Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Mt. Kenya is EPIC! Blog #1

So that was the most epic mountain I've ever climbed, and that was after doing Ruwenzori.  I realize I owe you a Ruwenzori blog, but we're talking about Mt. Kenya first.  Both of these mountains turned a little more epic than we'd originally planned, but Mt. Kenya has the higher good epic/bad epic ratio of the two.  Before getting to the mountain, I knew that there would be a significant amount of technical climbing required to reach the top, but the mountain itself is deceptive.

Mt. Kenya is about a three-hour drive from Nairobi along good highways, which makes it one of the easier of the Five to reach.  When you are about 45 minutes from the trailhead, you can see the mountain on the horizon.  It's huge, but it slopes gently, very gently, over an enormous footprint.  When the clouds shroud the summit, and they do on most afternoons, all you can see is what looks like a giant, mild shield volcano on the horizon.  However, when the clouds part, you finally see the angry spike of rock that holds Mt. Kenya's summit sticking out of the center of the mountain.  From a distance, it looks small when compared with the rest of the massif, which sprawls alone across the low and flat savannah.  Throughout all of the first day of the hike, you can barely see the tip of the peak peeking (giggle) over the foothills.  It takes until the very end of the second day to finally get to behold the summit crag in all of its intimidating grandeur.  It was cloudy when we reached the second camp, but a few hours later, when the clouds parted, suddenly I got a sense of how difficult the climb itself would be.

The trail that we walked over the first two days was very easy--Class 1 all the way.  Its only challenge is that it brings hikers to a very high elevation (close to 14,000') in a very short time, so many people get altitude sickness on the mountain; more so than on the other mountains of the Five.  I had an advantage in that I had been on Ruwenzori only five days before, so I was already reasonably well acclimated to the height.  I still felt the altitude a little, but a few members of the other teams felt pretty ill.  A couple teams actually decided to spend an extra day at the second camp before pushing on to the high camp and whichever peak on the mountain they were doing.

When the afternoon rains finally went away, the central spire of the mountain comes into full view and looms over the camp.  We approached the summit along the Sirimon route, which comes from the west, so the summit looked even more serious than it does from other directions.  The western side of the mountain is the side that gets the rainfall, so the face of the summit spire that... faces the second camp is filled with snow, ice, and rotten couloirs.  Thankfully, on the third day, we hiked around to the back side of the spire, giving us access to the dry side of the mountain.  This side receives relatively little snow and rainfall, so the rock faces leading to the summit are mostly clean and dry.  Otherwise, the entire climb would've been an uncomfortable and very difficult mixed climb with loose snow and ice, which is pretty unsafe.

As all roads lead to Rome, all Mt. Kenya trails lead to the same high camp, the Austrian Hut.  Whatever peak a team is doing, they all sleep in the same hut the night before their summit bid.  Oh right, did I mention that all popular African peaks have huts on them?  Not campsites, but actual buildings with bunk beds (with foam mattresses!) and roofs.  The mountains might be difficult, but sleeping isn't.  Usually, the higher you go, the more spartan the shelters become.  High camp on Ruwenzori is a low-roofed shack that people pack into like sardines to sleep for a few hours before starting their summit bid.  The Austrian Hut was the most comfortable of all the huts I've stayed in so far.  Warm, no drafts, thick and new foam mattresses.  It was cozy, which isn't a word you'd normally associate with a high camp.  Windswept, frozen insomnia is a little closer to the normal feeling.

All parties converge at this location because it is right in the heart of the mountain and provides easy access to all of Mt. Kenya's most prominent peaks.  The classic image of a mountain is basically a pyramid with a single, lonely peak.  However, most mountains have a few prominent points on them that are not separate enough to be considered distinct mountains.  Mt. Kenya has at least a dozen, most of which are technical.  Because the summit of the mountain is so technically challenging, many people hike up to Point Lenana, the third-highest peak on the mountain.  Pt. Lenana is easily walkable from the Austrian Hut, and many teams that have come to the mountain just to reach Pt. Lenana actually hike directly to it from the second camp.  It's no easy feat, since it's still well over 16,000' tall and requires fairly difficult acclimation to reach.  Most of the groups that I encountered on the mountain had come to Mt. Kenya just to reach this peak.

We finished our hike to the Austrian Hut very early on our third day, so the guide and I decided to hike it that afternoon to help ourselves to acclimate for the summit bid the following day.  Shortly after we arrived at the Austrian Hut and got unpacked, the winds picked up and clouds blew in.  While we were making our plans, it started snowing.  The guide, John, was concerned that I would not feel safe or comfortable trekking through the snow, but I told him that I'd spent most of the past few years of my life living and adventuring in the northern US and Canada.  He laughed, said OK, and off we went.  It took less than an hour to reach Pt. Lenana from high camp, so we enjoyed the summit for a little while before turning around.  The steep parks of this hike have been maintained with slick conditions in mind.  A cable handrail has been bolted to the rock face you walk alongside for much of the way, and handles made with rebar have been installed into the short rock face that you would otherwise have to climb.

After that, we went back to camp to eat and get ready for the climb the following day.


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