Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Kneeling Before Ngai

On Monday evening, I arrived back from a four-day hiking trip to Mount Kenya, the second-highest mountain in Africa*. A group of friends and I decided to summit Lenana, the third highest peak on the mountain (4,985 meters) and the highest peak accessible to non-technical climbers. Our guide was Will Wamaru, an excellent and experienced guide who recently opened launched his own travel company.

Mount Kenya is a sacred mountain for many Kenyans. Several ethnic groups from the Central Highlands - the Meru, the Maasai and the Gikuyu - believe that the mountain is the home of Ngai, the supreme god and creator of the world. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first President, wrote a book, Facing Mount Kenya, which details the Gikuyu relationship with the mountain and Central Highlands culture.

This was an auspicious weekend to climb the mountain. Earlier this month, Kenyans population voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new national Constitution. Although we hadn't planned it that way, Friday (the day we began our ascent) was the day when the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister of Kenya formally "promulgated" the document and put into effect the Second Republic. Partly because current President Kibaki is Gikuyu, and partly out of Kenyan national pride, a small team of local climbers carried a copy of the Constitution to Lenana peak immediately after the signing. Because of the number of tourists on the mountain and the time we left, we stood to be among the first forty foreigners to see the special copy on top of Mount Kenya.

Of course, there's a catch: the whole climbing thing.

The obvious thing to write here is that the hike was wonderful: a pleasantly rugged trek, with a smiling, pink-cheeked Al marveling at the views from the summit and reveling in the achievement of getting to the top. But I won't lie: it was physically exhausting and, for at least a day, miserable.

The first day was fine. It was just a four-hour climb through light rain on a gravelly road, covering roughly 600 vertical meters. The first lodge we stayed at was similarly decent: a bit wet, but the food was great and the bunkbed dorm was fairly comfortable. I realized that we could have been in tents.

The second day was much tougher: a nine-hour climb through mostly decent weather, covering 900 vertical meters. We had to cross a number of ridges and some very swampy terrain, so there were a lot of ups and downs. Still, it was about 100 meters an hour in terms of vertical climb, which didn't sound awful to me.

I was doing very well until lunch when I got hit with altitude sickness all of a sudden. It's difficult to predict its symptoms for each person, but almost everyone in our group got it in one form or another. For me, it started as an intense headache, which I assumed was similar to a migraine. My temples throbbed, my head hurt and I felt a bit dizzy. As we got above 4,000 meters (2.5 miles), my breathing became very labored and I started coughing a lot. The rest of the group were facing similar things, so our pace slowed quite a bit.

The big advantage to the second day was seeing major shifts in climate and vegetation. Even at higher altitude, there's lots of interesting fauna as well: rock and tree Hyraxes (a sort of fat capybara-like thing related to an elephant); colobus monkeys; big grey monkeys that like to steal; lone buffaloes; crested eagles and buzzards.

The lodge at the second night was not a pleasant experience. I didn't have much of an appetite, although I did eat after taking half of a friend's Diamox, an altitude-sickness medicine. When I tried to sleep, I couldn't do it at first. I also had strange chills even though I could feel that my skin was hot. Weird! But in the end (probably thanks to the Diamox), I managed to fall asleep around 11 pm.

Before long, it was 2 am - time to get up for summit day. Our guide's biggest mistake was probably telling us that the final ascent would be easier than the previous day...

It was not. Whereas Day 2 involved a climb of 100 meters per hour (with an average altitude of 3,700), the summit climb involved a climb of 200 vertical meters per hour (at an average of 4,600 meters above sea level). This does not sound like much, but if you take into account safety stops, it turns into about 4 meters (vertical) per minute when you're actually climbing. At a high altitude, when hiking on ice or scree, this is pretty fast. By around 4 am, our conversation had stopped completely. We were like a team of foreign zombies trudging up the mountainside in the darkness. Or something.

After four hours we reached Lenana peak. It was pretty cool: a frozen Kenyan flag, some plaques of people that died, and a brand new glass-metal-clay shrine to the Second Republic, copy of the Constitution inside. We were probably among the first couple of dozen people ever to have seen it there.

Equally (ok, more) enjoyable, was a prank I played on John, one of the guys in our group. Some of you will already be familiar with the viral drinking phenomenon of "Bros Icing Bros." As those of you who are/were/know a 17-19 year old girl are aware, Smirnoff Ice is a sugary, lightly alcoholic, bottled drink (or alcopop) consumed almost exclusively by members of that demographic group.

But thanks to the recent Icing phenomenon, however, it has become normal for guys to foist a bottle of Smirnoff Ice on an unsuspecting friend/bro, who must then get down on one knee and drink the entire bottle in one go. There are variations on the rules - see - but that's the gist. I managed to present John with a nearly-frozen Ice right in front of the Constitution, surely the first of its kind in the annals of Icing history.

After such Smirnoff summit shenanigans were over, we had to descend down a treacherous ice ridge to get off the peak. Later in the day, Will mentioned that a young American woman on one of his trips had died after slipping down the ice. I'm glad he mentioned that after, or I would have felt pretty nervous about the ice. And the Ice, for that matter.

The ice ridge took about an hour to get down, after which point we had another 3-hour descent to breakfast. Part of this involved an awesome scree slope that you could sprint down since it was so soft and gravelly - a great way to knock off 300 vertical meters of thin air in a half hour. This is me resting (in the orange) before the scree part:

After breakfast, a quick nap, and lunch, we had to hike for a further 8 hours through what was described as the "vertical bog." This essentially involved a trek through a muddy creek for many hours, about 3 of which we walked in the dark. The reward for the muddy trudging was our final camp, which was at a breathable 3,000-ish meters and had a very cozy bunk bed setup. I've never slept so well in my life.

Even one day after getting back, I am already starting to re-write the more grueling parts of the experience in my head. Only my right shoulder, quads and calves remind me that, while a good time with great people, it wasn't a bed of high-altitude roses.

Overall, it was a good experience, though: the food, the excellent company, the Smirnoff-related antics and the timing of our trip were all big pluses to the weekend. Nonetheless, I don't think that I'll plan on climbing any 4,000+ meter peaks in the near future.

But don't quote me on that.

* Accordingly to Wikipedia, the second-highest peak on each continent is more challenging than the tallest peak. As a result, the "Seven Summits" (the tallest peaks on each continent) have been completed by a number of experts, but the "Seven Second Summits" have not. Mount Kenya's technical summit (not the one I climbed) is one of the Seven Second Summits and is considerably harder than Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak, which is generally doable for tourists.

Photographs courtesy of Jane Del Ser and Charlene Chen.

1 comment:

  1. Mt Kenya is always amazing and like i told you....getting rained, sick, or snowed on is part of the adventure. ....although i couldn't convince you guys!!! haha

    Looking to see you there again.