Two weeks ago, I became part of the statistics of those who have climbed Mt Kenya as I joined more than 16,000 hikers, both local and foreign, who attempt to get to the peak of the mountain every year.
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Although I have always wanted to climb this mountain, I never imagined I would do it in a group of seasoned climbers who were being drilled in order to choose the best among them to climb Mt Everest, the highest and toughest in the world.
“Together with the chosen candidate, I will attempt to reach the summit of Mt Everest in the spring of 2014 to raise Sh40 million for the construction of the Flying Kites Leadership Academy, a school and home for orphaned children in Njabini, in Kinangop” explained Toby Storie-Pugh, a professional climber and director of Everest Expedition.
“In addition to raising funds, we will also be setting an example to the children of Flying Kites that any goal is attainable if you dare to start and are determined to finish”.
The chosen candidate is also expected to spearhead a fundraising campaign for the next two years before making the attempt on Mt Everest in March 2014.
I was the “most amateur” in this group that comprised of Amanda Gicharu, a 26-year-old Google employee, Helen Kinuthia, a 25-year-old teacher at Hillcrest School, Steve Obbayi, a 38-year-old software engineer, Chris Mureithi, 51-year-old aeronautical engineer, and Mohamed Bharmal, a 31-year-old banker from Mombasa.
The expedition had no porters so everyone had to carry their tents and food rations besides their own luggage.
With our heavy backpacks, we started up the winding road from Sirimon Gate, our indulgence in the scenic mountainous abundance was only interrupted by a sudden shower that had everyone reaching for their rain gear.
I wasted precious minutes fumbling for my rain gear since I had kept it too deep in my bag, during which time I was soaked to the bone.
“Lesson number one in mountaineering is “always learn how to arrange your gear in the back pack,” advises Chris Mureithi, a veteran climber who has been to Point Batian 46 times.
Retaining heat is one of the principle survival skills in high attitude climbing hence getting wet in such cold conditions is the last thing that a mountaineer would want.
After three and a half hours of trekking, we eventually reached Old Moses Camp, the first stop for climbers using the Sirimon route to the peak. The camp is no more than an array of blue painted corrugated iron sheet structures forming a ‘U’ perched on a flat hilltop and swarming with porters and hikers.
Apart from the joy of freeing my shoulders from the heavy backpack, our kitchen team are at hand to serve us hot tea, the best meal to any soul at these freezing heights.
This was no ordinary mountain hike but a drill to separate the wheat from the chaff in the process of picking one tough Kenyan to fly the country’s flag up the Everest.
We not only had no porters but we were also supposed to pitch our own tents, which was no mean task especially for first timers like me. But with the help of Chris, with whom I would be sharing a tent for the next three nights, we pitched ours fast enough to lend a hand to some of our colleagues.
Even with several layers of warm clothing, thick gloves, socks and zipped inside a sleeping bag, I started feeling chilblains on my fingers and toes – like sharp blades of freezing blood penetrating through my body.
I tossed and turned the whole night in a futile attempt to keep warm. My tent-mate would, meanwhile, start snoring barely 10 minutes after zipping himself inside his sleeping bag.
After what seemed like an eternity, dawn finally crept in. The routine of a breakfast of oatmeal porridge, tea, bread and pancakes, dismantling tent, filling water bottles in readiness for the arduous trek ahead was religiously observed.
“The easiest way to ensure a successful climb is to take a step at a time, or baby steps if you like,” explained Chris. “To gauge whether you are at the right pace, you need to close your mouth and try breathing through the nose. If you can’t do that comfortably then you should slow down.”
Leader of the expedition, Toby Storie-Pugh, who has climbed Mt. Everest, was always ahead of the pack despite the fact that he had the heaviest backpack.
Although the second day was exhausting with two steep valleys to climb, the famous moorlands with acres of rare high attitude vegetation that only those who dare the dizzy heights have an opportunity to gaze at, simply took my breath away.
“The scenario produces leaves after 21 years which makes most of the ones you see scattered in these valleys not less than 40 years old,” explained Chris as we sat above Mackinder Valley, named after Hailford Mackinder, the first European to ascend Point Batian in 1899.”
As we dropped our backpacks to sit on the rocks for a midday bite, the guide explained that Shipton Camp, our stop for the night, was around two hours away.
After six hours and 16 kilometres of trekking, Shipton Camp finally bobbed up. Like Old Moses before it, this camp, named after British climber Eric Shipton, is an L-shaped row of blue iron sheet structures tucked deep in the Mackinder Valley and the foot of the two majestic peaks of Mt Kenya; Lenana and Batian.
Everyone was excited because we would be making a run for the peak the following day.
Ordinarily those who get to the peak of Mt Kenya wake up at 2am so as to be at Point Lenana at the crack of dawn.
But this being a drill, we broke camp at sunrise for a three and a half-hour trek to the top by eight o’clock.
Not even the weird dizziness uncoiling from the centre of my head could dull the urge to quench my visual thirst in the amazing beauty of nature at these heights.
Crawling on all fours over jugged rocks, I finally, in the company of Amanda, Helen, Chris and our guide Cyrus, climbed up the newly installed metal hooks to join Toby and Steve on the flat rock projection that is known the world over as Point Lenana.
The feeling of victory, accomplishment and history that hang over my head as I took in the breathtaking views of valleys of ice, glacier and rock plunging hundreds of feet below was simply overwhelming.
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