As the countdown to the season’s end approaches zero, my mind is on the only holiday I remember when I wasn’t a hostage of my environment and therefore didn’t eat or drink more than I should have. I never had to worry about “detoxifying” afterwards.
The year was 1986. Some of the most captivating news and feature stories of that time were about religious zealots who scaled the snows of Mt Kenya with no more than a sunny day’s clothing and a little food, dumbfounding professional climbers and mountain park rangers. They embarked on a perilous trek lasting several days, disregarding the presence of wild animals and braving sub-zero temperatures just to go up and pray.
Most people, however, regard the mountain as a sporting challenge to be conquered. I decided to be one of them. I purchased mountain gear and hired a porter-guide to help me get to Point Lenana, the mountain’s third highest peak. The other two, Batian and Nelion, can only be tackled by professional climbers. So, too, is a lower one, Point John, the horn-shaped rock out-cropping that gives the mountain its distinctive look.
At that time, I was writing a column called “Off The Pitch.” At the end of my successful adventure, I wrote a detailed three-part chronicle and with the indulgence of my editor this week, I reproduce a shortened version of it. Here goes:
One after the other, in lyrical and penetrating tones that were strangely captivating, stories of the mountain came off him with that completeness that can only be found in he who has had the benefit of experience, the talent of telling and the luck of survival.
The porter-guide. Slight in many respects; slight fingers, slight arms, slight legs, slight neck – a slight figure but a figure with a big heart and a big mind because week after week for five years now, he has guided visitors to the snow-capped heights of Mt. Kenya and brought them back safely home to base.
Yet today, 10,000 feet up the mountain and pausing for the night before a long trek up 14,000 ft. early tomorrow morning, his stories are dominated by that which a first-timer like me could do without: stories of great hardship. Paralysing exhaustion. Sickness on the mountain. Accidents. Mountain rescues. Climbers hurtling from vertical walls to their deaths in frozen lakes great heights below.
Until I cannot take it anymore and I ask him: “Then why do you go up the mountain?”
Pause. Then he smoothly shifts gears to the bright side of life. “Peace,” he says. “When you are up the mountain, you have no problems in the world. You march and it’s only you and your mountain. All those things that trouble your mind down here, the things that you brood over and which put flashes of lightning in your stomach, aren’t there when you’re up the mountain. Yes, you get tired, but the greater the exhaustion, the greater the fulfilment.”
My trip up the mountain had been in preparation for a long time. Numerous stories had captured my imagination. One in particular, by a friend and former Nation colleague, Muli wa Kyendo, had left an enduring impression on me. Muli had travelled up and around Mt. Kenya and talked to several old men - the zealots – who had gone up the mountain as they would go to an elders’ council, the cold and animals notwithstanding.
He had also talked to some guides. One of them, despite his eight years’ experience climbing, still remained in awe.
“There’s something holy about the mountain,” he had told Muli. “I have suffered a host of illnesses here but I never fail to get a fresh experience when I climb it. It’s a wonderful feeling emerging from the biting snows and coming into the scorching heat all in a matter of hours. It’s like taking your breakfast in the Antarctica and your lunch in the middle of the Sahara Desert.”
A fortnight into my leave, I was working out in the gym with a Frenchman called Maurice Bernard. Maurice climbs cliffs and mountains and has scaled Nelion.
He told me: “Mt. Kenya is excellent. I go there quite regularly. I was there only last week. But it’s tough. I lost two kilos of weight in two days.”
Arriving at the gate of Mt. Kenya National Park on a windy Sunday evening some 12 hours ahead of the appointed time, I ran into my guide, Kariuki Kori.
“I was expecting you tomorrow,” he said excitedly, and our hands clasped in a vigorous handshake. “But no problem. We’ll go.”
Off he went to change into proper mountain attire as I proceeded to the Park office to pay the entrance fees. That done, guide and tourist drove 10 kilometers of steep, winding road up 10,000 feet to the base called Met Station. Beyond that point, no vehicles move. Programme: sleep there and wake up at dawn next day and march up to Mackinder’s Camp – 14,000 feet up.
Monday: 6 a.m.: “I suppose you’re already up?” Said Kariuki, walking around the room and puffing at a cigarette.
“That’s right,” I replied, emerging from my thick sleeping bag. It’s the first time I’d used it and I thought it was absolutely superb.
I cursorily washed my face and slipped on heavy military boots and a zipped jacket. I had slept with everything else, two pairs of socks, heavy jeans, a shirt and two pullovers and gloves. A quick gulp of coffee and at 7.05, we were off, Kariuki carrying the rucksack.
Soon, the thick forest, home of many wild animals, was behind us and we were into moorland - thick grass and rocks. We kept running into returning climbers, their faces bright with the elation of conquest.
“You know,” Kariuki said at one point, “when I am marching well after a good night’s sleep I can do this trip in four hours flat.”
Heavens! I groaned, scarcely an hour gone and we’re supposed to do at least three more if we march well! Somehow I had imagined the Mackinder’s trip was no more than an hour or two away.
Aloud I said: “I see!”
One thing, however, was an anathema: the guide’s explanations of where we were and what we were seeing.
“Do you see down thereeeeeeee…?” he would ask pointing far down and below. “That is Nanyuki town.”
“Yes, I can see,” I would reply calmly. Inwardly, however, I felt like exploding: “Will you shut up!”
There was something about exhaustion that made another person’s words feel like more weight on your shoulders. Distressfully for me, Kariuki turned out to be the sort of person who wants no detail left out anywhere.
At a point called Teleki’s rock, we took time off for coffee and I marvelled at the enormous valley below with its clear river. “Shall we cross that river?” I asked.
“Yes,” Kariuki replied. “And many more.”
I couldn’t wait. Down at the river, and with me now carrying the rucksack, I was so hot I suggested we pour the coffee in the flask and instead carry drinking water. A matter-of-fact Kariuki said: “Drink all the water you can, but leave the coffee alone.” I told him that with the heat generated by the marching, what we needed was water, not coffee.
“There’ll be water at the camp,” Kariuki said in tones that suggested I was talking nonsense. “Leave the coffee alone.” I complied, respecting his experience.
We resumed our march and bathed in sweat four and a half hours after departure from Met, we called in at Mackinder’s Camp. After less than two minutes’ rest, or so it seemed to me, I was shivering and demanding coffee. Kariuki duly obliged with an I-told-you-so flicker in his eye.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “we start at 4am. That should see us through to Lenana at 6am.” We went to bed in much the same way we had at Met – heavily dressed.
Tuesday, 3am. “Oil your face properly because of frost bite,” Kariuki said as soon as we’d washed our faces. That done, we geared up, adding thick balaclava’s to the attire. After a breakfast of coffee and bread and armed with ice axes, torch and camera we marched off into a moon and starlit night.
After a distance of 50 meters, I handed over the camera to Kariuki. “I understand,” he said calmly, “even a matchbox here can feel heavy.”
Clawing through snow adjacent to the beautiful Point John, I shuddered at the remembrance of the horror stories of accidents and Kariuki’s own question: “Do you know lightning?” Yes, I had replied.
“That’s how you disappear from sight when you slip.”
At Top Hut we were joined by two Americans, Peter and Doug, who were practising to go up Nelion. Our friendship was instant. And it came in handy when I asked: “Which among those peaks is Lenana?” I was shown and, gripped by fear for the first time, declared: “I am not going.”
“What!” snapped Kariuki, turning round incredulously? “What do you mean?” I explained my fear of precipices but they would hear none of it. To one side, a large sheet of snow called the Lewis Glacier. To the other, rocks ending in a seemingly bottomless valley.
“Come on, Roy!” Peter shouted. “You’re not the only one afraid of heights. Move!”
Overcoming the jelly on my wobbly knees, I moved. Progress was slow as we inched towards the summit. Then, first Peter, then Kariuki, then me and finally Doug hurled ourselves over a rock and onto Point Lenana.
“There!” yelled Peter. And from the roof of Kenya, I had a bird’s eye view of Meru, Thika and Nairobi as I silently waited for day to break so that I could see Mt Kilimanjaro whose summit I would scale on an Outward Bound expedition in 1988.