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Africa, Kenya, Mount Kenya

Mount Kenya. Sixty years ago, Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman spent an amazing fortnight climbing in the Mount Kenya massif. They made the first ascents of Midget Peak, Point Pigott, Point Peter and either Sendeyo or Tereri. Their greatest achievement, however, was the first ascent of the west ridge of Batian. In the interim since this expedition, Mount Kenya has undergone perhaps greater physiographic changes than any other mountain in the world. Global warming has reduced the number of glaciers from 17 to 11, and several of these are barely surviving the onslaught of the tropical sun. Pictures from Shipton’s Upon that Mountain and Tilman’s Snow on the Ecuator reveal a very different mountain than climbers will see in the 1990s. Peter Cummings and I were attracted to the west ridge by its history, beautiful line and solid rock. We found the route straightforward and safe, but the exposure and altitude combined to make it somewhat intimidating. In 1930, Shipton and Tilman gained the west ridge via the Cesar and Josef Glaciers and a snow slope to Firmin’s Col. Today, the route to Firmin’s Col involves a two-pitch ice climb. Easier access is made by the lower Northey Glacier. This approach passes the south face of Point Dutton to the notch west of the Petit Gendarme and can be done in tennis shoes in two hours from Kami Hut. From the notch the route follows steepening slabs and an exposed ridge over the top of the Petit Gendarme to the spectacular gap on the other side. A short, steep pitch leads up to the north side of the route’s major feature, the Grand Gendarme. After some four pitches of traversing along its base, a ledge leads straight right to a steep comer. Two pitches of 5.8 rock follow this dihedral to a belay atop the Grand Gendarme. The next pitch is up an awkward, but short chimney before the climber is faced with the technical crux, the “Twelve-Meter Pinnacle.”

Superb face and crack climbing ends abruptly at a narrow and fantastically exposed arête. Gaining little altitude, the sinuous ridge winds for hundreds of feet before plunging into Shipton’s Notch, the only rotten rock on the route. Steep face climbing leads through the notch and up the vertical wall on the far side. Four more pitches of exciting ridge running get one to the summit. Dr. Richard Leakey, the son of the famed anthropologists, has recently assumed directorship of Kenya’s National Parks and instituted some changes. For climbers, the most significant change is the park fees. Foreign visitors must now pay 200 shillings a day plus 50 per night to camp. This equals about $12. The money is to help combat poaching and enable park improvements. Porter fees are also a source of frustration to some visitors. While porters from Naro Moro cost 125 shillings (about $6), the guide service has broken the mountain into stages and requires clients to pay each porter a day’s wages for each stage. In our case last summer, we were charged seven days of payment for only two days of carrying. We found the porters, however, to be helpful, honest and desperately poor. It is difficult to begrudge them a few extra dollars. Climbers contemplating a visit to Mount Kenya should allow plenty of time for acclimatization. Build several rest days into your itinerary and allow two or preferably three days to travel from the roadhead to the higher camps. Points Peter, Dutton and John all feature excellent training climbs to get used to the altitude, rock and eery weather.

Barton O’Brien