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Mountain guide MARK SEATON, attempts Mt Kenya

Written by George Fisher

Image for article Attempting Mt Kenya

In the last edition of The Update I wrote about climbing Kilimanjaro with Charles Sherwood. I can now describe what we did a week later… 

Having scraped most of the Kilimanjaro mud off our kit, we headed for Mount Kenya National Park where we checked in, arriving at the beautiful Met Station at 3,000m. Next morning we set off through rain forest, but at least it wasn’t raining. Our goal was the American Camp, 1,300m further up the mountain. This involved negotiating the ‘vertical bog,’ which fortunately was dry, and our progress was rapid.

The plan for the next day was to walk up to the foot of the route, scope the approach, come back down and prepare for our big day. The approach has changed considerably since global warming has decimated the glacier, leaving just a tarn at the bottom.

At 3am we awoke and had breakfast - Charles elected for a ‘full English’ which I didn’t fancy, so I opted for porridge. Guide Eddie and his sidekick Lloydford volunteered to carry our rucksacks to the foot of the route, so we all set off at 4am.

At 6am we arrived at the start of the climb. There were two Germans with their guide Felix, who had climbed a lot on Mt Kenya. They set off while Charles and I geared up; we elected to climb in rock shoes, carrying our mountaineering boots in our packs.

The climbing was straightforward on solid granite. We climbed simultaneously and quickly, arriving at Baillie’s Bivy after a couple of hours, then overtook the Germans before climbing the very good crux pitch (grade IV) before some easy scrambling lead to the top of Nelion at about 10am. Perfect weather and no wind.

We put on our mountaineering boots and got ready for the ‘real climbing’, namely the traverse of the Gate of Mist and the ascent of Batian. We negotiated the ridge, which was just like any typical alpine ridge in the Alps, only higher. Soon we spied some steps in the snow, which supposedly led down to the Gate of Mist. We strapped on crampons and down-climbed until this became sketchy and we decided to abseil the final 30 metres.

The German climbers elected to stay on the crest of the ridge and abseil down to the Gate of Mist, which was faster but required a long rope which we did not have. Anyway we were now in the Gate of Mist and had the not inconsiderable task of actually getting onto the summit block of Batian. I pulled out the radio at midday so that we could have a prearranged check-in talk with Eddie at back at base camp.

There were three pitches to the summit, the penultimate being of outstanding quality. Although probably no more than IV, it felt quite involved at over 5,000m, wearing big boots and carrying a full backpack. We summited at about 1pm in good weather so we were able to initiate the second part of the plan; to traverse and descend the North Face route. This was pretty audacious because it meant descending the route in winter conditions - Mt Kenya is pretty much slap bang on the equator.

The descent was choked with snow and I said to Charles that once we left the summit we would be committed, impossible to climb back up. This was my way of making sure he was psyched for what lay ahead. We decided to make lots of short abseils to avoid getting the ropes stuck, starting down the West Ridge alternately abseiling and down climbing until we reached Shipton’s Notch - a key landmark on the descent. We then turned onto the North Face proper and made a series of hair-raising abseils, not least because the anchors were buried under snow and had to be chopped out with an ice axe.

Sometimes I could not find the anchor and we were forced to leave slings and gear behind. Slowly we negotiated Firmin’s Tower and then entered the Amphitheatre where we unroped and crashed down the scree. After 200 vertical metres we picked up the line of the next abseils. After three more rope lengths it was getting dark; on the equator there is no twilight, and it’s as if someone switches off the sun. It was dark at 6.30pm but the ground was not steep so we down climbed some treacherous loose terrain, finally finding the penultimate abseil. The last one is crucial; it is a long way down the gully and mission-critical that this last anchor is found. Having a very powerful head-torch with good batteries proved essential. We found the anchor and landed on the deck at 7.30pm - it had been a long day!