Each fresh peak ascended teaches something ~ Sir Martin Conway.
Every time you get to the summit, you get a sense of feeling that you are no longer a victim of the devil. Everything is beautiful; everything is magical; everything is pure and fresh; everything is seamlessly one. You stand there, giving yourself as a sacrifice and being one with the world around you. There is no better feeling than the peace and quiet of the mountains.
While I was doing Nachu Ridge, I met an eccentric mountain climber named Tony, who really insisted that I hike Elephant Hill – Aberdare Range first, before taking the first attempt at Mt. Kenya. He pointed out that expert hikers use the Elephant Hill summit as a test runs for challenging mountains like Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya.
And yes! It was the kind of hike that will have you dancing and calling your ancestors for a cold WhiteCap and a massage. Even before we got to the Starting Point, I was already wondering who compelled me to trade my warm bed for a muddy, cold, tasking hike? Well, I DID.
The weather in July is the kind that makes you want to hibernate all month with warm throws, inside games, loving company, lots of cooking, and cuddling, and of course…way too much screen time. But, I really wanted to climb to the Elephant Hill Summit standing at 3500m above sea level, and I needed to feel motivated enough to conquer Mt. Kenya, and it gave me that and so much more.
Warm Refreshing Welcome
We left Nairobi a few minutes to 6 am and were stretching, and ready to start the hike at 8 am in the morning. Luckily, it was a bit sunny, and even though a little muddy, one felt the onset of a good day creeping in.
The start from Njambini Forest 2500m is of more of an exciting leisure nature walk. You are more soaked into the rich, fresh, unpolluted air of the Aberdare Ranges. As you walk more into the winding trail, you can hear your laughter echoing in the forest.
You will come across herders and farmers who are legally allowed to cultivate in this cyclic system. When you get to the Savannah zone, 2802 m, the real hiking experience begins to pick. It is also at this point when you realize that it would have been wiser to hike with a lighter pack.
Because the range only gets more challenging as you keep going, I recommend you empty your backpack and only carrying what is essential like fruits, heavy snacks, and water. Leave your change of clothes and shoes in the car. Trust me; you will thank me later!
It is also wise to carry at least 3 liters of water and keep sipping water as you climb because it helps you adjust to altitude change. Unless you are doing a day hike with a curfew to meet, it is best to always move at your own pace.
However, because of Corona, I was doing it with a group of fast hikers because we had to be back in Nairobi before curfew, and I really wanted to make it to the summit. A challenge started is best completed, right?
You need special shoes for hiking – and a bit of a special soul as well ~ Terri Guillemets.
The trek through the canopy of towering Bamboos was the favorite part of the hike for me. Despite the treacherous nature of the trek, the Bamboo trail is very scenic.
While it also the longest trail, it is definitely not the most difficult. I had episodes where I found myself stopping dead in my tracks when the trees clashed together. Coming across loads of Elephant dung in a forest known for elephants didn’t make it any easier, but having a KWS guide with a rifle definitely helped us feel safer.
We didn’t sight any elephants, but we did encounter loads of fresh elephant droppings. The trail is slippery and strewn with dry bamboo leaves.
As we proceeded, the air was getting thick. We hear so much about altitude sickness until you’re the one battling it. This was the first high altitude hike I was taking, and at this point, I could feel an unholy thump in my chest.
I could feel the cold air pierce through my nostrils, and my lungs alleging to come out and get gulps of oxygen because my nose seemed to be failing. I was constantly reaching for my handkerchief to battle my running nose, and a headache was slowing setting in. This was the point I knew that I needed more work with acclimatization if I’m to ace Mt. Kenya.
Dealing with altitude sickness required you to slow down to avoid becoming delirious and keep sipping on water. By the time we approached the point of despair, my body was already tired and ready to give up. The altitude was already giving me a hard time, and all I wondered was whether the possibility of going back was viable at this point. 😊
Luckily, I was amongst a group of guys who didn’t believe in giving up, and who kept encouraging those of us having a hard to continue with the trek. Having music blasting from one of the guy’s backpack also made the hike more bearable.
In the mountains, there are only two grades: You can either do it, or you can’t ~ Rusty Baillie.
Point of Desperado
True to its name, this is the point where you re-examine some of the choices you make in your life. The wind, fog, wetness, and other elements of this forlorn begin to daunt you at this point. According to experienced hikers, most people don’t actually make it past the point of despair.
At 3255m, I was now feeling the altitude sickness getting to me, trying to weigh me down. My head hurt real bad, but I still needed to conquer this hill.
This was by far the most challenging part of the climb, more like an extremely steep stairway, full of rocks. The rocks can also be slippery, so you need to pay attention to where you’re stepping. While you may appear to be immersed in the clouds, this is where you experience the best views.
The enthralling scenery makes you realize that climbing Elephant is sort of like journeying through life. It starts easy, you are full of energy, and you feel like you can do it. But then other elements come in play, and you begin to doubt if you can hack it in the first place. Sometimes it gets too steep you consider going back, but then the summit starts to appear close, and you get motivated to get there.
Here, we took a break to rest and snack on what one had carried, take a few photos, and for some of us, soak in what lay in front. One can spot Mt. Kenya, Mt. Longonot, Lake Naivasha, Rurimueria, Mt. Kipipiri, as well as views of Nyeri, Muranga, Nyandarua, Kiambu, and the Rift Valley.
If you do manage to get to the Point of Despair, the daunting journey to get there doesn’t seem to frustrate you that much. Getting there works like tears putting down the fires of your soul because this is where you decide whether to keep going to the summit or whether to go back.
Realize that there is really no correct way to hike the trail, and anyone who insists that there is ought not to worry so much about other people’s experiences. Hikers need to hike the trail that’s right for them, so always hike at your own pace and delight.
There are two kinds of climbers, those who climb because their heart sings when they’re in the mountains, and all the rest ~ Alex Lowe.
The Tail and Summit
For me, if I had gotten this far, no way I was going back. Even though my headache at this point was getting unbearable, I was slowing my pace, saving my energy, sipping on water, and pushing till I make it to the summit. Luckily, this is the last stretch to the summit.
It is a more relaxed trek compared to the stairway to Desperado, but very windy, crisp, and frosty. However, it presents exactly the push you need to get the summit. After such a gritty ascend, there is a sense of strength and pride that encompasses you as the summit comes into your view.
As you near the summit, you can spot the unfortunate plane crash of FlySax that happened in 2018. You find yourself saying your prayers for the lost souls and being reminded that while mountains are beautiful, they can sometimes be dangerous places.
At 3500m, I was standing on the Summit. I made it! I have never experienced anything more rewarding in my life. I felt like the climb was totally worth it. Climbing to the summit really tested my resolve to do Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro, but it made me realize that I needed to keep prepping, especially for acclimatization.
Being on the summit made me appreciate love in all its capacity. It made me appreciate the fickleness and purpose of life. It made me appreciate all else that lay in my view. In that moment, there was no better view. In a group of 20 hikers, only 9 of us plus the guide made it to the summit!
Elephant Hill is not for the faint-hearted. It requires fitness, but also a strong mind. While your body fails, sometimes you find yourself relying on your mind to keep pushing. Go prepared to reach the summit despite bogs, fogs, rains, or rough terrains.
Achieving the summit of Elephant Hill was tangible, immutable, and concrete. The incumbent hazardous elements lent the activity a seriousness of purpose that was sorely missing from the rest of my life. I thrilled in the fresh perspective that came from the tipping the ordinary plane of existence on end.
Never measure the height of a mountain until you reach the top. Then you will see how low it was ~ Dag Hammarskjold.
Duck Walking Through The Descent
The descent wasn’t an easy fit either. For every climb comes the onset of the descent, and it was equally challenging as the climb. It took us approximately 4 hours to get back down on an average pace.
Going down proved more slippery than going up. I fell twice, and I needed to duck walk my way down to avoid breaking my legs. Taking that walk down in the woods made me feel taller than the trees. This was a disjunct reality on the far side of a bottomless, slippery abyss, beyond my physical recollection.
My heart and soul found stillness. The walk, the views, the sky, the pleasure, and solitary pain grew larger with the descent, sweeter, lovelier. It felt like I had found treasure and then voluntarily surrendered it, but I also knew that I would always return to the mountains and leave with my blessing and golden glowing on my mind.
Why You Should Do Elephant Hill
While Elephant Hill – Aberdare Ranges hike can appear hyped, it is worth the hype. Named as such because it looks like an Elephant, this hill teaches you that you are nobody to the hills. You a no longer a status or an individual; you are but a body that feels sharp stones on rough terrains, the freshness of the wind, and the caress of long grass.
When hiking Elephant Hill, your world has neither present nor future. It has nothing to do with how well you are prepared with gear or footwear or the philosophies of getting from the starting point to the summit.
It has to do with how it feels to be in the wild. With what it’s like to walk for miles with nor reason other than to witness the accumulation of meadows and trees, hills and mountains, grasses and moorlands, rocks and scenery.
The Elephant Hill hike experience is powerful and fundamental. You can make it bearable by carrying a light bag, wearing sturdy hiking boots with proper grip suited for both rocky and muddy terrains, carrying enough water and snacks, and wearing proper clothing.
This hill made me feel small and helped me sort out what was important in my life. The climb taught me that not everything in this world could be rationally explained. This was where I finally learned that hiking is more of realism than escapism.
Choosing to spend time outdoors is not running away from anything; you are returning to where you belong. I was no longer following a trial; I was learning to follow myself. I also learned that while everyone wants to live on top of mountains, all the happiness and growth occurs while you are climbing it!
He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary ~ Friedrich Nietzsche.