Ascent to Mount Kenya-Firmans Tower on 2000-06-20

Climber: Morgan Batt

Date:Tuesday, June 20, 2000
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
Point Reached:Mount Kenya - Firmans Tower
    Elevation:4999 m / 16404 ft
    Remaining Elevation:199 m / 653 ft (2% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

Sitting on the equator in East Africa, one of the hottest parts of the world, is one of the Horn’s unique mountains – Mount Kenya. Unique because it has a glacier, alpine climbing and trekking, a beautiful 400m ice climb called the Blue Diamond, and unique flora biospheres. Mt Kenya is an extinct volcano that last erupted 3.5 million years ago. Its elevation range is approximately 3200m to 5199m and as you climb it is one of the few places (MT Kilimanjaro is the other) in the world where you can pass through distinct vegetative zones – gallery forest, bamboo, giant heather, moorland, giant lobelia and at the uppermost elevations rock and ice.

To the local Kikuyu tribe, Mt Kenya is the home of their God, Nagi, and the location of their creation mythology. It is therefore a place to be treated with respect and reverence by the more than 15,000 people who visit the mountain each year. Of these visitors it is estimated only 40% climb Mt Kenya’s third highest peak – Lenana (4955m) a popular tourist trek. While Mt Kenya’s highest peaks of Nelion (5189m) and Batian (5199m) are only climbed by about 30-50 people each year. These last two peaks sit side by side with a gap of 15m between them called the gates of mist. To climb them requires technical climbing for about 16 pitches and an overnight bivi.

The climb of Mt Kenya started with a warm up hike around the famous rebel Mau Mau caves of Kenya. Then a three day trek into the region staying at some great mountain huts on the way. With guide Ben, cook and porter I was well cared for. We started at the Sirimon Route National Park Gate. This is the least used route and therefore of low environmental impact.

Leaving Nanyuki town we headed for the Park gate. After Ranger check in we headed on a great walk through lower forests of cedar and Podocarpus tress and bamboo. Many species of birds and animals abound here – be careful of the Cape Buffalo as it comes out of no where charging. We trekked 8 kilometers up the Mackinder Valley floor to Old Moses Camp (3350m). Next day crossing numerous valleys where the terrain turns to moorland the trek splits for two routes. We took the left one at 3700m. the valley gradually rises now with many obvious terrain handles for guidance. The streams and the valley contours were good guide posts. Shipton’s Caves (4000m) became our forward looking point which we arrived at late in the afternoon. From the Caves the route is easy to Shipton’s Camp (4236m).

We traversed Mt Kenya trying to view all sides. The North face was going to be my climb. As preparation we climbed up to Point Lenan the day before. I met Wilson the technical guide that night and went to bed a bit nervous about the guide as he had a stutter. Sleep was easily and too short as we had to be up for the compulsory 0400hr start. The morning of the 20th June 2000 saw me and the guide head off for the chipped notch cross on the base wall of the North Face. Too many scree slopes to get to the start. Did I tell you I hate scree. Well I do. Anyway we set up and the guide was to lead climb the first pitch. He seemed very slow but we pushed on. We then leap frogged the pitches. After 14 pitches of really technical but very enjoyable climbing we rested on top of Firmann’s Tower (a 20m crack climb). The guide now looked like utter shit. After a serious stare I asked what was up. He then told me he had malaria – great news at 5000m! I went ape shit, not really at him but now there was no way I was going to push on with a person he could easily die up here – and he looked close to it. I was going to miss the chance to be the first priest to summit Mt Kenya, say Mass. All that training and money for nil. After I clamed down and became rational again I celebrated Mass while Wilson rested. I looked at the summit and I looked at Wilson. I could climb alone but the Gates of Mist is very dangerous solo as it requires cramponing a 20 meter knife edge with a drop off of hundreds of meters on both sides. Then I made the decision to down climb before Wilson became worse. The words of Joe Simpson welled into my head –“climbers and how we look after each other is more important than summits”. Thanks Joe. As we repelled down I met three climbers on the way up. Wilson by now had to be rescued off the mountain by me performing double abseils. About tow hours later we were nearly off the North Face when an almighty earth quake opened up with sharp schist falling everywhere. I was worried for the other three heading up. Mt Kenya is a very dangerous rock fall mountain. And ti occurred to me that has we climbed up we would have been caught at the Gates of Mist in the middle of the quake. Besides being a prat, upset and angry over not making the summit I learnt two days later as we traversed around to American Hut Tarn that one of the three we met was badly injured in the rock fall quake and had lost his leg. A chopper was coming to pinch him off the mountain face. At least Wilson was safe and back in hospital. Although I was 150m from the top I learnt my lesson. Sure have your dreams and goals but don’t step over people to get to them. Take others with you or try again later when we can all move together. I won’t return but I am the first priest to climb the mountain – nearly.
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