No Picnic on Mt. Kenya part I – Still falls the rain (and snow)…

Blizzard-at-4000m

I have travelled the world for over 20 years. In that time I’ve been lucky enough to climb high mountains, hack through dense rainforest, and meet wonderful people.  I’ve had a few scrapes and come home with tales of adventure that few would survive, and had my heart broken many times because of my ramblings, but I still love to travel.  When I was young, I would happily do all this alone, with the world as my oyster and nothing able stop me.  As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that it’s not just the journey, but the sharing of experience that matters. It was with this in mind that I happily planned an ascent of Mt. Kenya with my friend Mandy.  Why am I telling you this..?  Because of a tearful phone call I received that day of our departure.  Mandy was unable to join me because of a sudden family emergency. What do you say in such a situation..?  Whatever words I could muster seemed pointless, and it was with a heavy heart that I left the shores of this sceptered isle alone, on a plane, bound for East Africa.

Of the many experiences I’ve known through my travels, the surreal world of duty free must rank as one of the most bizarre.  In Dubai, I saw a couple dressed in full wedding garb, at 7am local time, in a cafe eating breakfast..!  Ghostly people walked aimlessly about, half asleep, half awake in a world of glittering gold, perfumes and alcohol, as Christmas carols were played across the terminal.  Outside the sun was shining and it was already in the high 20’s. It felt like something out of a Hollywood movie…

Landing in Nairobi, was a much different affair.  Now I was truly in Africa and was soon surrounded by the well known bedlam I had travelled in so many times.  The heat was oppressive as you queued for your visa and the baggage hall was a mess, but I love this kind of travel.  The west is far to sterile with its air conditioned buildings and efficiencies. Out here you learn to relax and set your watch to ‘expedition time’.  To put a fine point on it – SLOW DOWN..!  The comical part was the high tech hand scanners had a real problem with me. Repeatedly I was asked to put my hand on the scanner. ‘I have got my hand on the scanner’ was my reply.  ‘All four fingers sir..!’  I am putting all four fingers on..!’  Oh, the wonders of frostbite…

Gilbert, my guide was waiting for me with a huge, beaming smile and with a hearty handshake we were away..! I say away…

The traffic in downtown Nairobi makes the rush hour at home seem quiet, clean and civilised.  Vehicles darted across others with inches to spare, fumes belched out from lorries and busses, and few people moved.  After an hour searching the backstreets for a route out, we gave up and eat, before the cars cleared and we headed out into the darkness.  I can only describe the next three hours as a cross between Whacky Races and rally driving.  There are no white lines on the road, so you guess your position, overtake when you can, drive down the verge when the road is blocked, and hold on.  I was so shattered that I slept on and off, but I take my hat off to our driver who negotiated the route with great expertise.  We were very late arriving in Narumoru, but a well needed meal had been left out and I slept like a log when my head hit the pillow.

The next day we visited a local school which receives help from the Moving Mountains Trust, prepared for the coming climb, had a brief ceremony upon crossing the equator, and rested.  I was exhausted from the journey in, but felt guilty for my apathy, particularly as I was only suffering three hours jet lag.  Blimey, I must be getting old..!  Anyway, enough of thinking, I had a mountain to climb…

The next morning dawned bright, although there was a little cloud in the air.  We picked up our porters and drove 40 minutes up a dirt road to the Naro Moru gate at 2400m, passing beautifully cropped fields, lazing water buffalo and farmers tending their stock.  It all looked so idyllic.  The weather however had other plans and heavy rain began to fall.  Fortunately we reorganised the gear under a large veranda at the gate before heading off up the muddy track.  The rain poured for most of the day, and even the baboons looked wet and dejected.  It was easy enough going though, warm and through pleasant forest, full of bearded trees and bird life.  The porters hitched a ride with a passing truck as I walked up, determined to climb the mountain on foot.  After a leisurely three hours I entered the meteorological station camp, erected my tent and settled down.

The station is permanently manned and the readings are sent to universities in Nairobi and Bern.  The warden was a wonderful and kind man, who sat explaining the readings and the station to me when the rain cleared.

Darkness falls around 7:30 pm here and many people wandered off to bed, but I stayed up and listened to the wonderful sounds of the rainforest, wondering if I should have brought my earplugs..!

The next morning dawned bright, but wet.  I had a lay in my sleeping bag half the night listening to the rain, and forced myself out at 6am.  By 7am we were on the road and climbing through bamboo forest. As we got higher the vegetation changed to heathers, but at nine feet tall, they dwarfed anything I knew at home.  Unfortunately much of the mountain had suffered in a severe fire two years ago after a ceremony to bring rain.  A buffalo was slaughtered as an offering and cooked on an open fire. This quickly spread and for the next month it ravaged the mountainside.  Only the rain, which eventually did come, finally quenched the flames.  New growth is coming, but it will take years to finally recover.

The rain fell without respite and I was glad to reach the hut at Mackinders camp at 4200 m.  Thick clouds obscured the summit, and fresh snow plastered the high slopes we could see.  Kenya had been celebrating 50 years since independence and a ceremony had been held on the summit.  Those climbers were now returning, looking wet, but happy after the occasion.  They told of awful conditions up top, but that wasn’t going to stop me looking…

I’d be delighted to say that the next morning dawned bright, but the cloud was down and I couldn’t see any of the mountain.  At least it wasn’t raining, well for the first hour anyway, and then it poured down.  Thankfully the rain stopped for a few minutes and then the snow came..!  It was that wet, sticky snow that clings to you by the pound and doesn’t let go.  Here I was, in the tropics, circumnavigating one of the most dramatic mountain sanctuaries in the world, and I could hardly see a thing.  After four hours of dismal slog I descended the final slope to Shipton’s Hut looking like a snowman.  I walked through the doorway and dripped everywhere…

The hut soon filled due to a holiday weekend in Kenya.  Dozens of rain soaked bodies clambered through the door, dumped wet kit everywhere and steamed.  There were the usual clamber for beds and coat hooks, which I observed with a steaming cuppa, as I was happily staying in my tent.  Full mountain huts have a wonderful atmosphere, but descend into symphonies of snoring at bedtime.  I’m always happy to sleep away and take my chances with the weather.

My peaceful slumber was shattered at 3am when most of the hut departed for the summit.  The air was filled with cheers and applause, and powerful beams of light puncturing the sky. I rolled over and went back to sleep.  By 8am the first of them were back full of stories describing deep, fresh snow and a beautiful sunrise.  I prayed that my summit attempt tomorrow would bring a stunning dawn, but that will be down to the weather…

I went on a final acclimatisation walk to see ‘Icy Mike’ – an elephant which had been chased up the mountain by poachers many years ago and died, leaving only his bones behind.  Unfortunately all of them have been stolen as trophies and there was little to see, except the thick, rain laden clouds advancing towards me.  Another soaking was to come and I wondered if this mountain would ever allow me a dry day…

The hut was almost silent, particularly compared to yesterday, and I sat drinking tea and staring towards the cloud enveloped summits desperately seeking some salvation for the coming morning…

TBC

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