Day 4 (19 January 2011)
Austrian Hut (4700m) – Nelion (5188m) – Austrian Hut (4700m)
After the previous day’s debacle, in which a planned summit of Lenana and slog across scree to Austrian Hut (to better acclimatize and alleviate my AMS by climbing high and sleeping low) had taken 80% longer than anticipated (9 hours vs. 5 hours), I was rather uncertain about my ability to bag Nelion. The thought of an alpine start (4:00) after having suffered consecutive sleepless nights, headaches, nausea, aching quads, swollen fingers, and sheer exhaustion was not exactly the most exhilarating. I had spoken the night before with my technical guide, Kim, about the real possibility of turning back and abandoning the ascent midway if the AMS persisted and my pace and endurance were to take a toll (read: turn to shit) as a result.
Surprisingly, I slept through the night and made sure to be diligent about striking a fine balance between hydrating sufficiently to battle the effects of altitude sickness and over-hydrating, resulting in countless trips to the bathroom (which, in the case of Austrian Hut, was a precarious uphill trek from the lodge across icy boulders in below freezing temperatures to the outhouse) in the middle of the night. Kim woke me up around 4, only to be greeted with a painfully pounding headache for the second day in a row, coupled with the pleasures of altitude-induced nausea, which resulted in a supreme loss of appetite; I had absolutely zero interest in putting away the hard-boiled egg, sausage, toast, pancakes, porridge, pineapple, and passion fruit that my cook, Joseph, had prepared for me, but forced myself to fuel up for the Nelion climb with a piece of toast, egg, fruit, and heaps of lemon tea to sooth the headache. Also, after much resistance, I finally succumbed to treating the effects of altitude sickness with Diamox, swallowing the bitter pill to cope with the headaches and nausea.
5:30: so far, so good. We trekked downhill before reaching the Lewis Glacier, where we strapped on our crampons and armed ourselves with ice axes for the trek across icy terrain. After having been on the mountain for three days, this was the first time that I had really experienced ice or snow, and it was stunning to see the peaks peeking out of white pockets of snow deposits.
According to the Mountain Club of Kenya’s Guide to Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, the Normal Route (via Nelion South Ridge, South East Face and Summit), is ‘rather complex, and much of the climbing is not above grade III (5.7)…Throughout the climb care is needed to avoid dislodging loose stones.’ Sounds straightforward enough. The apres-Lewis Glacier approach was itself an adventure, before the route finding even began: ‘From the Austrian Hut cross the Lewis Glacier and scramble up the scree, which has many precariously balanced boulders and can be dangerous in half-light.’ Awesome. More scree? And by the light of dawn? My favorite!
After MISERABLE SCREE PART DEUX, we finally reached the base of the crag circa 7am, and began to gear up for the climb. Although my badassedness is usually in full effect when I climb, I was completely sketched out when Kim asked me if I wanted to ‘scramble’ (read: free solo) the first two pitches ropeless and I insisted that we rope up (my nerves were in full effect, tingling like mad, due to the effects of Diamox). The route starts up a side groove about 55m left of the Brocherel Couloir and although the first two pitches of climbing were indeed short (18m and 25m respectively) and easy, I could barely keep my eyes open and myself from yawning every 22 seconds, and couldn’t tell if this extreme exhaustion was a byproduct of Diamox, high altitude, the intensity of activity the last few days, or a combination of all. Even the most basic tasks (e.g. securing my Metolius PAS to the anchor system) required some assistance, because I felt myself fumbling with the biners and having a difficult time concentrating at times (blame it on the limited/lack of oxygen going to my normally big brain).
The climb consisted mostly of cracks, chimneys, and traverses, and I was grateful to Kim at pitch 4 or 5 for his consideration of my rather weakened and pathetic state, asking whether I wanted to follow the more aggressive route involving a wicked overhang (my response: no thanks!) or climb a more conservative route. This kind of backing off was somewhat out of character for me, but there were too many unfamiliar elements and conditions at play, and the tendency to prove myself departed rather swiftly on the mountain (circa day 2, if I recall correctly).
After climbing after what seemed like 10+pitches (but was, in reality, probably only 6 or 7), we reached a tin shelter (Baillie’s Bivi) just below the notch beneath Mackinder’s Gendarme on the main ridge: ‘This is approximately half-way up Nelion.’ Please be kidding me. Again, the climbing was not technically difficult and weather was certainly on our side, but these 5.5-5.6ish moves felt more like 5.10-5.11ish given the effects of high altitude. Also, although the weather conditions were friendly by mountain standards, I had packed only my hot pink Evolv rockstar climbing shoes and North Face Summit Series waterproof in my mountaineering bag to the summit, naively leaving behind my Scarpa mountaineering boots and down jacket – a move I came to regret as snow flurries greeted us as I began to traverse across snowy terrain to get up higher (and therefore colder) points. Luckily, I was clever enough to pack a pair of merino wool socks, which came in rather handy at the summit.
A large gully, two short chimneys, and some traverses later, we reached the summit of Nelion circa 15:00. I was thrilled to discover a gem of a hut (Howell’s Hut) on the summit. Ian Howell built it in 1970 and boy did I feel like one lazy mofo as I crawled into the hut, sat down, and lunched on my packed ham, cheese, and butter sandwich and piece of Kenyan chicken leg whilst listening to my guide explain how the structure was built. The corrugated iron for the hut was dropped onto the Lewis Glacier by helicopter and then this Howell dude CARRIED it to the summit in thirteen solo ascents and built the hut. BADASS!
One of the stark differences between rock climbing in my own backyard (aka The Gunks) and on Mount Kenya (aside from the obvious fact that the former is a ridge of bedrock in Ulster County, Sullivan County and Orange County in the state of New York, and the latter is a 5,199m stratovolcano created approximately 3 million years after the opening of the East African rift), is the descent. No more is the luxury of a two or three pitch rappel when you’re on a mountain. This might seem self-evident (like, duh!), but it wasn’t to me (again, blame it on the high altitude), and I was less than thrilled to discover that we had to abseil 14 or 15 pitches down to the base of the crag. The abseiling wasn’t quite the walk in the park that I thought it would be, due to the weather changing on us (it had gone from sunny and warm to snowy and cold by mid-afternoon), somewhat sketchy down climbing and traversing to get to the abseil bolts, and the fact that we were now a party of 5 (I had met up with the Polish couple I knew from the Lenana trek and their guide en route to the summit), increasing our rappel time. And the downward approach from the base of the crag is no simple Gunks ‘StairMaster,’ but another 1+ hour of precarious trekking down scree by nightfall, in the cold, with a headlamp: score.
You can imagine my enthrall of having to put on crampons and trek uphill across Lewis Glacier after having descended scree (I guess icy scree > rock scree?) and 15 pitches; I kept myself motivated with the idea of being greeted by hot soggy ramen and Kenyan tea back at Austrian Hut. Certainly the descent was not pretty (but neither were any of my ascents) so I slogged on, often leaning lazily on to my ice axe and nearly toppling over on to the ice (at some point, I’m certain that I did, and Kim had to help me back up at least once or twice).
Around 21:00, I returned to Austrian Hut cold, wet, bloody, and famished, at the awe of Daniel, my trekking guide: ‘You made it back! I did not think you would summit but felt very glad in my heart when I saw a dot on the mountain top through my binoculars and I knew that it was you. Here, let me take your pack.’ Thanks for the vote of confidence, buddy.
And damn, that apres-summit soggy Kenyan ramen and hard-boiled egg hit the spot! As did my 20F down sleeping bag that night.