Climbing the highest mountain in Kenya

“An indescribable feeling of calm and content combined with adrenaline charged courage and determination” – Adnan Savani

Day 1

Sirimon Gate to Old Moses Camp

As some of us scrambled at the last minute for warm enough sleeping bags and backpacks for our trip just the night before and this morning, we eventually headed towards Sirimon gate at the foothills of Mt. Kenya, just northeast of Nanyuki town. We finally got out of Nairobi traffic and reached Nanyuki at 11:30am. As our guide went to buy some perishable items we walked around town and stopped over at the Boulangerie Coffee shop for an an Americano, chips and the cheesiest, greasiest french hot dog – basically melted cheese and a frankfurter in a baguette – Perfect fuel before climbing a mountain!

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Sirimon route to Point Lenana via Old Moses and Shipton’s camps

At Sirimon gate (2,650m ASL), we had a quick lunch of noodles, seasoned cucumbers and fruit and our climb had begun at 2:10pm. It was just three months ago when a few of us discussed climbing this mountain. Three months seemed a long time and now we were actually doing this! With minimal training, it was a bit daunting, but there was only one option – to reach point Lenana – 4,985m above sea level…no matter what!

With a slow and steady pace we started walking through the rainforest. Walking over lots of buffalo dung, we also came across some Golden Winged Sunbirds, Scarlet tufted malachite Sunbirds, Mountain buzzards, Alpine and Scarce swifts and a variety of Swallows among other birds. As we ascended, it started getting chilly; assuming my rain jacket and a t-shirt would keep me warm was just idiotic. As I generated heat, my arms continued to sweat, the cool air came in and swept it away instantly lowering my body temperature – lesson learned, a fleece jacket would’ve been a better option!

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A dead tree with Usnea (‘Old man’s beard’) on it

After numerous pee breaks, and ascending a vertical distance of 650m we finally reached reached Old Moses camp (3,300m ASL) at 5:30pm. After some photos of the breathtaking view down below us, and some Eland in the distance, some hot tea, popcorn and biscuits was a warm welcome to camp. Mild altitude sickness kicked in during dinner, and some of that tasty cabbage I ingested quickly ended up on the ground just outside the dining room. The night sky was incredible with shooting stars passing every now and then. I took some long exposure photographs and went to bed thinking about the 14km trek ahead of us the next morning.

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Old Moses Camp at night
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Old Moses Camp at night

Day 2

Old Moses to Shipton’s Camp

After a very cold night and a super breakfast with hot tea, watching Jackon’s Francolins and Red-winged Starlings creating a racket, we left Old Moses Camp at 9am. A gradual climb to a higher altitude seemed like forever, the scenery however was incredible and spirits were high as we marched on forward not knowing what to expect ahead of us. Every now and then a Mountain Buzzard would fly above us and some more Sunbirds would flutter in the bushes to our sides. As the altitude increased we gradually came across a variety of Lobelia species including Giant Lobelia, Lobelia teleki (looks like cousin Itt from the Addams Family), and some Groundsels which are endemic to Kenya. Passing through Leakey valley, the grandeur had only begun. Coming out of Leakey valley and entering Mackinder’s valley was when the mountain’s true magnificence was witnessed.  As clouds brought with it cold air, rain and hail, and with short glimpses of snowy Batian peeking through the clouds, reality kicked in – full of excitement and adrenaline we were edging closer to our destination.

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Cousin Itt!

A small cave on the edge of Mackinder’s valley suited as our lunch spot. Hot noodle soup warmed our insides as we watched the rain drop within metres of us. As rain and hail poured harder I thought about the unexpected that lay ahead – from sporadic mountain weather to grand scenes and difficult treks.

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View of of the peaks seen from Mackinder’s valley
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View of of the peaks seen from Mackinder’s valley

With numerous photography and pee breaks we finally saw Shipton’s camp (4,200m ASL) within our view after a long 8 and 1/2 hour trek. The rain began to settle and the sun began to set as we reached the end of the valley, giving way to a full rainbow. The cameras were out for some quick panoramas – due to the sheer size it could not all be captured in one photo. Below is a panorama of 4 horizontal frames stitched together. Ascending a vertical distance of 900m from Old Moses camp meant it was very cold here. Resting our feet, sipping on hot tea and munching on popcorn felt amazing. More amazing than that however, was the view which words and photos cannot do justice. The stunning snowy peaks of Batian, Nelion and Lenana were truly breathtaking.  Ever since I was a child in Hillcrest preparatory school and wore my yellow (Batian house) t-shirt showing these three peaks I have wanted to climb this mountain. And here I was, hours away from summitting Lenana.

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Panorama in Mackinder’s Valley

We had a delicious dinner of fried chicken and vegetables and talked about getting up at 2am for the summit ascent. It was cold and we were tired, and some of us had headaches from the altitude, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. We came here to climb and summit Lenana and that is what we were going to do!

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The view from camp, at 7:30pm, just before dinner

Day 3

Shipton’s Camp to Point Lenana to Old Moses

Sleep didn’t come easy with what sounded like chainsaws running through our ears, it was however just our neighbours’ tremendous snoring. With less than an hour of asleep, we arose, full of excitement. It was this moment I was waiting for.

At approximately zero degrees celsius at this time of night, it was only going to get colder as we ascended. We filled our camelpacks with water, drank some hot tea with popcorn and biscuits, wore contact lenses (glasses would otherwise fog up from our breath trough the balaclavas), layered up, looked like eskimos, and started climbing!

It was pitch dark. The plethora of stars and our head lamp is what provided us with just enough light to see two steps in front of us. The number of shooting stars above us and the clear, starry sky creating silhouettes of the peaks around us was the highlight of my climb. As the air got thinner, we got quieter. All we could hear was the cool breeze and our breath. An indescribable feeling of calm and content combined with adrenaline charged courage and determination.

Looking around in the dark with the headlight, in the distance all I could see were dark, amorphous, faded rocks and scree – felt like I was on martian land. Constantly popping in glucose tablets to keep us going and trying to rehydrate as the water in the camelpacks kept freezing, taking in the cold was inevitable.

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Silhouettes of the peaks and rocks around us during the starry night trek

Three hours from when we begun, the sun began to rise. Colours so deep, so saturated, it was too surreal to believe. But it was as real as it gets. The vivid orange-red sky streaked with thin layers of clouds created an awe-inspiring moment that is stuck in my mind forever. Never thought such natural beauty could evoke such strong emotions.  Unfortunately while absorbing this incredible moment, I had reached utmost exhaustion. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. I laid back on the ice cold rocks watching the sunrise and just enjoyed the moment. Too tired to even get my camera out for a photo – a mental image engrained for life would do just fine at this time.

With only a vertical distance of 15-20 metres to go, I couldn’t give up now. With some motivation from my friends who seemed to have no problems at all, we crawled on all fours climbing vertically on the sun-kissed golden rocks. Exhaustion kicked in again, but now just metres from the top, this was the final push! I gathered all remaining energy and climbed the seven last ‘steps’ screwed into the rock…we had reached!

Finally, from an altitude of 2,650m at Sirimon gate when we started walking in shorts and a t-shirt, to now, 3 days later, at 4,985m ASL at point Lenana wearing layers of clothes, on top of thermals, and approximately -15 degree celsius we had reached the third highest peak in Kenya- and we were on top of the world!

Smiles galore, we took in the spectacular views from the top, captured some photos to brag of our success, and ate some salt and vinegar crisps, frozen chocolate and nuts to re-energise. An hour later, even though what seemed like 20 minutes we decided to descend. The wind was getting stronger and it brought with it an icy cold wind which we got sick of very fast.

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Sun kissed vew of Nelion from Point Lenana as the sun was rising
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Sun kissed vew of Nelion from Point Lenana as the sun was rising
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The view down below

As we descended, we finally got to see what we climbed up in complete darkness. What felt like martian territory climbing up still held in this light, except it wasn’t as alienated, it was beautiful. The ocean blue tarn to our right was very inviting for a swim…if only it was 30 degrees celsius! As we got lower, we were welcomed with a grand view of Mackinder’s valley, and the route we trekked through this whole valley.

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Enter a captionComing back down. Point Lenana is at the top right of this image
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Coming back down. Point Lenana is at the top right of this image

Most of the 3km trek down from Lenana to Shipton’s camp was torturous. With plenty of loose scree making it a dangerous and slippery ride. The fact that we ran out of drinking water didn’t help either. We arrived back to camp at 10:45am with breakfast waiting for us – banana fritters, sausages, french toast and tea! Up since 2am with minimal sleep, we were feeling the fatigue. We did however, have a 14km trek to do back to Old Moses camp. Back through Mackinder’s and Leakey valleys, we eventually reached camp at around 7pm – absolutely knackered.

Day 4

Old Moses to Sirimon Gate

The next morning we left Old Moses camp for a 2.5 hour trek down to Sirimon gate. Getting warmer as we descended, we came across more Sunbirds and the unmistakable red and black wings of the Hartlaub’s Turaco.

A total of 52km later, a successful climb it was. A physical and mental challenge worth doing; if not for that, then at least to experience a pure feeling created from powerful and breathtaking nature at its finest. You will feel something you’ve never felt before!

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