Mount Kenya – No Picnic

Eventually the undergrowth became too thick to bulldoze our way through, and our six day expedition began.

In their own time, our staff tend to enjoy more adventurous holidays than most. Here is Paul, from Bewerley Park, to give you an insight into his trip to climb Mount Kenya.

By Paul Smart

Squeezed into a Toyota land cruiser with 5 porters, a cook and our guide Cyrus. We had food and fuel for a week  in the back. As the car fishtailed up a muddy overgrown track surrounded by dense bamboo forest we held on for dear life! Eventually the undergrowth became too thick to bulldoze our way through, and our six day expedition began.

Our aim was to traverse west to east across Mount Kenya. We would travel via the third highest summit, Point Lenana, a mighty 4985 metres above sea level. Were we going by the ‘’normal’’ tourist route? Oh no, for us it was the road less travelled, the Burguret. Our route was pioneered in 1943 by Felice Benuzzi and two others. Having been entranced by the ephemeral views of Mount Kenya from their POW camp, they escaped to climb it, nearly gaining the summit. Their travails and near starvation are retold in ‘’No Picnic on Mount Kenya’’, written after the war – an inspirational read. We were hoping not to be charged by elephant though, nor have too close an encounter with a leopard!

Trying to acclimatise to altitude, walking for us was ‘’slowly slowly’’, as Cyrus never ceased to remind us. He also pointed out leopard footprints and elephant spore, but the dense bamboo prevented us seeing anything – yet allowed the imagination free roam! This first day set the routine for the remainder of the expedition. We started off earlier than the porters, who would fairly soon overhaul us even though they were carrying really big loads. When we finally caught up with them, camp would be set up, a picnic cloth laid out, and hot water provided for handwashing…

This felt very odd the first couple of days, but as the effects of altitude kicked in with a vengeance it was amazing how quickly it all became the norm; and very grateful I was too. Following a welcome high tea, to help our acclimatisation we were encouraged to explore, before returning for a three course meal – the freshly made soups were superb, and the fresh fruit tasted far better than anything in the UK, even on day six. As we retired to our tent, Cyrus just casually mentioned that hyena were about, and to take our rucksacks inside the tent or they’d be taken – with that he wished us a good night!

The next day saw us slowly ascending, out of the bamboo, passing through forest, and entering the giant heather zone. For the first time there were fabulous views out to the Nanyuki plain below, afforded by the fine weather. The weather gods continued to smile on us throughout – mostly… Arriving tired at Highland Castle, it was initially confusing to see the tent pitched in a cave, but it was the only level land around. The evening was cold and clear, so we retired early in preparation for the morrow – the ‘’Vertical Bog’’.

But the rains had not arrived, and it was not the bog of doom all the books promised. So we entered the land of the Giant Lobelia and Groundsel, and the summits of the mountain came into view. It slowly became a barren, almost lunar terrain, the majestic summits towering over us. Yet I really struggled with the altitude, and I have never suffered more on a mountain, but we did reach over 4300 m on this, our day 3. We dropped down to Mackinder’s Hut for the night, exhausted. I was no longer worried about being looked after!  The following day was fortunately short, as we climbed to the Austrian Hut, which was great as there was plenty of time to stop and gaze on the increasingly expansive views – though the cold wind was bracing.

Summit Day! Up at 4am so as to be on the summit for sunrise, with fabulous views promised. And of course, we woke to a blizzard and proper Scottish Winter conditions. Cold and wet, the only view was of the interior of a cloud – but at last I felt acclimatised. That’s mountaineering for you. All that remained was the long walk out – 27km and over 3000 metres of descent. But, as I kept telling myself, every step lower was putting more oxygen into my lungs. That helped, but not as much as did the rounds of fresh toast provided at second lunch!

Was it all worth the effort? Yes, absolutely. It was an incredible adventure on a remarkable mountain in a stunningly beautiful country. Would I go back? At the Austrian Hut I kept gazing at the ice covered rock climbs leading to the peaks of Batian and Nelion, the very highest summits. Wouldn’t that be a fine adventure?