The Secretary and the Summit

Some 40 years ago, Mount Kenya was one of the most popular ice climbing destinations in the world. Its glacier, Diamond Couloir—a hanging slab of snow and ice that reached to the top of the mountain in the shade of its two highest peaks, Nelion and Batian—had even attracted the attention of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who pioneered a route up it in 1975. The climbing quality was excellent, and the novelty of trekking on snow less than a mile from the equator was a huge draw. And yet, that same geographical quirk meant that climate change hit these glaciers faster and harder than any, and, save for short periods of the year, this is now a hard rock summit that only holds two scrappy pieces of remnant ice on its flank.

The only evidence of the bygone era of climbing on Kenya are huts named for the climbers who built them, including Austrian Hut, American Hut, and Mackinder's Hut—the latter for the Englishman who made the first recorded summit—and a group of guides who have maintained the mountaineering craft they learned during that time. While other regions of Kenya like the Maasai Mara are still very popular, the tourism numbers for Mount Kenya are a sliver of what they used to be.

As our collection of modified Land Rovers climbed out of rural Nanyuki, the gateway city for Mount Kenya, we ascended into the midst of the potato and flower farms the region is known for. When our four-wheel drive could reach no further, we loaded out of the rigs ready to begin trekking. We didn’t realize, however, that our hike could not start until the entirety of Kenyan media documented our beginnings.

No, the paparazzi had not assembled for us (though we're sure such fame is right around the corner). They were there for Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Tourism Najib Balala. In a strange turn of events, one of our trip mates had challenged Balala to climb the mountain and he had accepted. Now he was making good on his promise with our little team.

The Cabinet Secretary emerged from his car wearing a spiffy red hiking jacket, motioned for the team to surround him, and quickly revealed why he was here: Mount Kenya only receives some 16,000 visitors a year, whereas 200 miles south, Mount Kilimanjaro receives, Balala claimed, 70,000. “Mount Kenya is well known but still we have underutilized it in terms of opening it up to both local and international visitors,” he said. “When I come back we will call a stakeholders meeting to be able to promote it better.” With that, we were off trailed by cameramen slipping in the mud as they tried to keep up.

Though we wondered how a high-level politician would interact with the group, “CS” was immediately curious about all of the team members and why we were there. He was genuinely interested in being part of a team. And, sweetly, whenever there was a shade of cellular coverage on the mountain he would ring his wife to let her know how we were doing. The only challenge for him, and for us, was that he had never done anything remotely like this before. He is known as the skydiving secretary for pulling a stunt where he parachuted onto the beaches of Watamu to call attention to tourism opportunities on Kenya’s coast, so putting his body at risk was nothing new. That said, falling more than 10,000 feet and climbing 17,000 feet are two different enterprises. So, we moved slow, not only to avoid fatiguing his legs but also to give his body, used to lower altitudes, a chance to acclimatize.

The pace gave everyone a chance to take in Mount Kenya National Park, which, to be frank, is jaw-droppingly beautiful in unexpected ways. Rocky paths fringed by hillsides of Artemisia and assorted other herbs and flowers reminded us of walking the shrubby foothills of Arizona. These led to alpine meadows that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, dappled with the shadows of clouds and little clutches of impala, gazelles, and the odd cow (there illegally, but lovely nonetheless). After a five-mile walk we had reached an altitude near 11,000 feet. As we rounded a corner, there was a welcome array of dome tents and a tipi, complete with wood-burning stove, for dinners and group hanging out. It was an idyllic day, capped off with clouds lifting in the south to reveal the rocky peaks of our goal, which were framed by clouds reflecting the setting sun.

Sitting in the tipi, enjoying hot tea and chocolate pudding for dessert, CS turned to Patrick when he saw him fiddling with his Garmin, and asked how far and high we had reached. When Patrick told him, he beamed with pride and said, “I have never even walked 5 kilometers in my life!” Everyone was certainly excited for him, but at the same time we knew that tomorrow’s hike would be closer to 10 miles with 4,000 feet of gain.

But the next morning, there was CS at breakfast, smiling and inquiring about everyone’s sleep, with his quiet bodyguard, Davis, constantly by his side. We grumbled about uncomfortable sleeping pads and wet ground. CS, meanwhile, was as happy as a kid in a candy shop for the first time: He revealed he had never slept in a tent or a sleeping bag before! After wolfing down breakfast—eggs, sausage—and loading up our water bags, we set off for another day of incremental hiking.

Three days of hiking quickly passed by. On the third day, in a mist of rain and snow, we descended a slippery scree-slope in near-darkness and reached the camp from which we would make our summit climb. We immediately threw our gear into tents and ran to the tipi in the hopes that there would be enough fire and time to dry our gear before we headed to the summit the next morning. But there was nowhere near the time or the wood to get more than touch of warmth before it was time to head to bed.

The amount of snow we had already encountered suggested that we would have a summit climb far more slippery than usual. In fact, Julian, our guide, admitted that people generally don’t come onto the mountain this time of year for exactly that reason. Nonetheless, we were going to go for it . . . with a very important guest along. Julian walked us through the plan in the morning. CS would go first with a small team to move as fast as possible, and the rest of us would follow an hour later. For the best mix of safety and speed, we’d be tying ourselves to one another via a rope on the ascent. In the unlikely instance that someone slipped or fell, the idea was that the rest of us would be able to catch them.

The climb would have been nothing but a rocky scramble in dry conditions, but the snow meant we had to trust our footing and our climbing partners totally. It wasn’t technically hard, but the stakes felt high: A glance downhill suggested a long and brutal slide over boulders without a clear end in sight in some situations.

We progressed uphill at a good pace, but hardly fast, with our team’s two professional mountaineers, Ake and Sibu, giving advice and encouragement throughout. Given our focus, it was hard to remember to look up and take in the world around us, but when the sun broke the horizon, we all stopped. Watching the sun rise at the equator is an experience in and of itself. It goes so fast for someone used to watching it rise at an angle from 45 degrees north of the equator. Couple that with a view from 16,500 feet above sea level and get ready for your perspective of the earth to totally shift. You feel enormous and incredibly small at the same time. You can almost touch the sun and then suddenly it’s a million miles away.

In the rapid-fire crush of learning alpine mountaineering on the fly, the climb absolutely rocketed by and we were at the summit before we were even ready for it. And there was CS: Resplendent on Point Lenana (the name of this summit), sitting under the summit sign, and gathering anyone who would come by—porters, guides, and climbers alike—for photos and hugs.

The wind was still and the sun was warm, so, unlike on Rwanda’s Mount Karisimbi, we all lingered: Taking photos, trying to suck in every moment of being so much higher than the clouds, looking out to see as far as we might. But summits are places we can only visit, and eventually we had to go down. And once again, where mountain lore dwells on the ascent and the summit, sometimes the descent can be the most perilous moment.

A venicular cord is installed on the far side of Point Lenana, and while we all had the gear to lock into it and keep ourselves safe, certain sections were frozen under ice, others connected to poles that had long since disconnected from their moorings. It was safe, all things considered, but again, it was entirely new territory for Jessica. She had just been introduced to carabiners yesterday, and now here she was expected to turn her life over to one. With the help of Ake and Sibu, she found her way down, but was uncertain that she ever wanted to be put in a similar position again. Which made what followed all the more amazing.

After we all took the morning to recover, Ake sensed some people’s struggles with the climbing gear we had used that morning and recommended we have the guides set up some lines for everyone to practice rappelling (what the Africans call abseiling) down a small cliff face, and ascending a fixed rope with an ascender and ice axe. We threw on our gear and walked over, and before long Jessica hooked into a rope alongside Julian, our young guide. After a few moments of trying, she looked at him and said: “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this. Please unhook me.” Patrick thought it might help if he went down first, but that didn’t seem to change the mood, so he walked over to practice on the fixed line and give her some space.

After mostly giving up on her chances, Patrick suddenly heard Kim, one of the older, more patient African guides with a storied reputation for having climbed the mountain more than 2,000 times, whooping and calling out encouragement. When Patrick looked up, there was Jess, hanging out over nothing, slowly letting herself down. How had Kim motivated Jessica? He had told her, “You will not be afraid!” Jess said, “But I am afraid!” And Kim, said, again, but this time more sternly: “You will not be afraid.” There was something in Kim’s stony eyes that made Jessica trust what he was saying.

Had Kim told Yvon Chouinard the same thing before the Patagonia boss had conquered Diamond Couloir? Probably not. Mr. Chouinard seems to not be afraid of anything. But in that moment, Jess, and Patrick below, reveled in the fact that regardless, they too were now part of the mountain’s storied past, present, and, hopefully, future.  

POSTSCRIPT: “On Not Climbing”

Mount Kenya has three peaks: Point Lenana, Point Nelion, and Point Batian. Though roughly equivalent in heights, they require very different skills to climb. Lenana is mostly nontechnical, where Nelion and Batian require full sets of alpine mountaineering gear and about 12 hours of climbing time in normal conditions. In snowy conditions? Well, Julian wasn’t really sure.

The plan from the beginning was that our team would summit only Lenana, but during the Karisimbi climb, it was decided that a small group of more experienced climbers would attempt to attain the other two as well, the day after the CS descended on his own. At the encouragement of the team, Patrick agreed to join for the attempt. And yet, as the climb approached, the lack of certainty about conditions, timing, and safety started to nag at him. He had agreed because the climb’s rating was well within his skill level, but as details about it emerged, he became less and less confident.

And yet he was going to go. Because he said so, and because here they were, and because here were those peaks. How could he not? He sat down in the tent next to Jessica and said: “Listen, I only want to do this climb if you feel good about it too, and I’m just not sure how you feel about it.” She made it extremely clear that it was his choice and that she would never want to hold him back from any adventure, but, at the same time, she had concerns, and when she listed them, they mirrored all the things already pinging around in his mind. He knew she was right, and yet, still: He said he would do it. He knew how idiotic such a justification was, how idiotic climbing a mountain just because it’s there is, and yet he couldn’t help that the pull of the unknown was incredibly strong.

He laid down on his sleeping mat and said, “I just need a moment to let my conscious mind make this decision.” After five minutes, he rolled over and said, “Yeah, I’m not going.” And it sucked. When he heard the team moving out the next morning at 5 a.m., when he saw them across the valley, tiny red dots stretched out on a massive cliff face, and when he finally passed out of view of the summits, he couldn’t help but second guess his decision. But then he thought about all the information he had: about the mountain, about his climbing partners, about the decision, and he realized that any of his friends that he trusts in the woods would make the same decision in his position.

It wasn’t so bad, after all. Descending early meant he got to arrive to the cheering throngs waiting for CS, got to plant a commemorative tree in the park front of the media with Jessica, and got a fancy meal at the Kenya Safari Club, where he was more underdressed than he has ever been in his life. But he won’t forget the look of that rock anytime soon and he won’t stop dreaming about returning to it, perhaps in the dry season, as soon as he can. Maybe CS's push to raise Kenya's numbers close to Kilimanjaro's will begin with his return.