Mount Kenya, Kenya
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
So, we’re here at last: the Sirimon gate into the Mount Kenya National Park. Here at 2,650m, it is warm and gently breezy, sunny with a few clouds. Our group is cheerful and apparently thoroughly prepared, other than that I was up 5 times with the squits last night. Our guides, and the rest of our support team, seem competent and smiley, so all is looking good.
We stride off up the road at 1.30 – it is metalled all the way to our hut, which is a tad disappointing somehow, but makes for an easy climb. Elija, our leader, sets a deliberately slow pace, the experienced climber’s invaluable acclimatisation tool, the steady plod.
The forest is a bit scrappy, podocarpus with low bamboo, but soon reforms into thicker trees and more mixed undergrowth. Delightful. Discussions range from an early addressing of Brexit issues, to aid to Africa and how to measure countries’ worthiness and the aid’s effectiveness.
Lunch is on shady grass under a fine podocarpus. All is well with the world. A cinnamon-fronted beeeater flits by.
Old man’s beard appears, indicating cloud forest, then we are into a bamboo zone; then hagenia (rosewood), scattered trees above thick scrub, then we are out above the treeline, into the world of heathers and shrubs and a ravishing variety of colours and forms. And, even better, big views to high green ridges which could be in the Scottish Borders, with the great icy tower of the Batian peak soaring above the skyline ahead, reaching into a sky which is now clouding up. The hut at Old Moses Camp appears on a ridgetop above. All very encouraging: we’re making good progress, and it isn’t hurting.
A delightful meander up through this gorgeous landscape gets us to our ridgetop hut at 3,300m a bit after 3pm. Happy view-appreciation ensues, then we head inside the hut to a table on which tea appears soon after. Both the huts on the Sirimon route had the same plan, on big bunk rooms off a long, thin common room set with tables, a basic but clean bog at one end, the kitchen at the other. It is scruffy and draughty, but fitting to a proper adventure.
Some while after, we head out to sit in the lee of the hill – a stiff, cold breeze is now blowing – for a gorgeous half hour with the evening light. A group of plump and confident francolin saunter close by and, after some raucous and unlovely squawking, back again.
We have a room for 16 between the 5 of us, so lots of space. We unpack, then sit about and chat. Supper is at 5.45: butternut soup, fish with chips and veg, particularly delicious mangoes. Then a quick whizz outside to enjoy the golden sundown light on the hillsides. We are driven back in by a cold wind, and huddle back at our table and talk and read until a 9-ish bed.
A good day. A surprisingly cold night, but we have layers.
This is a magical day’s walking.
Up just before 7am. It is cold but not freezing; the wind has died down, but is still quite fresh. Dress and pack. A huge breakfast – fruit, uji sweet maize porridge, pancakes and eggs and sausages. Even I struggle to do it justice.
We are off at 8am, promptly: not bad for a first morning. It is now a lovely if breezy and still chilly day, and we strike up the hill on a good path, with the vast slopes of the moorland leading up to high and very distant looking ridges, with the harsh drama of the Nelion and Batiam peaks protruding above the skyline. The plants are beautiful and fascinating all day. At first we are climbing through thick heathery scrub and tussocks, which gradually thin into thick hairy tussocks which Felice Benuzzi in No Picnic on Mount Kenya described as hellish walking with the risk of a sprained ankle at every step. We can see why.
The weirdness increases as cabbage groundsel appears, and senecio. A long stretch of tussocks gets us to a low ridge of sorts, where the great peaks look a lot bigger and closer. A delightful traverse through tussocks and shrubs, which are becoming familiar and are now joined by tall, droopy-feathered ostrich-plumed lobelias, gets to another low ridge with, on the other side, a little valley filled with the sort of intense little botanical garden which Benuzzi describes, both beautiful and fascinating. A slow puff up to a final ridge gets us to a fine view of the deep Liki valley, our destination for the night. Its wide bottom contains a lonely little hut, wrecked on closer inspection, beside an obvious flat campsite. At the valley head are dry, tough, broken crags and cliffs; across the valley is a high, rough ridge and the great peaks looming behind it. Gorgeous. It is reminiscent of Ladakh or even Tibet.
A steady descent gets us to the valley floor at 12.30, with a large mess tent and our own roomy tents already pitched. We luxuriate in the warm sun. Lunch is called soon, and we repair to the mess tent, which is too hot as well as having no view, so we take our plates outside to a large picnic table with a flimsy roof, which looks recently erected and decidedly incongruous, furniture from a foothills park at nearly 4,000m.
A kip in the sun, one of trekking’s great luxuries. It is hot to the extent that I have to retreat to the shelter. Then we are off, reluctantly at first after our work of the morning, on an acclimatization walk, 50 minutes up the far slope to a fine viewpoint over the deep Mackinder valley, tomorrow’s way up to Shipton’s Camp. It is an effort, but the beauty of the hillside has our attention. We should have our best-yet view of the great peaks from the ridgetop, but they are cloud-girt. We’ll see them tomorrow. We retrace our steps, reaching base at 4.20pm, just as the sun leaves it, so we scuttle into our tents to set up for the night before the cold hits.
Back in the mess tent, we chat until supper at 6pm, delicious beef stew and banana fritters, of which I eat 6. Then it is diary writing, extra layers needed as the cold intensifies despite the sound tent with cooking stoves burning at the other end. The rest head for their bags, leaving Parry and me. I turn in at 8-ish. A fantastic day.
I lie in my bag listening to Leonard Cohen. It is VERY cold, and I burrow down further and further into my bag. Diamox-driven pees are needed, which is tedious beyond belief, so I lie there bursting and unable to sleep until driven out into the cold. One time I am so deeply tied into my bag, I struggle to get out and have a minor claustrophobia attack. Take a sleeping pill at 2.30am. That’s altitude for you.
Up at 6.45 after a sleep-deprived night. It is crystalline and beautiful in the campsite, the sun already slanting sharp golden light onto the hillside behind us. Breakfast at 7.30, then we are off at 8.30, half an hour late despite being basically ready at 8.
We walk back up the hillside we tramped yesterday afternoon; it is even more beautiful in the early light, with shadows throwing everything into vivid relief.
At the ridgetop we take in water – and the view. This is luxurious walking, with no rush to get to Shipton’s Camp, indeed an imperative not to. The Mackinder valley is looking gorgeous in the early morning clarity. We make a steady descent, then traverse the valley side some way above the stream, winding through a scattered forest of surreal giant lobelias, with the broken crags and spires of the ridge we have crossed as a background. An intense hour.
The trail up from Old Moses Camp climbs up from the river to join us. More lobelia forest, which thins out into a scattering among elegantly arranged tussocks and low Alpine scrub. We spot a rock hyrax on a warm slab by a lobelia, we cross the stream and start a gentle climb up the far hillside to a tougher stretch, beyond which we quite suddenly meet the full glory of the high peaks and ridges at close quarters. Heroic. Shortly after, we reach Shipton’s Camp, named after a famous early climber of the great peaks, at a creditable 12.45.
Another good and filling lunch, then a photo delete (worried my card is almost full) and a snooze (I never tire of this luxury) in our many-bedded dormitory.
At 3.15, we climb the beginning of tomorrow’s walk as a further acclimatizer, a beautiful swing round an outcrop through a giant lobelia grove in this high but relatively sheltered nook. Elija explains that the burnt-looking lower leaves of the lobelia are in fact merely dead, but remain, packed in, as insulation for the plant. We hit a really steep bit, which won’t be much fun tomorrow, then stop after 35 minutes, 500+ feet higher, which is encouraging. A good return descent through another little valley.
We prepare for a prompt departure tomorrow’s assault on Lenana, the trekking the peak, then gorge on another large and tasty meal: we all wonder at how Samuel achieves them, in particular how he keeps the meat fresh. Then diary and bed at 8 in preparation for the big day tomorow. Lucky us.
A brisk military operation first thing. We’ve slept in as many of our walking clothes as possible, so, when my alarm goes at 2am, I leap up and am fully packed and ready to go at 2.30, wearing 6 layers: thermal, wicking walking shirt, thin fleece; with down jacket, thick fleece waistcoat and a windcheater on top, all undone at the front until it gets really cold. I never sweat, despite the exertions to come. We have tea and snacks (plain biscuits), then we’re off into a cold, clear and starry night. Beautiful, and there is a full moon, so our head torches are semi-redundant; I even turn mine off for a bit, as walking by starlight is to be savoured – if you feel well enough, that is.
All goes well until we reach the steep but loose slope we began yesterday evening. This is a very long haul, and increasingly exhausting as the altitude gain takes its toll. But we stay together, with a small gap growing between the speedier ones and Alex and me. My memory is a bit altitude-fuzzy, but we gain a saddle on the high ridge which leads to Lenana, where the Chogoria Route and our Sirimon meet, and turn right. The breeze stiffens and chills. Steep and slippery sections are interspersed with slightly easier ones, but it is a long, panting slog in thinning air.
The eastern horizon becomes faintly red, then more pronouncedly orange, picking out the tops of ridges. We are on the far side of the ridge from Batiam and Nelion, so don’t see their faces emerging from silhouettes against the stars – negative spaces – to distinct if murky masses.
We eventually reach the summit, at 4,985m, climbing a short fixed ladder and up a final rock wall, and we’re there, in 3.5 hours at 6.20am, a quarter hour before sunrise, so we’ve got here faster than our guides expected – they don’t want to keep one waiting at the top as it is bitterly cold.
The eastern horizon is a long band of bright orange, the sky paling by the second; Kili is visible on the southern horizon – so Elija says, although it is hard to discern, to be honest: it is some 300km away. To the west, the great face of 5,188m Nelion is a quiet grey: the world is emerging from the gloom, the melancholy remains of the Lewis glacier already the whitest thing around even though it is a dingy grey in reality. It is a long way below us, but I have seen a photo from just a few decades ago by Walkopedia’s king-contributor Dick Everard showing it coming close to Lenana.
Then the first sliver of Himself touches Nelion’s topmost cliffs, caressing its way down their intricate tracery until the first ray reaches us on our lesser summit. Wondrous. The great circle of peaks is lit up, one by one and the dark voids between them become quiet, mauve cwms and gorges. The Austria Hut emerges, quite close below to the south: you can scramble, cable assisted, up the spine above it to Lenana.
It is time to be off, as the cold is gnawing into us.