Sunday 29 March 2009

Mount Kenya

An eight year old can climb Mount Kenya is what they say. No eight year old that I ever want to babysit.

First, we acclimatised at Mountain Rock's Bantu Lodge which reminded me of Picnic On Hanging Rock with it's sprawling gardens dappled by the shade of tall trees, in which a party of boarding school girls were making merry at the end of a school trip. When wandered a little too far round the back of the lodge, things turned just a teensy bit Texas Chainsaw Massacre as we stepped over a hoof, then another, then the end of a tail and finally a pool of congealing blood and other matter, discovering that meat is served very fresh indeed at the lodge. After a beer in the mountain air watching the sun paint the sky a hundred colours as it set, I was feeling pleasantly acclimatised and ready to challenge an eight year old.

On day one, I found myself merrily marching up the mountain feeling a teensy bit smug that Alex was running out of puff before me for once. I was happily pointing out the birds, gasping with wonder at the giant bamboo, busy comparing the mountain's landscape with Burnham Beeches, the Lake District and India alternately, all the while firmly believing that climbing Mount Kenya was 100% doable.

From the minute we woke up on day two (after an umcomfortable night in a dorm where mattresses go to die, listening to poor Alex fight a losing battle with a broken sleeping bag) I had a sudden and complete change of heart. After only an hour, I reverted to the tactic I'd used at the end of our 40 mile sponsored walk of counting steps to keep up the rhythym of walking. Looking at the view, taking photos, admiring the weird and wonderful plants that live at about 3,000m up the mountain... I didn't do any of that. I counted to four.

Stopping for lunch was my first chance that day to take a good look around me and suddenly I was reminded why we were doing it. Mackinder picked a damn good valley to name after himself. From our perch on the edge of a big rock overlooking the valley, we got our first close up glimpse of the summit, and also of the clouds that would shortly be emptying themselves on top of us. I love the rain! I thought happily as I munched on the tastiest boiled egg I've ever eaten.

The most commonly known symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, nausea and tiredness. Fortunately, of these I only suffered the tiredeness, but a kind of tired I've never felt before, not even after walking 40 miles, starting at midnight, while hungover. As a result of this tiredness, my altitude sickness manifested itself as a series of bad decisions. As we made our way through Mackinder's space pineapple valley, Alex suggested I put my camera away. As the hail began to bombard us, he also suggested I change my canvas safari hat for a waterproof one. Very good ideas, I'm sure you'll agree. Could I be arsed? Could I hell. As I put one fut in front of the other, catching my breath everytime my foot rolled on an unexpected stone, my camera banged against me uncomfortably inside my jacket and hail collected in the rim of my hat, then ran down my neck in little ice cold rivers onto my jumper and other layers. When we finally arrived at a little sign that said 'Shipton Camp, Altitude: Some Thing Or Other', I didn't even have the energy to feel relieved. As I sat down for a dinner I couldn't eat, no longer having to count to four, my brain achieved what my yoga teacher has been trying to get it to do for ages: complete emptiness.

What's the best thing to do to recover from the hardest day's walking you've ever done? Why, get up at 2 in the morning and walk harder and longer, of course! Fortunately, I was unable to fully process this plan in the state I was in, or I might have cried. Instead, I spent the dark hours before the final big push listening to a fellow walker complain to her guide that there were rats in her bed ("Are you saying that I'm making this up? I'm telling you there was one on my pillow and another four having a little party at the bottom of my sleeping bag" was the line that made me lol out loud) and a teacher go through with his party of teenagers all the various symptoms of altitude sickness, as well as the dangers of sunburn, dehydration and hypothermia. And then it was 2am and time to pull on my wet clothes and not eat breakfast.

Walking in the dark is not as mad an idea as it may sound. If I'd had a good look at what I was climbing, I might have very easily completely freaked out. As it was, my headlamp lit up not much further than our guides feet (he was holding my hand, convinced that I was liable to fall over at any moment, which I might have found embarrassing if I hadn't felt so glad for the support) and so the task in hand was only ever a short stretch in front of us. The moment Francis heard me quicken my breath, he'd stop us for a rest, I'd look round and audibly gasp with awe at what I saw. There was barely a cloud in the sky, in the middle of which hung a bright, full moon that lit up snow dusted ridges and plunging valleys for miles around. Celebrities are always going to exclusive clubs and hotels, but for me the definition of 'exclusive' is now the privilege of seeing Mount Kenya in all its midnight, moonlit glory.

It was also on Mount Kenya that I learned that to be a good photographer, you need to be so much more than a good photographer. You need to be fit, strong, agile, have good balance and, in this case, a good pair of gloves. When we finally reached the summit, I took off the mittens I'd hired and in the time it took me to get the camera out, my shutter finger froze solid. Actually froze solid. I couldn't move it. It was on the button and WOULD NOT PRESS. The sun was rising, and exactly opposite, the moon was setting in a scene that, if I'd imagined it, I'd have dismissed as contrived AND MY DAMN FINGER ON THE DAMN SHUTTER WOULDN'T DAMN WELL FIRE. It is my painful regret that the pictures I took on Mount Kenya are nowhere near as good as the ones I didn't take.

And then we had to walk back down!

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