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Mt. Kenya

Mt. Kenya

When we were preparing to move to Kenya for the first time, Arianna’s aunt Barb & uncle Murphy, gave us a book titled No Picnic on Mt. Kenya. It’s a delightful story about an Italian POW held in prison camp at the base of Mt. Kenya during WWII. Felicio Benucci builds DIY climbing gear, breaks out of prison, climbs the mountain, then breaks back into prison. If you think a great story is about plot, think again. Greatness is in how a story is told, the characters and development, not in the ending. No Picnic on Mount Kenya is a great story.

Barb and Murphy were told about the book by their friend Bill (William) Foegge, the former CDC Director who eradicated smallpox. I’ve never met Bill, but he has a great book of his own – House on Fire – which chronicles his work on the disease that was the scourge of humanity for thousands of years – until the scientists and public health guys won the battle, one of the greatest victories for human health in the modern era.

Since reading No Picnic on Mt Kenya, I’ve wanted to do the climb. Since hearing about Dr. Foegge’s difficulty on Kilimanjaro (slightly higher mountain between Kenya and Tanzania), I can’t remember if it was altitude sickness or injury, I’ve been nervous about the high mountains.

I went into Mt. Kenya with a decent bit of trepidation. The highest mountain I’ve ever climbed was 13,500, and this was after my freshman year of high-school – 25 years ago! Our goal, Pt. Lenana, is 16,500 feet. It’s doable, but it would certainly be no picnic!

Arianna set up plans for me to go for my 40th birthday with Ken Muma, my friend, pediatric surgeon and Kijabe CEO. I remember when COVID hit in late March, Ken asked me whether we should pay the guide fee.

“Absolutely yes,” I said, “We have to commit, otherwise we’ll never do it.”

We were delayed 5 months, but picked up an accomplice in the meantime, Francis Mbugua, orthopaedic surgeon and also good friend.

Ken and Francis both did the climb 14 years ago and had a terrible go of it, a trip full of rain and cold, sacrificing clothes and socks for Ken’s then-girlfriend, Sarah. They had a score to settle with the mountain.

I was long overdue for escape. 2020 has been a brutal year. Mostly good, but relentless. We ran a massive COVID response campaign through Friends of Kijabe. Then we took on the role of team leader with Serge, our mission agency. I created a job for my first employee, he left for another NGO, and I went through the hiring process again. The economic crisis in Kenya is quite real, and at times I have felt like the community ATM. At least once a week for the past months, Arianna would look at me and say, “You need to get out of here.” That’s the nice way of saying, “Go climb a mountain, you’re a stressball, and you’re driving me nuts.”

As we bumped up the mountain to the Chogoria Route trailhead, I switched my phone off. Instantly, my spirit relaxed.

My mind had been so busy for the past months, I was truly surprised at how utterly empty it became, and how quickly.  Not that I didn’t think, but it was more animalistic – eat, sleep, climb, take a photo.  Even photography now feels more amygdala rather than frontal cortex – photography is second nature. 

I apologized to Ken and Francis for my lack of thoughts. They thought it was hilarious, and quickly adopted the de facto slogan of our trip: “no thoughts!” Doubtless, whatever stress I am under is nothing compared theirs.

We climbed and camped, ate remarkably well, explored caves and waterfalls, learned about artificial insemination of trout (seriously!), argued about Kenyan politics (the national pastime of Kenyan men), and walked higher and higher up the mountain.

I wondered, what does it mean to climb a mountain?   Is there an inherent purpose in it? To keep going when it is hard? Grit is certainly a life skill – scrambling up the rocks, looking for solid handholds at 16,500 feet in the air, not quitting on the interminable walk home.  Does this correlate to other successes in life, or does the accomplishment stand alone?

I carried my good camera with aspirations of brilliant summit pictures. But when we reached the top, having climbed 4 hours after a 2 am wake-up call, the world went white.

I was 40 years old and looking into the white mist.  Behind the mist was the sunrise, Batian and Nelion peaks, and the entire world, but I did not see any of this.  I saw a white veil, blank and impenetrable.  To move fearlessly through this white mystery, to create and discover what could be, this is the task of the second half of my life.  It seemed a perfect metaphor.

I didn’t feel I missed out on anything, rather, I felt I had been given a gift.  Because I couldn’t see beyond, I noticed what was immediately in front of me: the icy rocks, my friends whooping and celebrating.  Our world was small, cold, and jagged.  But it was beautiful and for these few minutes, it was ours.  We were conquerors.  

After the long walk down (based on time, I’d guess 15 miles), we met our wives at an AirBnB to recover. I was most excited about this evening because I learned long ago, the stories are the best part of the climb.

Stories grow a life of their own.  They are reason enough to undertake a journey.  Stories are the foundation of friendship and the scaffolding of love.  When I remember Kenya, I will remember Ken walking down a trail, free and strong – I have known that feeling myself, and even though my legs lost the will to keep up, it was wonderful to watch.  I will remember Francis turning a torch to check on me, ever cautious about my presence, careful not to leave me behind. 

Most of all, I will remember the magic nighttime moments when the stars lit up the sky. At Lake Ellis, I chased a break in the clouds a mile-and-a-half around the lake to line up the Milky Way reflection. I placed a flat rock on sage grass at the water’s edge, then balanced my camera on the rock, a perfect makeshift tripod. I stared down at the stars, reflected in the water, fighting the overwhelming urge to dive into them. I wonder if this is how God feels, looking down on his universe. Does he feel the overwhelming urge to topple headlong into the beauty?

At Mentos, our final camp, I woke early for a sip of chai, but the sky was too clear to sit indoors. I scrambled over a nearby rock ledge camera in one hand, chai cup in the other, to the most magical landscape of moon, stars, mountains, and alpine lakes. The pictures are spectacular but they don’t remotely do the moment justice.

Now I am at home, trying to find words for simple transcendence. There are none adequate. It’s all just too big, too marvelous, too fragile, too short-lived – this world and this life.

As a book we are reading with the girls reminds us, life is precious precisely because it is finite. That which can easily disappear has the most value. My experience in the mountains was magic both because it was no picnic, and because it may never happen again. But, I am so grateful.

2 thoughts on “Mt. Kenya

    • Author gravatar

      I am speechless at the beauty of our world…you did for me in the pictures that I am unable to do now. I have been to South Africa and how can someone look at the land, the foliage and animals and not believe in a God that created it….truly blessed. Thank you…

    • Author gravatar

      I love reading your stories and seeing the beautiful pictures. Thanks so much for sharing your adventures with us.

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