Tuesday 30 September 2008

Mount Kenya ascent

Mount Kenya ascent – 26th to 28th September 08

On the recommendation of a good friend I booked my climb of Mount Kenya with High Peaks Expeditions Ltd. (www.highpeaksexpeditions.com) and a really good decision it was too!

The build up to my four day trek didn’t go exactly as I planned, white water rafting in Uganda had a detrimental effect on my feet as I tried to keep myself in the raft using my heels and toes….and came out with good sized blisters on both! So not the best of starts but something I’d have to deal with!

The evening before the trek started I gathered together all the things I’d need for the next few days, dusted them down, repaired them and checked everything still fitted as I hadn’t used my mountain kit since back in April in Cameroon. The next morning Robin my guide arrived at the hotel in his car together with my cook Moses and Simon the porter.

We headed into Nanyuki to buy the last of the supplies we’d need over the next few days and headed towards the entrance gate of Mount Kenya National Park, a World Heritage Site, down the bumpy, dusty track. Moses prepared us a light lunch of sandwiches and fruit then with the fees paid and the kit distributed between the four of us (I for some reason decided to carry my own backpack as part of my ‘training’!) we started the trail from the Sirimon Gate at 2600m towards the Old Moses Bunkhouse around 10kms up into the park.

Robin and I walked faster than the others so set off by ourselves through the heavily wooded lower reaches of the park past bamboo forests, baboons and lots of evidence of tracks left by forest elephant along with small caves in the banks of the road where they’d been scraping away at the bedrock to collect salt for their diets. As the forest gave way to moorland, very similar to that of Scotland, the gradient of the track increased and the heat of the day started to kick in making the going hot and very sweaty, the backpack adding to the strain. At one point I noticed on my watch that we were ascending at 15m/min at which point my lungs were working really hard searching for the all important oxygen, but it felt really good to get the heart pumping and the legs working again. If the next few days continued at this level it’d be perfect training for the marathon!

In our conversation together which covered everything from girls to exercise to the British Army and it came up that Robin would have been doing the Nairobi marathon at the end of October as I was but there’d just been another group book a climb with him over that weekend so he’d pulled out. Would have been a good person to run with too!

The supposed 4 hour walk to our overnight accommodation at the bunkhouse took 2.5 and as we climbed the final few metres our arrival was greeted by the sound of fast running water. They’ve cleverly built the camp over the route of one of the fresh water streams giving all the sinks and showers very cold running water that’s also drinkable. Robin showed me our bunkroom and we changed into warmer clothes for the night as the temperature was already dropping in line with the rapidly disappearing sun. As I stepped outside to take some photos other trekkers were starting to arrive and within an hour our little community contained another 4 English, 2 Kiwis and 4 Israeli’s.

The view of the summit became clear just before the last light was left in the sky offering us all a chance to see our destination speckled in ice and snow far off in the distance.

Dinner was highly impressive, served just after sundown at 6pm the snack to start was popcorn, biscuits and tea, the second starter was leek & potato soup, then the huge main course of fish cakes, mash, spinach, onions, ravioli and vegetables! If that wasn’t enough the dessert of banana, watermelon, passionfruit and sweetfruit washed it all down well. Perfect fuel for tomorrow’s big day! It seems the cooks all have a little competition amongst themselves to see who can prepare the best meal and I’m glad to say my Moses won hands down! Feeling stuffed to capacity I tucked up into my sleeping bag with the outside temperature in the room due to the altitude of 3300m now resting around the freezing mark. Bed happened early at 8pm.

The alarm clock on my phone vibrated me awake at 5am, I changed into my fresh clothes for the day ahead and slipped back into the warmth of my bed for an extra 15mins as breakfast wouldn’t be served until 6.10am! Another mammoth meal which after last nights dinner I thought I wouldn’t have room for, but wolfed down the omelette, toast and jams, crepes and fruit washed down by the obligatory thermos of tea.

We hit the trail as the first two out of camp a little after 6.30am and climbed up the first slope of three we’d have to traverse towards the weather station in the distance. As the sun broke the horizon it hit the twin peaks which form the summits of Mount Kenya and bathed them in a glorious orange light. The Kenyan plains below stretched off far into the distance without a cloud in the sky, perfect.

As we climbed higher the gurgle of the streams around us and the occasional birdsong were the only other noises we heard as out feet crunched the still frozen ground beneath. The ice formations made by the combination of loose scree and the low night time temperatures were amazing with strange patterns which refracted the morning sunlight showering the ground with a kaleidoscope of rays.

Once we’d cleared the three valleys and passed over the crystal clear rushing streams via the little bridges we turned into Mackinder Valley. The landscape changed from the Scottish Highlands into smooth sided rolling valleys with more desert like grasslands punctuated by Giant Lobelias and other hardy plants. For 4km we gradually climbed in altitude until we could see Shipton’s Camp above us .

We arrived an hour later, the altimeter reading 4200m, and had taken only 4.5hrs to complete the 7 hour trail feeling no effects from the increased altitude and thinness of the air at our new height. Once I’d secured my bed for the night I went back outside where the temperature was around the freezing mark again, and watched the Hyrax’s (Rock Dassies) playing near the camp, ate some peanut brittle and fed the tame birds who sat with me as I took in the surroundings.

The silence of the location was overwhelming with the occasional sound of the wind the only distraction. The clear blue skies every so often delivered a swirling fast-moving cloud which would drop a light load of hail and sleet and then disappear as quickly as it had appeared.

Lunch was a light snack of noodles, sandwiches and more tea….which was served just as I’d finished my walking lunch of sandwiches and hardboiled egg, as we’d moved so quickly during the trek we hadn’t had time to digest anything enroute!

The other groups of trekkers arrived throughout the afternoon and I sat around with Tim, Adrian and his girlfriend (whose name I’ve forgotten!) discussing their mission and Afritrex, swapping stories of the UK and beyond. Adrian was feeling the effects of the altitude as were a couple of others which brought on headaches and general nausea meaning they wouldn’t be able to make the final ascent tomorrow. A real shame after coming so far.

As we’d have to be up at 2am to commence the ascent a similarly huge dinner was served at a rather early 6pm, giving us time to digest it, chat some more and be in bed just after sundown at 7.00pm. It wore a set of clothes inside the sleeping bag to keep warm as the nightime temperature dropped to -8°c.

As I’d got into bed so early my 6hr sleep cycle awoke me around 2am and with the use of my headtorch fumbled my clothes on and awaited the arrival of the thermos flask for the first bout of internal heat for the day which arrived as usual in quick time. We wouldn’t eat before the ascent instead once we’d successfully returned as motivation!

As we’d been quicker than the other groups over the last few days we left last of all at around 3.30am, and entered the night to see small torch lights slowly picking their way up the slope ahead. The stars were extremely impressive with the Southern Cross and Milky Way clearly visible.

We took a slightly different route than the other groups and within half an hour had caught and overtaken the first of them. A hand over hand climb using just the peripheral vision which the headtorch offered, and it was just as well as my fear of heights would have hated this part had I been able to see the drop off the side!

The rising altitude meant the oxygen levels became less and less, when I climbed Mount Toubkal back in January it was noticeable, here less so as my acclimatisation had been much better, spending the last two weeks at nearly 2000m every night and breathing was easy in the cold crisp air.

We aimed to be at the summit to watch the sunrise but not there too early so as to sit out on the summit and suffer from exposure caused by the inevitable winds there. We slowly picked our way to the summit, quick enough to maintain warmth but not too quick as to sweat and dampen our clothes. A situation best avoided.

Our gradual pace was quick enough to catch and pass all the other groups and at 5.45am I climbed up onto the summit of Pt Lenana at 4985m above sea level, the highest part of Mount Kenya which is reachable without taking on the Grade 5 technical climb of the Batian summit to the west, 100m higher than our current position.

The horizon was lightening all the time, and a perfect still clear morning greeted us, Mount Kilimanjaro was just visible poking it head through the clouds over 500kms away to the south; my target point in exactly 10 days time!

An incredible location high above the Kenyan plains below, the climb to which was exhilarating and tough but superbly rewarding. I felt better at the summit than any of the other mountains so far with the correct clothing to maintain warmth and a fitness level which is hopefully now ready for Kili and the Nairobi Marathon, all within the next month.

The breaking of the sun over the horizon signalled the opportunity to take photos and then commence the descent in time for breakfast, we set off first and scrambled quickly down the route of our ascent turning off it onto a loose scree slope after 20 minutes which provided an awesome thrill as we slipped and stepped down nearly 150m in height in very few minutes never being in total control!

As we’d shattered the estimated times for the ascents and first descent I suggested to Robin that maybe we could make it to the entrance gate that day rather than taking two, a distance of 28kms. It’d be good for my training and also give me a chance to have a day in the bag to organise things in Nairobi for the forthcoming visas of Ethiopia etc.

Robin accepted the challenge and after another filling breakfast set off with Moses and Simon in tow some 20 minutes behind. We jogged and fast-walked the first part of the course towards Shipton’s to keep warm and made the 12kms in good time with the other’s not far behind. A swift lunch and then off again, the legs and feet were starting to feel tired and sore but with only a few kms to go until the gate we pressed on and arrived at our initial departure point around 2.30pm.

28kms, a decent of 2500m in a little over 11 hours. Excellent! We packed the car up, drove back into Nanyuki and surprised Bre with our arrival a day earlier than expected!

Total distance: 56kms
Total days: 3
Total ascent/descent: 2500m

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