Kenya: Descending the Sirimon route
9th February - 1st March 2002
The hardest part of the climb up this magnificent mountain was tearing myself away from the summit. It had taken me months to plan and train for this climb, three days to actually make it to the summit and a lot of effort both physically and mentally to reach this tiny spot far above the clouds. One consolation about leaving Point Lenana was that I was taking a different route down from the summit rather than retracing my earlier footsteps from Mackinders Camp. Taking one last 360-degree view from the summit I began the descent down the north face of Point Lenana. This is one of the most exhilarating sections of hiking on the mountain, leading steeply down the rocky slope to Harris Tarn, about 200m below the summit. Apart from the strong wind I was lucky with the weather, the only cloud was below me and above me only blue skies; this section of the trek can become treacherous in bad weather, especially when it snows. There was a lot more snow on the northern slopes of the mountain, especially on the more sheltered slopes; the air temperature still remained below freezing but I could at last feel the first warmth of the sun on my face.
James, my guide, Peter my porter and I planned to spend the night at Shiptons Camp at the head of the Mackinder Valley to the north below us at 4,230m. From Harris Tarn the path lead up slightly over a ridge crest before descending down a broad ridge of scree. It was tough going trying to walk down this scree; it was very steep in places and very easy to loose your footing. My thigh and calf muscles soon began to burn and eventually either James or myself would slip sending a small avalanche of rock down the mountain. That is when we would take a break and rest on a rock slowly letting the blood flow back into our legs before continuing our descent. Soon we caught our first glimpse of Shiptons Camp, far below us. Almost nothing grew on these high altitude slopes; it was just bare rock and scree. Occasionally the odd everlasting flower found a foothold in a sheltered spot between some rocks, but this was the exception. Most of the area above 4,300m is known as the high altitude desert or Nival; only one thing survives up here and that is the lichen.
The scree slope seemed endless but after two and half hours we finally walked through a small gully down a cliff and across a small patch of grass into Shiptons Camp, six hours after leaving Mackinders Camp. It was 09.30, I sat down exhausted still trying to comprehend what I had achieved during the early hours of this morning. At times it didn't seem real, as though my long slow slog up the scree slope under the stars was all just a dream. Peter, my porter had already made it to the bunkhouse by coming around the summit circuit path, carrying both his and my backpack. I'm still not sure how he did it because he couldn't have made two journeys during the time it took us to climb to the summit. Within a few minutes of collapsing into the bunkhouse Peter brought me a very welcome hot pot of tea and an hour or so later breakfast.
I spent the day at Shiptons Camp, the north faces of the peaks of Batian and Nelion looming above the camp. When I arrived it was fairly quiet, only a couple of other people were camping and a handful of others were leaving late for a trek to one of the other huts around the mountain. As soon as I stopped walking and I sat down or lay down on my bunk bed I began to feel the symptoms of altitude sickness again. It was all because of my nose being dried out again and not being able to get enough air quickly enough into my lungs. Within an hour or so of arriving at the bunkhouse my dull headache had returned and I wandered about slowly as if nursing a hangover. The day seemed to drag by; whenever I went to lie down on my bunk I found I couldn't sleep because of my headache. The wind still blew relentlessly and the noise at Shiptons was very similar to that at Mackinders. A bargeboard on the bunkhouse outside my room had come loose and repeatedly crashed into the wall whenever a gust of wind blew; it made sleep difficult.
By the afternoon trekkers on their way up the mountain began to arrive and steadily over a few hours the bunkhouse filled up. It was far colder at Shiptons compared to Mackinders. Over dinner that evening everyone wrapped themselves up in jackets, gloves and hats. I finally crawled into my sleeping bag at 20.00, partly because there was nothing else to do and partly to help keep warm. It was not a good nights sleep; I lay in bed for twelve hours and I am sure I didn't sleep a wink. Concentrating on breathing while trying to get to sleep are not two very compatible occupations. I woke up, if those are the right words, or rather got out of bed at 08.00 feeling very cranky. I didn't really have time for James to bring me yet another five-course breakfast; all I wanted was porridge, bread, jam and tea. I knew that if I started walking I would feel a lot better and just wanted to get going rather than sit around for another couple of hours. Other people who had spent the night in tents said that there had been a hailstorm early in the morning. By 08.00 there was no evidence left around the camp but the peaks above the camp were coated white. It looked as though it was freezing rain as every surface of rock was now plastered in ice, rather than snow just lying in the sheltered spots. I felt happy that I had made the summit yesterday, despite the wind; the ice looked far more treacherous.
James soon got the message that I wanted to get going and we were soon packed and ready to trek down the mountain the 13km to the Old Moses Camp at 3,300m. As I thought, within an hour or so of leaving Shiptons my headache had eased, I no longer felt cranky and was once again enjoying trekking through this unspoilt wilderness. The path lead down along the Mackinders Valley, which stretched northwestwards away from the peaks. This was upper moorland with the now characteristic groundsels and lobelias lining the way. The gradient was very slight but every now and then we would reach a steep cliff where the path would wind down the escarpment before continuing on its more gentle descent. The path eventually lead up the eastern side of the valley, the Liki River disappearing below us on the valley floor. Once we reached the ridge of the valley the path turned north-easterly leading down and up two more valleys crossing the Liki North river and the Ontulili river before finally descending northwards to the Old Moses Camp. There had been a bush fire here back in 1996 destroying a large swathe of vegetation across this side of the mountain. The silvery branches of the giant heather, left charred from the fire, remained stretched towards the sky, the new shoots now growing from the base of the stump. It will take years for these new branches to reach the size and height of their ancestors.
It took five hours to reach the Old Moses Camp and we arrived at about half past two. The camp, at an altitude of 3,300m is still in the lower moorland, sitting on a slight hill looking out over the forest below and the plains, which were heavily cultivated. This was my last night on the mountain, the climate and the altitude all began to feel normal again, it was not too cold at night and I could once again breath normally, my headache now gone. The following morning it was a relatively short walk of 9km to the Sirimon park gate. The Old Moses Camp is at the road head and the trail down from here followed the park track descending back into the forest. First thing in the morning it was overcast and raining, my first bit of bad weather I had encountered on the mountain (if you don't count the gale blowing the night I climbed to the summit). By the time James had prepared breakfast and I had eaten it we were all packed and ready to go, the bad weather had passed over and we hiked back to the gate in sunshine.
The forest on this northern side of the mountain is a lot thinner than that on the west, mostly because this side is the driest. The lower moorland seemed to stretch far further down the mountain; there was very little bamboo before we reached the forest, which was not quite the thick jungle it was on the western slope. Just after 11.00 we reached the park gate where Joseph was waiting for us as planned. We shook hands and we celebrated my successful expedition up the mountain. I sat down on a small grassy patch looking back up at the peaks, now far off in the distance, a satisfied grin appeared on my face. I thought about all the months I had planned this trip to Africa, the regular hikes I had done back home over the last six months to Dartmoor and Scotland to train for it and finally the roller coaster of emotions while trekking this mountain, from the misery of suffering from the altitude to the euphoria of standing on the summit. I was elated.
Joseph drove us back to the hostel at Naro Moru returning via Nanyuki. The road from the park gate to the main road was long and rough. After so long on the mountain it felt strange to be back in civilisation, driving through villages. On the mountain I could have been anywhere, now I was suddenly thrust back into Africa. I felt like I had just arrived on the continent, everything was again new and exciting. We stopped in Naro Moru to pick up some beef for lunch. As we drove back out of the village we passed by the small taxi stand, two of the drivers who did the route past the hostel saw me sitting in Josephs 4WD. They waved and shrugged indicating, why not come with us; I felt as though I had returned home, even the taxi drivers knew me now in this small village.
A short while later I was back at the hostel. Patrick was out in the garden weeding a flowerbed. As we came to a stop outside the front of the hostel a small crowd gathered, mostly children from the surrounding farms who seemed to spend the weekend playing in the hostels garden. Patrick came over anxious to know if the trip had been successful; everyone had been worried about the gale that had blown up, even at the bottom of the mountain. I told him the good news and all about my adventure up to Point Lenana, he was very happy for me that I had made it to the summit.
After five days living on a mountain the first thing I wanted to do was to have a shave and a shower. While I showered James got busy in the kitchen cooking up the beef and frying some chips. To my surprise there was hot water. I later found out that Patrick was responsible for this. He remembered that I was coming down the mountain this Sunday morning and had especially gone out to collect some firewood to heat up the water tank for me. The rest of the day was given over to rest and relaxation after doing my one chore, a bucket of very dirty laundry.
Later that afternoon four other travellers arrived at the hostel; this was a busy day. They planned to hike up the mountain tomorrow, I unfortunately planned to leave Naro Moru and the Mt Kenya Hostel tomorrow for good; a day I was not really looking forward to. While I was cooking my dinner that evening Joseph opened up the Summits View Pub at the end of the garden. The place was busy with the arrival of the new guests, their guides and porters plus some other guides I had got to know during my stay at the hostel. I sat at the bar, a bottle of Tusker in front of me, recounting my stories of climbing the mountain to the group who were setting off tomorrow. I also chatted to Joseph and told him about my plans to trek up Mt Meru in Tanzania in a couple of weeks time after my friend, Gerald arrived in Dar es Salaam. Joseph said he would love to come down to Arusha and cook for us on the mountain. The more I thought about his offer, the more sense it seemed to make. I took a note of his mobile phone number and we agreed to meet at the Mashele Guesthouse in Arusha on Monday week. It was one of those evenings when suddenly everything seems right in the world.
I woke the next morning to the usual flurry of activity as another group made their last minute preparations to climb the mountain. I sat under my favourite shady tree, a Jacaranda tree still in bloom with purple flowers, while Patrick boiled my eggs he bought for me that morning and made me a pot of tea. Today I planned to travel to Lake Naivasha. After Joseph had dropped this group at the park gates he came back to give me a lift into Naro Moru from where I would pick up a matatu to Nyeri. Finally it was time to say goodbye, a moment I didn't want to arrive. There was a lump in my throat as Joseph drove out through the garden and I waved goodbye to Patrick for the last time. Patrick was one of the most helpful, kind people I had met for a long time; nothing was too much trouble for him. These people are rare; I think as time goes on he will become a legend in my mind, joining a select group of people, numbering now three, who have made me look at the world around us from a different angle.
Joseph dropped me in Naro Moru, a matatu was already waiting on its way from Nanyuki to Nyeri, within a few seconds my luggage was tied to the roof and I was squeezed into the back. I was back on the road once again.
Continue reading this journey: Lake Naivasha & Nairobi