The first time I saw Mt. Ololokwe with my own eyes, the view was obstructed by a swarm of locusts. As we drove down the A2 highway in the Samburu region of Kenya, thousands of ravenous insects the size of a winged jalapeño were splatting and bouncing off the windshield of our rental car. After passing through the cloud of insects, we pulled over on the side of the highway and had our first unobstructed view of the sacred mountain we’d play on for the next three weeks.
Mt. Ololokwe is a bulbous rock formation that juts straight out of a forest of poison and thorn-ridden plants and trees on the Eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley in central Kenya. The mountain is situated in an environment where humans coexist with lions, elephants, leopards, baboons, and black mambas. This is a place where people don’t travel without some kind of spear, machete, or club for personal protection against said wildlife. As one can imagine, it’s a rugged place to inhabit.
In 2017, while flipping through a copy of the American Alpine Journal, I saw an image of my friend Brittany Griffith climbing a beautiful arching corner system (the Low-Brow pitch), high on a big wall somewhere in Kenya. The expedition sounded like a full-value experience. Not only did the climbing sound adventurous, but they had exciting run-ins with wildlife and experienced the culture of the Kenyan tribespeople – an aspect of climbing in this area that I had never stopped to consider. Despite the tales of debilitating heat, occupying a lower position on the food chain, and a legendary amount of bird poop streaked down the wall, I knew that I needed to go see it for myself.
In the first week of 2020, after many months of logistical nightmares, my climbing partner, Nathan Maples, our Samburu warrior guide, Jackson, and I, were using walking sticks and machetes to hack our way through an eternal wall of thorn-ridden, poison-filled plants on our way to the base of our first objective of the trip: 100% Not Loosing. This was the route that I had originally seen the photo of three years prior, and we had finally put all the pieces together to see it for ourselves. Three and a half hours after we began our walk, we arrived at the base of the wall by mid-afternoon.
Because Ololokwe is south-east facing, and the air temp hovered around 90 degrees with high humidity, we decided to wait until late afternoon to begin climbing for the day to give ourselves the best shot possible of being in the shade. What we didn’t account for, was the fact that it would take us so long to get to the base. We had been previously told by Brittany that the approach was no more than 1.5 hours, but because of an abnormally high rainfall year, whatever trail previously existed was now completely overgrown.
We hadn’t even started climbing yet and our bodies were already knackered— nearly every exposed patch of skin was inflamed from touching a poisonous plant, filled with thorns, or covered in cuts and scrapes. With tentative caution, Nathan quested up the first pitch, weaving between giant hummocks of grass, and pulling gently on huge detached blocks to gain the anchor. Pitch two was far less vegetated, yet we still found ourselves holding our breath while most of our hand and footholds flexed and creaked under bodyweight. Pitch three did not relent. Despite “only being 5.10”, loose rock and bird poop abound, it was as engaging as the others. With the light beginning to dwindle, we stashed gear at our high point, fixed our ropes, and zipped down to the ground.
When we returned to the base of the wall, we found Jackson patiently awaiting our arrival. We hurriedly packed our bags and began our long journey back to camp for the evening. While we fought our way through the jungle, countless pairs of eyes reflected the light of our headlamps back at us. We hoped the stares were from some docile creatures like gazelle, but in the back of our minds we knew they might leopards, standard Kenyan fare.
As I mentioned briefly, this January had been one of the rainiest Kenya has seen in a decade. The water is great for the local crops and livestock, but not so much for our climbing plans. As we continued to push our ropes higher on Ololokwe to try the crux climbing on the route, we were berated with rainstorms. Almost every day we would wake up with a plan of what we thought we would do. By the time we had finished breakfast, things had changed.
As a result, we ended up spending much of our downtime hanging out with the local Samburu people who work in Sabache Camp. As with any climbing expedition to a far off place, there are too many unknown variables to account for: weather, injuries, and sickness to name a few. Surely things won’t go the way you had planned, no matter how experienced you are. If everything had gone to plan, we would have spent the first week of our trip sussing and sending 100% Not Loosing, and moved on to a different part of the wall to put in a route of our own. Instead, we spent time with the local community, experiencing what very few westerners get the privilege to experience.
The most memorable of which was a coming of age ceremony for 15-year-old Samburu boys to make the transition to become warriors. A large part of the ceremony was a massive slaughter of around 30 or 40 goats and cows to feed the entire village. During this ceremony, I had the “honor” of being asked to drink blood from the neck of a freshly slaughtered goat. As their guest, I politely accepted.
Nearly every one of our experiences on this trip was defined by situations that we could have never foreseen. On more than one occasion, we drove to the trailhead, ready to climb the route, only to find the mountain shrouded in thick grey rain clouds. It was frustrating as well as humbling to remember that our personal goals of climbing this mountain were irrelevant to mother nature. During every interaction with local people, we would tell them why we were there: not to hike, but to climb via one of the hardest routes, to the summit of Ololokwe, and they would retort with some combination of being impressed and telling us we were crazy or stupid.
After almost a month of unpredictable weather, flip-flopping plans, and horrific climbing conditions, our time in Kenya was coming to an end. Nathan and I had already sent the crux pitches on the 100% Not Loosing, and reluctantly, we decided instead of climbing in one push from the ground, our best strategy given the weather forecast was to jug our ropes to the top of the crux pitch and climb the route from there (pitch five) to the top.
Nathan led pitches six through nine, and they were relatively uneventful. The climbing went smoothly for the most part, with a few big falls from broken footholds and dirty rock. We arrived at the “Low-Brow” pitch to realize that this season’s rain had made the pitch totally unclimbable. The crack was pouring water on us and covered with a thick coat of green sludge. Plants bigger than Nathan and I were growing out of the feature. Up to that point, we had already deliberated whether or not cams would actually hold a significant fall since the rock was so slippery. Looking up at the Low-Brow, we discussed what the best tactic was. Eventually, we decided to aid through the pitch, thereby tarnishing our vision of free climbing the whole route. Heroically, Nathan saddled up, got in the waterfall, cleaned the mud and algae out of the crack, and toiled all the way to the anchor, arriving there soaked to his skivvies and caked in mud.
After the Low-Brow, I took over the homestretch lead to the top of the wall. Each pitch threw something exciting at me. On pitch ten, it was angry birds flying out of the crack that I was trying to climb, on pitch eleven, I broke a crimp and fell past the belay. As we finished up the last pitches, we could see our guide Jackson and his dog, Simba waiting for us near the top of the route.
One more 5.11 pitch led us to the top of Mt. Ololokwe. The pitch was a 50-meter nightmare of runouts, choss, plant thrashing, and vertical grass hummock pulling; a fitting sting in the tail on our journey to climb this route. Jackson and Simba greeted us at the last anchor with a meal prepared by the camp staff. We ate, packed our bags, and as it started to lightly rain, we began picking our way through the summit plateau’s tall grass, which led us to an arduous, steep switchbacked path, and eventually our cozy tent in Sabache Camp.
Climbing this route was nothing like we had hoped it would be. We didn’t do it in a continuous ascent from the ground to the top, we didn’t really even come that close to free climbing all the pitches. By most standards that I hold myself to as a climber, Nathan and I didn’t “send” the route. For sure, we got the rope to the summit of the mountain, but the style by which we did that wasn’t ideal.
It’s been quite easy to get caught up in this black and white dichotomy between success and failure in climbing, but the plain reality is that we never have success without failure; they are inseparable. After finishing the route, I didn’t feel very proud of the outcome of our trip. I had hoped to come home with a flawless second ascent of 100% Not Loosing, and a new route of our own somewhere up that beautiful steep wall. Understanding and managing the process of going on to a trip with expectations of success and glory has played a transformative role in my development as a climber.
Often, on the expeditions I’ve taken part in, there has been some element of failure involved. Whether or not the failure was grand or negligible doesn’t matter; it is always present. Negotiating with that failure is something that I have come to simultaneously cherish and dread. After all, the toiling and grinding these big adventures eventually end, but whether or not I’m able to stay present in the moment of experiencing the pain and discomfort is a different matter. I have found that the only way for me to absorb the whole experience, is to take each day with an open mind, moment by moment. Good or bad, nothing is permanent.