The Air Up There

Near Lenana Peak, Mt Kenya, July 2011

To be just a little kick-ass on our honeymoon, and earn all the lazing around on the beach we planned on doing later, A and I decided to start off the trip by hiking up all 4,985 meters (16,355 ft) of Mt. Kenya1. And because we're stubborn like that, we, unlike every other white person we saw on the mountain, decided to actually carry our own packs. We felt pretty badass about that part, at least after we realized how few people do it.

The trip started by the side of the road outside of Chogoria, where the bus from Nairobi had dropped us off. Motorcycle taxi drivers rushed over, hoping to take us into town, but we opted to be met by our guide in a car2. Still a little dazed from having landed in Nairobi at 1:30 that morning, I followed A's lead into a local hotel (food joint) where we had the typical upcountry meal: ugali, a corn paste made into a fairly solid chunk; some sort of cooked meat; and sukuma wiki, or sauteed collard greens.

After stocking up on some vegetables for dinner that night, we got in the 4-wheel drive to get up to the park gate. The driver was clearly experienced, and expertly got us through many muddy ditches, even helping out another stuck car along the way. We reached the park gate, where we would stay in a banda (bare-bones hut) that night, by mid afternoon.

View of the mountain from Meru Mt Kenya Lodge, at the trailhead.

And then things started to get interesting. We quickly realized that we'd forgotten a number of items we'd probably need for the trip, like enough cash to pay the park fees, the fuel tank for our camping stove, and warm gloves. But our guide saved the day on all accounts, and we managed to beg and borrow our way into at least the bare necessities for the trek.

We awoke on day 1 of the trip at about 3,000 meters, after a night broken up only by the sound of water buffalo horns scraping against the walls of the banda. After a bit of breakfast, we packed up and started what would be a 17k day. We headed up a red dirt path through the lush green fields, filled up on filtered stream water, and enjoyed the sun. Slowly, the lush greenery gave way to rockier, dustier terrain. The trees dwindled and then disappeared altogether, replaced by Giant Groundel, which basically looks like an alpine palm tree.

The tent, a giant groundsel, the outhouse, and me.

After a long day, we finally made it to Mintos Campsite, where our guide had a hut but we had to pitch a tent. We were on a slight hill, near a few tarns (alpine lakes fed by glaciers), and 4200 meters into the sky. Breathing was becoming difficult, but it was ok as long as you took it slow. Of course, when I did small things like go over to the tarns to pump water or jump out of the tent in the middle of the night to pee, I forgot all this, and would take a good couple minutes on my return to catch my breath again.

The next day, we awoke to a frozen tent. We'd been warm enough, but the condensation from our breath on the rain fly had become sheets of ice. We had a short day ahead, so we let the tent thaw and dry while we leisurely cooked up some oatmeal. The Austrians camping next to us, who, like most of the other Europeans we saw, had not only porters but a chef, had pancakes and hot chocolate. I'm not sure I'd feel like I was camping if I had pancakes for breakfast.

Eventually, the tent thawed—or we gave up on it, I can't quite remember—and we packed up and made our way onward and upward. We scrapped our back-up plan of hiking to another mid-mountain hut3 in favor of our original plan of sleeping at the hut just next to Lenanas Peak, and up we went. After some very steep (and therefore very slow) climbing, we reached the snow line. Snow! On the Equator! SNOW! Ok, yeah, so snow line. Moving on.

By this point, I'd learned to count my steps per breath. On the steepest parts, I was down to one. Step-inhale-exhale. Step-inhale-exhale. Thinking so consciously about it helped make it bearable, and pass the time. It felt downright leisurely when we got to shallower terrain and I could spread it to 2 breaths per 3 steps. We made it to Austrian Hut by lunch time. A was feeling a bit of a chest cold, so we made some Ramen for lunch and took a nap. In the afternoon, we made it over to check out the glacier. Glacier! On the Equator! GLACIER!

The next morning, we got up at 4:304, bundled up as best we could, and climbed the icy rocks to Lananas Peak. There was no air. It was frigid. And we got there early, meaning we had to sit around waiting in the frigid vacuum for the sun to come up. What's interesting, though, at that altitude, is that my body had so little oxygen that it had to concentrate all of its blood in the muscles I was using to get up the mountain, so my hands and feet went numb on the way up; however, once we were up and I was resting, my body had the chance to rush warm blood back into my extremities and I started to warm up a bit. Usually isn't it the moving around that warms you up? Anyway, we managed to get one shot of ourselves at the top of the mountain, in the dark, before the camera froze.

You'll just have to trust me that those blurry smudges are us at the top of a mountain.
We started our descent soon after the sun came up, as it was still freezing. We collected our packs at Austrian Hut and went down the other side of the mountain. The hike down began with a steep descent down a hillside of frozen fine gravel. It was soft enough that it felt like descending through sand, almost. We finally reached the valley and made our way over to MacKinder's Hut in time for breakfast (seriously, it was 9am and we were already halfway back down the mountain). Meanwhile, some rock hyraxes tried to have their own breakfast, courtesy of our backpacks. I'd have been more annoyed if they hadn't been just so darn cute!

After breakfast, we walked. And walked and walked. We went back up for some reason (seriously?), climbed around some rocks, and then hit... The Vertical Bog. It was more like a diagonal marsh, but who's counting? I proceeded downward with "The Neverending Story" playing in my head the whole way5. We eventually made it through (turns out an hour and a half of slogging down a marsh gets old, even with an awesome soundtrack), and were back under the tree line. More red dirt paths, then 9k of road later, we passed some herd animals and were at the gate!

Tired, but accomplished, we ate meat with our hands again and passed out by 9pm.

1: Actually Mt. Kenya is 5,199 meters (17,057 ft) at its tallest point. But the two tallest peaks require hella mountaineering gear and experience, so we, like most people, hiked up the third-tallest peak armed only with our boots and hiking poles.

2: Had we known the guide was just going to hire a taxi to come pick us up, we'd have gone for the motorcycles. I guess I'll just have to wait for my next trip to Kenya to enjoy that particular adventure.

3: What with our lack of preparedness, we'd planned to go to a lower hut on the second night, where it would be warmer. This would have involved waking up at 2am the following day to hike up to the peak in time for sunrise, which for some reason is what everyone does. Looking back, it was certainly majestic to watch the sun rise from the top, but it would have been plenty impressive to see the mid-morning view.

4: WAY better than 2am (see previous footnote).