In January 2019 Glynn Carter, Jon Naylor and I spent two weeks climbing on Mt Kenya. Part 1 can be found here. Here's Part 2...
At 3.30am I woke with a start. It was a full hour before the alarm was due to go off and I was wide awake. I lay in my small yellow tent thinking about the day ahead. Our objective was the South East Face of Nelion. Graded at UIAA IV- I knew that the route was well within our reach. Online reports had even described the hardest pitches as being no more than a UK Severe or Hard Severe. Nevertheless the stories coming from those we'd met on the walk to Austrian Hut told a different story. Snowy conditions, difficult route finding and the effects of high altitude had led several teams to back off the route. In some cases, teams hadn’t even made it to the start.
Mt Kenya has two summits - Batian (5199m) and Nelion (5188m). The route on the South East Face of Nelion (Red) is the most popular climb on the mountain during the winter season. The start is reached from the Austrian Hut (4700m) in under 2 hours.
Lying alone in the tent I wasn’t sure if I was up to it. Were we going to fare any better? I tried to distract myself by repeatedly packing and unpacking my rucksac. Over the years I’ve found myself doing this more and more often. Part of this is forgetfulness, but just as importantly, there is a growing fear of leaving something important behind. I’ve simply forgotten too many harnesses, helmets and racks to have any confidence in my packing!
Along with the many failures on the South East Face, the route has also had its fair share of tragedies. This had led to the building of not one, but two, rescue shelters along the way. The first is Baillie’s Bivvy, a small aluminium shelter hammered into a rocky alcove on the south ridge. Unfortunately, some time ago the door was lost and there had been reports of considerable amounts of snow building up inside. Guidebooks and local knowledge had warned us that Baillie’s would provide us with little shelter and shouldn't be relied upon.
Baillie's Bivvy - Situated on the south ridge approximately half way up the route. Despite reports that it was often banked out with snow, we found the bivvy to be dry albeit a little cramped!
Fortunately on the summit there was something far more substantial. Less than a metre high, the aluminium structure of the Howell Hut can accommodate four horizontal climbers in relative comfort. The hut was the brainchild of Ian Howell, one of Mt Kenya's leading explorers. Here’s how Ian's described the building process,
“The hut was officially finished in February 11th 1970. It was originally built in my garden in Isiolo and I probably started work on that about six months earlier. Then the Kenya Police Airwing airdropped it in five loads each with its own parachute on to the Lewis Glacier at the beginning of January 1970 and it took me till 11th February to carry all the sections up to the top of Nelion and bolt it together. Mostly I did this on my own and after about two weeks I felt I needed a change, so went down to the coast for a few days and just rested, swam and drank Tasker until I felt like going back to finish it, which I did.”
The Howell Hut - Situated close to the summit of Nelion, the hut can comfortably accommodate 4 climbers. The hut is dry, well insulated and has foam mats on the floor.
In all, Ian soloed the route 13 times in order to build it. Surely we could manage it once? With this spark of encouragement I started to get dressed. Noises from the neighbouring tent meant that Jon was stirring too. Soon I was ready and headed over towards the Austrian Hut for breakfast. Jon soon arrived and his mix of confidence and enthusiasm lifted the mood. We were not going back to bed just yet. We headed off shortly after 0500. Steven, our local guide, set off confidently using little more than the light from his mobile phone to guide us through the featureless glacial debris. All went well until we reached a dark overhanging rock face. Even in the feeble pre-dawn light it was clear that this wasn’t the start of the route. Steven told us to wait and quickly disappeared into the darkness. With nothing to do we took off our sacks and sat down. As our eyes grew accustomed to the light we spotted the summit of Kilimanjaro breaking through the bubbling grey cloud far away to the south. The thought that perhaps a few dozen trekkers were looking towards us was a strange comfort. We weren’t really alone, I thought. It’s strange what altitude can do to your thought processes!
After what seemed like only a few minutes Steven called over to us. With better light he had spotted the start and we were off again. The rock ahead finally started to sit back and soon it matched up with our guidebook description. We joined a cold but relieved Steven at the gearing up point. Smiles were shared and we shook hands. This was it. We were on our own. I led off up an easy slabby pitch and set up a belay below a chimney.
Jon leading the first chimney pitch.
In most conditions this next pitch would have been an easy solo. But at nearly 5000m on Mt Kenya, it was best done roped together. Jon led off and made light work of the chimney. Soon the end of the 60m rope was tugging at my waist and we quickly found ourselves climbing together. Easy ground followed and moving far too quickly I found myself standing next to Jon in a somewhat breathless state. By now the sun was up and the rock was feeling warm. The next pitch began with a steep exposed traverse. Described as an “airy step” in the guidebook, this took me past the base of Mackinder’s Chimney and up to a secure belay. Jon quickly followed and he was soon standing beside me and looking up at the first crux pitch.
Jon beneath the start of Mackinder's Chimney
In order to overcome a short triangular roof it was necessary to climb a steep wall on the left. This turned out to contain the hardest sequence of the day. All went well at first. The cracks contained good holds and held an encouraging amount of gear. Jon was able to run out 15m of rope in just a few minutes. Unfortunately further progress grounded to a halt. Pegs were clipped and extra protection was arranged. It was clear that the rock had steepened and a plan was being hatched. Time passed. Jon dusted his fingers with chalk and with a deep breath pulled up urgently and made a long step right onto the roof. It was only a few metres of climbing but it was clear from Jon’s body language that it was far from easy.
Jon climbing the crux.
The first difficulty had now been passed. Above us, the friendly One O‘Clock Gully stretched as far as the eye could see. Climbing together we covered the ground quickly and soon found ourselves at Baillie’s Bivvy. This was an important landmark – we had reached the south ridge. At this point the climbing changed. Instead of a warm sunny face we were plunged into shadow and forced to scramble over frozen scree and chunks of shattered neve to our left.
Jon leading the second crux - De Graaf's Variation.
Soon we were at the foot of the second crux otherwise known as the De Graaf’s Variation. It was Jon’s turn to do battle again and he attacked it with relish. Despite being steep, it had plentiful gear and a series of good rests along it’s length. The square cut chimney could have easily been the crux pitch on a classic Welsh mountain S or HS! But like the UK’s mountain crags it was clear that climbing it in anything less than perfect conditions would have been hard going.
On we went, over rough slabs to a steep red wall and then right to join the line Eric Shipton originally climbed back in the 1930’s. A series of short traverses and steep corners lead up for a 100m or so and suddenly we spotted the squat silvery figure of the Howell Hut just above us. On reaching it I realized that just knowing it was there had played a big part in me setting off earlier that morning. Not to mention Jon's enthusiasm and confidence!
Jon enjoying the comforts of the Howell Hut
It was now early afternoon and time was running out for us. The weather had changed and there was a lot of abseiling left to do. Here’s how Jon summarised our climb on the UKC website,
"Started from Austrian Hut before dawn. Great weather AM, deteriorating PM with snow showers and poor visibility. Nobody else on the mountain! 5 hours 20 minutes ascent; 3 hours 30 minutes descent. Standard route as per guidebook description – moving together on easier ground. Route finding not too difficult. Bypassed Mackinder’s Chimney to right, climbed De Graaf’s Variation. Abseil descent – 16 in total – some abseil points tricky to find. Essentially straight down from Baillie’s Bivvy…"
With 5 days of our trip left what would we do next? Find out in Part 3!