the long way down, again
Hands down the worst part of mountaneering is that one invariably has to get up in the middle of the night to summit. Groggy and cold, the last thing one’s body wants to do is abandon the cozy warmth of the sleeping bag to trudge up a steep hill in pitch-black darkness. Fortunately, this sacrifice is frequently rewarded with breath-taking views as soon as the sun rises – panoramas that few are fortunate to see firsthand.
We left Shipton’s Camp at 3am and followed a steep path that zig-zagged up the mountainside for three and a half hours. The first hint of morning caught us just beneath the summit of Pt. Lenana, a band of light appearing on the horizon in the East. We paused our ascent to watch the landscape come to life, the sun turning the dull stones ocher before peaking over the horizon line and filling the clear sky with its dazzling light.
After half an hour on the summit we began our descent. Our goal had been accomplished, but the day’s hiking had barely begun. Unfortunately, reaching the summit is only half the battle; one must also descend, frequently covering as much ground as during the ascent, only at a much faster pace. Two and a half hours of downhill hiking brought us to Mintos camp on the other side of the mountain where S’s dad awaited us along with the porters to have breakfast. From Mintos, which only boasted a tiny shack used by the guides as a makeshift kitchen, we had to cover 18km to reach the Mount Kenya lodge, where we would spend the last night of our trip.
The Chogoria route, which we chose for our descent, is easily the most scenic on Mt. Kenya. The path skirts the Gorges Valley, a canyon that rises all the way to the foothills of Mt. Kenya. Though we very much wanted to finish the hike as quickly as possible, D couldn’t help himself and kept stopping to take pictures of the lakes that formed a mini staircase inside the valley, dripping water one into another via a series of narrow waterfalls.
We stopped for lunch, which mainly consisted of ramen noodles, at the Chogoria trailhead. Though much more gradual and less punishing than our descent on Kili, hiking 18km after already spending six hours on the trail was utterly exhausting. We still had another hour of hiking left, but the lunch break seemed to have sapped our strength and we lay around in the heath grass, watching the clouds rush overhead for half an hour before mustering up the willpower to get up and finish the hike.
‘Lodge’ turned out to be an excessively generous descriptor for the collection of rustic shacks where our hike terminated. Each shack had a small room with three narrow hospital cots, a bathroom, a cooking area, and a tiny dining area with a fireplace. There were showers. They were prison-like in appearance but at least hot water issued from them so we didn’t complain. We were installed in two shacks that stood side by side. Ours was to be used for dining; meanwhile, the porters colonized the cooking area in the shack that had been assigned to S’s dad and sister, making such a racket that any notion of rest was laughable. We enjoyed a few celebratory sodas and a lukewarm beer, but five days of the same mountain food had sapped our appetites.
A two-hour drive down a rough, rutted mountain road still separated us from Chogoria town, from where we would take a paved road to Nanyuki to meet up with S’s mom, but the hike was behind us and we went to sleep looking forward to the safari that awaited us.