Written by: Simon OChen
I sat atop Nelion, one of the three major peaks on Mt Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain after its cousin across the border – the infamous Kilimanjaro, which protruded ever so slightly through the blanket of clouds in the distance.
Mt Kenya is a stratovolcano created some three million years ago. The Republic of Kenya is named after the mountain, which sits in the Mount Kenya National Park, established back in 1949. In 1997 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It had taken me almost six months of planning, three weeks of training including rock climbing the Dragon’s Teeth in the Aberdares National Park, bouldering in Timau, a five-day fly-fishing trip up the same mountain a week before enduring rain, hail, a runny stomach, loss of appetite, oxygen deficiency including a summit to Point Lenana at 4,985 metres. Two days of further trekking to Nelion’s base camp until finally, culminating in the six-hour free climb of 500 metres of vertical rock to sit atop the earth at 5,188 metres, wondering how the hell I ever made it this high.
The day had began when the stars were still out and the dark outline of Nelion beamed down at me. We trekked across the rocky landscape and when we reached Louise’s Glacier, attached crampons to our boots to hike across the shrinking ice. We reached the base of Nelion by sunrise and with helmet, harness and a figure-of-eight knot, we began the six-hour free-climb to summit the rock by midday.
The last time I found myself scaling a rock face was about 10 years ago in the Rockies of Colorado Springs. But like most long-forgotten experiences, it all comes back to you pretty quickly in the moment. I even managed to momentarily overcome my anablephobia: a persistent, abnormal, and unwarranted fear of looking up, despite conscious understanding that there is no danger overhead (don’t ask).
On this climb I even found myself using my chin as support while reaching up for a hold in a tricky section known as Mackinder’s Chimney. My guides, Tom and Julian, had traversed this peak many times and are some of the best guides in Kenya.
When our feet hit the safety of the earth in the late afternoon 10 hours later, a 15-year-old skeleton of a leopard that had fallen from the rock (old cat, possibly chasing a rock hyrax when it slipped) was a reminder of the dangers of the mountain.
I’ve done some crazy things throughout my life: sailed across the Indian Ocean with cyclones chasing my rear, hitchhiked overland on the African continent, gone white water rafting and bungee jumping. But this? This made everything else look like a walk in the park, and the feeling of conquering something so challenging has got me looking at what other peaks I could conquer.
Safety guidelines for climbing Mt Kenya:
– Always listen to your guide.
– Take your time when trekking through the park and climbing the mountain. If you’re not used to altitude, you could easily suffer from altitude sickness.
– Beware of the animals. Elephants, buffalo, hyena and leopard call Mt Kenya home.
– Get fit. Train by rock climbing in your area with a certified, experienced guide. If there are no rocks to climb, go to your nearest indoor facility.
– Have a dry bag (you can also put your dry clothes in a bin liner and then put that in your backpack).
– Pack warm clothes. Thermals, gloves, beanies, thick socks, neck warmers, a down jacket and sleeping bag, ski pants and waterproofs. I had 16 layers on, including my beard, and was still cold. Then again, I hate the cold.
– Pack energy bars and oral hydration minerals.
– Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.