Kenya: Naro Moru route to the summit
9th February - 1st March 2002
Joseph sorted out all the paperwork at the park gate while my guide James, our porter Peter and I sat around watching a troop of baboons on the other side of the road watching us. Just after midday we entered the park to walk the first stage, 10km to the bunkhouses at the Met Station. There is a vehicle track that goes as far as the Met Station. We followed this through the Upper Montane Forest that surrounds the lower slopes of the mountain between the altitudes of 2,000 - 2,500m. The track followed the crest of a broad ridge between the northern and southern Naro Moru valleys. The walking was easy and I really didn't notice the 1,000m ascent we made that afternoon to 3,050m. The track never became too steep and I didn't find myself out of breath or breaking out into a sweat; it was a very pleasant afternoons walking. The Upper Montane Forest consisted of very tall straight trunk trees, mostly the East African yellowwood and the African pencil cedar. The trees were covered in all types of lichens, mosses and ferns. The most obvious and common one, growing in long strands dangling from the branches was Usnea, also know as old man's beard.
As we climbed further up the mountain, these tall, straight trees gave way to the shorter East African olive and the pillar wood before we reached the bamboo zone, which grows at between 2,500 - 3,000m. The bamboo grows thickest on the southern slopes of the mountain, although along this trail there were many thick patches of bamboo growing around the shorter trees. Along the way the trees were alive with all sorts of birds, of almost every colour in the rainbow. The only animals I saw were black and white colobus monkeys, although there was plenty of evidence along the road of both elephant and buffalo.
We reached the Met Station at just after half three, which included our stop for lunch, just over three hours from leaving the park gates. The Met Station consisted of a number of small wooden bunkhouses, each with an adjacent tiny shed for the porters to cook in. They were dotted amongst the trees on the slope, mostly the East African olive, draped in old man's beard. It was a very scenic location with views glimpsing through the trees to the plains below. I sat on the veranda of my bunkhouse for the evening while Peter brewed me the biggest pot of tea ever. I walked down to a nearby stream that flowed through a bamboo thicket to collect a couple of litres of water for the walk tomorrow. The weather had remained good all day and into the evening with broken cloud and sunshine; the bunkhouses were bathed in the evening sun as it slowly dipped down below the horizon behind the Aberdare mountains in the distance. Peter served dinner just after the sun had set, the distant sky glowing orange. I had been in Africa for almost a month now and this was the best dinner I had eaten yet, sat on the side of a mountain.
It was fairly cold overnight but I survived in my sleeping bag with just a long sleeved T-shirt on for extra warmth. As I stepped out of the bunkhouse there was still frost on the grass in the glade below the bunkhouses. Peter made breakfast and a pot of tea and by 08.30 we had begun our second days walking. Today was another 10km walk to the bunkhouse at Mackinders Camp, an ascent of 1,150m to an altitude of 4,200m; it was a lot tougher walking than the previous day. The park track ended at the Met Station and from there a path carried on up steeply through the thinning forest for just over half an hour. As we climbed, the trees bagan to thin out and become more sparse. The tall straight trees further down the mountain were replaced by the shorter and crooked East African rosewood and giant St John's Wort. The tree line was at an altitude of 3,200m, from where the moorland began, the trees now replaced by giant heathers. At first I mistook these heathers for conifers until Peter told me that they grow this big, up to 10m high. They looked very similar in appearance to heathers that grow in temperate countries except that these were on steroids. The first section of moorland was very steep and is known as the vertical bog, although when I climbed it, it was towards the end of the dry season and the bog was absolutely bone dry. This made the hiking a lot easier and quicker but I could see by the lie of the land that this steep section of moorland could hold a lot of water in the dry peat 'steps' and tussocks of grass.
The trail leads up the southern ridge of the Teleki Valley with the North Naro Moru River flowing along the valley floor. Once past the vertical bog the path flattened out to a gentler gradient and we climbed on to the upper moorland where grass is the dominant vegetation growing in thick tussocks. The giant heathers now replaced by far stranger plants, the giant lobelia and giant groundsels. The lobelia only flowers once in its lifetime sending a spectacular floral plume into the sky, growing as high as 2m. The path took a fork, the path to the left descending into the valley and following the North Naro Moru River along the northern bank. We took the right fork and continued along the ridge, which was the easier route and the most commonly used trail up this valley.
There are various species of groundsel, some only grow at ground level while others, the tree groundsel, can grow up to 5m. They grow very slowly in the harsh conditions at these altitudes where the temperatures can range widely between day and night. They can grow for up to 120 years and only flower once every ten years or so. Dotted about the landscape were several flowers, the distinctive bright red Mackinders lily as well as a few species of everlasting flower such as the Helichrysum, which looked like a dried daisy. The walking began to get hard at this altitude; I became very conscious of my breathing and gulped as much air as I could through my mouth. The path followed the ridge of the valley towards the high, snow-capped peaks of Mt Kenya, now looming in the distance at the head of this valley. The path was rocky and dry passing many giant groundsels along the way; it seemed a very alien environment with all these strange looking plants growing around me that I had never seen before.
The path dropped down to cross the river, now at an altitude of just over 4,100m. We slowly plodded on to Mackinders Camp, never walking too fast so that we didn't get out of breath. Just before reaching the camp there is a final small hill to climb through boulders and groundsels. This was our last challenge for the day to reach the camp at 4,200m at the top. The camp was fairly busy when we arrived at about 15.00, six and a half hours after leaving the Met Station, including our lunch stop. Once I stopped walking and sat about resting at the camp I really noticed the lack of oxygen at this altitude. I was still breathing heavily through my mouth to get enough air into my lungs, every moment I was aware of my breathing. It seemed very much like being on the moon; everyone walked around very slowly, no-one ran or rushed about. The landscape appeared very lunar and barren, as this was almost on the limit of the vegetation at 4,300m. Above the camp was only the shear rock faces of the mountain peaks and the scree slopes.
Looking up at the mountain I could see the trail I would take that night up the scree slope to reach Point Lenana, the third highest peak on the mountain at 4,985m. I could also just see the snout of the Lewis Glacier high up on the mountain, which I would also have to hike past to reach Pt Lenana. It looked like a daunting prospect to climb, especially at this altitude. At least climbing at night you couldn't see how far you had to go to reach the top. Once the sun set the temperature dropped dramatically and everyone took refuge in the bunkhouse where our porters and guides cooked up dinner. The bunkhouse is not in the best of condition, with gaps around the windows letting cold drafts in and no ceiling, just rafters and the cold sheets of corrugated steel keeping the elements at bay. Those of us who were attempting the summit that night, which included me, had an early night and went to bed around 20.00. I wrapped myself up in my sleeping bag still fully clothed and could still feel the cold.
I had a bad nights sleep; I don't think I slept at all, I only probably dozed. The cold and the altitude did their best to keep me awake. I found the atmosphere high up on the mountain to be very dry, which dried out my nose. This caused me difficulty in breathing through my nose, as my nostrils felt very constricted. I kept waking up during the night from my light sleeping feeling short of breath and gasping for air through my mouth. To make matters worse during the night the wind picked up to gale force; it sounded as though the roof of the bunkhouse would be blown off. The wind howled relentlessly through the night making sleep now almost impossible. Apart from continuously waking up gasping for air and being deafened by the wind howling around the bunkhouse I also began to worry about ascending to the summit with a gale blowing over the mountain. The strength of the wind scared me and I didn't know whether it would be possible to reach Pt Lenana in such conditions.
As I lay awake worrying, the clock ticked on to 02.30, time to get up and prepare for the climb to the summit. I felt lousy as I packed my backpack in the dark; my head ached as though I was suffering from a hangover but without having the enjoyment of the night before. Every movement became a chore, concentrating on anything was almost impossible and all my body kept telling me to do was to lie down. By 03.00 James had not appeared and the others who were making the summit attempt this morning had already left. I gave in and crawled back onto a bunk bed and hoped that James had decided that it was too windy to climb this morning. James, shining a torch in my face, soon woke me from my dozing; he was looking far too happy and smiled offering me a pot of tea. It looked like we were going up the mountain after all and at 03.30 we stepped out of Mackinders Hut and into the cold, harsh wind that had been roaring for what seemed like an age.
The sky was clear and the stars shone brightly above us in the dark as we began to once again slowly plod up the mountain. The path continued up the valley, the wind whistling past the giant groundsels, which stood in the darkness like sentries, guarding the way up the mountain. The temperature was well below freezing and the small streams that crossed the path were frozen, the ice crunching under our feet. The moon had already set and the only light we had was that from our torches, just shining the way a couple of metres at a time. As we walked my body was still telling me to go and lie down, my head was pounding and my breathing almost out of control; I just didn't seem able to get enough air into my lungs to make the headache subside. After walking about a kilometre, mostly along a fairly steady gradient I had to stop, overcome with a feeling of nausea. I leaned over a rock in the dark, the wind blowing around us, and began to vomit. As I leant over that rock, glimpsing the dark peaks of the mountain now so close, I thought that that was it; I had failed, beaten by the altitude and lack of oxygen. The only way now was back down.
We rested for a while there in the dark, I gathered my thoughts together and drank plenty of water while breathing deeply through my mouth, gulping the air. The feelings of nausea had now passed and after vomiting I began to feel a lot better, far better than I could of hoped to feel just a few minutes ago. James asked me how I felt. I was now more determined than ever to reach the summit especially as I could feel myself getting better by the minute the longer I sat by that rock breathing deeply. While I sat there I realised that the problems I had breathing during the night had caused this altitude sickness. I told James that I was feeling okay and ready to continue towards the summit; we agreed to walk for periods of about fifteen minutes and then stop and rest to see how I felt.
Soon we reached the bottom of the scree slope, where we rested. My headache was easing and I no longer felt nauseous and after a five-minute break we began the steep ascent to Point Lenana. I was glad we were doing this in the dark and that we couldn't see the top of the slope, as it seemed to go on forever. The previous afternoon, sitting at Mackinders Camp looking at the trail zigzagging up this slope, I decided that the only way to make it to the top would be to take it just one step at a time. To just concentrate on the next step rather than the ultimate goal of the summit. I continued to persist up the slope only looking as far as the beam of my torch shone, the wind stopping us in our tracks every now and then as a strong gust blew dust and grit into our faces. We stopped many times on the way up this slope, each time my headache seemed to have abated a little more; the more we hiked the better I felt. I found I could breath far more easily as I walked compared to when I was lying in bed trying to sleep.
As we reached the top of the scree slope the distant horizon to the east began to glow brighter, turning from black to blue, the stars beginning to fade and disappear. The Lewis Glacier, the largest on the mountain, was now clearly visible to our left, snaking down the mountain; two hikers were crossing the glacier to reach Point John, their torches shining across the snow and ice. By now the tube from my water bottle had frozen solid in the freezing wind. Ahead of us lay a boulder field which we crossed reaching the Austrian Hut just as the sun broke over the horizon lighting up the peaks of the mountain in a golden glow of morning sunshine. The Austrian government built the Austrian Hut after an Austrian climber, Dr Judmaier suffered a fall on the mountain in 1970 and became trapped on a ledge for a week with a broken leg. There was no technical mountain rescue unit on the mountain and after many failed attempts at reaching him, his father called out an alpine rescue unit from Innsbruck. They successfully managed to rescue him and after the rescue the Austrian government supplied funds to set up a technical mountain rescue team on Mt Kenya as well as building the Austrian Hut. The hut does not have a caretaker, so its condition deteriorates a little each year, but when I stuck my head through the door it still looked comfortable, especially when the alternative was to stand in the freezing gale blowing over the ridge outside.
The gale blew relentlessly, the wind whistling and whipping around the hut. The toilet a few metres along the ridge was taking a battering, the roof had gone and the sheets of corrugated steel crashed together echoing across the glacier to the peaks on the other side. As we sheltered from the wind behind the hut the sun continued to rise, becoming brighter and brighter, illuminating more of the mountain as the rays edged into the deep valleys and gullies. James asked me if I felt ready to continue, the summit of Point Lenana now towering above the Austrian Hut. I felt great and ready for the last push to the summit, my headache had gone and that moment in the dark when I vomited seemed like a lifetime ago. We continued up the steep southwest ridge of Pt Lenana, now only 195m ascent to go, confident that I would reach the summit. We climbed slowly, the wind now being our main enemy. The path though, kept most of the time to the lee side of the wind, which blew in from the east, whipping over the top of our heads. There were small patches of ice and snow on the way up, mostly in sheltered spots, in between large boulders and cracks in the rock. I had been told that the path to the summit had been altered in the last few years, due to the retreat of the Lewis Glacier, and that it was a lot more difficult. I didn't find the going too tough, although there were a number of places where we had to scramble up the rocks to reach the summit. The last scramble took us up a metre high step of rock from where it was a few metres walk to the summit marked by a metal Kenyan flag bolted onto the white painted rocks. It was 07.00, I had made it to the summit 4,985m, and the highest mountain peak I have ever reached.
James and myself shook hands on the summit and I stood there stunned by my achievement; not even the wind howling past the summit could dampen my spirits now. The view from the top was equally stunning. To the west, below us was the Lewis Glacier with the south-east face of Nelion 5,188m, glowing in the early morning light, Batian, the highest peak on the mountain at 5,199m rising beside it. To the north I could look down to the head of the Mackinder Valley, the route we would be taking down the mountain, the peaks of Sendeo and Terere clearly visible on the far ridge of the valley. Looking south-west down the mountain along the route we had climbed I could just make out the silver roof of the Mackinders Camp where we had started this epic climb in the middle of the night, sitting at the head of the U-shaped Teleki Valley. It didn't look possible to have been able to climb so far in just three and a half hours. The plains surrounding the mountain were all covered in cloud and it gave the impression of standing on an island looking out over an endless sea of cloud. On a good day from here it is possible to see as far as Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Lake Victoria to the west, unfortunately with the low cloud cover the views from the summit this morning were restricted. This didn't spoil my enjoyment of the moment standing on one of the highest peaks in Africa, almost on the equator with glaciers and snowfields lying around me.
Continue reading this journey: Descending the Sirimon route