I flung my right hand as far out as I could. My fingers opened out searching…desperately looking for somewhere to grip. A crack maybe, or a tight space between these smooth rocks. Or simply anything I could firmly hold on to and pull myself up. The rope hung reassuringly from my waist to the peak and back to the ground where the belayer steadily held on. But my fingers couldn’t find a spot to grip. I felt my hands slipping and the left foot followed…and that’s when panic creeped in.
You see, when you are hanging a few meters above the ground attempting to climb a rock for the very first time and you seem not so certain of your balance, it can be utterly nerve wrecking. Your body starts shaking (or at least mine did) and suddenly you are sweating…even on a breezy evening like this one. Your mind goes wild thinking of falling and broken bones and what if this is your last day and whether your bikes will ever miss you when you’re gone. Your heart pumps right in your ear blocking any sensible advice coming from a veteran rock climber like Bouke. Yes Bouke! The devil who actually brought me to Hell’s Gate National Park for this.
I was all set and ready to cycle to Lake Magadi for the weekend. It could have been hot…really hot…but at least I would be at ground level, not hanging off rugged shaped rocks. Plus cycling is my forté. I can do it in my sleep up or down steep climbs without batting an eye. Now here I was clinging onto a rope thinner than my third leg as I leaned back and let the belayer take my weight. My feet had slipped, my fingers couldn’t find anywhere to hold and in panic I was running out of breath. Concentration gone, I felt like every inch of me was in pain (though that was not the case) and my mind kept yelling “It’s never that serious, you can just quit now”.
Before I had stepped into the tight fitting climbing shoes (yes they are pretty TIGHT, something about better grip with your toes on the rocks) and the straps around my thighs and waistline, Simon the belayer (the guy who is sort of your anchor on the ground through one end of the climbing rope), told me that rock climbing involves using the lower body more. Reach for the cracks or rough surfaces along the course with your feet and grip that spot with your toes. Then using your leg power (thanks to cycling I have enough of that) push your body up as you steady yourself with your hands. Easy, right? Well, I’m certain I heard him clearly but then here I was, for the third time, trying a slightly more challenging course and my shoulders were aching from continuously pulling myself up.
Meanwhile, Bouke’s bike and mine were in our car parked several meters near the Fischer’s Tower that I was breathlessly hanging off of. We were to cycle through the Hell’s Gate National Park and maybe try climbing the rocks before finding a nice campsite by the shores of Lake Naivasha for the night. That was the original plan after Magadi ride was scrapped. My relationship with rocks has never gone beyond the stone throwing expeditions we had as kids growing up in Kisumu. Or my love for SOFT rock music (if that counts for anything). So obviously, I was thinking we will get to Fischer’s Tower, try a beginner’s course (yellow rope) and call it a day…at least for my novice sake. Bouke on the other hand, without my knowledge, was ready to do all the courses (yellow, blue, grey and the long one to the peak – no idea what color that is).
But rock climbing can be addictive. The first Yellow Rope felt like child’s play and I did it twice almost effortlessly. I love heights for sure. I particularly enjoy cycling uphill, both for the challenge and the views from the top. So this was both different and similar at the same time because after 15m of vertical climbing, Hell’s Gate looked heavenly! Plus the adrenaline rush got me so pumped up and ready to challenge the other ropes. It might as well have been beginner’s luck that got me through the first two climbs because as I was dangling on my third attempt, I realized rock climbing is like playing chess. A game that I haven’t had enough patience for.
Always look where you put your feet because that’s your anchor. But first calculate your moves before you start climbing. Where will your left or right foot step and how far will you have to reach with your right or left hand to finally grip something and steady your stance? Will you move more to the left or the right to maneuver the obstacle (a hanging rock or a long smooth surface)? You can as well forego the chess-like calculation and try anything that works knowing and trusting that the belayer won’t let you fall and crush your pretty helmet-ed head. The latter was my style and so I ended up hanging there at the mercy of Simon.
All systems shut down. My insecurities came out in full force and at this point I didn’t want to take advice from anyone. I was losing my cool. My mind was already out of it and I was cursing under my breath. Everything that Bouke and Simon were saying sounded like gibberish.
“Oh reach to the left…slightly higher, there’s a crack there. Hold it!” But when I reach out (maybe not as high), I could only feel smooth rock. I was getting more and more frustrated. I couldn’t focus anymore and I started feeling helpless, so I told Simon to lower me. I had to re-strategize. Don’t call me a wussy just yet!
Back on the ground, I watched as Bouke almost effortlessly glide over what seemed to bar me from reaching the top. I noted his moves – calculated and certain, given his experience. And when it was my turn, I NAILED IT…not once but twice! Of course with a sweaty nose (however that’s related to rock climbing, I wonder!), but I made it! And I yelled when I reached the top! Slapped the rocks a bit to show my dominance. In your face rock! IN YOUR FACE!!
Coming down is the easier part. Having sucked in the fresh air up there, you simply hold on to the rope, lean back and let the belayer lower you by slowly releasing the rope. You hop over the same rocks, that were once a nightmare to climb, with the least effort and as soon as your feet touch the ground, you want to go again. Some more rocks. Tougher ones now. And I did exactly that.
Two hours later I was standing at the peak of Fischer’s Tower laughing with Bouke and Simon while looking at the vastness of the park below. We saw zebras, antelopes and buffalos grazing not too far off. And for a moment we stood there like we owned the whole place. The exhilarating feeling of achievement swept across my entire being and I felt alive! I couldn’t believe I had climbed all the courses from the two yellow ropes to the blue rope then the grey rope and finally to the summit.
Like with everything in life, rock climbing gets easier with time and experience. It is challenging and tough but not impossible. It is fun and rewarding, humbling yet can greatly up your self esteem with every little barrier you pass. You realize how critical the little cracks on the course are in helping you move higher. The little decisions can either screw you up or make it easier to climb. But however complicated it may seem, remember to enjoy each step. The experience is life changing.
So the next time you find yourself at Hell’s Gate, don’t just drive or cycle past Fischer’s Tower on your way to the gorge. Make a short stop, not to look at others climb (like what a bunch of some Nairobians I saw do), try your hands and feet on the short novice cause. It is only Ksh. 500 per climb and you’re given the right gear, plus the belayers are so helpful. On this day, I was the only Kenyan scaling the tower (among expats and non-residents) while my fellow countrymen zoomed past to the gorge.
It doesn’t have to be just Fischer’s Tower, there are numerous other places for rock climbing around Kenya. Check this out: http://www.rockclimbing.com/routes/Africa/Kenya