Frontier Climbing in Kenya

Article by Ben Winston
Monday 26th April 2010

“It’s like a mini Yosemite”, veteran British climber and explorer John Barry had told us. “There are loads of walls dotted around, probably between 500 and 700m high. Just go. You’ll have a great time…”

Memorable phrases have a habit of echoing around your head at the most inappropriate time, and up in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, John’s words, like the dried camel meat, kept repeating on me. Ian Howell, one of Kenya’s greatest climbing pioneers, had another phrase that came back over and over again: “It’s not the climbing you’ll be telling stories about. It’s the bush.” So sure enough, with three weeks at our disposal in the awesome Ngurunit valley, Miles Gibson, Alex Jakubowski, Toby Dunn and myself thrashed through bushes and into some form of vegetative purgatory. Nowhere have I ever seen plants that threaten to maim or kill. And nowhere do I ever want to see them again.

Miles Gibson on an awesome dihedral pitch on the new route 'Maximum Miracle Centre' (XS / E5 6a) established by Gibson and Jakubowski on Manamonet. Image: copyright Ben Winston /

The first objective of the trip was the incomparable prow on a mountain known as Baio. Pictures of this had piqued our excitement from the UK, but the pictures failed to detail the bottom two thirds of the 500m plus wall. If they had, we would have known that it was composed of the same kind of bush that covers the valley floors, only vertical. Not an appealing prospect. Instead we trooped to the bottom of another huge wall to try and break into the bottom of a crack system that split the face, only to be defeated by 60 metres of protection free climbing on dustbin-lid flakes of rock that came off when you sneezed on them. Climbing in Ngurunit wasn’t looking very much like fun.

It wasn’t until we turned our attention to the next biggest wall in the valley that there was some prospect of salvation: a 450m corner system that took the wall at it’s highest point. Five days after chopping a path to the bottom and braving the killer bees that guarded the start, a battered Alex and Miles came back down having climbed numerous pitches of vertical grass, unstable lianas, and spiky palms. They enjoyed one pitch (“the out of character pitch”) of what is conventionally considered rock climbing. The Maximum Miracle Centre was the result at XS (or E5) 6a, although “In Homage to Fowler”, or any combination of the various expletives heard from the valley floor during the ascent would have made for a fine alternative names.

PlanetFear contributor and expedition member Toby Dunn engaged in a technical splitter on the team's new route 'Brew Up Audrey' (E4 6b), The Temple, Mt Kenya. Image: copyright Ben Winston /

With something established in Ngurunit, we headed south to the slopes of Mount Kenya to try the main prow on a cliff known as The Temple. At 4,000m, this 200m cliff has to rank amongst the finest chunks of unclimbed rock in Africa, and the prow was a clear, compelling objective. A week later and we had two three star new routes: Angelfish (E4 6a), and Brew Up Audrey (E4 6b) were both established in the brief weather window of acceptable temperatures that lasted from 9am until noon each day.

The awesome 200m sandstone monolith of The Temple, high on Mt Kenya, showing the two new lines climbed by the expedition. Image: copyright Ben Winston /

When we returned to the UK people invariably asked if we had ‘a good time’, if the trip was ‘fun’ or whether we ‘enjoyed ourselves’. Initially, these were difficult questions; the scars of the ordeal were still fresh, and our bodies were still recovering from five weeks with hardly a rest day between us. But now, as memories of the cobras, missionaries, and deadly vegetation fade, and as fingers and toes forget the nip of deep-frozen nights, the answers to those questions have evolved. Yes, I now think, we did have a good time. And yes, there were bits of the trip that were hilarious fun. However, the other great question: “would you go back” still hangs in the balance for me.

The expedition would like to thank Clarke Willmott, Lowe Alpine, Kenya Airways, PlanetFear, Metolius & DMM for their support.

You can view a complete portfolio of stunning images of the team's expedition to Kenya on Ben Winston's website here.

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