Monday, March 5, 2012

Mount Kenya...the Posts go On and On...

Point Lenana
Although to be fair, so did the mountain...

My Israeli roommates had finished packing around 9.30 the night before, but one of their alarms went off at midnight.  After an hour of banging around, packing and unpacking, and stumping in and out of the room, the man set off with his guide (departures tend to be staggered, and those whose ascent is likely to take longer leave earlier).  I didn’t fall back to sleep, and the second Israeli guy was up at around 2.30, bellowing to his guide and generally making a racket.  I pegged him as one of those incurable optimists who subscribes to the belief that volume can overcome any linguistic barrier.  A bit before three, I dragged myself unhappily out of bed, and at 3.15 ate some popcorn and biscuits. 
Thankfully it was dark, or else the sight of the soaring mountainside would have been dispiriting.  In the dark, armed with a headlamp, there was nothing for it but to put my head down and trudge up and up and up and up.  The nearly three thousand feet were visually unremarkable given the total absence of moonlight and thick clouds, but mostly I was just happy that the scree was next to nonexistent.  About an hour into the hike, I had the briefest of headaches, but otherwise, thanks to a few judicious pauses, did not suffer from the altitude.
I’d read in my Lonely Planet guide that the ascent to Point Lenana from Shipton hut was supposed to take three-and-a-half to five hours.  We did it in two, which might explain what happened the following day, although I suffered no ill-effects at the time.
Nelion and Batian Peaks
The most noticeable thing about the summit, marked by a plaque, a flagpole, and a cross, was the temperature.  It was cold.  And the wind.  It was strong.  The sunrise was some time off, but I resolved not to miss it, although the masses of clouds made it look as though we wouldn’t have any view whatsoever.  But we hunkered down between the rocks, avoiding the snow, and waited, my hands growing colder and colder, gloves notwithstanding. 
At last, a light came over the horizon.  It felt as though we’d been waiting for hours, but it was probably not much more than 20 or 30 minutes.  But things didn’t look promising.  As the light from the approaching sun made its way higher, massive banks of clouds swooped in, plunging us into near darkness again.  The clouds looked like enormous, indistinct beings, propelled by the strong wind.  As they rolled by, obscuring our view, they were nearly close enough to reach out into. 
I sat back down on the rocks to wait just a bit longer, and when I got up again after a few minutes and turned around, there was Nelion, Batian just behind it, towering above us, suddenly coloured a pinky-orange by the sun which had fought its way to a sufficient height that the clouds were tinted gold.   A few moments later, the sun exploded through the clouds and its warmth spilled towards us along the snow and ice-encrusted rocks which sent its rays glancing all around the peak.  At this moment the two Israeli guys and a couple of other hikers arrived at the summit. 
After admiring the view and the sun, we turned to make our descent.  Valleys stretched out in two directions.  We were going down Teleki Valley, and in the distance, a blue dot, was the roof of Mackinder’s Hut, where we would spend the night.  But the landscape immediately surrounding the peak was more surreal looking.  Stunted as Mount Kenya’s glaciers have become, they look impressive up close, and in some places on the way down they ran almost into the sparse lobelia forests. 
We had passed one tarn on our ascent during the wee hours of the morning, but it had been little more than a dark spot in a dark night.  Now I could see that they dotted the mountainside around us.  The nearest one sat in a valley of stark grey earth that had an almost reddish tint.  The earth looked smooth, except where it rose in sharp points, and the sun’s rays not having reached it, this particular valley looked a bit like Mordor.  Some tarns—like American Lake—sat teetering up on ledges, looking as though the slightest tilt of the earth would send their water—somehow not frozen—spilling down the sides of the peaks.
The steep downhill descent, through scree and heavier rock, was decidedly unpleasant, and I was glad for the poles that I unstrapped to aid my way down.  I must have cut a rather comic figure, flinching at every sign of a slip, desperate to keep my knee from twisting.  We passed Austrian Hut, where those brave souls who aim to scale Batian and Nelion stay the night.  And at last, my feet mangled from the downhill and thinking that I would have gladly made two ascents if somehow that could have kept me from having to come down, we reached the relatively flat floor of Teleki Valley, where it was a short walk through lobelias and past streams to the stone Mackinder’s Hut (at 14,190 feet), just past the Mountain Rescue station.
American Lake
Diamond Glacier, lobelias
Martin and Joseph were just coming down their own route, and they too said they had been buffeted by fierce winds.  David was suffering from some altitude sickness, so he took a nap, and I resolved to spend the remainder of my day (we’d arrived in camp at 8.30, so there was plenty of the day remaining) contemplating the spectacular view up the beautiful valley to the peaks.
The sun was warm, so there was no reason to take advantage of the view offered by the elongated sitting area in the hut and the windows that looked out to the peak.  One of the men staffing the mountain rescue station walked by and joined me on the bench.  He explained that four people manned the station, staying roughly eight days and then having four or so off.  Apparently the night before, a small American girl, one of a party of forty students who had been hiking in the mountains, had got lost on the descent to Naro Moru gate.  I learned the following day from Martin that she had spent the entire night in the bamboo forest on the lower slopes—the worst place to be, considering that buffalo, elephants, hyaenas, jackals and leopards prowled in the trees. 
Mackinder's Hut
Rock hyraxes abounded near the hut, and several of them made a beeline for the kitchen, sniffing happily about until chased away.  Around lunchtime the porters from the RAF party began descending a smaller ridge that led around the peaks to Shipton Camp.  The Brits were circling the mountain and ascending the following morning, giving them a further day of acclimatisation (and, from what I heard later, some spectacular scenery in the course of the circuit). 
Rock Hyrax enjoyin the view
I passed a pleasant afternoon, reading my Meja Mwangi novel (Carcase for Hounds) and joining the Brits in a few card games once they arrived and settled, one of which, ‘spoons’, was sufficiently raucous that the porters must have thought we were all suffering from the effects of altitude (this, naturally, became the standard excuse for each and every slip-up).  I suspect that everything is funnier at 14,000 feet.  The cousins from over the water again welcomed me at dinner and I got some ideas for future national parks trips in Britain. 
Everyone retired around eight, the RAF team anxiously anticipating a well-before-the-crack-of-dawn departure, and me looking forward to being able to sleep as late as I wanted.

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