Travel: Peaks and valleys
The storm hit us with little warning. In an instant it pelted us with hail and rain and had us scrambling for cover under a mabati-roofed picnic bench. ‘It hasn’t rained like this for months!’, Daniel, one of our porters, shouted over the clattering of ice on iron above our heads. Shivering in my shorts and sodden shoes, I cursed our luck and wondered what else this moody mountain had in store for us.
But, like the shifting weather, it’s amazing how quickly your state of mind can change in the outdoors. The rain eased off and the sky cleared, and I stood with a hot cup of coffee admiring the drenched hills surrounding Lake Ellis – the first overnight spot of our four-day trek up Mount Kenya.
We were being led up the eastern Chogoria Route by our veteran guide, Hiram, and his team: 10 hardy porters and chef Amos. Every day, in high spirits, they rapidly broke down our camp, lugged all the equipment many kilometres up the mountain and pitched the tents again in another scenic location.
Early on the second day, we followed Hiram along the trail away from Lake Ellis into a broad valley cloaked in silver and green heather. The vegetation thinned as we climbed higher into the rocky moorlands, where ostrich plume lobelias, centuries-old giant groundsels and other alien-looking plants were scattered within tufts of tussock grass.
We then crested another ridge, revealing the most spectacular view. The land fell away into the gargantuan Gorges Valley – a wide trough carved into the mountain by tens of thousands of years of glacial action. At its base in the distance lay Lake Michaelson, our destination for the day’s hike. Within minutes, the lake was gone – swallowed by a monstrous mass of fog that crept up the valley.
The weather turned as it did the day before and we descended down to the lakeshore under a barrage of ice pellets. We sheltered in our mess tent and then emerged to take in the grandeur of our surroundings once the hail and drizzle had stopped. Like the tiers of a great amphitheatre, the jagged cliffs towering above us wrapped around the stage of Lake Michaelson.
Soaked rock hyraxes hopped between boulders and slender-billed starlings chattered on the rosettes of giant groundsels. Later that evening, before the moon cast its milky glow across the valley, we gazed up at a sky full of stars.
The following morning, we hiked further up the Gorges Valley past the commanding Delamere Peak, and up a steep ridge to the 4,550-metre-high Simba Col. This cold and rocky saddle of land was our final base for our summit push to Point Lenana, 435 metres above us. Beside our camp was the teal-blue water of Simba Tarn, which was given its name after a report of an unlikely lion sighting by porters in 1924.
The temperature plummeted through the night and by our 4am wake-up call, our tents were covered in frost. I reluctantly squirmed out of my sleeping bag, put on as many layers of clothing as possible and nervously nibbled on a rock-solid mandazi in the icy kitchen tent.
‘We’re five minutes late!’ Hiram was eager to summit at sunrise. With our headtorches on, we followed in his slow and steady footsteps, crunching on the steep, frosty trail. We trudged past the black surface of Harris Tarn and watched other groups approach the summit – the pinpricks of light from their headtorches danced across the deep-red slabs of rock above us.
We scrambled up the final stretch and made it to the top just as the sun peeked above the eastern horizon. We sat beneath the summit sign in the company of dozens of other elated climbers and looked out across the Martian valleys below. Our temperamental mountain was in a good mood, and so were we.
To book your own Mount Kenya trip with Hiram, call 0723 830684.
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