There is this mind trick that I play every time I go on a hike. It does not make the hike any easier, it’s just a way to give myself hope.
If it is a hike that starts in the morning and ends the same evening, I tell myself, “The day will break and by the time it ends, so will this hike.”
So on that Tuesday when we started the ascent of Mount Kenya, a hike that would take five days to complete, I told myself that whatever happened, the week would end and Sunday would find me at home.
And that mental strength is the most important thing you need when going on a hike. It is the one thing many people forget to bring along, and then they give up halfway.
In the weeks leading up to going up Mt Kenya, our hosts — Bucketlist Adventures — sent us a list of items to buy. Unless you are on a suicide mission, you cannot hike a mountain without the proper gear. Mental strength was on that list because it cannot be bought: It can only be made.
Ideally, you need to prepare for the climb. Hitting the gym would be great. Even better are prep hikes to get your body and mind used to climbing.
In Kenya, the best hills to climb in preparation are Rurimeria, Elephant Hill and Kinangop. All of these are located in the southern Aberdare Ranges, whose terrain and weather are just as tough and gruelling as Mt Kenya’s. Some would even say they are tougher than Mt Kenya, and having done all of them, I can understand why.
There is one thing, however, that no prep hike or gear prepares you for when it comes to Mt Kenya, and that is its beauty. The Kikuyu believed that this is where God lived. When you go up via the Chogoria route, like I did, it is clear that the Kikuyus were on to something.
When people say that Mt Kenya is breathtaking, they mean that the scenery will knock the wind out of you. There is no picture that a camera could capture of the majesty of Lake Ellis and Lake Michaelson, especially in the morning. Or the relaxing sound of Nithi Falls when you close your eyes and let your thoughts drift off.
But there are some things that bothered me about this mountain. Perhaps it is the heavenly naturescapes that led to the colonialists naming many parts of this mountain after themselves.
Besides the two aforementioned lakes, Ellis and Michaelson, there’s Macmillan Peaks, Delamare Peak, Harris Tarn and Austria Hut. It is incredible how 55 years after Independence, Kenya’s most iconic heritage is still branded with names from our painful past.
Everyone should go up Mt Kenya at least once in their lifetime. It is not just a test of physical capability, but also a test of character. You will climb to 4,985 metres above sea level. You will be tempted to give up along the way.
God forbid you get altitude sickness — where your body refuses to agree with the elements — and you puke, or get dizzy, or both. If you were born and raised in warm weather like I was, the cold will bite into your skin like it has a quarrel to settle. And after all that, you may still fail to get to the peak.
But the moment you take the final step on to the peak — frozen fingers, tired arms, short of breath — and you look around you, and everything is white, blue and orange… The sky is bluer than any I’ve ever seen, and the whiteness of the snow beneath your feet is so bright it can burn your eyes. It is like staring into the sun.
The feeling of accomplishment has no adjective.
However, summiting is not the end. You still have to descend, remember?
It takes four days to go up Mt Kenya via the Chogoria Route and one day to come down. Actually, it can take two to five hours.
For many, this is the easiest part of the hike, but for some, the most gruelling. Because descending works your knees hard; you are constantly braking while digging your heels into the ice and earth.
Just as I had told myself at the beginning, the week was over and at 2am on Sunday morning, I was back in my home in Nairobi.
My body felt borrowed and smelled terrible, because there is no showering for all five days. It is too cold. You just wipe yourself down with wet wipes. By the time I got home, I could not believe the smell that was coming from me. A potent mixture of old sweat and dirt.
All I wanted to do was soak my body in very hot and soapy water.