Thursday, June 23, 2016

Asante, Mount Kenya: A Mountaineering Report.

By Nico.

I have asked myself too many times, "why would you want to endure subzero temperatures with a pounding headache at more than 5,000 m above sea level, while strapped to a 1 cm thick rope ,dangling above more than a km of air". "Why would you leave your loving wife and beautiful boys to go and do something that scares the hell out of you every time you do it". "Why risk your life and that of your climbing partner in an area so remote, ice laden and rock strewn that chances of surviving a fall would soon diminish with the quest to find your way to the nearest shelter". I actually don't know why. But I think, if you have the answers to these questions rambling about in your head during a period of utter isolation, you would probably not be in that spot at that time . Why do we endure terrible cold, dizzying heights and utter fear so far away from home. Are we searching for answers, searching for ourselves or just searching for a way to the top of this damn mountain? 

Main summits of Mt Kenya, Batian at centre, Nelion at left and Point John on the right

These thoughts all fire through my head as I commence climbing the final section of near vertical ice and snow up the last gully towards the summit of Batian on Mt Kenya. At 5,199 m, Mt Kenya is second only to its next door neighbour and very famous Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I stop and pause, look down into the abyss and then up past my thin nylon lifeline towards David. He has placed only one very precarious sling around an even more precarious boulder. For the love of @$$@ David, don't fall now. We are tied together as is the norm on all Technical mountaineering expeditions. If he falls, I fall and we can only hope the piece of protection he placed somewhere midway between us holds or maybe reduces our fall somewhat...

The first gully leading up to Batian from the bottom of the Gates of the Mist. (Photo courtesy Pete Pergande)

I made a pact with Mt Kenya during my first attempt in 2013: I will return and summit Batian. During 2013 I was ill prepared with very little training, no preparation and actually not a lot of thought going into climbing the hardest peak in Africa - regarded as an extremely Technical rock and ice climb. "Batian, the true summit of Mt Kenya offers rock and ice climbing that pushes experienced climbers to the limit. Reaching Batian requires traversing yet another peak, Nelion, en route to Batian. Standing on the peak is a true mountaineering feat that requires advanced skill and great effort". I read the above extract in a climbing magazine during the flight to Kenya and wondered if my climbing skills were what it needed to be to take on something so large.

Batian, Nelion and Pt John as seen from Mackinder hut area.

After spending a third consecutive night in 2013 trapped in blizzard conditions at the Austrian hut (the last hut before the climbing section on the mountain), we attempted the climb and reached almost halfway, when I decided to call it quits. Not an easy decision to make seeing that you have not only spend a lot of dough to get there, but also a fair amount of time on the mountain (in my case not so much time in training...). But, like always, I decided on a cut off time and stuck to it. At least I reached Point Lenana (the hikers summit) and although only a scramble, it was ice laden which made it pretty scary without crampons.

Point Lenana, the hikers summit on Mt Kenya.

The 2016 season (January) was to be my second attempt at Batian, the true peak of Mt Kenya - with the help of my deeply supportive and loving wife I actually trained and trained some more. I had a good feeling about Kenya, having a fairly good idea (I though at the time) of what to expect. Having done most of the first part of the climb in 2013, I thought surely the second half cannot be more difficult. That's what I thought.

Reaching the mountain was fairly simple. A flight out of Namibia and another out of South Africa and I was in Nairobi. Into a minibus waiting for me and speeding off to Naro Moru River Lodge, close to the park gate and the Naro Moru route (I intended to follow) up the mountain. I reached the lodge at night after having to spend a couple of hours on the airport trying to locate our ever increasing holidaying red suitcase - the same suitcase that has refused us entry a couple of times (see Prelude to C major). Needless to say, my bag did not join me in Kenya, in fact, it only decided to make an appearance somewhere around midnight the eve before my departure to the mountain.

Rooms at Naro Moru River Lodge.

Naro Moru River Lodge is a great spot to overnight before you start your hike and climb of Mt Kenya. The food was good, the beds okay and the beer of course cold! Their bar, with t-shirts from previous climbing expeditions hanging from the ceiling is a must-visit. The gardens are beautiful and a stream runs through the grounds making it a lush oasis standing in sharp contrast to the starkness of the rock strewn valleys of the nearby mountain and its peaks.

T-shirts in the Bar of Naro Moru River Lodge.

On my 2013 trip I was sitting in the lodge garden at dusk making a video for the family at home when an animal sound right above my head made me use words that rendered the video unfit for young ears... A white colubus monkey, a frequent visitor to the lodge, and I made our acquaintance over a relatively short distance. I got the fright of my life as it was dark and I had no idea what it was - only later I heard there was a troop roaming the grounds!

White Colobus Monkeys at lodge.

From Naro Moru the drive to the Park gate is no more than 30 min and from there the hike up to the main summit started. The hike commences at 2,400 m, passes through a variety of vegetation zones on day 1 (including something called the vertical bog - not nearly as hectic as it sounds) and finally reaches the Met station huts. This is a wet and damp spot due to its location on the lower flanks of the mountain, still within the rain forest. I have been there before in 2013, so knew what to expect - I was relatively calm, relaxed and felt really strong. I wrote in my journal which my love bought me and did some reading. I actually have no idea what I read as I knew what the following days would entail; rough trekking and some steep climbs. My thoughts were preoccupied with the hike and then of course the ultimate climb to the summit. Although I felt calm, I was still apprehensive. It is a long climb and I wondered how the snow and ice sections would be like. Would I make it? Another two groups passed on their way down the mountain, both of the groups having failed at their summit attempts due to bad weather. 2013 all over again, I thought... 

Camp one at Met station - weather was not looking good in 2016.

The next two days consisted of trekking to Mackinders Camp at 4200 m, where I stayed in a tent and onward to the Austrian Hut at 4800 m, where I again stayed in my tent. During my previous attempt in 2013 I stayed in the huts, but they get really noisy with people coming in late at night and going again early the next morning - all off on their own adventure. Also, Austrian Hut (the last hut before the climbing starts) stands all on its own below the main summits, so there all climbers, guides and what not are crammed into a small three bedroom hut. In addition, because of the foul weather, all cooking happened within this hut - so you can imagine the noise, scampering of feet and the smell of kerosene. Add to that an altitude induced headache and you have a recipe for insomnia. So the tent it was. I was given a self inflatable mattress from the company through whom I booked, but it kept deflating. So my night before the start of the climb was agonizingly short. I went to bed around 8 pm, but the mattress was fully deflated at 9 pm. And so it went on, through the night, with a wake up at 3 am and a start at 4 am.

Inside the Austrian Hut, 2013.

On summit day I lay still, waiting for the wind to start howling and the tent to start shaking around, but everything was dead calm. I had a smallish breakfast inside the "kerosene hut", got my gear together and set off with David as the first party to push for the summit that day. The trek to the base of the climb from Austrian Hut is serious. We probably dropped down about 250 m to the Lewis glacier, crossed that (un-roped) for about 250 m and then started a hard scramble to the base of Nelion.

 Lewis Glacier photos taken during the 2013 attempt (I crossed the glacier in the dark around 4:30 am in 2016)

Lewis Glacier

Lewis Glacier

The first part of the climb was fairly straightforward and we climbed probably 150 m un-roped (now that I think of that it was actually a bit hair raising, but you are on such a high, focused and full of adrenaline that the exposure is actually non-existent at that time). It is only when we reached a ledge and roped up that I realised the magnitude of the drop below us. Did we just climb that un-roped?, I thought to myself... 

Un-roped section of climb early on.

Another precarious un-roped section of climbing.

Hair-raising vertical drops.

And so we started - "Belay on, climb when ready. Climbing. Climb On". Nothing else spoken. Just those phrases between David and I. All the way up Nelion we simul-climbed. Which means we actually seldom saw one another. The only places we met was at the Bivvy Hut and at the crux - a crazy stupid traverse over more than 1000 m of air. Simul-climbing is when two people are roped together, but neither belays the other. The leader places safety gear and both the climbers trust each others capabilities to such an extent that a belay is not required. Its a much quicker way of climbing than having to wait at each belay stance for the other to join and then setting off again. 

In 2016 I wanted to summit Batian from the Austrian Hut and go down to Mackinders hut in one day, something that is not done often, if at all. It makes for a very long day with a total ascent and descent of more than 2,000 m, of which a lot is on vertical rock. We packed light. Where most expeditions up to Batian would sleep at Howell Hut (on the summit of Nelion) and take along all sleeping bags, mats etc, we decided not take any of this. Which does leave you in a bit of a predicament should the weather turn on you, if someone gets hurt or if you are just too tired to continue up or down, all of which are real possibilities. Thoughts of this went through my head as we climbed up to Nelion. I quickly shifted my thoughts to my loved ones at home and how they are thinking of me. That quickly put my head in the right place and my thoughts were focused again on getting to the summit of Nelion.

Howell Hut at the summit of Nelion, 2016.

We reached the summit of Nelion at 9 am, after about 5 hours of scrambling and climbing, which is actually quite good. Most parties will reach the summit around 3 or 4 pm and then overnight in Howell Hut and make a push for Batian the next day. We stopped for about 5 minutes and went to the abseil spot which goes down into the 'gates of the mist'. This has always been an ominous phrase for me and not having been to this spot on my previous attempt, I was really looking forward to seeing what this place - the 'gates of the mist' actually looks like. Well to be honest, it was a snow and ice filled deep gully located between Nelion and Batian peaks, the true summit, Batian, located a mere 50 m away. We abseiled off Nelion to the gully floor. As I abseiled down I looked at the gully we needed to climb out of on the return from the summit. Steep vertical ice and snow of probably 50 m long. Absolutely crazy. Another similarly ominous looking gully was located right on the opposite side and had to be climbed to reach the summit of Batian. "Oh no. What the hell am I doing here. Maybe I can prussik back up the rope. This is crazy. I don't want to be here. If I fall on that gully I am gone. No, both David and I are gone. What the hell am I doing". We put our crampons back on and scurried along the rocks ice and snow to the base of the opposite gully. I actually don't have words to describe what followed. It was snow, ice and rock mixed climbing and scrambling. It was really exposed and really, really cold, and we were not even on the iced up vertical section yet, which we reached after about 45 min of scrambling. We still had to go up that thing. "What the hell man, David is this the right route? It can't be. How are we getting up this thing?" But off he went without talking and I followed. We placed gear that was really not going to hold a fall, but still we climbed ever higher, ever closer to the summit of Batian. I was so tired on that section of ice, my heart rate sky rocketed and my teeth hurt from the clenching. But soon we were off the ice, onto rock and I could see the flag of Kenya right in front of me. Utter joy, relief and thankfulness streamed out of my eyes. We reached Batian after 2.5 hours enduring the gates of the mist. I texted my love and stayed on the summit for a full 2 minutes.

Summit of Batian with David, 2016.

We went down the gully from Batian, then climbed up the second ominous looking iced up gully - I don't remember a lot during the climb of that second gully, except that I lost a glove, my hands were freezing and David and I still called out climbing codes, although very hushed. From Nelion the main abseils started - 14 abseil pitches down Nelion. It was hard work, the abseils stances were never actually on flat ground, it was always hanging and swinging and more hanging. My harness started to bite into my upper legs, but we had to get down and on we continued.

Abseil down Nelion, taken in 2013.

After almost two hours we reached the base and I must say I felt fantastic, we actually did it, I could not believe it! But then I remembered we had to go to Mackinders Camp at 4,200m. The walk did not cross the Lewis glacier again, but rather hugged the face of Nelion down to some glacial lakes. Now, the word 'down' is used here without the respect it deserves. There was no path, no level ground. Just relentless blocks, rocks and scrambles. Very tough indeed.

Glacial lakes.

At long last we reached Mackinders Camp just as the sun was setting, all in all a 14 hour day. I was elated, but not yet off the mountain. I slept well that night and the next morning we started early heading for the Park gate. Again we went quickly but somewhere along the way I lost my footing and the result was a gaping hole just below my right knee. I did not look at it, as I knew nothing was broken, I felt okay and off we went again. It was only back at the gate that I decided to zip off the right leg of my pants and have a look at what was throbbing so much. Ouch. Not good. I doctored it, but was still a bit freaked out by what I saw.

'The Leg', all doctored up.

I slept one night again in Naro Moru Lodge and left the following morning early for Nairobi to catch my flights to Joburg and Namibia. A spectacular climb on a beautiful, tough mountain - well worth the time and effort. Asante sana, Mount Kenya.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Brandberg Rhino Run and Cycle Tour 2016: A reflection

Friday afternoon, 10 June 2016, as the Damaraland shadows grew longer and Lady Brandberg started basking in her own ocher glow, runners and cyclists from across Namibia started pouring into the tiny town of Uis in northwestern Namibia. Wicus Burger even flew in with his Cessna 210 to line up for his very first trail run. Every single bed in Uis was filled during race weekend, and campers pitched their tents far and wide. A number of athletes also drove from the coast on race morning before the starting siren went off.

Runners at the start of Brandberg Rhino Run and Cycle tour 2016.

The race consisted of 4 different events, namely a 26 km trail & jeep track run, a 13 km trail & jeep track run, a 7 km fun run and a 31 km mountain bike ride added this year. The routes were all located within the Tsiseb Conservancy (named after the Tsiseb gorge in which the White Lady rock painting is located), home to elephant, black rhino, leopard, cheetah, mountain zebra, kudu, gemsbok, ostrich, springbok, steenbok, black-backed jackal, klipspringer and many more.

As a running, mountaineering, outdoors family we have always loved the Brandberg and surrounds. Brandberg (from Afrikaans meaning Burning Mountain or Fire Mountain) is of course the highest mountain in Namibia (2 573 m), home to 40 % of the mammal and reptile species and 10 % of the plant species recorded in Namibia. Two thousand species of insects are found on Brandberg, of which 200 are endemic to the Brandberg. An entire new order of insects, Matophasmatodea, was described after the endemic gladiator species Tyrannophasma gladiator was discovered on Brandberg. This granite massif and its natural and archaeological heritage is also a national monument in Namibia and on the tentative list for UNESCO world heritage sites.

Tyrannophasma gladiator, Mantophasmatoid endemic to Brandberg. (Source)

In 2015 we acquired a home in Uis and immediately knew we wanted to share the magic of being active within this wilderness area. With our new home being a stones' throw away from the last population of free roaming desert adapted black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis), we knew it was our obligation to host the event in aid of rhino conservation. Similar to it's inception event in 2015, Brandberg Rhino Run and Cycle Tour 2016 was a fundraiser with Save the Rhino Trust, Namibia (SRT) as our beneficiary. The men and ladies of this NGO works tirelessly, day and night, for the prevention of senseless poaching of the rhinos in the Kunene region. All event entry fees and auction income were deposited as donations to into SRT's account, while event costs are covered by sponsorships.

The running and cycling routes comprised a perfect blend of rocky, sandy, gravelly and hilly terrains. The routes were moderately tough and 90% off-road, crossing Damaraland's rugged shrublands and koppies.

Stephen James, always in good spirits (Kat Imaging, 2015).
Johan Bronkhorst and Kirsty Brits recce run of the Rhino Run route, 2015.

Johan Bronkhorst and Kirsty Brits recce run of the Rhino Run route, 2015.

On Friday night, the eve before the race, we were treated to a scrumptious braai prepared by the Daureb Isib Camp staff and Cactus & Coffee restaurant. An auction of incredibly generous donated items took place during dinner, and we were overwhelmed by the equally generous bidding of our athletes and supporters! Luxury getaways, fully inclusive accommodation packages, personally autographed books by incredible authors and photographers and a stunning piece of artwork, all donated by various companies and individuals across Namibia, as well as from South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana were auctioned. Through the auction alone a total of more than NAD 80 000.00 was raised for SRT! The highest bid for the night went for the Sandfontein Lodge and Nature Reserve package of 3 nights for four people, all inclusive, sold for NAD 18 000.00.

The Raiths having fun at the auction.

Kingsley Holgate's book and inscription was special.

Salome Botes with the stunning Rhino Run 2016 cartoon created and donated by Duif Keiser. She bought the 2015 cartoon by the same artist on last year's auction as well. 

Nico probably missed his calling as auctioneer...

Entertainment during the social function was provided by the very talented 17 year old Janus 'Firestorn' Botes, with a pixel poi and then fire poi display.

Janus 'Firestorn' Botes, fire poi display.

Firestorn, pixel poi display.

A total of NAD 130 000.00 was raised through cash donations and sponsorships, with RMB Namibia and KPMG Namibia being the top and equally large cash sponsors.

With the event starting at an early 6 am, athletes were treated to a stunning sunrise and breathtaking vistas that inspired long beyond finishing the challenge. We were fortunate to be able to call on Piet van Rooyen, a local Uis businessman and pilot, to take our event photographer up in his microlight aircraft for a bird's eye view of the course and the athletes.

Cyclists set off first just before dawn.

Bird's eye view from Piet van Rooyen's microlight of the Brandberg and run/cycle course.

Beautiful sunrise on Brandberg while runners and cyclists make their way down the course.
Race day itself was a whole lot of fun. Locals who didn't take part in the race volunteered as time keepers or to man water tables. The Uis Police department generously assisted with safety on the main road, while high school pupils from Petrus Ganeb Secondary School in Uis acted as marshals at key points on the route.

The oldest (tannie Toekie far back) and youngest Uis locals that took part.
Lorraine from SRT, Annegret and I sharing a moment.

Tannie Toekie, spirited Uiser that joined us on the 7 km walking event.

Uisers, young and old, volunteers, athletes, supporters, we love them all.

During all of the excitement, our  two boys Z and V were overjoyed with the fact that they could stay up late and rise before dawn (they are big on adventures like these!), and that so many of their friends were in town as their parents took part in the race!

Z and V having their morning cereal next to the finish line.

Littles playing while parents are sweating it out.

Elvis Vries, runner from Uis police department.

Final stretch down 3rd Avenue, Uis, towards the finish line.

Hein Profijt having fun.
Frances Courtney-Clarke looking fresh.

Paulus Ndamanomhata not even breaking a sweat.

The winner of the 31 km mountain bike event was the young Luke Munting in a time of 1:15:32, while his female counterpart, Lelanie Swart, won with a time of 1:31:00. The 26 km running event was, like last year, won by Erich Goeieman in a time of 1:36:00, while Risa Dreyer was the first lady across the finish line with a time of 2:21:00. Risa, as well as Johan Bronkhorst and Kirsty Brits, both top finishers in the 26 km Rhino Run just returned from the Comrades Ultra-marathon in South Africa before joining us for this event. We were honored to receive these and other top Namibian athletes in our humble little beautiful town.

Risa Dreyer, freshly back from Comrades, won the 26 km Rhino Run.

Albertinus Goeieman also defended his title by winning the 13 km run in a time of 0:55:24, with Bernise van der Westhuyzen finishing as first lady in a time of 1:10:00.
More results are available HERE.

Simson receiving a race goody bag with goodies from sponsors.
Our stunning race medals are hand made by a local crafstman in Swakopmund.

What was really heart warming was to receive teams of riders and runners from the various sponsors, all driving from afar to personally support the event! We had a total of 265 athletes, of which 87 were cyclists.

Robert Grant from KPMG, with his pretty runner wife Odette and friend Conrad Dempsey from RMB. Lorraine from SRT was the medal-lady.

Team RMB, one of the Diamond sponsors of the event.
Riders from Team RMB.

Team RMB Namibia, with the vehicle they sponsored to SRT through another fund raiser in 2015.

This year we also had a kiddies run preceding the prize giving ceremony; our littles' turn to shine after cheering on their parents all morning.

Little Rhino Run in full action!

Some athletes felt they would be faster if Mommy carried them ;)
Little ones receiving a sweetie and a medal from SRT's Lorraine.

The organisation of an event like this is of course not the work for one or two people alone, and we are incredibly fortunate to have had the best support team in the the country. Publication and advertisement of the event is of course key, which is why we were overjoyed to welcome back our immensely talented event photographers Karl Terblanche and Bernd Curschmann from KAT Imaging. These guys again sponsored their time and expertise to make magic of our dusty show, staying up late at night with us and rising before the first athletes appeared.

Karl Terblanche from KAT Imaging.
Oom Des Erasmus and his wife Annelie at Erongo/Republikein newspaper also took this event on as their baby, and supported it from every thinkable angle since 2015. The most beautiful part of an event like this is not necessarily only the direct support from participants and sponsors, but the beautiful friendships that are made and rekindled through the whole process.

Oom Des Erasmus and Annelie taking notes for the next publication with Nico and Simson Uri-khob from SRT in the back.

The prize ceremony and race day was ended with a nice lucky draw of generously sponsored goods, including boxes of Windhoek Lights, for which our athletes were really happy during the midday heat in Uis.

Happy to receive some Windhoek Lights, sponsored by Namibia Breweries.

Cobus and Steph Brayshaw were also lucky!

Elated for some cold tall ones ;)

All entry fees and proceeds went directly to Save the Rhino Trust, which means that every single athlete that entered the Rhino Run and Cycle Tour is a benefactor of our joint cause: Conservation of our Namibian black Rhino. We are grateful beyond compare to be a part of such a beautiful running, cycling and giving community, and can't wait to host our athletes and friends in Uis again in 2017.