There’s no better time to experience Kenya’s burgeoning rock climbing scene. Organised outings are abundant but you’ll have the rocks all to yourself.
I consider myself a rock climber. I’ve spent countless hours climbing in indoor rock walls since the age of eight. So I was thrilled when I moved to Nairobi and discovered BlueSky, the only climbing gym in East Africa.
I have since been a regular at their bouldering wall and would even go as far as to call myself a good rock climber. That was until a recent trip to Hell’s Gate National Park, where I climbed outdoors for the first time in my life. Now I’ve had to reconsider.
I went with the BlueSky team to take a lead climbing training for people who have no idea what they are doing. On a hot Sunday in March, our instructors, Meekeh and Naomi, a Brit named Magnus, and I made the two-hour drive from Nairobi to Hell’s Gate National Park near Naivasha.
We ventured no more than 500 metres inside the park before stopping in front of a sizable cliff. I stared up at the sheer rock that we would soon attempt to hug, claw and scratch our way to the top with as much grace as we could muster.
To warm up, not that we weren’t sweating already, we top-roped a few routes – meaning the rope is fed through metal rings at the top of the climb. It struck me that unlike an indoor rock wall where a human has created a route that is meant to be climbed, natural rock has no such intention. It’s just a rock and was not made with specific hand or footholds. Life-altering, I know.
The rock was smoother and gentler on my fingers than I expected. I was surprised when pieces of the rock didn’t come crumbling off under my weight. And even more surprised when perfect handholds seemed to appear just where I needed them.
After wearing ourselves out on the easy stuff, we started to get serious and talk about lead climbing. Lead climbing is where climbers set their own anchors, or protection, on the rock as they are climbing up.
The main distinction between lead and top-roping is this: lead climbing is more dangerous because the climber is using a piece of metal shoved into a crack in the wall to protect them from falling instead of an anchor at the top.
If this sounds scary, well it is. And I was definitely questioning my judgement before starting off on my first real lead climb, despite two hours of solid instruction and demonstration from Meekeh.
I started up the first few holds, my heart thumping and moving like a teenager sneaking out of the house and trying not to wake up his parents. I placed every hand and foot with exact precision on the rock, testing its grip lightly at first before trusting it with my whole weight.
After climbing a few metres, it was time to put in protection. I shoved a metal wedge into a crack in the rock, yanking on it to make sure it would hold my weight.
I tripled checked everything to ensure I wasn’t missing something painfully obvious. I climbed on. While the sun cooked the valley, a slight overhang on the cliff provided the solace of shade on the rock. The wind swirled, kicking up dust.
Nearing the top of the rock, I began to feel a sensation I had never experienced on the wall. Not only was I physically fatigued, but mentally as well.
Climbing in the gym certainly requires thinking: “Where do I go next? Do I look good in these shorts?” A different kind of mental strain accompanies climbing outdoors, especially lead climbing: “If I fall, will this anchor hold me? Should I stop to put in an anchor or continue climbing, risking a bigger fall?”
A few last moves and, finally, the top! I hooked myself into the clips at the peak of the rock and started preparing to lower myself down. Mind racing, blood pumping, I almost forgot to look around. The dry valley stretched to the horizon, interrupted now and then by impressive rock formations. Could I climb those, I wondered. Probably not.
Basking in the glory of my climb, I felt like I could stay up there forev… “Are you coming down?!” yelled Magnus, my belayer, who was standing patiently on the ground, baking in the sun. Yes, yes, I guess I should, I replied. One last look and then a quick trip back to Earth.
BlueSky Kenya runs the only indoor rock wall in Nairobi and organises trips and training for all levels. Visit blueskykenya.org for more information.
[Photos by Nathan Siegel]
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