“Why am I here again!?” It’s a long way down with only two slippery, icy ropes keeping us attached to a 600m wall. “Pull it together, man!” Matt says. Dangling straight down, the ropes disappear into the whiteout.
* * * * *
I wasn’t ready for Accra Road. I’d been here nearly ten years ago during a six-month trip through Africa. Back then I was in the zone, prepared for the intensity of places like downtown Nairobi, Kenya.
Familiar sounds of East Africa rush in like a tsunami: steel drums on the radio, the banter of salesmen roaring loudly over the idling tailpipes of motor-rickshaws. The street is lined with matatus, a beaten-up fleet of white vans painted with clichés: “One Love,” Jesus on the cross, a Chicago Bulls logo. The door men pull at your arm, eager to fling you into an eternity of hot, stewing discomfort.
I’m here to meet a friend. I hadn’t seen Matt in years, but then he messaged me out of the blue one day. “Mt. Kenya. January?...” the message read.
For different reasons, neither of us had climbed the mountain on our first trip – me because I was simply too inexperienced, Matt because he was tending to a sick traveling companion. Now, it seemed all the years had not dulled the desire to return.
I couldn’t resist the magnetism of such a proposition. I was confident that I could manage the climb this time – my real fear had been that I’d never be able to come back and try again.
Now here I am in Nairobi: alone, dehydrated, a lost, lily-white foreigner tugging at his oversized mountaineering bag. Where is Matt?
Taking refuge in a grim, iron-barred lodge, our suggested meeting point, I ask the attendant “Have you seen my friend? Mzungu (foreigner)?” She nods towards a street-corner cafe.
It would be strange to see Matt anywhere else. Here in this desperately hot diner, the ceiling fan barely chopping through the humidity, at a wobbly wooden table rammed against a filthy, peeling wall, I feel we are both rather in our element. After rudely absorbing a plate of oily chips, we hire an Uber and set off towards the mountain, rehashing long-forgotten stories along the way.
The walk in takes four days; jungle gives way to outlandish vegetation as we ascend Mackinders Valley. Eventually we climb a steep, rocky moraine, affording dramatic views of seemingly miniature villages below us.
On the fourth day we reach the Austrian hut at 4700m, directly under the looming south face. Back when I had little clue of what it took to climb mountains, I recall looking up from this hut, feeling inspired by the enormous, dark figure above me, compelled to reach the top one day.
We wake on summit day feeling uneasy. The previous night, we’d seen a thick blanket of snow on the face. More bad weather could arrive any minute, but knowing Matt as well as I do, there will be no turning back – it will be a stubborn push to the top.
In the pre-dawn darkness we leave the hut, with only our headlamps to light the way. We spend the morning basking in sunshine as we navigate across the glacier and start up easy ramps of rock. But then comes midday.
The storm rolls in with a fury, pelting the mountain with snow. We’re faced with a choice: keep climbing, or go home empty-handed.
I lead a pitch into the storm, dumbly heading upwards as conditions grow worse. High on a ridge, surrounded by teetering blocks of stone, my limbs trembling with fatigue, I decide I’ve had enough.
“I’m done, man. I think we should try to find a way down. It’s crazy up here!”
Matt stares blankly ahead. Without a word, he picks up his gear and heads off into the whiteout.
Alone at the summit, vulnerable and very far from help, we might as well be on the moon.
I stay behind to belay him, with no idea if he’s making good progress or wandering aimlessly. It must be an hour later that I hear his muffled yells, telling me he’s reached the summit.
The surge of relief I feel soon disappears when I reach the top, knowing we still need to make our way back down. Alone up here, vulnerable and very far from help, we might as well be on the moon.
For thirty desperate minutes we clamber gingerly around on loose, snow-covered rocks, searching for the descent route. Finally Matt hollers, “I’ve found it!”
Descending takes hours, groping under snowy pillows for hidden anchors, our ropes frozen solid. Our feet scramble for holds on tiny ledges covered in snow and ice as the daylight slips away. It's scary, but also thrilling – all my concentration is focused on not plummeting into the whiteness below.
We finish well after dark, our nerve ends fried from pure survival mode. Guides are busy cooking, soaking the hut’s walls with the somehow comforting smell of burning kerosene. The ordeal behind us, we crash into bed.
Nearly ten years before, I'd carved my name into the underside of the upper bunk. Now, there it was, staring me in the face. The young man who wrote that was a borderline alcoholic who had nearly lost his life in a traumatic car accident. “Life is short!” was his mantra. He was afraid that he might never reach the summit – might never live the adventures he’d dreamed of.
I chuckle as I consider how the universe had conspired for Matt and me to return, the ingredients magically coalescing within a month’s notice.
“It’s done,” I say to myself. The vendetta is over, yet there are always more.
I used to think that life was about ticking boxes, but now I know, that for me, life is rather about filling boxes; with dreams, with memories, with friends, with adventures. Time is leaving us fast, each and every day.
While adventure may be a dirty, sticky, scary, uncomfortable business, the risk of winding up with an empty box is the scariest thing I know.
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