There's no getting away from the fact that if you're based in the UK it can be a challenge finding good rock climbing in January! Fortunately this year we had time on our side and were prepared to travel in order to find it. After many weeks weighing up the options we eventually settled upon a destination that has become a climbing backwater in recent years. Political disturbances, the disappearance of winter climbs and the growing popularity of neighbouring Kilimanjaro has meant that Mt Kenya now receives a fraction of the climbers that visited in the past. This is a shame since it has three very important attributes - easy access, reliable weather and most importantly, some of the best multi-pitch rock climbing in the world!
The team who made it all possible!
Within just 36 hours of leaving the UK the three of us - Glynn Carter, Jon Naylor and I found ourselves camped at the start of the Chogoria route. Thanks to a glowing recommendation from our friend Anindya Mukhurjee, we had secured the services of Outdoor Circuits and their excellent team of porters, guides and kitchen staff. In total, we were a team of 12. This might seem like a lot for three climbers but our intention was to get to our objectives in as healthy and well acclimatised condition as possible! We'd heard that enthusiasm and energy had got the better of a number of teams seeking to climb Mt Kenya. Good paths and short distances mean that it's possible to ascend thousands of metres in just a couple of days. Whilst this might suit those planning to take a quick hike up Point Lenana (4985m) it wasn't going to work for those of us who wanted to spend several days on the mountain. Help was needed. Steve, our lead guide, showed us the way and solved a myriad of minor problems. The porters carried our bags and the kitchen staff provided us with three cooked meals a day. What more could we want?!?
The Nithi Falls. Due to its location close to the equator the conditions found on the north and south sides of the mountain differ enormously. The south side is in summer condition between Christmas and mid-March and in winter condition from June to October. The north side follows the reverse pattern.
After registering at the park entrance we spent our first night at a nearby camp site (2950m). The following day we swam at Nithi Falls and continued up to Lake Ellis (3450m). Glynn summed it up well when he said, "a glorious and mesmerising first day's walk accompanied by the sights, sounds and smells of so many new things. The piles of elephant, buffalo and hyena poo along the trail were pure novelty compared to the usual cow pats of Derbyshire. Brilliant first night under 'canvas' with the night's cacophony all neatly rationalised in my brain as being purely down to the 'birds'!" We joined the ridge above the Gorges valley the next morning and reached a highpoint of 4150m before descending to Lake Michaelson (3950m). This proved to be our wettest day. During our time on the mountain, clouds would roll in from late morning and cover the high peaks until early evening. Sometimes these would release rain showers or flurries of snow. However the weather on our walk to Lake Michelson was different! Instead we experienced an afternoon of steady rain and arrived to find our tents and equipment a little damp. Fortunately, this was the worst weather of our trip and as the days passed the amount of precipitation dropped sharply.
A damp walk to Lake Michaelson. There are two "rainy" seasons on Mt Kenya - March to June and August to October. However the "Guide to Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro" warns, "weather disturbances and precipitation can occur at any time of the year...".
Next morning dawned clear and we took a short hike up to Minto's Hut (4300m), stopping for an hour or so, before returning for a late lunch. Above Lake Michelson the environment changed dramatically. Alpine desert was much in evidence, with the only greenery provided by Giant Groundsel and Lobelia.
Heading towards Simba Col. The thin dry air at this altitude provides little barrier to incoming sunlight during the day or to outgoing heat at night. This led the naturalist Olav Helberg to describe Mt Kenya as enjoying, "summer every day and winter every night".
The following night we camped at Simba Col (4620m) and had our first real taste of high altitude. Cold and exposed, it felt strange to think that we were just a few minutes south of the equator! After a late breakfast we walked up to Point Lenana (4985m) and enjoyed clear views of Mt Kenya's climbing summits - Nelion (5188m) and Batian (5199m).
The Austrian Hut with the rocky peaks of Batian and Nelion on the left. The rounded summit of Point Lenana can be seen above the Lewis glacier on the right. Over the last 14 years the Lewis glacier has shrunk by 46%. It is predicted that by 2030 all of the glaciers on Mt Kenya will have disappeared.
After an hour on the summit we dropped down the north side and reached the Austrian Hut (4790m) in time for lunch. This building is the highest on the mountain and offers clean and comfortable accommodation for more than twenty visitors. Before setting off we hadn't given much thought to using the hut and therefore hadn't booked any places. But since it was empty Steve arranged with the warden for us to eat and rest in it!
On reaching Point Lenana we had ticked off our first objective.
What could we do next?