The night that nearly ended my climbing career.
By Peter Naituli
This wasn’t your regular hike to Point Lenana or Uhuru peak on Kilimanjaro, this was Batian. ‘Pole pole’ doesn’t apply at this level. Your success and your safety depend on your ability to move efficiently and fast, and I mean really fast! Up here you’re not just trying to beat the darkness catching you on your descent, you want to clear the gully before the sun comes up and triggers rock falls that shower the lower cliffs all morning, you want to get to the top and get off the summit ridge before those potential electrical storms cover the peaks by late afternoon. I can’t stress enough how important speed is on a climb like this and watching my climbing partner, who is one of my best friends, struggle up the last few steps to the base of the climb didn’t make me feel any better about an already suspicious situation.
22nd June 2017
Location: Point Peter, pitch 3
Altitude: 4700 m.a.s.l.
“Feed! Feed! Feed!” I shouted in full force down to Robert as I maneuvered up the most difficult section of rock climbing on the route. I was a foot short of reaching a good, solid handhold and Robert; my belayer, hadn’t given me enough slack. Robert heard my frantic commands over the deafening wind and was quick to act. I heaved myself up the grainy slab to the Godsent hold and the stable ledge that followed where I breathed a massive sigh of relief; this was not the place you’d want to take a fall on lead. By some misjudgment I’d managed to veer off the main route and consequently battled my way up a blank and very exposed arête. We were over 150m off the ground at this point being smacked in the face by the strongest wind I’d ever known to batter the flanks of Mt. Kenya.
Robert and I scrambled up the last few steps to the main summit where we raised our arms in celebration. It was Robert’s first time to climb Point Peter and it was my first time to lead an ascent of the peak. I glanced over at the towering monolith that was the North West Face of Batian, the highest peak on Mt. Kenya at 5199m. I was able to make out key landmarks; ‘The Amphitheatre’, ‘Firmin’s Tower’, ‘The Knife Edge’, all major features of the North Face standard route. The plan was to climb it the next day. The rock looked dry, drier than normal, the sky today was as clear as it could get; sea blue and hosting a fierce sun; the ‘perfect’ conditions for such an objective…but wait. There was one tiny problem; the wind.
On the day prior to our attempt on Point Peter, marching along the Northern flank of the Mackinder’s Valley, I remember looking up and observing the most peculiar cirrus cloud formations I’d ever seen in the upper atmosphere. As an 18 year old 6th form geography student I didn’t have the full grasp of what they meant. Such clouds could be associated with pleasant weather in the coming days. But these formations hid a far more sinister message. Like bearers of bad news, the formations I observed were the kind that warned of an incoming jet stream; a funnel of freezing and immensely powerful wind from the northeast that would scream through the upper regions of the mountain for several days before passing completely. Jet streams are unheard of on Mt. Kenya. Technically speaking, they are geographically impossible in this part of the world but apparently they did occur on rare occasions. It was late June and the solstice was underway, the sun was completing its transition to the Northern hemisphere and along the way you can say it may have triggered a specific series of atmospheric processes that I don’t fully understand, birthing the right conditions for these rare equatorial Jet streams to form.
A day later and here we were, at 4757m experiencing the early stages of it. Sheltering behind a summit boulder I remember feeling a ‘this isn’t quite normal’ kind of feeling but I dismissed it as just unusually strong wind.
“Homegrown!” I called out to Robert, as a trekking guide this was the name he usually went by on the Mountain.
“Yes Peter?” he replied.
“This is a lot of wind? What do you think about the climb tomorrow?” I asked him in Swahili. Robert looked up at Batian and the clear blue sky surrounding the shimmering peak.
“I think it’s okay. Iko sawa!” he raised both thumbs with a confident smile under his large moustache. I nodded back at him but the conversation within my own mind was far from over. If this is how it felt down here, one could only imagine what it would be like pulling the crux moves at 5000 meters with at least six hundred meters of exposure behind you battling gravity from one direction and now having to deal with this. These are things that I had to think more deeply about given I was the one leading all the 18+ pitches on the route tomorrow. Robert, a heavy set man of 46 years was an experienced mountain trekker but only recently had he started technical mountaineering on Mt. Kenya. At 18, I was his teacher. We made a strange but very good team and occasionally guided clients on the mountain together; he would take charge of the trekking and accommodation and I was the rock climbing guy. Robert expressed a keenness and passion towards learning the ropes unlike anything you’d see from a man of his age. This and his sense of humor among other things made him a truly awesome companion.
As I usually did on climbs like this, I demonstrated to Robert how we set up the abseils on Mt. Kenya (i.e. how we got down). Step 1: make sure the anchor slings aren’t rotten, step 2: thread one end of the 60m rope through the ring and join it with the opposite end, step 3: coil the rope until the middle arrives at the ring, step 4: throw the bunch of rope and try to see if it’s reached the bottom of the pitch (approx. 30m), step 5: the leader clips into the rope and after a quick but thorough check of his device he can unclip from the anchor, lean back and start the descent. Along the way, it wouldn’t be uncommon to have to stop and untangle the rope piled on ledges or caught on flakes. As I leaned back and began my descent, I found it hard to keep my eyes open while looking down as the wind was hitting the wall below me and therefore gusting upwards into my eyes, by the time I got to the bottom my entire face felt like a carton box.
“Free rope!” I shouted up, the indication for Robert to come down.
23rd June 2017
Location: Shipton’s Camp
Altitude: 4200 m.a.s.l.
I didn’t feel great. My body felt strong but my head wasn’t entirely in the game; 5 or so hours of good sleep over the last 50 hours of physical exertion at this altitude didn’t exactly fill me with psyche. I’d spent the entire night waiting for the moment the roof would be ripped clean off our cabin by the localized hurricane that’d been blowing through Mackinder's Valley since sundown.
The one sound that broke through the wind that morning at 0333hrs was the aircraft like roar of a thousand tone piece of rock that collapsed off Point Thompson and caused a rockslide on the upper scree slopes. Robert and I both stopped dead in our tracks on our way out of camp trying to figure out if the collapse had occurred on our intended route and if we were in any danger of getting surprised by a bunch of falling rocks in the darkness. We were able to rule this out as a threat given the sound was far away in the direction of Thompson, and Thompson’s flake. We trudged along the loose scree and scrambled along the unstable boulder field at the base of Batian’s North face. I got to the start of the route, distinctly marked by a silver plaque commemorating two climbers that died on the face in 1990. I now waited for Robert who was a good stretch behind me on the boulder field. I’d been observing him for the entire walk from Shipton’s and I was getting to the point of concluding something wasn’t right.
When we first cleared 4000m two days ago he’d visibly begun to struggle. Now, anyone who knew Robert would tell you he was a strong man and could carry even the heaviest of loads on his back; his only weakness being that he wasn’t the fastest climber to walk this earth. Though even with this in mind, the pace I’d observed was concerning for lack of a better word and with good reason too.
This wasn’t the regular hike to Point Lenana or Uhuru peak on Kilimanjaro, this was Batian. ‘Pole pole’ doesn’t apply at this level, your success and your safety depend on your ability to move efficiently and fast, and I mean really fast! Up here you’re not just trying to beat the darkness catching you on your descent, you want to clear the gully before the sun comes up and triggers rock falls that shower the lower cliffs all morning, you want to get to the top and get off the summit ridge before potential electrical storms cover the peaks by late afternoon. I can’t stress enough how important speed is on a climb like this and watching my climbing partner, who is one of my best friends, struggle up the last few steps to the base of the climb didn’t make me feel any better about an already suspicious situation.
By 0530hrs, I was starting up the groove on pitch one. Gloves off, headlamp on, placing the occasional protection in a familiar crack along the first 50m on the face. The temperature was maybe a degree or two below freezing, the loose rocks were plastered together like oversized cement drops. I remember belaying Robert up pitch 3 in the gully while watching the horizon light up behind Sendeyo and Terreri. The ridge leading to Point Lenana was clear of trekkers, it was just the two of us above the elevation of Shipton’s from what we knew. By the time the sun had risen we were three rope lengths away from entering the Amphitheatre. Robert was doing the best he could and given our early start we were making good progress.
The Amphitheatre can be described as a large, half-football stadium of rock. One enters the Amphitheatre from its right hand side; the middle section is gentle, almost a hike on loose rocks and gravel. Below you, the Amphitheatre falls away into a collapsing rubble pile from where most of the rockfall that bombards the lower gully originates on those bad days of the year. Towards the upper sections of the Amphitheatre, it steepens dramatically into a series of slabs and blank pillars, the most imposing of these features being the notorious Firmin’s Tower; the main crux of the route.
As Robert and I gained elevation, the sound of the fierce wind against the granite rocks grew louder. It was coming from the upper Amphitheatre. It was comparable to the sound of fighter jets endlessly flying through the same tunnel of air. Once I gained the steep slabs on these upper sections I found myself struggling to breathe and simultaneously fighting to keep my balance. The wind was now shooting up full force from below me, blinding me as much as suffocating me when my head was down, it was incredibly difficult to see where to place my feet and despite the sun, I’d get extremely cold every time I stopped to try and place gear, my fingers were already numb at that point so I decided ‘f*** it’ and ran the next 30m of easy terrain out at the end of which I found shelter in a small cave. I put on my down jacket and belayed Robert up to the same, tiny refuge at roughly 4800m. If you peaked out the side you’d have the most unobstructed view of the Mackinder’s Valley, Gorges Valley, the meadows of the Timau route as well as the rest of the Amphitheatre falling sharply away beneath you, you’d also be smacked in the face by what had now evolved into a full blown alpine windstorm.
We were pinned down in what was the worst hit spot on the entire mountain. Every inch of the wall outside the cave was 100% exposed to the full rage of the storm. If we wanted to progress from our hideout we’d need to battle the beast for another 40 meters before getting to a notch at the top of the theatre, that gap is where the wind would be at its absolute strongest. From there we’d be able to sneak round to the west side of Firmin’s Tower which would be sheltered from the wind. Our other option was to turn around and retreat; we’d still be peppered by the wind but by the time we’d get to the lower gully, the worst of it would be behind us. It was decision time. Both Robert and I had vowed we’d reach the top on this expedition (maybe not the wisest practice in alpinism) but let’s say for whatever reason we were as determined as ever to stand on that summit. It didn’t help that the sun was out and there was barely a cloud in sight, it really did feel like the perfect day for a climb. After all, the greatest hazard to our safety was an invisible force. As loud as it was, it was like the beautiful blue sky made us deaf and numb to the hints at how dangerous the situation would evolve to be. Robert was all in on soldering on and with a faint hint of concern in my gut I committed to exiting the cave and leading on with the climb.
Once I’d hit the wind gap at the top of the Amphitheater, I spent a painful 15 minutes belaying Robert up the same stretch of rock. As it turns out at 4800m, one fatigues much faster given the lack of oxygen. Now add to that the fact that the air pressure on this day was as low as it could ever get up here and the little oxygen that was supposed to be there was now depleted to a significant degree.
“Tension!” Robert kept calling up to me, a climber’s way of asking the belayer to take in the rope, the opposite of slack. I was pulling him with everything I had to the point my forearms and biceps were cramping like no man’s business. Robert was a big guy, big enough that it was easy for people to underestimate his abilities as a climber. There were many guides on Mt. Kenya that didn’t believe Robert had once climbed Batian in 2015. That being said, his size and body composition may not have been ideal for his chosen endeavor but the Robert I knew was tough and determined as a starving lion. On the right day, he could even outclimb the most athletic-looking climbers from abroad, strong climbers in their home crags but amateurs when they first got a taste of good altitude. Something was wrong with Robert but he seemed fine at every belay point. I wondered to myself if he was hiding something in fear that I’d say we abandon our summit ambitions. Maybe he was just having a bad day I thought to myself.
At the same pace but with shelter from the wind, we tackled the imposing west side of Firmin’s Tower, after that it was the Knife Edge pitch that eerily waited for us. The Knife Edge pitch on the North face is the one pitch that keeps me awake at night; it starts as a 25m long blade of rock that’s thin as the spine of a magazine at its narrowest point, on either side of it are drops no less than half a kilometer to the East and West. After you cross the blade, you reach a sloping ledge above which is a 30m section of giant blocks held together by mud and ice, in some places overhanging. Giant icicles hang from the upper cracks like the fangs of an ancient beast. With enough mist around you this is easily the most character building pitch on the North face.
Standing at the belay point above the Knife Edge pitch, I was able to get a clear view of the sky surrounding the mountain. It appeared the wind had pushed all the clouds away, bunching them together in a thick wall on the South Western slopes. I didn’t pay too much attention to it as my primary concern was getting my climbing partner to the end of the pitch before the 8.4mm rope sliced my palms open. We were back in the wind funnel so I was totally unable to hear anything that Robert would call up to me. All I knew to do was heave like a madman as the rope was more or less fully weighted from start to finish. This is how the climb went on, all the way through till we crossed Shipton’s Notch up on the west ridge fifty meters short in altitude of the true summit of Batian. From here it was a sketchy scramble along a broken and narrow ridge, along with the most breathtaking view in all of Kenya. I was beginning to succumb to one of my personal flaws; my harsh temper.
For the last two hours I’d been very hard on Robert, heavily critiquing his pace at the end of each pitch, taking him at brutal speeds on the scrambles that only seemed to triple his exhaustion. Some say that it’s a good quality for a mountain leader to have; the ability to be stern, to push people where they need to be pushed as too much leniency at this altitude can be dangerous. I was good at getting people to move when it was due but sometimes the way I went about it was a bit too harsh especially given Robert was my elder two and a half times over. It didn’t feel right looking him in the eye and telling him he was too damn slow, especially when a few minutes later I heard him produce what sounded like a hiccup mixed with a gasp - only that a clear viscous liquid came out of his mouth and it didn’t quite resemble saliva.
Fearing the worst, I went to investigate him in haste. From the sound of his breathing it wasn’t High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) which was a huge relief. It turned out it was the most extreme case of heartburn I’d ever observed. Robert often had problems with heartburn and it seemed that morning he may have eaten something that pushed it to a whole new level, he suspected the bell pepper we had in the scrambled eggs. The gas in his stomach would rise violently and without warning, in the process pushing up a fluid neither of us could understand along with a good bit of saliva. It was obviously torture and this man had been dealing with it throughout the climb. I felt bad for how hard I’d been on him. Regardless, we were very near the end now and both of us just wanted to get it over with.
It was just past 1425hrs as I set out on the final pitch of the route. Above me was the quiet summit, the legendary Batian. This is when it hit me how still and silent everything had gotten; ever since we gained the West ridge, the wind had all but vanished. It almost felt suspicious, even on the Northern side of the ridge, there wasn’t a breeze. I clipped my safety sling into the anchor on the highest point in Kenya and prepared myself to bring up Robert.
Finally, at 1435hrs on the 23rd June 2017 we stood at the point where one could climb no higher; the true summit of the mountain that gave Kenya its name at 5199m above sea level. We were happy. We’d done what we set out to accomplish, all the more on a clear and absolutely breathtaking day. After a man hug and a sip of water we cheered. Robert shouted out much louder than I bothered, his powerful echoes could be heard on the cliffs all around the central peaks. However our cheer was short lived, my smiles faded and the seriousness returned. After 9 hours of climbing it was getting late and we needed to get off this mountain.
23rd June 2017
Location: Shipton’s Notch
Altitude: 5150 m.a.s.l.
I was leading the traverse along the ridge to the start of the notch. Robert was belaying me from a ledge further up the ridge towards the summit and out of my sight. I was on a section of downclimbing and I stopped to lazily place some gear. The sun was behind me, beginning its descent towards the western horizon. The sun rays penetrated my jacket, warming my back and neck, the most beautiful and hypnotic warmth I can ever remember feeling.
It was in this moment that it hit me; a feeling I can’t completely describe. I suddenly felt this overwhelming feeling of relaxation, it started with my muscles and soon enough it was in my head, a slow and careless state of being that was taking over my cells. As I caught it translating into the way I moved along the ridge, and the way I was placing protection I froze in my step, a wave of fear temporarily washed through my veins. It dawned on me this was the 50+ hours of sleep deprivation hitting me like a bus at the worst possible time, triggered by the warm sun on my back and the dead silence around me. No matter what I did I wasn’t fully able to shake this feeling.
Robert eventually joined me at the notch; this time he was the one wondering why I’d led this pitch so painfully slowly. We completed the complex maneuver of crossing the notch from one side to the other and subsequently scrambled off the west ridge, completing two more abseils that saw us reach just above the Knife Edge pitch as the sun dipped below the clouds.
We had two 8.4mm ropes with us; a blue one and a green one, both were brand new. We’d been using the blue one to climb with all day while I carried the green one on my back coiled into a butterfly coil. While we were perched just above the belay slings I decided to take out the green rope and set it up as Robert pulled down the blue one from the previous abseil. Now some of the more seasoned climbers amongst you may understand exactly how stubborn and hard headed brand new ropes can be. Every two inches of this rope was curled up in circular kinks making coiling it a five star task. After Robert was done pulling down and packing the blue rope, we began the very careful scramble towards the Knife Edge belay point. As we neared it, the distant drone of fast moving air against the granite rocks caught our attention. It only grew louder as we drew closer and the second we were within clipping range of those tattered slings, we were engulfed by the raging torrent, so much so we both had to crouch to keep our balance.
Turns out the wind never stopped, we’d only climbed past the part of the mountain that was exposed to it. And now, in the fading twilight, we’d come back to face it again. It had grown into a far more powerful monster and we were both shivering within seconds. Robert stayed put as I slid myself down to the anchor, clipped myself to it and threaded an end of the green rope through the silver ring. I leaned over the darkening void, shouted “rope!” and tossed the first bundle away…big mistake.
The bundle of rope flew straight back up, part of it caught an edge of rock below the anchor and the rest of it swung like a whip past me, forcing me out of its way before snagging itself in a crack above our ledge. Robert and I simultaneously cursed as it was now clear we’d be spending a while up here. It was dark and this was a really bad spot; exposed, nowhere to hide, our descent rope was snagged and the clock was ticking to the tune of hypothermia.
We didn’t waste a second in getting up and getting to action. Robert worked on freeing the rope above us as I attempted to reach the stem that was caught slightly below the slings which turned out to be way out of my reach. The only way to free it was to wait for Robert to retrieve the snagged bundle so we could undo the knot at the end of the ropes and pull one end until it slipped round the edge that was giving us trouble. Robert managed to free the bundle pretty quickly after that but we knew things were thick when a half hour later, headlamps at full power, we were still in the same spot wrestling with the world’s most tangled rope. We were wearing every item of clothing we’d carried, personally that amounted to a balaclava, a woolen thermal, a t-shirt, my rain jacket and my light down jacket on my upper body with two layers on my lower body. My teeth were clattering each other to pieces in my mouth, my tissue thin gloves weren’t doing much to protect my fingers and we were barely able to generate enough circulation by fooling around with the knotted rope from a fixed stance. As if it couldn’t be any worse, it was close to impossible to hear anything the other person said even while shouting at the top our lungs, this wasn’t helped by the fact that both of us had our hoods firmly tucked inside our helmets to keep our ears from falling off, then add to that our noses; profusely running and dripping with snot, freezing and crystallizing in chunks inside our nostrils, it was chaos.
Once the green rope had been freed, we stuffed it away in Robert’s back pack vowing to never take it out again. We took out the blue rope and I got to work re-threading the abseil, this is when I first felt my eyelids wanting to black out on me…no way, I shook my head and threw down the rope, ready for descent. It wasn’t a perfect throw but at least it went down. As I clipped the rope into my ATC I knew it was going to be a fight once I went over the precipice; that rope would be resting on so many ledges and most likely hanging far off route. I leaned back and over the edge I went, watching Robert’s headlight disappear behind a rock. All he could do now was wait. He’d sit there and freeze, waiting for the signal. I had to work fast.
It was just me and the darkness. Ledge after ledge, I went detangling the rope, kicking myself back to the main line of descent as the forces of nature kept dragging me off to the side. While fully suspended a meter out from the wall, I experienced weightlessness for the first time. It was a strange feeling. It so happened that a stream of fast moving air caught the Eastern side of the Knife Edge Ridge below me in such a way that it was propelled up along the wall in waves catching me on my descent; for a brief moment I was suspended in my harness, the rope above me was slack when it should have been tight, by the time I discovered what was going on, the upstream was done and I bounced back into the familiar pull of gravity. It was fascinating as it was terrifying. Just before my feet caught the sloping ledge below the pitch, I looked out into the Mackinder’s Valley; there, in the blackened void was a tiny light…Shipton’s Camp. That little light represented safety, shelter, warmth, a place to sleep; all things so far away despite the illusion that I could just reach out and touch that twinkling light.
I tossed some webbing around a boulder on the ledge, securing myself to it before sitting with my bum flat on the ledge and my back against the icy boulder. I screamed “eeeeeeh!” in the highest tone I could manage; it was the signal as well as the only sound we found could travel up a good distance without being engulfed. It was funny how dreamlike this all felt; I sat there cool as a cucumber, my eyes straight down between my feet looking into the screaming void, if I wanted to, I could unclip my safety sling and just slide down, away into the night I’d go and the scariest thing about it was how inconsequential it all felt. I was fully aware that this was real but it was as though part of me was intoxicated and couldn’t care less. I thought about the people close to me; where they were, what they were doing, how at this very moment in time they were doing something, completely oblivious to where I was and what was happening. I thought about a lot of things on that ledge…that’s when my eyes suddenly opened to two bright head torches approaching from above, a moment later the torches became one and I regained focus.
Robert landed on the platform and it didn’t take long for me to notice his right hand, almost stuck in a half grasp, turns out he’d developed frostbite in the time we’d spent exposed to the elements. We needed to cross the Knife edge and get behind Firmin’s Tower or neither of us would last much longer. I set up a belay and secured Robert as he straddled across the narrow ridge, I watched his torch make it to the other side and he began to pull in the rope as I downclimbed along the ridge.
We made it to Firmin’s Tower and dipped behind the west face. The wind faded into a ringing silence. It was still cold but boy was it good to be out of the wind, to hear again, to see again. The celebration was once more cut short for both of us, Robert continued to hiccup clear digestive juices and I found myself momentarily passing out every time I stood still. We were both severely dehydrated, sucking water from my camelbak was pointless given the thing was a tube of ice leading to a bladder of more ice.
“Homegrown uko na maji?” I asked Robert.
“No water my friend” he took out his metal bottle, also with its contents frozen solid. We were in bad shape; our lips were sandpaper, bleeding, clotting, splitting and bleeding again, we were thirsty, fatigued and hungry. Robert was sick and frostbitten and I was dangerously sleep deprived. As much as it was wind-still behind the tower, we had to keep moving and just get off the North face even if that meant spending a couple more hours facing the heart of the storm in the Amphitheatre. It was 2300hrs at the base of Firmin’s Tower as we prepared ourselves to get back on the battlefield. Earlier that night I remember telling Robert, I was going to make sure we slept in a warm bed that night. I was determined.
With the rope coiled across my shoulders, I pulled round the corner at the base of the tower, abandoning shelter and downclimbing towards the anchor slings overlooking the wind gap at the top of the Amphitheatre. The clock was once again ticking. I threaded the rope through the rotten slings and prepared to throw it. I was unable to make out or even guess exactly where the next anchor point would be so I just tossed the ends of the rope and let the wind carry them to where they’d settle. It was here as I leaned back that my mind began to play tricks on me. I don’t exactly remember what the hallucination was, all I know is that when I got to the end of the rope I was a good 10 vertical meters below the slings in the wind gap and about 20m away in horizontal distance, I was now being blasted by the full force of the jet stream, this was as powerful as the storm would get. I attempted to reach the slings by traversing the wall but it wouldn’t work as the rope wasn’t long enough to get me there. I cursed repeatedly, my creative capacity was as exhausted as a burnt out match. I found myself unclipping from the rope, and screaming the signal up to Robert. To stop myself from blowing away like a feather, I jammed myself in this huge crack formed by a giant flake too big for any gear to fit. The flake was partially detached from the face like a peeling egg shell. I couldn’t help but think if this thing fell down today; it would totally demolish the route all the way to Shipton’s as well as kill us both.
As I sat there squeezed in my large chimney, I listened as the waves of air flew through the crack, creating a soporific combination of howling and whistling, at one point I heard what literally sounded like a person slapping and whipping the outer surface of the rock, funny to think this was all just a bit of air blowing by. Robert arrived; the expression on his face said it all. A look of confusion in his eyes was accompanied by gritting teeth below his frozen moustache. Robert peeled his deteriorating right hand from the live rope before asking me,
“Peter! Where is the anchor!?”
“Anchor iko wapi!?”
I pointed up at the notch above us where he looked up and saw the dancing red and white slings. He belched up another round of clear fluid before sitting down, a burned out look on his face. I felt myself falling asleep again and that was enough to kick us both into action. Fifteen minutes of full mental engagement and a maneuver too long and complex for me to describe saw us both just about make it to the wind gap without falling. We were shivering uncontrollably as we started to pull down our rope. Up the one end went and as it came down the wall, we watched in hopelessness as it slipped behind the uppermost reaches of the giant flake and jammed itself deeply enough that all the brute force in the world couldn’t get it out.
“Mother f****r!!!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. Robert just sat down, caught his breath and contemplated our impending doom. I placed my head against a rock, hoping by some miracle this night would just end, we were in excruciating pain; physically and mentally, we were disorientated by the endless noise, I personally was struggling to stay conscious and was plagued by hallucinations every time I blinked. Between the two of us, I was the only one who could go up and retrieve that rope and that’s what weighed heaviest on me. Never had I imagined how tempting it would be to just lie down and shut my eyes on a cold, hard surface like this and simply disappear.
On many a night in the comfort of my own bed I remember lying awake, endlessly turning my pillow, wondering if I’d ever get to sleep and yet here all I had to do was let my eyelids come together, the effort of holding them apart was greater than that used climbing the entire mountain. Oh how I just wanted to sleep…the only problem was, if we did give in to the temptation of just fading away, we’d never wake up. We’d never have lasted over a couple of hours.
Robert had a family to go back to and I had the odd individual I figured would be upset upon hearing I’d frozen to death on the highest peak of Mount Kenya. I also, perhaps more importantly, had a life to live; and never would I have considered giving up this easily if my life, if my climbing partner’s life, depended on it. It was time to suck it up again; a pitch of pure hell, so we could wake up alive the next morning. I led out onto the wall above the gap as Robert belayed me with every ounce of focus he had left. There wasn’t a good crack around the giant flake to place any protection; the rope was simply there to stop me cascading all the way to the base of the Amphitheatre if I fell. It reached a point 25m up that the rope wouldn’t have made a difference had I made a mistake and taken a plunge towards the rocks. With my palm and knee on one side of the crack and my elbow and heel jamming against the other, I progressed painfully up the wide chimney. I cried out as it was an agonizing position to maintain, the sharp feldspar crystals in the rock grated their way through my clothes and into my skin. I reached up to where I freed the rope from a chock stone jammed between the flake and the North face.
I then had to carefully maneuver back down the howling chimney, a string of snot as long as a shoelace was flying around the outside of my nose, my eyes stung from dust particles blown up in clouds from the lower Amphitheatre that found their way into the flake crack. With every progression I made downwards I had to stop myself from falling asleep. The alternative to this would have been to fish out the green rope and abandon the blue rope entirely; problem with that alternative is that the green rope was so badly tangled from when we packed it that unwinding it would have taken exponentially longer than taking the risk to go up and free the good rope, we also risked wasting unnecessary time at every belay point that followed given the atrocious state the rope was in. I made it back to the wind gap where Robert received me with a big hug. With a drop of new found fuel, we continued our peril filled descent into the Amphitheatre.
24th June 2017
Location: Lower gully
Altitude: approx. 4600 m.a.s.l.
The lower gully can be described as a very steep, rocky gorge that runs about 200 meters from the base of the north face up to the Amphitheatre. The sides of the gully are tall and sheer rock faces that occasionally shed debris into the scree filled gully floor. The rock around here is gray and chipped from years of rock fall. Robert and I were on the third pitch down from the Amphitheatre, we had three more abseils as well as a long scramble before we’d be at the base. The wind, though still pounding us had calmed down ever so slightly, the gully was more sheltered and not as exposed to the elements as much of the route above us had been. That being said, we were two very depleted individuals. The hours we’d spent in that storm, shivering uncontrollably as well as the overwhelming effort it had taken to get this far had finished us to the bone. We were like two dry leaves hoping to still be in one piece by the time we hit the ground.
I neared the end of my rope as I abseiled towards the next anchor. Unfortunately but not entirely unexpectedly I reached the end of the rope to find a good bit of cliff remaining before I could reach safety. Seeing as the downclimb from here to where the slings were was a relatively straightforward and there wasn’t enough space on this stance for both me and Robert, I unclipped from the rope and resorted to a free solo down climb of the forty feet of blank slabs beneath my feet, my frozen limbs and joints ached as I turned my back to the darkness and crawled down one step at a time, occasionally I’d turn my head to make sure I was headed in the right direction. I’d also shake my head and breathe deeply to keep myself awake, I knew what I was doing given my current state was indescribably dangerous, but this feeling was overshadowed by an overwhelming desire to get this night over with.
Without warning and with twenty feet to go, my head torch began to flicker and two seconds later it was dead leaving me stranded in total darkness. Every cell in my body stopped for a collective moment of silence. As much as I was bouncing in and out of feverish hallucinations, that moment was made of the most sober kind of fear a human being can experience. Free soloing wasn’t something foreign to me. In fact I’d been free soloing for as long as I’d been climbing on Mt. Kenya. I have to say I got pretty close to messing up at that moment. I was unable to focus, I was asleep one moment and the next I was freaking out upon noticing where I was standing and how fragile everything was at that moment in time.
I’d given my spare batteries to Robert after his torch had died on Firmin’s Tower. Staying conscious after being swallowed by the darkness was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I managed to stay awake until Robert arrived on the ledge, pulled down the rope and got close enough so that the way was lit and I could direct him on the featureless slabs as well as get myself down. After getting off the slabs, I remember leading one or two more abseils in pitch darkness. At this point on the descent Robert only had one hand to work with and was not experienced enough to lead the abseils hence I in my shaggy mental state was still the more viable candidate for this job. I had to lead the abseils in the darkness because Robert being the second man down had to have the light to see all the loose rocks in this part of the route so he wouldn’t drop them down on me, especially when I didn’t have sufficient cover.
It’s from here that my memory gets too hazy for any coherent storytelling to happen, only God will ever know how I was able to set up those abseils, blind and tripping like I was on the hardest drugs known to man; I don’t know how we made it as far as we did in the state we were in. Most people who die climbing usually die as a result of messing up while descending so I will never fully understand how on earth I didn’t get myself killed under those circumstances. All I know is that I’d made it to the section of the gully floor covered in scree and rubble. I was leaning sideways against the anchor, waiting impatiently for Robert to arrive, I was looking at the opposite side of the gully where the torch light highlighted a feature that looked like a giant mouse head, or was it a trunkless elephant? I was at Shipton’s Camp, in the caretaker’s room, it was warm and the radio was playing traditional Kikuyu music…Only problem? Shipton’s was miles away in the valley and the radio wouldn’t be playing at two o’clock in the morning. Shaking my head didn’t help. The fantasies followed me even as I coiled the rope and trudged my way down the gully, even as I commanded Robert to pick up the pace, voices whispered in my ears and I answered them back as I sat grinning on my own, unsecured in the windy darkness on a ledge above the hundred foot drop to the base of the route.
When I woke up from that one, I was desperate. I yelled out in all intensity to Robert whose headlight I could see way behind in the gully. When he arrived, I looked him dead in the eye, his bright light in my face and I told him straight up, my patience was done, I was ‘this’ close to total shutdown and I needed him to recruit every cell in his body, work twice as fast as he’d ever worked because I was running low on firepower and I’d have much rather lost consciousness at the base of the wall than a hundred good feet up it. We worked to establish the final abseil; it gave us hope to know the ground was just around the corner. We encountered a problem as the blue rope had ended up tangled from the previous abseil and while we were locating the ends of the rope before beginning the very complex process of threading it back through itself, fate played its meanest trick on us yet when Robert’s torch suddenly died.
On this night, rock bottom had been hit countless times but no time broke us the way this one did. We just sat there in the dark. Given we were sheltered from any potential rock fall; I took off my helmet and let the wind blow through my sweaty hair. Maybe this wasn’t too bad a spot to lie down and sleep but no; we’d come too far to roll the dice like that. I grabbed Robert’s torch and took out the batteries, together we performed a messy form of ‘torch CPR’ rubbing the batteries like crazy, putting them back and repeating the process until it finally worked and the torch was re-awakened. Not a millisecond was wasted and we threaded that rope back through itself eliminating every sneaky knot along its stem. When the abseil was set and I was clipped in, ready to go, I looked at my climbing partner, he looked back at me.
“See you on the other side brother” I said.
“See you down there my friend” he said back to me,hiccuping another round of heartburn.
I launched off the wall and rappelled smoothly down the full distance to where my feet hit the stable surface of the ground.
As I sat down to catch my breath, I noticed the silver memorial plaque, glowing in the faint moonlight. With my head down and my right hand on the rock, I closed my eyes. “Thank you” I quietly said.
It was close to 0300hrs when Robert touched down at the base, we gave each other a long, intense hug. We’d been through hell and worse and here we were. Shipton’s was a long hike down the screes but that didn’t bother us, what mattered was that we’d made it off the north face.
Like two drunken men in the night we staggered into Shipton’s Camp; bodies weak, clothes torn to shreds, faces parched, eyes half shut. We were ghosts, the crumbling remnants of the men that left camp 24 hours earlier. We submerged our faces in the river, gulping up the frigid meltwater like it was the last drink we’d ever taste before entering the cabin and like caterpillars at the end of their half-lives we crawled into our sleeping bags. Just like that I vanished into the sleep that had chased me all night, the deepest and most satisfying sleep I’ve ever experienced.
There have been many a hard day and I expect as a young man in this career there may be many more to face. I am and will continue to be stronger for it. I suffered no permanent injuries as a result of this experience and Robert went on to make a full recovery from his frostbite. On the morning that followed our perilous night on Batian the violent two day storm quietly subsided, leaving the upper slopes of Mt. Kenya to their usual silent state.
They say a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. The same could be said of mountaineering and ultimately life itself; on the darkest hours of the darkest days we only find the way by strengthening the light within. We learn to dig deep and unearth the very traits that see us through to the break of day. Through strength of character and an unwavering resilience we swim through the challenges as they come for it is through the adversity we subconsciously seek that we truly become wise.
I’ve returned to the north face of Batian five times since the ordeal, one time completely on my own. I continue to experience and I continue to learn. I will never be a ‘perfect’ mountaineer…but then again, where’s the fun in that?
©Peter Naituli 2020
Peter Naituli is a Kenyan rock climber and mountaineer as well as a dedicated fitness enthusiast. When not on one of his countless expeditions to the peaks of Mt. Kenya, Peter can be found documenting his adventures or getting ready for his next! Visit Peter’s YouTube channel and Website to check out his work and keep up with his latest projects. You can also connect with Peter on Instagram and Facebook.