Mt Kenya Batian Peak (17,054ft) via North Face Standard Route, ~5.8, 22 pitches
Second tallest mountain in Africa
Tallest mountain in Kenya
Eric Gilbertson and Darren V
Sept 25 – Oct 1
According to the rangers at the gate fewer than 100 people attempt the highest peak of Mt Kenya every year, and most of them are guided and use porters. We decided to be completely self sufficient, hauling all our gear in ourselves (75 lb packs!) and finding our way up the 22-pitch climb without guides. We’d already acclimated on Kilimanjaro the previous week so could save time on Mt Kenya.
Day 1 – Taxi from Nairobi to Sirimon Gate, hike to Old Moses Camp (11,000ft)
Day 2 – Hike to Shipton Camp (14,700ft)
Day 3 – Climb 7 pitches up Batian and bivy at 15,700ft in snowstorm
Day 4 – 6am start climbing
9pm reach summit of Batian after 15 pitches
Day 5 – 8am rappel back to bivy ledge, sleep for next 22 hours in a snowstorm
Day 6 – Rappel down to base of mountain, hike out to Old Moses camp (11,000ft)
Day 7 – Hike to gate, taxi back to Nairobi
“If we don’t turn around now, we’ll be rappelling the whole way back to camp in the dark,” Darren observed as I climbed the last few feet up to the anchor and clipped in. We were 18 pitches up Batian peak on Mt Kenya, the highest mountain in Kenya, with only four pitches left to go, though sunset was fast approaching.
“If it starts snowing again it might be dicey finding our way back down at night,” Darren continued.
I looked up towards the summit, but it was obscured by clouds like it had been most of the day. A freezing cold breeze blew by, reminding me to kick myself again for forgetting my down jacket. I was already wearing every scrap of clothing I’d brought to the mountain, but was still cold. It would undoubtedly get even colder in two hours when the sun set.
“Even if we turn around now we’ll still be rapping down in the dark,” I replied. “We’ve supposedly already passed the crux, so these last few pitches should be easy, right? Maybe we’ll even summit before sunset. I’m ok with rapping down through the night, or even shivering on a bivy ledge up here til dawn if I have to.”
“Ok, glad to know we’re both on the same page then,” Darren replied. “But I don’t plan to shiver on a ledge all night. One way or another I’m making it all the way to our tent at the Ampitheater after we summit.”
With that I put Darren on belay and we continued our climb.
Darren and I were in Africa with the goal to bag the number one and two mountains on the continent – Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya. We’d just come off a successful hike up Kilmanjaro via the Machame route and were well-acclimated and poised to make a quick ascent of Mt Kenya. But first we needed a solid rest day in Nairobi to recharge and run some errands. We chose the Meridian Hotel as our home base, arriving Monday night on a bus from Tanzania. We had the unfortunate timing of arriving in Nairobi in the midst of a terrorist hostage crisis at a major mall in the city, that was still ongoing after three days, but our hotel was in a different part of town and it didn’t appear that our mountaineering plans would be affected.
I JUST NEED SOME COOKING FUEL
On Tuesday afternoon after some solid sleeping-in and relaxing we set out to accomplish the most important errand in town – filling up my fuel bottle for cooking. I’d brought an MSR XGK stove that runs on just about any type of fuel – white gas, gasoline, jet fuel – and is perfect for use in foreign countries when there’s no REI around the corner to provide normal coleman fuel. Usually I just show up to a gas station and fill it up with no hassle, but the task was not so simple in Kenya.
We enlisted the help of a hotel bell hop to show us to the nearest gas station, and soon found one a few blocks away. It turns out all gas stations in Kenya are full service, meaning only a station employee is allowed to operate the pumps. I showed the employee my little one-liter fuel bottle and asked if he could fill it up with unleaded, but he refused.
“It is unsafe to fill up unapproved containers with gasoline,” he said. “I’m only allowed to pump gasoline into a vehicle. I can give you diesel, though.”
“No, diesel won’t work,” I replied, recalling a previous experience where diesel wouldn’t ignite in the stove. “I need unleaded petrol. It’s for my camping stove, so I can boil water for cooking.”
“No, I’m not allowed. It’s not safe,” he replied stubbornly. “Why don’t you try the Shell three blocks down on Uhuru avenue.”
We all three walked down to the Shell and tried again, and we got the same response, with another suggestion for a different station.
“Wait, let me do the talking this time,” said Robert, the bell-hop. “I will tell them the fuel is for your motorcycle, and then they will fill up your container.”
We reached the third gas station and this time Darren and I were silent as Robert started talking to the workers in Swahili.
“The fuel is for your motorcycle?” one worker asked me quizzically.
“Yes, for my motorcycle,” I replied straight-faced.
He nodded, then took my container and diligently filled it with unleaded gasoline. I gave him 100 shillings (about one US dollar), took the bottle back, and we started walking back to the hotel. Robert advised me to hide the container in case any police were walking by, so I stuck it in a plastic bag and tucked it under my jacket.
Back at the hotel I gave Robert a generous tip for his help, and we returned to our room to finish packing up. All the pieces were now in place for our trip to Mt Kenya: we had a week’s worth of food packed in from the US, fuel to cook the food, and all our climbing gear carefully divided. The only thing left to do was rest and wait for our taxi ride out in the morning. Shortly before going to sleep that night, though, our room got a strange call from the front desk.
THE MYSTERY GUESTS
“Mr. Gilbertson, you have several guests downstairs that would like to see you,” the receptionist said over the phone.
Guests? How could I have guests? I’d only been in the country one day and as far as I could remember didn’t know anybody in Nairobi. Darren was already asleep, but I quickly put on my shoes and walked down the three flights to the ground floor, not knowing what to expect.
The receptionist pointed me to a table in the corner where three African men in plain clothes and leather jackets were sitting around a table, along with a tough-looking hotel security guard. I cautiously walked over toward the table and took a seat.
“Hello, my name is Benjamin,” the man in the middle started, putting out his hand to shake, “and these are my colleagues Samuel and Herman.”
“Um, what is this about?” I asked, shaking his hand.
“Our job is to gather information,” he started, “to follow leads. We work with facts. Why do you look so nervous?”
“I’m very confused,” I replied. “You still haven’t told me who you are or why you want to talk to me.”
“We’re policemen,” Benjamin replied, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out an ID card. The other men did the same. I looked at the card, and it looked about as official and as easy to forge as my MIT ID card, but I wasn’t in a position to tell them that. I immediately thought about the terrorist standoff currently ongoing in the Westgate mall in town. Did they think I somehow had information about that?
“Ok, fair enough,” I said handing them back the cards. “But I don’t understand why you’re here talking to me.”
“We’ve been informed there was a suspicious purchase of petrol at a station earlier today,” Benjamin started. “Do you know anything about this?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied, somewhat relieved to finally figure out why they were here. “I bought a liter of fuel earlier today for my cooking stove. I’m going on a trip to climb Mt Kenya tomorrow and need to cook my pasta every night. My stove runs on unleaded petrol and I can use it to boil water.”
They looked at me skeptically. “You mix the petrol with water?” Samuel asked.
“No, I burn the petrol to heat up a pot, and the pot has water in it. I use the hot water to cook spaghetti.” I replied, somewhat frustrated.
“You know, petrol can be used for other, destructive purposes” Herman said to me. “Can we see the device you speak of and the petrol?”
“Of course. I could just bring it down, since my friend is already asleep in my room,” I replied.
“No no, we’ll come up to your room,” Benjamin said sternly. I got the impression he thought I was trying to keep them out of the room to hide something. We all got up and I led the four men into the elevator and then walked down to my room.
I bent over to open up my already-packed backpack and dug out the fuel bottle and the stove. All the men huddled around trying to get a good look. Darren reluctantly rolled out of bed, confused about what was going on.
“See, I just stick this little pump in the fuel bottle, and let the fuel into the stove,” I said, demonstrating with the XGK stove. Herman half jumped back with a nervous look on his face when I flipped open the individual legs on the stove. The other guys were intrigued. “I won’t light it here, but a flame would come out. I just stick the pot on top with water in it, then cook my pasta.”
“Ok, ok I understand now,” Benjamin said, turning to the other men and nodding. “That is not a problem for us. Good luck climbing Mt Kenya.” He stuck out his hand again, but this time gave the friendly Kenyan handshake, which involves holding the hands up at close to a 45-degree angle and shaking.
They all quietly filed out the door, and I closed it in relief. I’d been nervous they would confiscate the fuel, and I suspect Herman wanted to, but luckily Benjamin was on my side. Darren had by then figured out what was going on, and we had a good laugh about the situation before going back to sleep for the night.
NAIROBI TO OLD MOSES (11,000FT)
At 8am Wednesday we stuffed our packs into a taxi and took off heading north. For 17000 shillings (about $170) we got a four-hour ride out of town, through Nyeri and Nanyuki to the Sirimon Gate of Mt Kenya National Park. En route we crossed the equator, marked by an official-looking sign on the side of the road, and caught occasional glimpses of Mt Kenya through the clouds. The last 10 km of road up to the gate was pretty rough dirt, but no problem for our 2wd taxi.
At the gate we had a small argument about the entrance fee, but eventually ended up paying $220 per person to enter. The park website had said there was a student rate, which I thought I qualified for, but apparently in addition to being a student you need to be under 23, in a group of at least 10 students, have an official letter from some Kenyan organization, and not be merely on vacation. I didn’t actually meet any of those other criteria, so had to pay the full rate.
Darren talked to a tough-looking military man at the gate who warned him we’d only make it halfway up Batian given the icy conditions, and that “the ice isn’t like the ice you’re used to.” That strengthened our resolve to make it up to the very top. We saw an Israeli couple preparing for a guided trek up to Point Lenana, the third highest point of Mt Kenya and the highest point accessible without rock climbing. We were a little jealous of them for having porters take up all their gear, but we knew in the end we would be more satisfied with ourselves for being completely unsupported and unguided. Finally by 1pm we heaved our monster 75+lb packs onto our backs and started trudging into the park.
The trail actually started out as a road cutting through forests of massive cedar trees and dense bush. Once in a while we’d pass massive droppings in the road that I joked might be from elephants. In reality they were probably from some type of buffalo, though there are indeed elephants in the park. As we climbed higher the forest thinned out and became interspersed with grassland, until eventually at around 10,000ft the trees disappeared all together.
We took frequent rests to take the monster packs off our back, and to, ahem, visit the woods. The African food hadn’t quite agreed with us the past few days, but luckily we’d packed a week’s worth of good old American food for the rest of the trip.
By late afternoon we reached Old Moses Camp, an outpost of buildings perched atop a precipice overlooking the valley at 11,000ft. Several guided groups were already there staying in the bunkhouse and busy cooking dinner. We paid $4 apiece for the camping fee and set up our tent just outside the buildings. Right before sunset the clouds parted and we got our first good look at Batian peak. It was awfully intimidating. Two thousand feet of nearly-vertical rock stuck straight out of the ground like a big thumb. The peak still looked very far away, and we could see patches of white covering the side. Maybe the military guy was right and the route would be too snowy to climb. We would soon find out.
OLD MOSES TO SHIPTON CAMP (14,700FT)
We rose at sunrise the next morning after a solid 11 hours of sleep, and were on the trail by 7:30am. The trail started out as a rough jeep path to a weather station at 12,000ft, then deteriorated into a normal single-track trail. We traversed south following signs for Shipton camp for an hour or two, before dropping into a river valley and climbing up to a small pass. Here we were rewarded with an even better view of the peaks, and they kept looking more intimidating. Clouds rolled around the twin summits of Nelion and Batian and in between, through the appropriately named Gate of Mists. Before long, though, the clouds enveloped the whole mountain and it began to rain on us.
We trudged along up a valley in the cold rain, passing by large yucca-like Lobelius trees that only grow around 12,000-15,000ft in East Africa. Occasionally we heard claps of thunder, and hoped nobody was on the summit. It was supposed to be the dry season in East Africa, but apparently Mt Kenya wasn’t aware of that fact.
By early afternoon we reached Shipton Camp, sitting almost at the very base of Batian at 14,700ft. We quickly ducked inside to the mess hall to get out of the rain. The fee for staying in the bunkhouse was $15 per person, but with the cold rain outside we quickly concluded that was a reasonable price. We were hoping to start our climb tomorrow, and didn’t want to be weighed down by soaking wet gear.
At the hut we met the Israeli couple again, and another couple from Colorado. They were all astounded that we were actually planning to climb to the top of Batian peak. It turned out their guide, Daniel, had climbed Batian several times, and I was eager to ask him about it.
“How hard is Firmin’s Tower, the crux?” I asked, referring to the section with two 5.8 pitches sandwhiching a 5.9 chimney I’d heard was very tough.
“Oh no, that’s way too hard for me. I always go around to the right. It’s sometimes icy but easier than Firmin’s Tower,” Daniel replied.
We’d heard there might be a way around Firmin’s Tower, but hadn’t read any reports of anyone actually taking it. This was good news that here, a guide for Batian who’d climbed it multiple times, advised going around the tower. Darren was particularly relieved, because it was going to be his job to lead the 5.9 chimney if we decided to take that route. Daniel went on to say it usually takes him just 8 hours round trip to the summit and back starting at Shipton Camp. We knew there was no way we’d go that fast for a 22-pitch climb we’d never done before, and decided to stick with our plan of camping partway up.
Just before sunset the clouds parted and we finally got a nice view of our route. We still saw a lot of snow on ledges, but hoped it wouldn’t make the route too difficult. After a quick dinner of mountain-house chicken and rice we crawled into our bunks and went to sleep at 8pm.
SHIPTON CAMP TO AMPITHEATER (15,700FT)
At 2am the bunkhouse erupted in noise as multiple hiking parties rose and packed up for their sunrise hike up Point Lenana (the highest point reachable by non-technical means). Darren and I slept in a little later til 5:30am, and were out the door hiking by 6am.
We packed the tent, sleeping bags, pads, food, and 3-days worth of water into a big 60-lb pack which I wore, leaving Darren with the trad rack and ropes. The plan was for Darren to do all the leading with me hauling all the gear up. We hiked up the trail to an obvious plateau and turned right following a climber trail at a large cairn. After about an hour of hiking up the frozen scree slope we crossed a talus field to the right and ended at the base of our route, where a blue cross in a circle was painted at the bottom of a cliff. Next to the cross was a memorial plaque to two young climbers who’d died on this very route several years ago. We vowed to be extra careful and not earn plaques of our own.
At 8am Darren started leading up, quickly combining the first two pitches and yelling to me that I was on belay. I cinched up my backpack, laced up my shoes, and said goodbye to flat ground for the next several days. Though the first pitch was only 5.6, it took all my skill to struggle up it with the monster 60 pound pack on my back trying to pull me off.
“Now I know how obese climbers feel,” I said to Darren as I reached the belay. Darren was climbing with only a tiny little daypack, but it was important to give him every advantage possible as leader so he could move quickly and not take any falls.
We next untied from the anchor and shortened the rope to move together over the next easy, class 2 section. After about 60 meters we reached a piton anchor at about chest height and clipped in and reflaked the rope. I belayed Darren up a pitch that was supposed to be 5.0 but definitely had a 5.6 move in the middle.
When he reached the next anchor point I heard some loud cursing, then a long pause, and then finally a yell that I was on belay. It turned out a seemingly solid rock Darren was using for an anchor popped out when loaded, which I imagine was quite terrifying. Darren had a solid anchor when I made it up, and vowed to be skeptical of any rock from then on.
“It’s just like climbing on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire,” Darren said. “Every rock is liable to fall off, just like the Old Man of the Mountain.”
We next climbed up a 5.6 snow-filled corner, and I definitely let out a few grunts of exasperation as my big pack got stuck on the side and tried to pull me back. I didn’t take any falls, though, and managed to struggle to the top. Darren then scrambled up some fourth class terrain and up a very exposed 5.3 block, and belayed me up to the base of our last pitch of the day.
Clouds had engulfed the mountain by now and flurries of snow were starting to fall. As we were coming to discover, Mt Kenya has a strangely predictable weather pattern this time of year. From sunrise to about 11am it’s usually sunny. Then between 11am and noon or so clouds roll in. From noon to about 5pm it usually snows or rains, then it clears up just in time for sunset. At night it’s clear and below freezing and the rocks are usually icy and slippery. This means the warmest and driest time of day is in the morning, and that’s the best time to get any climbing in.
Darren started up the last pitch and soon yelled down that it was my turn. This last pitch was 5.7 and would prove to be pretty tricky for me. Not because of the grade but because of my pack. The pitch was a narrow chimney that my pack just couldn’t seem to squeeze into. It didn’t help that the climbing was slightly overhanging, meaning my pack was acting as a huge force pulling me off the cliff. I eventually pushed my way through, but not without tearing the tent bag that was strapped on the outside of my pack. With the sun gone the rock was very cold, and I spent some time blowing on my numb fingers to help them regain sensation. By the time I reached the top of the pitch it had started snowing pretty hard.
The guidebook said to scramble from here to some good bivy ledges, but with the snow falling we decided to belay one more pitch to be safe. Finally around 1pm we emerged at The Ampitheater, a low-angle section of third-class boulders and scree harboring several decent belay ledges. We found a tiny ledge at the bottom of the Ampitheater, but figured we’d better explore more just in case there was a bigger one. We coiled up the ropes and scrambled up to the top of the Ampitheater, and were rewarded with an even larger bivy ledge, actually just wide enough for the tent.
We pushed some rocks aside to make it even bigger, then quickly set up the tent and jumped inside. It was snowing pretty hard by now, and we were relieved not to be climbing any more. We had originally considered each bringing a bivy sack to save weight and possibly fit better on a small ledge, but the tent turned out to be infinitely better. It kept us much warmer and drier than the bivy sacks, and there was ample room for it on the ledge.
With nothing else to do we went to sleep until around 5pm, when the snow finally stopped. I whipped out the stove and boiled some water for our Mountain House meals as Darren scoped out the route. From our tentsite we could see Firmin’s Tower and it looked pretty tough. The climbing looked easy up to the right side of the tower, but we couldn’t see around behind it where the guide Daniel said the bypass route lay. We could only hope all the fresh snow from today would melt off by morning so our route would in fact be easier than the 5.9 chimney we were trying to avoid.
We agreed our plan for the next day was to start climbing immediately at sunrise, hopefully passing the crux while the sun was still out and reaching the summit before the snow started. We could then rappel back down to camp in the afternoon snow and get back in time for dinner. We had no idea how overly optimistic this plan would turn out to be.
By sunset we’d finished our dinner and were in our sleeping bags at 7:30. It was amazing banking 10+ hours of sleep every night, and would prove very important for our summit bid the next day.
BATIAN SUMMIT (17,057FT) – THE 26HR PUSH
Several times that night I ventured out of the tent and the mountain was always socked in with clouds. I remembered overhearing one of the guides down at Shipton camp mention that some strange weather had been moving through, evidenced by the lighting storm the previous day. I couldn’t help but think we might be in for a storm. Perhaps the wet season was starting early this year. It had snowed awfully hard yesterday, and the brief clearing in the evening obviously hadn’t lasted.
At 5:30am we crawled out of the tent and amazingly the skies were completely clear. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and mentally prepared myself for a full day of exhilarating climbing instead of a full day of boredom and anxiousness riding out a storm in the tent. We hastily scarfed down some poptarts and started putting our harnesses on. Darren stuffed a down jacket into his tiny backpack, but I had forgotten to bring a down jacket and instead just wore all my layers. I couldn’t think of any reason to bring a full backpack, so instead went ultralight, merely clipping two nalgenes and my rock shoes to my harness and stuffing a few granola bars in my pockets.
The sun hadn’t yet risen high enough to burn the biting cold out of the air, so we decided to climb in our hiking boots as long as possible until the terrain got technical enough to warrant rock shoes. We scrambled up towards Firmin’s Tower for a few minutes until the rock steepened into 5th class territory, then set an anchor and Darren started leading up. We inchwormed up three easy pitches to the right side of the base of the tower, past tattered rappel slings that signified we weren’t the first party to touch these cold rocks. Unfortunately the old nylon didn’t reveal whether the parties leaving it had rappelled from successful summit bids, or had retreated in fear. At the top of the third pitch we reached a ridge overlooking what was supposed to be the Northey Glacier.
“I heard one way up Batian is to climb the Northey Glacier to its top, which puts you just above Firmin’s Tower, and then connect with our route,” I said to Darren as I reached his anchor.
We both looked over the edge of the ridge 2,000ft down to the base.
“Maybe twenty years ago,” Darren replied, “but there’s certainly no glacier down there to climb up. Just loose rocks with a little bit of fresh snow.”
Indeed, the Northey Glacier had apparently disappeared, succumbing to global warming over the past few decades. Unfortunately for us the path above us had not succumbed to the same warming, and was menacingly covered in snow and ice. Not enough snow to kick steps in, though – just enough to make the rock climbing sketchy.
Darren bravely proceeded forward, employing aid-climbing tactics to circumvent some ice-covered rock, until he reached a set of rotten slings wrapped around a loose rock horn. He backed up the slings with a few cams and belayed me to his perch.
We continued up another easier, snowy pitch to a ridge at the top of Firmin’s Tower. Our bypass was certainly easier than a 5.9 chimney, though some people may prefer to avoid the ice and go straight up the tower. We followed the easy ridge for a ropelength, past a few small bivy ledges to my favorite belay spot of the route, which I like to call the cowboy belay.
As I climbed higher the easy third-class ridge shrank thinner and thinner until it was actually too thin to walk on. I met Darren straddling the thin, sharp band of rock that was the true definition of knife-edge ridge, clipped into a four-cam anchor. Clouds rolled across the ridge, obscuring all but a 20-ft radius around us. We could tell, however, that the going was going to get tougher.
I mounted the ridge like a cowboy mounting his horse, and scooted over to Darren. Unfortunately sitting on this ridge was considerably less comfortable than sitting on a horse saddle, though.
“The route description says ‘if icy, the next pitch could very well be the crux of the route’” Darren said, reading a paper printout from his pocket.
“Doesn’t that paper assume we did the 5.9 chimney on Firmin’s Tower, instead of going around?” I asked.
“Um, yeah,” Darren replied. “And wouldn’t you know it, everything I see above us looks icy. This could get interesting.”
Just then a short shower of snowflakes let loose from the clouds above us, and coincidentally the clouds below parted. I looked over my left leg, and saw an unobstructed view 2000ft down to the valley below. My right leg hung over a similar view. If I’d spit over either side, the saliva probably wouldn’t have hit ground for a good ten seconds. This was indeed the sharpest ridge I’d had the pleasure of sitting on.
I handed all my accumulated slings and caribbeaners over to Darren, and he began slowly climbing up the icy rocks in front of me. I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on with the clouds rolling in and out, but this pitch was taking longer than the others and I assumed it must be tough. Every five minutes I shifted my position, trying to find the elusive comfortable angle to place my butt on the knife edge. I finally gave up and concluded there was in fact no comfortable way to sit on the cowboy belay.
At last, Darren yelled that I was on belay, and I gladly scooted forward and dismounted from the knife edge. I had the luxury of a tight rope above me, and could thus move faster up the rock without as much fear of falling. This was definitely the trickiest pitch of the day, with several perfectly good hand-jam cracks filled with ice and unusable. At one point the only foot placement was covered in ice, so I pulled on a sling clipped to an old piton and quickly bypassed the section.
I soon reached Darren at the belay, and we breezed through the next pitch of fourth-class rock weaving around the right side of the ridge. The snow was much deeper up here, and we were happy to be wearing our hiking boots to kick in the occasional step. A short 15-foot slightly overhanging roof brought us to a superb bivy spot and what finally started looking like the home stretch of our day.
“Looks like the guidebook recommends just unroping and walking for a ways now,” Darren said, “but I think with all this snow we should still pitch it out.”
I agreed. We followed the ridge up another fifty meters until it ended at a wide ledge system. Now I wished I’d brought a bivy sack and sleeping bag. This place would have been perfect to lie down and sleep on, though it would have certainly been tough climbing all those pitches below with the extra weight and awkwardness of a backpack.
We followed the ledge system to the left for a couple rope lengths until the ledge petered out, replaced by a smooth vertical wall leading into a gap – Shipton’s Notch.
It was about this time that we began to realize what a predicament we’d gotten ourselves into. By now we had no chance of making it back to the tent before dark, and might not even reach the summit before dark. It was still four pitches away. But we both knew that if we turned around now we probably wouldn’t have the energy to mount another attempt the next day, and hadn’t brought enough food for another two days up here anyways. After a brief conversation we decided to continue and finish the job we’d already climbed 17,000ft at.
The climb into Shipton’s Notch was a 5.7 traverse with narrow footholds, and we both decided to change into rock shoes. For me seconding a fall on a traverse would be just as dangerous as a leader falling, and thus I wanted to give myself every advantage to stay on the rock.
After Darren made it through I carefully tiptoed around the traverse, then crawled through the notch and up a short 5.5 wall on the opposite side. The guidebook said the route was third-class from here, but as before the rocks were covered in snow and we wisely decided to stay roped up.
Darren traversed along the side of the ridge, finding a small sheltered cave-like corner to end the pitch. By now the sun finally set, but we were still not quite at the summit. The temperature dropped and this was the spot where I truly would have given anything for my big red poofy down jacket. As I belayed Darren out the next pitch I could feel my core temperature slowly decreasing. Regretably I had only eaten one measly granola bar since breakfast, and very little food the previous day. I knew I should eat, but just didn’t have the appetite to even force a bar down. The altitude was playing a devious trick on me – it was sapping my appetite when I needed food most.
I knew I’d warm up once I started climbing, but couldn’t wait any longer. I started shaking my arms vigorously and forcing myself to shiver, and slowly started warming up. My toes started to feel numb in the meager uninsulated rock shoes standing on cold rock, so I tried to wiggle them rapidly while hopping side-to-side. All of these tactics made my body gradually warm up to a reasonable temperature.
Finally I had my turn to climb, and quickly scrambled up the rocks. I traversed more snow-covered steep rock, then climbed up a sketchy section to find Darren in another small cave. We didn’t exchange many words at this point. We were both exhausted, and knew we just had to push on a little farther and we’d be at the summit.
Darren crawled out of the cave for the next pitch, and after only ten minutes yelled down that it was my turn to climb. Either he’d reached the summit, or reached a dead-end and we were off route, I thought.
I rounded the corner and saw Darren belaying atop a huge boulder with only air above him.
“Looks like we might be at the top of this thing,” Darren said calmly as I approached.
“Whooooooo!” I yelled, climbing up and standing on top of the boulder. We were indeed, finally, on the roof of Mt Kenya. It was 9pm, September 28. Somehow there were no clouds anywhere in the sky, just an unobstructed view of the surrounding jungle and cities 10,000ft below us.
Ironically, if we had summitted during the day we’d most likely have been stuck in the clouds, but since it was night we actually had a nice view. I’d heard it was possible to see Kilimanjaro from the summit of Mt Kenya, but at night it was impossible for me to tell if that was true.
We took a few pictures, chugged some water, and sat down to discuss our situation.
“I’m burnt out, mentally and physically,” Darren said. “You’d better lead us for the descent.”
“Dang, I’m wiped out too,” I replied.
I think we both secretly wished we could just fall asleep right there. But we knew it would be a miserable bivy, without sleeping bags or tents. I knew it was my turn to take the lead, but had been safely seconding all day and didn’t quite feel mentally prepared to be in the lead yet. We both sat down for a few more minutes, hoping the other person would give in and agree to lead. We knew rappelling fifteen pitches in the dark would be tough – it would be hard enough just finding the rappel anchors, if they even existed, in the dark. But even if we found them there was a good chance they’d be of questionable quality and need to be backed up somehow. Anything that required thinking, though, didn’t sound appealing when we were both so tired.
Finally I decided to take my turn and give Darren a break. “Ok I’ll do it,” I said, standing up. “Let’s get outta here.”
We’d brought extra rappel gear, and cut a few pieces of webbing to length and slung a huge rock on the summit for the first rappel. I carefully lowered down into the black abyss, not sure where I was going but hoping it would be easy to figure out. I tried to retrace our route, but couldn’t exactly find it in the dark. I eventually got to a level that looked familiar, then tension-traversed as far along as I dared and built a quick anchor.
Darren followed, and when we were both at the anchor we couldn’t figure out how to proceed. I thought our route was higher up, and Darren thought it was farther down. Again we paused for a long time, hoping the other person would lead. Again I gave in first, this time for good. I took the leader gear and lead a short pitch up the rock, luckily finding our old belay cave. From Here I led another traversing pitch back to the top of Shipton’s Notch.
I was dreading the next pitch, though. It was 1am now, and I really did not want to be leading a tricky 5.7 pitch in the dark. I was already so tired I was starting to slurr some sentences. I decided to force down a granola bar and some water, and that woke me up a little. We looked at the guidebook printout, and it turned out there was a way to avoid the 5.7 traverse after all.
We backed up the rappel anchor at the top of the notch and I rappelled off the north side down to a small snowy ledge below the notch. Once Darren came down I led a moderate pitch back up to the level of the notch, and regained the easy second class ledge from our ascent. It was exhilarating to be leading a technical rock pitch at 2am at almost 17,000ft.
From here I led a few easy traverse pitches until the final bivy ledge when we’d need to rappel again. I clipped into a rock horn with eight tattered slings slung around, and backed it up with a small cam. Our strategy if we trusted the anchor was always to back it up with at least one piece of gear for the first person, and if it held fine we’d remove the piece of gear for the second person.
This way we kept inchworming down the mountain, roughly following our route of ascent. I was grateful for the snow now, because I could follow our tracks once in a while to stay on route.
Rappelling down to the cowboy belay was the toughest section. Each section of rope I threw down had a knot on the end for safety, but when I threw the rope over the cliff the purple end got tangled around a rock. This forced me to rappel fifty feet down a cliff I didn’t really want to be going down just to untangle the rope. I then had to ascend back up the ropes with prussiks to reach the cowboy belay and tension-traverse over to the next station.
By this time the sun was starting to rise, and we started to realize how epic our day had been. And it still wasn’t over. From the top of Firmin’s Tower we had a choice: rappel directly over the tower to reach our tent in fewer rappels, or follow our somewhat circuitous line of ascent. Our guidebook recommended descending Firmin’s Tower, but we were scared by the description. One of the rappel stations was described as “loose blocks with slings around them. Think light when rappelling from this anchor. It wouldn’t be surprising if the blocks have fallen off and the station no longer exists.”
“Um, sorry but I ain’t taking that route,” I said.
“Yep, no way,” Darren agreed.
We continued down our line of ascent, backing up every anchor with some extra webbing and a caribbeaner, until at 8am – 26 hours after setting out – we finally staggered back to our tent.
The sun was up and the sky was clear, but we had no intention of continuing down the mountain. Not with our sleeping bags comfily inside the tent beckoning us to crawl inside. We both got in the tent and promptly went to sleep. I wanted to celebrate somehow – we’d just climbed the highest mountain in Kenya! – but I couldn’t help but remember we were still seven pitches up. When we finally didn’t need the ropes anymore, then I’d feel completely at ease.
I got up at 11am to go to the bathroom and it started to snow pretty hard, just like it had two days ago, but luckily unlike our summit day. We talked about descending the rest of the way that day if it let up, but it kept snowing until 5pm so we just slept all day in the tent.
When the snow let up we scooped some up off the ground and melted it over our stove for dinner. Then at sunset we crawled back in the tent and went to sleep. I felt sort of lazy sleeping through the whole day, but not really when I thought back to our monster 26-hour summit day.
At sunrise we crawled back out of the tent and, as usual, the sky was sunny and clear. We packed up our bags, pulled our harnesses back on, and waved goodbye to our trusty bivy ledge.
I led the way down again, this time having a much easier job with a well-rested mind and daylight to aid my navigation. We rappelled down seven pitches and backed up every anchor with at least an extra caribbeaner for safety. Finally at 10am we reached solid ground. Three days we’d been on the mountain and at last we could put the ropes away for good.
We hiked back down to the hut and were greeted by the caretaker and one guide. I’d secretly been hoping there’d be a bunch of tourists there to be amazed at our accomplishment, but they were all out hiking already.
The guide said he’d been watching us with binoculars, and congratulated us on the climb. We ate a quick meal in the mess hall, than packed up our big backpacks and continued hiking out. We reached the Old Moses campsite a few hours before dark and stopped there for the night. The caretaker was nice enough to let me borrow his phone, and I called up our taxi driver to arrange a ride out the next morning.
We made it back to Nairobi the next afternoon, and even had enough spare time to go on a short safari before flying back to the states.