April 19, 2018

So, where were we?

Oh yes – last week I left us at the base of our final hill, the summit of Mt. Kenya very much in sight and excitement washing over our group. It was 5:40 in the morning but the glow of the rising sun was beginning to light up the mountain. I was convinced the worst was over, and that in 20 minutes or so I was going to be standing at the end of the greatest climb of my life.

I was very, very wrong. From then on out it was all downhill, in every sense but the literal.

It’s really difficult to put into words how terrifying the next hour or so was. I can’t really even put it into visuals either – because I was so scared I could barely pull out my camera to snap a picture (and if even I couldn’t take a pic you know something was very wrong). But I’m going to give it a shot. I should say first that looking back, now safe on the ground, we all laugh about how freaked out we got. I hope you all find it as comedic as we do.

5:40: We began our ascent. It was snowy, but nothing screamed “treacherous”. All I could think about was the peak – the glorious payoff just minutes away. But after about 15 minutes we still weren’t there (although the top looked awfully close), and had hit a bit of a roadblock.

6:00: If you remember from my last post, we at one point hit a section of trail that involved some careful horizontal shimmering across an ice-covered slope in the dark. It was stressful, but relatively manageable. Well, it looked like we had hit the same obstacle at the present – the final one before the peak.

But it wasn’t quite the same. Because instead of moving horizontally, we also had to move vertically. And instead of moving across a steep slope, we had to move across and up what was essentially a cliff. And instead of moving in the dark, we had to move across and up that cliff in the light of the sun – the full magnitude of a potential fall lying vividly in front of us.

The scramble commenced. The slope was completely slicked over with snow that had frozen into ice. Even the rocks were ice-covered, so there literally no place to find traction. I was at the back of the pack, because no way in hell I was going to be the trailblazer on such treacherous path. Our guide made it exceptionally clear that we needed to be extremely careful – “One step at a time, and put your feet only in my footprints” he repeatedly stressed as he stomped out imprints into the ground. We were on all fours – two feet in the footprints and our hands pressed firmly against the snow, as if we could use that to hold on to in the event of a slip. As the morning glow from the sun grew stronger, the perilous drop below grew equally clearer. I am not exaggerating when I say one slip could’ve meant serious injury or death. We were 16,000+ feet in the sky, high above the clouds, and sheer rock climbing on the slipperiest surface of all time. It was flat out horrifying. But still we inched upwards ever so slowly, all while tensions climbed much, much faster.

Cecley was the first to crack. Not surprising, honestly, she can barely handle a moth. About 2/3rds of the way up our cliff climb the terror won out. “I’m done. I’m stopping. I’m not going up there!” she proclaimed repeatedly half-hysterically, plopping defiantly onto the ice. Obviously that wasn’t an option, unless she wanted to slide back down the mountain alone. Two of the group members, Micah and Meredith, took turns helping Cecley during her multitudes of freak-outs. “We’re almost there, Cecley,” they pretended soothingly, “Just keep going the peak is right above that rock!”

It’s easy now to laugh about Cecley’s reactions – but I can’t pretend I was doing much better. I was flipping out – my heart was pounding out of my chest as I tried with all my might not to look behind me at the fall below. All I wanted was to reach the top as fast as possible so this terrifying trek would be over. But we were moving at a snail’s pace, and stopping every 5 minutes for either a break or for the guide to carve out more footprints. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. “WHY DO WE KEEP STOPPING?!?!” I shrieked, slapping the ground in front of me with my right hand, on the borderline of having a complete breakdown.

Of course, no one answered – I probably sounded ridiculous and besides, everyone was focusing too much on not dying to answer. So onwards we continued, relying on deep breathes and faith in the powers that be to get us to the peak. At one point the rising sun poked out from behind a cluster of clouds to provide the group with a spectacular view and a few rays of optimism.

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The beautiful (but terrifying) view of Kenya far below as the sun followed our ascent through the sky

6:45: Finally, after what seemed like a million years, we reached the highest point in our climb and the path leveled off. I expected things to get easier after that – but I was very mistaken. The trail in front of us was maybe 3-4 feet wide, with steep slopes on either side leading to certain death. Under normal circumstances walking straight on a 3 foot path isn’t that hard unless you’re drunk (think a sidewalk), but given the incredibly icy conditions and the mental state everyone was in the task seemed impossible. At this point, Cecley was just done. “No way,” she half-cried, “I’m finished. I’m not going up there. WE’RE not going up there.” Now, apparently, the entire group was forbidden to continue. But no way we were turning back now – so one way or another Cecley needed to finish our climb. It was Meredith who came to the rescue, Ms. Nice Gal all but gone: “CECLEY!” she commanded, “You need to move! We are not staying here, you will die. LET’S GO!” Needless to say, Cecley had no more breakdowns after that moment. We continued on, ever so slowly approaching our goal.

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A group of adventurous travelers makes their way down the treacherous path we just crawled up

7:00: We reached a small metal ladder protruding from the rock. This was it. The last hurdle before the summit. At this point, I was so worn out from the mental toll the climb had taken on me that it barely registered that we were there. One by one we climbed the ladder, and stepped onto the peak.

We still weren’t there. Well, no, we were there. But not really. I had expected a nice large, flat area, maybe with a few benches (not really sure why, it’s the top of a mountain, not a park). Instead we had a tiny strip of ice-covered ground, with another three-foot walking strip that sloped down off the mountain on either side. The sign for the peak was across the strip – so we literally crawled over and collapsed in front of it.

That was it. For real this time. Most of the group started crying (including me) – whether it was from relief, exhaustion, or terror in knowing we still had to get down – was unclear. Lindsay even shed a single tear. The views, even through tear-streaked eyes, were undeniably spectacular: Mt. Kenya’s highest peak protruded above the clouds off to the right while to the left the landscape extended for miles upon end. I pulled out my camera to take some photos (you’re welcome) but only managed to keep my hands out of my pockets for 30 seconds before the cold took me over. And it was SO cold. Perhaps the coldest I’d ever been. The rest of the group was huddled together in a ball, with poor Micah, borderline hypothermic, buried at the bottom. Tea was passed around and fumbled over, and a few miserable-looking photos were taken.

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Kenya's highest peak (Batian) shows off from amidst the clouds. The views from our peak were some of the most spectacular I'd ever seen

We stayed at the top only for maybe 15-20 minutes, because Micah was in real trouble and the rest of us were approaching frostbite. I was now terrified all over again – if I could barely climb up the slippery mountain how the hell was I going to make it back down? But much to my surprise, everything after the first few steps was significantly easier. The views continued to blow me away, and I spent much of the descent sledding down the mountain on my butt (which should be an Olympic sport, I think). We even had ourselves a snowball fight. Everyone was much more relaxed, happy, and accomplished and eventually after a few hours we returned to Shipton’s and had the best breakfast of our lives. A day and a half later we were back in our warm beds at Mpala, safe on the ground level.

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Our descent off the mountain was marked by cloud-filled views and the glow of the rising sun

Climbing Mt. Kenya was cold, it was stressful, and it had some of the most terrifying moments of my life. But it was also one of the best experiences I’d ever done, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a spring break. Our entire group now has memories and an accomplishment that will last a lifetime, and hilarious events to look back upon fondly. My only regret is that I didn’t take more photos on the mountain but hey, I’m sure I’ll climb it again one day.

Thank you all for following along, as always! Stay tuned for my upcoming blog post about Lewa, Ol Pejeta, and a lot of zebras.

I also just want to give a quick thanks to our guides, led by Cool John, for taking us up the mountain! Despite the times of terror we were all always as safe as possible, and they gave us an incredibly fun and memorable experience. If you’re ever in Kenya and want to climb a mountain then definitely check them out: