A little after one in the morning, I awoke to the sound of whistling, blustering wind whipping around and blowing our tent. “Oh no,” I thought, “Wind means more cold, more misery. It could be stronger up there . . . I could get blown off of the side of the mountain. I could be on some slippery ridge and get blasted, lose my balance and fall. Yes, I do believe I’m at a legitimate risk of dying. This is not good. What would my mother say?” I worried, fretted, and prayed over this for at least fifteen minutes before I firmly told myself just to sleep and worry later. When our cell phone alarm rang out the alarm at 2:00AM the next morning, my first thought was “Oh NO! I am supposed to climb the mountain now. How am I going to do this?” The day before, Maina pointed out on the mountain face the route we would take to the top and I had looked on with some disbelief. As I fought out of my sleeping bag, the cold air pricked me alive and sent my adrenaline pumping. “One foot in front of the other Whitney,” I thought to myself repeating the motto Scott and I had discussed on the previous days, it would be the rule we would live by on this day. I rallied myself as I hastily rolled up my sleeping bag, “You are so going to do this. You’re at the top of the roller coaster and there’s now going back now.”
Scott moaned loudly as he rolled sideways out of his open sleeping bag. He sat up on his knees and for a full minute violently rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, a sign that he was very tired. “G’morning,” he mumbled ever positive and sweet.
In twenty minutes we had everything packed up. Five minutes later we had on our fourth, outer layer of windbreaker pants, our winter coats and ponchos making our fifth and sixth top layers, and I was fiddling with a scarf. Five minutes after that, we had both ventured outside our tent to relieve ourselves, shivering bared in the frozen-over, wind-whipped, ink black world outside. With that, we were ready and went over to the kitchen tent for chai and popcorn, the energy that would sustain us up the mountain.
As we prepared to embark, Moses, our sweet cook, gave us each a juice box to carry and instructed us to “drink it in victory” on the way down. It would just be Maina, Scott and I going to the summit. The rest of the crew would climb up, 200 meters short of the summit, circumvent it, and meet us down on the other side for breakfast around 8:30AM.
At 2:55AM we slipped on our hats, tugged on an outer layer of gloves over our freshly opened hand-warmer packets, readjusted my day pack over my poncho for the third time, and flipped our head-lamps on. We were ready. We followed Maina out of the tent dimly lit by a kerosene lamp into utter darkness.
The moonless heavens above gaped back at us infinite. Stars and galaxies were flung far and wide in dense concentrations. Though tired and scared, this outlandish display of cosmic beauty calmed my nerves as I remembered my sovereign God. “He determines the number of the stars and calls each by name.” Ps. 147:4 rolled through my head as I glanced up in awe.
You care so much for your creation God that you name each star? Thank you for making it so beautiful! It always brings me joy when I take the time to look. Sometimes I think it is a love letter.
“When I consider your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them? Human beings that you care for them?” Ps. 8:3-4
Ooh! I need this verse today! Indeed, your creation and power is BEYOND, is separate, utterly other, or “holy” as they say in Hebrew, as evidenced by the sky above and the mountain shadow before me, yet, YET, big, giant you stoop to care passionately for . . . me. Will you please keep me safe up this mountain? Will you give me strength to climb the mountain? Thank you. Thank you for your beauty, your Word, your strength, and your protection of this little lamb.
For an hour we walked on a slight incline, Scott and I occasionally talked and shared observances in fortified positivity. Though I couldn’t see anything more than five feet in front of me, I knew from the route Maina pointed out the day before that we were crossing in front of the mountain, from the left to the right, during this one hour stretch. Once that hour was up, we would start climbing up, and only up, on the right side of the mountain where the Lanana peak stood.
We crossed over paths of frozen water and I found the positive and thanked God that we were up early enough to cross them when they were frozen solid. Wet shoes and socks were tolerable on days 1 and 2, but on this day they would be dangerous. As we started our ascent up, I thanked God for the darkness, if I had been able to see, it would have been overwhelming. Due to the steep slope, feet flexed up constantly were a must. As I lifted a leg forward, gingerly planting my flexed foot in front of me on a hundred loose pebbles, my front leg would sometimes bend 90 degrees at the knee as I pushed up a vertical distance of a foot and a half and a forward distance of a foot. Not every step was that steep, but all were steep enough that I had to be both careful and firm in all of my steps because otherwise the scree beneath my feet would roll and I would slide down the mountain. Indeed, I didn’t see how it would be possible to safely make one’s way down this slope with all the loose pebbles. When I asked Maina how people take the Naro Moru route down, he said they had no choice but to run down the mountain and slide skillfully on the scree. I thought that was insane, giving me another reason to thank God, glad that we were not going down the Naro Moru route because I would surely break my neck.
We slogged slowly and steadily along, Maina setting a very deliberate and doable pace. Silence reigned as there was not much to talk about and small talk would take our breath. Time wore on, and despite our measured pace, we became tired, our breathing growing louder. After what seemed like 45 minutes to an hour of our vertical climb, Maina finally stopped for a break. Too scared to sit down and try to get back up again, we stood. The break only lasted for a minute and no more, just long enough to catch our breath and slow our pulse, but not long enough to become cold. Maina turned to face the mountain again and we continued crunching our way up the gravel, slow and steady.
There is not much to think about in a world that is dark, doing a task that is mundane, physically demanding, and yet requires a lot of focus with each step. Due to the necessary focus and my tired body’s reminders, it was hard to think about anything else besides climbing. As more time wore on, we began to see the outline of the ridge that we were climbing to before we would turn left and ascend to the summit.
We would climb, climb, climb, and then take a break when Maina heard our breathing grow loud. Our brief, 30-second to a minute breaks became more frequent the higher we climbed and the thinner the air became. Each break I would look up at the ridge and to my dismay, it never seemed to be getting any closer. “When are we going to get there?!” my mind cried. My mind and body were tired, all I could sustainably think about was climbing, and how it was hard. When I did not steadily transfer my weight from one foot to the other, my foot would slip out from underneath me, rolling on the scree, and I would land on my hands and knees. This happened a few times to all of us when we lost our focus. In between the occasional slip or stop for a breathing break, silences grew long and my mind was left to wander to tired self-pity. To make an effort to “think happy thoughts” and distract myself, I started to hum Amazing Grace in my head. To my frustration, I consistently mixed together the second and third verse, could not recollect any of the fourth, and often jumped straight from the first verse to the fifth, which is my favorite. This confusion of not being able to sing the song through correctly from start to finish actually helped to pass quite a bit of time, though I never did think of the fourth verse.
We followed Maina up, occasionally making five-foot wide zigzags when the incline was too steep. We followed him through deep patches of loose scree that reminded me of the difficulty of trying to run or jump in loose, soft sand. For every step forward, we slid a half a step back.
Eventually, I stopped trying to mark progress by looking at the “forever distant” ridge we were climbing to. Instead, I would turn around and see how far away, way down below off to the right in that mammoth valley, would be the tiny light from Mackinder’s Camp, where we started that morning. When that distance became too great and no longer tangible, I started look to the left, at the Batian and Nelion peaks, the two highest peaks of Mt. Kenya, and at Point Piggot and Point John, solitary lower peaks of Mount Kenya. Slowly I could see gains of height on the peaks to my left until we seemed to be almost level Point John and Point Piggot.
Finally, after hours of climbing only up, we made a branch to our left crossing over large rocks at a relatively horizontal slope. It felt amazing to leave the verticality and the scree behind! Once the Austrian Hut (the hut technical climbers stay at before ascending the two tallest peaks) was in sight we knew we had made it to the top of the ridge! We made a beeline for the hut, eager to take a more extended break and readjust our packs and outer layers.
Inside the hut it was dark and empty. In fact, it was down right eerie to be at the top of a wind-whipped, snow-capped mountain in a hut that felt dark, abandoned, and so alone. Despite the slight “haunted” feeling of the hut, Scott and I were able to relax. We talked, shared our feelings and emotions thus far and thoughts on what was to come, and encouraged each other. By the time Maina was ready, we were pumped up and ready for the last 200 meters of the 785 meters (2,576 feet) we would climb that morning.
We left the hut at 6:00AM when the first stripe of amber orange split the navy sky from the black earth. The scree we had been battling on our way up was replaced with solid rock and ice-covered snow. I was quite nervous to cross the snow in my worn running shoes that lacked traction. The first patch of icy snow we had to cross only had slight slopes down on either side, which made it somewhat less intimidating. I took a deep breath and told myself that I am from South Dakota, thank you very much, and by golly I am a wicked good, snow walking pro. I also told myself to be very careful because that is what my mom urged me to be the last time I had spoken with her.
I crossed the patch of snow with finesse and nary a problem. Once Scott, who had taken the rear to watch out for me, had crossed we continued on across a dry patch until we reached a place that sloped more sharply down on either side of us and the only way to go was up, across rock and snow. A cable drilled into the rock had been provided for climbers to hold onto in case one slipped. I did as Maina demonstrated, loosely holding the cable in one hand as I made my way relatively easily over to him and Scott followed.
The next part was all over snow and you had to walk on a narrow ridge that was less than my foot’s width wide abutting a vertical rock face. Clenching the cable this time, and using my free hand to grab onto any rock crevices that I could find for added stability, I made my way across the 15 foot long ridge. I watched to make sure Scott made it safely and then I turned my attention back to what Maina was doing. Next was another horizontal snow crossing, this time without a rock face to hold onto, with a cable, and a steep, maybe to your death-if-you-slip-drop, on the left side.
Oh dear, this is nuts. Good thing my mom isn’t here to see this.
I took a deep breath, shot up a two-word prayer of “Help me!” and crossed to where Maina waited. Next we turned to our right and climbed up rock and icy snow using a series of cables. This proved to be very tricky and nerve-racking for me because nearly every time I placed my foot up on a rock or snow ledge to step up my poncho would get caught underneath my foot. If I continued up with my poncho underneath my foot I would not be able to stand up straight (and you want to stand up straight when you are climbing steep, precarious rocks) and the poncho could also cause me to slip and fall . . . down. Thus, with nearly every step I’d have to let go of the rock crevice or cable I was holding onto, reach down as calmly as I could, and tug my poncho out from underneath my foot. The tension in my body and worry in my mind battled against the calm fortitude I was struggling to hold onto. Meanwhile Scott below me was keeping a careful eye on me, silently panicking every time I stepped on my poncho. There were no good places to stop on this stretch because each foothold necessitated taut muscles for stability so we had to continue monkeying our way up from one cable to the next. I fought hard not to think or worry about anything but the simple, step-by-step, one move at a time, tasks in front of me. If I had let my mind stray, my courage might have left me and I needed to stay calm. By the time we reached a resting point, my mental strength was sapped and I was breathing harder than ever.
Oh. My. Goodness. This is nuts! Did I say that already? This is nuts. But here I am. Other people have done it. I have to finish this now. I cannot turn around and go back down what I just came up. What happened to being able to walk up to this peak without any technical climbing? I should totally have some sort of carabiner clip attached to a cable and myself right now. This is nuts!! Breathe Whitney. This is a chance to catch your breath, not hyperventilate. Besides, you’ve never been a drama queen so don’t start acting like one now! This really isn’t the time for that. Put on your Tough Tomboy Whitney face one more time for just a little bit longer. You can do this. Channel your inner Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider confidence and show this mountain who is boss with style!
With a more calm, almost clear head, I (ahem, Lara Croft?) continued on after Maina with Scott following behind. I got better at keeping my poncho in check and the climb became slightly less precarious with less ice-snow and bigger and better rock ledges to rest on.
Finally, my head popped over a rock and on the other side of it I saw not another rock, but the sunrise. Eeeeek! I was at the top!! Clambering up I squealed to Scott that we had made it! Oh what a relief!!!!
Once he was up we made our way over to the very tippy-top point of the peak (where we were dismayed to find that one other person on a different route had just beaten us!) to declare our victory. We had done it! That morning had been the hardest climb that we had ever done, but we had succeeded. Our bodies and our minds were pushed, but we overcame. The sunrise view was a glorious recompense as we stood on top of mountains and worlds below.
Victors and champions we were. We praised God for our safe journey thus far and were awed by the golden splendor stretching out before us. His creation sang praises to our hearts (Psalm 148:1-5) and He was magnified as we stood on His mountain overlooking His earth.
After awhile it was time to start our trek back down and we had a lot of distance to cover. In one day we were going to speed walk down the entire mountain, what took us three and a half days to climb up, we would go down in one. The way off the summit onto the Chogoria route was much less scary than the Naru Moru route up, partly because there was no snow on the north face.
To my dismay, I did find that we would have to scamper down some scree. The first few lengths Scott and Maina would run down and I would slowly, slowly pick my way down slipping and flailing every now and then. I was so slow that I gave up on the scree, and just climbed down bigger, solid rocks to the right of the gravel. It was faster, but not as fast as Scott and Maina running and sliding.
We then came to big expanses of scree that would take me forever to get down so I knew I had to find a way that did not make me think I would slip and crack my head open on a rock. So, what I did was crouch down over one foot (this way if I did tumble, I would not fall more than 6 inches to the ground) and place the other foot out in front of me as a guide/path smoother/balance keeper. With that, I pushed off with my hands and down the mountain I skied! A la this guy.
To turn to the right or to the left I just leaned and dragged my gloved hand in the ground on that side. I don’t think Maina had ever seen anything like it because he looked at me with happy wonder as I passed him on my way down.
Eventually the scree stopped and we walked on.
Finally we stopped for breakfast and a much-needed rest around 8:45AM. I think we stayed in that spot for at least an hour and it felt so good. Scott and I stripped off two to three layers of clothing and reclined in the sun happy, relieved, and tired.
After breakfast, Maina set a pace of a very swift walk and down the mountain strode. He was so fast that we barely had time to take pictures and enjoy the ridiculous views of the Chogoria gorge with Lake Michaelson. Since the path on Chogoria is often used and there actually is a path, we just let Maina go ahead of us whenever we needed to snap just one more picture.
After another few hours, with no breaks to be had, we left the gorge behind and now below us were rolling hills. Maina continued his impressively fast pace and my legs, though long, could not keep up with him and for the first time on the whole hike I became grumpy. I was tired, my feet had blistered, my knees hurt from stomping on them as my body’s momentum carried me down and forward, I did not have the time to rest and take in all the views, I think my adrenaline had crashed, and I was tired! Still, I was glad that day would be our last day of hiking and we hadn’t decided to split our descent up into two days because I really wanted to shower the next day and sleep in a real bed the next night!
Finally around 1:30 we made it to our lunch location where I fell asleep on the grass and had to be woken up by Maina when it was time to press on. Only two more hours of walking to go, and this time we would be walking on a dirt road, which made me really feel like we were close to the end.
This next part of our walk went well because Maina walked slightly slower and I could keep up with him and the scenery we passed through appealed to my eye and had me imagining different movie storylines being filmed there.
Around 4:30PM we made it to the Chogoria gate entrance and our campsite for the night. We had hiked 50 miles over our four-day climb. We had climbed to the summit at 4,985 meters (16,355 ft) and back down. Exhausted, I went straight inside our tent and with the remaining sputters of my energy and undid our mats and sleeping bags before passing out until dinnertime.
At dinner, awed by how Moses and the crew were still working after a long day and carrying huge heavy packs the whole climb, I asked them if they were tired. They assured me they were very exhausted and I was relieved not to feel inadequate, as I would have if I were the only one tired. After dinner was done at 7:30 we went straight to bed as we had done the night before. We slept all the way through the night and in the morning we just had chai as our gear was loaded on the car and then we were on our way. Or so we thought.
The road was beyond terrible. We had been told many times by our guide that this was The Worst Road and that proved to be the case when bumped along and smacked the earth breaking the metal bar that made the car turn left.
With this Land Rover we finally made it out of there and arrived in the town of Chogoria an hour and a half later. Here we met our awesome driver Antony who had waited patiently for us. We sped back to Nairobi, checked into the Hampton House, Scott let me have the first shower, and there I stayed for a very long time. The end.