April 8, 2013

Mount Kenya: Day 3 (stars, stars, and)

It's 3am, and I'm standing in the middle of nowhere, on a mountain, bundled in a hat, ski gloves, waterproof pants, and general snow gear.  

It's time to start hiking the summit of Mt. Kenya.  

We've already been awake for an hour, packing, dressing, and taking tea with breakfast biscuits.  I'm navigating a slight headache from my one single hour of sleep (drinking cup after cup of black tea to stay warm the night before a 2am wake-up was probably a mistake).  One of our hiking companions is feeling an irregular heartbeat and will be unable to join us.  I ask our guide what will happen if we begin the hike but are unable to reach the summit (the Plan B, if you will).  And he says, in what I assume is meant to be a re-assuring tone, "You must reach it."

This is not shaping up to be a good day.

We head outside into the night, expecting chilly gloom and threatening rain-fog like the day before, but find the sky to be crystal clear.  Stars, stars, and a nearly-full moon light our way, and we start the night climb without any help from the headlamps.  

Away we go

It is exhilarating.   My headache is gone, and I feel like skipping up the mountain.  We can see everything.  I see the big dipper.  I see spectacular snowy peaks surrounding us.  As we climb, I look down and see lights of Shipton's camp from whence we came.  It is getting very, very far away.  

In the midst of the greatest great-wide-open I can imagine, as counter-intuitive as it seems, I begin to feel claustrophobic.  It occurs to me the guide is right- we must make it up and over the mountain.  There is no plan B.  We are now several days hike away from any kind of civilization, in all directions. It also occurs to me that the air keeps getting thinner.  No escape and a lack of oxygen = claustrophobia in the world's least confined space.  Now I really feel like we're hiking up Mount Doom.  

We move very slowly, stopping often to catch our breaths.  During longer breaks of 5-10 minutes, our guide lays down on a rock in the freezing cold and takes a cat-nap, complete with contented snoring.  He is more comfortable on this mountain than I will ever understand.  

We reach the snow before long, and eventually we pass a few mirror-like mountain lakes, reflecting the moon.  We keep summiting peaks, only to be told that our destination is just over the next hill.

And, finally, the sun begins to rise.

First golden glimpse

Sunrise over snow

We climb, and the sun climbs with us, and then we all climb some more.

Up and up

And up and up farther

Rosy morning Rift Valley

In front of us, rocks are turning molten red from the morning light, even thought the moon refuses to sleep.

Good morning, Moon.

And eventually, pole pole, we reach Lenana Peak!  At 4,985 meters (16,355 feet), the highest peak you can hike to in Kenya, second highest in Africa (after Kilimanjaro).

Nearly there...

At last!

We eat pre-breakfast on top of the word!  We can see Tanzania!  We are victorious!  We are... nowhere near finished with the hike.  Next comes a two day descent, starting with a scramble down the rocky cliffs using ropes and all four limbs to get down to the next camp.

Step by step

We slip and slide and sort-of-ski all the way down, finished with the day by 11am, just in time for second breakfast.  And back into our sleeping bags by 2:00pm, a mere 12 hours from when we left them.

And just like that, the journey becomes a dream.

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