Mount Kenya – or not as the case may be…

19 08 2011

July 2007

To escape one of my birthdays which ended in a zero (I won’t give away which one it was), and taking advantage of a break when I left one job and was about to start another, I had the bright idea of escaping the country altogether and challenging myself even more than usual. I was hoping it would take my mind off the impending date of doom (I hate my birthdays).

I’d wanted to do ‘an altitude peak’ for ages as I was curious as to how I’d cope with altitude. I have a lot of friends who do high-altitude mountaineering and wondered whether I could ever emulate them – without the rock or ice climbing of course. So the trip I picked was to attempt Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro – Mount Kenya was supposed to serve as acclimatisation for Kili.

There were just 5 people in my group, including myself, plus our English guide Neil, a diminutive but very nice guy – ex Forces like myself. The others were Robin and Sandra – a couple of around my age, and David and Emily – a doctor and his 18 year old daughter. Of course, David, being a doctor, got pumped endlessly for knowledge about how we could expect to feel at altitude (not that we hadn’t already been researching it online extensively) and also about any other ailments we thought we might be starting to suffer from. He was very patient with us. We set off on 26 July 2007 and were back in the UK by mid August…

We flew into Nairobi and had a night in a big hotel, a quick sightseeing tour of the capital in the morning and then were picked up by our Kenyan Guide Daniel. Daniel was a strapping big guy, well over 6 feet tall – he even made me look tiny. His smile was nearly as big as he was though – he was a really friendly guy. By evening we’d moved on to some temporary accommodation near the little town of Nanyuki which lies right on the equator.


Neil and our mascot Barney Bear on the equator line at Nanyuki


Daniel, our Kenyan Guide

The next morning we were driven to Sirimon Gate which is already at the altitude of 8692 feet for our initial trek up to Moses Camp at 10988 feet. Everyone was feeling fine on arrival at the camp and, as we were camping rather than staying in the huts on the route, we lit a big camp fire. We were soon glad of the fire as there was then several hours of quite heavy rain and the camp felt very cold indeed. We found out later that fires weren’t actually allowed as, when we lit one on our return to Moses Camp a few days later, one of the hut wardens came and poured a huge bucket of water on it and remonstrated with us.

I had a little explore of the camp area just before it started raining and was surprised to see grazing rabbits and also a Dik-dik (type of deer).

We were up early the next morning to a very cold and misty landscape. After our breakfast and ablutions we were off up into the mist. Not long into the ascent, the altitude started to hit poor Sandra and she started to be frequently sick – the rest of us fortunately felt okay. She bravely plodded on though… There wasn’t much to see unfortunately due to the mist, but the plantlife was amazing – the Giant Groundsel were even taller than Daniel!


This one made me laugh

By mid afternoon we descended into the Liki Valley and made our way to the small Liki Hut (13087 feet). We were again camping but the porters somehow all crammed into the tiny hut overnight. It was initially sunny and a few people fell asleep by their tents, including Neil. I went for a little explore of the immediate area with my camera hoping to see some hyraxes. Just as the sun left the valley, two things happened… it went very cold indeed again and it poured down for another hour or so. This seemed to be the pattern from the altitude of Moses Camp right up to Shipton’s Camp where we seemed to finally get above the prevailing cloud-belt.

The porters lit a huge campfire in the evening while most of our group retired to bed. It was only 1900 though and way too early for me to go to bed as I can’t sleep early so I joined the guys at the fire. We had a great evening telling tales and jokes and having a sing-song round the fire – probably irritating the hell out of the rest of the group – sorry guys! I finally went to bed around 2230.

The next morning we got a knock on our tent doors – quite literally – I found out why when I tried to get out of the tent. Due to the tent being wet in the evening and then the usual very hard frost (it’s usually well below -10degC at this altitude), the tent doors had frozen absolutely solid. It was hard enough undoing the zips but then you literally had to punch your way out. I have to say the severe cold, damp air overnight served to keep me awake nightly until we reached the drier air of Shipton’s Camp.

To start our walk from Liki Hut, we had to climb several hundred feet out over a ridge and then descend again to the MacKinder Valley. I was going quite a bit slower than I do at home but still feeling fine – everyone else was tired but looking fine too.

At the top of the ridge the three main peaks of Mount Kenya hove into view. First Nelion and Batian appeared looking spectacularly spiky, then our trekking peak of Point Lenana came into view to their left.

It was a long walk up the MacKinder Valley and then there was another climb of a few hundred feet up to Shipton’s Camp (13907 feet). We were nearly reaching the point of the start of this second climb when I suddenly noticed I was going quite a bit slower and starting to lag behind the group a bit – not like me at all. I was really surprised as I was a supposedly very hill-fit walker and the others didn’t walk as often as me so, in theory, shouldn’t have been as fit.

I admired the rock caves at the foot of the final climb up to Shipton’s and commented on them to Daniel. He said they were probably populated with hyenas and so very dangerous to enter.

We then started the climb past the caves and I suddenly realised I was starting to get quite ill. I was getting noticeably slower and slower with every step and starting to feel quite sick. I was really struggling for breath and my heart seemed to be having huge problems pumping my blood around, making me feel quite giddy. I was embarrassed to see Neil had also noticed my slowness and was observing me. I looked up the hill to the plateau the camp was situated on and it suddenly looked like an impossible climb. The summit attempt was due in the wee small hours and I started to stress that I wouldn’t be able to make it.

I somehow struggled to the top of the climb and Shipton’s Camp. By then I didn’t care about anything much except that I could go and lie down. I was feeling really light-headed, even sicker, and honestly thought I was going to drop dead. I crawled into my tent, luckily ready-prepared by the porters, dragged my mat and sleeping bag out and crashed out. I lay for quite a while feeling the ground swimming under me.


Shipton’s Hut

The guys gave me a shout at tea-time and I dragged myself out of my bag to get a small amount of food down and kept trying to glug the required three litres of water. As I probably drink less than a litre of liquid most days, I found the constant drinking a real struggle anyway. Feeling sick just made it even harder. I then went off back to bed, by now in tears as I could see I wasn’t going to be ready for the summit attempt. Although I’d have been gutted anyway at not being able to make the summit, somehow altitude sickness makes you much more emotional – all very embarrassing!

We were due to be called at 3am and so I asked to be called anyway and said I’d give them a decision then. During the long evening, I occasionally staggered out to the latrines to relieve myself of all the damned liquid I was having to shovel down my protesting insides.

It was really weird walking to the toilets as, while I knew where they were and seemed perfectly capable of following the path to them, I felt really strange and didn’t seem to be able to see properly. It was like I was in a drug-induced haze (not that I’ve ever tried one). The disorientation was so severe I had a kind of tunnel vision and, despite knowing I was passing close by people I knew, I couldn’t really see them or interact with them in any way. I knew our cook, Francis, who I’d got quite matey with as he has the same first name as my brother (we kept joking he was my brother), was stood by looking at me concernedly but I couldn’t see him or focus at all. I didn’t feel like I was in my body or looking through my eyes any longer but was just drifting along somewhere nearby.

Francis knocked on my tent at some point, asked if I was okay and passed me a hot water bottle. When my call came at 3am, I woke from a decent sleep and felt okay. I cautiously sat up before giving a definite answer. As soon as I sat up the weird feelings, giddiness and sickness hit me with full force again. I reluctantly informed Neil that I was no better and they’d best leave without me. I lay there feeling I was a total failure, really pathetic and was disgusted with myself. When I heard them setting off for the climb, I was heartbroken and sobbed myself back to sleep.

The next morning I staggered out of the tent and had some breakfast. Francis said I looked a little better – I said I felt quite a bit better too. I wondered whether I should have just gone for the summit attempt and whether I’d given up too easily. To see whether I was right to abandon my summit bid, I went for a look around the camp environs.

After an exploration of the little streams and miniature side valleys round about, and after taking some photos of the summits, I set off up the scree slope the summit party would have gone up.

Immediately I started upwards I felt terrible again. I persevered until I reached the height of the top of an interesting gully I’d seen from the camp and then descended back down its rocks to my tent.


Looking back up my gully

At least the sun was lovely at this height now we’d climbed above the rain-belt. I sat and sunbathed until I could see our party coming back down the screes. I congratulated them briefly and then retired back to my tent for some more self-pity and self-loathing about my total lack of aptitude for altitude. I’d really hoped I’d be better than that.

The successful summiteers had a couple of hours sleep and then we all had a small meal prior to starting our descent. I texted my friend from my last job who’d been really impressed at my impending attempt at summiting these peaks and reaching such high altitudes. He’d said I was ‘a hero’. I informed him I’d totally failed and that I was no doubt no longer his hero. He very kindly texted back ‘Sorry to hear of your sickness – still a hero’. That was so nice of him, I’m afraid I got all emotional again and had to go outside of the mess tent to be alone!

We had a really long walk all the way back to Moses Camp with a few more small climbs over the end of various ridges. I was going really well again now we were descending – typical!

It was another cold, wet night at Moses Camp (especially after our fire was extinguished). I again didn’t want to go to bed early and naturally wasn’t as tired as the others so went on up to the camp hut where there were loads of other trekkers chatting away.

While I was at the hut the rain came on torrentially for a couple of hours and, not having taken my waterproofs (it had been dry when I set off) I thought I’d best wait for it to stop. Consequently I was very late getting back to the camp. I wanted to use up the flasks left over from the evening meal to fill my water bottles so I could have my customary two hot water bottles (one for my feet and one for my midriff). The mess tent was zipped up and the camp was very dark. I unzipped the tent and strode in to hunt for the flasks. I suddenly realised the ground was rather lumpy and found, to my horror, I was stepping all over Francis and the porters who were kipping down in the tent for the night! Luckily I’d seen the flasks nearby on the table so I grabbed them, muttered my apologies and hurriedly left again.

In the cold, damp, misty morning, we set off for the final descent to Sirimon Gate. This is where you enter the ‘wildlife belt’ again – I was worried about meeting elephants. We were very fortunate not to meet any but apparently the porters, who were far ahead enough to be out of sight most of the way, encountered an aggressive bull who gored one of the kit bags! For once I was glad I wasn’t walking faster and up the front!

After a week of virtually no sleep and such cold conditions, I for one was really glad to get back to civilisation and a nice hotel with a warm and comfy bed.

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4 responses

23 08 2011
Scotlands Mountains

Not bad going for a woman of your age as Alan so kindly pointed out 🙂

The fittest guy I knew in my mountaineering days just never acclimatised at all,not even in the Alps.He ended up spending his summers in Norway because of that.

Altitude can be awful.I couldn`t get my lighter to work a few times and ended up having to go without my summit smoke 🙂

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23 08 2011
mountaincoward

Thanks – except Alan was being extremely facetious – I’m actually quite a bit younger than 64! LOL

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20 08 2011
Alan Bellis

Sorry to see you never made the summit, but to make you feel a little better I must say you look good for 64 😉
Oh and least you saw a Dik-dik! 🙂

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20 08 2011
mountaincoward

Cheeky bugger – that must make you around the same age then! 😉

It was your Mont Blanc report on the infamous other website which gave me the idea to write these (I’m hoping to write up Kili tonight),
Carol.

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