I was dropped off in Nanyuki from the Kenya safari, ready to meet my guide, cook and porter for a trek up Mt Kenya (5199m). I also met my climbing companion, Duncan from the U.K., who shared my interest in African politics and general amusement and despair in reaction to life in Africa.
Our guide was Francis Njuuri at Ice Rock Mountain Adventures in Nairobi. A short, rough ride in the back of our small truck, and a few bribes to the local roadside police inspections later we reached the park gate and the starting point of our climb at 2635m following the Sirimon route. While it was quite cold, Duncan and I, and some interesting Americans, warmed up quickly as we climbed steadily up, our guides making sure we weren't exerting ourselves too much. Towards our first night hut at 3300m, the views of the alpine areas started to unfold around us, at this stage looking reminiscent of the Victorian high country.
The next day the scenery became even more spectacular, with rugged rolling ridges and valleys and some glimpses of the rugged rocky peaks through the clouds. The climbing was getting harder and the air was very cold when we stopped moving. The weather became more threatening later in the day, and shortly after we first glimpsed snow on the ridges above us and just as we approached our hut for the night, it started hailing very heavily. A few minutes after arriving at Shiptons Hut (4200m) the landscape around us was covered in white hail/snow. Some of our hiking companions were not so lucky and didn't arrive at the hut till awhile later. The altitude was certainly affecting most people by this stage and the hut was extremely cold. Another Australian that had climbed too far in one day (from the base of the mountain) was feeling it a lot worse than any of us, with quite severe altitude sickness. At this stage we appreciated the slower pace we had set (although it was still very hard work!) and the care and experience our guides were showing us. They gave us plenty of excellent food and drink (well, ok it was just hot tea) which certainly boosted morale at the end of the day. The view of the summit and the steep glaciers in between the rocky peaks was incredible.
Some of our companions got up early the next morning to reach the summit from this side, but Duncan and I had a later start as we headed around the summit circuit path. The summit circuit took us on a high altitude, steep and undulating path over successive ridges radiating out from the rocky summit which was always on our left. Changing cloud cover prevented us from gaining a completely clear view of the ominous peaks but gave the whole summit area a threatening feel as we ascended and then descended three steep ridges. At the lower points we walked passed beautiful clear but fairly shallow tarns and small bubbling creeks making their way over the rocks and quickly down the mountain.
Halfway through our circuit path, it started snowing and got steadily heavier. We began our last long climb, with a thick blanket of snow all around us softening our footsteps up the mountain. The comparison between the landscape, environment and conditions we were in with everything else we had experienced in the previous two months contributed to the magical feeling. Our pace got slower as the long climb continued to stretch ever further on above us, with another tarn and then a huge glacier between us and a great rocky monolith with snow clinging to ledges on the steep sides. Finally we reached Austrian Hut at 4800m and a mild headache set in, my first real symptoms of the high altitude. If I took even a few quick steps to get to the toilet a little way from the hut, my head would throb harder, leaving me in no doubt that I had just over-exerted myself. It continued to snow for the rest of the day, the sky miraculously clearing after sunset to give us amazing views of the stars, from our snow covered rocky viewpoint on top of the world. It remained clear through most of the night, even after the moonrise which more brightly illuminated our snowy surroundings.
We got up reasonably early in the morning, to find that clouds had rolled in, dashing our hopes of a clear sunrise from the summit of Pt Lenana at 4985m, the highest point you could reach without technical and extremely challenging climbing. Although it was less than 200m above us, the trek up to the summit was very difficult and steep. The clouds blocked our view of the sun, but they were high enough not to obscure our view of the incredible alpine scene around us. The snowfall from the previous day beautifully highlighted the rugged terrain of ridges and valleys stretching and dropping away from us into the distance.
We savoured our time in the very brisk but fortunately quite calm conditions at the summit, before slowly working our way down off the summit and then quickly descending, sliding down the snow covered sides. Before long we dropped below the snow line and more clouds and rain set in, obscuring our view of the canyon beside us as we followed the Chogoria route down the mountain, tired and exhausted but making quick progress.
As the summits faded from view behind us, we moved out into rolling hillside country, with the weather also improving. The terrain and vegetation continued to change around every corner. Before long we were walking in forest and open glades, on a walking safari as we spotted quite a few animals which were very wary of us. We made it to our last campsite, Meru Mt Kenya Lodge back down at 3000m. The next day we had a long walk through bamboo and other forest vegetation along almost impassable roads. We met our 4WD pick-up as far along the road as it had been able to get, then watched as they promptly got it stuck trying to turn it around. Another African recovery process ensued, but the old land cruiser was eventually ready to go, and somehow we made it along the rest of the road to Chogoria without getting stuck. We then had to squash into a Kenyan Matatu for the ride back to Nairobi, which included a couple of repair stops and numerous police checkpoints (i don't even think much money changed hands).
I will never forget Mt Kenya - it will remain one of the highlights of my time in Africa. The snowfalls and challenging conditions certainly added to the experience, but there is no doubt that it is an amazing mountain.