American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Maximum Miracle Centre

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005

The Maximum Miracle Centre

In Kenya’s Ndoto Mountains, it’s not the climbing you’ll be telling stories about, it’s the bush.

Ben Winston

"It's like a mini Yosemite,” John Barry had said. “There are loads of walls dotted around, probably between 500 and 700 meters high. Just go. You’ll have a great time….”

Memorable phrases have a habit of echoing around your head at the most inappropriate times, and up in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, John’s words, like the dried camel meat, kept repeating on me. Ian Howell, one of Kenya’s greatest climbing pioneers, had another phrase that came back over and over again: “It’s not the climbing you’ll be telling stories about. It’s the bush.” So sure enough, with three weeks at our disposal in the awesome Ngurunit Valley, Miles Gibson, Alex Jakubowski, Toby Dunn, and I thrashed through bushes and into some form of vegetative purgatory. Nowhere else have I seen plants that threaten to maim or kill. And nowhere do I ever want to see them again.

The first objective of the trip was the incomparable prow on a mountain known as Baio. Pictures of this had piqued our excitement from the U.K., but the pictures failed to detail the bottom two thirds of the 500-meter wall. If they had, we would have known that it was composed of the same kind of bush that covers the valley floors, only vertical. Not an appealing prospect. Instead, we trooped to the bottom of another huge wall to try to break into the bottom of a crack system that split the face, only to be defeated by 60 meters of protection-free climbing on dustbin-lid flakes of rock that came off when you sneezed on them. Climbing in Ngurunit wasn’t looking very much like fun.

It wasn’t until we turned our attention to the next biggest wall in the valley that there was some prospect of salvation: a 450-meter corner system that took the wall at its highest point. Five days after chopping a path to the bottom and braving the killer bees that guarded the start, a battered Alex and Miles came back down having climbed pitches of vertical grass, committed to unstable lianas, and thrashed through spiky palms; but they had enjoyed one pitch (“the out of character pitch”) of what is conventionally considered rock climbing. The Maximum Miracle Centre was the result, at XS (or E5) 6a, although “In Homage to Fowler” would have made a fine alternative name—or any combination of grade-A expletives heard from the valley floor during the ascent.

With something established in Ngurunit, we headed south to the slopes of Mt. Kenya for an appointment with the Temple [see Alex Jakubowski’s article].

When we returned to the U.K. people invariably asked if we had “a good time,” if the trip was “fun,” or whether we “enjoyed ourselves.” Initially, these were difficult questions. The scars of the ordeal were still fresh, our internal flora still unsettled, our bodies still recovering from five weeks with hardly a rest day between us. But now, as memories of the cobras and missionaries and deadly vegetation fade, as fingers and toes forget the nip of deep frozen nights, the answers to those questions have evolved. Yes, I now think, we did have a good time. And yes, there were bits of the trip that were hilarious fun. However, the other great question: “Would you go back?” is still in the balance.

(Adapted from www.PlanetFear.com)

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