MF’s Jon Lipsey avoids the crowds, but not altitude sickness, while scaling Africa’s second-highest peak.
Ask someone to name a mountain in Africa and, quick as a flash, they’ll say Kilimanjaro. Why? Because, at 5895 metres, it’s the highest peak on the continent and these days virtually everyone has scaled the Tanzanian giant. Ask them to name Africa’s second-highest mountain, however, and you probably won’t get such a speedy response.
This is mainly because the highest points on each continent get all the attention, of course — but being the highest doesn’t mean they offer the best high-altitude experience. That’s why I’m in Kenya to take on Mt Kenya, the second-highest mountain in Africa.
There are reasons to choose Kenya over Kili. You’re unlikely to encounter crowds. In fact, you’re unlikely to bump into anyone if you choose the Burguret route, because our trip organisers tell me they’ve taken fewer than 100 tourists up that way in the past few years, and they’re the only people running international expeditions. The mountain is also said to be a lot more picturesque than its taller neighbour.
There are six of us in the group, plus a team of porters and guides led by an experienced local called Francis. Our stated aim is to reach the Lenana Peak at 4985m as the sun rises on day four. It isn’t the highest point on the range — that’s the 5199m Batian — but it’s the loftiest bit you can get to without considerable mountaineering skill.
Our journey begins at Gathiuru, a gateway to the dense forest at the base of the mountain. It’s green and fertile and offers a comfortable start to our five-day trek. While we’re still fairly low on the mountain I’m hoping we’ll see some wildlife, but the closest we get to spotting an exotic animal is stepping over fresh elephant dung. The forest is so dense that one of our guides, Peter, has to hack at the undergrowth with a machete to clear the path. In some places elephant herds have helpfully cleared a route through the thick sprouting bamboo and after gaining a few hundred metres in altitude we set up camp in an isolated spot.
Day two is when the trip really gets going. As we walk through the undergrowth, Francis tells us of a fire that swept through the area just above us a few months ago, and as we near the tree line at about 3100m, a wasteland of charred trunks sprawls before us. It looks more like a battleground than a natural disaster. “It makes you realise how delicate the mountain is,” says Francis. We march on in single file through marshy ground that gobbles up your feet. During a long and, thanks to getting bogged down, tiring day we gain over 1000m in altitude and camp at the base of a sheer lava cliff.
Headache for Heights
In the morning the mist clears to reveal the technical peaks of Batian and Nelion (5188m). Our mission today is to get to the pre-summit Shipton’s camp at 4236m. Gaining just a few hundred metres doesn’t sound too demanding, but we’re going higher than that before heading down to the camp and, in any case, the elevation isn’t what bothers me. At this height, altitude sickness (usually in the form of a headache and nausea) can strike at any time and doesn’t have anything to do with fitness levels.
As we advance up the gravelly route and pass the 4000m mark I think I can feel a light throbbing in my head. It doesn’t feel that bad. But as we climb higher, it gets worse.
At least I know I’ve only got to get up to about 4500m before heading down to the camp. As I get up to that height, though, the headache is joined by sickness and nausea to make it feel like I’m tackling this stony wilderness with a cracking hangover.
Thankfully we’re now on our way down, so the hard part is over. Well, it would be if I hadn’t misunderstood what the day involved. Apparently we’re not descending to the camp — we’re descending for 400m before rising again, traversing a boulder field and snaking up a near-vertical scree slope. And now it doesn’t feel like just a hangover. It feels like I’m emerging from a bender of Oliver Reed proportions.
Every 10 minutes I stop, put my head in my hands, feel sorry for myself for a minute, then carry on. It’s not a great strategy, but it gets me to the base of the scree slope that represents the final big challenge of the day. There can’t be a person in the world who enjoys walking up steep scree. I say “walking” — it’s more of a shuffle followed by a slide backwards. Once I’m over the top and down the other side I get to within 50m of the camp entrance before vomiting and collapsing.
This doesn’t bode well for my attempt at the summit tomorrow, which is supposed to start at 4am. It’s about 10 hours until we’re due to set off and I can’t even stand up. I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to get up the most difficult part of the mountain in the dark.
Rob, a guy in our group, helps me into the lodge and gives me a couple of Diamox tablets, which are supposed to combat altitude sickness. A couple of hours later, I manage a few mouthfuls of noodles before crawling back into my sleeping bag with my head pounding and stomach churning. This isn’t the pre-summit preparation I was hoping for.
When it’s time to get up, the hangover/altitude sickness has subsided, but I’m nervous about the effects of going higher. After all, we’re still 750m below the summit, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the pain to return. If we make good time (unlikely), we’ll get to the top of the mountain just as dawn is breaking. That, of course, means the first hours will be done in darkness. It’s just as well, really, because I don’t like heights and wouldn’t want to see the steep descents on either side of the narrow, loose path.
Progress is steady. I think. It’s hard to tell when you can only see a small torch-lit circle of ground metres in front of you. And I’m not feeling too bad either, for about an hour. But then, as the glow of light emerges over the horizon, giving us our first glimpse of the top of the mountain, my sickness makes a return.
Peak and Trough
With the summit in sight there’s no way I’m going to do anything other than advance (OK, stumble) over the jagged lunar-like landscape. You’d also have to be near death not to enjoy getting to the top of a mountain, so for the few minutes that we spend at the summit, gazing down at the snow-covered valleys, I feel incredibly fresh and invigorated. Getting down, however, is a three-hour scree slide of misery.
When I get back to Shipton’s camp I repeat yesterday’s arrival routine. Anyone who has seen both entrances might think that’s how I always do things. Again, I get packed into bed for a couple of hours’ rest before a cheeky six-hour yomp to our overnight stay. The way we’re heading down takes us along the more popular route and it makes me appreciate the serene isolation we enjoyed during our ascent.
It also makes me glad that I didn’t have to battle the heaving crowds on Kilimanjaro.
Anyone can climb the highest mountain — go for the best.
Where: Western Europe
Highest: Mont Blanc (4810m)
Best experience: Matterhorn (4478m). One of the most recognisable mountains in the Alps, the Matterhorn’s chocolate-box looks, hair-raising ridges and tragic history make it a must-climb.
Where: South America
Highest: Aconcagua (6962m)
Best experience: Chimborazo (6267m). Thanks to the Earth’s equatorial bulge, the peak of this dormant volcano is the farthest from sea level — and you can trek to it from Riobamba in a day.
Highest: Everest (8848m)
Best experience: Cho Oyu (8188m). The easiest of the world’s 8000m-plus peaks, with no technical sections that can’t be done on fixed ropes. It also doesn’t have Everest’s permit costs.