Rock climbing is a unique sport of equal parts adventure and athleticism, requiring technique, tenacity and courage. James Mixon speaks to Samson Mwangi, a gym manager and part of Kenya’s growing community of climbers.
At Lukenya, a golden-copper vista of jumbled granite cliffs that glitter over Mombasa Highway just north of Machakos, Samson Mwangi glides from foothold to foothold like a much lighter man. A rope is tied to his harness which jingles with dozens of metal gadgets — he occasionally pulls one off and places it into a crack in the rock to protect himself from a fall.
Samson Mwangi looks for a fearless go-getter attitude in a rock climbing partner. “With hiking you can just wake up and get going. With climbing, however, you have to train, learn the techniques and safety terms,” he says. Rock climbing takes commitment and Samson is among a growing number of Kenyans for whom this is not just a favourite sport but an activity that has changed their lives.
Currently the manager of Climb BlueSky, a climbing gym in Westlands, Samson says that he started climbing for exercise. As he delicately shifts his weight from one toe to the other, gripping the crystals with his fingertips, his physical prowess is evident. His passion for the sport quickly grew. “The more you climb, the more you find freedom and connection with nature. It’s about the skill, flow, mindset, risk assessment…it’s really all-around for a person.”
Rock climbing is a unique sport of equal parts adventure and athleticism requiring technique, tenacity and courage. Some people are drawn to it for the personal challenge since you compete against no one and nothing except your own strength and flexibility. Some love the thrill of taking risks; pushing themselves to the edge and knowing just when to stop. Others, still, love the technical complexity — the systems, equipment and creativity needed to problem-solve and stay safe.
If you have ever biked through Hell’s Gate National Park and looked up at the towering orange walls of volcanic rock, imagine yourself 100m in the air over the savanna on a sheer vertical journey spying on giraffes and tourists, and you might understand the appeal. The sport of rock climbing hit the global scene in the last several decades and a culture and industry emerged centered around the U.S. and Europe, but is rapidly expanding. In most of Africa, it remains at best a fringe activity practiced by visiting foreigners.
Kenya is an exception: the intimidating granite massif of Mount Kenya was first climbed well over a century ago in 1899 heralding in a rich history of vertical exploration in the country. Beginning in the 1960s, a tiny squad of adventurous climbers started pursuing the sport in earnest, writing guidebooks full of hundreds of ascents in places as far apart as Mount Kenya, Tsavo National Park and cliff lines hidden away in the Ngong Hills. That heritage has been kept alive in large part by the Mountain Club of Kenya, a melting pot of Kenyan and expatriate climbing enthusiasts, as well as places like Climb BlueSky, the first public climbing gym in the country. Here, long-time climbers can find their tribe and interested newcomers can cut their teeth and find experienced mentors.
The sport is multi-generational: you might meet lanky teenagers from Nairobi who have found their passion on the colourful walls of the gym and will hotly debate you on the best way to make a particular move, or you might encounter someone like James “KG” Kagambi, the Kenyan school teacher-turned-mountaineer who was the first black African to ascend some of the tallest mountains in the world like North America’s Denali and Argentina’s Aconcagua.
“Not a lot of people do it so it feels like a niche that I can have an impact in: encouraging people to take up the sport in Kenya,” says Peter Naituli, a young mountaineer who has pushed his own limits on Mount Kenya.
Whereas most sports draw people to a central and convenient location like a football pitch or yoga studio, climbing serves the opposite purpose — it takes small groups of people well off the beaten path. It requires a lot of technical equipment which has historically been hard to find in Kenya because of the sport’s relative obscurity. You often have to go places a matatu won’t take you and you need the knowledge and knowhow to get back safely.
“The risk is real,” says Samson, “You have to spend a lot of time learning. [My friends] think that I’m doing something unreasonable. They don’t know how we train to achieve that.” In 2019 alone, however, he took almost 200 people out climbing, sharing his knowledge and love for the sport in the way that it has always been passed down: from person to person. Just like for him, climbing quickly teaches his guests more than fitness. “People become more focused, whether in life or in climbing. They become more disciplined, knowing that if they can’t make it today, they can make it tomorrow.”
In recent years more Nairobians are looking to escape the crowds, hiking, camping and exploring the country around them. With this adventurous spirit spreading palpably across the city, rock climbing is becoming increasingly accessible. There are more places to learn and to find equipment (like Decathlon sports at Yaya Centre), and more opportunities to get outside with experienced climbers. The sport will never be for everyone, but for those looking for something more strenuous than a day hike and more remote than Karura, rock climbing might just be the perfect challenge.
If you’ve never climbed: Check out the Climb Bluesky climbing gym at Diamond Plaza or their climbing tower at Valley Arcade (www.blueskykenya.org/climb). You can rent equipment and learn how to use a rope to “belay” a friend. The staff are friendly and always excited to share their knowledge.
If you’re looking for an adventure: Visit Hell’s Gate National Park and climb with James Maina (0727 039 388). He will provide all the equipment and you’ll get a chance to test yourself on the best rock climbing in the Rift Valley. You can start small on Fischer’s Tower – it only takes 20 minutes!
If you’re looking for friends: Join the Mountain Club of Kenya and plug into the longest-standing climbing community in the country. An annual membership costs Ksh 4,000 and gets you access to climbing areas, events, trainings and more.