American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Africa, Kenya, Ndoto Mountains, Poi, North Face, Dark Safari

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

Poi, North Face, Dark Safari. In the early 1980s, Andrew Wielochowski (a Brit based in Kenya) did the first climbing on Poi. After several attempts, he got up a line on the right-hand side of the east face, climbing ground up over three and a half days. His was basically a free climb with one short aid section (six or seven pitons) up an overhanging groove and a lot of bold 5.8 to 5.9+ climbing. Andrew also made two attempts on the south face, getting halfway up, and a notable attempt on the left side of the east face, doing 500 feet of hard climbing before having to retreat when his second was hit by a rock.

In 1992, I went out to try the north face but, due to poor route finding in the bush, failed to reach the base! We ended up making the second ascent of Andrew’s East Face route, eliminating the aid. I was full of respect for the first ascent, which involved face climbing on fragile flakes 40 feet above any pro, and I was really fired up about Poi, which seemed to me about as adventurous a crag as you could ever find.

In January, 1999, Steve Sustad, John Barry and I tried the 2,000-foot north face via a huge curving comer line toward the left side. We got about halfway (eight pitches up to British E5/6) when John pulled a guano-plastered flake off onto his foot, causing a nasty gash. John was out of commission, and because risk of infection was so high, we decided to head back to civilization.

In February, 2000, we went back with the same team plus Jan Rowe, a mate of John’s. Jan knew he probably wouldn’t be up to the climbing, but we thought he could act as support, jumaring with supplies, etc., so he was persuaded to come on the route “for the experience.” After climbing and fixing to our 1999 high point, we cut loose from the base and spent three days and two nights on the face, sleeping in hammocks. Retreat would have been very difficult due to the overhanging and slanting nature of the upper part of the route. With no pegs or bolts with us, failure was always a possibility and in fact in several places it seemed we had reached an impasse. The climbing was always challenging, with a lot of bold and serious 6a (5.12) and the easiest pitch British E2, 5b (5.9+). The route was climbed all free apart from one short section that was overcome with a very dicey lasso move (we later spotted an alternative to the left that should go free). We named the route Dark Safari (E6, 17 pitches).

Just before our trip, the North American team (see above) spent a month establishing a new route on the east face (left of the original Wielochowski East Face route). Both our team and the Kenyan climbing fraternity were somewhat shocked by the tactics used, which included:

Using 42 porters to establish a base camp on top of Poi and working from abseil ropes for two weeks cleaning and bolting the line.

Using a generator at the base for re-charging cordless-drill batteries.

Making no contact with the Mountain Club of Kenya to find out about established ethics/traditions of climbing on Poi (and Kenyan bush crags in general).

As far as I know, there was previously just one hand-placed belay bolt on Poi and the MCK are not impressed that their prime bush crag has now been bolted from top to bottom. No doubt the climbing on the American route will be good and hard, but it raises issues as to how the wilderness crags of Africa should be treated. What I find unsavory is the “raid-like” approach and complete disregard for local climbers and the ground-up ethic established by the people who pioneered climbing on Poi. How would Skinner and Piana react if a Kenyan team arrived in Yosemite and bolted their way up Salathé? So far in Kenya, bolts have been used on a handful of single-pitch sport climbs on outcrops near Nairobi. Routes on the big bush crags have been ground-up adventures. It’s the most adventurous rock-climbing arena I’ve ever come across and it would be a tragedy if it became just another bolted-up area like Mali or Madagascar. On the Dark Safari route, we took no pegs or bolts.

Pat Littlejohn, United Kingdom

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