by Rolfe Oostra
“pass world, I am the dreamer that remains, the man clear cut against the horizon” Roy Campbell.
My first venture as a mountain guide could not have been a better conceived. The backdrop was Africa, the mountain sat nicely balanced on the equator and my paying client was a good buddy. I had just turned 20 and survived some bad craziness in the New Zealand Alps and needed to escape the gloom and doom that followed. Researching for a back-door I found a black and white photo of a striking mountain in an old book by Eric Shipton. That mountain beckoned like a wonderful dream which you don’t want to wake up from - the Mountain was Mount Kenya. It set the stage for what was to come; years of shoe-string travelling and dirt-bag climbing
I had little money; no dirt-bag climber worth his salt does. Working as a farmhand I’d scraped together enough cash to buy a one-way ticket to Nairobi, and I had accepted my clients offer to bankroll the expedition. My plans for Africa didn’t extend beyond the mountain. I had borrowed the guide book and determined a route but had thought no further. Faith and Providence landed us on the porch of a Polish Lady called Mamma Roche. This huge utterly crazy vodka swilling lady possessed angel wings and a heart of solid gold. If ever I found a true home from home her ramshackle house jettisoned in the roughest part of Nairobi was it; the tropical gardens complete with monkeys and chameleons eventually served as our HQ for three years.
The mountain is 200 kms north of Nairobi and the villages at its foot are conveniently linked to the city by tarmac roads. Excitedly, we jumped on a local bus (a matatu) and headed the wrong way. We quickly learned to phrase things Africa style. The question “does this bus go to Mount Kenya?” will always be answered by “Yes”. The question “Where does this bus go?” goes a long way in getting you to your destination and not Lake Victoria where we first ended up. Days later, having found the right matatu, we loaded our stuff on the roof and headed north.
The park entry fees, although in Africa always open to negotiation, were well beyond our meagre budget and forced us to try diversionary tactics by going bush. This plan, from the onset a fine balance between adventure and stupidity, had its foundation in the bushland excursions we made in our native Australia when we were kids. That we’d be more likely to encounter a leopard than a wallaby we gave no thought to as we rambled up a steep bank and waltzed into the trees. Since we were trying to avoid park rangers we struck a course through the equatorial forest running parallel to the dirt road which our guidebook showed lead to the first camp.
The going was tough; thick stands of bamboo, thorns and spiky jungle vines caused endless delay. Clothes, hair, skin and rucksacks were each in turn grabbed, scratched and stabbed by millions of barbs and spines. The equatorial nightfall pounced on us with the suddenness of a wild beast. We had long lost the road and were well short of our designated camp. Camping where we stood had become necessary. We scratched out a level bit from the leafy forest floor and nervously struck our tent.
Night in these jungles have a curious rhythm to it. There is always a background noise your brain does it’s best to explain away with what is familiar; cicadas, mosquito’s horn-bills and frogs set up a wall of white-noise through which blared the occasional unfamiliar hoot and grunt. I tried putting on a brave face as we were going about the camping routine but the realisation that I had no idea what was out there was hard to disguise. As soon as the tent was up we leapt in and tried to sleep. “Are you still awake mate?” became my client’s catch-phrase as each hour he’d illuminate the tent with the light of his watch.
At three a.m. we heard a loud crash outside the tent; the noise was not a noise made by an insect or an animal but sounded like something ripping a branch from a tree. I turned on my petzl headtorch and shone it into the startled face of my client. “Did you hear that, mate?” he whispered. I opened the tent fly and beamed my light into the dark jungle night. I could see nothing until another loud snap about ten meters away revealed the outline of an enormous arse. Standing with its backside towards us was an African Elephant merrily tearing down a tree; branch by branch. “What is it, mate?” came a voice whispering behind me. The guide-book and prior experience had no way to explain how to react to seeing an elephant tearing down a tree only meters from our tent. So I did what that other African creature does and stuck my head in the sand. “It’s nothing, mate. Go back to sleep”.
Once we broke out of the forest we entered broad moorland and climbed steadily up to the edge of a huge canyon. This seldom trodden path to the base of our wall took us four days to complete. It led us through an enchanted landscape of tarns, pinnacles and weird plants that suggested both Tolkien and Planet of the Apes. Perhaps because this was my first mountain expedition I have developed a bias but I will always hold up Mount Kenya as a yardstick to some of the many stunning wilderness landscapes I have climbed in since. These days passed too quickly.
We arrived at the wall feeling strong and acclimatised. And as an additional bonus we had not been challenged by officialdom. The only people we had seen had been a large group of porters carrying down the body of a South African man who’d abseiled off the end of his rope. His young wife in utter shock trudged numbly behind the group. They explained that they’d sent a runner down to organise a chopper to evacuate the couple as soon as they’d been alerted of the accident but it had never made an appearance. The two climbers had made a successful ascent of the Shipton route but he had made the rookie error of not tying a knot in the end of his rope for abseiling. After he’d fallen his wife had continued down alone until she reached the glacier where she’d bumped into the porters bringing up loads for a group coming up the regular trekking route. We introduced ourselves and tried to offer assistance but she was in another world entirely. I knew how she felt and we left her to descend to the dark world below; another life shattered by the thing we loved the most.
Being dirt-bags we camped well away from the hut right against the base of the wall. Although we could see the hut across the glacier and watched several people moving around we revelled in our independence. I had settled on repeating the line of the original first ascent; the Halford Mackinder route. (Alpine grade D, 700 meters.). Mount Kenya is the original twin peaks. Both its summits are named after Massai chiefs with Batian (5199m) being only a fraction higher than its twin Nelion. Separating the brothers is the Gate of Mist; a sharp notch often cloaked by streaming mists. This choice of route was equally adventurous and naïve. The more often climbed Shipton route offers some great rock-climbing and is usually ice-free. By attempting the original route we’d be traversing onto the very steep diamond glacier and climbing into the Gates of Mist before reaching Batian. I had brought two ice-screws and we each carried crampons and an ice-tool on top of all our rock-climbing equipment. Still, we blustered that if fat boy Halford could climb the route in breeches and studded leather boots then today’s space-age kids would have no problems; naturally we were about to be impressed. Our tights, camera action moments reduced to insignificance by a singular monochrome image of a pipe smoking, bespectacled fat man.
“Halford might have had a fat arse but he sure had some balls too” puffed my client. We had just finished the first half of the climb to the South ridge. The initial pitches had not been too stiff and we even simu-climbed for a while. But as the outline of the ridge grew sharper the climbing had become increasingly tricky; enough to make me think that we had gone off route. I re-checked the guidebook and found that my client was bang on; old Halford really did have some balls. When we popped over the ridge we were confronted with a huge drop. Below us stretched the serious diamond couloir and the mighty south face. We scrambled over the ridge and crabbed our way to the couloir which linked up to the Gate of Mist. We climbed some way on ice and then a short rock step lead to the summit. We had done it! The route was in the bag! Eagerly we lifted the camera from the bag to take those irreplaceable Kodak moments. The views were non-existent; we’d been so focused on the climbing that the rudimentary weather checks had gone unheeded; the Gates of Mist were living up to their name. We took a summit shot that could have been taken in a steam room and began the descent to Nelion and the abseil route down its eastern flank. When we got there the weather turned for the worst; hail began to bounce all around us and loud thunder claps were growling up the valleys. Luckily for us a tiny coffin shaped structure has been built on the summit by the enterprising Kenyan climber Ian Howell. This largely unsung local Alpinist soloed the Shipton route thirteen times carrying sheets of tin and mattresses to create this unusual summit post. Still we were grateful to be able to escape the weather and scrambled inside. “It’s just like being in a coffin mate” said my client again. He was right; the last few people who had spent the night here had been the couple we’d bumped into on the way up.
The sun always shines again. And it did so the very next day. Stiffly we crawled out of the coffin and began the long process of rigging up nineteen abseils to reach the glacier at the base of the mountain. Once down we began the long walk back to civilisation.
There is not much more to add to the story except to mention that Mount Kenya had the last laugh. A mountain like anything else is nothing more than a sum of all its parts and on this mountain this includes a zoo worth of strange beasts. Having so far represented dirtbag climbers around the world by displaying exemplary resourcefulness in not paying park fees we felt the need to maintain form; it was back into the bush for us. We followed the most popular path down until we reached the forest and reluctantly tried the “sticking to the road whilst scraping through the forest” routine again. This time the going was easier and as we drew nearer to the gate and the noisy ranger hut we began to feel optimistic about passing by unnoticed. It was all going so well; the forest was relatively open and there were many tiny paths created by local people foraging the forest. We could hear the activity at the gate but the forest was dense enough to camouflage our presence. Fortunately the forest was not so impassable as to disguise the dozen buffalo blocking our path. “F**k mate!” began my client.
We were far enough away for the herd to have noticed our presence but not to be alarmed. Or so we guessed. “We need to get around them mate” whispered my client. I was glad he had begun to catch on. On tiptoes we began a journey off the paths into some dense undergrowth. We scrabbled through bushes, bent around trees and shuffled amongst branches in an ever-widening arc. Eventually, we were far enough away from the herd to make a run for it. And this we did at breakneck speed. It wasn’t long before we broke out of the forest and bounced into a neatly ordered banana plantation. A grizzled old man wearing a neat jacket and a pair of shorts was tending to his trees. He did not seem alarmed by our sudden appearance and smiled knowingly as he pointed out the direction to the road that led out of the forest and into a very crazy future.
Who is Rolfe Oostra?!
Rolfe is Co-Founder of 360-expeditions and has been travelling the globe on raw and exciting expeditions since he was 18 - the early years with his thumb stuck out and the later years always with a gaggle of excited trekkers and climbers. (Watch this space for some more exciting tales from his time on the road.)
Since setting up 360-expeditions, Rolfe has taken clients all over the world on exciting, fast paced and often very extreme expeditions, including summiting Everest! He is a Berghaus and Stubai athlete and lives life to the full.
If you want to join Rolfe or 360 and MAKE LIFE MEMORABLE check them out here.
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SayYesMore has partnered with 360 Expeditions and are offering an incredible opportunity: a huge campout in Jordan.
Emma Taylor from SayYesMore will be leading the expedition in May 2018 for 10 days. This magical adventure in the heart of Jordan will see you trek through canyons filled with lush clear water and desert plains while camping out under the stars with the Bedouins before reaching the magical awe inspiring Petra. Thereafter it will be time to enjoy your hard earned treat - two nights at the Dead Sea.
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