Sunday, March 4, 2012

Still More Mount Kenya

Liki River
I was up around six, and had breakfast shortly after seven.  David was in no hurry to depart Old Moses hut, and we were the last to leave.  The hut sits at 10,890 feet, and our hike took us through moorland which varied in character as we moved on.  Mountain streams, fed by the steadily melting glaciers, flowed prettily down through the moor.  They become the Nanyuki and Liki Rivers farther down.  Apparently, when some of the earliest European climbers ascended Mount Kenya, it was not uncommon to find snow as low as Old Moses.  These days, there are only patches of it around the peaks, and the glaciers are remnants of their former selves.

The lower moor could have passed for Dartmoor, except for its rather more insistent demands on your lungs.  Higher up the plant life in particular gets weirder.  Several species of Lobelia, along with Senecio, sprout up, and create miniature forests through which you stride.  Some of the lobelia species are barely knee high.  Others are over ten feet tall, and bear some resemblance to the Joshua Trees of the southern Californian state and national parks. 

Mackinder's Valley
We caught up with a group of three French hikers and a Brit, who were walking together.  The three French people were working at a school in Nairobi, and the British guy was working on an agriculture-related project in the country.  Crossing a stream and going up a small incline, we suddenly found ourselves atop a ridge, overlooking the dramatic entrance to the Mackinder’s Valley.  The clouds had bunched together at what must have been the far end of the valley and it was there, if the clouds ever deigned to part, that we would see our destination.

The lobelias were complemented by purple, white, and red flowers, and the trickle of the streams was the only sound besides the occasional gust of wind down the valley.  We stopped for lunch beside the Liki River.  David and I ate on the hoof and were on the move a few minutes later, greeting a large group of British hikers who had also stopped by the river.  Within minutes we were alone in the valley.  I noticed some faeces that looked to belong to something that had been eating one of the rock hyraxes that were supposed to populate the area where we would be sleeping tonight, and David said that it belonged to the hyaenas which ventured up the slopes in search of the hyraxes.

Lobelia Forest
Briefly, it began to drizzle, but it let up quickly, and some weather god tugged at the edges of the clouds to reveal the snow-frosted peaks looming far, far above the valley.  It was a downright intimidating sight.  No wonder the Kikuyu, who together with the Meru and Akamba live in the shadow of the mountain, believed that Ngai, creator of Kikuyu and Mumbi, the first people, lived atop the peak.  Now I know that you’re looking at the picture and saying, ‘Wow, Jeff climbed all the way to the top of that?  Pretty impressive for someone who gets out of breath walking up Bancroft to the I-House in Berkeley!’  Well let me clarify.  The highest of Mount Kenya’s peaks is Batian, at 17,156 feet.  A mere 36 feet lower, separated by a small dip, is Nelion.  One to two hundred experienced climbers scale these peaks using serious mountaineering equipment.  Scattered around are Point Peter, Point Dutton, Point Piggott, Point Thompson, Midget Peak, Point John, and Point Lenana. 
Nelion and Batian Peaks

Point Lenana is the mountain’s third highest peak, at a paltry 16,450 feet, and serves as the target for the less ambitious several thousand walkers who make it up every year.  This was my destination, and although it was nowhere near as intimidating as Batian and Nelion, it made my stomach lurch a little.  At Shipton Hut that evening, Mike, one of the Englishmen, said, “You can’t exactly call it beautiful...” of the Mackinder’s Valley.  It was true in a sense...there is something prehistoric about the landscape which calls for a different adjective.  You wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Hobbit emerge from one of the holes in the Cliffside, or a Tyrannosaurus Rex come roaring out of a clump of lobelias.  But it was certainly spectacular, and we were soon at the top of the valley, and began moving upwards again, passing the Shipton Caves, tall caverns in the side of the vegetation-capped rock that looked like they had been scored in the rock by giant finger-nails.  We also saw our first rock hyrax here, an animal that looks like a cross between a mara and a marmot.  Okay, I wrote that just for the alliteration.  It’s really like an overgrown groundhog. 
Lobelias at the top of the valley

After a final push, we reached Shipton Camp, at 13,860 feet above sea level.  The Shipton Hut was a combination of corrugated metal and wood, and built in a similar style to Old Moses.  There was a kitchen at one end, and a long, stark sitting area, behind which were the two bunk rooms.  The sitting area would have offered a spectacular view up the side of the peaks, but plastic and metal had been placed over the windows to shield occupants from the winds, which could be biting.

The sun had come out, and I parked myself on a rock to admire the view and work on my sun-burn.  Last to leave in the morning, we were the first party to arrive now, and so waited for Joseph and Martin (who had the food) before having tea and popcorn.  I got talking to the large group of British hikers as they arrived, and found that they were hiking the mountain for the RAF Benevolent Fund, a worthy-sounding cause.  A well-travelled, friendly group, they took pity on a solitary Yank, and I joined them for dinner, rain having gradually forced us inside. 

Puny Point Lenana
We were all preparing for bed when someone called from outside that it was snowing.  We grudgingly roused ourselves and made our way into the cold to find a few flakes drifting magically down in the frigid night.  Somehow—there was no moon to be seen—the mountain was still visible in the clear night, and its glaciers and snow-tinted peaks shimmered spectacularly. 

I was in bed by 8.30, but sleep didn’t come for some time.  I was sharing the room with two Israeli men, probably in their 50s.  They spent a good hour packing and unpacking their bags, shining their headlamps all around the room.  I was to wake up at three o’clock the following morning, and we were to start the ascent at 3.30, so I was less than pleased with this turn of events, but eventually fell asleep, although in spite of the zero-bag, the night was a much colder one than that at Old Moses.

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