Kyle in Lake Assal, Djbouti

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Days: 37-43 Mount Kenya trek

Days 37 and 38: Rest days in Nanyuki. Took care of logistics like laundry, ATM, and drinking Guinness!

Day 39, Mt. Kenya Day 1: Nanyuki 9km to Old Moses Camp (3300m), Sirimon Route

The guide company I booked my trek through is based out of Riverside Hotel, where I've been staying the last few days. They were generous enough to let me store the bicycle and my non-trekking luggage in their office while I was away for the trek. The office managers, Joe and Mohammed, are really cool guys. The price seems fair (5 days, all-inclusive, for $550 USD), and the trek is set to leave from Nanyuki, following Sirimon Route up to the summit of Point Lenana,and then traverse down the eastern side of the mountain, following Chagoria Route down.

I first have to be clear on 2 details - #1: I took a car to the park entrance from Nanyuki. It would have been possible to cycle to the entrance, but the return trip from the other side requires a series of vehicles, and I didn't want the bicycle to get 'lost' in the shuffle. I had a safe place to store it, so I did. This Mt. Kenya trek doesn't make forward progress for Low2High, so I'll start cycling from where I left off in Nanyuki afterward.

#2: Point Lenana is not the true summit of Mt. Kenya. The true summit is Betian Peak at 5199m, and requires a technical climb to summit. I don't have the equipment or skills to climb the peak, so I'm going to the 'common peak' or 'trekking peak' of Point Lenana at 4985m.

I trekked with a Dutch couple I met at my hotel, Maurice and Esther. We left with our comically large support crew (1 guide, 1 cook, and 2 porters) from the park entrance at 2680m at around 11am. We had an easy 9km hike to Old Moses Camp at 3300m. The hot afternoon sun was soon blocked by clouds and our camp got rather cold. Camp offered a great view of the summit and the plains below. In the distance, wildfires were burning. Our guide, Jon, told us that after a long dry spell, farmers will set fire to grasslands. They believe the smoke turns into rainclouds and brings the rains. I see the logic, but fear the consequences of lighting dry fields on fire with no firefighting system in place.

We had the camp to ourselves for about an hour, but then a crew of 20 Danish girls, about 18 years old, came strolling into camp. If you ever want to hear the world's loudest and most obnoxious sound, hang out with 20 high-school girls. I had heard that in Kenya, traditional healers believe that the body parts of albinos can be used to create magic potions and medicines. Jon confirmed this, so I vowed to find a healer the next day and tell him that it was his lucky day because 20 albinos were on their way up the mountain!

Our posh mountain package took care of all our meals, so after some tea and a great dinner, we went to sleep early on the provided bunk beds.

Day 40, Mt. Kenya Day 2: Old Moses Camp (3300m) 14km to Shipton Camp (4200m), Sirimon Route

Today was a fun hike with great views. We started at 7am to beat the large group out of camp, and to look for that traditional healer. The morning was cold, but the sun eventually came out, and soon we were sweating. The summit was visible for almost the entire hike. That's one thing I really enjoy about Mt. Kenya. The summit is so pronounced, and visible for miles in all directions. Many mountain summits are not visible from the mountain itself until you are literally standing on top of it. The Mt. Kenya summit is always up there, visible and taunting. It's a great way to stay motivated, watching the rock-and-ice tower get ever closer.

The summit actually looks rather intimidating to me, especially as the afternoon clouds engulf it. I thought I might be a little disappointed at not reaching the true summit, but a closer look at it actually scares me. Vertical walls of black volcanic rock, so high in the atmosphere that they have year-round ice and snow despite lying directly on the equator. This is a peak for expert climbers, which I am not. The trekking peak sounds good to me.
As I strolled into Shipton Camp, it started hailing! There was a British woman in camp already who was fun to talk to. We claimed our bunks as the hail on the metal roof became louder. The hail intensified into a barrage of shrapnel. As the Danish rolled into camp during the worst of it, a little smile crept across my ginger-bearded face. No albino love potion tonight, but at least they got hailed on! Mother Nature is just, and maybe I'll get some sleep tonight.

Around 7pm, a British Army member and his Kenyan guide strolled into camp from higher up. They had ropes, helmets, crampons, an ice axes. I started to feel a little jealous. That frightening summit is actually climbable! The Brit was completely exhausted. I asked if he summited. He humbly said "Yes, thanks to the good weather." I congratulated him on climbing Africa's second highest mountain (after Kilimanjaro), and left him to finish his meal. He was completely shattered. I want to be him.

The big Danish crew and the British lady were all going straight to the summit the following day, so they planned to leave at 3am. The whole camp was quite by 8pm, and we got a decent night of sleep. I had weird dreams about the Foot Soldiers from the first Ninja Turtles movie coming into my parents' house and skateboarding around our dining room. Anti-malaria pills, high altitude, and sleep deprivation. More fun than alcohol!

Day 41, Mt. Kenya Day 3: Shipton Camp (4200m) 8km to Austrian Hut (4790m), Sirimon Route

Today was a hard day of trekking. We traversed several ridges, so we'd go up a few hundred meters just to lose it all on the other side. By choice, I am carrying all my gear (except food) for the entire trek. I didn't pay for a porter. I figured if I can carry all this gear on a bicycle from Lake Assal 2,200km to Nanyuki, then I can surely carry it on my back up to Point Lenana. The first two days I was able to keep pace with my lightweight partners, but the downhills of Day 3 proved to be difficult. I moved slowly, trying not to stumble under the weight. My quads are strong from a month of cycling, but the small stabilizing muscles in my knees seem very weak. A month of very little walking will do that, I guess. The lesson learned is that I need to trek more before attempting Kilimanjaro.

Despite my new found hatred of gravity, I didn't slow down the team too much. The low valley between the ridges collected water from melting glaciers, which were now next to us instead of over us. The water pooled into large glacial lakes and provided life to hundreds of plants. I was tempted to jump in, but one hand in the water talked me out of it. The water was only a degree or two above freezing. Glaciers = Cold. Write that one to memory, Kyle.
Cold or not, the lakes were beautiful. We were well above the tree line, and most of the brush had even disappeared after that morning's first ascent. The lakes allowed little oases to form high on the mountain.

The final ascent of the day took us past Lemmi Glacier (which I hope is a Motorhead tribute!). This hill was a killer for me. Ten stops, then stop so I can pant for 2 minutes. Ten more steps, then out of breath again. This hill was to bring us to Austrian Hut at 4790m (about 15,720 feet), much higher than I have ever gone in my life. Part of my reason for trekking Mt Kenya was to see how my body does at higher altitude. At this point my energy was waning, I felt like I was gasping for air, and I felt a touch of a headache forming. 'This is not good...' I thought to myself. We had heard about and seen a few people coming down the mountain with mild high-altitude sickness. Not acclimatizing properly can lead to headaches, lethargy, and exhaustion. We ascended 2100m in less than 3 days - definitely too quick. If it gets worse, fluid can form in the brain or lungs, causing much bigger problems. I didn't know if my slight headache was the result of altitude or another issue. Either way, it was very mild and we were almost at camp, so I carried on.
Less than an hour later, without taking any pain killers, my headache was gone. Maybe it was dehydration or lack of sleep. I was just happy that I could continue the trek!

The hut itself was all booked up by technical climbers (aka badasses). After 3 days of hauling my tent, I had the opportunity to actually use it. I found a rock-free spot near Motorhead Glacier that blocked some of the wind. It was impossible to stake the tent into the rocky dirt, so I placed a big-old rock in each corner of the tent's interior. I tossed my pack inside and went into the hut for food.
All the tech climbers were on the mountain except for a goofy old Aussie named Nick. He was taking a rest day at Austrian Hut to help him acclimatize a bit more before his summit attempt. He recommended I also take a rest day before the summit of Kilimanjaro, which he had recently summited.

Nick is a big talker, yet still humble. He told me stories of skiing in the Arctic, climbing Denali and Logan, and climbing in Yosemite, but I almost had to force the stories out of him. He like the idea of Low2High: Africa, and seemed genuinely hopeful for my success. The part I think I like most about the life of Nick the Chatty Aussie is that he still works, keeps in touch with his family, and has a full life outside of outdoor adventures. He's not just a climbing junkie or ski bum. He has a full life. That's how I imagine my future to be. With the exception of Ed Viesturs, most of the explorers who's books I read talk about their accomplishments in the mountains, but rarely about balancing a life outside of that world. Seeing a living example of a man who can balance life and adventure is inspiring to me.

At around 7pm, 2 Greek climbers strolled into the hut after successful summit attempts. Too many badasses. I needed to go to bed.

Sleep was terrible. I was warm in my tent, but the wind was making my tent flap an was very distracting. Esther and Maurice complained about the same thing in the morning. Maybe the altitude makes it hard to sleep?

Day 42, Mt. Kenya Day 4: Austrian Hut (4790m) following Sirimon Route 1km to Point Lenana (4985m)
Descending Chagoria Route 19km to Mt. Kenya Lodge (2600m)

Summit Day! We left Austrian Hut before dawn to hopefully catch the sunrise from the summit. The trek was steep, but it helped us keep warm in the morning darkness. Armed with headlamps and heavy clothing, we reached the summit at 6am, a few minutes before the sun was to come up. The Kenyan flag marking our summit was just above us. We waited out of the wind, shivering but happy.
We were just below Point Lenana. Across from us to the west was Nenilen Peak, which the technical climbers have to traverse to get to the base of Betian Peak, the true summit of Mt Kenya. As the sun rose, Point Lenana cast a huge shadow onto Nenilen. We were looking for Nick and his guide, but couldn't spot them.

At 620am, the sun rose. It didn't provide any warmth  with its first appearance, but it lit up the summit into a beautiful radiating orange. We climbed the last few meters to the summit and took a few photos. Soon after, the summit got a bit crowded. A crew from Shipton had just come up, and another crew ascending Chagoria Route soon followed. Everyone was polite and civil, allowing all parties to get their obligatory summit photos with the tell-tale flag.
I heard it was possible on a clear morning, but I didn't want to get my hopes up of spotting Kilimanjaro. As the sun's rays raced across the earth, I looked south and I saw it! There it was, 300 km away, but clearly visible. The flat, snow-capped peak of Africa's highest mountain was visible to the naked eye. I got quite excited. It was like seeing the finish line of a long race. After looking at hundreds of photos and reading so many stories from my home in Ethiopia, I could see the mountain that set this whole expedition in motion. For the first time on this entire expedition, the end feels near. Maybe this is possible after all.
A few more photos and some quick video made my hands go numb. It was time to descend. As we scaled down the western side of the summit, the sun had risen enough to light up Nick and his guide. Small specks in comparison to the mountain. I couldn't even make them out in a photo.

We descended quickly down the Chagoria Route, heading toward the town of Meru. The gentle slope was much easier for me and my heavy load. We stopped for food along the way, which the cook and porters had waiting for us. What service! We walked down one hilltop that had been completely burned up in a fire in December. The new growth was very slow as the rain won't come until late March. This fire, like many others, was the result of farmers attempting to create rain. Again, I see their logic, but I wish they wouldn't set the National Parks on fire.

We strolled into Mt Kenya Lodge around 3pm. We had wonderful cabins with hot showers and fireplaces! Cold beer was advertised, but room-temperature beer was served. At that point, I was ok with a less-than-perfect drink. There were warnings all over the camp about dangerous wildlife. No predators, but buffaloes and elephants were common. Exhausted, I fell asleep at 8pm. Maurice said our cabin was surrounded by buffaloes all night long, making noise and grazing. I was blissfully unconscious, although it would have been cool to see some wildlife.

Day 43, Mt. Kenya Day 5: Mt. Kenya Lodge (2600m) 10km to a cushy 4WD truck, to Meru, and back to Nanyuki

After finally getting a proper sleep, I woke up to breakfast and tea. We had a beautiful hike down the eastern side of the park through a bamboo forest. The dusty track left clear footprints of dikdiks, wild cats, and elephants. I still haven't seen an elephant, but the sheer size of one's footprint was enough to freak me out a bit.
We took a series of vehicles back to Nanyuki. The bit of confusion reinforced that I made the right decision leaving the bike behind. Arranging to have it brought to Meru would have been a mess.

I booked another night at the hotel, got my bike out of storage, and later enjoyed a victory dinner with Esther and Maurice. Cold Tusker never tasted so good. I'm taking a full day off before hopping back on the bike. I plan to go west a bit to Naivasha and cycle through Hell's Gate National Park. Time to see some animals!


1 comment:

  1. Kyle! You are a badass yourself! Very few people could do what you are doing. Congrats on everything you've accomplished in this journey so far, and good luck on all the adventures to come. Take care of yourself my friend, be safe!