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African Magic


 

by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

"A kind of magic, One dream, one soul, one prize, One goal, one golden glance of what should be, It's a kind of magic, One shaft of light that shows the way, No mortal man can win this day, It's a kind of magic."

From Queen's It's a Kind of Magic by Roger Taylor

I cranked the volume on my Walkman to maximum. My skull vibrated with the hard-driving rock-and-roll beat. Roger Taylor's words pulsed through my body in time with the deep breathing, and rapid pace carrying me up the steep boulder field. It was a pivotal moment, when a confluence of internal and external forces merged into a oneness of direction and purpose: the music, the mist-shrouded mountain above, and my sweating limbs, swinging along in rhythm with it all. Pulling the pack straps tighter, I picked up the pace, almost dancing up the slope. The shackles of fear fell away, allowing my spirit to soar, awe struck by the wide wonder of life and the vibrant energy throbbing within me. The tune struck just the right chord, carrying me across a crucial mental barrier; I knew I could do it!

When it had become apparent Roy wasn't going to acclimatize, the idea of a solo began wandering the misty caverns of my mind. I had my doubts. "Can you do it? You've never been so high, and this mountain has claimed more altitude victims than any on earth. What about your rotten luck this year? This could be the final clincher." Still, faint glimmers of hope kept me searching the labyrinth. "Come on, man, go for it! This is what you came to Africa for. Test yourself again. Get back on the sharp edge. Recapture the essence of Zen found in total commitment." But then I'd shiver deep in my bones, knowing well what total commitment implied, and a cold gust of mortality would extinguish the flame of inspiration.

When Roy left for Nairobi, I was left with one chance to salvage the mountain portion of the trip. After carting the gear halfway around the world, I at least had to use some of it. I was strongly attracted to our original objective, the "drop of water" line formed by the Diamond Couloir, but decided it was too difficult to third-class carrying bivy gear. I didn't have any ascenders, so I couldn't easily follow the crux if I led it without the pack. I opted instead for the adjacent Ice Window Route. Graded Scottish III+, it looked to be the quickest and easiest way to the summit. I would bring a couple screws and a few nuts, and drag an 8.5 mm rope for rappels.

I didn't have a route description, but the line is obvious. It starts directly up the Darwin Glacier, angles left behind a buttress, then follows a narrow ribbon of ice that parallels the Diamond Couloir, ending at the overhanging lower lip of the Diamond Glacier. At this point, the first-ascent team of Snyder and Thumbi chopped a window in the icicles hanging from the serac and emerged onto the easier slopes above.

Once I'd made the mental commitment, I could relax and watch the sun set on a sea of clouds below the makeshift boulder hut. As I stuffed myself with a massive load of tuna noodle glop, I thought about what the morrow would bring, and back over the previous week, when the real adventure had begun.

It seemed appropriate that I was flying to my first Third World country on a third rate airline, based in one of the poorest nations on earth. I hadn't heard of any Air Sudan crashes recently (as opposed to the uproar over American air safety), so I figured, "What the hell, I can handle poor service for a couple of hours to save a couple hundred bucks." I had a lesson coming.

The three-hour take off delay at Heath row didn't matter. We were so excited to be on our way that another hour and a half in Rome didn't faze us. We landed the next morning in Cairo under a scorching white ball of sun. The bus ride across the superheated tarmac left me wondering how the airport workers handled the enervating heat, hour after hour, day after day. Their bodies must adjust by thinning the blood, slowing the mind, and squinting against the stark glaring orb broiling overhead. We got a full dose of their special hell, without the benefit of adaptations, when we baked for two hours in the plane, the air conditioning turned off to save money. During this time we were served the third of four breakfasts we were to receive. These meals ranged from gray scrambled eggs with greasy sausage to dry rolls and bitter orange marmalade. Of course, a Moslem airline didn't serve alcohol.

Everyone was getting a bit hot and bothered by the time we descended to Khartoum through a blinding dust storm. The fun really started when we were processed through customs. Some of us refused until told why (when a two-hour stop was scheduled), so one of the guards hurried off to find an airline official. When he arrived, yelling and gesturing, we were rushed off to the waiting terminal, a dingy brown building with filthy stinking bathrooms, no food or drink for sale, and dead ceiling fans hanging motionless in the sweltering 100+ degree air. What followed was an interminable seven-hour wait without water (one crappy hot orange soda each provided by the airline) or enough seats. Every couple of hours some lackey would appear with a new excuse. "We can't find a pilot," one of them said, raising his eyebrows. In the end, we had to accept their feeble apologies about the weather when the supercharged dust particles, swirling about all day, crackled with heat lightning.

We finally boarded and sat sweating for another hour, trying not to notice the greasy mechanic crouched in one of the engines, torquing furiously on a big wrench. A few minutes later, we lurched into the night through a thunder and hail storm. I've never felt such palpitating fear and tension in a group of people. We all stared glassily ahead at nothing, studiously avoiding the white knuckles gripping armrests on either side. An audible sigh wheezed through many parched throats when we wobbled off the runway and managed to stay airborne another minute. A last tasteless breakfast topped off the absolute worst flight of my life. We landed in Nairobi twenty-eight exhausting hours after leaving Roy's folks' house out side London.

We took a taxi to Mrs. Roache's bunk house/camp, which was recommended in the climbing guide. It was after 2 AM by the time we crawled into the tent and collapsed, sweating on top of our sleeping bags.

The next day was spent running around Nairobi gathering food, fuel, etc., for our proposed ten-day expedition to Mt. Kenya. Riding the Mutatus (the jam packed, broken-down vans that serve as local bus service) was almost as exciting as our flight. At least the breakneck speed insured a short ride.

We stumbled through downtown the next day with heavy rucksacks and a huge duffel bag filled with food and gear. It was August and we hoped to do both an ice route on the mountain's south side, and a rock route on its north side; thus we had a full complement of rock and ice equipment. We'd hoped to take an express taxi, but their offices were closed. Our only option seemed to be the country bus station.

I drank in every detail during the six hour ride, from the antics of the baggage boys as they gleefully scrambled up and down the jungle-gym framework welded to the side of the bus, to the calm, quiet dignity of a wrinkled old farmer returning from the city in his only good suit. Every small town was an eye-opener. I loved the bright colors painted on the facades of the tiny shanty shops, but the dirty huts and smoky shacks randomly scattered behind made me think hard about the contrast between my life and theirs. This was it, The Third World. A few hours on a country bus had more impact on my world view than four years living in Western Europe.

I'd been wearing my prescription sun glasses on the ride. At our last stop in Nejeri, the first thing I looked for when they threw my pack down was my regular pair. I'd put them in the plastic case for the sunglasses, in the top pocket of the pack; but they weren't there. When I tore into the main compartment of the pack, my angry swearing and flurry of activity attracted a small crowd. I couldn't find them. When I scrambled up on top of the bus, I saw the roll of toilet paper that had been shoved in with the glasses. It was clear that one of the baggage boys had opened my pack and grabbed the first good-looking item; but of course, they vehemently denied it. The bus rolled away into the dusk a few minutes later, leaving me frantically searching for the scratched old pair of glasses I brought for such emergencies. Thankfully, I hadn't left them in Nairobi as I'd first thought.

The old farmer I'd been watching on the bus was nice enough to wait for me to repack, then show us the way to the last mutatu headed for Naro Moru. It was dark by the time we piled into the covered back of the small blue pick-up. We sat waiting for almost an hour until the driver had a full load. When there were ten people crowded into the two wooden benches, I wondered why we didn't go. In the next fifteen minutes, another eight managed to squish in! The seven of us occupying the right side bench had to turn our shoulders sideways and pass an arm around behind the person beside us. Hips were squeezed together so tightly that Roy's bones pressed in on an artery in my leg, cutting off the blood supply. Try as I might, I couldn't shift enough to relieve the pressure. Over the next half hour, a tingling coldness crept up my leg like frostbite until the entire limb sat there like a lump of wood. When we finally stopped, I could barely stand, and would have fallen on my face out the back if I hadn't grabbed the purse of a woman sitting by the door as I pitched out.

My leg was dead, it was after ten, the town was asleep and we were still a long way from the mountain. Luckily, one of the other passengers knew some rangers and thought he could arrange a ride. An hour later they came out of the bar and we threw our rucksacks in the back of their truck. I snapped a quick flash photo of Roy sitting on our gear. Uh oh, a big no-no! I hadn't figured out how sensitive many Africans are about having their pictures taken. I was sternly lectured on my offense over the course of the twenty-minute ride. A guy sitting in the cab thought I'd included him in the shot (I hadn't). He was the head man of the next village; so of course, he couldn't let a photo of himself fall into the hands of bandits or terrorists. I was surprised they didn't just confiscate the film, but then I realized money was the name of the game when they kept asking how sorry I was. What we thought was going to be a free lift turned into a fifteen dollar con job.

The Mt. Kenya Youth Hostel was an oasis of normalcy after the breakneck culture shock pace of the last three days. We finally settled in around midnight, crashing like fallen trees into a dead sleep.

Some of the people staying at the hostel had arranged for a van to take them up to the Meterological Station road head at 10,000 ft.. When the driver saw us gather by his vehicle the next morning, I could see the cash register ringing in his eyes. As we started to load, he announced that we'd each have to pay seven dollars, rather than the fifteen for the van load as previously arranged. Most of the others flatly refused to give in to this extortion, unloaded their packs, and set off walking. (They easily managed to hitch most of the way.) With our huge 10 day loads of rock and ice climbing gear, Roy and I couldn't do the same, so had to grin and bear it again. In the end, I figured that Mt. Kenya was the most expensive summit I've visited.

This last ride turned out to be the most hair-raising. The driver was totally incompetent, taking the slippery corners at their steepest angle, then stalling out when he missed a gear shift. We had to jump out five times to push. The closest call came when we barreled onto a narrow, wooden bridge without any railing; just before, the rear wheels had spun in a mud puddle, greasing the tires so they skidded side ways on the slippery wood. I braced my self for a twenty-foot drop when I couldn't see any more bridge on my side, and felt a tire catch on the edge. Luckily, it was a short span. We spun off at the last possible moment, the driver blithely continuing up the muddy track, unaware that he'd almost lost it.

At 10,000 feet, the "Met." Station is the highest point you can drive within the park. Roy and I each made up a 35 kilo load and set off through the bamboo rain forest. Our plan was to drop the loads at MacKinder's Camp at 14,000 feet, then run back down to the Met Station, where we would camp. We'd take up another load the next day and establish base camp.

The approach is beautiful, the unusual flora changing with the altitude. Above the rain forest is the notorious "vertical bog." Luckily, it wasn't too wet, so we managed to keep our feet dry. As bad as it sounds, this stretch is just a series of short terraces which collect water, creating small muddy "bogs." Above this, we left the trees. The typical afternoon mist descended as we walked through a stretch of grass and small shrubs. The last section is the most spectacular, providing the first good views of the mountain, if it's clear. We enjoyed the cool fog that wafted through the giant plants, the world's largest herbs. These strange, bulbous, spiky-leafed "trees" appear to be straight from the set of a high budget sci-fi flick. It was easy to imagine yellow reptilian eyes tracking us and alien forms blending into the eerie landscape.

Our fast pace took its toll on Roy, who has problems acclimatizing. He needed frequent rests the last couple miles, and pulled into MacKinder's looking decidedly peakid. We dumped the gear with the hut caretaker (for a fee) and hurried back down the trail. The rangers didn't think we'd make it down before dark and strongly advised us to stay the night. Not only is it against the law to travel in any national park after dark, but an old rogue lion had ripped into a French couple's tent the night before at the Met Station. Tent camping wasn't permitted and everyone was advised to walk in large groups.

After a mile, it became apparent Roy couldn't keep up, so he went back to stay in the hut. I was feeling strong and light, jogging down through the forest. The mist had blown away, so the afternoon sun benignly smiled down. I had second thoughts, though, when I passed a porter on his way to the hut. He was aghast to see me descending alone so late in the day. "Oh, very dangerous. You are too late. This lion, he is very bad!" He was adamant that I come up with him, but I was sure I could get down in time. I wondered what good a companion would be if the lion attacked. I guess it would give you a 50-50 chance he'd pick the other guy for dinner.

I picked up the pace as the sun sank toward the horizon. In the vertical bog I passed the first trees among which a cunning old cat might lie in ambush. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. I was unarmed, both physically, and mentally, knowing virtually nothing about African predators. This was it, a real adventure, racing the setting sun and the lurking lion. If he saw me, there would be no escape. I couldn't outrun him, and had no possible defense. My heart was pounding with more than physical exertion by the time I hit the rain forest trail, my eyes scanning the undergrowth for movement. What would I do if I saw him? Get eaten, I figured! I wondered what it would feel like. Would he slash my jugular with one mighty swipe of his paw, putting me out of my misery, or knock me down and begin gnawing on a limb while I watched in horror? I hadn't felt so keyed up, and acutely aware, in years. While I didn't like the out-of-control feeling of helplessness, it was just this gut reaction to the forces of nature that had drawn me to the dark continent.

I got to the Met Station with twenty minutes to dark. I didn't begrudge the ten dollar hut fee one bit.

The next morning, I humped a huge double load up the trail, accompanied by three Peace Corps volunteers I met. Roy had been quite sick throughout the night, not recovering until well into the next day, so didn't meet us until just before the giant groundsel forest. We set up the tents in meadows below the hut to avoid paying any fees.

The next day was cool and rainy, giving us a good excuse to rest and acclimatize. Unfortunately, it didn't do Roy much good. Dave, one of the Peace Corps volunteers, was also hit hard by the altitude, so he, his wife, Josh, and their friend, Maryann, went down. Roy followed them a day later. We were lucky to meet an American who volunteered to trade his light pack with Roy, and accompany him to the Youth Hostel.

At the bivi below the South Face the next night, I set my alarm for six to catch the sunrise. Third-classing fifteen hundred feet didn't require an alpine start. The route turned out to be an almost exact equivalent to the Black Ice on the Grand Teton in length and difficulty.

The initial slope on old black glacier ice was awkward. It was not steep enough to permit easy pick placement, so I used my tools like canes for balance points while stepping up. The ice was too hard for French technique, so I ran up on front points, anxious for steeper ground where I could swing an ax for a secure placement. When it did steepen, around the corner of the buttress, the climbing was still insecure, with soft snow between rock shelves. A tricky little traverse ended at a 20-foot rappel into the ice ribbon. The blue water ice snaking up through granite ribs was superb, allowing a rapid one swing rhythm.

The crux was a forty-foot bulge at the same level as the steepest section of the Diamond Couloir. It was vertical for the last few feet, but the soft ice made it secure and enjoyable. The altitude dictated smooth, deliberate movements and deep breathing.

The Ice Window was there, but it proved harder to climb up behind it than to traverse the slope below. The last twenty feet up and around onto the Diamond Glacier were spectacular steep alpine ice. Directly below hung the blue void of the Diamond Couloir.

The glacier slope was tiring, with a few inches of soft snow over ice. I was forced to stop and rest every hundred feet or so. I stepped into the sun at the Gate of the Mists and stopped for a pleasant rest and snack. There was one more ice pitch, ending with a few rock moves to get established on the easy upper slopes of Nelion. The last couple hundred feet to the top was scrambling on occasionally loose rock.

I dumped the pack at the tiny aluminum Howell Hut and stood on Nelion's summit a minute later. After an hour of taking in the view, I began to feel drowsy and rather blah. Where, I wondered, was the poetry and inspiration I should feel on this sublime pinnacle? I wasn't sick, but didn't have much appetite. I ate half a tin of sardines. nibbled a bit of chocolate, and returned to the hut for a nap. There was enough time to descend (if I was sure of the way), but I wanted to see the sunset and sunrise from the summit.

At 5:00 PM I got up to watch the sun slide behind the slightly higher twin summit of Batian (a few hundred feet away), outlining its jagged edge with burning wisps of cloud. A few minutes later, the purple shadow of the mountain stretched out across the plains, a huge, silent creature swallowing another day. Finally, the tip of the pyramid angled up into the twilight sky as the first stars appeared over head.

A cold wind drove me back to the hut, where I passed a long night without music, reading material, or anyone to talk to. It should have been the perfect time and place for introspection and deep philosophical thought, or simple communion with nature, but all I felt was tired, bored, and listless.

Sunrise was as spectacular as sunset; this time the mountain's shadow crawled back from the opposite direction. When it was over, I headed back to the Gate of the Mists and scrambled around for over an hour before I figured there must be another "col overlooking the Diamond Glacier." Once I did find the first slings around the other side of Nelion, the descent was straight forward, set up as promised for many single rope rappels. The scree slopes up to, and down from, the saddle between Nelion and Pt. Lenana were treacherous; palm-scraping slips unavoidable. I didn't descend far enough to reach the easy gully leading back to the bivi hut to the south of Pt. John, and ended up doing a steeper one which involved some tricky downclimbing.

That evening at MacKinder's, I met a group of young Kenyans on their first mountain trip. They were just starting a government job-training program, and the ascent of Pt. Lenana was meant to be an initial psyche-up. When I told them I was on my way to Nairobi the next day, they kindly offered me a free ride in their big, open truck.

Again the drive made a strong impression on me, even more so now that it was contrasted with the harsh simplicity of the mountain. The climb, while enjoyable, wasn't a big deal, just another bit of rock and ice I'd briefly visited in my continuing search for climbing adventure. I'd enjoyed it, and gotten some fantastic sunset pictures, but the emptiness I'd felt on the summit haunted me. Where had the romance and adventure gone? In Africa I found it below the mountain: "racing" the lion through the rain forest, absorbing the rich new sights, sounds, and smells on a truck ride, and walking the thronging streets of Nairobi later that night on my way back to Mrs. Roache's.

If you come to Kenya for a climb, make sure to allocate time for a safari and a trip to the coast. East Africa is one of the last places on earth where one can easily see a full range of wild animals in their natural habitat. We rented a four-wheel-drive jeep for a week's camping safari to the Masai Mara. It was great being on our own so we could stop and observe at our leisure, rather than scurrying from sighting to sighting like the tour groups. We were fortunate to see the amazing wildebeest migration. Millions of the mangy creatures walk up from the hot, dry Serengeti Plain in Tanzania each summer to the wetter highlands of Kenya. Lion, cheetah, zebra, gazelle, hippo, elephant, and giraffe, each with its own presence. The size, power, grace, and sheer numbers of these animals all adds up to an awesome spectacle of nature that makes the elk herds in Yellowstone look like something out of Disneyland.

We finished up with three days in Malindi, a relaxing resort town on the coast. We passed the time easily, windsurfing, snorkeling, or stuffing ourselves with curry at the excellent Indian restaurants.

Air Sudan had a last trick to pull on our way out. They insisted on weighing carry-on luggage (ours stuffed with cameras and hardware). Of course, our baggage was grossly overweight. They tried to stick us with four hundred dollars in extra fees and threw our stuff to the side when we protested. We spent the next hour frantically asking other passengers without much baggage to check some of ours, then unpacked everything and draped ropes, racks, and cameras in elaborate necklaces over Goretex, helmets, and plastic boots. Our antics provided welcome comic relief to bored customs workers on the early morning shift. In the end the airline had to accept our strange habits of dress, and we slid by on the exact kilo. In the waiting room, we took it all off and stuffed most of it into an empty duffel Roy had carried on. All in all, an amusing and fitting end to an African adventure.



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