valley, which would lead us straight to the peak. The valley is a classic straight, U-shaped glacial valley, reminiscent of Wales and A-level geography field trips, created when the mountain had far more ice in the last Ice Age. Interestingly Mount Kenya is cone volcano, and once-upon-a-time would have looked more like Kilimanjaro or Mount Fuji and was allegedly nearly 7000m high. Once the volcano had lost its fire and the ice age covered it in glaciers, the cone became eroded and the peak is the steep remnants of the lava plug.
Mackinder valley was also rather special because it was here where we saw the best displays of Afro-Montane vegetation, and especially the giant lobelias, which are unique to these highland areas. When I was very young I read about these strange landscapes in a book about the Mountains of the Moon in Western Uganda and finally had my childhood imagination fulfilled. Andrew likened one kind of lobelia to Cousin Itt from the Adam's family. I guess you can see why!
Mackinder's Valley
Cousin Itt
At Shipton's camp, our second night, we set our tent up at the head of the valley underneath the three peaks of Bation, Nelion and Point Lenana. At 4000m the air at the camp was seriously thin and walking to the stream for water left you panting like you'd sprinted there. It is not the physical exertion or cold which makes high mountains so difficult, but the altitude sickness you get if you stray much above 3000m. Headaches, nausea and exhaustion plagued our attempts to relax and sleep before the final accent, which would take us a further 1000m into the thinning atmosphere. Just before I finally fell asleep I decided I would not make it and let the other's claim the victory.
Reaching 4000m
Our final camp before the summit
At 2:30am we woke and slowly drank a cup of coffee before trying to claim the peak as the sun rose. We started on the steep path up the scree slopes and ridges created by the remaining glaciers at this level. In front of us we could see the little lights of the hikers, who'd woken up before us to claim the same prize. Even though we moved slowly and without too much strain, we joined the other climbers initially and near the top we all sheltered together in a lee, waiting for the dawn to progress out of the wind, just below the summit. Finally when we checked the time, ten minutes to sun rise, we reached the top. The view of the glacier and the sun rising over the distant Indian Ocean, which is still my home for the moment, was everything I'd hoped for. 
I'm not a mountain person. I've tried skiing once and didn't like it, and heights in general scare me. In honesty I wouldn't say I enjoyed the experience. It was largely quite exhausting and uncomfortable. However the achievement of having done it means I don't regret doing it for a second. Contented with the success, but wiser about the realities of mountain climbing I vowed never try such a feat again. However both Jaap and Andrew warned me, that the conquering feeling is hard to forget and you'll find yourself clinging to some ice covered pinnacle again and again. We'll see!

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