A Mountaineer’s Journey
With his dad being a mountaineer, growing up, Mt Kenya was always a key fixture in Joseph Muriithi’s life. Today, having climbed it 90 times in a span of five years, the 24 year old certified guide recounts what makes this place so special.
PHOTOGRAPHS: JOSEPH MURIITHI
Long before my arrival, my father was busy climbing mountains for a living. My fascination started pretty early. I remember walking to primary school and each morning, the glorious ice-capped peak of Mt Kenya would stare back in all her majesty. Back then, the slopes of Mt Kenya were a complete snowfield, the white glare ever present from January to December. Whenever my dad was away on expeditions, I would look up to the peaks and hope to see him. I swear if I squinted really hard, I could spot him.
During my gap year after high school, I asked my dad to take me up the mountain for the first time, and he agreed. I had no clue what I was getting myself into and was mentally and physically unprepared, but this experience changed my life. We spent a total of four days climbing and descending the Sirimon route. Everyday I carried a 5kg daypack and each time, my lungs, legs and virtually every muscle in my body cried out for help.
“Dad, how far do we have left to the next camp?” I asked, panting heavily from the heavy exercise.
“We have three more hours to go,” he responded, grinning. “We are done with the hardest part of the day,” he added reassuringly.
Spoiler alert: we were not done with the hardest part of the day. Getting to base camp Shipton’s at 4,200m above sea level was so challenging that I started reevaluating my existence as a human being or why I had even asked to do this. What I didn’t realize during the self-reflection, however, was that this was the mountain asserting its authority and challenging my mental endurance.
The summit, Point Lenana (4,985m) was normally attempted at 3:00am, and my dad and his clients were to do it the following morning.
“Are you ready to go? Do you think you’ll wake up tomorrow and attempt Lenana?” He asked me over dinner.
“Yes, of course. How hard can it possibly be?”I responded.
Early morning came, we had some tea, pointed our flashlights in the guide’s (my father’s) direction and trekked towards the top of the world. This goes on record as the toughest three hours of my life. In the eerie silence of the mountains, even breathing becomes so loud. I started re-evaluating my life choices and cursing myself for even agreeing to all of this. Still, I trudged onwards and upwards.
After three solid hours of traipsing in total darkness, our group finally reached the Via Ferrata (metal stairs to the summit). Upon climbing these stairs and actually standing on the summit, I was suddenly flooded with emotions. It felt like a veil had been lifted and for split-second, I forgot about all the tough trek to get here. Then an orange sun rose in the distance and tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. A landscape that had been engulfed in darkness came to life, and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. There was also an overwhelming sense of accomplishment which I am still unable to articulate.
Right there, on that summit, I promised myself I would return, and I did, over again for four and a half years now.
LIFE AS A MOUNTAIN GUIDE
As I gradually racked up the number of hikes, I got interested in guiding. Dad had all the tools I needed for that. At home, I read his collection of books about the animals and birds of East Africa, studied plants, animal behaviour and the mountain ecosystem and finally passed my assessment test to become a Mount Kenya Guide. With this knowledge came the privilege and opportunity to share the experience with travelers from all over the globe. My favorite overall is climbing via the Chogoria Route and camping by Lakes Ellis and Michaelson.
The greatest honour as a guide is witnessing visitors shed tears of joy after reaching the summit while uttering words like, “Thank you so much Joe. Thank you so much for showing us your beautiful mountain”. Experiencing that feeling of accomplishment after pushing through all that the mountain threw at them, just like I did on that first climb, and seeing that grand sun take to the skies in all its glory.
BYE BYE GLACIERS
In the early 2000s and prior, the mountain was always decked in permanent ice with snow falling every year. Statistics indicate that snow fell up to the 3,000m altitude zone. This is seconded by my colleagues who have been climbing the mountain for more than 20 years.
This is now a thing of the past. If there’s snowfall, it can only occur at altitudes of 4,500m and higher. Even if it falls, it melts as fast as it hits the rocks. Weather patterns have changed drastically. Glaciers, once commonplace, are no more. 16 glaciers were recorded to rule over the slopes of the mountain, and the first to diminish was the Krapf Glacier in 1926.
There are six glaciers left and the biggest of them are the Lewis Glacier, Darwin Glacier and the Diamond Couloir. All these are however shrinking at an alarming rate due to climate change. Rivers that once were shall dry up. Communities depending on this water will suffer and be forced to relocate. Dry seasons are already becoming longer while the wet seasons get shorter and more destructive. The dry spells echo tough times for wild animals that call the mountain home.
It’s not all doom and gloom however. Organizations like Mount Kenya Trust and Rhino Ark play a crucial role in ensuring that the locals are well educated on the important issues to be addressed regarding Mt Kenya as well as what we can do to remedy this.
LESSONS FROM MOUNTAINEERING
Nature is beautiful and magnificent, but it can also be ruthless and unforgiving. Approach it with respect and finesse.
Kenya is a breathtaking country and its natural resources must be protected.
Mount Kenya has some of the biggest buffalos in Africa.
Wild animals will show you respect as long as you respect them first by sticking to your guide’s instructions and not diverting from footpaths.
Always bring extra warm gear. Mount Kenya may be at the equator but the nights are bitterly cold.
When ascending to higher altitudes, tone down the pace to a slow-and-steady in order to acclimatize.
Always stay hydrated.
Altitude sickness can be very dangerous. If you experience the signs and symptoms, DON’T hike to higher altitudes. Rest on the same elevation. If symptoms get worse, descend immediately to a lower elevation.
The list could go on, but to sum it up, climbing Mount Kenya 90 times in a span of five years has shaped me into the man I hoped I’d become. When I thought I was punishing myself by carrying heavy backpacks, I was being taught perseverance. When I thought my body couldn’t take it anymore, it taught me endurance. When I thought the wilderness and nature were dangerous and I didn’t belong there, I realized that they are as much a part of me as I am of them. Carrying my camera with me always, it is my hope to inspire more adventurers people from all over the world to have the Mount Kenya experience. And to those who can’t physically make it to the mountain, I pray that my images take them along my journey into the Mountain of God.
WHERE TO STAY
Old Moses Camp (3,300m)
Shipton’s Camp (4,200m)
Meru Mount Kenya Bandas (2,900m)
Rutundu Log Cabins (3,100m)
The Road Head (3,300m) – campsite
Lake Ellis (3,470m) – campsite
Lake Michelson (4,000m) – campsite
Mintos Hut (4,200m)
Met Station (3,000m)
Mackinder’s Camp (4,300m)