3am – I push open the door of the cabin and step into the night. The silhouette of Mt. Kenya looms in front of me, a black shadow pressed against a silver speckled backdrop – thousands of stars illuminating the night. I try to count them. I try to photograph them. I can do neither. So I breath in deeply, whatever oxygen exists at 4,200 meters above sea level, forget the task at hand and simply marvel at the world around me.
Day 3 of Mt. Kenya trek and Nur’s alarm clock went off at 2am, “Time to get up! Time to get up!” I was already awake and thankful for the excuse to slip out of my sleeping bag and get the blood pumping through my freezing body. I was wearing all the clothes I brought (3 pairs of socks, leggings, lulu pants, sweatpants, slush pants, tank top, t-shirt, two long-sleeve shirts, fleece sweater, rain jacket, fleece gloves, a winter hat, and my hiking boots) when I stood up and switched my glasses for contacts in preparation for the summit climb.
We warmed up with tea and biscuits, clapping our hands and jumping up and down. Then I stepped outside to gather my thoughts before embarking on the climb to the peak of Pt. Lenana. We were leaving at 3am to summit around 6:20am and see the sunrise over Kenya. Soon, all four climbers, our guide Paul and one of the porter’s who was going to act as assistant guide for the hike, were outside together. And we started to walk.
We wore headlamps to light the way, but still, it was so dark anything outside of the beam of the flashlight was indiscernible. Water roared in the stillness of the night, as we passed a busy stream. I miss-stepped and caught myself, not knowing where I might slide to if I strayed from the path. After about 20 minutes, I began to sweat through all my layers of clothing. A cold sweat that did not invite me to take a layer off.
After every 20min to half an hour we would take a break and perch on rocks. Panting, I drew in deep breaths and thought of nothing except slowing my breathing. Paul, bless him, wouldn’t tell us the time or how far we had to go. Besides the sunrise, that’s the beauty of walking at night. It’s hard to accurately gauge how difficult the hike really is.
Every once in a while, I would ignore the little voice in my head, and I would look up. And high above, I would see this point. Pt. Lenana. And I was convinced Paul, and my fellow climbers, and myself, were completely insane for thinking we would make it up there for the sunrise. It was so high. And the path was so steep. And the gravel was so slippery. And it was complete madness to expect anyone, except serious hikers, to be able to reach that peak. While my eyes strayed from the path, I would lose my balance, and titter-totter for a moment, threatening to fall backwards and slip down the steep incline I was fighting to stay upright on. My eyes would return to ground in front of me and I would tell myself to only concentrate on two things: Breathing and walking. It didn’t matter how far, it didn’t matter how steep, all I had to focus on doing was breathing and walking. And not looking at anything except the ground in front of me.
After dinner the previous evening Paul was giving us a pep talk. “It’s people who climb Mt. Kenya,” he said. “And you’re all people.” Ok, I told myself, holding on to whatever grains of motivation would push me forward: It’s only people who do this. I’m a person, I can do this.
50m from the top seemed like 50 miles. It may sound like I’m exaggerating, but this was the physically most challenging thing I had ever done in my life. And one of the most mentally challenging as well. I knew I was going to summit. I just knew I was going to. There was no way I was leaving that mountain, unless I had seen the sunrise from the top. But I had no idea how I was going to get there. Even as we crept closer to the top, it still seemed impossible. But slow step but slow step we were making our way.
We stopped for another water break. We shared a bar of chocolate. Feeling slightly nauseated, I let the frozen chocolate melt in my mouth. Sustenance, I told myself. It’s all about the mental game.
The sky began to change colour. The stars were no longer singing overhead, and a light hue began to cast itself over the rock and gravel I was stepping so slowly and heavily on. Would we make it before sunrise? We had to make it before sunrise. I adjusted my pack, resolve on my wind-burnt face.
We scrambled over rocks, clinging to the side, and I felt like I was really climbing a mountain. We past snow, too frozen to make the snow balls and snow angels we joked about back in Naiorbi. Zigzagging back and forth, I turned a corner, Paul, Nur and Sam somewhere in front, and stepped onto rocks leading to the final peak. I was on top of the mountain. To the left rocks slopped downward, to the right rocks slopped downward, and in front of me, a rise in rock elevation and the Kenyan flag. A hand reached down, pulled me to the highest point of the third plateau of Mt. Kenya, and I stood on top of Pt. Lenana.
To be honest, as exhilarated as I was on to have summated, and in time for the sunrise, I was terrified. Sweeping views of Batian, Nelion, and the Kenyan landscape played before my eyes, as well as a steep drop if I didn’t watch where I was walking. It was incredibly windy, and I was scared of falling off the mountain. I sat down, wrapped my arms around the closest rock formation, and sipped hot lemon tea, as the sun rose in the sky and the Kenyan flag whipped loudly in the air.
Summit Lesson: Whether climbing a mountain or doing any challenging activity in life, remember: It’s people who do these things, and we’re all people.
Second Summit Lesson: When on top of a mountain, do not just take photos of you and the flag, with the camera pointing upwards. Because the photo will just be of you, and the flag, and the sky. And you will have no photos looking like you’re on top of a mountain.