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Ben Colclough

Ben Colclough

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Mount Kenya: 5,000 m, Mice, Buffalo and Evil Eyes

Posted: 04/27/11 03:42 PM ET

Mount Kenya is a difficult mountain to get your head round. Rising to 5,199m from the East African plains, when people say they have climbed it, they haven't really. Trekkers can hope only for Point Lenana, a tantalizing 15m short of 5,000m. I can't be the first person to think it is a shame nobody bothered to build a 15m cairn on the point! From the peak it is often possible to see its bigger and more popular brother Kilimanjaro over a hundred miles away. So standing on Point Lenana overshadowed not just by Kilimanjaro but also by the twin Mount Kenya peaks of Batian (5199m) and Nelion (5,188m) you wouldn't be surprised to feel a little let down. You'd be wrong.

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After an easy but laborious afternoon trek we reached Old Moses Camp our first. At 3,340m the temperature soon plummeted at night. There isn't much to do after dark up here so the warmth of our 4 season sleeping bags called us early. The next morning we set out on a tough 8 hour trek up to Shipton's Camp, gaining 900m in altitude. There are two crux points in the day where if the altitude is going to get you it will then. The first arrived late morning, a punishing 100m climb out of the Lykki Valley. The climb rewarded though, at the top, the first views of the peaks at the head of a huge U shaped glacial valley. The rest of the day we trekked up the Valley through a bizarre forest of giant Lobellias, plants often twice the size of a grown adult. I struck on ahead and rested for half an hour on a sun-warmed rock as the others caught up. When they finally caught up, our guide pointed out the fresh marks of a hyena at the foot of the rock, "How long have you been here?" he asked!

Shipton's Camp, our destination for the night lies nestled beneath the peaks. At 4,200m temperatures often plummet well below zero Fahrenheit. We ate well and looked on as another trekker, a fit ski instructor fresh from the Alps, struggled with the altitude. It was not a pretty sight. I was grateful I'd taken the advice of my guide and listened to the repetitive pole pole mantra (Swahili for take it easy). We set our alarms for 2.30 am and tried to sleep in the cold. The call of the alarm was a welcome relief after an evening under siege from mice which seemed to make the most of the no killing protection that the Kenyan Wildlife Service affords them!

At 3am on a still, crisp star-lit morning we set out from camp towards the peak. Our head-torches lit the way as we slowly scrambled up the scree on all fours, the milky way a smudge in the sky easily discernible above the craggy peaks. Ever so slowly the murky light began to illuminate the horizon, marking out high altitude tarns and the last remaining vestiges of once mighty glaciers. By the time we reached the top, the sun was ready to light the African dawn burning red. I'd expected to get just a minute at the top before having to head down out of the cold, but luck bought warmth and we sat and shared an energy bar marveling at the incredible views surrounding us. It was an iconic moment, one that was not simply a reward for bagging the altitude, but a tangible aesthetic reward -- the most incredible view in Kenya lit up by the spiritual intensity of the peak.

The descent passed in a blur of aching joints and tired muscles. For my sins, I never was one for taking my time on the way down. Our last night on the mountain was passed in simple cabins deep in the forest. Elephant and buffalo visited in the morning whilst we slept but it was the smaller animals that left an impression. As I headed to bed and left the cabin for the toilets I saw a pair of gleaming eyes staring straight at me, less than a dozen yards away. It was probably just a small antelope, but I've never run to the toilet so fast in my life.

 

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