In 2004, a young Gitonga wa Wandai did his first documented hike in Machakos as part of the International Award Programme, best known as the President’s Award, under the Kenyatta University Chapter where he was a student.
Little did he know that this three-day trek would turn the activity into a career and eventually steer him towards pursuing even bigger dreams of climbing the tallest mountain in the world— Everest.
Today, Gitonga has made an indelible mark in the African mountain climbers’ community, having summited Mt Kilimanjaro 13 times, Mt Kenya more than 20 times and Mt Ruwenzori once.
“I was always active as a child, playing the village football we used to call ‘one-touch’ any moment we could, but at no one time did I think I would excel in any form of sport,” reflects the 37-year-old who grew up in Kiangima village in Nyeri County.
Later in college, Gitonga enjoyed supporting his friends playing rugby and basketball. Well, until the hike in Machakos that sparked his interest in climbing, which would later see him attain the Gold Standards of the award programme that was under the patronage of the then President, Mwai Kibaki.
In 2016, the trained demographer gained the courage to resign from his full-time job as a monitoring and evaluation expert, to pursue his passions and build his business, Hikemaniak Beyond, an adventures company that organises mountain climbs, hikes and adventure sports.
It has since led more than 10,000 trail lovers, 90 per cent of whom are from Kenya, to various mountains.
“While it was a scarily big gamble, I had never felt more alive and fulfilled. I knew that this was for me,” he says.
It is from watching how his widowed mother single-handedly raised nine children that Gitonga learnt the value of hard work.
His father passed away when he was only one. His older siblings chipped in to put him through high school and the university, modelling in him the significance of helping others in need.
“One of the best gifts my mother ever gave me was the freedom to pursue my truest passions,” he says.
Which is why a year after starting his business, he sold his car to raise funds that would enable him to experience the 14-day solo trek of the Everest Base Camp, in Nepal in the Himalayas.
It turned out to be his most memorable adventure yet as the site is the most coveted hikers’ playing field in the world.
“The aim was to go and see Everest from a close range and return home to prepare for the final bid. As fate would have it, I met Joe Bunyan, the director of my documentary Gitonga, which will be premiering on NTV tonight (May 31),” he says.
“It was the views of not one, but four of the 8,000-metre peaks in close proximity, that were a sight to behold. The culture, the warmth of the people who live, farm and go to school high up in the mountains was quite an experience,” he adds.
His first ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru peak was in 2013. That is the highest point in Africa and it remains his most difficult climb to date.
“I experienced high altitude sickness and what seemed like an endless journey to Uhuru — taking a total of 36 hours, especially because it was an unknown path. It took me 9.5 hours to ascend six kilometres. The descent would take another three hours back to base camp, and another three to a lower camp,” Gitonga recalls.
He says this experience really roughed him up and taught him the importance of preparing both physically and mentally. Gitonga has since been engaged physically, which has resulted to him enjoying his consequent climbs.
But going forward, he is scaling up and intensifying his training, because he will be treading in new territories and heights he has not been to, with Mount Everest at the top of the list.
To climb a mountain 5,000 metres above the sea level, one needs high altitude training in the range between 3,500 to 4,000 metres.
High altitude sickness is caused by oxygen deprivation in the brain or the lungs, or both at the same time. In mountain heights between 3,500 and 7,000 metres, this can be effectively dealt with by taking adequate water — usually averaging above three litres a day, coupled with good acclimatisation practices like sleeping low while in the mountains.
“This is why I run and walk up these mountains to push myself, in order to enjoy the expedition that I am preparing for. I also spend more time in the forest for oxygen loading, an equivalent of carb-loading when planning for an extraneous activity like running a marathon,” he says.
“In preparation, I look forward to returning to Batian in Mt Kenya, run up Mt Kilimanjaro in a day, as well as several runs up Lenana Peak. Later in the year, if the pandemic allows, I look forward to attempting Island Peak and Mount Himlung, both in Nepal,” He ensures that he has collected the right gear and clothing to keep himself warm and comfortable throughout the mission.
Years of climbing have made Gitonga get to learn a lot, and especially about himself. Having been challenged by the first Kilimanjaro trek, for example, he has learnt to be more patient with himself.
He says: “It’s the same with life. You can get pushed down by all manner of challenges. The most beautiful way to deal with that is to keep believing in yourself and being patient, no matter the progress. Keep doing what makes your heart dance, not a single day will ever go to waste.”
Erratic weather and oxygen deprivation have proven to be challenges that Gitonga faces in mountaineering, but it’s financing that tops the list for him.
“Mountaineering is an expensive sport that is yet to gain popularity in Kenya. This makes sponsorship for expeditions challenging. I hope the film Gitonga will create a context to help people understand this outdoor adventure.”
Gitonga is happy and inspired by the climbing and hiking community in Kenya, including Sam Mwangi, Peter Naituli, Munyaka Njiru just to mention a few people who are doing a lot to develop and inspire more to the sport here.
Internationally, he looks up to Spanish alpinist Kilian Jornet, who ran up Everest in under 20 hours.
“I am also inspired by Reinhold Messner, the first man to ascend all the fourteen 8,000-metre mountains without supplementary oxygen, Ueli Steck — famously known as the Swiss Machine for his record speed climbs of the 8,000-meter mountains with minimal resources — and Conrad Anker, the American rock climber.”
But on his journey to the Everest, Gitonga has three goals on his heart and mind.
As a father of two, one of his greatest desires is to give his children the freedom his own mother gave him.
He hopes that by scaling the Everest, he will inspire his son Wandai and daughter Koko to passionately follow their dreams.
Gitonga is determined to place Kenya, on the world map of mountain climbing and motivate his countrymen not to give up on their own aspirations.
“I hope this journey inspires more Kenyans to live with more courage and embrace their dreams. Finally, as spurred by a sincere love for the environment, I am looking to help protect and replenish the planet by planting 500,000 trees by 2022,” he concludes.
To contribute to Gitonga’s Everest climb plans, the fundraising pages are: