This piece was written as a submission for the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year competition. I didn’t place anywhere in the competition but I’m very proud of this work. This is a true account of my climb of Mount Kenya in July 2017. The competition theme was: I’d Like To Go Back and since we didn’t manage to summit fully, I know I’d like to go back and finish what we started. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
‘CRACK!’ Another blinding flash as lightning hit the damp ground nearby, this time much closer to us. We sprinted and slid on the grassy non-path through the hail, following our guides blindly down the mountain side.
I was about to spend four days lugging my home on my back with four friends and two complete strangers. The ride up to Sirimon Gate seemed to last an eternity, with nerves penetrating the tangible silence filling the bus. We’d passed herds of wild zebra and antelope grazing on the mountain side, thinning as we climbed higher and higher. We paid our fees and passed the threshold into Mount Kenya National Park, up the mild incline. Our starting point was 2500km above sea level, so the altitude was a challenge from the first step. Two of our crew were suffering significantly from altitude sickness, but the guides quickly scooped their bags onto their backs, atop their own, in a heroic show of strength.
We arrived at Old Moses Camp after a tough final climb, full of determination. A small trickle of fresh water ran from a crevice near the main path, providing us with a refill point for our water bottles. A quick dinner later, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, attempting to get as much sleep as I possibly could.
The two struggling crewmates were unable to continue after an uneasy night. The rest of us hungrily devoured our rehydrated breakfast and packed for the long stretch ahead of us. The clouds tore across the path in front of us every few hours. Walking was tougher as the air thinned and our altitude increased despite the seeming undulation of our voyage. While the climb was tough, the surrounding landscape wove itself into my rose-tinted memory.
Shipton Camp, the base camp of the mountain, was reachable before sunset; in theory. However, we were sluggish and struggled with each rasping step. We reached the bottom of the final ascent to the campsite as the night closed in, arriving by dim torchlight. We pitched our camp, ate the repetitive dehydrated meal, and piled into our tent, exhausted but ready for tomorrow.
We set off for Point Lenana at 3:30am with an abysmal amount of sleep under our belts. Leaving our tent and most of our hiking equipment behind, we took only the essentials for this section. As we reached 4,300m, we were struggling with the altitude. There were tears and asthmatic inhales with each laboured step onto the sliding scree. After a few stop-starts, we climbed another 150m before finally admitting we might not summit that day. Total exhaustion and a lack of oxygen coursed through our bodies, barely relieved by the warm tea we’d packed earlier.
Our guide expressed concern about the mist coming across the mountain. We descended the scree path, trying hard to stay upright. The other guide, Joseph, almost reached the bottom with one large, very skilled slide. Stumbling to the bottom, I turned to see our previous position cold and icy. A timely escape from another potential danger.
After a rushed breakfast, we began the much easier descent along the paths that previously beat our bodies. With a beautiful sky, the views of the African plains were unparalleled and made the failed summit a small thorn in an otherwise satisfyingly adventurous expedition. As the day drew to a close, the weather turned vicious and dark clouds stalked our path.
The rain came as Old Moses Camp arose in the distance. It transformed suddenly to icy pins hitting our exposed skin, while the aggressive sky grumbled at our snail-like speed. The marked paths became treacherous as rainwater gushed down. Impenetrable rivers formed where track was previously, forcing us to the slippery grass verge.
The first lightning bolt struck the hill behind us, making me acutely aware of the metal hiking poles in my hands. Hail beat down onto our waterproof-clad bodies and waterlogged rucksacks, ushering us onward. The next lightning bolt struck just one hundred metres from our feet, shaking the sodden ground vigorously. CRACK! I ran until I gazed upon the lake that was formerly Old Moses Camp. Thankfully, a hut nearby had bunks to spare. We wrung out our socks; the waterproofing on our bags was no match for that level of torrential downpour. My final dreary dinner started to heal me until sleep took over.
The sun blinded us through the window the following morning, as if to taunt us for its mischief the previous day. Descending the mountain, being dried by the sun, we were greeted with the wildlife of the first day and a tinge of achievement. I crossed the threshold of the park, silently vowing to return one day soon to conquer the mountain.