It's a struggle against blisters, rain and biting cold on a three-day climb, but spectacular vistas and surprising home cooking keep Rosemary Behan on the hike to Peak Lenana.
Amid mice and rugged men, a memorable ascent of Mount Kenya
"No," says Sisa. "We are not nearly there." My spry, 50-year-old guide has climbed Mount Kenya more than a thousand times, yet he isn't counting on us reaching the top. It's day three of our ascent of Africa's second-highest mountain and Sisa knows that many variables stand in the way of me and the summit - fitness, altitude, weather, the risk of accidents and - possibly - wasting time taking too many photographs.
Sisa's body odour, which was pretty strong when we started the trek, now laces the thin, crisp air, so I drop back and admire the view. I can tell he's beginning to get irritated; we both know that with patience and determination we will reach the top, but we're not leaving much by way of a margin.
On the plus side, he's assured me I won't die. In all his years of guiding locals and foreigners up and down the mountain, he's had only one serious incident. "Once I had a German with me. He lost oxygen and had to be rescued by chopper."
I've been warned, of course, about altitude sickness. I've booked a three-night trip, the minimum period of time recommended for making the climb safely. Along with all the usual warnings about hypothermia and deydration, the point is underlined in my Lonely Planet Kenya guide: "By spending at least three nights on the ascent, you'll enjoy yourself much more and responsible guides will require you take an acclimatisation day up the mountain."
What I didn't know and what the guidebook doesn't say is that the accommodation up the mountain is so poor that "enjoying yourself" is stretching it.
Forty-two hours previously, Sisa and our porter, John, pick me up in Nanyuki, a market town to the west of Mt Kenya's massive base (with a circumference of 153km at the 2,440m contour, it's the largest free-standing mountain in the world).
I climb into their decrepit 1970s green Mercedes truck having stocked up on crisps, chocolate and pot noodles, but I needn't have bothered: Sisa and John are carrying mountains of food and supplies. It all goes into the back of the truck along with my backpack, which, due to the exhaustive kit list I was given (sleeping bag, water bottles, waterproofs, jumpers, toiletries ...) is full to bursting. Sisa, too, has a backpack. I suggest we might need another porter, but Sisa says he will carry both my bag and his. It's the only downside to doing an individual trip - with a bigger group, you have more porters.
It's a slow and tortuous drive into the northern foothills, and after picking up a Danish group whose minibus has broken down, it's past lunchtime by the time we reach our starting point at Sirimon Gate, one of several park entry points.
The first day, a nine-kilometre upward trek to the first camp at Old Moses, should be easy, but I look at the amount of gear Sisa and John have and begin to wonder how we're going to do it. There are camping stoves, plastic containers of kerosene, pots and pans and piles of fresh produce - tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, meat, fish, milk, sugar and even pineapples. "Our company likes to do it properly," says Sisa with a shrug. He straps his backpack to mine, puts mine on his back and loads everything else except a can of kerosene onto John, who is bent over like a pack mule.
It's a pleasant walk up a wide track through dense forest - towering olive and pondo trees, cedar and yellowood, mixed with bamboo. Baboons and Colobus monkeys gather in branches and we keep a lookout for leopard and rhino - although Sisa says we're unlikely to see either. We skirt round a huge lone buffalo and Sisa says we should take a rest; he lights a cigarette and John settles his huge bag in the glade behind him. A man of few words, none of them suggestive of western-style motivational speaking, I sense that this trek isn't going to be a laugh a minute.
The road to Old Moses, our first camp at 3,300m, becomes by turns easier, then harder, then easier. After three hours the landscape opens out into heathland and we feel spots of rain, yet we've got into a rhythm and overtake most of the young Danish group. I've just spent a week at a boot camp on the Kenyan coast, which I hope will stand me in good stead. We spot the camp ahead and our walk turns into a march.
We arrive at Old Moses at the same time as some of the Danes after three-and-a-half hours. Three green wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs, squalid kitchens, cold running water and no heating: it's basic but at the same time a welcoming sight at the foot of the mountain's bleak highland plains. A group of Indian climbers from Nairobi has taken over one of the dorms so I place my backpack in another, finding what seems to be the newest mattress in the room. Behind the camp, overlooking farmland far below, I watch the sunset before heading indoors.
The dining hall consists of hard wooden chairs and tables, and the cold is just beginning to bite as John arrives with a flask of tea and a plate of biscuits and fresh popcorn. I chat to the Indian group, which consists of a family with a group of schoolchildren. They are on their way down, having just made the trek from Shipton's Camp to here. "Take your time," one advises. "You've got all day. You can take six hours or you can take nine hours. Just make sure of one thing. Don't get wet. It's minus 25 up there."
Before I can panic, dinner arrives: leek soup followed by fried fish with a wedge of lime, vegetable stew, roast potatoes and cabbage - all cooked from scratch by Sisa and John on a camping stove. After some fruit I'm cold again, but another flask of tea warms me up. After a fitful night on what turns out to be a paper-thin mattress on hard wooden slats, I'm greeted by an incredible cooked breakfast including toast and fried potatoes, plus gallons of tea and fresh fruit.
At 8am I put my hiking boots back on and wish I'd made the effort to wear them in beforehand: I bought them in Abu Dhabi the week before my departure and already I've got blisters. I cover them in plasters and we set off upwards along a narrow track bounded by gorse, heather and wild flowers including the striking kniphofia, or "red hot poker". It's a sunny morning and we are soon down to our T-shirts. I ask Sisa how long it will it take to reach Shipton's Camp. "It depends on the pace," he says diplomatically. "Some people do it in 5.5 hours, others seven or eight." My blisters have kicked in so I secretly reckon on eight. We go down a valley and across a small stream before going up the other, steeper side. I stop at the bottom for a rest, but Sisa checks me. "It's better to be on top of the mountain," he says. He sees this as a test for being able to get to the pre-summit camp at Shipton: that slope isn't quite as steep but it is "harder, because you will be tired". I decide to pace myself on account of the blisters, wanting to take lots of photographs and pausing to snack on crisps, chocolate and salted peanuts.
It's still only 10am but the last two hours have flown by. As we rise, the flora expands dramatically. Towering lobelias and giant cabbage groundsels burst out of swampy ground and luminous mosses line streams. We turn a corner and head downhill into the enormous Mackinder Valley, named after the British geographer Halford John Mackinder, who first climbed the mountain in 1899. It's covered on one side by long, flaxen tussock grass and rocky outcrops on the other, all under swirling cloud. We head down the side of the valley and it's a gorgeous walk despite hailstones and rain; the fact that we are the only ones here make the experience all the more ethereal. Sidestepping bogs and puddles, I pull on my waterproof jacket and study further the extraordinary plant life at our feet.
After seven hours of hiking, the final hour uphill to Shipton's Camp at 4,200m is a slog, but we're distracted by the eerie call of rock hyraxes and spurred on by the threat of heavier rain. Happily, I arrive at camp drier than those ahead of me. Walking into a large, dark, cramped dormitory, I find one of the Danish hikers lying in bed, shivering and suffering from altitude sickness. This camp is like a Siberian gulag - it's freezing cold, with barely any electricity, and the Danes are huddled, sneezing and wet, on cold wooden benches, praying for dinner. The bedrooms, too, are disgusting - large dens of ancient bunk beds and grim mattresses. Mice run across the floor so we choose the top bunks, even though the cobweb-filled ceiling is so low I couldn't sit up straight without hitting my head. The toilet, which lacks a seat, is in a freezing, draughty extension off the bedroom. Again, the only comfort is the food - more tea, popcorn and biscuits followed by tomato soup, beef bolognaise, sautéed carrots and courgettes.
I ask Sisa why they don't get rid of the mice. He explains that the Christian Kikuyu tribe, of which he is one, believe that the mountain, known to them as Kere Nyaga, is holy. "If we see any mice we believe they are brought there by God and should not touch them," he says. Sisa has already warned me that "tomorrow, we have a very long walk", but it's a bombshell when he announces that we should leave at 2.30am to make it to the summit in time for sunrise. I go to bed at 8pm, hoping to sleep, but, even with my minus 20 sleeping bag, it's simply too cold. At 2am it's pouring with rain outside - although the Danes are leaving, I tell Sisa we should wait until it stops. After a 5am cooked breakfast, everything is still and clear, and the valley looks spectacular. Directly above us, the summits of Batian and Nelion glow in the moonlight and as we rise, Shipton's Camp looks picturesque beneath the peaks.
Our first task is to tackle a huge scree slope, which becomes snowy about halfway up. We trudge upwards, stopping every five minutes to rest and admire the view. Scrambling over a craggy stretch, I try not to look down as one wrong move could send me sliding back down the slope. My camera bag is a hindrance as it hangs around my neck, so I stop and sit on large snow-covered rocks. "You are now at the point of no return," Sisa says. "Are we nearly there?" I ask, thinking that surely Point Lenana must only be over the top of this hill. No, he says, we are not. Just as the sun comes up, we meet the Danes coming down. They've seen sunrise at the summit and are smiling.
At the top of the slope we reach a large lake, Harris Tarn, before the final ascent up the north face. It's tricky thanks to the huge boulders that litter the route, forcing us to skirt the very edge of Point Lenana's steep pinnacle. The sky is clear and it's a fantastic view down across the other side of the mountain where vast gorges are pitted with steep cliffs and hanging valleys. Yet after a few minutes fog starts to roll in and the view begins to look like something out of Lord of the Rings. Minutes before reaching the top we spot the Lewis glacier below, obscured because it is covered in snow and shrunken in any case because of global warming, but soon everything is blocked out by a swirl of mist and snow. After all this effort, it's a bit of a let-down, especially as on a good day you can see all the way to Mount Kilimanjaro from the summit. But I'm almost too tired to care. Reaching the top, Sisa shakes my hand. We spend a few minutes taking photographs and read the inscription dedicated to Johann Ludwig Krapf, a German missionary and the first European to be shown Mount Kenya: "Go safely friend / For here is high / Go daringly / Where eagles fly / Go eternally / With Jesus nigh."
The snowstorm is chilling so we set off back down, the start of the 20km hike to our next accommodation at the far eastern side of the park. Passing Harris Tarn again on the way down, we head down the Chogoria route into another huge valley, choked at its mouth with enormous boulders. It starts to rain so we don our jackets and heed the poem's advice to take care. After clambering over the giant chute of boulders, the huge cliff looming ahead - we're headed to Minto's hut, a wreck of a place next to the hanging valley. It makes Shipton look like a five-star hotel, and I'm already feeling cold and tired by the time we have breakfast. I fill a water bottle with hot water and stuff it down my jumper to keep warm as we set off - which is just as well because the rain starts again. So far I've got away without having any waterproof trousers, but the cloud-filled valley below does not bode well. As we walk, I get wetter and colder and soon I'm soaked to the skin. Once the water reaches my feet, I'm miserable. There's no shelter, and all we can do is plod on.
Next I realise that even my jacket pockets are filled with water. Yet it's so cold that it's warmer to keep my hands in them than take them out. My new camera and everything in my daypack is getting soaked, but soon I don't even care. I'm not sure how we are going to make it when there are still at least six hours of hiking to go. Because of the cloud, there's no view to distract us from our misery and all I can do is focus on the giant senacio plants that line the pathway. Somewhere I think I hear a road, but no such luck: it's merely the roar of a river somewhere below us. "Didn't you check the weather forecast?" I say to Sisa, who laughs. "Only God can predict the weather." I feel like crying, but force myself to keep moving. We push through thickets, which make us even wetter, and cross a bridge. It looks like the boundary to the park, but it isn't. "Two hours more," says Sisa.
As night falls we reach a river, but the bridge has been swept away. We wade upstream and cross at a narrower point before switching on our torches. Soon we see some lights in remote houses and smell woodsmoke. We're on the home straight. We arrive at the Meru Mt Kenya Lodge, a group of clean, homely bandas, and the owner lets us in. I get changed while Sisa lights a fire. Still soaked to the skin, John makes dinner. I collapse in a chair by the fire, and still John brings me my tea and popcorn.
After two nights on the mountain, clean bedlinen and a comfy mattress is the ultimate luxury, especially when accompanied by the sound of rain battering the roof. I'm woken in the middle of the night by a piercing pain in my feet - all the skin has been scraped off my heels in the walk and they are red raw - but after taking a painkiller I'm soon asleep again.
In the morning a 1977 Land Rover comes to pick us up. At Chogoria Gate, a missing persons notice still advertises the disappearance of James Palmer, a 20-year-old British student who went missing on the Naro Moro/Sirimon route in 1991. Given that I've just about survived three nights, even the thought of finding him seems bizarre.
Just as we exit the park, the sun comes out. Wispy hygenia trees and idyllic glens line the roadside and Nithi river. Huge camphor and eucalyptus trees are sadly being cut down. In Chogoria village, the forest gives way to small rolling hills where the rich red volcanic soil supports dozens of small farms cultivating tea, bananas, mangoes and vegetables. There is fertility everywhere, and it's all down to the rain, and the mountain.
If You Go
The flight Return flights from Dubai to Nairobi on Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) start from $577.42 (Dh2,120) return including taxes
The trek Mountain Rock Kenya (www.mountainrockkenya.com; 00 254 20 224 2133) offers a variety of treks; a three-night individual trek costs from $1,250 (Dh4,600), including accommodation, food, a porter and guide, but not park entrance fees. A three-day pass costs $150 (Dh550). July to October and December to March are the best times to attempt a climb