travelers-tales

By Kang-Chun Cheng

Gold Solas-Award Winner in the Travel & Sports category 

When I arrived in Kipwa, it was so hot I nearly threw up. It was February, in the middle of summer, just a stone’s throw from the equator, with the kind of ferocious heat that steams water in a Nalgene, disintegrates cheese and chocolate, and makes me want to do nothing but lie down on a bouldering mat –– anything other than go cragging.

I had driven two hours northeast of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, to this village tucked away at the base of Mavoloni Mountain. The dozens of people who live in manyattas (huts) here enjoy incredible views of the mountain. When I got there, in the middle of the dry season, the shrubs that cover the undulating peaks were a parched and brittle canopy, but beautiful nonetheless — the kind of view that reminds me there’s always more left to discover.

Then I see them. Two Americans wearing complementary blue-and-pink floral Hawaiian shirts, standing at the bottom of a steep rock face, admiring the fruits of their labor: dozens of bolts they’d installed over the past two days, twinkling in the mid-morning sun.

I had come to meet these two scruffy Americans with dirty blonde hair: Alex Zachrel — a former train-hopper from Boulder, Colorado, who was working as a guide for the Kenyan outdoor-education company Savage Wilderness — and his van-dwelling friend Michael Stahl.

The pair had met when they worked together as climbing-gym colleagues, then been COVID-19 roommates who passed the time together by building a backyard climbing wall and “crack machine” — a piece of equipment that emulates the natural cracks in rocks, which climbers jam their fingers, hands, and feet into during their ascent.

Zachrel and Stahl were intent on establishing new “sport” climbing routes in Kenya, and had brought a lot of gear with them. Sport is a form of climbing that involves drilling permanent anchors, known as “bolts,” into the rock so that climbers can clip in gear (“quickdraws”) and attach their rope for protection throughout the ascent. Bolting a new route is exciting in Kenya given that few sport climbs exist here, and news of Zachrel and Stahl’s trip had percolated through the country’s tight-knit climbing community.

Zachrel and Stahl had spent the past few days on the eastern ledge of Mavoloni Mountain, beneath a lone tree. “That was the best place,” Zachrel tells me. “We just had to be careful not to disturb the beehive there.”

As I approached the pair, I noticed the sweat dripping down their faces. It was only 8:30 in the morning. We looked at the brand-new route above us, a winding series of silver bolts zig-zagging up the near-vertical rock face, accentuated by trails of powdered rock where the anchors had been drilled in.

I complimented them on their Hawaiian shirts.

“First ascent day,” Zachrel said. “It’s a tradition.”

~~~

Rock-climbing has existed in Kenya for nearly a century, but mostly as a sport for foreign visitors and expats. In recent decades, however, it has started to gain a foothold among locals — a development roughly in line with the sport’s global coming of age. In 2021, as climbing was featured in the Olympics for the first time (and the U.S. saw more climbing gyms open than ever before), conversations were under way in Kenya about how to make it accessible to more locals.

Kenya represents a sort of liminal space between climbing’s established roots in the Western world and the resourceful scrappiness that characterizes the sport in other parts of Africa. As locals here begin to embrace this niche sport –– rock climbing is not yet officially recognized by Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism –– national athletes are trying to find their place, both as individuals and representatives of Kenya within the global outdoor industry.

For me, Kenya and climbing are inexorably intertwined. This is where I really learned how to climb after years of fits and starts back home in the U.S. As I’ve made Nairobi my home over the past three years, Lukenya Hills, a popular weekend spot for city climbers, has offered me a consistency I didn’t know I’d been craving. Returning to Lukenya regularly over the weeks, months, and years has allowed me to develop intimate relationships with the routes on Nemesis, one of four sport crags there.

“Leap of Faith” is the name of one tricky route that I climbed “bolt by bolt” (in sections). Another was called “As Good as it Gets”: After a scary fall on it last year, I got spooked for a while, but it’s since become one of my favorite climbs. And then there’s “Turbulence,” which I finally managed to surmount this summer after many futile attempts.

I can see how my climbing desire has shifted and softened over time. What began as an almost desperate compulsion to prove something to myself has become a means of connecting with a supportive group of fellow climbers. When I invite newcomers to join me at the crag, it’s a shared sense of community and exploration that I want them to feel.

~~~

Climbing is starting to gain traction in Kenya, says Tyson Nuthu. But for the sport to really flourish here, locals will have to clear some steep mental hurdles.

Nuthu is a manager at Nairobi’s Climb BlueSky, the only climbing gym in East Africa. On a weekday afternoon in February, the 31-year-old and I are talking about the history of the sport in this former British colony.

In some ways the development of climbing in Kenya mirrors the social rebellion that permeated the U.S. climbing community in the 1980s, before the sport really took off. During that era, climbing was practically countercultural –– a magnet for misfits pushing back against cookie-cutter suburban life and square definitions of responsibility and productivity.

But in Africa, the added layers of colonial history muddle the debate about who climbing is really for. Having only won its independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya’s income, infrastructure, and ideology are playing catch-up after centuries of foreign exploitation.

“There’s still sometimes a social stigma amongst certain circles that outdoor sports are for Westerners,” says Nuthu. Indeed, less than half of his gym’s regular clientele are locals.

Nuthu points to entrenched cultural factors as one reason that many Kenyans have been reluctant to engage. In a country where work is oftentimes risky or physically demanding (e.g. construction, mining), the appeal of willingly risking life and limb for sport can be a hard sell.

“It’s common for parents [here] to discipline their kids for climbing trees or doing anything that could hurt them,” Nuthu says. “And when you grow up with such rules, you’re conditioned to avoid anything like climbing.” Countering such upbringings by committing to a sport like rock climbing will take time, he says.

The same is true when it comes to mountain climbing, a close cousin of rock climbing. Sixty-two-year-old James Kagambi, who in May became the first Kenyan to summit Mount Everest, remembers the days when he was the only black Kenyan member of the Mountain Club of Kenya.

“It didn’t bother me,” he said a week after returning from the groundbreaking expedition, his skin still glowing. “I knew that it would take time for the demographics to balance out … Plus, so many mountaineers were extremely supportive of me.”

~~~

Climbing etiquette holds that the first person to climb a new route –– the first ascensionist –– gets to name it. Zachrel and Stahl had one in mind for the route they’d installed at Kipwa: Tupande Pamoja. It means “Let’s Climb Together” in Kiswahili (one of Kenya’s national languages) and is also the tagline of the organization Climbing Life Kenya (CLK).

Since they’d arrived in Kenya, Zachrel and Stahl had become fast friends with Liz Ndindi and Nyamzy Giati, the female co-founders of CLK. Ndindi is a mother with a background in quantity surveying. Giati holds a degree in agro-ecosystems and environment management. Both are soft-spoken, with a sort of calm intensity that translates directly into their climbing styles.

After becoming climbing buddies in 2018, they realized that they share the same desire: to help develop the local climbing community. Headquartered in Nairobi, CLK offers group and individual climbing classes that help newbies develop the skills and techniques they’ll need to succeed.

I met Ndindi and Giati while climbing at Lukenya on a crisp October day. The coldness of the sharp rock felt like it was cutting into our fingers with more force than usual.

“I like the way you move,” Ndindi told me. “But you need to climb more like a girl! Use more balance and flexibility.”

It was true that I’d mostly climbed with guys to that point, based on circumstances and partner availability. Ndindi’s constructive assessment made me want to spend more time with these two women, and tap into a side of myself that I’d unwittingly been neglecting.

“We have a holistic mission: to empower people to feel invested in the sport, on their own terms,” says Ndindi. Indeed, CLK meets individuals where they are. “Whatever their background, age, physical ability, climbing style, or preference –– they have a place with us.”

Just then a group of curious local kids arrived. Zachrel and Stahl had already befriended the little gang, for whom the Kipwa rocks were a playground. They would run and jump across the natural jungle gym, completely fearless as they tried to defy gravity. They had their own naturalistic names for the different rock formations –– which climbers call “crags” –– such as Ikuyu Inene, or “Big Fish.”

Now they would all climb the new bolted route together. Stahl fitted one eager-looking boy — a 10-year-old named Jeff, the leader of the little band — with a climbing harness. It was a bit too big for the boy’s slender frame, but secured with some extra carabiners, it would do. The harness attached Jeff to a rope that was secured to an anchor that Zachrel and Stahl had drilled in at the top of the climb.

Stahl raced to feed Jeff rope as the boy floated up the rock. The sneakers he wore, rather than proper climbing shoes with special, grippy rubber, didn’t seem to slow him down. He scampered up the rock like a pro. When Jeff was lowered back down to the ground, we all cheered.

“You’re one of the first ones up there!” Stahl said. “Well done!”

Jeff beamed ear to ear.

At that point the swelter became too much; it was simply too hot to climb. My toes were burning from the scorching rocks, whose heat penetrated my rubber shoes. We made the unanimous decision to head to a nearby stream to swim, cutting across croplands and shrubby forests. Jeff led the way.

~~~

Zachrel, who’s come to Kenya as an outsider, says it’s crucial to get local communities on board with the idea of people climbing up and down their rocks. That’s one reason he and Stahl spent a lot of time hanging around Kipwa and playing with the kids there: They wanted to be respectful, foster goodwill, and forge productive ties with locals.

“We needed to chat with the mzees (village leaders), the people owning adjacent farms, and get blessings from the elders,” says Zachrel. He showed me a video of Jeff and the crew strumming his guitar. “They did that for hours until we had to pack things up.”

Expats in Kenya haven’t always gone about things that way. Rajal Upadhyaya, a climber born and raised in Nairobi, remembers when the late American climber Todd Skinner visited Mount Poi in 2000 and bolted a bunch of routes without local consultation. A notable climbing route that Skinner and his crew established was called “Dark Star Safari,” according to an excerpt from that year’s American Alpine Journal.

“They hired a bunch of porters to carry up all their gear and water,” Upadhyaya told me recently as we drove back from Lukenya after a luxurious half-day of midweek climbing. “It was a big event. But the bolting pissed a lot of people off. It comes from an American or Western arrogance and assumption, that Kenyans wouldn’t care. Imagine going to Yosemite and bolting it up: There would be an uproar!”

~~~

It’s a Thursday afternoon at Climb BlueSky, just before the evening crowd arrives, and the gym is nearly empty.

BlueSky is a small facility, not as well-equipped as other climbing spots in other countries. But for me and others here, it’s a haven from the urban pandemonium of Nairobi. Six floors below, in the Kenyan-Indian neighborhood called Parklands, the streets are teeming with produce vendors, boda bodas (motorbike) drivers, and pokey lorries (which frequently break down in the middle of the street).

Whenever I have a break between reporting trips, I try to come to BlueSky a few days a week. It’s an oasis of consistency and community — a place to think things over, work on my conditioning, plop down on the bouldering mats and decompress from all the little stresses of the day, or chat with fellow climbers and gym employees who have become friends.

One of them is Richard Ahaza, a local climber who’s worked here for over a decade. As he belays me on one of dozens of top-rope routes, we talk about a big schism in the climbing community.

“Trad,” or traditional, climbing is the purist’s form of the sport. A highly mental enterprise, it involves a lead climber carrying and placing temporary, removable gear into natural slots in the rock (rather than putting permanent bolts into the crags); slow, careful, safety-first progression that depends on the skill of finding routes in the rocks as you go, in real time.

By contrast, “sport” climbing — the kind that Zachrel and Stahl were promoting in Kipwa — focuses almost exclusively on the physical challenges, as the climber follows and clips into a route of pre-placed bolts. Unlike trad climbing, which is nearly always done outside on real rock, sport can be (and is) practiced in a climbing gym. And while gear is designed for comfort and technique, sport harnesses and shoes are optimized for style and speed.

Trad is, as the name implies, the older, more traditional form of climbing. Sport came on the scene in the 1980s. Since then, the divisive “to bolt or not to bolt” debate has vined across the global climbing community. Both forms have their merits, says Ahaza.

“There’s a greater sense of adventure” with trad climbing, he says as he lowers me from a slight overhanging route, because the climber isn’t confined to pre-bolted routes that others have developed. “Theoretically, you could climb anywhere. You have the freedom to explore more of the country through trad.”

But Ahaza recognizes that in Kenya, trad climbing will need more time to gain traction with nascent climbers. It has a steeper learning curve than sport climbing –– there’s far more gear involved, plus knowledge required to use it all safely –– and feels scarier, he says. Sport climbing is considerably easier for beginners, and mentally more comfortable.

There’s currently nowhere in Kenya to buy a new trad rack (a full set of cams and nuts), which would be prohibitively expensive for many newbies anyway — up to $2,000 (USD) for a full set (in a country where the median monthly salary is a fraction of that amount). The French company Decathlon only recently started selling climbing shoes and quickdraws in Nairobi –– the only place in East Africa that sources climbing gear of any kind.

Many expats, myself included, use family visits as an opportunity to stock up on climbing equipment.

~~~

Climbing ethics and best practices vary somewhat from country to country, depending on local rules, traditions, and geology. For instance, the use of chalk (for better grip) is forbidden in many parts of the Czech Republic, to conserve that country’s delicate sandstone.

Kenya, meanwhile, has largely been home to trad climbing, because the rock here — whether it’s the slippery igneous rock of Hell’s Gate National Park (the original inspiration for the Lion King) or the jagged peaks at Dragon’s Teeth, rising from wet moors and bogland in the Aberdares — is blessed with an abundance of natural features. These crags are perfect for placing cams and nuts.

This dominant style of climbing is both practical and philosophical: Trad adheres to a purist’s preference for minimalism and keeping things the way they’ve always been — authentic, unaltered — which aligns broadly with global outdoor recreation ideas, à la the well-known adage Leave No Trace. It’s the old-school way of doing things (think men summiting the Eiger with nothing but wool knickers and a rope tied around their waist).

The first substantial wave of climbers in Kenya arrived in the 1950s. They were mostly expatriates or white Kenyans of European descent — Kenyan Cowboys (KCs), as they’re called. They were the ones with the time, access, opportunities, and resources to climb. KCs imported their British climbing ethics to the Kenyan backcountry, and were the main driving forces until the end of the 20th century.

Fish Shah represents a new breed of Kenyan climber. A local sport climber, he has bolted routes across Kenya’s wonderfully diverse geological offerings, from the Precambrian gneiss at Lukenya (a site of archeological significance dating to the Late Stone Age) to the granite of Mount Ololokwe (a 63,000-foot-tall mountain that rises from the panoramic desert plains in Kenya’s far north and has been a sacred site for the Indigenous Samburu people since time immemorial).

Shah thinks that as climbing in Kenya grows apace, more bolted sport routes will appear. The lingering old-school preference for trad will fade as Kenya’s climbing community continues to evolve and people become far more laissez-faire.

Peter Naituli agrees. The 23-year-old is one of Kenya’s most promising young climbers and mountain guides. When I spoke with him in Nairobi in late May, he said he was happy to be in the city for a few days after weeks of guiding clients up Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest Afro-Alpine peak.

Like Shah, Naituli, an elite climber who also teaches beginners, says he doesn’t get the philosophical fuss of the bolting debate.

“There’s a lot of rock in Kenya, many cliffs that are in the process of being discovered,” he says. “You can find routes for everyone and still follow old-school ethics to some extent.”

~~~

A few months after that blazing February climb, Zachrel was back in Kipwa.

It was April now, so markedly cooler. This time Ndindi and Giati were there too, to learn how to bolt routes themselves. That’s how they found themselves taking turns hanging from a top rope off a vertical section of Kipwa rock, wielding a bulky gun drill. It was finally time to use all the climbing gadgets that Zachrel and Stahl had schlepped over from the U.S.

Sporting a tangerine-orange helmet, Giati was juggling several things at once: keeping her balance, jumaring upward (ascending the rope with a rigging system), and finding natural resting places on the rock for grip so that she could drill in bolts for a new route. Zachrel coached her from the base, offering encouragement as Giati wrestled her way up.

“Looking good!” he called out as she wrangled the drill gun from its holder on her harness, preparing to penetrate the rock. “You’ve got this!”

Suddenly the sky opened up, and water started pouring down, as it does in April in Kenya. Ndindi and Zachrel shuffled beneath some trees and overhanging rock for cover. Giati remained on the wall, resolute in her mission to climb it.

I was also semi-stranded, hanging on a top rope adjacent to Giati, trying to get good pictures of her bolting the route. The heavy sheets of rain soaked through everything, but I didn’t want to stop then. Water seeped into my camera despite my flailing efforts to protect it with a soaked shirt. Slight panic set in as the control panel went haywire.

“Are you having fun yet?” Ndindi joked, as water streamed off her helmet. Giati retorted that she certainly was –– and so were the Kipwa kids, who stumbled over one another in their excitement to watch and contemplate what we were trying to do. It must have looked pretty ridiculous with all of our jangling gear and bags stuffed full with equipment, and now, the added chaos of the rain.

A few minutes later the rain ended, just as suddenly as it had started. I put my trusty Canon in a hot car to dry off. Miraculously, all the buttons resumed operation.

We laid our soaked clothing out to dry, then ate bread and jam in the gentle sun. There would be plenty of time that day to finish bolting and testing the route.

Zachrel handed his binoculars over to Jeff, who zoomed off to scramble up a boulder, playing detective with a group of other kids. A few who weren’t sleuthing were using a long stick to scrape honey from a beehive, giggling as they squabbled over the cache. When we headed back to the main road, the kids dropped the stick and trooped along with us.

I want to come back here in the evening sometime, I remember thinking as we disbanded later in the afternoon, vying to beat Nairobi’s notorious rush-hour traffic. It must be the most beautiful time of day then.

I looked up at the unconquered crags around me, beautiful and pristine, just waiting for someone to scale them.

~ ~ ~

Kang-Chun Cheng is a Taiwanese-American photojournalist reporting on land-use conflicts, the impact of climate change and technology on Indigenous communities, and the environmental and geopolitical dimensions of China-Africa relations. She uses photography as a tool for storytelling. KC has herded reindeer in the Arctic, roasted lamb with pastoralists in the mountains of Xinjiang, hitchhiked through Tunisia, harvested honey with the Yaaku in Kenya’s Laikipia North, walked the Camino de Santiago, and free-dived on the south Sinai peninsula. She loves big landscapes and can be found climbing rocks whenever possible.