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  Mountain Madness Mt. Kenya - Africa 2005

By our estimation the short rains began on the 13th at about 1:30 pm when a hard rain pounded the windshield as we drove to the small airstrip for the flight to the village of Ngurunit. We just got up Batian in time! But, as we began our flight north to Poi the weather cleared. We flew over small villages, elephants, and other herds of animals that dotted the landscape below us. Our pilot Stefan was as excited as we were as we neared Poi and gave us a flight around the mountain that gave us fantastic views of the monolith. The Ndoto Mountains are beautiful and rise abruptly out of the barren plains. It is a landscape unlike any I have seen and spread out for hundreds of miles.

We were picked up at a small missionary airstrip, akin to those Alaska bush pilots carve out of the tundra in remote places. Greeting us was our staff that included a mechanic, cook, driver, Peter (who helped with our Mount Kenya trip), and the joker of the group, Charles, a Kenyan mountain guide who was along for the ride. As we drove through the small village it seemed as though we were traveling back in time- here the Samburu people, who are related to the Masai, live simply as semi-nomadic pastoralists. They have also developed some small cottage industries such as production of camel cheese, leather, and honey, although the most precious commodity as we soon found out during this time of the year is water! It was quite a change from our experiences on Mount Kenya and speaks to the incredible diversity that can be found in Kenya.

In the evening, once we were settled in to our camp, we watched a variety of birds fly about as vervet monkeys swung from tree to tree, not yet savvy to the rewards of scavenging tourists digs, and listened to the constant buzz of cicadas that filled the air to almost a deafening level before stopping instantaneously as though a switch was flipped. And as if these were not unfamiliar enough distraction to pique our interest in the area, we got our first initiation into Samburu culture with a goat slaughter and some of the local villagers drinking blood before the feast. After carefully cutting back the skin along the neck to create a reservoir where blood collected the tribesman eagerly slurped- bring your straws! It was an interesting, if not altogether different way to greet guests. But, we could immediately feel the friendly hospitality of these people, who in a few short days became a welcome sight as they appeared each morning eager to be part of the action.

On the 14th, after meeting with the local chief, we loaded up the vehicle for the half hour drive to the base of the mountain. Along the way a pair of the hyper dik dik, a diminutive, though endearing, dwarf antelope, darted in front of us, while overhead a variety of birds such as the hornbills, superb starlings, and others flew from tree to tree. During greener times, before and after rains, elephants and other large mammals can be found in the area. For now though, we drive over dry riverbeds in extreme dry, nearly drought conditions. Once we arrive at the base of Poi another meeting commences, this one with the elder of the people that live closer to the peak. With handshakes all around, it is decided that we would have porters from each group and a local guide to lead us on the trail. 

With only a handful of expeditions here, our machete wielding porters were somewhat new to carrying packs. So, once pack straps were adjusted we began the three hour hike to the base in sweltering heat. Along the way we stopped and watched one of the porters follow the honey guide, a small bird that supposedly leads one to honey bees. Later, as we neared the Shark’s Tooth, we heard what sounded like a dog barking, but was actually a savannah baboon that was following us up the hill. Overhead huge vultures circled the updrafts, occasionally landing on the face of Poi to feed young birds. The locals keep stressing the dangers posed for climbers by these huge, potentially menacing birds. The heat however was the main concern at this point, as temperatures become almost intolerable. Respite was found from the limited shade created by the thorny acacia tree. 

Once we arrived at the base we discovered all expectations were met- loose rock, bushes, and rock hot enough to fry an egg all were our for the taking if we wanted. But, with the route in the sun until 1:30 it seemed impractical for us to climb without acclimating to the heat. As we discovered from conversations with locals, it was in fact the hottest time of the year- the 100+ degree temperatures seemed to confirm this! With limited info about climbing in the area we found that we had unknowingly walked into an oven- try doing a web search on “climbing poi” and as Michael pointed out you’ll get info on a hotel in Hawaii that serves poi and has a climbing wall. So, much to our chagrin we opted out of a climb we traveled to with little information and even less time. In the end however, we had the unique opportunity to live amongst the Samburu people for four days. 

In the early stages of tourism, the Samburu people of Ngurunit have almost zero tourist infrastructures. With guidance from a foreign woman that married a Samburu man, a small group of women started the Salato Women’s Group which has started up some small scale cottage industry; including building several small huts for tourists they hope will come. Outside of that don’t even look for even a one star hotel, let alone a restaurant- this is a small slice of Samburu culture that is almost untouched by tourism and maintains its traditional lifestyle. Young morani (warriors) with elaborate feather ornamentation on their heads and adorned with colorful beads, casually walk around the village tending herds of goat, but knowing full well that a rite of passage circumcision ritual awaits them in December. The women, wrapped in colorful skirts and weighted down with colorful beads that wrap around their entire necks and are stacked on their shoulders, take care of the business of collecting water, wood, and cooking. The men tend the goat herds. But, all seem to have the time to socialize, laugh, and catch up on the latest gossip.

Despite the apparent difficult living conditions here, the people, as the few visitors have all commented, are friendly and seemingly happy. We soon came to call the area a stress free zone, lacking traffic, busy work schedules, blaring TVs, cell phones, and all the other excess baggage we carry. We hiked, bouldered, took a camel ride, drank camel milk, danced and laughed under a full moon with the Samburu, tasted goat blood, and most importantly, had a glimpse into the relatively untrammeled life of an African tribe. In the end, the climb did not seem to matter as much as a visit with a warm-hearted people.

October 16th began with an early start for a drive back to the town of Naro Moru and Nairobi- what took us an hour and fifteen minutes to fly, would take nine hours of driving through sand traps and dry mud holes, over bone-rattling washboards, and dodging rocks on the main road to Ethiopia. On our way we stopped back at the Samburu National Reserve for a night and some safari time. 

As darkness fell on our camp in the Reserve lone elephant rustled in the bushes next to camp and all the other night sounds of Africa filled the air. At about four in the morning a lion growled in close proximity to camp. While maybe not as adventuresome as climbing Poi would have been, there is an undeniable sense of excitement and wonder when spotting wildlife. In the few short hours we drove around the reserve we spotted cheetah, lion, cape buffalo, jaguar, elephant, zebra, crocodiles, the usual antelopes, a huge variety of birds, and the graceful giraffe. While the famed “big five” (rhino, lion, cape buffalo, elephant, and leopard) is for many the main show, I felt the elegance of a running giraffe hard to beat. As “Out of Africa” author Karen Blixen wrote, ”I had time after time watched the progression across the plains of the giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing.”

From the Reserve it was another six hours of driving back to the city, but thankfully it was mostly on paved tarmac roads. Once back in Nairobi we did the usual tourists shopping, but also went rock climbing for a half a day at one of the many local crags within an hour or so of the city. So much to do….

The short of all this is if you go to Poi, allow time to visit with the Samburu, acclimate to the heat, and go to the Reserve on your way home. In many respects, the short visit we had with the Samburu almost overshadowed all the other adventures we had. But, together they confirm that Kenya provides its visitors with whatever they desire- it’s a great, safe country to travel in!

If you are interested in joining Mountain Madness in Kenya please give us a call at 1-800-328-5925. Mark Gunlogson

Earlier dispatches below

Update 10/17/2005: Oct. 13: Our final attempt on Batian started on the 11th with Bernard once again giving us the wake up call at 2:15 a.m. Clear skies greeted us and so we dressed and went for breakfast at the Shipton hut. Michael, ever chipper, commented on his excitement- "I feel like a kid in a candy store!" With the luster and excitement of early morning alpine starts worn off years ago I comment with an "Ah, dad, do I have to go to school? I'm tired."  No turning back to the warmth of the sleeping bag now.

With an earlier start and a few ways to make the climb go faster (combining pitches, going lighter, etc..) we figured we would be a lot quicker. The short of it is we made it to the summit of Batian at 1:30 p.m. and were back in camp at 10:30 pm. Summit, yes, quicker?, well there's nothing quick about a 19 hour day!

All the way to Firmin's Tower went well. Blue skies and even a delusion that it might stay clear all day kept us hopeful and pushing upward. From the top of the Tower the shadowed, show stopper pitch looked relatively clear of snow, but held enough to make it necessary to clear snow off holds- great mixed climbing at over 16,000 feet! From the first climb's high point with the other Michael, only the traverse to the summit remained. We met with exposed climbing along the ridge crest, with more than 3,000 feet of air down to the Shipton Camp, and weaved in and out of small towers with climbing up to 5.7 to Shipton’s Notch. From there we were almost stopped by snow covered rock, a mere 100 feet from the summit. Tip toeing around it we made it to the top just as the swirling clouds began to drop hail and then snow, and a mild buzz in the air from a thunder storm that delivered two thunder claps. Eight hours of rappelling in snow, three hours of which were in the dark of night, we made it back to the base, cold, wet, and thankful not to have spent a forced night out! Our cook Augustine and porter Michael (yes, another Michael to this story) met us at the base with hot tea. Ours is a typical tale for climbing this challenging equatorial mountain prone to afternoon storms.

On the 12th we groggily woke from a not so fitful night of sleep. Plagued by a high altitude hack that came from simply breathing too hard for extended periods, we both eventually coughed ourselves to sleep. Our hike out took four hours to a point where we were picked up by a high clearance vehicle. It was great to be back in the lush forest where we spotted colorful birds, and yes, more elephant poop. While actual sightings of large mammals was limited to the eland, one of the largest antelope, scat was not limited to the pachyderm variety as we also saw evidence of leopard that had been feasting on hyrax and also cape buffalo dung. Not what one might call a successful safari, but enough for us to confirm the biological richness of Mount Kenya National Park.

As we loaded our gear into the vehicle Bernard happily handed us all a beer and said, "Baada ya kazi"- when the work is done.  After a cheers with everyone we piled in for the bumpy ride back to civilization. A great trip in one of the world's most unique mountain arenas.

Next up: Poi region of the Ndoto Mountains in northern Kenya.

As a recent article in the American Alpine Journal states, "the Ndoto Mountains are one of the most beautiful and untouched places in the world." After a chartered flight this afternoon we will be there to attempt Poi or other climbs in the area. Only a few expeditions have been to Poi and with the exception of the original route, are all high standard sport routes up to 5.13 on the 700 meter face. Our modest
route consists of 18 pitches of 5.10a A1. With the help of Samburu and Rendise tribesman, who still adhere to their traditional lifestyle, we will set up high camp at the Shark's Tooth and make an attempt from the 14-16th of Oct. Reports of loose rock, long run outs, heat, thorns, and remoteness we're guaranteed adventure! Full report after the climb.

Update 10/11/2005: October 6th dispatch:  Close but no summit.  Michael and I made it within a half an hour of the summit of Battian, but with swirling clouds, sleet, and 15 rappels ahead of us, we called it good.

We climbed the first 2 pitches by headlamp, and found the next 7 pitches enjoyable low 5th class.  Things changed at Firmins Tower, with 2 pitches of 5.8/5.9 climbing but off width and chimneys slowed us down a bit.  Fortunately an old fixed rope eased the difficulty but still the vertical climbing was strenuous and made for some heavy breathing at 16,500 feet.   

3 more pitches up to 5.8 in clouds and getting hit by ice pellets, made the rest of the day.  5 hours of climbing in the mixed sleet with occasional sun breaks made for a surreal alpine experience.  A great day for sure, all 17 hours of it.

Today Michael M. catches up with Alan and Gloria and they trek back out the beautiful Chogoria Route back to hot showers and civilization  

All three continue on to Kilimanjaro for a climb of Africa’s highest peak.  For Alan and Gloria, this will be a continuation of their anniversary celebration.

Then Michael T and I continue on to Poi.

More later.  

October 8 - Yesterday the usual morning’s wake-up call of screaming hyrax in a nearby colony

was replaced with high winds.  The weather so far has been good - clear in the morning, with afternoon clouds bubbling up from the lowlands, which fortunately has not thus far included thunder and lightening.  The short rainy season arrives any day.  But today was clear, and after playing cat and mouse with a varmint that got in my tent, I hiked up to the saddle near the two peaks of Sendeyo and Tereri, which lie across the valley from Mount Kenya.   

October 8th  Sat. I scrambled up to the gap between the two crumbing towers to find both incredible views of Kenya and also poor loose rock.  (As a side note, the lower of the two peaks is

“Icy Mike” a deceased elephant that is pure ice, it was driven up the mountain by fire.  It is now Kenya’s equivalent to a leopard on top of Kilimanjaro.) 

Mt Kenya on the other hand offers climber’s solid rock.

It has undergone a lot of changes since it last erupted some 3.5 million years ago - especially in regards to glaciation.  Much of what I see today are classic U-shaped valleys radiating from the central peak of Kenya, that were carved out of the glaciers that have now all but disappeared.  Like the ice on Kilimanjaro, Kenya’s glaciers are in retreat.  Paging through guide books, photos don’t match what I see, and soon the glaciers here will also be gone.  It was a great day to absorb some of the geology of this fantastic mountain environment, before I hiked down to meet Michael T.  I arrived back to Shipton Camp just as Michael T. arrived so today we catch up on plans for Battian and Poi, and  Michael gets reacquainted with the hyrax he met here during a trip in 2003.

 I tell him about a gerreauf’s eagle I saw that hunts hyrax – it swoops down, presses out it’s talons, only to find the critter to be too big.  We joke about domesticating the hyrax to save it from such demise.  I can hear it now:  “sorry son, I couldn’t bring home the elephant, but how about a hyrax, it’s the next best thing!?” 

Anyway, more on climbing:  Today Michael and I climbed Pt. Peter a day ahead of schedule so on the 9th we climbed Pt. Dutton up the north ridge - more exploring in this alpine rock playground.  

More later as it’s now high tea time and I could use a snack.  

Hi to Heidi, Grace, and Ellie.

October 9th -  We just got back in time for lunch after climbing 15,027 foot Pt. Dutton via the north ridge.  Easy scrambling with a few class 5 moves made for fun romping and an incredible alpine scene.  Tomorrow we make our attempt on Battian.

Weather remains typical, clear morning clouds then hail by afternoon.

We have to get our business done early before the clouds.  We’ll rise at 2:30AM and hope to summit by noon. 

October 10th –  On trips such as this, porters carry your loads even to the base of your climb, and cooks do the  cooking, including getting up in the middle of the night to prepare a meal.  So it was at 2:15AM this morning that Bernard came to our tent with a “Good morning gentlemen, breakfast is ready” and after a pause “there is much snow on the ground”.

Although we knew the days fate was sealed, we got out to check out the conditions.

No conversation needed, really.  Snow and ice covered rock just doesn’t cut it.

So, back to our high altitude induced bizarre dreaming.  Michael dreams about his dog and I about tracking down some dangerous rednecks with Clint Eastwood, and other dreams too sordid to mention. 

As usual, we wake up to clear skies but the Alpine coolness, clouds, and high cirrus begin to block out the sun, and with a certain precursor to poorer weather.

Perhaps the short rains will make it’s annual debut, something we knew we were up against from the start.   

In the morning, we photographed a winter scene and exotic plant life.  I identified 4 of the regular birds here - the alpine sun bird, glossy starling, alpine chant, and an eagle that visits every morning .

It’s the waiting game of mountaineers.  But as the day progressed toward dinner the clouds peeled back and showed promise.  Still, it’s the 11th to the summit or bust.  

Guide: Mark Gunlogson

Team Members: Team Members: Alan and Gloria, Michael M and Michael T.

Dispatch #1: Jambo from Kenya .  Welcome to the 2005 Mountain Madness Kenya Expedition.  There are three objectives to this trip: - Ascent of the North face standard route on Batian, Mount Kenya 's highest point.

      - Trekkers reaching Point Lenana, an easily ascended satellite peak of Mount Kenya .

      - A difficult rock climb in the remote infrequently visited Ndoto Mountains in Northern Kenya if time permits a visit also to Samburu National Park).

September 30: After a relaxing breakfast in Nairobi , a city of nearly 3 million, we are off to the Mountains. In the afternoon we arrived at the Naromoru River Lodge to rest and relax after more than twenty hours of travel. In the evening the sounds of Africa sprang to life with an amazing array of birds adding to the cacophony. As darkness fell the gassky sounds of the tree hyrax punctuated the beautiful birdsongs and threatened to keep us awake all night!  More on this strange creature later.....

October 1:  In a few short hours over breakfast and relaxing in the sun, more than twenty species of birds were counted. Today we leave this lovely oasis that springs out of an otherwise dry and unremarkable Savannah-like landscape, and begin our trek into Mount Kenya via the Sirimon route. In two days we will reach the base of this extraordinary Mountain, the second highest on the Continent.

October 3:  We arrived yesterday at Shipton’s camp, our base for the next 3 days.  Our hike through the forest and moorland was incredible.  In the forest we saw a steaming elephant poop, a near-miss encounter with one of the large animals that inhabit the forest-land. At our first camp we saw two groups of eland, big buffalo droppings and a variety of birds.

It is no wonder why the landscape here has been often likened to something out of a Dr. Seuss book - giant lobelias dot a landscape rich with birdlife. The gorgeous, iridescent blue breasted Sun Bird flared about from plant to plant. There is just so much to look at.

Every bit of the 12 mile trek was fantastic.  A greeting party of about 5 rock hyrax welcomed us to the hut.  These creatures look like a marmot yet are taxonomically a close relative to the elephant, as evidenced by small tusk- like teeth.

It is a busy camp.  There is plenty of bird-life and wildlife, other trekkers and climbers and boisterous orders.

Today we reconnoitered the north face standard rock and climbed several pitches on excellent rock. Alan and Gloria, our cooks ( Stanley and Mathew ), Michael,  and I all got in a few pitches at about 15,000 feet. After lunch we were treated to a solar eclipse.  A perfect day.

Michael and I plan to climb the route 16-plus pitches on the 5th of October, after an acclimatization climb of the striking pinnacle of Point Peter. While we climb, Alan and Gloria who can navigate the peak, and enjoy views of the impressive south face.

There is just so much to do here.  More later…

October 4:  October 4th dispatch:

Its 2:30 in the afternoon, shorts and t-shirt weather at 4200 meters.  Michael and I had a great climb on Point Peter today.  The approach felt a bit like being in the Sonora dessert, only instead of cacti the giant groundsel, a plant that grows to over 10 feet tall and looks like a huge artichoke, sparsely vegetated the scene, along with an occasional ostrich-feathered lobelia.

With the help of the ever-eager porter Sammy, who had hoped to hitch a ride up a climb like many of the porters and cooks here, we reached the base in an hour and a half from the Shipton camp.  Like the cooks Stanley and Matthew, who climbed with us yesterday, many of the porters, who’s other jobs include shoe shiners and working in the fields, they dream of becoming a guide.  But they also have incredible enthusiasm just to climb.

The climb provided three solid pitches up to 5.7 and led up a narrow ridge crest to the 15,607 foot summit.  It provided a great warm-up to the climb tomorrow and a taste of the heavy breathing to come on Battian, Kenya’s highest of two twin summits at 17,058 feet.  From the summit of Point Peter, we were able to see the lowlands where elephants and zebras rely on so much more room.  There is not a place on the planet where you can see more critters than you can shake a stick at and then go alpine rock climbing to over 17,000 feet!

With a new moon, we will start our climb of Battian tomorrow with headlamps and starlight.  Last night the Milky Way filled the sky as it poured itself across the entire sky as thick as I’ve ever seen it, but not enough to light the way.  The fun begins with cold fingers at 4AM on the fifth. 

Tomorrow Alan, Gloria and our trekking guide Giehrnji, in his native kikuyu tongue, which means butcher, hike over Hausbrg Coro, walk past beautiful alpine lakes and cross two valleys.

On their way to the Austrian hut they passed the impressive south face, home to the famous Diamond Buttress and the classic mountain frequently climbed Diamond Ice couloirs - which were recently climbed by a group of American climbers in September.  From the hut they will make a sunrise scramble of Point Lenana on the 6th of October

More on the 6th.

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