It is too early in this story to be telling lies, so allow me to accord this intro with the dignity of honesty; I lied. When I met Munyaka at some event in Riverside Drive and told him “Yeah, I would like to join your hiking troupe sometime”, I did not mean a single one of those words. It is like when you meet one of your school mates from primary school after twenty years and you say, “We should get the old gang together and have a drink one of these fine days”, you do not intend for them to take it seriously. You say it because it is the polite thing to say when you meet an old friend. In fact, when anyone suggests a hook up plan and then ends it with sometime, someday, one of these days they mean it as much as you do when you start your work emails with I hope this finds you well.
So when Munyaka replied with, “Sure, come tomorrow. We are hiking up to Raggia Falls,” I wondered if he understood English.
“Oh really?” I answered, “but you see, I do not have hiking shoes for…”
“You can come with these,” he answered, “Raggia is not a tough hill.”
He was talking about my Nikes. The ones my sister brought me from America. Shoes that have climbed an aero plane. Those shoes. Those are the ones he wanted me to wear to go see a waterfall.
“Sawa, but si you charge for these things? Sina pesa at the moment, maybe next week?”
“Ah! Wewe usiworry bro. Just come. This one will be on me.”
I wanted to say that I had a wedding the next day. Or a funeral. Or a circumcision. Or a hernia removal surgery. But by now I knew that Munyaka was the kind to say something like, ah, you will have healed by the time we get to the top.
I was trapped. Before we left, he said I should carry water and maybe a fruit or two. It would be an easy climb, he said.
A bus picked us from Nairobi at 6am and dropped us somewhere in Central Kenya. We started climbing at 8am and by noon, I had nothing in my day pack – or on my knees. My water was finished and so were my snacks.
Then I made another mistake. Being the person that I am coming from the place I am from, I was the one helping ladies who were struggling with the hike. Sijui pulling them up, sijui slowing down my pace. Sijui helping them down an oridorido. Oh and by the way, saa hizo I was also carrying my camera gear. That hike handed me my behind in a way nothing else had before.
But that was not the worst of it all. The worst happened when we got to the Raggia Falls. I moved away from the crowd to get a better angle for photos of the falls. The stones were smooth and slippery from all that time in the water. So my cleverness told me to step on some patch of ground. And as soon as I did, I began sinking. In mud. Have you ever been sinking and you do not know what to do? First there is the pain of your Nikes from America touching mud. Then there is the borrowed camera gear to save, because what is the point of surviving if you will drown in debt anyway? And then there is your life to think about.
I am here telling the story, though.
Those are the experiences that make you swear off something, right? Well, when I got back to the van, knee high in mud, wheezing from exhaustion, I looked back on that hill and told Munyaka, “I want more.” And that is how I started hiking. It does that to you, this hobby. You will go hiking on Saturday and come back looking like the mountain fell on you. On Sunday your body will be begging for mercy. On Monday you will have recovered. And by Wednesday, you are calling Munyaka to include you in the next hike. And when your girlfriend – who has to deal with your Sunday whining for a foot and back rub – asks “What the hell is it with you and mountains and hills?”, you answer, “Good question.”
Because even you don’t know.
All I knew was that I wanted the big one. I wanted Mt. Kenya. And when you want something badly enough, many times, you get it. I did.
The journey that takes you to the highest point in Kenya starts on a Tuesday morning. The itinerary said that you would be climbing via the Chogoria Route, so the bus that carried you from Nairobi stops at Chogoria town for one last take of civilization. You are in a troupe of about twelve people. Some of them stand outside the bus and stretch, others go to drink chicken soup from a kibanda (it is around 8.30am, mark you), and then the rest say they are going to look for shades. You ask them why they need eyeglasses, and the guide says that if you do not wear them, the mountain snow will burn your eyes. You get a pair.
The first day is a relatively easy climb. Your legs are fresh. Your stomach is full with warm food. You climb for about four hours to the base camp – and that is the shortest distance you will have to climb. It is cold, and chilly white mist hangs all around you. It looks like the earth is smoking.
That evening you meet in a large tent, and the guide checks everyone’s gear to make sure nobody is trying to be a hero. Then he reads you the riot act about the mountain. He says it does not matter whether you have hiked this rock a dozen times, or even the Everest. This mountain demands everyone’s respect every time you decide to hike it. And to make his point clearer, he shares stories of how experienced climbers have gone up with their lives and left them there.
But that does not bother you because you are not the target audience. What gets under your skin is when he says “listen, do not give too much attention to getting to the summit. The joy is in the climb.” You look at him with squinted eyes, trying to see his point and failing tremendously. Because hiking Mt. Kenya – as you had imagined it – is like sitting for national examinations. You over-prepare for it because not many people are willing to do it twice. You have done exams before in preparation for this exam, but those are not this one. This one is monumental and you want to be done with it once and for all.
So what the hell is he talking about do not focus on summiting? You did not spend that much time in the gym, go for painful prep hikes on Rurimueria, Kinangop and Elephant Hill, and then pay that much money to not get to the peak. Honestly, if the idea was to just see the tips from a distance, you’d have simply bought a WhiteCap and stared at the logo, no?
The next day, you start the real climb, and regardless of what you thought Mt. Kenya looks like, nothing prepares you for that place. For starters, unlike what some people imagine, the mountain terrain is not a vertical line. Second, the people who live around this mountain – the central Kenyan tribes – call it Kirinyaga. Meaning, the place of ostriches. They believe that God lives on that mountain and pray facing it, and it is with good reason. I mean, you will probably not see any ostriches there. But if it weren’t for the cold, you’d be compelled to remove your shoes because it is so heavenly, you’d also believe you are standing on holy ground.
There is no picture that could capture the majesty of Lake Ellis and Lake Michaelson, especially in the morning, when they sky wakes up and the world is blue, then it turns to orange, then the hue of a perfectly brewed beer, and then it shoots up and opens up the spectrum of the earth’s colours. Like petrol on wet tarmac.
Then there is the relaxing sound of Nithi Falls when you close your eyes and let your thoughts drift off. And if you are the kind of person who likes gazing at stars, the ones that come out when you are on the mountain shine different than those we see in the city. Actually with all that light pollution, nobody ever really sees stars when in Nairobi.
But hiking is not always rosy. So, for example, you do not get to shower. For real, you will spend five days up that mountain without showering. The best you can do is use wet wipes and brush your teeth, but that is just it. The weather up there will not allow you to take off your clothes. And even with the wet wipes, you will use them for the first couple of days only and then when you get to the higher altitude, kwanza just before summit night, you will not even bother.
Then there is the food. Because you are not real climbers you enlist the help of porters. They are really just locals who have climbed this mountain since they were kids. They carry your luggage for you, pitch your tents and cook your food. They break camp long after you have, pass you along the way and then go ahead to pitch the next camp. A trek that takes you 8 hours they complete in three or four. But these folks aren’t exactly chefs, you know. And up in the mountain, there are no stalls that sell capsicum or Worcestershire sauce. The food is not for enjoyment, it is for sustenance. You will live on noodles and cabbage and canned sausages.
But none of these compare to the last day of the climb.
We were to set camp at Simba Tarn. This whole time, I had been one of those people with gas – the ones who walk way ahead because my climbing pace was faster than everyone else. Then it began to drizzle. Light showers. The water stopped dropping and was replaced with hail the higher we climbed. Hail turned into snow. And my body decided to shut down.
I am a child of the great lake, you see. My blood is used to the warmness there. Before this, I had only seen snow in movies, and it always looks romantic. How kids play with that thing that looks like white sand, and jump around in it, and make snow people. Kumbe kwa ground situation ni very different. I could feel the liquids in my body turning into ice. And because we were told to keep drinking tons of water, I was full of liquid. So I was cold, and pressed, but too damn scared to pee.
I grabbed a hot water bottle from the porters, slipped into my tent and into my sleeping bag, and lay there, waiting for the snow to stop falling. All the time wondering what in hell I was thinking coming up this massive rock.
If politics have taught us anything in this country, it is that no Luo can ever conquer Mt. Kenya.
The next morning, I woke up before the call time. We broke camp at 3am so that we could make it to the peak by sunrise. It was the final push to the top. On our left, we could see Timau town starting to stir. Still dark, though, ahead of us were torchlights. Nobody spoke until the day broke, and by then we were at point Lenana. And I swear on everything that is holy, if you have never seen the earth break open from the top of this mountain, then you haven’t lived at all. You have just been breathing in and out. It is a sunset so beautiful, it will break your heart.
Think of hiking as a metaphor for life. You start at the bottom and the goal is to get to the top. When you’re at the base, you are many, but as the trip goes on, the crowd thins and the distance between the climbers increases. That’s just because our pace is different. Other people move fast and others slow. If you ng’ang’ana too much with the fast guys, you will tire. The ones slower than you might also hold you back.
The right company always finds you. That whole birds of a feather thing. They make the treacherous journey easier with laughter and stories and when you fall, there will be a hand stretched out to you.
As in life, it is always a good idea to look back every once in a while. The view gets better with every climb. The view from the middle is just as beautiful as the view from the top. Different, yes, but beautiful. Looking back halfway tells you how far you have come and gives you the psyche to keep moving, but looking back when at the summit gives you that sense of victory of having conquered something phenomenal. And if you only focus on what is ahead of you, you will never celebrate how far you have come.
Lakini not everyone gets to the top. There are those who give up mid-hike. When going up the mountain, I almost did. And you know what? It is OK. It would be nice if we all made it to the top, but it is not a must. It is a hike, not a school assignment. However far you make it, you still deserve a clap. That is why our guide kept insisting that summiting is not the achievement, it is the willingness to try. The mountain will always be there to try next time.
The climb up is tedious, gruelling and slow. But nobody stays at the top forever. There is not enough space for kila mtu, so you have to make space for others coming after you. The descending is faster, but just as hard. You try to clutch at anything for balance, but gravity is a son of a bitch. You will slip and fall and it will be embarrassing (if you were trying to please someone).
Then when you are done with it, you will sit down around a fire with the rest of the team. Your knees spent, your feet swearing to file restraining orders against you, and your energy depleted. After eating noodles and sausages and tea for five days, everyone will be craving meat and a drink. You will long for something brewed for a moment of celebration, something as old as the mountain, but whose integrity is a promise kept since the time days were in black and white. So you will order a WhiteCap, and they will bring you two, and you will say why not. Surely, after trekking from Tharaka Nithi County to Laikipia County via a route that took you 16,355 ft above sea level, you have earned the right to an extra bottle.
And while the group communes and holds the mountain in their hearts, you hold it in your hands as well. For a moment there, as you wash the memory of the past five days down your throat, you will feel the snowcapped tips of the mountain prick your palm as if to say “We should do this again.”
And it will be surprising (even to you) just how much you agree.