Mountains are made from rocks

First featured in issue 15 (December 2005) of SA Mountain

Mountains are made of rocks. Sounds obvious, really. Problem is just how well those rocks are stuck together. Pull up on a Cederberg jug or a Montagu crimper and you know that this is quality quartzite. A Drakensberg lead is a far more fragile, frightening affair. If you add clumsy feet, big boots, and loose boulders, the possibility of having someone kick a rock on to you is very real. And this is where the danger lies.

Mount Kenya has a unique atmosphere and setting. It rises out of the tea and coffee plantations of the Equatorial highlands. Its snow-capped summit is usually cloaked in a swath of cloud and Batain and Nelion are visible only in the early morning and evening light. When climbers tell you that they’ve climbed Mt. Kenya, what they usually mean is that they’ve walked up to a subsidiary pinnacle called Point Lenana.

Most climbers, however, come for the wonderful volcanic rock. The setting is both Alpine and African and the altitude gives it a little Himalayan feel. One varsity vacation, Tim Euniton, Chris Vind and I set off to climb Mount Kenya. We planned to spend three weeks on the mountain and were on a spartan student budget: our rations consisted of Toppers, Smash and dried vegetables. That should give you an idea of how cheap our tents were, how thin our clothes were and how manky our rack was. Our gear was inadequate for a spring hike in the Berg, let alone a 5700m serious climbing trip. But youth, enthusiasm and poverty all seem to go well together.

First up was the Normal Route, which was a classic. It’s always a great climb. Then Point John, with its spectacular free-standing summit.

Our next route was the Grande Traverse – a three-day ascent of Point Piggott, a stunning subsidiary peak, the West Ridge of Batian and a descent of the Normal Route. Batian is the longest, baddest climb on the mountain, but we wanted to say that we had stood on every summit of the massif. Cool. Two cold high-altitude bivvies, one of which is in the Howell Hut, right up on the summit. (It’s a tiny shelter built by the legendary Ian Howell who carried the materials up in 16 solo ascents of the route).

Day one started off very well – lots of ridge scrambling, up and down around pillars with the odd rock step. The rope got jammed, but it was the sort of climbing that goes quickly and gives that wonderful feeling that you are moving efficiently over stone. That night we settled down to a meager bivvy. We had brought along a meths stove (remember Trangia stoves?) Problem is that when the meths gets really cold it loses all its vapour pressure. It burns with a feeble flame that takes an hour to melt snow. It was a long and miserable night.

Next morning we awoke stiff, sore and cold. Kili was bright and clear – 250 kilometres away across the thornveld. As the rosy light of dawn lit the West Ridge of Batian, I thought ‘there’s nothing quite like leading the first few pitches when the rock is sub-zero, you’re all stiff and clunky and rucksack weighs a ton.’ It takes forever to get going at that altitude and easy moves have you gasping for air. Three pitches up and Chris was in the lead. Chris is a Zimbo farmer and a clumsy lad who has huge feet.. 30m up he nudged a massive block the size of a football. ‘Whoops’ he called down. I heard a series of thuds followed by a massive explosion. The boulder had impacted an inch from my head, leaving a burning smell.

It was my closest brush with death to date. My helmet would have been a flimsy eggshell if that thing had hit me.

The moral of the tale is that big mountains have objective dangers: avalanches, storms, rockfalls, over which you have very little control. You can climb in the icy wee hours of the morning, stick to ridges rather than gullies, cower under overhangs and avoid camping under seracs, but sooner or later the Grim Reaper comes looking for you. You can run, but you can’t hide.

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