A Narrow Escape on Mt. Kenya by Jason Haas

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“Hey, wake up. Wake up!” Brian whispered harshly. “There’s someone out there.”

I half opened an eye and begrudgingly listened to the deafening silence. “I don’t hear anything man, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“SHHHHH!!!!” Brian’s face was pressed against the mesh fabric of the tent, as he peered out into the darkness. I thought of making a smart-ass comment, then thought better of it. I closed my eyes and started to roll over as the cacophony of falling pots and pans bolted me out of my sleeping bag. “I told you!”

by Jason Haas

Spoiler altert: This piece is an excerpt from Volume 7. Get your own here. 

“Get the zipper!” I barked back. Clad in nothing more than shorts, we tore out of the tent and into the moonlight. Our packs were gone.

Brian Young and I were graduating college from the flatlands of Michigan and in dire need of an adventure. We had been sport climbing for about two years and just started to learn how to trad climb. While pitching ideas to each other, Brian suggested clipping bolts on the shores of Thailand.

I countered with a fading ice runnel up Mt. Kenya in Africa. I don’t remember how we decided, but somehow I won. Brian had never been out of the country before and was nervous about going to a third-world country. I did my best to calm his fears, but my carefree “The Dude abides” attitude was no match for Murphy’s Law. The airlines lost our bags, forcing us to roam the streets of Nairobi for several days before boarding the bus to the mountain.

Being days behind schedule, even as the sweltering equatorial heat broiled the flesh on all eighteen of the oily, unbathed, musty people crammed into the passenger van jostling down dusty, pothole-riddled roads, our excitement remained high. But just as the heat and smell from our human jambalaya became too much, the van would pull over to the side of the road, the stifling air would stagnate from a lack of motion, and another person would literally shove their way into the van. This went on for hours until finally, like an overstuffed burrito, we split at the seams and oozed out of the van. Like leaving a greasy spoon diner, the stench stayed with us long after we’d been dropped off at the park gate to the mountain.

We filed the necessary paperwork, paid our fees, shouldered our packs, and looked to the north – the mountain was socked in with bad weather and ominous clouds threatened to rain down in a torrential furry. It wasn’t the kind of rain where you get soaked and are annoyed at how wet your stuff gets. It was the kind of rain where the evaporating oasis mud pools flood into great lakes and rivers and villages are swept away. We had ten miles to hike through the jungle before reaching camp. Our enthusiasm drained and without words, we disappeared into the jungle. As the miles slowly ticked by, the clouds darkened and a clap of thunder nearly knocked us off our feet. Dead serious, I turned to Brian and said, “If it starts raining, we’re making camp right here.”

“Hell no we are not! Things live in the jungle, man. I mean big things. Look at that!”

Brian pointed to massive elephant tracks running perpendicular to the trail, emerging from, and then disappearing back into the jungle, branches and bushes snapped all around and footprints large enough to sit inside. The thunder clapped again and we both shook. We looked to the sky, then to the ground, and then simply plodded on. As lightning whipped across the sky, bright enough to momentarily blind you and thunder cracked around us, loud enough to briefly deafen you, miraculously, rain never fell.

After a few hours of tense hiking, we emerged from the jungle onto a sprawling savannah and the most curious site – a porter hut. We chatted with a few locals who were hanging around, looking for work after a guided trip had fallen through. They recommended a beautiful flat spot near a stream a few hundred yards away to make camp and we graciously set up. The clouds cleared and we got our first glimpse of Mt. Kenya as the sun began to set.

That night Brian woke me in a panic and as our “burglar alarm” of cooking pots went off, we tore out into the night in search of the offenders. Ignorantly and audaciously, I blindly yelled into the night to the perpetrators, “I’m going to kick your ass!” as I marched up to each of the few existing bushes surrounding the camp.

Brian dug our headlamps out of the tent and tossed me one as I approached the last bush. As the shrub shook and emitted a faint rustling noise, I clenched my fist and pulled my arm back, anticipating the ensuing brawl that was about to take place. “All right, now you’re gonna…” I froze as he swaggered out from his hiding place.

For a brief but eternal moment, we stared each other down.

“Hey, hey Br, hey Brian!” I harshly whispered, half cocking my head over my shoulder. “I found it!”

Brian came running toward me and then froze when my words began to sink in.

“What do you mean it?”

The well-lit eyes four feet off the ground turned and disappeared as Brian’s sentence trailed off into nothing. The beast sauntered away while we stood there stunned. And then, 20 yards out, the eyes reappeared. And then another pair. And another. And another. A row of yellow eyes looked at us, single file, shoulder to shoulder. Without thinking I picked up a rock and threw it at the eyes.

“What the fuck are you doing!?” Brian growled.

I didn’t know, but I threw another. And another. I threw every rock that was around me as the glowing eyes simply looked back at us, unflinching. Again, time seemed to stop. I could hear each passing heartbeat with a slow, rhythmic thump, thump, thump.

“What should we do?” Brian asked.

As if answering his question for me, the illuminated eyes started to go out. One pair at a time. One from the left end, then the right end, then the left end again, until a single set was looking at us. And then it too went out. Were we being circled and hunted? Just one of those things was larger than a Great Dane and there must have been a dozen sets of eyes. We worked our way back to the tent, arms up in karate possession and legs stealthily creeping like a wide-stanced ninja. Brian had found our bags, and for the moment, more importantly, our ice axes.

We hesitantly crawled back inside the tent, armed to the teeth with ice gear, waiting for the battle. However, nothing happened and the only sound you could hear was our nervous breaths. I looked at Brian, tense as could be and white as a ghost, and realized there was nothing else to do but go to sleep. And that’s what I did. After an exhausting day, I slept like a rock, dead to the world, until the heat of the morning sun woke me to the sight of Brian, still gripping the ice axe and peering out of the mesh fabric. He looked like a shell-shocked marine, still alive after watching a friend die in a gory, all-night battle. I placed a hand on the axe and lowered his arms, then worked my way out of the tent.

The carnage from last night’s attack was all too prevalent. Our trash was still strewn about and our backpacks had puncture wounds outlining the beast’s jaws. My Gore-Tex pants and jacket were ripped up, and most crucially, my CamelBak bladder had been punctured leaving me without a water container. A porter strolled over and asked what happened. “We were attacked by leopards!” I exclaimed.

“No, no leopards here. Elevation too high.”

“Lions then, I don’t know. It was this high.” I held my arm to my upper ribs as a measure and went on describing the yellow eyes, the massive, dagger-like teeth and the mangy fur.

He nodded, “Hyenas.”

“No way, these things were way bigger.” I had seen the Lion King and hyenas weren’t that big.

“Hyenas. They attack people sometimes. Two of them can take down a lion. They’re bad. Stay away.”

“Hyenas, huh?”

“Hyenas. You should move on. They’ll probably come back.”

I went back to the tent and looked at Brian, lying in a pool of sweat and in no shape to hike. I told him what the porter had said and we decided, against our better judgment, to push on.

There weren’t any clouds like the day before to block the equatorial sun from beating our spirits down, and breaking our bodies under our overly stuffed packs. We went up and over ridges, down into valleys, and back up again. We’d gain a thousand feet, lose eight hundred, and climb again.

Mile after mile, we slowly and methodically gained and lost elevation, creeping our way toward our objective until it became too much for Brian. He collapsed under his pack, exhausted from lack of sleep the night before, the sweltering heat, and from being at high altitude for the first time in his life. We rested on our packs until it became clear we were in trouble. Brian’s state was quickly deteriorating and we couldn’t stop in the middle of the hill. Without anymore water, we weighed our options – go back the way we came, up and down ridges and valleys to get back to the previous day’s camp and the hyenas, or push on in hopes of things getting better. I climbed the next ridge and saw we’d drop about a thousand feet down to a stream and decided that was our best bet. I helped Brian to his feet, shouldered our two packs, and we inched our way up the ridge and down the other side. Several hours later, as the light began to fade, we made camp alongside a creek and Brian collapsed in the tent.

By morning color had returned to Brian’s face and his altitude sickness subsided. Still, he needed to rest, and so as he slept, I hiked up the valley to scout our path. I returned late that afternoon to a revived and jovial climbing partner. We laughed about the start of our trip and how the climbing part would be so easy after this and made plans to keep hiking the following morning. As we went to sleep that night, life had returned to our adventure and nothing could take that away. Or so we thought.

Clang! Clang! Clang! Cooking pots were banging together, jolting us awake again. We rocketed out of our tent, donning headlamps and gripping axes. It didn’t matter. The hyenas had tracked us up into the rocky moraine and had made a more organized attack. The packs were gone and no animals could be found despite the lack of boulders and bushes to hide behind. We frantically searched for our stuff. Minutes passed and things began to look desperate. Finally, Brian found his pack, ripped and torn, but still (semi)intact. I also found my pack – but it had not been abandoned. Naïve confidence and anger swelled up inside. The hyena, clear as day and only a body length away from me easily outweighed me by a hundred pounds. I let out a primal war cry, “Agggggghhhhhh!!!!!” and swung my ice axes like nun chucks.

As if amused rather than afraid, the beast conceded and left me to my pack. Pumping with adrenaline I didn’t know what to do – pursue it and end this game of cat and mouse, or be grateful for my pack and slink back to the tent. I chose the latter and we licked our wounds in the false security of the tent. Enough was enough; we were getting the hell away from these things. We packed our stuff, and as the sun began to rise we set off down the trail, exhausted but determined.

We marched in anger and silence as clouds swirled around. The landscape became more barren and ominous as we passed an old plane wreck. But as the mountain began to take on the feel of Mt. Doom, it simply brightened our spirits and we joked about how worse things could possibly happen. We wondered if we could check a hyena skull on the plane, confident it would be ok once we showed the airlines our battle scars. Two more days of non-eventful hiking got us to the base of the retreating glacier and the start of the real climbing. We made plans for the following day, repacked our gear, and settled in for yet another restless night of sleep.

The alarm went off at 3:00 a.m. and we started hiking out across the glacier. It turned out the ice couloir we had come to climb had melted out a decade or so before we arrived and we were forced to pick a new line.

We followed the line of least resistance, climbing what felt natural, as we weren’t on an established route as far as we could tell. An hour after sunrise, a heavy, dense cloud settled on the mountain and visibility reduced from miles to yards, to feet, and finally to the end of your arm.

Experience would have turned us around hours ago, but we had the pleasure of having none. So instead, we pushed on, going higher and higher and getting more and more committed to the unknown. At some point it began to snow and still, we pushed on. Retreat was an option, but it hadn’t really occurred to us. Even though, by then I had been climbing in a down jacket under my Gore-Tex coat (which was ripped up thanks to the hyenas). When the teeth chattering became too much and the hypothermia was setting in, we decided to head down, unable to tell how far from the actual summit we were.

Again lacking experience, as well as even what most would consider a “light” alpine rack, retreat became instantly complicated. We had learned how to tie two ropes together via double fisherman knots from a book the day before we left the States, but we hadn’t practiced on two different sized ropes. We fumbled with the knots as our fingers became wooden blocks and semi-useless from the cold. Annoyed, Brian decided to lower me down to see if we could reach what we thought was webbing on a ledge with a single rope. He lowered me down, going well past the halfway mark of a single rope, necessitating the use of the other one. I stood on a ledge, not much bigger than my feet, unanchored to the non-existent webbing, waiting for Brian to rappel down to me.

We stood still. Time did not.

The mountain turned to a waterfall, and water sprayed off the rocks, finding its way into every torn hole in my clothes. I lost feeling in my legs from being unable to move and visibility was still nonexistent. Finally, Brian dropped through the veil and joined me on the ledge. We tied some slings around a nearby block and re-threaded the rope. As Brian loaded his belay device, I stared at the knot, unconfident it was tied correctly. I started to ask Brian about it, who quickly barked, “It’s fine! It held me once didn’t it?”

Still, I stared at the knot as Brian quickly disappeared back into the clouds. And then, like a scene out of Cliffhanger or Vertical Limit, I watched the knots start to slip in terrifying, jerky motions.

“Get off the rope! Get off the rope RIGHT NOW!” I screamed into the void.

Answering my plea, the rope went slack at the exact moment the knot came fully undone.

I grabbed each rope just as they fell away from the anchor. I tied a knot as fast as I could as Brian started to yell unintelligibly up to me. And just like that and without warning, the ropes went taught again. Minutes past until they went slack a second time and I headed down. I met Brian again on a ledge, where a nasty argument ensued. Brian had been near a dihedral and had stemmed between the walls as the ropes cut loose, but was growing tired and re-weighted the ropes just as I reset the anchor. Tension was high and mistakes were happening faster than we were descending. We left more gear and rapped again, this time over a big roof crack. We arrived on a huge ledge, but as we tried to pull the ropes, the knot got wedged in the roof crack. Holding only one end of the two strands and not knowing what to do or how to retrieve the ropes, I opted to solo as high as I dared back up the wall and cut the line, leaving us with about sixty feet of rope and more than a thousand feet of mountain to descend.

The clouds continued to swirl and blocks careened down all around us. The mountain had warned us from the beginning we were not welcomed here and it was only now we were realizing it. We began to solo down the mountain, carefully creeping our way down ledges and crack systems for hours. A gully came into view off to the right, but as we debated trying to make our way over to it, a bus-sized boulder rattled down the couloir, cleaving the snow off on each successive bounce. The mountain shook and we searched for other options. Occasionally we passed old, torn and faded webbing anchors and chopped out what we could, taking the pieces with us. At some point I passed an ancient fixed pin and removed it with my fingers and stashed it in my pack.

We continued in this fashion for nearly 700 feet, never seeing more than a few feet in front of us and completely uncertain of where we were downclimbing to until we reached a dead end. Standing on a twin mattress sized ledge over a body-sized roof, we sat and studied the air below us. The cloud would swirl and sometimes, if only for a moment, we could see a little bit farther down below. We thought we could make out the glacier. Or was that just the cloud still? No it’s whiter than the cloud, I think it’s the glacier. Is that a ledge below us?

I never thought I’d die of hypothermia at the equator while wearing a down jacket. Night was going to be here soon; we needed to move.

Brian and I built an anchor with our last remaining gear and then, as if breaking out of a prison with bed sheets, began to tie the pieces of webbing together in one long daisy-chained line. We drew straws for who had to go first: Brian was up. Silently, he headed down into the white fog, lowering himself hand over hand down the knotted line as pieces of nylon stretched and ripped. Eyes glued to the anchor, I solemnly stated, “Go faster Brian, go faster.”

The “rope” began to sway a bit as I could hear (but not see) Brian start to swear. “Oh God, please work! Oh G….O….O…O…D…..D…D…!” Thump! Then silence!

“Brian! Brian!!!” I shouted into the nothingness as the rope hung limp and unweighted.

Finally a voice answered, “Come on down!”

What!? Come on down? What the hell was that all about!? But what choice did I have? I headed down, arms clenching each knot to keep from slipping, legs squeezing the rope like a fireman’s pole. The webbing creaked and eeked, stretched, and frayed. Time to move Jason, time to move. I slid down the line until Brian emerged as a dark figure on a hazy ledge, fifteen feet below the end of the rope.

“Just let go, I’ll get you.” He reassured me.

“Are you serious right now!?” I yelled back.

If I dropped straight down I might hit the edge of the ledge, but if I go out just a little I’d certainly overshoot it. I started trying to swing back into the wall and drop as close to it as possible. The rope creaked and popped as it continued toward its inevitable failure. My wooden hands gave out as I aimed my trajectory toward the back of the ledge. Brian slammed me into the wall and I gasped for air. I was safe, for the moment.

After calming my nerves we began to assess the situation – we were still nearly 300 feet above the glacier and now without a rope. The clouds sill hindered our vision, but had let up enough to occasionally make out a line of weakness. We began to downclimb again as water and snow and ice and boulders continued to fall around us. In the fading light, we reached the glacier. Much of the descent had been done in tense, awkward silence as we focused on survival, but now, back on solid ground, emotions and words came flooding back.

I erupted in anger and shoved Brian. “What the fuck? You almost died up there man!”

Brian was scarily calm. “You done?”

“What are you talking about, done? What was I going to tell your mom, man? And that’s only if I would have lived since you would have taken both the ropes with you!”

“Let it all out because we are never going to talk about this again.”

“Serious? What’s wrong with you?” The rant went on but Brian was already tuning me out as he plodded back across the snow toward the tent.

I was still fuming and yelling when Brian cut me off. “Look – the mountain has cleared.”

I spun around to see a picture-perfect view on the mountain, cast in the beautiful light of the setting sun. I tore through the pack looking for the camera. As I stood back up, taking the lens cap off, the mountain socked back in with clouds as if sneering and denying us our one last request. Totally defeated, I slumped into camp.

The hardening of my alpine soul continued for days on end as we hiked away from the mountain, torrential rains literally beating us into the ground as we fell, more than hiked, down the “vertical bogs”. The grassland turned to rivers of mud and every slope was a never-ending and unwanted waterslide.

I lost a shoe at one point and didn’t even notice until Brian gave it back to me. When we finally reached the park gate a few days later, we discovered our paperwork had been altered, making it look like we had not paid upon entering. Out of money and far from town, we had to barter with the thieves in order to leave. From there, we traded the remaining climbing gear we had for a fifteen mile car ride back to town to catch a bus back to Nairobi.

An experience like this leaves a lasting impression, but there’s only one of two ways it could really go. One is to solidify why you climb and only strengthen you adventurous spirit. The other, to realize you nearly died, thus leaving you wanting nothing more to do with climbing like that again. I chose the former while Brian chose the latter. We were each other’s main climbing partner, an activity we did seven days a week, and a lifestyle we embraced fully by being unemployed, full time dirtbags.

In the months and years that followed, my hunger for climbing and adventures only grew, while Brian climbed less and less, and never alpine or really even trad climbed again.

Today, more than a decade later, the experience (and some of the clothing) stays with me. My wife even still likes the story.

While sitting on a ski lift chair with strangers, my wife often enjoys pointing to my faded and patched Gore-Tex pants and jacket and asks, “How’d you get those holes?”

Just as we exit the chairlift, I smile and say, “Hyenas attacked me.”

She turns to the stranger and smirks, “True story.”

As we part ways on the slope they always yell the same thing, “Wait, what? Are you serious?”

Jason Haas still has the fixed pin from that fateful trip to Africa and was the inspiration behind the name to his publishing company, Fixed Pin Publishing, which he runs from his house. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two kids. 

Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published six books: The Desert,  Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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