Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain. Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall — it’s great when you stop – Chris Darwin.
Chris Darwin read my mind and you need to read on and find out why. It’s been a minute since I had a random musings post on here. This post is going to be a long interesting tale guys so strap up!!!
It’s Tuesday 19th April and the chatter on my work Healthy Back group won’t stop. Reason being they are finalizing the list for a scheduled hike on Saturday to one Elephant Hill (insert Mountain). The group has been prepping for this particular climb through hiking less challenging ‘hills’. Hiking has never interested me, till that fateful day when they made that final call!
So after consulting Mr.Google and getting crazy reviews about the journey up the hill, I make a decision that She would be my first. The reviews stated clearly that you needed to be moderately fit or really fit to hike since difficulty is Moderate to Very High. I convince myself that 4 days of aerobics every week must count as fit enough to climb up the hill – boy was I surprised.
I call up my mountaineering expert friend from Bridgeway Adventures (I still can’t fathom how he has been up Mt.Kenya over 40 times. I ask a few questions about this Elephant in the room and he explains to me that it is not an easy climb, it is what hikers who are targeting Mt. Kenya gauge themselves with. We meet on Friday evening as I pick hiking boots. He gives me the best advice I have received in my 25 years (well when I was up the hill thinking of quitting it was def the best advice). “Forget energy drinks and glucose, just buy 2 bars of chocolate one white, the other dark and water…..that’s all you will need,” he said.
Elephant Hill is located at the Southern end of the Aberdare Ranges about 90km from Nairobi. It is Saturday 23rd April, at exactly 9:45am after a few stretches and a short brief from our guide we start our hike oblivious of what lay ahead of us. 1st mistake – getting hiking boots and not breaking in them hence lagging behind from the start to finish of the hike since they were too heavy.
I hope the photos below can paint for you a mental picture of our journey to 3600m altitude!
1. Photo taken at Njabini town where we stopped for guys to have breakfast and buy a few snacks. It is a small town so the only breakfast you will get is mandazi, chai and eggs so you better stack up at home!
2. Where it all began! Could this be the state of the whole terrain? When they said wear proper climbing shoes they weren’t joking huh?
3. Because man shall not live without selfies. The previous photo is evidence that there was a heavy downpour last night. Though the sun is really hot, I am excited that I don’t have to climb in the rain. We are ready to conquer.
4. It begins! I think we were only two minutes into the hike and I was already sweating like a pig. I decide the sweater got to go and so does the marvin. I think of also dropping my 3.5 litres of water, but I know I will regret later, so I carry on. The shoes are killing me, everyone’s pace is picking up, but mine. I soldier on slowly.
5. I am clutching at my waist minutes into our hike, and our accompanying really friendly ranger is a bit concerned. He asks if I have ever hiked before andI smile knowing that i just lost my ‘virginity’ minutes ago. He tells me, if I finish the hike…he will be waiting at the top ready to applaud me. We chat about the hill or as i prefer to call it mountain, he is tackling it with such ease and I ask him if it’s really as difficult as they make it seem. He says this will be his first time as he was recently deployed to Njabini and since he recruits trainees, the hike is definitely a walk in the park.
6. From the various reviews I had been reading on this Elephant in the room, there are four zones you needed to look out for during the hike. The bamboo forest, the alpine zone, the despair point and the last, steep and rocky remaining part of the hike. So after an hour and a half of walking through the thick expansive forest (keep in mind this time is an estimation) it might as well have been just 45mins, we finally get to the much-awaited bamboo forest.
7. The towering canopy of bamboo was the toughest part of the hike for me. This explains why there are no photos at this point. Getting my phone from my backpack or water was extremely difficult. I quit several times, prayed, had a conversation with self regarding choices like this. After what seemed like hours of navigating the steep climb through a maze of bamboo, thick mud and fire ants. Cursing myself for choosing elephant hill as my first hike and munching on gazillion chocolate bars, we finally got to the alpine zone and could see the first sign of hope from a distance. We even stopped to take a selfie.
8. We could hear voices ahead of us from guys who were already resting at the despair point and we quickened our pace to catch up with them before they left. It’s really funny how comforting it is to know that there is someone else who is struggling as much as you are.
9. The photo above was taken at the despair point and that smile isn’t fake. I was so pumped, ready to tackle the remaining part of the hike. My shoes no longer felt too heavy and I was so energized from the gazillion chocolate bars I had munched on.
10. It was almost 2pm and at an altitude of 2500m we still had 1100m to go. Apparently the despair point is also known as the elephant rump and it’s usually extremely cold and this is where hikers throw in the towel. But members from my team weren’t ready to do that just yet. I guess the sight of that hill got people really motivated to get to the peak. Little did we know that the hill ahead was one of the many parts of the elephant’s body.
11. The rest of the climb even though difficult went by in a blur! It was evident that there was no turning back. At some point I left my team behind since they were too slow for me, but had to wait for them after I lost my bearing(lesson learnt). The temperatures were dropping and the clouds getting lower and time was definitely not on our side.
12. My fear of heights was definitely tested at some point before the summit when we had to walk at the edge of a rock. I said a prayer before proceeding after making the grave mistake of looking down, I think if you miss a step here or slide, you fall to your death. Ignore the smiles in the above photo, conversation had since died down by the time we got to this point. I think we were preserving our energy for the steep rocky climb that lay ahead of us.
12. Would you believe it if I told you that I actually wanted to throw in the towel when I had like only 500m left? I could finally spot the summit and the clouds were threatening to give way any moment. I was extremely exhausted and that last climb to the promised land was a steep one. Our ranger warned us that he wouldn’t let us give up after already getting to the point of despair and he did keep his word. He pushed us to the very top!
After a good 5 hours at exactly 3:30pm we got to the peak and had to leave after resting for only 10 minutes as the heavens greeted us with some hailstones.
13. Who knew that the descent could be as tough as the climb? I think the photo below simply describes our journey down. We descended to the despair point in less than 45minutes. The bamboo forest was the most difficult section for anyone who didn’t have climbing books. Some of my colleagues fell over 15 times. You are descending a steep slope, the rain pounding on you heavy, it’s muddy you try holding onto a bamboo tree for support only to realize it is decomposed when you have already kissed the ground hard. At around 7:40pm, we finally spotted the first sign of hope….lights from the camp base at a distance, we literally almost ran the last remaining 5 minutes to the finish line.
14. That said, if you asked me on Sunday when I could barely walk if I would challenge myself to another hike soon. I would have said no! But Guess what? I am ready for the next one!!!
I could write a book about life lessons that pushing myself to the peak of Elephant Hill taught me but in the wise words of Dean Karnazes, author of Ultramarathon man, here it goes;
Most people never get there. They’re afraid or unwilling to demand enough of themselves and take the easy road, the path of least resistance. But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not constantly demanding more from yourself–expanding and learning as you go–your choosing a numb existence. Your denying yourself an extraordinary trip.