Fear of Heights


Paul, my guide, seems unfit, and James, my porter, looks frail.  Paul frequently has to stop to bend over and catch his breath, leaning for support on the nearest tree or rock.  He has a deep, persistent hack, probably from the chain of cigarettes he smokes “to stay warm” on the mountain.  James is skeletal, and squashed by the weight of my pack which he gamely carries on his back.  In his right hand is a gallon bottle of paraffin; in his left is our camp stove, loosely packed into a thin plastic supermarket bag.

 

My companions visit the mountain frequently, for business, and they continue to conduct their business as we hike.  They know every place where topography and meteorology coincide to produce a magical hotspot of cell phone reception, though the connection is never clear enough to allow a normal volume of conversation.  They scream into their phones, breathlessly, as we ascend.  The constant conversation is the more likely cause of their fatigue than the cigarettes they smoke or the loads they carry.

 

When asked, they narrate the forest like museum docents.  The podo is a hardwood tree with small, thin leaves and bark like a steel cable twisted around itself.  The pencil cedar, or red cedar, looks similar from afar but has needles rather than leaves.  The hagenia looks much like an octopus tree, with the same pinkish hue to its new leaf buds.  A wispy, weeping moss is draped delicately, but thickly, over everything.

 

Slaty flycatchers are common.  Several times we startle large francolins, like miniature turkeys.  Little malachite sunbirds flash aquamarine in the foggy sunlight of the grassy moorland.  Duikers skulk in the shadowy undergrowth.  They look like fictional jackelope, small harelike deer or large deerlike hares.  Twice we see larger grazers or browsers, but both times from a distance; most likely they are bushbucks.  There is evidence of even larger mammals, buffalo and elephant; their trails through the dense bamboo are cavernous.  Small, fluffy alpine chats besiege our campsite like pigeons around a generous octogenarian in a city park, their furlike feathers blowing in the brisk wind.

 

***

 

In the morning I watch a plane – slow and tiny against such an expansive backdrop – fly up the western slope of the mountain and disappear over the ridge, just barely maintaining altitude.

 

Trees are rare in the moorland bog, frozen by night but squishy underfoot during the daytime thaw.  There are skinks today, the only reptiles I have seen on the mountain.  The sunbirds are still present, darting from flower to flower, and the alpine chats are here as well, raking the ground around my tent for crumbs.  Alongside the chats are what would appear to be seadeaters, but they are streaked with yellow in a way that suggests a canary.  A flock of starlings are perched on nearby boulders, and two birds of prey are calling to each other from opposite walls of the valley; they are heard but not seen.  Later I learn from another hiker that they are mountain eagles.  Nearby is the entrance to what may be a small burrow, perhaps the home of some hermetic mountain rodent.

 

Paul and James have bunkered themselves in the wood shanty which serves as the camp’s only hut; it looks no warmer than my tent, pitched about a hundred yards away on a flat patch of soft grass by a bend in the glacial stream which flows through the valley.  The stream is my source of water, which I treat with iodine.  My companions have started a fire, which I will raid for embers when night falls.  Now the sun is shining, though a light hail bounces around me. 

 

***

 

The night is intolerable, bonechilling.  Inside the tent, a liter of water freezes into a solid cylinder of ice.  Coming nights, at higher elevations, will be icier still.  Here, on a volcano on the equator, I am worried about the cold.

 

The earth is hidden in the clouds below.  Here is a world of ice and stone, a desert moon high on the mountain.  A small tarn sits at the bottom of a slight depression, its water a rusty alkaline orange.  Lobelia boil forth from the hardscrabble rock.  A dense fog, the crown of a passing cloud, suffuses the landscape with a geothermal and appropriately volcanic air.  There are no birds here, but above me on the cliffs I can hear a mountain eagle calling.  A rock hyrax is sunning itself calmly just beyond my reach.  On the far side of the tarn rises Batian, imposing and godly.  I am thankful to be here alone rather than below at the hut, a bleak dormitory bunkhouse capable of sleeping scores.  Tonight at least a dozen people are there, Paul and James among them.

 

They helped me gather firewood before leaving me for the night, showing me how to peel the rough honeycomb bark off a dead giant lobelia to find the dry hardwood inside.  One wall of a large boulder is angled sharply in, forming a shallow shelter protected by the overhanging rock.  It comfortably radiates the warmth of the fire.

 

In the cold night air there is no ether of any sort between earth and sky.  From the equator I watch the whole dome of the starry firmament rotate above me, obscured only at the edges by the empty darkness of the rocky fortress which surrounds my campsite.

 

***

 

The small den is a cozy and comfortable oven.  I could sleep here, but for the irrational fear that slowly seeps through me and then seizes me completely.  It is dark and for the first time I am entirely alone on the mountain.  My imagination runs to the wild; familiar shadows suddenly look more like feline predators; familiar noises suddenly sound more like prowling ghosts in the darkness.  The dance of the firelight, the rustle of my tent in the wind, the dark silhouette of a lobelia, the scrape of my metal spoon against my metal bowl, every sight and every sound is a lion about to strike.  Even my own movements frighten me; even my own heartbeat, magnified by the hood around my ears, startles me.

 

I retreat to my tent, which I know is no safer from threats real or imagined but which I hope might allow me to sleep through the night and through my panic.  It does not, and I lie awake expecting a lion’s paw to rip through the tent.  Once I start to doze but my own snoring quickly wakes me.  For the rest of the night I lie uncomfortably on my side never my back lest some few moments of snoring slumber betray my location to any nearby beasts.  Every time I hear a noise outside my tent I have to decide whether to react, thereby making noise myself, or lie still, thereby remaining unprepared for the impending attack.  I solve the problem by remaining prepared at all times, lying with a pocket knife in hand.  It is not the absurdity of this defense, a pocket knife against a lion, which convinces me to abandon the strategy.  Rather, it is the realization that I am more likely to injure myself by sleeping with a pocket knife than by being unprepared for an unlikely lion attack.  I reassure myself that I am camped high on the mountain.  It has been two days since we have seen signs of any prey large enough to support a population of lions.  I know this yet the solitude and the darkness make it hard to be rational and easy to be scared.  I am convinced that at least one savvy lion survives here on a constant supply of unwitting tourists.  I suffer these irrational fears until the grey of dawn warms the sky.  I feel the relief palpably, and finally I sleep.

 

The morning is clear.  A mountain eagle surfs the sky, probably looking for the hyrax I saw yesterday or the striped grass mouse I saw earlier today.  Thin filaments of ice remain in every pocket of shadow, having grown in the cold darkness overnight just as weeds grow in the warm daytime sun.

 

The trail today, anticlockwise around the summit circuit, is an enormous sine curve, rising and falling through each of the glacial valleys that drain the mountain.  Worse than the vertical futility of the hike is the ground cover, a loose and rolling gravel.  It is impossible for me to remain on my feet, so instinctively I crawl up ridge and down valley on hands and knees.  Paul glides casually and rapidly along, both hands in his pockets.  Occasionally he removes one hand, which he uses not to maintain balance but to send text messages on his cell phone.  James, wisely, has taken the more direct route clockwise around the summit.

 

We have left the land of the living.  Today I see only two animals, a rock hyrax and a mountain chat.  The only plant growing so high is the heliochrysum flower, tucked into rocky crags where it is protected from the cold sweeping winds.  The only other life still present is the miraculous green algae growing in the glacial lake from which I filled my water bottle.

 

I have mild altitude sickness, which I only notice when trying to pitch my tent.  It is a spatial puzzle that makes no sense to me.  It is backwards, then upside down, then inside out.  The repetitive bending and standing is more tiresome than the hiking.  Across the Lewis Glacier is Nelion and, slightly above and beyond, Batian.  On this side of the glacier is the third highest peak, my morning goal, Point Lenana. 

 

***

 

The final climb is steep in places, though this is hard to notice in the darkness before dawn.  The mountain above is negatively visible, an empty silhouette erased from the light of the background stars.  The icy glacier below is faintly there, like a mirage of fuzzy luminosity shimmering behind closed eyes.  It is still dark when we reach the peak, though dawn has cracked the circular horizon to the northeast.  With frozen hands, I snap photographs documenting my achievement and I send text messages to friends and family announcing my victory.  Other hikers arrive as we start to descend.

 

Again I struggle with the loose scree underfoot.  I look like an adolescent learning to ice skate, while Paul glides gracefully as though downhill skiing.  I concentrate, considering it an opportunity to learn a skill I clearly do not have.  I try short, choppy steps and I try long, deliberate steps; I try controlled sliding; I try strategic bounding.  I am secretly relieved to see Paul, despite his general gracefulness, fall more than once as well, and each time he looks back quickly to see if I have noticed.  At the end of the day, when I joke with him that the downhill is hard, expecting some form of camaraderie, he says, “Yes, I can see it is hard for you.”

 

We are following the Chogoria route out of the park, past the sparkling emerald Lake Michaelson at the bottom of the sheer Gorges Valley.  We have diverged from the main route to follow a lesser path through the bush to a waterfall on the Nithi River.  Its banks are soft and floral, lined with light foliage and draped with pale moss.  We follow buffalo trails through meadows of red hot pokers.  Most trails end in nests of flattened grass.  Paul is visibly nervous, looking left and right and even over his shoulder, I imagine to make sure I have not been taken silently from behind.

 

Point Lenana, and behind it Nelion and Batian, are once again but distant pimples on the cone of Mt Kenya.  The park lodge is a welcome oasis of groomed landscaping high on the mountain.  The grass is trimmed neatly, by man and buffalo.  A sign at the office reads “Dangerous Animals At Night.”

 

Before seeking a room, I ask where I can stand to get decent cell phone service.  I am directed to hold my phone to a very precise spot – an exact nondimensional point in three dimensional space – on the veranda of one of the outbuildings.  I type several text messages, and then raise my arm to tap the magic connection.

 

I have undressed for the first time in five days.  I am raw and grimy, and I have spread my clothes around the room so now it smells as rank and fetid as I do.  There is no way to regulate the heat of the water from the woodburning stove, so it is scalding as it flows from the showerhead.  I stand halfway between the hot water of the shower and the cold water of the basin, slapping at them in turn to create a mixed spray of comfortably warm water.  I dry in the clean mountain air, and then I have no choice but to pull my sweaty clothes back over me.

 

***

 

We walk out of the park instead of driving as most do.  I fear that I may be expecting too much grace from the mountain gods.  After surviving the lions for five days, I am worried that maybe it would have been wiser of me to get out while still alive.

 

James has arranged a ride with other hikers departing later.  Today he will not have to carry my bag, which is lighter now but still shamefully heavy.  As agreed before departing Nanyuki, I had bought and packed all of my own food.  Still, at nearly every meal my companions served me from their own supply.  My stores, too large to begin, have barely diminished.  For no purpose, James has packed a week’s worth of food up and over the second largest mountain in Africa.

 

We read a signpost advising first that we keep to the trail – to avoid wild animals – and second that we make noise – to let any wild animals know we are coming, should we fail to avoid them.  Paul, doing his part to announce our presence to any nearby beasts, orates on tourists from Israel.  They are frugal to the point of being cheap, selfish, and even dastardly.  They use false student identification cards to gain discounted access to national parks; they pack dangerously little gear then get angry at their guides for failing to carry extra necessities like rain coats and food; and they hire their own transport to and from the mountain but refuse to pay for seats for their guides.  Unwittingly – for I have no idea if Paul is aware of the stereotype of the stingy Jew or even if he knows that Israelis are Jewish – Paul seems to be pronouncing the results of an international double blind experiment in the social sciences.

 

We pass a recent cat print, about an inch across; Paul assures me it is not a lion.  A crested eagle poses for us on the branch of a dead tree overhanging the road.  Turacos appear and disappear in the shadows as they flash their iridescent red wings.  We leave the mountain bamboo forest behind and enter a broadleaf forest of podo, camphor, and tall, slender blue gums.  Signs of civilization reappear, first honey farms, then cattle, stacks of firewood, and finally a soft, grassy football field.

 

In a hotel halfway back to Nairobi, I finish reading the book that has guided me through the mountain.  It is the true story of three Italian prisoners of war who escaped from the British camp at Nanyuki during World War Two.  They did so not to dash for their freedom, but only to climb the mountain which loomed over their captivity, a visceral escape from whatever is routine.

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