Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Mt. Kenya is EPIC: Blog #2

We ate early so we could go to sleep early.  We planned to wake up the following morning at 3:30, but woke up at 2:30 with excitement and nerves, so we got an early start.  This would turn out to be beneficial later.  The hike up to the actual climb was surreal.  Even though Mt. Kenya is very close to Nairobi, the skies are amazingly clear.  The starlight is cold and razor sharp, rather than dull and blurry as skies next to large cities often are.  We climbed under a nearly full moon, so large shadows were everywhere and the Lewis glacier, which we had to briefly cross, glowed under our crampons.

After scrambling over a scree field (which is reasonably precarious in the dark, even with headlamps), we reached the foot of the actual climb.  It looms.  However, you can see the start of your route fairly easily.  Thin and difficult faces make up much of the rock above you, but you can see the wide, eroded crack system filled with big, blocky handholds you'll be using to avoid most of them.  The climb is roundabout and involves several traverses to avoid the more difficult faces, but the extra climbing keeps you on a path that rarely gets above 5.5/3, which is reasonably physically easy.  The route ended up taking 14 pitches to complete, making it the longest climb I've ever completed.  It had also been quite some time since I had done a lot of "traditional" climbing (instead of clipping into preset bolts, you place little stoppers, devices called cams, and slings into and around different rock features to hold your rope and thereby you when you fall; it's more difficult and time- and energy- consuming while providing you with less secure placements that don't always hold when you fall, making it more psychologically challenging as well).  Even though most pitches were not overly physically difficult, 14 of them with a gear pack on your back adds up, making it a reasonably challenging climb, overall.

Because you're so high and exposed, the route can get under your skin and into your head.  The traverse pitches were the worst, because, even though I followed John on them (in other words, I was basically on a toprope that was securely anchored, so normally I would've been unlikely to have a long fall if I slipped), we only had a few placements on each pitch, so every fall would have turned into a 20-foot, dragging swing along jagged rocks.  If I'd fallen, the rope would've saved me, but I would have still needed to go to a hospital afterwards.

Over the years, my brain has developed some odd defenses against the mind games it otherwise likes to play in these situations.  Despite what you'd think, most climbers are as afraid of heights as everyone else.  With experience, we basically just learn different ways of dealing with the fear, ignoring it altogether, and gradually desensitizing ourselves to it.  The best technique I've learned is to just block out all of your surroundings that are more than three feet above or below you.  Creating this bubble works well, but it always takes me a while to get into this mindset, and I lose it if I stop doing long climbs for a while.  When this fails ( did on Mt. Kenya...I kept looking down), my mind starts playing clips of my favorite funny scenes from different TV shows.  It's weird, but somehow the distraction it provides focuses my mind.  The challenge can then become suppressing wildly inappropriate laughter that might shake me off the wall.

Anyways, we got through the more hair-raising sections and made it to one of the final pitches, which is affectionately nicknamed "the Big Rough".  As you can probably figure out, it's the most difficult pitch of the route and comes close to the end of the climb.  It's probably only about 5.7/4 in difficulty, but it's completely vertical and has a section with sparse holds that requires you to pull onto a semi-detached face that hangs +1,000' over the valley below, making it committing and mildly terrifying.  Once you pull over the edge at the end, you get a nice ledge to stand on and you're only about three easy pitches from the top of the first peak.

The summit of the mountain is actually split into two distinct peaks, Batian and Nelion.  To reach Batian, the tallest, you have to first climb to Nelion, then downclimb/rappel two pitches into the narrow, snowy saddle between them ("The Gates of Mist"), and climb two and a half pitches back out to the true summit of the mountain.  We reached Nelion later than we'd originally planned (which can be attributed to my slow climbing), so we had a very light lunch and rested for a bit before pushing on to the final stretch of the climb.  There's actually a little aluminum shed that three people can sit/lay in to spend the night on the summit.  I imagine it's pretty cold.  Unfortunately for us, by the time we started out descent into the Gates of Mist, the afternoon weather was starting to move in.  Once we were down in the Gates, the wind picked up and snow started to fall on us.  On this mountain, you want to avoid the storms, not because they're violent, dangerous, and very cold as they are on other mountains, but just because the snow makes the rocks very slippery and unsafe to climb.  We were so close to the summit, we pushed on through the remainder of the climb in spite of it.

We actually teamed up with another pair of climbers to get from Nelion to Batian to make the climb a little safer.  Once we were down in the Gates, we had to pull on crampons to navigate it and the first pitch of climbing, which was mostly getting up a moderate and thin snowfield to the next belay station.  After that, it was a wet and mildly desperate scramble over boulders sitting on the narrow spine of rock that connected the two peaks.  It was another situation where a slip would have turned into a long, penduluming fall over rough terrain.  Weirdly, it helps when I just tell myself that I can't fall, so I don't.  Knowing that you can't slip makes you pay a lot more attention to not slipping.  Adrenal strength also helps.  It took a surprisingly long time to complete the climb to the summit, in large part because of the weather.  Thankfully, we weren't very cold.  It was only about 25F/-5C, so just staying active kept us pretty warm throughout.

Finally, after about eight or nine hours of climbing, we reached the short bouldering problem to the summit.  We each stayed on rope while we climbed the last 10-15 feet to the summit and took our necessary photos.  Between the crowded conditions (even with only four of us) in the summit area, the bad weather, and the long journey down, we didn't linger very long.  Crossing the Gates in either direction takes a while because of the snow, which requires the changing of foot gear, and because you have to climb back out on your return.  For better or worse, a steep and thin snowfield is the exit back onto Nelion.  It's difficult to protect against falls on it, and snow can sometimes just fall out from under you, but snow and ice that are only a few degrees below freezing are relatively stable, yet easy to sink axes and crampons into.  My guide *cough* neglected to pack an axe for me, so I went last after solid footholds had already been stomped into the snow and ice, just jamming my fingers into the soft snow for purchase.  It actually worked pretty well.

After that, it was just a long series of rappels back down the mountain.  One team that had been climbing up behind us for most of the day decided to turn around on Nelion instead of going all the way to Batian.  Batian is only 11 meters higher than its twin, so a lot of people don't think it's worth all the extra effort and risk.  Unfortunately, when a few teams are on a mountain, traffic jams can occur, especially on the way down when everyone is waiting to use the same rappel stations.  Traffic jams can be a pleasant experience, though.  It gave us time to talk and get to know each other and to take it easy after a long journey up.  Two of our rappelling compatriots were a Polish couple that does a large African mountain every four years, Mt. Kenya being the final of the tallest three for them to complete.  One of the others was a Tanzanian who was learning technical climbing to enhance his guiding credentials.  When the afternoon storm rolled in, instead of continuing on to Batian with us, they had turned around and gotten stuck in a windy notch partway through their rappel, where they had hunkered down and ridden out the weather for a few hours.  Our approach to the storm might not have been as um safe, but I think it was a more enjoyable experience.

We reached the foot of the climb as the sun was beginning to set.  By the time we'd recrossed the Lewis glacier and returned to the hut, it was basically dark.  Our original plan had been to walk down to intermediate camp and spend the night there, shortening our exit hike the following day, but after deliberations that lasted all of about a minute, we concluded that it was a stupid idea.  After 16 hours on the mountain, we were tired and not ready to navigate a scree field for a few hours in the dark.  We had dinner and went to bed.

To make it out of the park by the required time, we got up at 4:30 the next morning, numbly munched on a few breakfast biscuits (in the Commonwealth, that means "cookies"), and started to trudge down to the lower camps.  We had around 27 kilometers to cover by mid-afternoon, so we just wanted to get up and get it done.  We did.  We were happy to reach the car that was waiting for us.

A few hours later, I was back in Nairobi, taking a very satisfying shower and then enjoying a very satisfying night of sleep.


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