When I lived in Kenya from 1965 to 1968, on a clear day I could see a solitary peak shimmering with snow and ice just 90 miles to the north. I often saw it from my office on the sixth floor of the Jeevan Bharati Building on Harambee Avenue in downtown Nairobi. My office was a block away from the American Embassy, which terrorists destroyed in 1998, killing and injuring thousands of people.
The peak is Mount Kenya, which at 17,058 feet is the highest in Kenya and the second highest in Africa (after Mount Kilimanjaro). The first book that I ever read about Kenya was Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta’s 1938 anthropological study about his Kikuyu people of central Kenya. He wrote it while studying at the London School of Economics, long before he became the country’s first leader upon independence in 1963.
One day in 1966 my friend Igor Lupekine, a professor of geology at University College, Nairobi, proposed that he lead five of us on a safari up the mountain. In addition to Igor and me, the other three were Doris, the woman I was married to at the time, and a Canadian couple who were affiliated with the United National Development Program in Kenya.
We went to the mountain on a long weekend. Our intention was never to scale the peak, which is rated “a technical climb.” In fact, we planned to hike only to the base of the mountain’s huge glacier at somewhat below 12,000 feet.
We accomplished what we set out to do. But it was one of the most difficult hikes in my life.
The mountain was so wet that we had to step carefully from one hummock to another, each surrounded by deep puddles of water. Igor captured this shot of my wife and me as we laboriously climbed up the mountain:
That night was, if anything, even worse. We slept in a cave normally inhabited by leopards. If fear of their return weren’t enough, the constant drip of cold water on our sleeping bags — and on our faces too — kept waking us up. The photo below shows Igor and Doris around a smoky fire that we built the next morning in an effort to dry out our sleeping bags and equipment:
By the time we reached our goal I was exhausted. Not only was I overweight and out of shape, I was still a heavy smoker, as the cigarette in my hand in the photo below attests. I didn’t stop until the next year.
Still, the mountain was memorable, particularly the strange vegetation that grows only in the alpine zones of mountains on the Equator. Like this Lobelia telekii, which grows only above 11,500 feet.
A different, but related plant, is this giant lobelia:
Finally, the clouds over the summit lifted, presenting us with this brief, albeit glorious, view of Mount Kenya: