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Der Mount Kenya mit Umland
Epic Fails

Why it's not such a good idea to climb a 5000 on holiday on a whim

  • Peter Künzel
  • June 19, 2019

Spontaneously on holiday to Kenya's highest mountain: Can this go well? Our author experienced a summit tour that was doomed to failure from the outset - and an experience he will never forget again.


The plan was: Kenya. Across the country, to the lakes, to the edge of the Serengeti and then by night train from Nairobi to the sea. With two old schoolmates, ten years after we graduated from high school. On the second day we wanted to take at least a short view of Mount Kenya from a lodge. I'm afraid there wasn't time for more. It was painful as a mountaineer, but it was clear to us that a serious attempt on Africa's second highest mountain would have required a lot. Some days to acclimatize us, good equipment, a serious preparation.

From the garden of the lodge there was nothing to see of the 5000m. Somewhere above the haze of tropical hot twilight they had to be: the three main peaks of Kinyaa, not even 30 kilometers away. None of us could sleep. In front of our inner eye: reddish-black rocky spikes, snow and glaciers, practically directly at the equator.

We were at 3700 meters, when Sebastian suddenly complained of massive headaches

It was clear at three in the morning that we couldn't go up. At six o'clock we knocked on the neighbouring mountain guide's hut: "Please: We need equipment, and a guide. Yes, now!" We got lucky. Paul was our man. Professional guide with red gaiters, corduroy knee breeches, white slider cap and one of the world's first fleece jackets. All gifts from his guests over the last 30 years. From him we got sleeping bags, rocked mountain boots (which fit surprisingly well) and colorful gaiters. In the morning heat we went over muddy slopes into the national park. At an altitude of 2700 meters the Landrover got stuck and we had to continue on foot. The insanity of our spontaneous idea became clear to us for the first time here: 30 degrees, the woods in front of us were steaming, we were fully loaded, with food, water, stove and material, and had no idea what was coming our way. By the day after tomorrow at the latest, we had to move on. The ascent to our basecamp at a little over 3000 meters was tough. We sweated and fought already after the first meters. Paul immediately pushed us further to get 500 meters higher in the afternoon, so that we got used to the height at least a little.

The landscape around Mount Kenya is varied and unique.
Constantly changing landscape forms and a surreal beautiful alpine flora: The ascent to Mount Kenya is impressive even without a summit experience.
Image credit: Alex Voets

We were suddenly amazed by the incredibly different vegetation on the mountain like a Scandinavian mountain forest, after we had just left tropical swamps behind us. In the evening in our shack we were confident for the first time that our attempt could work. We started before sunrise. Paul warned us urgently against the Mountain Lyon Mamas, who would attack mountaineers here from time to time to protect their offspring. Still: We wanted to go up there, in the first morning sun a barren landscape full of cacti. We were at 3700 metres when Sebastian suddenly complained of a massive headache. Clear sign of altitude sickness. Michael, the doctor in our group, advised us to drink and just take a break. We slept a lap and when I woke up Sebastian was already climbing a small boulder again. We went on. And suddenly an incredible panorama opened up. In front of us: the wild summit jagged peaks, the glaciers and a gigantic high valley, behind it Mount Kenya, within reach. Surreal beautiful. Our target is just under a thousand meters above us.

In spite of break off, headache and complete exhaustion it was one of the most beautiful descents of my mountaineering life.

The euphoria was severely interrupted: Michael and I felt a vice compressing our brain bowl. Extreme headaches. Paul said it was normal and offered us pain pills. But we decided to turn around immediately. Our destination for the night would have been much higher, and we had to admit that we were simply too badly prepared. In spite of break-off, headache and complete exhaustion it was one of the most beautiful descents of my mountaineering life. After 12 hours we arrived in the dark. In the hut: three Scots, completely exhausted, they were the day before, when we were still sitting down in the garden of the lodge, in the blizzard on the summit, without sight, and have come down only with difficulty in the dense fog again intact. Together we are amazed how different and unpredictable our two mountain experiences were. We are grateful to this day to have failed so picturesquely.