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.









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