Midlands hikers on top of Point Lenana (4985m) Dec 2006
This exceptionally challenging expedition was Allison Gunning’s brainchild, which quickly became a hot issue with Midlands Club members with a provisional figure of 15 people wanting to climb Africa’s 2nd highest mountain. Malcolm Pearse of Summit Ventures in Pretoria provided all the infrastructure for the trip but with a rapidly weakening Rand eroding the original all in cost figure of R12 000 several people had to drop out due to financial constraints.
DAY 1 – TUESDAY, 5TH DECEMBER On Day 1 of the expedition a core of 9 hardy souls stumped up the extra money (now R15 000 – but in hindsight exceptionally well spent) and made the commitment to fly to Nairobi and take on Mt. Kenya. The team was: - Allison Gunning - Leader. Matthew Gunning - Allison’s son and Medical Doctor. Jenny Pickles - Just finished her Matric but with considerable adventure experience. Keith Ashton - No surprises here! Margaret Ashton - No surprises here! Margret Kirsten - Ex Kilimanjaro and wanting to sample Mt. Kenya. George Archibald - ditto Paul Archibald - ditto Peter Wedge - Up for the challenge. We all made our way to Johannesburg airport to meet Malcolm before our flight to Nairobi. Allison, Margaret, Keith, Jenny and Peter flew from PMB at 06h30, George and Paul from Durban a bit later. Margret K was already in Johannesburg as was Matthew. So all of us together by about 10h00 – a short briefing from Malcolm, through passport control and security and then a pleasant flight of about 4 hours by Kenya Airways to Nairobi arriving around 16h30 local time (Nairobi 1 hour ahead of Johannesburg ). The airport is quite large (Nairobi is the hub for East Africa) and quite modern.
Peter and Margret had to pay for visas – but this was far less troublesome than we had imagined. The Kenyan authorities seem to be quite tourist sympathetic.
We were met at the airport by David of Rove Africa Tours (this was the company chosen by Malcolm to take us up Mt. Kenya) and his tour guide Peterson and driver Joseph. We were driven to our hotel in peak traffic through Nairobi – 3 million people – the largest city in East Africa and probably the biggest between Johannesburg and Cairo.
The traffic has to be seen to be believed but it was well disciplined without the road rage we have unfortunately had to become accustomed to in South Africa. There were modern buildings and clean streets albeit the road surfaces were not too wonderful Our feeling thus far about the country and capital was positive.
We arrived at the Jacaranda Hotel, (about 14 kms from the airport) a very comfortable hotel with an upmarket restaurant and friendly staff. Once we had settled in to our rooms, Peterson, the Rove Africa representative, who had previously been a Mt. Kenya guide, went through what we could expect over the next 8 days. Thereafter we had a meal in the pizza/bar adjoining the hotel – all thinking about the challenge ahead and a good night’s sleep.
DAY 2 – WEDNESDAY, 6TH DECEMBER After an excellent breakfast we left the hotel in 2 vehicles – Joseph in the Toyota Hi Lux and David in his new station wagon – for Mt. Kenya National Park about 200 kms and 4½ hours away to the north. The road varied from fair, to indifferent to downright bad but there is evidence of the Kenyan Government’s intention to improve road infrastructure.
We stopped after about 2 hours (100 kms) for a break. This was also an opportunity for the wayside crafts guys to flog their wares – pretty good quality but somewhat overpriced as we were to find out later – Allison being charged 4 times the price for bottled water as the same bottle in Nanyuki (main town close to the park), 3 kms north of the Equator.
On the Equator line we had a fascinating demonstration of the Coriolis phenomenon. This is the legendary direction of water corkscrewing down the plughole. Everybody knows about it but few can remember which direction the water goes down in the opposite hemisphere. The guy demonstrating the effect walked north of the Equator line about 20m and filled a plastic container with water. The container had a small hole in the cone shaped bottom. A match floating on the water slowly turned anti-clockwise as the water emptied. 20m south of the Equator the match turned clockwise and on the invisible line it did not move. This is explained by the opposing magnetic forces which stretch from the poles and converge at the Equator. Enough of the physics!
Off the tar and onto a dirt road about 9 kms from the Sirimon Gate to the Park. It had been raining for a while and after several unsuccessful attempts by Joseph to get the Hi Lux moving in a straight line it was apparent that we would have to walk. We set off in heavy rain followed by our guide and porters with all our packs, the food, tents, cookers and their own things. It was quite heavy going underfoot. It was now clear that we wouldn’t make Judmaier Camp tonight as scheduled in our itinerary. In the end this turned out to be quite beneficial as it gave us a longer acclimatisation.
We arrived at Sirimon Main Gate and Lodge around 15h00, with good accommodation – proper beds, showers (cold), a fire and the first sampling of our camp cook, Peter’s culinary offerings. Hot, tasty and very welcome! The rain had stopped on arrival but a heavy mist prevented any views – a good evening with general talk about what was to come and all in bed by 22h00. Sirimon’s Lodge is at 1700m so a good acclimatisation start.
DAY 3 - THURSDAY 7TH DECEMBER We woke up to a clear and bright morning with a great view of Mt Kenya with ice and snow showing up beautifully – this no more than 13 kms from the Equator. We had breakfast – full Monty courtesy of Peter the cook and off by 09h00 to our next overnight stop at Judmaier Camp. Geoff (alias Elias or vice versa!) our guide firstly however introduced our porters and cooks to our group and we then introduced ourselves. This showed good human relations and it was clear that Geoff was a professional.
A long slow climb of about 9 kms to Judmaier – old Moses hut at 3300m or about the height of our Drakensberg. Most of us took Diamox today. This minimises water retention and the risk of oedema – particularly cerebral which can be fatal. However you have to pee a lot more than usual.
The flowers were beautiful, Mt Kenya Dec 2006
The route to Judmaier changes from rain forest to classic moorland with giant heather and protea. Several unusual alpine type plants also seen together with the first of the weird giant lobelia (more later).
We met people coming off the mountain – 2 French girls who actually met each other at the top and clearly now were best friends and a guy from the Magaliesberg area, Martin Templar. He’s a farmer and is encouraging people to come to hike in this area. (His number is 084-410-0469). This could be a great long weekend – the Magaliesberg range is quite delightful country – over to you Keith!
At Judmaier for lunch – another Peter special – and then rain set in. The weather on the mountain can be unpredictable. A young African lady had been brought down, she was feeling sick, our first hard evidence of High Altitude Sickness which meant that those of us without Kilimanjaro experience were feeling a bit anxious!
Allison’s card school, rummy, in which Allison’s rules apply but in my opinion they change daily, followed by afternoon tea with doughnuts. A small party then trekked up the next track to about 3500m to see the general terrain and also to help acclimatise. Generally it’s a good idea to climb high and sleep lower. Another hot meal for dinner, more cards and most of us in bed by 20h30 with the rain now quite heavy. Peter (Senior) up around 02h00 to a magnificent view of the mountain peaks and with the Southern Cross lying just on the horizon but not possible to photograph without time delay etc.
A good day but an indication of hard work to be done. Judmaier camp, actually a hut, was basic but quite comfortable. We occupied 2 rooms each with 8 bunks, and the other rooms filled up with other hikers from all round the world.
Judmaier Bungalow - a typical afternoon's activities on our way up Mt Kenya
DAY 4 – FRIDAY, 8TH DECEMBER Clear in the early morning but strong winds with portents of chilly cold weather ahead. Breakfast at 07h00 and off by 08h00 to our next stop at Shipton’s camp at 4200m. We had quite a stiff climb for the first 2 hours – most of us now realising that slow is “cool”.
It was clear after the 2 hours that we wouldn’t be at Shipton’s by 14h00 (as indicated by Malcolm’s itinerary). Flora on the mountain now quite dramatic with giant groundsel (a type of succulent), ostrich plume lobelia (monstrous plant about 1,4m high with a very complex cell like structure) and alpine plants, many and varied. After about 4½ hours we came across 2 Spanish guys – the younger of the two feeling and looking very ill. They had passed us earlier on – going quickly and obviously had paid the price. They had to go back down the mountain! You don’t mess with this mountain!
Mt. Kenya peaks now almost permanently in view – quite spectacular. We had lunch by a river – next after Niki North – again a masterpiece by Peter and team and then the final push, mostly on the 4000m contour. A short stiff climb past Shipton’s cave and then cresting the peak the most welcome view of Shipton’s camp about 1 km away. Arrival at 16h00 to hot coffee and biscuits – Rummy again before dinner.
Shipton's Camp below Point Lenana, Mt Kenya
Several other parties were at Shipton’s including a French party and a Slovak girl – very international is Mt. Kenya! According to Paul’s GPS we walked 14,7 km today and climbed 1100m – Shipton’s is at 4200m. Now distinctly chilly. A good hot dinner again and bed by 21h00, ready for the next camp. All of us now beginning to feel confident about the final ascent although Peter and Margaret getting slight headaches.
DAY 5 – SATURDAY, 9TH DECEMBER
Breakfast at 07h00 and away by 08h00 from Shipton’s camp to our next overnight at McKinders Lodge. Geoff had originally planned for us to camp at American Hut but he had had reports that the ground was very wet.
A stiff climb to start with to 4600m over a col with Bation and Nelion staring us in the face with a lot of snow and ice.
After the col a descent with a view of the 2 tarns and then over another mini col with Nanyuki tarn on our right. This is quite large with clear water and probably quite deep. We walked along the shoreline for about 700m or so and then a short descent to Hut tarn close by. The old 2 Tarn Hut is now disused.
The Oblang and Hausberg Tarns, Mt Kenya. Quite beautiful
A final difficult scree slope to 4300m and McKinders at 13h30 so plenty of time to rest and relax. Only 5,6 km covered today but difficult hard terrain. 770m climbed in total.
All of us ready for Peter’s lunch offering – amazing what his team concocted with no meal repeated.
Third series of Gunning rummy again with Matthew outright winner.
Earlyish retirement to bed ready for the climb to Austrian Hut the following day.
DAY 6 – SUNDAY, 10TH DECEMBER
Peter Wedge nearing Austrian Hut (about 4700m) 200m below Point Lenana, Mt Kenya
Geoff had said that 3 hours should be sufficient to get to Austrian Hut so a bit of a lie in with breakfast at 08h00 and away by 09h00. We encountered a stiff scree climb of about 350m with the snow line rapidly approaching. Then into snow fields proper – quite deep, 300-500mm, with quite difficult walking. The glare from the snow is quite severe so without sunglasses you have a serious problem.
After a climb of about 1,5 km through the snow fields we entered a rise and then Austrian Hut looking very welcoming. Lonely Planet describes this as being very basic and it is – but certainly no less so than the others. There are 3 rooms sleeping 6 people, so quite comfortable.
All of us in by 12h15 so 3 hours was a good estimate by Geoff. Senior Peter going a bit too quickly following Keith and ending up with a headache again. You have to respect the mountain and the altitude.
We were now at 4800m having climbed 550m and only 3,6 km but it felt a lot more.
With plenty of time on our hands several of the group doing a bit of exploration after lunch – principally to the Ice Cave which was unfortunately snowed in. Margret K giving everyone a bit of a scare on the Lewis Glacier – this is the big one at the foot of Nelion – she slipped and Geoff racing after her and then demonstrating to everyone how to brake. Dig in elbows and toes and lift stomach off the snow and cry ‘ HELP! ‘
The mountain has claimed several lives over the years. One particularly poignant memorial is close to the Austrian Hut commemorating a young English guy of 21 who just went missing in a snow storm. It would be quite easy to lose your bearings and wander off or fall down a crevasse. It actually began to snow slightly and with a heavy mist coming in we had an almost total white out. This means that the horizon disappears and you have no reference point. Scary!
Back in the hut with an earlyish dinner and then all of us in bed by 20h00 thinking about the assault on the mountain summit the following morning at 05h00.
A small team arriving late – 2 French guys and 4 others who were to spend the next 10 days establishing and climbing a new more difficult route up Bation and Nelion. These were professionals with crampons, ropes etc., and obviously very experienced. They were camping in snow so obviously hardy souls.
Very cold tonight – Peter up early with a beautiful clear night. Spectacular at this altitude. You get a real feel of what Mr. Kenya means to the local Kikuyu people.
DAY 7 – MONDAY, 11TH DECEMBER
From left to right: Point Lenana; The Flake behind Point Thomson, Nelian (5188m) and Battion (5199m), Mt Kenya
All up by 04h00 – tea laid on by Peter and his team and then off by 05h15 with headlights to climb to Point Lenana. This is not for wimps. Heavy snowfields and quite serious rock climbing to the summit by 06h45. This was a climb of only 200m but it takes time.
Sunrise was quite magnificent. All of us taking our digi pics like crazy and then the incredible sight of Kilimanjaro almost due south and over 300 kms away!
On the Lenana summit are several plaques commemorating early explorers – some are quite moving.
The Lenana Summit is 4985m say 16400 ft. We all felt incredibly fulfilled to have done it. Margret K in her excitement started to descend without her pack!
Keith Ashton on top of the world! Point Lenana (4985m)
Descent was fairly hazardous with Geoff having to cut steps with his ice axe to assist us. We descended to scree i.e., the snow line around 4600m taking about 1½ hours. Then an equally difficult descent to the valley below and arrival at Minto’s Camp by 10h45 - 700m descent and 5¼ hours in total.
Leaving Point Lenana, very steep and slippery icy slopes
Minto’s is a tented camp – quite barren although with a tarn close by. Most of us with rubbery legs from the descent so a leisurely open air brunch and after a short rest Geoff taking us to the gorges. These are quite spectacular with 250/300m sheer cliffs. A large lake – Lake Michaelson – is at the head of the valley before it empties below via Vivienne Falls – in themselves equally spectacular being at least 150m.
Early dinner at 18h00, freezingly cold, so all in tents by 18h30. A great memorable day – 700m descent and 5,5 km.
Very cold during the night.
DAY 8 – TUESDAY, 12TH DECEMBER
A long long night for us all and not very comfortable. This was probably the least attractive camp we stayed in with the immediate area looking quite barren although the adjacent tarn below the camp was attractive.
We awoke to frost and minus temperatures but with magnificent views of the two peaks from our campsite. Off by 07h00 after an early breakfast for the long descent to Chogoria Camp. We quickly descended from the escarpment to have a clearer view of Vivienne Falls and then further descent brought us onto moor land with heather and various fynbos type plants and a large colony of proteas. Lunch at the Chogoria crossroads – 9 kms to here and then with Chogoria Camp in view another 6 kms to home descending into forest with evidence of elephant all around. We also came across hyaena droppings. Considering the altitude – now at around 3200m it’s amazing to see such dense forest and variety of flora. Almost equivalent to what we would find in South Africa at 1000m – presumably equatorial weather would have something to do with such prolific growth?
Walking to the Chogoria Gate, on our way from Mt Kenya, more beautiful flowers.
Arrival at Chogoria camp at 13h45 with hot showers ready within the hour – bliss! Old donkey boilers doing their stuff. 15,2 Kms today and 1200m descent so quite a long, tiring descent. The camp is quite old but rustically comfortable with good views of the surrounding countryside.
After we all emerged, clean shaven and smelling sweet and clean we had tea in the “games room” and then a general walk around the camp. We were fortunate enough to see 3 elephant on the plain below us together with what looked like wildebeest.
A good dinner – final game of rummy again to Matthew! And then the luxury of a proper bed again. Senior Peter slept on a couch and still very comfortable and a good night’s sleep for us all.
All feeling “Mission Accomplished”!
DAY 9 – WEDNESDAY, 13TH DECEMBER
Clear and cold – breakfast at 07h00 and then Allison giving a quick heart warming speech and accolades to Geoff and his team with special reference to Peter and his cooks. All of us giving a good tip and something from our packs – so clearly all happy.
It had now begun to rain so on with our wet weather gear and an 8 km walk to meet the 2 Land “lovers” (Kenyan people seem to have difficulty in sounding their “r”s – hence it was “laining” heavily for the first 4 kms or so.
The 2 off road vehicles were not in the best of condition – we had a hair raising 2 hours on unbelievably bad rutted dirt roads getting hopelessly stuck on at least 2 occasions. If it hadn’t been for our very willing and helpful porters we would have struggled to have got to Nairobi that night.
Getting to and from the mountain was quite a challenge
At Chogoria town by 12h45 and farewell to our mountain team – great guys (and one girl). Geoff was a fantastic guide, really knowledgeable and a real gent. We were met by David and Joseph, then 1¼ hours to Embu for a nice lunch in a goodish hotel – courtesy of David.
Back at the Jacaranda Hotel in Nairobi at 17h30 after fair roads to the capital – we also went through the diplomatic area which has an English country feel about it.
All ready for the baths/showers and then a good celebratory dinner in the Safari Restaurant – good food and good Tusker beer.
Allison then made various appointments to her “cabinet” viz.,
Paul - Minister of Statistics, for his regular updates on distance travelled, height climbed etc.
Matthew – Minister of Information, he had his Lonely Planet permanently under his arm and was always ready to quote necessary info on customs, Swahili, local area etc.
George – Minister of Entertainment. George always had something cogent and amusing to say at each camp we stayed at. He also kept us guessing with his dress and maintenance of his gear.
Keith – Minister for Photography. About 1000 pics from mountain peaks to alpine flowers to all manner of detail of the flora and fauna encountered. Also several shots of the team caught unawares.
Jenny - Minister for Fantasy, she always saw things encountered in a delightful and magical way.
Margaret A – Minister for Promptness and Timing, always ready for her meals and reminding everyone else – “foods here”.
Margaret K – Minister for Winter Sports, for her escapades on the Lewis Glacier and on Point Lenana.
Senior Peter – Permanent Under Secretary, as official tour scribe – accuracy of reporting not necessarily corroborated.
All looking forward to another comfortable night but not looking forward to our early morning call at 03h30 – we had to leave by 04h30 the following day to the airport.
DAY 10 – THURSDAY, 14TH DECEMBER
A very early start with a call at 03h30 and tea biscuits – some of us had a full breakfast in the room – and David/Joseph at the Hotel by 04h20. David could not have been more helpful or caring, his company is a real professional outfit. To Nairobi Airport by 05h30 for the mid morning flight back to JNB. Kenya Airways again giving us a comfortable flight – a long delay at JNB getting our luggage and then the PMB contingent having to wait until 18h30 for the domestic flight but no real matter – we had plenty to talk about and discuss.
A truly memorable experience for us all – Kenya was quite a refreshing and positive outlook on Africa – industrious people, generally well educated and fascinating countryside.
For most of us this would be the ultimate climb – it won’t get much better than this – if ever!
Big thanks to Allison for creating the opportunity and to Malcolm Pearse for putting flesh on the bones and making it happen.
Himalayas, Karakoram, Andes next anyone??!!
Permanent Under Secretary