A Day in the Life of Mount Kenya

It is Africa's most mystical mountain, and its denizens include forest children, a zealot and an ancient mother and son. Here is a tick of time in its fascinating history
It is Africa's most mystical mountain, and its denizens include forest children, a zealot and an ancient mother and son. Here is a tick of time in its fascinating history
May 26, 1985

Ian Howell has climbed Mount Kenya more than 160 times—probably twice as many times as any man ever—but he remembers the first time well. He had paused at an altitude of 14,000 feet, nauseated from his exertions and the thin air and awed by what remained, when two Africans appeared through the mist, dragging a goat up to the base of the peak. The snow was coming down hard when they saw one another: the white man, with his nylon all-weather clothing, his portable cooking gear, his shiny climbing spikes and axes and his book about the mountain; and the black men, with their hair in dreadlock strings down to their buttocks, flimsy white gowns and bare feet. The black men stretched their hands toward the summit, fell to their knees, strangled the goat and prayed to the god on the peak for rain. The white man climbed the summit and exulted.

This glacier-crowned African mountain has always cried out to two needs in man. Some men never feel secure unless they surrender to something larger than themselves, and some never feel secure unless they overcome it. The climber and the worshipers descended, feeling stronger but bewildered by one another. None of them, climber or Africans, realized it was just another day in the life of Mount Kenya.

It is 5 a.m.

on Jan. 7, 1985, and it is barely light on Mount Kenya. Two men, Tim Hodnett and Mike Margeson, expert mountaineers from England, shiver with cold and anticipation. They are at 15,000 feet on a mountain crowned year-round with ice even though it sits precisely on the equator. In seven hours they expect to realize a three-year dream, arriving at the 17,058-foot crest of Mount Kenya.

Below them, the morning has already begun to come alive. Elephants nonchalantly devour their daily quarter ton of some of the most unusual vegetation on earth. Leopards, bloated and weary from a night of hunting, look for dry places to sleep. Much farther down, at the base, Moses Muchugo, 82, husband of three and father of 38, spreads his palms toward the mountaintop and prays, as he does each morning at this time, for the strength to stand.

He must pray to Ngai, the god who lives on the ice at the summit, while the predawn pink halos the peaks. By sunrise, Ngai will have dispensed all of his blessings upon earlier-rising men. Muchugo thanks the god for protecting him and all the other Mau Maus in the early 1950s, when they hid on this mountain and took oaths in blood to kill or drive away every European from the land. He recalls those fierce fighting years: "No warplanes' bombs could kill us, no wild animals could touch us, no cold could harm us, because we stayed near our god. Our god and our mountain were our only friends then."

Muchugo shakes his head sadly and gazes at Mount Kenya. Once only holy men on sacred missions went up this mountain. Now white men, like the two Englishmen who are clinging at this moment to the icy steeps, ascend it for reasons he does not understand. Each year the power of the great mountain seems more disturbed.

It is 6:30 a.m.

The climbers are on their way toward the top. Hodnett, a 27-year-old climbing instructor, moves confidently up a nearly vertical-approach glacier to Batian, the highest peak. Too confidently. He has not troubled to belay himself by sinking a large screw into the ice and attaching himself to it by his rope. "One must be humble to approach this mountain," says Iain Allan, a professional climber and owner of a company that guides more that 100 tourists up Mount Kenya each year. "This mountain has a personality. In one word—brutal."

All at once, Hodnett is grasping air instead of ice. Not far below, Margeson is startled by the body flying past him. He hears a scream that will haunt him for life. Then there is silence. Numbly, Margeson begins the descent toward what he is certain will be his friend's lifeless body.

At this same hour, at the foot of the mountain, Edward Waweru, 28 and already balding, steps barefoot out of his little house on his 12-acre farm. He is holding a small pot of fertilizer. It is late in the season, but his corn plants are stunted and dry. He looks up at Mount Kenya. He is not going to pray like Moses Muchugo and other elders of the Kikuyu tribe. He is looking to see if this mountain is stirring up any rain clouds for this day. It appears unlikely.

Waweru is a modern African. He understands that the mountain forest has in recent times been cut back to half its original size to supply a rapidly growing population that needs more and more wood for more and more houses. He believes that the fewer trees there are to absorb moisture, the less moisture will be returned to the atmosphere and the less rain there will be. He understands that the ancient tribal practices are vanishing because they are supposed to be foolish and superstitious. Yet there is a certain yearning in his voice when he says, "Years ago rain would come only 10 minutes after my people sacrificed to Ngai on the mountain. Now all our requests are bounced."

Waweru was here last year when the terrible drought crept down from Ethiopia. He was here when the old Kikuyu men brought a red lamb and a black lamb to a sacred place at the foot of the mountain, walked them eight times around a hallowed tree, pointed their heads toward the mountain summit and strangled them. "Long after that we finally got rain, but not enough," Waweru says. "I think it is because our young people do not follow the old customs anymore. The mountain is still like a magnet to our eyes, but it is not helpful to us anymore. We are scared."

His feeling of awe and fear is an old one. Mount Kenya has always seduced men, then blown them away. Some have been trampled by the five-ton elephants and the 1,500-pound Cape buffalo that roam as high as 14,000 feet. Some have died trying to scale the sheer faces of rock and ice that mountaineers consider to be among the most difficult on earth. Many have died from ascending too quickly into the rarefied air: Mount Kenya has caused more cases of pulmonary edema—the flooding of lungs with body fluid due to increasing deficiency in oxygen—than any other mountain in the world. One of every 300 people who hike or climb on Mount Kenya exits on a stretcher. At least 30 climbers have died in the last 15 years.

Mount Kenya lies 70 miles northeast of Nairobi. It is Africa's second-largest mountain and it erupts from the plains, a vast pyramid with a base 40 miles in diameter, until, at 14,000 feet, it narrows and makes a spectacular, jagged leap to-ward heaven. Once its summit was a live volcano, but 2½ million years have gnawed away its crater and left a core of rocky peaks. Its extremes of blazing equatorial sun by day and subfreezing temperatures at night have helped create a landscape and fauna that seem to be transplanted from another planet. This mountain has lions, leopards, black rhino, zebras and tiny antelope patrolling it. It so hugs the equator that its ice face switches from one side to the other every six months as the sun moves from the northern to the southern hemisphere.

Mystery shrouds the strange mountain. Three-foot-high hillocks, evenly spaced 10 feet apart in parallel lines on the north side hint at what might be graveyard remains of a vanished race. Stories of murder and ghosts haunt the rangers of Mount Kenya National Park. What of the huge sloping rock standing isolated on the mountain with bones littered all about it? Locals say that elephants used it to kill invading human beings by grinding them against it until their bones protruded from their skin, leaving them to die in agony.

Few outside Kenya know much about this great geographical freak. It has been eclipsed in size and legend by a mountain 200 miles to the south, just below Kenya's border with Tanzania. Mount Kilimanjaro is 2,300 feet higher and has a more romantic name and Ernest Hemingway's short story to celebrate it, but it is lesser in many ways. "Kilimanjaro is this big plodding mountain, rising like a loaf of bread," says Galen Rowell, who makes a career of photographing mountains. "Mount Kenya is this dark, dramatic, surprising thing thrusting out of the plains. Kilimanjaro is serenity. Mount Kenya is ominous."

It is 7 a.m.

Margeson has been descending slowly. He hears a groan below him. He continues on and finds Hodnett. "I don't know how he lived," Margeson says later. Hodnett has fallen 350 feet, bounced several times off the mountainside, avoided hitting any of several ledges and has come to rest. He has suffered two broken ankles and multiple lacerations. Margeson ties his friend securely so that he will not fall farther, feeds him a painkiller and settles down to wait for someone to come with a stretcher before the sun rises high enough to cause ice and snow to thaw and rocks above to fall. Mount Kenya's summit will not be conquered on this day.

It is said that the first man to reach that summit was the first chief of the Kikuyu tribe. He was supposedly lifted to the peak by the god Mogai, the lord of nature, and shown where to start his tribe. For centuries afterward, other natives had no desire to go to the top. They were terrified by the distant rumbling of avalanches and the mystical white sheathing that they guessed might be flour. The mountain was magic. Proof of this came when the first porters to accompany white men to the top returned with stories of water turning to stone overnight. The Mwimbi tribe from the mountain's eastern slopes believed it to be inhabited by evil spirits that entered men's bodies and made them epileptics. In 1899 an Englishman named Halford J. Mackinder and his two alpine guides were the first white men to conquer the main peak. He named it Batian after a Masai medicine man who had prophesied that beings with white skin would one day invade their land.

The name of the mountain itself derived from either a mispronunciation of the original Kikuyu name, Kere-Nyaga (mountain of whiteness), or from the natives' nickname for it, Kiinyaa, after a black-and-white male ostrich.

On the eve of Dec. 12, 1963, the day the colony was at last given full independence from the British, five citizens of the new sovereign nation scaled Mount Kenya, planted their country's new flag on Nelion, Batian's twin peak, and at midnight lit flares that illuminated the mountain so that it could be seen for miles. Kenya was born. So powerful a hold does this strange mountain have on the people living around it that it is the only one whose country has been named for it.

It is 11:15 a.m.

The call comes down from the mountaintop to the ranger station at the park gate: Man hurt on ice. Injury uncertain. Ranger John Omira, 36, who is one of the few black mountain climbers in Africa, begins to gather his gear. He learns that some Polish and Swiss climbers are hauling Hodnett off the glacier down to another station at 14,000 feet. If the injured man cannot descend from there under his own power, Omira will supervise a rescue party. He has been a member of the ranger rescue squad since it was first formed, in 1971, after an Austrian climber broke a leg and was stranded on the peaks for nine days. The climber survived, but a helicopter aiding in the rescue crashed into the mountain and the pilot was killed.

The morning is still crystal, the mountain still glinting and beckoning. On a January day 42 years earlier, Felice Benuzzi, an Italian prisoner in a British war camp near the base of the mountain, having recruited two other prisoners, took the steel spikes they had made for their shoe soles from barbed wire and scrap metal from an abandoned motorcar, and used as their map the label from a tin of meat on which there was a picture of the mountain. They escaped from the prison not to seek their freedom but to climb Mount Kenya, and then steal back into jail. Several hundred feet from the top a blizzard drove the three escapees back. As punishment, marveling British officers gave them a slap on the back and a slap on the wrist: just seven days in close confinement.

Omira sorts through his equipment, then looks up at the photos of his two wives tacked on the station wall. The first bore him no children, and the people of his island in Lake Victoria in West Kenya whispered that Omira's place of work had made him sterile. "It is the magic of the mountain," some said. "Snow kills the male organs," others claimed. However, his second wife, who had been selected by his first, promptly broke the mountain's spell—twice.

It is noon. No word from above. Omira waits. Around his neck he ties his tattered plaid scarf, the one the island people believe lends him the strength to have remained unharmed on the mountain for 13 years. Sometimes even Omira thinks he might need it. Lately the mountain has made him feel dizzy and slow-thinking, yet he does not want to leave. Every few weeks, even if there is no emergency, he feels compelled to climb to the little lakes near the top and listen to the wind blow. "I feel like I am home then," he says.

He goes outside to check on the Toyota Land Cruiser that is supposed to take the rescue party as high as 10,000 feet, where the dirt road ends. From there they will hike to the injured climber. The Toyota is broken; some substitute vehicle will be needed.

Far above, Margeson checks the time and the anguish on his partner's face.

It is 2 p.m.

Another message trickles down at last. Mzungu (white man) needs stretcher. At the gate station, a 25-person rescue party begins to form. Rangers, women in scarves and skirts who work in the park, maintenance men, youthful porters who will take turns carrying the stretcher and equipment—all pile into a trailer hitched to a farm tractor. This is the substitute vehicle. Omira is in charge. They start the slow crawl up the mountain. Why rush? Why the mzungu climbs the mountain remains a mystery to most of them. Some believe mercury or a precious gemstone draws white men to the top. Others believe this is the mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the mzungu goes up in quest of Moses's long-lost staff.

In 1849, a German missionary, Johann Krapf risked his life crossing terrain alive with disease-carrying insects and spear-carrying Masai warriors in order to "discover" Mount Kenya for the world of white men. His reward when he returned home was universal ridicule: Snow on the equator? Get the poor fellow out of the heat! Thirty-four years later a Scottish explorer, Joseph Thomson, became obsessed with tales of this freakish peak. He ignored warnings from traders familiar with the area and covered the same desperate ground. Why? "My only reply," he wrote later, "was that Mount Kenia [sic] had to be reached somehow, as all my countrymen wanted to know the truth about it." When he was able to report to them about it, rapture ruled his pen: "Suddenly there was a break in the clouds far up in the sky, and the next moment a dazzling white pinnacle caught the last rays of the sun, and shone with a beauty, marvelous, spirit-like and divine, cut off, as it apparently was, by immeasurable distance from all connection with the gross earth. . . . At that moment I could almost feel that [Mount] Kenia [sic] was to me what the sacred stone of Mecca is to the faithful who have wandered from distant lands, surmounting perils and hardship that they might but kiss or see the hallowed object, and then, if it were God's will, die."

It is 3:50 p.m.

Abruptly, dramatically, this schizophrenic mountain changes personalities, repainting the heavens and the mood of men beneath it. Now, Omira's crew in the trailer behind the creeping tractor is halfway up the mountain on the dirt road. Rain clouds begin foaming over the peaks, and the sky becomes a cruel gray. The forest birds and Colobus monkeys, exotic black-and-white creatures with great sweeping tails, fall silent. Camphor trees, of extraordinary height because of the phenomenon of gigantism unknown in temperate alpine areas, brood above the rescuers. Pale green moss, beardlike, hangs thickly from every branch, straining the sickly light until it becomes utter gloom. "Go back!" All of nature seems to be croaking "Go back!"

Omira forges on. Being a rescue ranger on Mount Kenya means repressing every superstition an African is taught, every ounce of instinct he is born with. On the slopes above him, the mountain is becoming devious. Rocks begin to ice over, curling mists obscure paths, rain bursts cover tracks. There may be wild animals in the jungle around him, but at least he has no fear of encountering any Ndoroba, a tribe of wild forest dwellers who live lower down on the opposite side of the mountain and who have on occasion attacked rangers with spears and clubs.

Omira does come across an elite Kenyan Army corps of 20 long-distance runners with world-class potential who train at least 15 miles a day at high altitude in hope that some of them will reach the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. They are neither wild nor dangerous. Their training, however, is not without risk. One says, "The main thing we have to worry about when we run up here are the big buffalo." He pauses, then adds, "Could you perhaps arrange to send me some Nike or Adidas shoes?"

It is 6:45 p.m.

Darkness is falling. The runner's warning about buffalo proves to be no joke. Two American women from the Peace Corps, Mei Castor of Atlanta and Kirsten Johnson of Whitefish Bay, Wis. are burrowing into their sleeping bags at 11,500 feet. Suddenly they hear a violent splash and a fearsome bellow and one side of their little tent caves in. Castor howls in pain.

A moment later, when the world stops shaking, the women comprehend what has happened. A Cape buffalo has crashed across the stream near their campsite, lost its footing on the bank, fallen into their tent and landed on Castor's right ankle. It hurts, but she can walk on it. She does not even need the rescue squad, but she is fortunate to be alive. In 1966, a couple descending the mountain after dark was crushed to death by elephants. In the early 1970s, a construction supervisor was trampled to death by a Cape buffalo. In 1975, an American girl edged too close to an old female elephant that was escorting its offspring. The elephant drove its tusk through the girl's chest, miraculously missing her heart and lungs. The beast dropped her when a friend hurled a camera at its head. The girl lived. So does Hodnett, but he is growing weaker, more dazed by the minute.

Omira and his team have left the tractor and passed on foot through every zone on the mountain now, each more bizarre than the one before. They have negotiated the lower mountain, with its steaming heaps of elephant dung and dense forest of great bamboo stalks as tall as 45 feet, and the giant heath zone and the moorland where one must hop from one fat tuft of tussock grass to the next or sink in calf-deep black mud. They have gone past plants found in just a few other places in the world, for example 6-foot tall lobelia stalks, so soft and furry green you want to pet them, and giant groundsels that are three times the height of a man and yet a pushover for a little boy. They have thick brown cactuslike trunks and huge pineapplelike plumes at the top that bloom a tall spike of golden flowers once every 20 years.

Rock hyraxes, furry little creatures with squeaky cries, scamper along both sides of the trail like couriers spreading news of the rescuers' arrival in this strange domain. The hyraxes are harmless, but who knows when, out of the twilight mists, a hunting leopard or a buffalo that has wandered too high might appear. A man can blink, look again and the beast might be gone.

The party has at last reached the base of the peaks. Every connection with the world they know below has been snipped now. On Pikes Peak, Mount Everest or the Matterhorn, a man can at least gaze across a purpling skyline at dusk and be assured by the sweep of other mountains around him that he is still linked to his earth. On Mount Kenya, a man is alone.

Omira shakes a little from the terrible beauty that still touches his marrow after 13 years. "This mountain, she is a very cruel lover," he says. "She calls you to her and then she is waiting to kill you, waiting to throw rocks on you, waiting to make you slip, to make you suffocate, to send wild animals at you." Every time he passes the rock-pile gravesite of three British Royal Air Force members buried by an avalanche in 1966, he adds another rock to keep them warm.

It is 7:30 p.m. The rescue team gathers up Hodnett's limp form. He is dazed with fatigue and pain from his ordeal, but he is all right. The porters huddle together around the stretcher, then lift him and begin to make their way back down in darkness. The scream of a tree hyrax chills them. Some swear they have seen and heard the ghosts of dead climbers up here. Others have awaked on Mount Kenya after a night of fitful dreams to discover that each member of their party has shared precisely the same dream. Sometimes, even the rangers, spooked by things they cannot explain, mutter "Damu mbaya" (bad blood) and refuse to go up at all. They know the fate of Ali Mucemi, the first black guide and climber on the mountain. He died mysteriously on the peaks in 1949 and many believe he was murdered.

Omira's party chatters loudly and sings to frighten the wild beasts away. Hodnett moans from time to time. Far below, a soft light glitters at the base of the mountain. In the restaurant of the Mount Kenya Safari Club, where the cottages cost $288 per night, the diners are touching napkins to their lips and ordering coffee and cognac. They look through the windows and say pleasant things about Mount Kenya.

It is 9 p.m.

Jacob Kamau, a 46-year-old subsistence farmer who was ordered by his mother to live on Mount Kenya so he would be near Ngai, lies in bed wondering if he will hear the voice again tonight. On eight different nights of his life, the first in 1953 and the most recent just six weeks ago, he has heard this voice tell him to get out of his bed and go climb the mountain. In his dirty black shoes, decrepit sports coat and a stringy yarn hat that looks like dreadlocks of blue hair, he has carried his Bible and his white gown all the way up to the base of the peaks and passed those eight subfreezing nights in prayer. Ngai and the white man's God have become one in Kamau's crossbreeding of Christianity and animism.

He speaks in Swahili of these nighttime pilgrimages: "I move up the mountain as if I am being carried, like lightning. I cannot feel the altitude. Everything Ngai tells me up on the mountain, happens below. I take the messages to the government of Kenya, but they ignore me. Something very big will happen soon and everyone will understand what has been revealed to me."

Mount Kenya has long possessed his family. His mother has been summoned by Ngai to the peaks twice. His sister was found by rangers in the bog at 13,000 feet, barefoot and half-crazed, her frozen fingers clutching a metal plaque she had ripped from the RAF men's grave. "The voice told her that no one who dies on the mountain should be buried there," Kamau explains.

The mountain made world headlines in August 1979, when a 52-year-old religious zealot carrying only an old 10-foot strand of rope and a little tea and corn-meal, climbed to the top of Nelion, the mountain's second-highest peak. "This may be one of the most amazing climbs in mountaineering history," warden Phil Snyder was quoted as saying at the time. "Getting to the top of Nelion is one of the most difficult climbs in the world. You need ropes, axes, all-weather clothing, pitons. This man had nothing."

Yet even more danger remained. "It is impossible to make the descent over snow and ice fields without falling," Snyder said. He ordered his rescue rangers up to save the man.

"Can I help you, brother?" asked one as he approached the man on the peak.

"I'm not your brother," snapped the man. He bolted down alone without suffering a scratch. "I do it three times a year," he said.

But Ngai is a fickle host. Three years ago, another zealot made his ascent. The rangers found him curled up in frozen death upon a glacier.

There is no voice tonight. Kamau drifts off to sleep.

It is 10:30 p.m.

Hodnett is nearly at the gate of the Mount Kenya National Park. "I'm coming back to finish this mountain," he keeps murmuring. He has been carried by stretcher to the dirt road, transferred to a Kenyan Army truck and then relayed to a Land Cruiser. At one point, headlights fall upon a leopard stalking a baby Cape buffalo. The leopard, athletic and arrogant, stops and stares, its eyes gleaming like two embers from hell.

By the time he reaches a local hospital, Hodnett is already speaking with a trace of disdain: Mount Kenya was nothing special, he says. He fell because of a small technical error that could be corrected and controlled.

Margeson seems more disturbed, "I saw a lot of sick people on that mountain, too sick to stand up," he says. "People are going up it too fast, totally unequipped. The extremes of temperature are too great to do that and the rescue operation is too slow and poorly equipped to handle it. Mountain climbers don't expect to be rescued, but trekkers do. More people are going to die up there."

It is 11:45 p.m.

The two American women lay awake in their tent, too frightened to sleep, saying silent prayers for sunlight. Omira drains a warm beer at park headquarters and collapses into bed. Muchugo, husband of three and father of 38, spreads his palms to the summit and asks Ngai to let him gaze upon his home one more morning.

A full moon illuminates the ice-capped mountain on the equator. It is the end of another day on Mount Kenya.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)