Already 3 years since my last stay in Kenya ... Where to start? First "second impressions"? No big changes, at first glance, Nairobi still cluttered with wild traffic, horns, accidents, tight lines, traffic lights that are there for decoration, pedestrians and motorcycles that weave between cars everywhere.
Not having found a partner to climb with from Belgium, it is trough the Mountain Club of Kenya (MCK), and the new climbing gym "Blue Sky" Nairobi that I'll get to know climbers to climb with in Kenya.
There are few Kenyan climbers, mostly expats living in wealthy neighborhoods, and reluctant to move for a "little Belgian" landing unexpectedly in Kenya.
With John, to be the partner of all adventures, I will have the opportunity to meet the "true Kenya."
With Sam, working at the Blue sky climbing gym, I’ll also have the chance to climb at Lukenya, a cliff located 45 km south of Nairobi.
The main problem in Kenya, is to find a climber with car, preferably 4x4, since move with the local transport "Matatus" to the cliff is a challenge beyond understanding.
Main difficulty for a "Mzungu" (white guy) traveling alone, is security. Travel books advise to avoid walking at night, or in certain neighborhoods. So there are some traveling difficulties, you either move during daylight, you take a taxi (which increases disproportionately the cost of the trip), or otherwise someone accept to drive you back to your hostel.
Nevertheless, with some determination, it's possible to travel in a rather autonomous way in Kenya : the « matatus » are crowded minivans (12 to 18 pax) that allows you to travel more or less everywhere. At least, everybody speaks english. Asking your way is not a problem (only if you chose very carefully your « helper », somehow somebody that will give the exact information you need, instead of willing to « help you completely » at the cost of a great amount of shillings).
Fortunately for me, climbing with John will save me from lots of these inconveniences, i.e. having to bargain for bus tickets ...
We will spend five days in the Mount Kenya's national park, aiming to climb 2 peaks : Point "John" (4885 m), which I had already climbed 3 years ago with my friend C. Manahl by the South west Ridge, and Point "Nelion" (5188 m), thru the normal route.
Another big advantage, John worked with the "Ranger rescue team" of KWS (Kenya wildlife service), a few years ago and is then known to everyone in the park. It’ll be for me a lot of fun to share the company of the KWS Rangers.
John still had hired a porter for us 2 because spending five days in total autonomy is not possible at this altitude.
After walking the required steps between the park entrance (about 2000 m), Met station (3040 m) and Mackinder's Camp (4100 m), we will climb "Point John" easily on a sunny day.
The next climb will be more difficult. Walk, after having climbed point "John", to Austrian Hut (altitude 4700 m) did not turn out to be a good option. John will get some symptoms of altitude sickness arriving at the hut (headache, lack of appetite), and I'll spend a bad night sleep.
The following morning, weather was not excellent: It had been snowing during part of the night, the wall was slightly plastered, and thus impossible to begin our ascent towards 6 am, as expected. Anyway, since we where not in excellent shape, we had to rest a bit.
Around 9am, we feel fit for climbing again. We decide to take a good breakfast, to walk to the wall and climb as high as the schedule will make it possible. We leave Austrian hut around 10:30 am, crampons are needed to cross last part of the "Lewis" glacier, and there we are at 11:30 at the starting point of route. We climb the first 400 meters of the ascent at a good speed (4:30), (on our shoulders heavy bags (down-jackets, mittens, mountain boots) in case the weather came to a change, which is very common on Mt Kenya). At 4 pm, after climbing the key passage of the route (the "de Graaf variation") we met a party of 2 Swiss led by a German mountain guide. He advises us not to continue, given our late schedule ... Anyway John agrees, a slight headache is back, and it is wise to turn back, even 100m away from summit.
We meet again with Tomás party at the beginning of the rappel line on top of « 5 o’clock gully », and we abseil in 2h30 time to the bottom of the route. Around 7pm, night catch us, crossing « lewis » glacier with head lamp, and a few min later we're back to Austrian hut.
John will pack his bag and and will walk down with Ezequiel, to Ranger Mackinder's camp. I feel too tired, and will therefore sleep a second night at Austrian Hut.
The next morning, I meet them again, with the help of Ezequiel, who will walk up some of the way to carry my bag down to Mackinders's ! We’ll have to walk back the 15km from there to the bridge half way between Met station and the entrance gate, where we catch the taxi that will bring us back to Naro Moru.
Ahsante (thank you) John for this wonderful experience. The summit would of course been a plus, but the friendliness of the meetings is already a most extraordinary gift.
Can you beleave that on February 8, 2009, the German climber Felix Berg, had climbed the summit (Nelion) in only 56 min (solo) ... .. We’ll have to come back if we want to do better, or as good as the previous record (roped 2) held by Alex Fiksman in 2h45.
Back in the Nairobi area, for other climbing experiences: trad/half bolted routes at Lukenya (cemetery wall) with Sam and Michele, boulder at Sagana in an enchanting rafting campground along the Tana River and the " Mission waterfall ", some more trad climbing on the « Hell's Gate » basalt cliffs, probably the most famous cliff of Kenya, because besides the enchanting environment of the park (one climbs amidst giraffes, zebras, antelopes, warthogs, buffalos ...) it’s also a "school cliff", where the belays are bolted.
Some tips if you want to go climbing in Kenya:
You will find in the literature (Alex Fiksman’- one of the climbers who count in Kenya, and with whom I climbed in 2012- has published some intersting papers in the American Alpine Journal,), a rather exotic and idealized description of climbing possibilities. There are in theory lots of climbable cliffs, and huge possibilities of discoveries and openings. But in reality, only local climbers can, at an affordable price, pay entry fees to parks, and solve logistical problems for accessing the cliffs.
In fact, if you do not have a wallet full with shillings, and if you don’t go to Kenya together with a climbing partner to share costs, it could really be challenging to find partners, and reach the cliffs .
Recently, the Facebook page of the Mountain Climb of Kenya, became as "secret" as the CIA. Whereas previously it was possible, via the website of the MCK and its forum, to get in touch with local climbers, this is now over (the website is no longer active) . The climbing gym "Blue sky"’s website is fine, but if you have no intention to pay for climbing classes, don’t expect any official help from the staff.
There are differents entrance fees to the parks : for Kenyans, "residents' and tourists (non-residents). For example, one day (24 hours) in the natural park of Mount Kenya will cost a kenyan 500 sh, a resident 900 sh, and us$ 65 if you are a tourist. Needless to say that at that price, unless rich as Cresus, you will not stay many days inside the park. As most cliffs are located within national parks, the calculation is quickly made!
I have not found in Kenya development initiatives similar to the ones that allowed in recent years the influx of climbers from around the world to climbing and mountaineering spots like Taghia (Morocco), the Hand of Fatma (Daari-Mali), Kalymnos (Greece), Hatun-Machay (Cordillera Blanca-Peru) : relatively easy access (affordable aircraft tickets and easy local transport), affordable hostel (food, shelter and hospitality), and high quality climbing routes of easy access.
None of this in Kenya: the local transports (bus, matatu) are almost incomprehensible for (unaccompanied) tourists, and taxis are expensive (+ - 15-20 € for a dozen km) . The access to the cliffs are unaffordable for the average climber (see entry rates of national parks), and there is no quality lodging (high prices for basic services). Camping remains an affordable solution, but we must not underestimate the risk of a "wild camping" because there is often wildlife just as "wild" nearby.
In summary, unless you are a local climber, or you get help from a local climber, you'll often stay at the pool, instead of beeing on the rocks ... ..
In 2005, in a paper titled "Kenya's rocks", Alex Fiksman described Kenya as a country with "great opportunities for new openings" and "waiting for a new generation of climbers". 10 years later, I am tempted to ask him about results: what has really been done in Kenya to encourage this "new generation" to multiply the openings, and share them with the world community?
Expensive tariffs, difficult access to cliffs, restrictive MCK's policy concerning new openings and equipment (British are known to prefer the trad climbing rather than bolting), reduced number of local climbers (often expats staying for a few years), few tourists-climbers, are factors that are not helping the development of climbing in Kenya.
Some hope remains in the training of Kenyan climbers, the olny ones that can ultimately perceive the importance of their sport, without any management by "mzungus".
Nevertheless, Kenya is worth a discovery. The country is enchanting indeed, and if you manage to avoid being treated as an atm machine, no doubt about it, you'll make fabulous experiences.
Tips and Books :
Mount Kenya map & guide, A.L. Wielochowski, EWP 2007
Alex Fiksman , « Kenya’s rocks », American Alpine Journal 2005- vol 47-79, p.128
Alex Fiksman , « Hell’s Gates », American Alpine Journal 2005- vol 47-79, p. 142
Alex Fiksman , « Ololokwe, south face, Mirage », American Alpine Journal 2015, vol 57- 89.
For Bouldering , Rapids Camp Sagana : http://www.raftinginkenya.com/
For indoor cimbing at Nairobi and Naivasha : http://www.blueskykenya.org/
For getting in touch with kenyan climbers : http://www.idyllicmistleyhouse.com/ (ask John Mwaura Githae)
For guide books, and other infos : http://www.mck.or.ke/ Mountain Club of Kenya.