Thanks to good acclimatisation, a fantastic support team and no little enthusiasm we found ourselves with time and energy to spare at the end of our Mt Kenya trip. We'd hiked up Point Lenana and climbed the South East Face of Nelion, what could we do next? Jon Naylor and I had talked about climbing other routes on Nelion and Batian, as well as subsidiary peaks like Point John and Midget Peak. But in the end what we really wanted to do was traverse the mountain. In January the most manageable way to do this is by ascending the South West Ridge of Batian, crossing the Gate of the Mists and descending the South East Face of Nelion. Unfortunately there was one small problem - we knew next to nothing about it! Unfortunately, the Mountaineering Club of Kenya dedicates just 7 lines to a route that it estimates taking 9 hours. Meanwhile, the internet offered little more in the way of encouragement, describing a fraught 39 hour epic and an uncomfortable bivvy just below the summit of Batian. Naturally we had a few doubts but in that very British way just decided to give it a go!
Following our ascent of Nelion we rested for a day at Austrian Hut. Early the next morning we headed south and then west to Two Tarns Camp. After lunch, with Glynn, our guide Steve and two porters for company, we briefly retraced our steps and then turned north towards a point on the map marked as "shelter". From there we would start our traverse of the mountain.
After 5 nights on the mountain, we climbed Point Lenana (3) from the north and descended to Austrian Hut (red). The following day we climbed the South East Face of Nelion (2). After a rest day we moved to Two Tarn Hut before repacking and retracing our steps to "American Camp". Here, we headed north towards the "shelter" and the start of Batian's South West Ridge (1)
Here’s an extract from Jon’s diary that brilliantly describes our adventure...
"We finally reached the flatter ground in the bowl beneath what was once the Darwin Glacier – just a small patch of snow. There were a couple of small lakes and some flattish areas which looked like they had been cleared before – we ask Steve to pitch our tents and he and the two lads set to it. We soon found the shelter at 4700m – actually quite a big place under a large rock with dry stone walls to the side and front and a metal door! The floor was flat and dry but very draughty, so we elected to sleep in our tents instead! The porters were excited to explore the new area and especially the shelter. After an hour or so, Glynn, Steve and the 2 porters said their good bye's and headed off. We were soon very alone! We sorted out our tent, kit for the next day and I got “dinner” on – rehydrated “chilli-non-carne”! Not bad! Hot chocolate and biscuits for pudding. It was soon dark, clear and starry – boding well for the next day. Jeremy and I chatted for a bit but we were tired and settled early. Alarm call 0500!
The shelter on the Darwin Glacier
I was excited and quite anxious about the climb – the fact that we were alone on this side of the mountain, with no phone signal, not much idea of the exact route and the prospect of 2 days with an overnight bivvy on the summit felt quite “out there”!
I slept OK and woke with a very full bladder! Dark as we rose – sky clear – set for a great day! Coffee and muesli bar for breakfast. We were soon dressed and ready to go – it was around 6 and still dark but lightening. We left the tent up but packed away our sleeping bags and mats for the team to collect later.
Jon pointing to the start of the climb. Point Slade is on the left and Batian is in mist on the right. According to the guidebook, "smooth, gentle slabs allow a rising traverse to be made into the notch between Point Slade and Batian. Easy climbing up the ridge until a traverse can be made across the amphitheatre to the ridge bounding the west face. Up the ridge to a steep buttress and up this to the crest of the ridge. Follow this to Batian".
We were both clearly excited and were off by 0620. The ground between our tent and the start of the route was broken but reasonably flat and we made quick work of it. We had identified what was the obvious start up the “smooth, gentle slabs” yesterday and quickly found this area, however the precise start was less clear and not immediately obvious. The rock was of poor quality and very loose. We picked the easiest line and geared up beneath it. As on our last route, Jeremy and I agree a simple alternating leads strategy. Jeremy sets off first. I soon have to avoid falling stones … Jeremy moves up the easy angled slope continuously, placing runners perhaps where he might have just moved up. We were on our way. It feelt like a real adventure – I couldn’t believe that anyone had climbed there for a very long time!
The whole route was indeed a great adventure – and one I am glad to have shared with Jeremy. He is a reliable, confident and reassuring presence all day. We get on well and compliment each other – watching out for each other – he occasionally picks me up for being a bit risky and watched out for safety on belays and abseils.
Jon preparing himself for the loose first crux. Point John in the background.
The route was long and route finding proved tricky all day. We weaved left and right, finding the safest way through often loose terrain. Most of the climbing was easy but there were a few key pitches that could not be avoided and which if we had not been able to climb them, would have perhaps forced us to retreat. Especially notable – pitch 4 – my lead, although not particularly difficult, the holds were disconcertingly loose and it took some nerve to move across and over the corner. Climbing out of the back of the “chimney” would have been very hard. Pitch 10, also my lead, had a hard section with a couple of moves of 4c – 5a. I found this tricky but thankfully there was a peg in situ and the crack well protected. The hand jam was hard!
We were able to move together on long stretches of broken ground
We eventually reached the summit of Batian late in the afternoon. We had been so lucky with the weather – no afternoon cloud, rain or snow as had been the case for the last few days. We had great visibility all day – without which route finding would have been even harder and I think we would have had to bivouac on the route. There was certainly evidence of other having done so in the past! There were several bivvy ledges just below the summit.
Off the summit of Batian the descent into the Gates of the Mists was obvious and very steep! We made 3 abseils to the left of the gendarme down to the snow below us. The route description suggested keeping right of the gendarme but the ground was very steep and the route not obvious that way.
Abseiling into the Gate of the Mists
I took the last belay, finishing on steep neve, almost a full 50m. I was not wearing crampons and struggled to keep my feet. I was able to get 2 cams into the rock wall and made myself safe. I try to kick a ledge and shout up for Jeremy to put on his crampons. He abseils down and we set ourselves up for a couple of snow pitches. My boots were not really designed to take crampons but I managed to lash them on! I had brought my old walking crampons, not really expecting to be doing any real winter climbing!
In the end the 3 snow pitches were easy enough. Jeremy lead the first 2 having more secure crampon fittings. He was excited to have placed an ice screw (a good one too!) in equatorial ice at over 5000m.
By the time I lead the last easy pitch it was dark and we were using head torches. My headtorch was deep in my rucksack so I used Jeremy’s tiny spare, which barely gave enough light to climb! We were relieved to reach the summit of Nelion. It was about 8pm and nearly dark. The views were incredible but it was very cold and we rushed to get into the Howell Hut.
We hadn’t really eaten all day and I had drunk less than a litre of water. I became focused on the logistics of the bivvy, much to Jeremy’s amusement and disbelief as he got into all his warm kit and bivvy bag and settled down for the night.
Jon prepares himself for a rather cold night!
I sorted out all my kit, the ropes and climbing gear. I then went back up to the summit and filled a bag with snow. I then spent an hour melting snow for water, brews and dinner. Jeremy declined the offer of a delicious rehydrated meal – chicken curry – and instead fell asleep. I drink and eat, then fill water bottles for tomorrow.
Compared with Jeremy I had brought virtually no bivvy gear – consequently my night was cold and miserable. I struggled to sleep for longer than 30 minute periods. The floor of the hut was covered with thin foam mats but these provided little insulation from the frozen ground. Wearing all my clothes, in my bivvy bag I shivered and wriggled my way through the long night. Meanwhile Jeremy seemed to be very comfortable!!!
From about 4am I am bursting to pee but not having a water bottle I could not bring myself to give up the tiny amount of warmth that the hut provided. I suffered until dawn at 6am. The Howell Hut should be renamed the "Howell Freezer" which is what it essentially was!
The dawn was stunning! We were at 5188m, almost on the equator. We had the place to ourselves – it was magical, almost spiritual or mystical. The misery of the night was soon forgotten. We could see the lights of the head torches belonging to early trekkers on Point Lenana below.
Bladder emptied, I brewed up and we ate a frugal breakfast. We dressed, geared up and cleared out of the Howell Hut by 0700. Although the night was cold and miserable it would have been unbearable without the hut! We marvelled at the audacity of the man who made it – carrying all the pieces of aluminium by himself over 13 ascents of Nelion – and were grateful for his labour.
Having previously abseiled the descent of Nelion just a few days before we made good progress. I go a bit low on the arête and ended up well below Baillie’s Bivvy – the scramble up was a pain! From there it was straight down – we kept to the straight descent from each abseil point, as advised by the local guides we had spoken to at Austrian Hut and we found all the bolts we’d previously missed on our last attempt. Nevertheless it took the better part of 3 hours to get to the foot of Nelion - 16 abseils in total!
Harnesses and climbing gear were stowed in our rucksacks and we headed down right over screes to join the path down towards and beneath Point John. We see no one! The path was quite obvious and heads down to Lewis Tarn. We stopped to wash our faces and drunk the cold, fresh water. It was tempting to jump in, although it was not really warm enough and we resisted our impulses.
The path was now broad and easy. Within 2 hours we arrived at Mackinder’s Camp where our team and Glynn awaited us. It was warm and the camp set up on lush long grass. I collapsed and lay back, blissfully appreciating the view back up the valley towards the barren rocky peaks of Mt Kenya from where we had just come from and where we spent the previous 2 days.
The view from Mackinder's Camp. The twin peaks of Batian and Nelion are visible on the left with Point John on the right. The South West ridge of Batian can be seen sweeping up from the left in shadow
We were rewarded with beer! Jeremy is tee-total and Glynn didn’t partake – so I drunk 3 cans! I was rewarded with a lovely afternoon nap, lying on soft grass, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere of this beautiful and historic place. Although we kept ourselves to ourselves, Mackinder’s Camp was relatively busy. The military team from the UAE who we met at Austrian Hut, were nearby and all the porters had congregated in the rudimentary huts. There was a newish stone hut too but it had appeared to be disused – designed originally for trekkers, there are so few up this route now that we guessed it had been abandoned.
As ever after dinner and sunset, the temperature dropped rapidly and we retired to our tents but not before a final game of knockout whist in Jeremy’s tent. We were exhausted, the game was subdued and we gave up after 1 round. The next day we made an early start and descended the Naro Moru route and returned to Nairobi."
Thanks to Jon, Glynn and the Outdoor Circuits team for making the trip such a success!
Shortly before we reached the shelter we found this memorial to 3 soldiers of the 14th 20th Kings Hussars Regiment - Lt Charles Christopher Cornish, Cpl Norman W Kirkham and Tpr Barry Leroy Bunn - who were killed by rockfall on Mt Kenya in 1965. The posts of our trip to Mt Kenya are dedicated to their memory.
Interested in mountain medicine? For more details take a look at this!
Unfortunately this event has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Future events will be publicised on the blog soon!