The only way is up
"Think like a soldier. You’re past the point of no return." These words of encouragement from our guide, David Wachira, were directed at my wife, Ati, as she fought tiredness and altitude sickness at 4,500m, three hours into the final ascent of the 4,985m summit of Mount Kenya’s Point Lenana.
Despite her ailments, it was easy to understand why Ati was persevering. The views of Africa’s second-highest mountain were stunning. Even though it was 5am, an hour before dawn, we had no need for our torches. The light from the full moon and panoply of twinkling stars was enough to illuminate the dusty, rocky path and Mount Kenya’s myriad peaks towering above us. Macmillan was to our extreme left; then Lenana, the highest point reachable without climbing equipment; then Batian, the highest point of all at 5,199m.
What was even more magical was that we were alone. One couple and their guide had passed us a couple of hours earlier but they were out of sight. Other groups were probably heading to the top from other points of the compass — on average 50 people per day attempt it — but it felt like it was just us and the mountain.
As blissful as such solitude might be, the Kenyan authorities are keen to see more people trekking on the country’s highest peak. Mount Kenya has always been somewhat in the shadow of Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro, which is 696m higher and gets three times the number of visitors. In 2016, roads on both sides of Mount Kenya were upgraded with the help of $2.4m in EU funding in order to remove the need for a four-wheel-drive vehicle and encourage foreign and Kenyan tourists to visit.
"Those who don’t want to do the summit can do a one-day trek and be back the same evening," says Bruno Pozzi, deputy head of the EU delegation to Kenya. "It also reduces the time you need to do the summit, it improves the security, enables rescue teams to reach higher points more quickly and gives more options to explore the park."
What used to be a six-day hike to Point Lenana and down can now be done in three if one is properly acclimatised and very fit. Having taken advice from friends, we chose to do it in four days, starting in the forest above the town of Chogoria on the eastern slopes. Like Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya is a solitary mountain. But while the continent’s highest peak resembles an upside-down pudding basin, Mount Kenya is more of a cone rising out of the country’s central plain, its spiky peaks dominating the skyline.
The first reported sighting of Mount Kenya by a European was in 1849, by Johann Krapf, a German missionary looking for the source of the Nile. It took another 50 years before anyone reached the top. That honour went to an 1899 expedition led by Sir Halford Mackinder, a geographer and a founder of the London School of Economics, who named the highest peaks after Maasai chieftains who helped him.
The magnitude of their achievement is highlighted by the fact that 118 years later only 50 people a year conquer Batian, the mountain’s highest point. Arguably the most famous attempt was by Felice Benuzzi, Giovanni Balletto and Enzo Barsotti, three Italians who, in May 1942, had been detained in a prisoner-of-war camp near the town of Nanyuki on the mountain’s north-west slopes.
Benuzzi described his first glimpse of the peak from the camp in poetic terms: "An ethereal mountain emerging from a tossing sea of clouds, framed between two dark barracks: a massive blue-black tooth of sheer rock, inlaid with azure glaciers; austere yet floating fairy-like on the near horizon. For hours afterwards I remained spellbound. I had definitely fallen in love."
Benuzzi decided the mountain had to be climbed and recruited Balletto and Barsotti for the mission. After surreptitiously preparing basic supplies for eight months, they escaped from the camp in January 1943 and headed upwards. Nineteen days later, having avoided guards, wild animals and death by pneumonia, they returned and presented themselves to the British camp commander. He sentenced the climbers to 28 days in the cells but released them after seven because he appreciated their "sporting effort". Benuzzi recounted the adventure in a book, No Picnic on Mount Kenya.
The title is probably a reference to a phrase used by Vivienne de Watteville, a travel writer and adventurer who spent two months living on the mountain in 1929. She described her time there in a memoir published in 1935, Speak to the Earth, in which she wrote: "No expedition on the mountain was ever a picnic."
Set beside these pioneers’ exploits, our climb was routine but still no picnic. We arrived at the Chogoria gate, at 2,950m, at 1pm on a Saturday to find not only David but his assistant guide Richard, the cook Samuel and five porters. We had selected David after discussions with friends and e-mail exchanges with several tour operators. He has been climbing in the region for decades: last year he summitted Kilimanjaro 13 times and reached Point Lenana more than half a dozen. David’s preparations were impressively thorough. Weeks before we set off, he visited our house in Nairobi to check our kit thus giving us time to fill any gaps.
After a hearty lunch, we set off through the forest; a bush buck darting in front of us as if to wish us luck. We soon left the trees beneath us and settled into a slow but steady pace. The worst mistake one can make, we were told, is to climb too fast. We gratefully heeded the advice, arriving at our first campsite, Lake Ellis, three hours later. To my astonishment there were vehicles there; apparently 4x4s can make it that far. But I was glad we had walked — driving beyond the entrance gate would have felt like cheating.
Sunday’s trek lasted eight hours. The views — of Mount Kenya in front and the valleys behind — were breathtaking. There was barely a cloud in the sky and we could see for miles. The vegetation was unlike anything I’d ever seen, with giant lobelias and giant groundsels sprouting Triffid-like all over the slopes.
Shortly after lunch, disaster struck. Ati started feeling the effects of the altitude. She made it to the campsite at Mintos Tarn (4,200m) and collapsed. David, a trained paramedic, gave her some Diamox, a drug that can reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness even though descending is considered the only reliable cure. Thankfully, it had a beneficial effect but by the time we set off for the summit at 2am, Ati had had virtually no sleep and our progress was slow.
Six hours later, after the light of the moon had given way to a gorgeous sunrise, we reached the top of Lenana. Batian and Nelion were in our faces, looking imposing. Below us was one of the mountain’s few remaining glaciers, looking emaciated and clearly suffering the effects of climate change. And despite the new roads, my fears of crowds on the summit proved unfounded — we had Lenana to ourselves. Far in the distance, peaking through the tropical haze, was Kilimanjaro. Seeing it from Mount Kenya is rare, David said. It was as if it was inviting us to tackle it too.
• Aglionby is the FT’s East Africa correspondent.
© The Financial Times 2017