The Metamorphosis of James Muhia – The Spirit of a True Kenyan Mountaineer

Adrienne Rich once said, “The words are purpose. The words are maps.” When I listen to James Muhia, I gather purpose and direction in his words. He’s a roadmap for every hiker looking for some true spirit. He is a warrior…one with blind faith yet the kind of faith that has taken him more than 7000m into the skies.

Take a step forward, keep moving and don’t look back – you never know where you’ll end up

The sun is hot outside. It is staring ruthlessly down at us without caring whether we lived or died. The parched scrub and scraggly trees outside the restaurant stood indifferently resolute, as I assumed they always had. But one thing was different, Muhia’s stories. In the magnitude of all his experience, I was a pebble. I was a leaf. I was the jagged branch of a tree. Trees. I was nothing to them, and they were everything to me. At that moment, he felt like a beacon for me, a guiding star to the North. The kind that keeps pushing him in the direction his gut insists on, he may have lost a couple of fingers for it, but he gained much more strength and resilience in his ways like never before. He might have become breathless with an unreasonable fear or lack thereof….but how he sustained unparalleled mental stamina got him above the frost.

He had survived the frost, and he lives to tell his story. To keep testing his limits. He has diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. He had been to several mountains, and all the mountains remain in him. When Emily Dickinson said, “When your nerve denies you, go above your nerve,” I think Muhia took it quite literally.

Go above your nerve!

It wasn’t until Muhia, Limo, and Freeman had taken upon themselves to run five summits in just a week that my curiosity about him peaked. I did a dive and realized that he was the kind of man that always proved to himself that the world wasn’t a graph or a formula or an equation; it was a story. And this is James Muhia’s story.

With just five years since he started hiking and two years into trail running, he has tested his body and what it can handle, proving without a doubt that no human is limited. All with bliss but not without challenges, though none deter him from going forward. Where there is no roof, James makes audacity his roof.

Live a little!

It started with an easy hike down in Ukambani, Kiima Kiu, followed by an Eburu Hike, then Rurimeria, Aberdares, in preparation for his first time on Mt Kenya. It was in August 2017 that he did his first significant summit. It took him three days and some disappointment as he initially thought he would summit the highest peak that day. It was underwhelming that he could only go up to Lenana as he shockingly learned that going to Batian required technical rock climbing skills that he had none of at the time. He reckons that at the time, he had no idea that people could summit Mt. Kenya in the day. He has since run it many times with a personal record time of 3hours and 24 minutes from Old Moses Camp to point Lenana. Yes, 3 hours! This human is NOT limited. After his first Mt Kenya ascent, he went on to Summit Ruwenzori. The way he talks about this mountain makes me want to do it so bad. He said it’s stunning. “It’s Bewitching,” he says. His phone rings, and it rings all the time. So as he is on the phone, I take a minute to listen to the songs of the birds I couldn’t name. I watch the birds flitter from tree to tree, elegant and plain and indifferent to us. The air comes to life with the sound of the Naivasha wind whipping the tree at times, and at other times it was profoundly hushed by the endless silencing stillness. At that moment, everything but me seems utterly sure of itself. Even the sky didn’t wonder where it was. I take a minute to wonder what glory lies in the ruins of Ruwenzori. Perhaps mountaineers love being amidst the desecrated beauty of the wilderness because it means that they too could be undesecrated, regardless of what losses life threw upon them or what had been taken from them, regardless of some of the regrettable things they’d done. Maybe out there in the wild, Muhia didn’t feel skeptical about any of it; the wilderness seemed to have a clarity that perpetually included him.

He loves it because it challenges him and gives him perspective in life. It allows him time to be alone to view things from their true perspective. Because of it, he wants to prove that mountaineering and trail running is not out of reach for ordinary Kenyan hikers because they are achievable. This is also why I feel such stories are pretty important.

Of all the paths you take…..

After Ruwenzori, it was time to test the waters out there. In July 2018, He set out to summit Lenin Peak in Tajikistan, which stands at 7134m. I think of all that altitude, and I’m quivering. This is where he fell in love with mountaineering. Eighteen days it took. 18 days. At that moment, I could barely comprehend what this man was saying. 18 days at that altitude? And yet he says it was such a beautiful experience. He reckons that proper acclimatization was very crucial on such elevation. The mountain is named after the first ruler of the soviet union, and Muhia was setting out to be the ruler of his mountaineering escapades. They began by getting to base camp, where they spent two days acclimatizing, then to the advanced base camp, next day to camp 1, then camp 2, then camp three, which is 6100m above sea level, then apparently back to base camp – which for a second sound nuts to me. So you hike all the way and then head back to base? No, it’s not madness; it’s necessary if the intention is to summit. So back at base, they rested for two days as they monitored the weather and then began the summit. After the summit, they head back to camp 3, to advanced base camp, and finally, the base camp. Eighteen days and a man, quite literally become a mountaineer. Rad! Just Rad!

Just a man, with a true Kenyan Spirit on Lenin Peak

Later that year, two months after Lenin, he did Mt. Kilimanjaro for the first time. Took him three days. I’ll have you know that right now, he does Kilimanjaro in a day, with the fastest pace being 15 hours up and down. He later did multiple speed hikes in Aberdares and other precious gems in our country. Then in July 2019, another 7010m elevation called him, and he just had to go. Khan Tengri, a Tian Shan Mountain Range mountain in Asia, was Muhia’s next big stop. He had found his footing in mountaineering, and there was no stopping him. 14 days it took to hike 7010m above sea level. He says it was tough as it is the most Northern 7000m peak globally. The weather was very unpredictable, bringing a new set of challenges. He had never experienced such winds on a mountain until he hiked Khan Tengri. Teamwork is powerful, he says, because that’s what made this mountain bearable. After this experience, he intended to attempt Everest in 2020, but then you know, COVID decided to remind us all that the universe should not be ignored. In 2020, I learned that the universe is never kidding. It will always take whatever it wants and never give it back. So his plan stalled, like all our plans for the year. But he didn’t just stay dormant.

It was during COVID year that Muhia started trail running. He started supporting his friend Limo and fellow Salomon ambassador, who was running from one county to another. Yes, he did, we were there for it, and we were impressed. But what’s crazy to me is that it was this year that these two humans took over trail running and made it appear so so simple. Do I think it’s simple? Running up mountains? Err, No. But I think it’s achievable because they’ve done it, and so many other people continue to do it, which makes me believe that I might make audacity my roof one day, hopefully soon. In the same year, he summited Batian from the north face and later summited it from the south face in 2021.

Trail running is not for the weak

2021! This has become one of his most defining years in his 40 years. This is the year Muhia – the ominous, fearless warrior was created. This year, he set out to attempt Ama Dablam, a mountain in the eastern Himalayan range of Nepal. Big goals, big tasks, and solid or foolish courage. Ama Dablam means Mother’s Necklace. He says that it looks like a mother holding a baby when you look at the mountain. Spectacular! He laments. It’s how his thoughts shift into the memory of these mountains that fascinates me.

Oh such joy it is to be above the skies

How magical it must be to carry such fond memories of nature into the rest of a lifetime. Standing at 6812 m above sea level, he did it on the 29th of April, 2021. He has some shit sure cojones this one. He set out for a 4-day trek to the Basecamp, armored with nothing more than a dream to summit Ama Dablam and the true spirit of a Kenyan warrior. He spent a day around Namche and Kunde village acclimatizing. The week before, he’d run Kilimanjaro, so he wasn’t entirely worried about acclimatization. And after four days of what he referred to as a ‘labor of love, alone at the summit, he waved our Kenyan flag high.

The Flag he took to Ama Dablam

We all know the high that erupts inside while on the summit, but what transpired during the descent was what Muhia was the least bit prepared for. He had to fight for his survival, quite literally. He has lost some of his gear, including his abseiling/belay device (ATC). He got stuck mid rope in what seemed like an overhang; 10 minutes stuck, he was exhausted and panicked. His spirit, a picture of his daughter (he always carries photos of his children to the summit to remind himself why he must get back safe), and his tenacious mind frame to find solutions, had him get back to camp safely, albeit bruised. Though he couldn’t feel most of his fingers, he had gotten out with his life intact. But behold the frostbite! The frostbite! The one topic that really should be discussed amongst hikers. His fingers were stiff and dark, and he only had 72 hours to get to a hospital if he was going to save some of his fingers. Luckily the doctors saved half his fingers. However, some had to be amputated. The procedure was done by a plastic surgeon whose main aim was to preserve as much tissue as possible. Two surgeries later, he saved his hands and still has a working sensation in his fingers. He made a full recovery and had an epic story under his armor for every time anyone dared to ask what happened to his fingers. It’s a story so dear to him that he intends to narrate it in full and soon.

UTC 100km

In fact, after his last surgery in August, two months later, Muhia was out in Capetown, South Africa, participating in the UTC 100 km trail run, which he finished. He never stopped. He never did think of stopping. And he still plans to do 8000m soon. Again, if your Nerve Denies You, Go Above Your Nerve. This year, Muhia and some crazy humans, Limo and Freeman, attempted five summits in six days. Five summits: Rwenzori, Muhavura(Virunga), Mt. Kenya, Mt. Meru, and Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2210 km of travel between Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania in six days. Insane, I know! But they did. And they each tell the story so effortlessly on their social media platforms to prove that it can be done. And it was done. But of course, they were running those mountains. I think of him as a man of blind faith because I’ve never attempted some of the things he has done, even in my dreams.

You need a crazy pack of friends in this life of sin

But I delight in his achievements because the way I see it, if Muhia began his hiking, trail running, and mountaineering career at 35 and has been able to achieve all that; then with a bit of money set out in the bank, I should be doing that and much more at 35. Think of what I’ll be doing at 40? Or what could you be doing at whatever age if you set out to do it?

If your Nerve deny you…

One bottle of wine later, he asks me about my hiking dreams. And I tell him how I’m saving on hiking the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) at 35. I’m surprised he’s never heard of the trail but very impressed with myself that I can also pass a bit of knowledge in my amateur hiking life. We both lament that we will eventually do the AT (Appalachian Trail), which is more common than the PCT, while living this life of sin. It’s an evening spent in laughter, in an Italian restaurant, unraveling beautiful trail stories, and one that continues to ring in me that if ‘he can do it, so can I.’ Before this year ends, he intends to summit Manaslu, the 8th highest mountain in the world, which stands at 8163m above sea level, in preparation for a more significant climb (that I can’t reveal yet, hehe) next year. In my gut, and despite his experience with frostbite, I’m shit shocked and sure he will raise the Kenyan flag there.

Live large, collect some scars while at it 😉

So why is he still at it and likely not stopping soon? Muhia says he wants to put Kenyan mountaineering on the map and make sure that the Kenyan flag flies high up on most high-altitude summits if not all. So there you go, fellow hikers, keep hiking. Even when it seems little compared to what these guys are out here achieving. Let their stories inspire you to keep pushing. So maybe tomorrow you may suffer badly on Rurimeria, but then maybe years later, you’ll be running that mountain and calling it your bitch. No human is limited, Kipchoge insists. Muhia is not limited. I’m not limited. And you are not limited.

Ama Dablam

To Muhia, thank you for inspiring us. Thank you for the stories you’ve shared and those you’re yet to share in-depth. We celebrate you, for in you we behold a possibility of a future where we can also say, “Hey, look! I did it ☺️” and we will pay homage to the guys who set the path for us.

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