Travel Stories

Snowboarding on the Equator: Riding Mount Kenya’s Fast Retreating Glaciers

Martyn Pollock finds snowy lines in Kenya, just 10 miles from the Earth's waistband.

Header photo: Anna Om/Getty Images

Words & Photos: Martyn Pollock

“You can’t snowboard in Kenya.” This is a phrase I have become accustomed to over the last 12 months. The customs officer at Nairobi’s International Airport, my boss, even my friends; all have echoed the sentiment – and lately it has been reinforced by rangers, porters, guides and fellow hikers.

Still, ever since I set foot here, I’ve looked up at Mt Kenya and wondered what it would be like to climb the country’s highest peak and snowboard down one of its glaciers. The conviction of the nay sayers has only served to strengthen my resolve.

I’m certainly not the only one to have this idea. Back in 2012 the first snowboard descent was made on the Lewis Glacier, while on YouTube you can find footage of skiers tackling Mt Kenya in the 1990s (complete with outerwear straight out of the movie Ski School). There are even some reports of a ski competition that took place their back in 1936. But with a location this incredible, being the first is less important than just being able to say that you’ve done it.

“Out of control overladen lorries and drivers overtaking on bends make just getting to Mount Kenya a frightening task”

The mountain is a five-hour drive out of Nairobi along a road that’s sketchy even by Kenyan standards. Overladen, out-of-control lorries jockey with crazy drivers who overtake on blind bends; just getting there is a frightening task. Then, at the Sirimon Gate, I meet my guide – Ibrahim.

Ibrahim has grown up climbing the mountain and tells me that he lost count after his 100th ascent. He is dressed more like a skater than a mountaineer: trainers, jeans and a flat peak baseball cap don’t inspire me with confidence, but nothing in Africa is ever quite what it seems. He walks the first stage of the trip in this get-up, but once we begin to hit higher altitudes he dips into his bag and slowly exchanges each item for climbing kit and Gore-Tex.

Ibrahim and his porters climb the mountain three to four times a month, and the porters are very much used to hauling tourists’ kit in their overflowing, battered rucksacks. They are confused as to why I insist on carrying my own. I try to explain that I’m happy to, but they just looked at me baffled – and slightly concerned that they are going to lose out on their tip.

“My guide is dressed more like a skater than a mountaineer, but nothing in Africa is ever quite what it seems”

A dormant volcano, Mt Kenya rises abruptly out of the African continent. From the base, its massive central rock face looms overhead, with various pinnacles glinting in the sun. It’s a mountain straight out of Mordor, the most insane lunar landscape you could ever imagine, and enough to put some doubts in my mind about the task ahead.

It takes two-and-a-half days of solid climbing to get to the top, an elevation of 4987m and temperatures well below freezing. And as if that wasn’t surreal enough, there are several plant species native only to the mountain, including forests of lobelias that cling to the side of the afro-alpine slopes – some look like giant pineapples on stilts, others resemble Cousin It from The Adams Family. Giant rat-like creatures called hyraxes run around the mountainside, adding to the otherworldly feeling.

As I begin to climb through this unfamiliar world I get my first glimpse of the summit and the distinct lack of snow. From the original 18 glaciers recorded when the mountain was first studied back in the late 19th century, only 11 remain. It is widely accepted that less snow is falling than ice is melting, and generous predictions give between 20 and 30 years before the final glacier disappears from the mountain.

I have had mixed feelings about the conditions I want to see. Fresh snow would be nice, but without a solid, consistent freeze any dusting of powder could hide a multitude of crevasses, and I do not feel like testing the Kenyan emergency response team. I reach the snowline on day three, and it becomes evident that the snowfall from the week before has largely melted, leaving a thin, icy crust on top of solid ice.

“From the original 18 glaciers recorded when the mountain was first studied back in the late 19th century, only 11 remain”

Ibrahim is nervous. If something goes wrong the buck stops with him – or at least, that’s how he feels. He helps me onto the ice just up from the moraine and watches as I slowly hike up, trying to find a river-less, rock-less, crevasse-less route safe enough to come down. On the extreme skier’s right I find a narrow route down the ice, but just as I am about to reach the top I fall through an ice bridge and end up knee deep in a hidden river – a stark reminder of the dangers that lie beneath.

I drop in for a quick test run. The ice is bumpy as hell, and my edges struggle for grip. The only route through the top section is to twist and turn around boulders and crevasses, but eventually the terrain clears up, offering a wide slope perfect for sweeping lines.

I carve out a nice big toeside turn just before the glacier meets the rock, and my heart is pounding out of my chest. You do everything slowly at altitude, but you can’t afford to react slowly in these conditions. It’s mid afternoon, and I want at least another two runs, so I start slowly trudging back up the hill. The full effect of breathing such thin air has now set in.

Each run gets faster and harder. A voice inside tells me to keep going, to push my limits. It’s that same voice that I hear when riding in Europe and North America, but this isn’t the West. Ibrahim is still on edge, and for good reason: if something goes wrong here, there is no official mountain rescue or emergency services to come and get you. He’s told me that you can get a helicopter to come out, but it’s expensive and hardly an established route. After three fun but challenging runs I decide not to push my luck any further.

“You do everything slowly at this altitude, but you can’t afford to react slowly in these conditions”

As we are leaving, I turn to Ibrahim.

“Do you want to try?”

“Me?” He replies, surprised. “No, I can’t do it.”

After putting him at ease, he agrees to try once. I assure him I will be in complete control. He has seen skiing on TV, but never snowboarding, and between him and the rest of the porters and guides none had ever seen anyone ski or snowboard on Mt Kenya.

Soon, he is side slipping down the hill on his heel edge with a beaming smile, and even starting to do a bit of falling leaf. The look on his face is the icing on the cake, but despite his enthusiasm I feel sad as it dawns on me that this is quite possibly the only time he will have an opportunity to try snowboarding.

“Ibrahim is side slipping down the hill on his heel edge with a beaming smile”

You could quite rightly say that the whole escapade was a huge amount of effort for not much snowboarding time in return. However,  you certainly don’t ski on Mt Kenya for the quality of the snow, and if you were to ask me why I really did it, I’m not sure whether you’d understand any answer I could give you.

Penning this piece sat in my dining room in suburban Nairobi, I’m barely five hours drive from the mountain, but a complete world away from snowboarding; and having now had time to reflect on the events of the last week, I must say that the experience from start to finish has been incredible.

The feeling of climbing such a mammoth mountain, and to have been snowboarding a mere 10 miles from the earth’s waistband, is one that will never leave me. It may not have been a first descent, but with global warming and the rapid decline in snow and ice at the equator, unfortunately, it may very well end up being one of the last.

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