An aerial view of Mount Kenya, the second highest peak in Africa. © Jake Norton / MountainWorld Photography.

The Water Tower: Reflections on Challenge21 on Mount Kenya

It’s now been a full year since we launched Challenge21’s first expedition – the Rwenzori. In that time, through climbs on Stanley, Orizaba, Everest, and Kenya, we’ve raised nearly $210,000, or 10%, of our $2.1 million goal for Water For People. And, we’ve impassioned hundreds of thousands worldwide, making them aware of the global water and sanitation crises, and the innovative, long-lasting solutions of Water For People. For this, we give a huge thank you to all of you, and to our partners: First AscentEco VesselVocusGoal ZeroLive WorldlyJulbo, and Patrick Hoyt & Company.

In the coming year, we hope to launch expeditions to Carstensz Pyramid, Puncak Trikora, and Puncak Mandala in Oceania; Mounts Tyree and Shinn in Antarctica; Ojos del Salado and Monte Pissis in South America; and K2 in Asia. Please stay tunedjoin inget involved, and spread the word!

Below are some reflections from my recent expedition to Kenya to climb the second highest peak in Africa. We’ll soon be working on a film from the expedition, too, so stay tuned.

– Jake Norton

Water. Cold, icy water, and lots of it. It coursed down the rope in torrents, soaking through my gloves and finding its way into every possible opening in my clothing. It came down in sheets from the dark clouds hovering above, thunder cracking in near-constant roars and rumbles. It was hard for the four of us, looking like wet rats cloaked in modern clothing, to believe this water tower – the mighty Mount Kenya – could be in trouble.

Our team of six– Pete McBrideKim HavellFrank Pope, Dudu Douglas-Hamilton, Julie Stabler Hull, and I – came to Kenya to tell the story of the Mount Kenya watershed. The expedition was part of my attempt through Challenge21 to climb the Triple Seven Summits and raise funds for Water For People and global awareness of the water and sanitation crises. Most of us usually regard mountains as little more than beautiful, faraway objects to appreciate, to photograph, and to hike and climb. We see them as geographic elements that play little role in our daily lives.

But, mountains play a much bigger, if less obvious, role in all our lives: they are water towers, storing and releasing essential fresh water for billions worldwide. According to the UNEP and many other sources, mountains provide fresh drinking water for half of the world’s population. That’s some 3.5 billion people who depend on the mountains for their most basic needs. And Mount Kenya, in particular, is the sole supply of fresh water for seven million people in East Africa. (See Why Mountains Matter for Africa for more information.)

Our near-epic on the North Face Standard Route came in the middle of our 2-week trip to Kenya…a trip that took us from the oppressive-but-hopeful slum of Mathare, to the wet, icy heights of Mount Kenya, and on down through the dry savannah of Samburu. As diverse as the trip was in all ways, the thread that tied it all together was – as anticipated – water.

In Mathare, we traveled courtesy of Soiya Gecaca and Edra Mbatha of We The Change Foundation, and saw firsthand the end of the line for Mount Kenya’s water. Much of the year, the Mathare River – whose water originates on Mount Kenya and in the Aberdares –  is but a trickle of sewage arcing through the bottom of the slum; in the dry season, there’s no water at all, save for the sewage that flows down from neighborhoods above. The rationed drinking water that is available doesn’t meet the needs of all the slum dwellers, so many people purchase water at a premium from illegal taps along the city’s water supply. The situation is grim for most in Mathare: crushing poverty, HIV/AIDS, crime and violence, and few job prospects combine to offer little hope of life outside the slum. But, through the work of people like Soiya and We The Change, there is hope.
Kenya 2012 – Images by Jake Norton

From Mathare, we headed north to Nanyuki and Mount Kenya to begin our acclimatization with a circumnavigation of the peak and a climb of 16,355-foot Point Lenana before beginning our attempt on Batian, the highest point on Mount Kenya at 17,057 feet. Unlike its higher cousin, Kilimanjaro, Kenya offers no easy route to the summit. Our route – the North Face Standard – involves some 16+ pitches of technical climbing at an “old school” rating of 5.8-ish. The four of us climbing – Kim, Pete, Frank, and I – started at 4:00 AM under heavy packs with plans to climb to the Amphitheater at 16,000 feet, bivouac there for the night, and finish our ascent to Batian in the morning. After eight pitches, we reached the Amphitheater under clear, non-threatening skies and decided to make a push for the top then and there.

The mountain, however, had other plans: after simul-climbing the next 8 pitches, we reached the summit ridge and were just about to descend into Shipton’s Notch when graupel – tiny “snowballs” that, like hail, indicate you’re in the middle of a thunderhead – began to fall heavily. Like clockwork, it was only 2 minutes later that I noticed tingling on my forehead: the tiny hairs were standing on end. I then noticed the humming sound – the rack of climbing gear hanging from my shoulder sling was alive with electricity, its pounds of metal buzzing with electrons.

We were on a knife-edge ridge, strung out 30 feet apart, with no simple way up or down. So, we did all we could: we hunkered down and tried to wait it out. Thirty minutes later, the rocks behind Pete and me stopped buzzing from the storm, and we all decided it was time, sadly, to descend. We were still in the middle of the thunderhead, and darkness was coming soon. The mountain was telling us – in no uncertain terms – that today was not the day for us on Batian. So, we descended. We rappelled through the storms and into darkness, picking our way down with iced ropes, cracks of thunder, snow and sleet and wind and rain – and somehow a good sense of humor – to our stash of bivy gear in the Amphitheater, arriving at 9:00 PM. The following morning, after a night of rain and snow and a visit by a rock hyrax, we continued the descent to Shipton’s Camp in heavy rain and torrents of runoff.

Disappointed, for sure. We were but 30 meters from the summit of Batian – the tip of the Mount Kenya water tower – and had to turn around. But, I was also proud…proud of our team that climbed well, made great decisions, and kept having fun even when the conditions were anything but. In the words of Edward Whymper: “…remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Climbing aside, it was a challenging, inspiring journey on the peak, sharing the company of a great team. Perhaps the most interesting part, however, was what we did not see on the climb: glaciers. Of course, we did see some glaciers, but the once-robust glaciers of Mount Kenya are in a sad state of rapid decline. In local parlance, Mount Kenya is called Kirinyaga, meaning “mountain of brightness” in reference to the blinding snows that once clad the peak year round. Sadly, in the past 100 years, Mount Kenya has lost an estimated 92% of its glacial cover, with the Lewis Glacier alone retreating more than 800 meters since 1893. By 2050, experts predict, Kirinyaga will no longer be an appropriate name as the glaciers will be completely gone.

The effect of glacial retreat on Mount Kenya is not evident high on the peak. Like most mountains, it creates its own weather, and conditions on-mountain are still wet – as we experienced in spades. To see the true impact of this challenged water tower, we have to go miles downstream to places like Mathare, or north to Samburu.

Thanks to Dudu and Frank and their gracious families, we were able to spend a couple of nights in Samburu and the Douglas-Hamilton’s Elephant Watch Camp. While we marveled at our close encounters with the elephants Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton know so well, water was never far from our minds.

Straddling the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, Samburu depends on the Mount Kenya water tower for its very existence. Starting as a trickle of glacial runoff on the slopes of Kenya, the Ewaso is a mighty, muddy torrent by the time it reaches Samburu…most of the year. When it’s flowing, the Ewaso is the lifeblood of Samburu, nourishing its acacias and its elephants, its Samburu people and its lion prides. Without the Ewaso – as the drought of 2009 showed – life stutters to a stop in Samburu.

But, these days, the Ewaso doesn’t flow as regularly as it once did. Increased irrigation, legal and illegal diversions, hydro projects, and more, coupled with runoff shifts due to glacial recession, have caused the Ewaso’s flow to be erratic. What was once a year-round supply of water for this parched part of northern Kenya is now an unpredictable river, often turning into a dry, dusty patch of sand in the dry season.

On our final night in Kenya, we were treated to a great event: a hilltop goat roast with the local Samburu tribesmen and women. We spoke with the Samburu of Ngai – God – who lives amongst the peaks of Mount Kenya, and of their traditional, nomadic lifestyle, moving across the plains of northern Kenya with their cows, sheep, and goats in search of pasture and water.

As we danced and sang and talked under the starry sky, I could see the brown ribbon of the Ewaso far below and follow its meandering course south toward the Water Tower, hidden away in its veil of mist and cloud.

About the Author : Jake NortonClimber, guide, photographer, speaker, founder of, and - most importantly - husband and father.View all posts by Jake Norton

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