Ascent of Mount Kenya on 2016-01-07
|Others in Party:||Rob Woodall -- Trip Report or GPS Track|
David M. (Guide)
Adrian Rayner (Stayed behind)
----Only Party on Mountain
|Date:||Thursday, January 7, 2016|
|Ascent Type:||Successful Summit Attained|
| Elevation:||17057 ft / 5198 m|
Ascent Trip ReportIntroduction:
Ever since I learned about Mount Kenya as a child, to me it has always been a mountain that dreams are made of. The second highest peak in Africa is the rare summit that is both a dominant country high point and a craggy, sheer-sided tower--not the usual wide, massive bulk like, say, Kilimanjaro. Discovering that Mount Kenya’s topographic prominence placed it firmly among the worldwide top 50 reinforced to me its status as one of the planet’s principal summits and a very attractive goal.
Kilimanjaro is the main draw for trekkers in East Africa, but I kept putting off a trip to its famed snows until I could find a way to also include Mount Kenya in my itinerary. When Rob Woodall proposed a trip to both summits for January 2016, I realized that I was not getting any younger and it was now time to go for it. Rob took the lead in planning an elaborate trip with 9 people doing several different peaks and safaris, the main idea being to do Kili first to get acclimatized, then tackling the daunting rock climbing at 17,000 feet on Kenya in a three-man team of Rob, his friend Adrian, and myself.
The Mount Kenya massif features several craggy summits, the highest two being Batian (5199m) and the nearby and slightly lower Nelion (5188m). Due to snow and ice conditions, the standard route during the January-February dry season is a 20 pitch rock climb up the SE face of Nelion, crux move YDS 5.8, followed by a traverse to Batian. In July-August, the normal route becomes a direct 28-pitch climb, crux move YDS 5.9, directly up the North Face of Batian. We wanted the easier and shorter route, so we timed our trip for the SE face Nelion route.
I wanted to improve my marginal rock-climbing skills during 2015, but a variety of unfortunate events impacted these plans. All I managed was a few rock gym sessions during the year and one short alpine rock outing in March. So as I set off for Africa, I had very serious doubts that I had the skills to climb Mount Kenya and its sheer pitches of fifth-class rock. We arranged for a local technical climbing guide to help us out, but we had no idea how that would work out.
Rob, Adrian, myself, and five others successfully summited Kilimanjaro on January 2, 2016. That trip was somewhat rushed and I had trouble with the altitude for most of it, especially during our night at the crater camp at 19,000 feet. Adrian, too, was not feeling well for most of that trek. But for me the acclimatization on Kili worked, and on Mount Kenya I felt fine for the most part.
Our Mount Kenya trek was operated by Alpine Holidays Kenya, subcontracted though our Tanzania-Kilimanjaro outfitter, Trekili. That firm and all its employees did a great job and were a big part of our success.
Monday, January 4: From the base of Kilimanjaro to the base of Mount Kenya
Rob, Adrian, and I took the Riverside Shuttle bus from Arusha, Tanzania to Nairobi, Kenya, from 8 AM to 3 PM. This appears to be the best overland way of doing this journey, barring a very expensive taxi or private car. The bus was reasonably comfortable despite the lack of AC and being very overcrowded, about half the passengers being Western tourists and the remainder Africans. Jump seats folded out into the aisle of the bus, making it very packed. I chatted at length with an Indian-American woman from New Jersey doing a safari-focused trip with her husband, and she had lots of tips on visiting the Serengeti.
The Arusha-Nairobi road was paved and in good condition and most of the time the bus was able to make pretty good time. The border crossing an Namanga took about half an hour—we disembarked, waited in a line to get our Tanzania exit stamps, then walked a totally random and unsigned route across the road to the Kenyan immigration office, where our pre-paid online-visas seemed to be in order. Then in was back into the bus, where it shortly made a stop at a souvenir store for a bathroom break. Not much food was available, a lost opportunity to make some money from me.
We made good time after the crossing until we came into Athi River, Kenya, a bustling outlying suburb of Nairobi. The traffic in this town was utterly appalling as we would sit, unmoving, for ten minutes at a time—a brutal and excruciating bottleneck. After maybe 45 minutes we got through it to an actual freeway, which despite occasional slowdowns brought us efficiently right into the center of Nairobi on Uhuru Highway. The bus navigated crowded side streets to the Riverside Hotel in the northeast corner of downtown and parked amid a chaotic scene. Rob, Adrian and I got off and waited for our luggage to be removed off the bus roof and somehow our contact, Ken, the manager of Alpine Holidays Kenya, identified us. After introductions we got out bags and followed him for a block over to his minibus.
We told Ken that while here we would like to get some local money at an ATM and perhaps a lunch, since we had been in the bus all day so far. After leaving our bags in his minibus (guarded by his driver, Maurice), we visited a Barclay’s bank (armed guard present) and then a “Steers” fast food restaurant. Seeing “chicken pieces” on the menu in quantities of 5, 10, 15, or 20, I made the quick assumption that they were McNugget-sized and ordered 10. To my chagrin, each piece was a full quarter-chicken! So we had plenty of extra to take with us.
Once done with lunch, Maurice drove Ken, Rob, Adrian, and me north out of Nairobi on the six-lane A2 freeway, past more busting development and teeming neighborhoods. Speed bumps on the freeway marked some very dangerous pedestrian crossings! The freeway ended after a while and then it was a couple more hours of driving on a two-lane road through densely populated lush rural countryside, marked by towns of varying sizes, fume-belching trucks, roadside fruit vendors, and other African scenes. This was very different from the mostly empty arid highlands of south Kenya and north Tanzania. Our only stop was for gas, where I bought a snack and used a squalid bathroom.
Before sunset we caught our first sight of Mount Kenya—a huge dome of cloud-draped highland, with towering otherworldly crags rising from the center, piercing the clouds. It was a thrilling view. At dusk we arrived in the dusty town of Naro Moru, and our driver navigated the totally unsigned dirt tracks running past abandoned railroad tracks to the gated compound of the Naro Moru River Lodge, our hotel for the night. Ken helped us check in to a pleasant two-bedroom, three bed suite room in a detached cabin—we were a glad to be done with a long and weary day of travel.
We still had some planning to do for our trip, though. Ken introduced us to William, our head guide for our Mount Kenya trek, and David, the technical rock guide we had contracted for. David came to our room and we discussed our plans—the idea was that David would lead the first rope, with Adrian following, and then I would lead the second rope with Rob following. I had brought my own rope and protection, and David looked it over and helped subset my rack a bit—he was not very talkative but seemed competent. Our plan was to do a practice climb of a subsidiary peak, Point John, and then tackle the daunting spires of Nelion and Batian the next day.
We also arranged to borrow a couple of big packs from the hotel mountain shop for our porters to use for our heavy technical gear (ice axe, crampons, rope, protection, etc.) since Rob and I had only brought small packs. Footwear was also an issue--David told me to leave behind my dedicated rock shoes, since they will be too cold for conditions, and bring my sneaker-like “approach shoes” instead for the climbing. We also paid Ken for David’s services and planned our destination for tomorrow night (Mackinder’s Hut).
Finally alone, the three of us organized gear a bit, and then went to the hotel restaurant for a late dinner. Like the Ilboru Safari Lodge in Arusha, our hotel here was walled and gated in a remote outlying area, leaving us essentially trapped in the compound for all our needs. I shared the two-bed room with Adrian that night, so Rob, still coughing from a lingering cold, could recover in peace in the single room.
Tuesday, January 5: Day 1 of Trek, to Mackinder’s Hut
We awoke at 7 AM in our room at the Naro Moru River Lodge, got our gear organized, and went to get our free breakfast in the hotel restaurant—a very formal affair, served like a standard dinner. By 8:30 we were in the lobby with our luggage, and a Land Cruiser was there to take us to our trailhead. Our crew was Ken, the tour company boss; William, the driver; another William, our trekking guide; and David, our rock climbing guide. Rob, Adrian, and I piled in with our gear, and a few minutes later, as we crossed the main highway to head to the National Park gate, two of our porters jammed in the back of the Land Cruiser. The rest of the porters were already at the “Met Station” trailhead, waiting for us.
It is almost impossible to get an early start on the first day of a major African trek, due to long drives on bad roads to get to trailheads, and the requisite stops for bureaucratic paperwork. We drove the Naro Moru road towards Mount Kenya and at the park gate Ken got out and spent twenty minutes or so getting our permits and fees all taken care of. This is a key service that trekking agencies provide, dealing with all this. Ken then bid us farewell, heading back down in some other vehicle, and the rest of us continued up the dirt road past the gate.
The road was steep and muddy in parts, but the Land Cruiser had no problem until it hit a hairpin curve just before Percival’s Bridge. The area was clearly under construction, but right now was a morass and the truck got totally stuck in the mud. We all got out, but William could not make any progress in the half-meter deep ruts. So we all scavenged the area for big rocks, which we dumped in the ruts for traction. This worked, and after three attempts each made a little bit of progress, William got his truck through the bad patch. The remainder of the road was fine up to our trailhead, the Meteorological Station at 3050m/10,000 ft.
Here our expedition got fully organized. We had our head guide William, a cook, six porters, and David, our rock guide. The client/staff ratio was actually less than on Kili, since we were staying in huts on Mount Kenya and there was no need to any tents. But, like Kili, it was a fully catered trip, and our staff provided us with all meals and carried most of our weight, especially the heavy climbing gear. I was a bit uncomfortable with them carrying that, since I was used to many technical expeditions with huge packs. But my companions wanted the porters, the locals needed the jobs, it didn’t cost much, and I realized that I might need every advantage I could get to climb this peak.
As we got ready William the driver left to get his Land Cruiser down the muddy road before more rain came, and a bold baboon scampered over to our food pile and stole a banana right under our noses. Eventually, at 10:45 AM, William the guide, Rob, Adrian and myself started hiking while the porters organized more. Ironically, the first part of our hike was on a nicely paved concrete trail that led to a police antenna station, but after that we were briefly in a dense forest under a heavy overcast. We started seeing other trekkers coming down, including a friendly Kenyan who I initially thought might be a porter.
We left the forest and the route was now uphill past low bushes into the grassy moorland zone. This part of the trail is called the “vertical bog” but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. There were certainly a few marshy spots, and the path was unfortunately widely braided due to trekkers avoiding the swamps, but it was really pretty standard going. It was a bit windy and there were occasional drops coming down, but it never amounted to real rain.
At a set of craggy rocks we stopped for lunch—our team’s porters seemed to be lagging quite a bit, but the cook and his food arrived at the “Picnic Rocks” to give us a good lunch of cold food that we spread out on a concrete wall. Another group of trekkers came downhill, a Kenyan man and his wife with their porters—nice to see that the visitors to this park were not all wealthy white tourists.
After lunch we hiked uphill some more in thick clouds until the route flattened out a bit as it contoured above the scenic Teleki Valley below. William set a slow “pole pole” pace, and he was very knowledgeable about the local flora and was able to answer all of our many questions. As the afternoon progressed the clouds started clearing, and we started to notice the massive rock towers of Mount Kenya looming ahead. It was a thrilling sight—the clouds eventually cleared entirely and we were seriously humbled and scared at the prospect of scaling the rock walls rearing up ahead. Point John, our “practice climb” set for tomorrow, looked like the highest and pointiest pinnacle of them all from our foreshortened viewpoint.
The path eventually dropped a little bit, crossed a stream, and soon reached Mackinder’s Hut (4200m/13,800 ft), our lodging for the night. It was a large and mostly clean facility with a long common room with tables, and several large bunkrooms attached. The hut was rather quiet, with just a couple of other people tenting outside—perhaps the bad condition of the access road had lessened traffic on this route.
Some of our porters had some kind of problem and were way behind us, but fortunately they all eventually arrived, and our cook prepared the standard filling muti-course trekker’s dinner in the evening. David talked to us afterwards and we got our gear and packs ready for our Point John climb tomorrow—William and our porters would be taking our overnight gear up to our next lodging (the Austrian Hut) while David took us on the rock climbing detour.
Rob, Adrian, and I had a huge bunkroom to ourselves and slept well—Rob still had a persistent cough while awake but he was able to sleep quietly, thankfully.
Wednesday, January 6: Point John Practice Climb
After an early breakfast in the dark, chilly common room of Mackinder’s hut, David the rock guide, Rob, Adrian, and I set off at 7 AM. Our packs were relatively heavy with all our climbing gear (2 ropes, 2 complete climbing racks, rock shoes, water, lunch). David led us, and his pace was definitely not the standard “pole pole” (slowly slowly) as he quickly took a trail that traversed more moorland and, after a brief detour by him to get his climbing gear at a ranger station, started climbing scree switchbacks uphill. Sadly, Adrian was feeling weak and tired and could not keep up with David’s pace, so after a rest stop where we waited for him, David, not a chatty person, basically hinted that Adrian might best head to the Austrian Hut today and rest. He was still suffering from the low energy he had on Kili and the pace was just too much for him at this time. So after that the three of us left him behind and make good time up the switchbacks to a cairn, where a left turn took us on a rough and rugged route through glacial moraine boulders and rubble towards the imposing tower of Point John.
After quite a bit of scrambling up unstable scree and talus, we arrived at the base of the Southeast Gully route on Point John and got ready for some rock climbing. Three is an awkward number of climbers, and David’s plan was for Rob to tie in at the end of my 60m rope, and then I tie in 7m in front of Rob. Then David was to go first, with about 50m of rope to work with, belayed by me. At the top of each pitch David would set up a top-rope anchor, and then Rob and I would climb up at the same time, 7 meters apart. Rob would clean the pitch of David’s pro placements. If either one of us fell while simul-climbing, it might slightly impact the other, but with a good top-rope belay that is not much of an issue.
So I changed into my sneaker-like approach shoes, left behind my rack of pro (since I was now no longer lead climbing), and started belaying David as he confidently headed up the first pitch. We worked out a series of voice commands, too—despite coming from climbing cultures separated by 10,000 miles we have no problem quickly establishing good communication and rapport.
We climbed seven pitches up Point John, and I would say that the hardest crux section was maybe YDS 5.6. Most of the rest was quite easy climbing, 4th class or low 5th class, with good holds on clean rock, and all of it was well within the abilities of Rob and myself—we never came close to falling. David knew where all belay anchors were located and it was nice for us to not have to worry about route-finding. The terrain was certainly very exposed, with breathtaking vertical views in all directions.
The last pitch took us to a rocky sloped platform below a knife-edge summit block, where Rob and I took turns getting belayed to the very top (4883m/16,020 ft) to claim this low-prominence subsidiary summit. Views to the twin crags of Batian and Nelion were very impressive as we ate our boxed lunch—we also heard voices, likely climbers on Nelion, our destination tomorrow.
Descent from Point John was via 7 or 8 rappels, David again leading us with his knowledge of all the existing rappel anchors, a combination of fixed bolts and collections of old slings. I think that on the last two rappels we made use of our second rope to do extra-long double-rope descents, where we had to make sure we pulled the correct color strand once done. We were back at the base of the climb by 2:40 PM, 5 hours after we initially roped up.
In many ways this climb was key to our later success on Nelion and Batian. The three of us had ample opportunity to work together as a team, get our climbing rhythm down, and get used to our voice commands and rope management practices. And David got a sense of the climbing abilities of his clients, which I think helped us greatly the next day. And for Rob and me, doing a real multi-pitch climb to 16,000 feet was a good confidence booster. I certainly felt a lot better about our chances on the main peak.
Once we got our climbing gear all packed up we still had a long hike to the Austrian Hut, almost all of it on miserable scree and talus left behind by the rapidly shrinking Lewis Glacier. This was probably a lot more dangerous than our rock climb—many of the big rocks we scrambled over were disconcertingly unstable. Our route meandered around a small tarn and then climbed up the right side of the icy glacier remnant and finally up to the top of a large buttress, where a large flat basin held the Austrian Hut (4790m/15,700 ft). Our trekking guide William was there to meet us, and his crew prepared the usual hot drinks for us, and, a bit later, a good dinner. We also caught up with Adrian, who had been napping and felt more rested and was now hopeful he could accompany us on the main climb tomorrow.
The Austrian hut was a smaller structure than the others on the mountain, with a set of small 4-bunk rooms, once of which we claimed. It was a bit noisy and chaotic, too, with several other teams and their complement of cooks and porters all milling about. We talked to an (appropriately) Austrian woman from the next room who was climbing Nelion tomorrow with her Swiss military-guide boyfriend, but they were not heading to Batian as we were. (Apparently there is a long-standing Austrian connection to Mount Kenya, dating back to a huge rescue effort of an Austrian climber in 1970).
Thursday, January 7: Nelion Climb and traverse to and from Batian
We awoke at 4 AM after a restless night--no one really got much sleep owing to noise from clients leaving the hut, cooks making food, and frequent trips to the outhouse. After a quick breakfast we got together our packs, which were by far the heaviest of our entire vacation—we had ropes, rock protection, ice axes, crampons, sleeping bags, water and food for 2 days, and all our warm clothing. All this barely fit in our rather small packs. Adrian said it might be the heaviest pack he has ever carried, surprising me, a veteran of many multi-night backpacks.
Our group left the Austrian Hut at 4:45 AM—David, Rob, Adrian, myself, and another guide who at first I thought was William but was actually an assistant that David knew. We first carefully downclimbed tricky moraine boulders in the pitch darkness to the hard, crusty ice of the Lewis Glacier, where we stopped to put on crampons for the short traverse—it was difficult footing on the ice, especially in the dark, but we got across with no issues. After stowing our crampons, we started chugging up more steep, unstable scree for several hundred vertical feet towards the base of Nelion’s cliffs ahead.
Here Adrian again started falling behind—due to his long-festering altitude/intestinal illness, he just did not have the energy for sustained uphill travel at this altitude. He gave his all and our entire team waited for him and gave him encouragement, but it soon became clear to him that he simply did not have enough gas in the tank for this endeavor. Adrian eventually made it to the base of the rock climb, where he wished us well, and then David’s assistant accompanied him back to the Austrian hut. I gave the returning guide my rock protection, too, since I would no longer be leading a rope.
It was now about dawn and David, Rob, and I got ready for our 20-pitch climb of Nelion. I put on my approach shoes and stashed my hiking boots under a rock, we put on our harnesses, and roped up in the same configuration as yesterday, with me tying in 7 meters in front of Rob at the end of the rope. I was expecting to belay David up the first pitch, but was surprised when he had us coil up most of the rope and start scrambling up the first cliff without any protection.
Apparently David had learned from our Point John climb yesterday that Rob and I were very comfortable on YDS 4th class/low 5th class rock, so he only felt the need to do fully belayed climbing for about 7 of the 20 pitches on our route. This was fine by us, and we moved very quickly up the first few sections and saved a great deal of time overall by doing it this way. Based on the route topos I had, we did not protect the pitches rated UIAA grade I or II.
The Swiss-Austrian couple was the only other party on the route, and we followed them somewhat closely for the entire way up to the summit of Nelion. They would often call back to David, asking for directions—part of me thought they should help pay for our guide, but of course it was in everyone’s best interest that they remain on-route and safe.
Our first roped pitch was a tricky traverse around a very airy corner, and there was one pitch not long after that the was maybe YDS 5.7 as we climbed up the SE face of Nelion—it was definitely a sheer vertical world on this peak, with huge exposure a given. We got near a large piece of sheet metal that apparently used to be a hut called “Baille’s Bivvy” and then crested the main SE ridge of Nelion, and crossed over to the South Face and descended briefly. Here we had to wait for a little bit for the Swiss-Austrian couple, and then we scrambled over to the base of the steep terrain of the face. Here we had to climb the crux pitch, called De Graff’s variation, which I would rate as YDS 5.8. Rob and I somehow managed this despite heavy overnight packs, no rock shoes, and the nearly 17,000 foot altitude, but I do admit I used one of David’s cams as an aid handhold.
Above De Graff’s there was another tricky traverse around another corner, and then a long gully with loose rock. I was waiting here with David for the Swiss-Austrian couple when a small rock came whizzing down and hit me in the right arm—fortunately it was too small to cause any harm. We carefully scrambled up this chute, and I believe that there was one more pitch we protected, featuring an awkward final step. Once we surmounted that, it was an easy scramble to the summit of Nelion (5188m/17,021 ft). It was only 11:30 AM and I was ecstatic at our progress, only 6 hours to this point.
The Swiss-Austrian couple was on top, too, and we got our first view of the tiny Howell Hut bivvy shelter. We threw our sleeping bags and food inside, happy that our three-man team had it to ourselves—the couple was not going to Batian and after their lunch break they asked David about the location of first rappel they would use for their descent. We also had lunch, and since we had plenty of time, soon got ready for the traverse over to Batian, the highest point of Mount Kenya. I assumed it would be somewhat trivial after our long climb to Nelion.
My optimism evaporated quickly when, a few feet down from Nelion’s summit, David had us put on our crampons—mine did strap on to my glorified sneakers but obviously my footwear was not ideal for ice climbing. We walked in coils down some steeply sloping hard snow mixed with loose rocks—very scary—and then along a level rock ridge that abruptly ended at a prow. Here David set up a single-rope rappel, telling us to use a prussik backup due to reduced friction from one strand. I had trouble with this, my first ever single-rope rappel and also my first while wearing crampons—I banged my feet against the cliff and one of my crampons came half-off my shoe. Once down, David left this rope in place to help us when we returned.
At the base of the rappel we were in the Gate of the Mists col, living up to its name at the time. We carefully walked across the snowy crest of the col, with tremendous exposure down both sides, and then David led on another pitch of mixed snow and rock that went around a massive gendarme to our right and then up towards the Batian summit ridge. This was tricky for me, trying to kick steps in hard snow while wearing lightweight shoes. Once at the crest, we happily stowed our crampons and David led a fun roped rock pitch that featured a very airy and narrow friction slab, the clouds now clearing for a bit. One more short pitch and we saw a large block immediately ahead with a metal Kenyan flag bolted to it—the summit at last!
I was quite happy and excited on the final pitches, realizing how close I was, and felt exultant to have reached this remote spot. But the concentration and effort of the climb had taken up most of my mental cycles and I could not fully appreciate yet what I had done.
We rested in the sheltered bowl below the highest rocks, and then Rob and I took turns getting belayed up to the very top rock (5199m/17,057 ft) and getting our photos taken. It was about 2:30 PM. We then started to eat some snacks as we basked in the internal glow of a great achievement—it is commonly stated that only 50 parties a year make it to this difficult summit. However, the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse and the formerly benign cloud we were in started spitting rain and eventually snow on us. We couldn’t stay and quickly packed up and left. David set up a rappel down the now-wet narrow friction slab and soon the three of us were back at the top of Batian’s snow pitch.
We put on our crampons, and downclimbed while on the rappel line over the steep mixed terrain to the base of the gendarme, and David then set up a line for use to use so we can safely traverse back into the Gate of the Mists. All we had to do now was climb back up about 50m to Nelion, but this was the toughest climbing of the day—the route went up some very steep snow adjacent to the cliff we rappelled down an hour or two ago. David used the rope he left behind as a safety anchor, using a prussik as his protection as he carefully climbed the dangerous slope. He took a while, and Rob and I were very cold while waiting in the windy white-out snowstorm, almost a blizzard.
David finally got to a high rock fin, set up an anchor, and it was our turn to climb. The snow slope was treacherous and about 50 degrees steep or more, with the snow so hard that there were not really any good steps from David’s passage. I used my axe like an ice tool and kicked as hard as I could, trying not to think about the huge drop off below and very happy for my top-rope belay as the snow continued to pelt us. At the anchor we had another short snow climb, now easier, to a point where David could go and fetch the rope he left behind. Once he had that, we hiked up the last pitch of mixed snow/rock to Nelion. The final obstacle was when Rob dropped his axe as we neared the end—it didn’t go far and I downclimbed a little bit so he could scramble down and retrieve it.
Back at Nelion’s summit, we were very happy to remove our crampons, harnesses, and ropes, and then clamber into the tiny Howell Hut. This structure is certainly the smallest building I have ever slept in—it’s dimensions are 2m x 2m x 1m, and access is a small door in the middle of one side. There are three foam pads inside, meaning it’s really designed for three people, but David said he was once in there with 9 people during a storm—must have been literally like human sardines. I also appreciated the foam on the ceiling, preventing head injury when one sits up!
It was windy, cold, and wet outside at about 6 PM when we went in for the night. I took the furthest in space, Rob the middle one, and David by the door—this meant that I was basically trapped and could not go outside without seriously displacing the others. But it was relatively cozy and warm as we turned on our headlamps, ate some cold food while sitting up, and soon settled in for some well-deserved rest.
Friday, January 8: Descent from Nelion, Point Lenana hike, and down to Shipton’s Camp
My night in the miniscule Howell Hut was not terribly uncomfortable—my main issue was that it was not quite long enough for my height so I could not fully stretch out. As dawn came we all stirred, and David opened the little door to show us good weather, as usual for African mountain mornings. But it was still windy and cold and he said we should wait until 7:30 AM to start. Views out the door featured the distant bulk of Kilimanjaro rising above a cloud layer to the south.
We ate more cold food for breakfast and eventually moved out of the tiny shelter into the morning sunshine to get our gear organized—most of it had dried out after yesterday’s snow and rain. After getting packed up we scrambled down a short way to the start of the first of the 12 rappels it took to get us down from our lofty perch. We had two ropes, and our teamwork showed as we efficiently leapfrogged our way down—often David was setting up the next rappel with a second rope while Rob and I pulled down and coiled the one we just used.
This was by far the most sequential rappelling I had ever done, and they all blurred together after a while. It was again very helpful to have a good guide with us—David knew exactly where all the rappel anchors were, and our route deviated quite a bit from our ascent line. Our third or fourth rappel featured a tiny and exposed landing ledge that was only about two feet wide and with room for only two people—I rappelled second, and David had to take off before Rob could come down. At this point we were fortunately all very good about remembering to clip in while between rappels!
The main glitch during our descent came after finishing the rap of De Graff’s variation—we pulled the rope and it got stuck about 10 meters above us. David very calmly instructed me to belay him and he expertly re-climbed the lower part of the pitch, freed the rope, and down-climbed safely. Rob called this incident “De Graff’s last laugh”. After this, a short low angle rappel led to a traverse and climb over the crest of the main southeast ridge, and then several more rappels, some quite vertical or overhanging. I accidentally gave myself a tiny rope burn when I stupidly grasped the rope above my ATC on most overhanging drop. Also, one more minor rope-pulling snag was easily undone by me with a 2-meter scramble. After about 12 rappels, all single rope, we touched down at the base of the rock climb, at 11:00 AM, three hours after starting the descent.
We thought David was heading directly down from here, so Rob and I took this opportunity to give him a generous tip for his good work over the past few days in helping us fulfill our dreams. Turns out he was headed to the Austrian Hut with us anyway, so after a long rest (where we stowed our ropes and other gear) we followed him down the ugly, miserable loose scree to the Lewis Glacier, then back across the hard, awkward ice, and then the short stretch of talus up to the hut. William the trekking guide was there to welcome us, and he took some nice photos of the three of us happy summit climbers.
William, Adrian, and the others in the hut had been watching our progress on Nelion, helped by my bright orange pack, so they had figured out that we had summited yesterday. Adrian, obviously bored, had left the Austrian hut this morning with two porters to head to Shipton’s Hut, the next one down along our descent route—for variety we had decided on a traverse using the Sirimon Route to go down. This also gave Adrian the chance to summit Point Lenana, the trail-accessible third-highest summit of the Mount Kenya massif.
Rob and I decided to follow him this afternoon, after a lunch and short nap at the hut. So we first said our final heartfelt goodbyes to David (headed down the Naro Moru route), then had a nice meal provided by our cook, and finally laid down on our bunks in our little bunkroom for an hour. However, a large team of Polish trekkers commandeered our room for their lunch—we tried to be friendly but were kind of wiped out and eventually napped while they chatted unintelligibly. Our porters left while we rested, carrying our food, kitchen gear, and the large packs with our sleeping bags and climbing gear.
At 2 PM William, Rob, and I left the Austrian Hut, taking the short route to Shipton’s Camp, which climbed over Point Lenana (4895m/16,060 ft), the summit goal of most visitors. A good trail switchbacked uphill through intermittent afternoon clouds, with largely unnecessary handrail chains, to the summit—we were a little out of breath after our recent climbing but it still seemed relatively trivial to us. The summit of Lenana was marked by a Kenyan flag, a glass case holding an open bible, a radio tower, and a nearby iron ladder they called the “highest via ferrata in the world”.
We waited a bit on Lenana for clouds to clear for a good shot of Nelion and Batian, then eventually took off down a steep but easy and well-maintained scree path that led down the northwest slopes of the summit, past scenic Harris Tarn, and then steeply down screefields to the beckoning green roofs of the Shipton’s Camp hut complex. The last bit of trail went down an interesting rock cleft. The evening was remarkably clear, and the views of the sheer cliffs of Nelion and Batian above the hut were jaw-dropping. We could see a great deal of snow on the North Face of Batian, clearly that route was not in season right now.
We arrived at Shipton’s Camp (4260m/13,975 ft) at about 5 PM, and quickly we quickly found Adrian—reunited, we shared our stories. The hut here was somewhat busy, with about 3 other trekking parties of between 3 and 6 people, plus their support personnel, milling about. Adrian had been talking to a Swedish guy in the absence of Rob and me, and a friendly Englishman had heard of our summit success and came over to share some expensive whisky he brought along—Rob and Adrian appreciated it.
Like Mackinder’s Hut, Shipton’s featured huge 30-bed bunkrooms, so our sleep was disturbed by a noisy exodus of several people at 3 AM, headed to Lenana for a sunrise summit arrival.
Saturday, January 9: Descent from Shipton’s Camp to Sirmion Gate
After our standard hearty African trekking breakfast in the common room of Shipton’s hut, we got packed up and started our long trek out at 8:30 AM—our goal today was to get out to the Sirmion Gate of the National Park and then spend tonight in our hotel. Our hiking group was again just the four of us: William the guide, Rob, Adrian and myself. We were coming out a day earlier than planned, so William would be contacting his boss Ken at the tour company by phone as soon as he was in cell range, to make sure our transportation and hotel for the night was arranged.
It was a relatively long hike today, 14 miles/22.5 km, and featured some elevation gain as the route cut across a few river valleys. Most of it was across rolling grassy moorland, marked by occasional swampy bogs, bizarre-looking lobelia plants, and awesome views behind of us of the cats-ears crags of Nelion and Batian. Our porters all passed us at one point or another, and a large mixed-race group of trekkers (and their support staff) was encountered plodding uphill, coming the other way.
After about noon it got very cloudy and some rain showers got us a bit wet. We reached a maintenance road near the Old Moses Camp, and then stopped at the nearby Judmaier Camp (3350m/11,000 ft) for lunch—this was just a covered picnic shelter, and our cooks and porters provided one last hearty meal for us as it rained. Large, quality hot meals seem to be the main perk of the standard African trekking expedition, and our last one was well received. After lunch, we had a short ceremony where Rob, Adrian, and I thanked our guide, cook, and porters, and distributed cash tips to them, based on information William had given us.
From Judmaier Camp we still had over 5 miles of boring downhill road walking to get to the park gate. The forest on either side of the road looked interesting and inviting, but the road and its shoulder swaths were so wide that any novelty was lost and we mostly just broiled in the hot sun once the rain showers ended. The only real interesting landmark was a crossing of the equator just before the end of our walk, and we counted down the distance on our GPS units. Sure enough, a large sign was posted right at the WGS84 equator location, my first ever land crossing (and first by foot for Rob and Adrian) of the line. After a few photos, we were very soon at the Sirmion Gate (2650m/8690 ft), at about 2:55 PM.
Ken, the tour company boss, was there to meet us with a minibus, and after some paperwork to sign out at the park office most of us, including William and many porters, piled in for the hour-long drive back to Naro Moru. The drive was on a good-quality road past many farms, then the highway though teeming downtown Nanyuki, and finally to the Naro Moru River Lodge, where we were installed in the same suite room we had five nights before. Showers, relaxing, and a good dinner were a nice way to end our expedition.
Mount Kenya is a fantastic mountain, and my climb represents quite possibly the most impressive technical mountaineering I have ever done—I had never before climbed a continuous 400m/1300ft wall of vertical terrain, and doing it at over 16,000 feet and in Africa added to the difficulty and allure. The mixed rock/snow work on the double-traverse was also an exciting challenge in a spectacular setting.
The vast majority of trekkers on Mount Kenya satisfy themselves with a hike up Point Lenana. While this is a scenic and worthwhile journey, true peakbaggers would not be content without at least attempting the true Mount Kenya highpoint.
Rob and I possessed just enough skill and experience to competently follow our excellent guide David on the climb. I think if we had tried it without a guide, we would have had serious routefinding issues due to lack of big-wall and multi-pitch experience. Also, I would have needed to lead a couple pitches pack-less and haul it up after me. A guide’s knowledge of the route and its belay/rappel anchors would likely save even the best climbers a great deal of time.
So if you have the time and the money for this trip, and have a reasonable amount of roped rock climbing experience up to YDS 5.8, and don’t mind steep snow traverses, I highly recommend an attempt on Batian as a unique and compelling alpine adventure. Feel free to contact me for more information and advice about this peak.
|Summary Total Data|
| Total Elevation Gain:||180 ft / 54 m|
| Round-Trip Distance:||0.1 mi / 0.2 km|
| Route:||SE Ridge|
| Trailhead:||Gate of the Mists 16877 ft / 5144 m|
| Quality:||10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)|
| Route Conditions:||Snow on Ground, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb, Snow Climb|
| Gear Used:||Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Guide, Porters, Hut Camp|
| Weather:||Snowing, Cold, Windy, Low Clouds|
|Ascent Part of Trip: 2016 - Kenya|
Complete Trip Sequence:
Total Trip Gain: 9115 ft / 2779 m Total Trip Loss: 10428 ft / 3179 m
|GPS Data for Ascent/Trip|
GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks: climbed and unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.
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