As I had run a few half marathons before (and hadn’t appreciated just how tough the Maasai Mara half marathon actually was!), when I embarked on my fundraising for So They Can I decided to add in a few extra challenges to engage you, my supporters. So I came up with a trifecta of events in a 2 week period – the Maasai Mara half marathon, a 5-day hike up Mount Kenya and a 29km trail run back in Sydney. I’m happily now two-thirds of the way through, having completed my hike up Mount Kenya last week.
I did a lot of hiking when I lived in the UK. I grew up living near the Peak District and then Snowdonia National Park so lots of opportunities to get out for walks. I’ve hiked less in Australia – perhaps because of a fear of all the snakes, spiders and other creatures lying in wait for me… As a result, its been over 15 years since I did a multi-day hike and the only mountains I’ve climbed have been day hikes – Mt Snowdon in Wales and Mt Kosciusko in Australia. So climbing Mt Kenya was definitely going to be a challenge, and an unknown entity.
Day one was a pretty relaxed day of trekking (thank goodness as we had started trekking on Monday, having completed the half marathon on Saturday). We travelled out to Mt Kenya National Park where we met our guide, David, from Last Mile Treks, and our entourage – 2 porters, a cook, a waiter(!) and another general helper. All for just me and my friend Simon, who had joined me from London for the trek. We hiked for about 3 hours on relatively easy terrain, covering a distance of 10kms to arrive at Old Moses Camp. Yep, Day One went well and we fell asleep in our hut feeling accomplished and happy to be embarking on this adventure.
Our second day of trekking was a longer day, covering a distance of about 16km but over more challenging terrain and so it took us about 7 hours to reach our destination, Shipton Camp. We crossed 2 valleys which involved some serious climbs, and increased our altitude to 4300m. I could feel the shortness of breath that came with the change in altitude and it became important to pace ourselves and take things slowly. One of the biggest mistakes that trekkers make in these conditions is to go out too fast – to try and complete the trek at their normal pace and not give their body the time to adjust to the changes in altitude. We saw a fellow hiker, a young American guy, suffer quite severely from altitude sickness that day. He headed out about the same time as we did from Old Moses but galloped away into the distance. When we arrived at Shipton Camp some time after him, he had headaches, no appetite and was screaming out how he just wanted to get off the mountain. The next day, instead of climbing to the peak, he returned to Nairobi.
Shipton Camp sits at the base of the final ascent to Mount Kenya. Its basic, but provides a bed and much needed shelter. It is also unbelievably cold. There’s no heating and so as the night draws in you are reliant on the many layers of clothing you packed to keep you warm. This picture should give you some idea…
I hadn’t grasped it would be so cold on the mountain, not when we were so close to the equator and the temperatures everywhere else had been high 20s. How could it be minus 3 on the mountain? I had actually packed a ski suit – not because I thought I would need it, but because it was the only hard shell wet weather gear I could get my hands on. Big thank you to Ashley from FDC for lending me the ski suit – I don’t know what I would have done without it!!!
The weather conditions on the mountain were changeable. We’d had some rain on our second day and David told us there was more rain and snow expected to fall, with conditions worsening each day. As Simon and I were both acclimatising well to the altitude we decided to forego our acclimatisation day on the mountain (a day where we would do a gentle trek close to Shipton Camp) and instead ascend the peak on Day Three.
We started climbing at 5am, while it was still dark. David led the way and we focussed our head torches on his footsteps and followed. It was amazing to see the sun rise as we trekked. It started with just glimpses of light coming over the surrounding mountains. And then the snow underfoot was lit up, dazzling in its brilliance.
This part of the trek I was not prepared for. I didn’t expect to be climbing across snow and ice. And the altitude was really tough. We were ascending steeply and whilst my legs felt strong, I couldn’t get any deep breaths. The higher we got, the more difficult it got to maintain the pace. More breaks were needed. And the terrain got icier and changed from something that resembled a path to just clambering over rocks. David was great at navigating us through and after a few hours we were making the final climb, up a metal step ladder, and we arrived at the summit. And we were the only people there. Amazing. The sky was clear. We were above the cloud level and we could look out at the national park, and beyond. I was awestruck. It was beautiful. We had made it. We sat for a while, lost in our thoughts, taking it all in. I could have sat there for hours had it not been so cold.
When we were ready to go, David led us back down the mountain. I don’t know about you, but I really struggle going down hill. I find it difficult to get a sure footing, and on this occasion it was compounded by the snow melting in the sun so the route was slippery. As a result my descent was pretty slow, but I made it in one piece, returning to breakfast set up outside the camp by our truly impressive chef, Sam.
Because of the worsening weather (it snowed all afternoon) Simon and I decided we would try to cover the distance from Day One and Day Two in one day, so that we could return to Nairobi and warmer conditions on the Thursday night rather than Friday. It meant an early start and a big day trekking, but we felt it was manageable. And it was. Although we made it far more difficult than it needed to be. Early on in the trek David needed to stop to tie his shoelace and told us to go ahead, so we did. And we reached a fork in the road – one path went down, and one went slightly up. We couldn’t quite remember which path we had come in on, but decided it must have been the higher one, so off we went. David rushed after us telling us it was the wrong path, but that it would still get us to our destination, so we kept with it. And the path that went slightly up became the path that steeply climbed to the summit of another (smaller) mountain. And I hated everyone at that moment. My legs kept working on autopilot, but my body was exhausted and all I could do was focus on putting one foot in front of the other and praying that we’d reach the top soon.
Whilst that first part of the hike was pretty awful for me, it turned out to be the best decision – we managed to keep ahead of the weather front pursuing us and missed the rain pouring down around us. We made it to Old Moses Camp where Sam had prepared a vast lunch, and then we started the final leg of our trek. This was always going to be a nice way to finish – easy terrain and all downhill. We were on autopilot. And then something very exciting happened…
I need to backtrack slightly here. On our first day trekking David told me that there was an array of animals living on the mountain, including lions, hyenas and elephants. I found this very difficult to believe – the conditions were so different to those in the Mara. Surely the cold, the altitude and the steep inclines would repel these great beasts? Anyway, I accepted what David told me, but decided he must mean elsewhere in the national park and didn’t give it any further thought. Until Day Four.
We were walking down the hill when a motorbike went shooting past, the rider shouting out something in Swahili. David translated saying that there was an elephant further down the track. I was extremely excited – we were going to see an elephant, right here. And them common sense kicked in. This wasn’t a safari. We weren’t in a vehicle providing some protection. We were on foot. And elephants on their own, rather than in a herd, are likely to charge. The dynamic of our team changed. We all slowed down, the porters and some local construction workers descending the mountain joined us. We all walked together, quietly. David went ahead, searching for signs of the elephant. And then he spotted it. Them. There were 5 about 200m ahead of us.
Suddenly the motorbike we had seen earlier went speeding past us, with Sam, our cook and one of the porters on the back. We saw the bike go round the corner towards the elephants, presumably to try to get them off the track. The next thing we saw was Sam and the porter come sprinting back up the track, away from the elephants. Not a good sign! Still, we continued our slow descent down the mountain, with David leading the way. The elephants were off the track, but they were close. I couldn’t see them anymore – there were high trees and bush all around us. I had presumed they had all crossed the track and so I kept to the far right, away from where I thought the elephants were. Until David looked back at me and beckoned me to walk a lot quicker and away from where I was. A few minutes later I understood why. The herd of elephants had been separated – 3 on one side of the track, and 2 of the side of the track where I had been walking. Right by where I was walking. Not a good place to be! When I looked back I saw the 2 elephants cross over the track to join the rest of the herd.
With David’s calm demeanour and awareness of the surroundings, we had been able to safely navigate our way through. It was an exhilarating experience, but also a stark reminder that we were sharing this mountain with others. All the times I had been wholly focussed on where I was to place my feet each day, David had been looking for signs of the animals. He was a great guide, but this event showed me that he was doing far more each day than leading us to the mountain.
Climbing Mount Kenya was a great experience. It wasn’t easy, but then we don’t do things because they are easy. We look for challenges in life, things that will stretch us and build our resilience. Each time I undertake a venture like this, I come away with the confidence that I can do anything if I set my mind to it. The world is full of opportunity and I intend to make the most of it.
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