Day 279: I Walk into Valley of Bizarre Trees

Sven pauses among the giant groundsel. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.

Sven wakes me first. It's 6:30 am, breakfast is at 7.

“Isaac, you awake?” Tore asks at 6:55 am.

“Yes, sir,” I chirp.

I'm not asleep, I'm just not convinced that I'm ready to crawl out of my sleeping bag.

Expecting a storm to sneak up the far side of the mountain in the afternoon, we need an early start.

We're tackling three valleys and river today.

I join Sven, Tore and Joseph on the long, wooden benches of our lodge for a hot beverage before Patrick and the rest of the team bring us breakfast. Sven has coffee. Joshua tea. Tore tea. And I'm having some mix of coffee, cocoa and sugar.

Inside a metal pan that Patrick brought out is a pile of warm pancakes and sausages. Wedges of flat egg omelets are already on our plates.

Joshua joins us for breakfast. He's the only member of the team who dines with the clients.

“That looks heavy. You didn't carry that all yesterday,” Tore, says noticing the drone bag strapped to my chest.

“It looks heavy, but it's not, just awkward,” I say.

That said, it's only as awkward as I thought it would be and not uncomfortable at all.

“They aren't carrying the bag for you?”

“No, I didn't pay for a porter.”

“Oh, did you pay a different price from us? How much did you pay,” he asks.

This was the question I'd been dreading. I don't like lying, but there's no escaping such a direct question.

“I'm not sure,” I say. “It was a present.”

That's a double lie: I know exactly how much it cost; it was not a present.

However, the truth does nobody any good at this point: Sven and Tore paid their money; I promised I wouldn't mention it; and most importantly, it risks spoiling the experience for everyone.

Sven and Tore paid 650 to 680 dollars each, plus the national park fee of 150 dollars each. I paid 260 dollars total, including the park fee. It was an unbelievable deal. It was the Die's Will – or at least that's what I keep telling myself as we head out.

Off the road, we follow a dirt path as it weaves through the dusty greens and muted browns of the heathland. Tiny blades of sharp green grass clinging to black mud are crisp and white with frost. Where the grass gives way to dirt, clusters of needle ice sprout up from the air temperature dipping below freezing last night, but the soil temp managing to hold onto just enough warmth. Thick bundles of tussock grass sprout up on all sides as gnarled bushes begin to give way and we slowly gain altitude.

We begin our hike through the heathland. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

“What do you call this in English,” Sven asks, pointing to needle ice.

“Frost,” I say, still in the dark about the subtle, cold-weather phenomenon.

That's not the word he wants, it's too general. He's an arctic person.

“Is it maybe called rim?” he suggests.

“I don't know it's possible. The English language has a huge amount of words.”

The silence of the mountain blankets us like fresh snow as we hike. Only the occasional scraping of our boots or walking pole on unearthed rocks breaks it.

While in the midst of taking the first ridge, a mountain chert calls out, sounding off like a car alarm. On the other side of the path, another responds in alarm, as if some troublesome kids are bopping cars park along an empty street. The little brown birds, tiny balls of fluff stuck on wire legs, their knees tucked up into their body away from view, are also known as chatting birds, Joshua tells us.

The mountain cherts sound like car alarms as they call out. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Though Joshua started guiding people on Mount Kenya a year after I was born, I' pretty sure he still gives guests the direct translation of the Swahili names of the animals, rather than the English name.

Thin ice on top of puddles formed in the hoof prints of animals crunches beneath our feet with the same satisfying sound of toasted sugar cracking on top of a crème brulee when tapped with a spoon.

We stop to take a breather for the third or fourth time today.

I'm glad for the breaks. I have no idea how my body will deal with the altitude. I'm no longer so young that I assume it will be fine.

I peeled off my jacket and then my long-sleeve undershirt earlier this morning. I could feel the sweat against my chest from where the soft padding of the drone was keeping it extra warm. A sharp cold digs into my western-facing arm. There's a pleasant numbness. I hadn't realized that it was so cold and my eastern-facing arm so warm from the sun until I turned to face Sven to answer a question and the sun kissed my cold arm.

Down in the first valley, there's a trickle of a stream running over smooth rocks covered in thick mats of green algae. A small, wooden bridge crosses the stream, though you don't need it this time of year.

We shuck our packs and sit. I get up to dip my hands in the chilled water, cupping it before splashing it on my face. I love cold water. There's nothing as clean, nothing as fresh, nothing capable of making your body feel so alive.

“Feel better now?” Sven asks.


We slowly plod up the slope and down into the second valley.

I'm dragging my feet, letting everyone go ahead. Letting them disappear in one of the seamless creases of the valley.

I'm alone, but I don't feel alone. The world stretches out and up. Up both side of the deep valley, up into the sky and out into the jagged cliffs further upstream.

It's all mine to witness.

Witness alone.

There are so many spectacular moments that are best when shared, but quiet moments, the ones you might not have to post about on Facebook, they are beautiful because they are private. They are yours and only yours. This moment I share only with four red-winged starlings, whose bright brown wings are anything but red.

A mountain rat, cuter than a city rat, scurries through the low grass. Walking slowly, it's possible to spot the tiny perfect circles of the rat holes, the grass bent to make little arches, suitable blue print for a Hobbit home. Out in front, there are well-worn paths the width of their bodies, memories of all the coming and going.

At the base of the final ridge we need to climb before it drops us into a wide valley running up to Shipton's Camp at 4,200 meters, we again ditch our bags.

Tore has been pushing the pace, paving the way for Sven and I. Energetically, his eyes scan his surroundings, his red pants tucked into tall socks, he would probably be just as happy to be moving as taking a break right now.

As always, Tore is ready to rock and roll. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Unable to resist I bounce across the stream, jumping from rock to rock until I reach a Lobelia teleki. A head taller than me, the plant is covered in shaggy, blue-green marcescent foilage from top to bottom. We're well within the alpine zone of the mountain, where these curious creatures grow. And I do mean creatures, there's something about them that makes you want to reach out and pet them, stroking them like a big dumb dog. (It is no surprise to find that the plant is nicknamed “Cousin Itt lobelia”.)

I do reach out to stroke it.

It's impossible not to.

The fine long hairy bract tickles between my fingers as my hand runs across it. Somewhere at its base, hidden, is a single rosette. In a few days, or maybe weeks, the top will flower – the only time this particular plant will flower – and then it will die.

The plant is soft and plush beneath my hand. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The plant grows in only two other places in the world: Mount Elgon, where I did not see it as I never made it above the forest line, and the Aberdare Mountains – also in East Africa.

It's funny to find this one so low in the valley, where usually its close relative, the Lobelia deckenii, prefers to grow. And, not far from it are several of these relatives – close in both proximity and lineage.

The thick leaves of the Lobelia dekeni rosette, tinted purple, spiral into tighter and tighter circles. I'm about to lean down and touch one when someone yells my name.

It's time to get moving again.

Moving around more and more chunks of rock spit out by the volcano three million years ago and molded by the weather ever since we pick our way up the final ridge. Everyone is up ahead of me, winding through lumps of the tussock grass that speckle. Above the ridge, Batian Peak – the summit –appears in the distance, powdered with snow like a confectioner sugar on a Christmas cake.

We're to make the base of the ragged peaks by late afternoon. However, it's past 12 now and we've not stopped for lunch yet.

Sven and Joseph take a breather. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Sven jacket tied around his waist, gut stretching out his white t-shirt, is huffing and puffin ahead of me as we crest the ridge. He leans on one of his hiking poles to catch his breath.

The far side of the ridge dives down into a deep, u-shaped moorland valley carved by a glacier that is no longer with us. A thin black line crawls down the middle of the valley, a fast stream gushing with ice-cold water. It makes a couple wide, gentle bends, disappearing behind soft slopes. Not on the far side of the valley, but at its beginning deeper into the moorland, loom the sharp rocky cliffs of Mount Kenya's peaks.

Over the top of the ridge we find a glacial valley leading to the peaks. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

A narrow dirt path cuts diagonally across our ridge, before dumping us out next to the stream. On the way down, we pass tall, yellow-blooming clusters of scenecio, as well as the small white blooms of everlasting flowers, which are bone dry and crisp like leaves in the fall between your fingers.

I pick up a crystal. I'm not sure what the mineral is; the rocks are chalk full of them, the path littered. I roll the thick, elongated, hexagonal crystal in my fingers. It's not beautiful. Its face glistens in the sun, but is ragged and too dark and muddy see through. A few of them are already stuffed into my pockets. This one I toss onto a rock to see how it breaks.

A forest of giant groundsel take the western slope we're hiking. The conspicuous trees

rosette at the apex of a stout woody stem. When they bloom, the flowers form a large terminal inflorescence. Concomitantly, two to four lateral branches are normally initiated. As a result, old plants have the appearance of candelabras the size of telephone poles, each branch with a terminal rosette

Giant groundsels are endemic to three mountains in East Africa. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Before setting down our packs in a wet patch of grass between the giant groundsels and the stream, a scarlet-tufted sunbird appears. The fluff of a bird sports long, twined tail feathers and elegant, gently curving beak for feeding on the nectar and insects in giant lobelia. The fluff of a bird is painted with patches of black, blue and green feathers. A single red feather seems out of place on its side, though without a doubt the tuft is its namesake.

A small tuft of feathers on the bird is the scarlet-tufted sunbird's namesake. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Patrick, who is apparently the head cook of our little operation, has a camp stove boiling water for instant noodles for lunch, while someone else lays out a red blanket and gives us apples to nibble on while we wait for lunch to be served.

Motorcycle boots off, because they were the only boots I had for this hike, I strip off my stinky socks and wade into the cold stream. The cold burns my toes and the souls of my feet.

Patrick apparently is the head cook of our company. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

“Up ahead is where I almost died,” Joseph tells us. “They named it after me, because I did not die. I thought I would die.”

“So what happened?” I ask.

“It's too scary to tell you now. I will tell you after we get past the cliff.”

Food arrives.

After chewing through a cold leg of fried chicken and two bowls of noodles, we're back on the path.

It's easy walking now, though the hardest part is still ahead of us – but that's not until tomorrow.

My stomach groans and my bowels wiggle. I didn't pack any toilet paper and we're still the better part of an hour from camp.

Around a gentle bend in the valley and the giant groundsels double filling the landscape on this side of the river. Oddly, on the far side, they are still few and far between.

I make a note of wanting to drone the area on the way back. With only two batteries and no way to re-charge them I want to shoot at the top of the mountain first – then see what I can do with the power that's left on the way back.

The storm Joseph said would blow in this afternoon is gathering momentum as it begins to bury the mountain peaks and tumble into the valley ahead of us. The sky darkens as the sun disappears and a thick gray mass overtakes us.

I warmed myself in the sun before the storm clouded the sky. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

A single snow flake melts on my cheek fat with a smile. When was the last time I felt snow on my face? Six years ago? There was snow in Japan, but it was there before I arrived.

Another flake comes. It's a gentle flurry. I'd worried it would be rain and I would have to stop and pull on my thin rain gear or risk getting my only set of clothes soaking wet at this altitude with no way to warm myself.

I bound up a rocky section that crosses a trickle of water battling off the temptation of icing through movement. To my left is sharp cliff face dropping a dozen or so meters into rocks below. This is the spot Joseph was talking about. Perhaps he'll tell us the story tonight.

Snow gathers on the crowns of giant groundsels as I push up ahead of everyone, rushing toward a bathroom.

When the lodge comes into view, the need to shit seems to be the only thing that matters. I can feel my bowels pushing out. I let them, hoping some gas can slide through sideways and help relieve the pressure. It's a good trick, but one I'd been using too much since lunch.

“Where is the bathroom?” I ask one of the guides who are already there with his clients.

He starts to point then hesitates.

“Where is your guide?” he asks me, as if that will change where the bathroom is located.

On the verge of painting my pants brown, I spin away from him hoping someone else will help. This is not the time for 20 questions.

“There's bathroom over here,” a trekker in a heavy wooden coat says, pointing me toward a door at the far end of the unheated lodge.

After painting the porcelain brown, I find some cold water to wash my ass off with and a few scraps of unused toilet paper that someone else left behind.

Camp Shipton is full. A couple dozen Europeans sporting heavy-duty winter wear in the latest color schemes in the outdoor adventure industry mill about after taking a day to adjust for altitude or having just arrived from a day of hiking. A group of four of them sit at one of the long wooden benches playing cards with ungloved hands.

Joseph and the Norwegians show up a few minutes after I leave the bathroom. We are shown our beds, naked mattresses among a tangle of bunk beds. I unpack my blue sleeping bag before slipping outside to enjoy the final moments of the flurry.

“So what do you think?” I ask a middle-aged woman with an American accent who stepped outside to take in the final rays of sunshine with me. It turns out that she's a former police commander, based in D.C. After 30 years of service, she's now working at home.

We saddle up next to her travel companion, an Austrian woman working in Hong Kong.

The sun has come out, after the snow, leaving everything glistening with a pleasant wetness. What's left of the clouds are blowing off of the summit, drifting off the tip as if the mountain itself had taken a long, much-needed drag on a joint and was now slowly letting it waft out from between its lips.

The sky clears before sunset. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The American, Nancy, is showing me were a couple hundred meters up from camp they were able to get telephone reception.

“You're going up to that peak in those clothes?” the Austrian sternly asks.

She and Nancy are both wearing puffy winter jackets, plenty of layers and toboggans pulled down over their ears. I am wearing a long-sleeve shirt, a hoodie, motorcycle boots, motorcycle gloves and a baseball cap – we hardly look prepared for the same adventure.


“You'll be a frozen yogurt up there.”

“Yeah, but it's all I have. It was a last minute decision to join,” I say with a smile and a little laugh.

“You aren't winning here. You're speaking to mothers,” she says without a hint of a smile, making it clear that Simonelli charm isn't going to get me anywhere.

Try to explain the deal I have with my mother about these sorts of situations: I simply don't tell her until I've safely made it through – otherwise, she's bound to worry.

“Do you have a sleeping bag?”


“Good bring that. Find some way to wrap yourself up in it.”

Earlier, Nancy mentioned that the pair of them were keenly aware of how poorly dressed I was for these conditions when I arrived at camp. Some sort of mother radar must have kicked in.

It's a surprise that the cold hasn't bothered me at all yet. Last night, I wandered out bare foot to take a pee only wearing my underwear. Still, there wasn't snow on the ground at Old Moses Camp. Up at the peak, snow clings to the mountain despite global warming and the best efforts of the sun.

It's not hard to find a couple dried rocks to lounge on. The offers some warmth, its light still plays down to where we are on the eastern slope. Comfortable on the rocks, next to a pile of little balls of shit – they look like rabbit shit, far too big to be from the mountain rats – Ann Patchett sweeps me into her own cold world. She takes me to Nebraska, where there are thick layers of snow on the ground. Yet I don't feel the cold. I don't feel the cold there in Nebraska or here on Mount Kenya as I motionlessly read, occasionally arching my head back to take in the mountain peaks. I'm so still that a mountain rat comes out to chew on a piece of grass. Out in the open, it looks like a wild gerbil, fluffy and brown. He isn't aware of me as I watch him eat, though skedaddles when I call him over.

The sun's digs in behind the mountain and cold the cold comes fast. Standing, I can feel the coldness in my toes, down my arms. Inside the camp house, I shiver. Blowing into my hands I try to keep warm before dinner. I pull my half-balskvia face mask over my mouth to trap the heat of the air I exhale against my face.

Sven comes over and wraps me up in a big hug to keep me warm, teasing me about being cold. He might struggle with the altitude, but I'm sure he'd be happy hiking around in his underwear – this must be balmy weather to an arctic man.

I slip back to the dorm room to fish out an extra pair of socks I brought. At least I'll have two layers on my feet.

It's going to be long, cold hike to the peak.

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