15 Hours Of Hell On Mt. Kenya
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.