Week 5: Mountains of Terror

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I LOVE mountains. Anyone who knows me pretty well probably has heard me rant about this love of mountains. I got my start as a nature photographer at Banff National Park in Canada – an incredibly majestic section of the Canadian Rockies whose streams, lakes, and meadows blew me away and inspired my environmental passion. It’s always been places like that where I’m most at peace. So after spending two months in the dry, flat savannah of Africa I was beyond excited to visit the alpine ecosystems of central Kenya. Our group had two mountainous excursions planned in just a two week period – a trip to the Aberdares National Park and a spring break adventure summiting Mt. Kenya. I was so ready for a vacation and to bask in mountain glory. Nothing, though, could have prepared me for the (at times) terrifying insanity that was to ensue while among my precious peaks.

The Aberdares were beautiful. There’s no denying that. We didn’t stay there long – just two days, but they were some of my favorites of the semester. We slept in cabins without any electricity or wifi – so nights were spent around the fire playing cards, talking, and enjoying group company. Every meal was cooked by a small group of students and wow, was it delicious. Some of the best grilled cheese I’d ever had. The whole trip was cozy, relaxed, and by the end I could barely walk I was so filled with amazing cuisine.

The only problem? It rained. Constantly. I don’t actually mind rain, typically, and it certainly made the beautiful waterfalls that we visited even more powerful and dramatic.

Two of the Aberdares’ many giant and gushing waterfalls

But it created some serious issues for our squad. On our last day in the park, a group of us headed over to a cluster of waterfalls near our cabins. Being so many people, about eight of us were forced to stuff into one of those classic Kenyan vans. The waterfalls were seven kilometers away. We made it one. All the rain had turned what was once a solid road into mud soup, and so we found ourselves very stuck halfway up a steep hill.

For a while we tried to push the van up or down the hill. That failed. But now we were starting to worry that we’d be out after dark – which, fyi, is never a good idea in wild Africa. So we decided to abandon ship and walk back to our cabins. “Grab a few rocks,” our driver Jackson said, “we’ll need them to throw at buffalo.” I chuckled to myself, amused by Jackson’s little joke. It wasn’t a joke. I turned to find everyone grabbing rocks to arm themselves against the buffalo which, by the way, are MEAN. And very abundant in the mountains. So we walked the half an hour back to our cabin in the dwindling light, constantly looking over our shoulders for the buffalo that was definitely about to emerge from the bushes to charge us. Fortunately, one never appeared, and we all returned safely alive and in one piece.

An evil buffalo eagerly waits to massacre our group outside our cabin

Just a day after our Aberdares adventures it was time to head back to the mountains for a 4-day trek summiting Mt. Kenya. At 17,000 ft, Mt. Kenya is the tallest mountain in Kenya and second behind only Kilimanjaro in Africa. My anticipation level was at an all-time high: I had no idea what to expect from such a unique experience. A 17,000 ft. mountain was nothing like the 1,000 foot ones you find in Connecticut. So on a sunny Saturday morning our adventurous group of 11 headed to Mount Kenya National Park, all equally nervous and excited at the same time.

Day 1 got off to a relatively easy and encouraging start. Under the supervision of guides Cool John and Cook John we climbed about 4 miles and 2,000 feet uphill, but it was all along the road and the weather was perfect. I thought it was a sign of the good fortunes to come on our trip. I was so wrong.

Sunrise by the Old Moses Camp. You can see the peak of Mt. Kenya far in the distance on the right side of the photo

After spending the night at the Old Moses Camp in bunk beds with sleeping bags, we stuffed our faces with a delicious breakfast and headed off on day two. We had a daunting trek ahead of us – 9 miles with 2500 ft. of elevation gain – but spirits were high. After all, we had survived day one. Our long hike began under bright skies and warm conditions. We passed gushing waterfalls, flowing rivers, and luscious green meadows. Soon the clouds rolled in and the sky darkened, but we weren’t too concerned – rain on Mt. Kenya is hardly a rare occurrence. And besides, it tends to pass quickly.

But then the hail started.

For an hour we stood, 6 of us per umbrella huddled in a ball as the hail barraged us. We were soaking, stationary, and semi-freezing. My fingers had never been so cold in my life. We fumbled over spoons and bowls as we practically poured hot ramen down our throats. It was either freeze or find ways to distract ourselves from freezing, so we stayed occupied by singing rain-related songs (“Umbrella” by Rihanna was my personal favorite). But eventually the hail transitioned to rain and, half-dead, we began the 5 mile trek we had remaining to our next stop.

Sunny skies in the valleys of Mt. Kenya can quickly turn ominous and gloomy

Finally, we arrived at our second night’s destination: Shipton’s Mountain Hut. I was in pretty rough shape. I was wet everywhere – water had soaked through my rain jacket, socks, gloves – everything.  My shoes were so wet that I had spent the afternoon practically walking with a puddle around my feet. I was pretty convinced that I was relatively close to hypothermia (even though I definitely wasn’t), because being so cold and so tired just amplified all my misery. At Shipton’s we all put on whatever dry clothing we had left, wrapped ourselves in a sleeping bag, and eagerly shoveled dinner into our mouths. It had been a long day but it was over, and tomorrow the ultimate payoff waited.

We woke up at 2:00am that morning to prep for the 4 hour hike up to Mt. Kenya’s third highest peak – Lenana at 16,500 feet. The goal was to get there and watch the sunrise at the top. It was going to be strenuous, but the misery from the previous day was gone as only excitement took over. I couldn’t wait for the incredible views, amazing photos, and hard-earned satisfaction that waited me at the summit.

For the first 90% of the hike, the group fared well. It was difficult and dark, but no one expected climbing a mountain was going to be easy. It wasn’t without a little bit of stress – obviously. At one point we began shimmying along the side of a steep hill, covered exclusively with frozen snow. It was dark – but not dark enough to hide the very long drop that awaited any person who slipped. We carefully stepped in the footprint holes created by our guide and crept along the hill. “You know,” our guide said, turning to us, “we seem to have lost the trail a bit.” We all chuckled nervously, while internally freaking out. It seemed like a very inconvenient time to go off track. We slowly moved to a less icy section, climbed upwards, and returned to the trail before continuing on our way.

Eventually we stopped for a short break. The sun was close to rising, and now everything was beginning to light up. Our guide pointed to the top of a rock ledge not at all too high or far off in the distance: “That’s the top!”

I was so excited. We had made it. The end was in sight. I looked down at my watch – 5:40. We were even going to get there for sunrise. I turned to two of my friends, Meredith and Lindsay. “What time do you think we’ll get there? I’m going to bet 6:00.” “Oh, yeah, definitely! 6:05.” Meredith said confidently. Lindsay chimed in, “I’m guessing 6:15.”

Ha. Jokes. What would follow was the most terrifying hour and a half of my life.

That’s it for this week, thank you all for following along! That’s right – this is a cliffhanger (yes, that’s a pun. You’ll see). Tune in next week for my blog post about the rest of our journey up Mt. Kenya. I promise there is a ton of terror and some hilarious meltdowns yet to come. I’ll leave you for now with one final moody image of an Aberdare waterfall.

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Tutaonana Baadaye!

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