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Mount Kenya

Mount Kenya. John Reader. Elm Tree Books, London, 1989. 160 pages, color photographs. £ 25.00.

In this age when ‘climbing’ conjures up visions of Lycra-clad youth grunting and swearing as they push the limits of human endurance another notch, it is refreshing to realize that tucked away at the Equator there is a mountain where one can still associate climbing with the mystique of exploration rather that the ambience of an outdoor gym. While mountains have traditionally inspired books, this mountain has the singular distinction of even inspiring an escape from a British wartime prison!!! Unfortunately the myth and tropical splendour that surround Mount Kenya make it a difficult subject, since prose and photographs rarely do it full justice. John Reader’s efforts are commendable in this regard and his account of Mount Kenya constitutes a well illustrated and enjoyable book. The book is based on the author’s exploration of the eastern part of the mountain, a ‘walk in’ via the Chogoria route, a circumnavigation of the mountain, and finally an ascent of Nelion, one of the main peaks of Mount Kenya. No mean feat for a 50-year-old novice getting his first lesson in rock climbing at the base of the mountain.

The book is well structured with its first part being devoted to the long history and rich folklore of the area and its inhabitants. While it does a reasonable job of covering a lot of ground in this area, it glosses over early European exploration of this region: a serious omission, considering the amount of disbelief and ridicule that the first explorer to describe the peak was faced with for even suggesting the existence of equatorial ice. The second part of the book is an account of the author’s acclimatization cum familiarization journey to Lake Alice in the eastern part of the mountain, and subsequent walk in along the Chogoria route. This trail should surely see more visitors after Reader’s superb illustration of the flora of this region. Reader then circumnavigated the peak and offers some delectable views of the north face. Unfortunately not much is mentioned about the superb climbing routes that exist on this side of the mountain.

The final section of the book consists of Reader’s walk in via Naro Moru and up the Teleki valley which is described all too briefly, considering that it is the most popular route on the mountain. His rites of initiation on the mountain include meeting or seeing at close quarters other climbers all of whom were ill, injured or dead, which highlights the serious and unforgiving nature of climbing on this mountain. With accidents, mountain rescuers and his path criss-crossing throughout the book, I felt that a fuller description of the rescue service and perhaps a review of a few notable rescues (the Austrian rescue in the 70s for example) was strongly indicated. What does manage to get across, however, is the sobering fact that accidents on Mount Kenya are quite common, even amongst experienced climbers.

Reader went on to make an ascent of Nelion via the traditional route along with Iain Allan and Thumbi Mathenge. His description of the climb is quite amusing, and is narrated from the viewpoint of a novice being dragged up a route which is much harder than he is comfortable with: a sensation that even hardmen can relate to. The author’s party climbed the Rickety Crack variant which is one of the most exposed pitches for its grade on the mountain. Reader does a good job of describing the trepidation that most climbers feel at the crux, which their party (like this reviewer) climbed quite inadvertently. Although the party got up Nelion, one wishes that Reader had gone the distance and crossed over from Nelion to Batian as well, for the enjoyable experience if nothing else. The cloudy summit photographs from Nelion are somewhat disappointing, when one compares them to what can be seen on a clear day.

While Mount Kenya does not claim to be a guidebook on the mountain, one felt a bit short-changed by a description of just one route, especially when a third of the book is devoted to climbing. The book also neglects adjoining peaks, and walks in the area. More research and a few more trips to the mountain would have undoubtedly made the book more complete. In spite of these shortfalls Mount Kenya is a good book for the armchair mountaineer, and complements Reader’s earlier volume on Kilimanjaro.

Tejvir Singh Khurana, M.D.