Mount Kenya

In 1986, I had the chance to climb mount kenya, an experience that left me with many indellible memories, although some of the details are slipping away over the years.

There were perhaps 12 of us, led by Mr (Anthony?) Leigh, who was our geography teacher at Nairobi Academy, who was determined to make the experience an educational one. I find that I’m unable to remember the names of everyone that was on that trip. I remember that Jupinder Mahajan, Andrea Donna, and Ajay Shah were on the trip, but I find that some of the other faces in the photos – which are hardly great – are unknown to me. Kinda sad.

The first night, we pitched our tents at the base camp. I had an ancient canvas army tent that had been loaned to me by Peter Johnston, a professor at the school my parents worked at. It weighed more than everything else I was carrying. Fortunately, someone decided to stay at the base camp, and I traded tents with them, for something a little more lightweight.

We had packed a variety of pre-prepared food, which was frozen and in baggies, for warming up later. We also had large amount of chocolate and dried fruit for energy. As we went higher, and the oxygen level dropped, making cooking harder, and making our appetites wane, we ended up eating mostly chocolate and dried fruit for two days. For years afterwards, I did not really like chocolate, and, even today, I can’t stand dried fruit of any description. Well, raisins are ok, but that’s about it.

The second night, we stayed at Mintos, a camp about half way up. The camp is a tarn – a lake formed by the receeding glacier. There are actually two lakes. The larger one has been used as a waypoint stopping area for the last 50 years, and as a latrine for much of that time, and is nasty, slime-covered, and smelly. The other lake, which is a little walk off of the main path, is almost untouched – or at least, was then. The water is crystal clear, and completely without life, because of the altitude, and cold, I guess. It was very cold, and crisp, and delicious, although probably very high in lots of minerals.

On the next morning, we left most of our gear at Mintos, and headed for the peak. One guy stayed behind, and I’ve often wondered if he has regretted that decision for the last 17 years. I know I would have.

Perhaps the most vivid memory of the whole climb happened early that morning. We came up to a saddle, after a hard rocky climb, with Andrea and I way out front which is what we always did on our climbs, and we stopped for a short rest. We were above the tree line, and the air was kind of thin. There were no birds, animals, or even insects, just a few scattered grasses. You can see where we rested in this picture. I had one of those rare flashes of insight, and when everyone got there, I asked them to be silent for a minute. And it was silent. I have never since that time experienced complete silence. There’s always some machinery, or something, making some noise in the background, which you can never get away from. But here, on a ridge on Mt. Kenya, it was silent. A truly rare thing in our time.

After that stop, the climb became rockier, and soon we were at the cabin at the bottom of the glacier. I’ve seen pictures since then, and the glacier has receeded even further now than then. That year, the glacier came almost down to the cabin. In the cabin are a few historical items from the early european explorers to the area, and some information about the mountain, including some photos from the first expeditions, so that you could see how far the glacier used to come.

From the cabin, you can look up to the peaks. Lenana is on the right, and Battion and Nellion, higher and rocker, on the left. I desperately wanted to climb the higher peaks, and I knew that I could make it, but we had no actual climbing gear, and of course Mr Leigh would not let me attempt it. Some day, I want to go back and do those peaks.

So we set out along the right edge of the glacier, towards Lenana. The last leg of the climb is very quick, and we had almost nothing to carry. In the early days, the climbers would have all their gear carried by porters, and so they would climb a lot faster, making them susceptible to pulmonary adema. There’s a lead cross on the peak with names etched into it of people that have died of adema on the way up. That’s a delightful condition where you gain altitude too quickly, and your lungs fill up with fluid.

We took a few pictures on the summit – mine didn’t turn out – and headed back to Mintos. And then the next day headed back down to the base camp. By this time we were hungry and exhausted, sick of chocolate and dried fruit, and tired of carrying all that weight around. When we got to the base camp, we decided to go ahead and drive out. One of the landrovers had broken down, so several of us climbed on the roof of the other one to go down to the Mt Kenya Safari Club. I actually fell asleep on the roof as we drove down the mountain, with various of the other guys making sure I didn’t roll off.

The Safari Club used to be an exclusive club inhabited by the “Happy Valley Set”. There are a number of books about them – the disillusioned rich brats from the US and Europe that went to Kenya to escape from reality, and morailty, for a while. Most of them came to unhappy ends, and the whole thing fell apart when there was a highly publicized murder at the club.

We stopped there for dinner, and then went back to Nairobi after the rest of our transportation arrived, arriving fairly late back at home. I remember dropping my pack at the door, and going straight to bed, where I slept all night and most of the next day. My parents had actually been away in the US, and had returned while I was on the mountain, so I had left from a friend’s house, where I was staying, and returned to my house at the end of the trip. We still had a number of the pre-prepared meals, which were no longer worth keeping.