Bob Wightman

The Diamond Couloir

The equator is perhaps the last place you would think of looking for one of the world’s great ice-climbs. Yet lying a few kilometres from the line of zero latitude is Mt Kenya, home to the Diamond Couloir.

Mt Kenya is a curious mountain that has both winter and summer seasons at the same time! Winter occurs on on side, summer on the other. Which is which depends on the time of year but the north face is in summer condition during the northern hemisphere summer with the south face, on which the Diamond lies, in winter condition. During the southern hemisphere summer the condtions are reversed.

Our trip to Kenya was organised in a peculiar manner: Andy (Jones) and I had been thinking of a fortnight in Spain clipping bolts during the Christmas - New Year holiday period. On ringing Andy to find out if he had found a flight I am presented with “How do you fancy a month in Kenya”? It turns out that Dave and Penny, two friends, were going to Kenya as a fortieth birthday present for Penny and thought that having a couple of mates along would ensure that they had more than each other to talk to at least some of the time. The plan seemed fine to me so one phone call later and my credit card is buckling under the strain of the cost of a return flight with Ethiopian Airlines to Nairobi.

The+crew+in+a+taxi+on+the+way+to+Naro+Moru.
The crew in a taxi on the way to Naro Moru.

Touching down in Nairobi and we are thrust into the hustle of an African city. The Rough Guide to Kenya helps us find a hotel on the edge of town and we set about getting what supplies we can for our stay on the hill. A day or two of getting over the flight is also in order and eventually we arrange for a taxi to take us to Naro Moru, the nearest town to our intended route up onto the hill.

Naro Moru is a small village/town just south of the equator. It doesn’t consist of much but we obtain the fresh food we need here and arrange for the porters that we require to meet us at the road-head.

The rules for porters here are somewhat different to what I have been used to in the Himalaya. The main difference is that they are only meant to carry 18Kg. We portion our supplies into appropriate loads under the supervision of the porters, we will meet them again the day after tomorrow. For now it is a case of enjoying the hospitality of the hotel!

The following day we grab some final supplies such as fresh fruit from the market in the town and head towards the road-head aboard an ex-army truck. The black-top gives way almost immediately to red earth and we lurch forwards from rut to rut. After a couple of hours we come to the park entrance where we register our entry date and personal details. Further on a wet section of the track is reached and we alight to allow the driver of the truck to negotiate it without worrying about us. Just ahead is the road-head where we are to spend tonight.

The+campsite+at+the+road+head+at+3000m-+several+hours+of+walking+ahead.
The campsite at the road head at 3000m- several hours of walking ahead.

We are in tropical jungle here at a height of around 3000m. It is this easy means of gaining altitude that is the cause of Mt Kenya being the mountain with the highest incidence of pulmonary oedema in the world. Naro Moru is only at 1000m. Tomorrow we are due to walk to 4000m!

The following day we strike camp and wait for the porters to organise themselves to carry our spare kit. Unlike many parties we are carrying as much as possible ourselves. Saving pennies! It turns out that there are not enough porters for the loads we have. No problem! Some of them will carry double loads, for double money of course. It seems that this is a standard scam hereabouts. We head off through the jungle, keeping an eye out for Buffalo, on the way to The Vertical Bog.

This is not really vertical but a steep slope of tussock grass in marshy ground. It is not easy to make progress but about half an hour puts us on the edge of the forest and at an easing in the angle.

The track heads up and left toward a low ridge, as we rise the crest we get our first view of the central core of peaks over the Teleki valley. We drop into the broad, low valley and wander through changing vegetation towards McKinders’ Camp, a single storey building with a tin roof. From here it appears that the Diamond has a section missing at its base, only time and a closer inspection will tell however.

We make camp here and pay off the porters. Our intended destination is American Base Camp around 500m higher beneath the central peaks. We can get fit by carrying the kit up there ourselves. In order to save placing two tents all four of us sleep in my Super-Nova, it is very warm!

The following day, Penny says that she is not feeling too strong so the rest of us spend time ferrying back and forth between the two camps. Eventually we have all the food and equipment at the higher camp and we set up both tents near to a fresh stream that issues from the cwm beneath the Diamond Couloir. The rest of the day is spent sorting out kit and making sure that the local residents are unable to thieve the food.

Our initial suspicions about the state of the couloir are confirmed, the bottom 20m or so is bare. Either there is another way onto the ice or we will have to attempt a different route.

The next day Penny anounces that she is feeling unwell and spends most of the day in bed. She is no better the following day, Christmas Eve, in fact she now has a blue tint to her lips and her breathing sounds as if she is gargling. Classic signs of pulmonary oedema. We know that oxygen cylinders are kept at McKinders’ so I run down and ask the ranger there to assist. We return with cylinder and stretcher. There are enough people now at the camp to assist in a carry out. Taking turns we carry Penny down to McKinders’ all the while ensuring that the oxygen is flowing freely enough to help her. Not a good Christmas we console her. “At least it is better than last year” she replies. “Why”? “I was recovering bodies from the Lockerbie crash”.

At McKinders’ we have a problem, it will take several hours just to get to the top of The Vertical Bog with an altitude drop of less than 500m which is not enough to help. The ranger says that there is a helicopter flying around the other side of the mountain searching for a missing walker. He radios it and the pilot agrees to take Penny down to lower altitudes.

Another half hour and the chopper arrives. It is only able to take Penny as he is low on fuel so Dave has to stay with us as the chopper flies off down the valley. Back at the camp, Dave packs up what he needs and heads back down to McKinders’ and thence to Naro Moru.

Andy and I are left, since the weather is good we resolve to attempt the couloir on Boxing Day. Christmas Day is subdued as we prepare our kit. We will bivouac in a shelter in the cwm beneath the couloir. This shelter is a natural shelter formed by boulders and augmented with plywood floor and door! It is situated at some 4400m in altitude.

The+couloir+from+the+bivouac+site.
The couloir from the bivouac site.

Everything ready, we labour upwards in the afternoon heat. The slope steepens below the cwm and we have to tread an intricate path to more level ground. Finding the shelter is not easy: it is not as if there are hundreds passing this way. We need to find it as we have not brought sleeping bags in an attempt to save weight. We do have some bivvy gear that we will leave here but our bags are back at the tents. Eventually we locate it and squirm inside.

Night falls and we spend the time shivering on the plywood floor. Eventually we decide that enough is enough and we head out across the rock strewn floor of the cwm, heading towards the snowslope leading to the start of the couloir.

Running water signifies the start of the couloir amongst all the dark rock. Fortunately it isn’t vertical and is covered in small incuts. I am used to this style of climbing and take the lead. Axes on edges and attempting to shine my head-torch onto holds so that I may see where to place my feet I progress upwards with no protection until I am able to sink an axe into the sheet of ice that hangs over me. A boom echoes around the cwm, gulp! I move up and onto the ice and my first piece of protection. At this point one of my crampons comes loose and some acrobatics are required to get it back on the boot.

Andy+following+the+first+pitch+in+the+early+morning+light+-+the+rock+section+is+below+him.
Andy following the first pitch in the early morning light - the rock section is below him.

Andy follows as the daylight begins to fill the cwm. We move on upwards on good ice though occasionally there is a dull crack and the whole sheet of ice to which we are attached seems to settle into the back of the couloir. It is most unnerving.

In+the+middle+section+of+the+couloir%2C+approaching+the+headwall.
In the middle section of the couloir, approaching the headwall.

Belays are hard to come by: they are there at regulation 50m intervals but there is around 10m of bare rock worn smooth by ice between them and us. This is indicative of how much the couloir has shrunk in recent years, it is probably around 30% of the size it was at the time of the first ascent.

We continue upwards alternating leads, swinging from one side of the couloir to the other to avoid showering the belayer with ice fragments. Slowly we approach decision time: whether to continue with the original line or take the direct finish. Well it is not really the finish of the route more a straightening of the original line to its emergence on the Diamond Glacier itself.

The+final+hard+pitch+on+the+headwall.
The final hard pitch on the headwall.

We opt for the direct as it appears no harder than the original. I take a half rope pitch and belay below the steepest part, saying to Andy “I can get some good photos from here”. Without arguing he continues and begins the attack on the headwall. Steep ice leads to a ledge where he arranges protection in the next steep section before committing himself to the final steep section. At the altitude this is hard work and he is breathing hard as he pulls onto easier ground. He has to wait a minute or two regaining his breath before moving on to find a belay.

Following is hardly easier and my lungs are bursting as I pull from the vertical onto the easier slopes. Our way ahead is now blocked by a rock outcrop. However I notice a slanting chimney line leading back rightwards over the previous pitch. This chimney is undercut and one or two gymnastic moves are required to overcome the bulge. The pitch is short however and I am soon belayed at the foot of the Diamond Glacier as the first of the afternoon mists draws in.

The guidebook gives the glacier as being in the order of two ropelengths. It feels much longer than that as we move together. Snow goggles steam up as the sun melts the surface of the ice straight into steam. It is no use removing them as we would soon be snow-blind with the strength of the sun here on the equator. Everything suddenly feels insecure and worrying.

Andy+looking+rather+tired+on+the+summit.
Andy looking rather tired on the summit.

Eventually we arrive at the Gate of Mists, the col between Batian and Neilion. We head up and right to the lower summit and the chance to remove crampons. Here out of the icy confines of the couloir we can remove waterproofs and much of our warm clothing. After half an hour or so of rest we begin the descent down the normal route.

This mostly consists of scrambling though in places there are one or two abseils to make. Eventually we land on the Lenana Glacier where we can at last relax. We head straight down this and contour around under the vertical cliffs of Point John before dropping down to our campsite. We have been on the go for 16 hours.

The following day another couple, Mick and Sue make an ascent of the couloir in about an hour quicker for the round trip than ourselves. This is all the more impressive since Mick had been suffering from the altitude at the road head.

The next couple of days are spent making fried potatoes and generally lazing around, though Andy and I did do the walk around the central peaks one morning.

New Years’ eve and there are six of us playing cards in my tent, drinking whiskey when a familiar face thrusts through the door. It’s Dave. He had had a terrible time after descending from the mountain. First he went to Nanyuki hospital where he was told that whites were treated at the cottage hospital. On visiting there no-one knew of Penny! So he went to Nairobi where he hired a jeep and returned to Nanyuki. Finally he found her recuperating at a doctors' home. What had happened was that there had been a change of shifts after she had been admitted then effectively discharged so the new shift who Dave had spoken to knew nothing of her.

When we finally came down off the mountain and met up with Penny again she looked weak and pale. The final two weeks of the holiday were spent on safari using the rented jeep. It took Penny nearly six months to recover from her ordeal.