An excerpt from The Longest Climb by Paul Pritchard.
The highest point on Mount Kenya is Bation at 17,058 feet and then Nelion being a few feet lower. They form the mighty twinned peaks for which Mount Kenya is famous. This was too big a burden for me at this stage in my recovery but Point Lenana is only 667 feet lower than Nelion and one can get up it with minimal technical know-how or ability.
There isn’t one single peak named Mount Kenya rather twenty or so separate points, nine of them being above 16,000 feet. They create an ancient lava plug that used to be, long before mankind was born in the nearby Rift Valley, Himalayan in stature. It is said that back then the mountain may have been 6000 to 10,000 feet higher.
I wanted to prove to other people like myself that you don’t have to lie down and give up on life just because you have a head injury. You can still follow your passion, whatever it is, be it cooking, reading or hang-gliding. My passion happens to be mountaineering.
With this Mount Kenya climb I had been raising money for HEADWAY – the brain injury association. The recovery from brain injury is slow. Many people can’t see an end and their resolve to continue battling weakens. They give up on their physiotherapy or neuro-psychology and worse still their families give up on them. They get fed-up with the ‘loony’ member of their family and think they’re putting it on. But there is an end of some kind for most head injuries it just takes a hell of a lot of time. I’m still getting better after three years and I’ll never really stop getting better.
I had used up 5 months of my year arranging raffles and organising a signed book web auction with a hundred and twenty mountaineering books in it. Everyone was so generous but this put a certain pressure upon me to succeed. This pressure was then compounded when Margaret Wicks at Triple Echo Productions told me, with less than a month to go, that they had a commission from BBC Wales to film my ascent.
I was horrified. Would I be able to climb up it? What if I found the terrain too tough? What if I couldn’t cope with the altitude? I was having nightmares about the summit ridge were the rock would crumble and turn to dust when I touched it, with my feet pedalling loose shale.
My wife, Jane, was to accompany me. She was part of my nursing team in Tasmania when I had been in the Royal Hobart Hospital, on the Neuro-surgical Ward. We had been living together for the past two years in Wales and Jane had accompanied me on several of the summits of Snowdonia and Tasmania.
We had been refining our short roping technique were Jane would have me on the end of a tether, like a dog on a leash (I’m kind of wobbly and can topple over at any moment). She would keep a little bit of tension on the rope just to give me that extra confidence.
10th January, Nairobi.
“The short rains have not stopped and will run into the long rains I think,” said the abnormally skinny taxi driver. But I knew that taxi drivers the world over talk rubbish. Nevertheless it was supposed to be the dry season and it was pissing down. What would it be like on the mountain? Would it be deep with snow? This only exacerbated my disposition to worrying.
Jane and I were filmed in conversation with Mr Mount Kenya, Ian Howell. Ian has done more first ascents on the mountain than any other climber and has lived in Nairobi for thirty-three years. “I wanted to climb Mount Kenya when I was thirty-two and I never went home,” he told me. He confirmed that they were experiencing unseasonal weather in Kenya and that we may need crampons and ice axe, neither of which any of us had. I was getting edgy.
Although we were staying in one of the poshest hotels in Nairobi (BBC expenses) we were determined to find the cheapest way of getting to the mountain. The local bus was 50 times cheaper than a taxi and correspondingly less safe. We chewed Khaat (a very popular leaf with a natural amphetamine in it) and sped along chattering and smiling. All the while the driver was going for wild overtaking manoeuvres as if there was no tomorrow.
More than three years after the accident that changed my life I found I was lacking an ambition in my life. I needed a challenge. I guess it’s in the blood, once a climber always a climber. I settled on Mount Kenya more because I had never been to ‘Deepest Darkest Africa’ than any unfulfilled desire to climb the mountain.
We were attempting the most beautiful route on the mountain, the Chogoria route on the East Side. Most trekkers attempt the climb from the West Side, The Naro Moru route. At Chogoria Jane and I and the small film crew hired 9 porters and a guide and began the 23km drive up the boggiest road imaginable. I lost count of the number of times we had to get out of the Landrovers and start digging or rocking the things furiously. When I say ‘we’ I really mean everyone except me because the driver, Eddie was his name, just wouldn’t let me help. When he saw my disability, or lack of ability, he just wouldn’t let me out of the cab while all the others had to walk for long stretches (there are some perks to being disabled!).
Urumandi Lodge is at 3000 meters and that is the first place we camped and the beginning of the long trek up Mount Kenya. There were the strangest noises in the dead of night, gruntings and howlings, which kept us awake.
The weather had changed in the night and the sun was beating down as we walked a short distance, just to get me acclimatised, to the next camp. I had been so busy fundraising for Headway that I hadn’t had time to train or go walking for months. This worried me and I thought, “What if I can’t even make the walk in?”
200 meters before the campsite I was forced to stop and deal with painful blisters. I can’t move my right foot at all and it is interesting to note just how much the ‘normal’ person uses the muscles in their foot when they are walking. I have to wear a drop foot splint because my ankle is effectively paralysed and this created problems with rubbing under my toes and on my calf.
At 5.30 in the morning the alarm sounded. When we unzipped the tent door bright lights blinded us. “What the hells going on,” Jane moaned. Meg (the director) and Keith (the cameraman) had been waiting in the bushes since pre-dawn and pounced with their head-torches when they saw movement coming from inside. “How do you two feel at this moment?”
I just turned to Jane and said in a not yet woken up voice, “I told you this would happen.”
We trudged up the hill and approached a flat ridge with the most beautiful view I have ever seen. On the other side of the ridge dropped steep orange cliffs, one thousand meters to a flat-bottomed valley. In The Gorges Valley Vivian Falls tumbled down from the Glistening waters of Lake Michaelson. There were the weird flower stems of cabbage groundsels here and there as well as a profusion of grey petalled and orange stamened Helichrysum (Jane assured me). This carpet was dotted with alpine buttercups and we could see our distant objective for the first time.
There was still a long way to walk that day and I was already feeling giddy with the altitude. I fell off the path and tumbled down a small drop but Bernard, our guide, was there, as he always was, to pick me up. I fall often as due to my one sided weakness as I’m unbalanced.
We had to scramble up a cliff face and as I grabbed onto the rock holds I remembered their texture. For a moment I was lost in a world of reminiscence. I was a good climber once. Now I had to have Jane behind me and Bernard on the outside making sure I didn’t fall. But I was doing it! I was climbing Mount Kenya. I felt much more comfortable now that I was actually on my way instead of feeling the trepidation that comes with intent.
When we came to a stream at 4000 metres I couldn’t go on. We were a couple of miles from our camp but I just had to stop so we put the tents up and got a brew on.
It was here that I felt the intense beauty of the mountain or indeed any mountain from Snowdonia to the Himalayas for the first time since my accident. I sobbed uncontrollably. All those emotions that I had felt when I had been to those wondrous places came flooding back into me. I had held those memories at bay for too long for fear of hurting myself. Now it was like I was seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling all those mountains all at once.
The next day found us walking the short distance to Mintos Camp, which was at 4300 metres. I was showing most of the symptoms of mountain sickness: headaches, lethargy, dizziness and unco-ordination. I needed an acclimatisation day and what more impressive place could I have asked for to kick around for a day. It was like one of those scenes out of Star Trek with the weird rocks and plants all around. The strangest plant of all has to be the giant groundsel, which stands 4 meters high with a massive pineapple head.
Early morning on the 18th February saw an ant line of porters, film crew and climbers traipsing of up the mountain on what was to be my most arduous day. Bernard said in his Eddie Murphy style, “rook in the distance to the far off lidge, well the hut is just the other side of thaat.” The
Kikuyu tribe generally speaks good English but Bernard more so. He spent 9 months at N.O.L.S. (the National Outdoor Leadership School) in Jackson, Wyoming learning how to be a guide.
After four hours of hard, sweaty work we rounded the ridge. The hut was nowhere in sight but across a couple of kilometres of loose scree and behind another ridge. “Well, you got us then,” I laughed wearily in Bernard’s direction.
The landscape was very different now, barren and desertified, hardly any vegetation in sight. We had to descend to a boulder-field, which is my enemy, to get to the continuation of the path. This was what I was so worried about; I could easily break my leg on these sections. At least I had my footballers shin pad on should my lower leg go down a hole. I was also wearing my usual skateboarders elbow guard for when I toppled over and my wrist splint to combat spasticity.
Jane ran ahead to set up camp. She had never been to altitude before and ran as though she were at sea level. She collapsed on the scree with her lungs about to burst after a hundred metres. When I eventually climbed over the ridge the camp was immediately there, all set up.
There was also a hut built of wood, which the porters would sleep in.
We now saw several brightly coloured tents amongst the moraine and quite a crowd of all nationalities. We had hardly seen a soul thus far and were somewhat put out to have our solitude interrupted. We were constantly surprised that this, the second most popular mountain in Africa, was so empty especially as this was the height of the tourist season. The west -side of the mountain or Naro Moru route is the busiest way up and that is why we left it well alone. I want a quiet time. The less number of people staring and questioning me about how I came to be like this the better.
The night was freezing cold and when the alarm sounded at 5.15 am there was rime ice all over the inside of the tent. We started the final 250 metres to the summit in the semi-light of the dawn of another perfect day. After about an hour we came to the first difficult section. I didn’t have a rope on and felt the exposure, the void bellow me, with a dizzying pressure from above.
I got stuck at one step on the sharp ridge for 15 minutes. I tried just about everything. Imagine a shelf sticking out at waist height with nothing underneath it. Now imagine you only have the use of one arm and one leg. Difficult eh? With Jane and Bernard on either side of me I hopped in the air and spun my bottom round so that I could perch on the ledge. Once sat down I walked my cheeks backward onto the projection and with my hand swung my leg up onto it. I lifted my other leg up and then powered up on just one leg. I was shaking with fear. I informed Jane that I would need a rope from now on.
A little further along the ridge was a wall, about 5 metres high and moderately steep and difficult. I had to be belayed up it and the joy of actually climbing again, on a rope, was overwhelming. My face was split from ear to ear with a huge grin. I made it quite easily and straight away my mind was occupied by pretensions of harder climbs.
The Bation and Nelion were just on the other side of the Lewis glacier and we could see the summit hut glowing in the sun. Ian Howell built that hut by soloing up to the summit of Nelion thirteen times with pieces of the thing! Determination counts for a lot.
Just one last step of about three metres and we had made it. The summit after all the planning, worrying and fundraising. I’d raised nigh on £4000 for Headway by undertaking this climb. But more importantly was the awareness raised in the climbing community of head injury issues.
The Longest Climb is available for purchase. Buy it on Amazon.