In September 2018 we ran a competition asking for people to share their next trekking adventure with us in exchange for Fjällräven gear. Dr. Mark Willis from the UK won. This is his story as expedition medic on an expedition to Mount Kenya – the second highest mountain on the African continent.
As I scrambled up the last set of rocks, I dusted off the dirt from my hands and knees and lifted my head. There I was. Point Lenana Summit, Mount Kenya. I had hiked through the night in sub-zero temperature and finally made it with my team to the summit. Elation ran through me as I surveyed the African continent and lowlands below. There was no better feeling. However, as with any mountain, you don’t get there by chance.
As an expedition doctor most people think my job is all about saving lives at high altitude or in remote areas, but being a good medic is about prevention of illness and thorough preparation.
For any expedition you need to be physically and mentally prepared and you need the right equipment for the right environment. Trips can be made or broken based on the kit on your back, so when I got the chance to test some Fjällräven gear I couldn’t wait to put it through its paces.
The Journey Begins
After stepping off the plane, we crammed ourselves into jeeps and set out for Mount Kenya National Park. The tarmac roads soon turned to gravel and then to dirt. Before long they stopped altogether. It was the end of the road and the beginning of the adventure.
I adjusted my walking poles and took a mouthful of water from the bladder pack inside my Abisko Hike rucksack. At 27°C it was too warm for trousers so I quickly unzipped the legs of the Keb Gaiter Trousers leaving me to hike in the converted shorts. Hours ticked by and I began to realise how versatile the shorts were. The blend of different materials gave the perfect balance between flexibility and breathability around the groin alongside the thicker, more durable material of the inner leg and knee regions.
Day 1 was a steady hike up hill through the forest until we made it to Jungle Camp (2950m). My multiple talks about self care and hand hygiene seemed to paying off. I ended that first day with my medical kit firmly closed and went to bed tired but happy.
Day 2 started with the sun shining through the tent as the perfect alarm clock. As we ascended, it was noticable that the temperature was dropping. It was still early and Kenya had yet to heat up. I put on my Keb Gaiter shorts and quickly found the trouser attachments from the top pocket of my Abisko Hike rucksack. Combined with my Abisko Trail Fleece I was set for breakfast and the day of trekking ahead.
We made steady ground as we hiked until lunch. We reached 3,000m above sea level, which I knew was the crucial elevation at which Acute Mountain Sickness can become a genuine issue for some people. I explained the simple interventions people can make if they are developing headaches or nausea whilst starting to build a small pharmacy in the deep pockets of my Keb Gaiter Trousers. The group was strong, healthy and everyone seemed to be in good spirits.
But with the afternoon, came the clouds. And they were catching us quickly. Thankfully we made it to camp before the rain and my waterproof Keb Eco-Shell Jacket and Trousers stayed in the bottom of my rucksack.
Day 3 started, once again, with beautiful sunshine bouncing off Lake Ellis. The altitude had caused a few to lose their appetite and develop a few headaches, but the chatter and jokes remained. Now there is a saying when you go hiking: Be Bold, Start Cold. Quite often people are sitting around in the early morning and layer up. When they start moving – in those same clothes – they get too warm and start sweating which cools them down and leaves the damp with sweat. I took this advice and removed my toastie Keb Expedition Down Jacket with reluctance leaving me with my Abisko Trail T-Shirt. Half an hour later and my gamble paid off. I was comfortable in my quick drying t-shirt and was soon turning my Keb Gaiter Trousers back in to shorts.
The journey was spent sharing stories and navigating a few steep descents to a waterfall. We were informed of a place up ahead called The Temple. I couldn’t fathom how they had managed to build a temple at such high altitude. As we arrived it was obvious I had misinterpreted what the temple actually was. What I was looking at was the edge of a cliff with a shear 500m drop. The Temple gets its name as it appears as though people are praying as the crawl their way to the edge and pear down into the abyss.
I stood there and watched the group edge themselves forward. What expedition doctor lets the entirety of his group crawl to the edge of a sheer cliff to look over? My heart was in my mouth and my stomach dropped as they all looked down. Thankfully, they all just enjoyed the view.
At 4,200m most people were feeling some effects of the altitude. Headaches developed and nausea ensued. My med kit was well and truly open and drugs were slowly filling my deep pockets. Anti-sickness and paracetamol were being regularly prescribed, as I wanted everyone to feel strong and prepared for summit night.
To The Top
The summit push started at 2am. It was dark and below zero. The puddles we traipsed through during the day became small ice rinks. I rubbed my eyes and put on the kit I had laid out the night previously. Then I made my way out of the tent and into the darkness.
I force porridge down me and look for where the peak should be. Nothing. One hour into the five hour summit push and our luck runs out. The rain clouds finally open and down comes a mixture of rain, sleet and snow. I’m quick to react knowing how difficult the trek will be if I’m wet. It’s 3am and pitch black. I haven’t seen my waterproof for days. I open the long zip down the front of the bag giving me quick and easy access and pull out my Keb-Eco Shell Jacket and Trousers. I stayed dry and the extra layer added a bit of warmth as we continued to ascend. After another hour we breeched through the clouds. The weather was dry and so was I.
They say it’s always darkest before the dawn and it seemed to be the case that night. People were tired both physically and mentally, headaches weren’t improving, nausea had developed into vomiting for one person and shortness of breath had become worse with altitude. I did a quick assessment of the whole group to ensure nobody was developing High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema or High Altitude Cerebral Oedema and that everyone was fit enough to carry on. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the summit appeared into view and the sun began to rise, lighting up the continent below.
“Congratulations you are at Lenana Peak, Mt Kenya 4985m asl.”
The trek then became a short scramble to the summit. I looked up and there it was, “Congratulations you are at Lenana Peak, Mt Kenya 4985m asl”. We had done it. I congratulated the group and was elated that everyone was safe. We had done it. We were standing atop of Mt Kenya. I stood there for a few minutes just taking it all in. I looked at the group and wondered if I had the heart to tell them we were only half way – what goes up must come down! I decided against it and let everyone just enjoy the moment.
Descent was controlled and steady, just the way an expedition doctor would want it. The descent gave me time to reflect on how well the kit had performed and how perfect it will be for my next expedition to Mt Elbrus. It gave me the opportunity to perform to the best of my ability both as a trekker and the expedition doctor, and by the end of the trek the confidence to know it would perform no matter what I needed. I was never too cold or too warm. I was dry and I was happy. I also won’t need to replace or upgrade kit after this trip which is fantastic.
Another 12 hours of constant hiking and we had made it down to our last camp. There was a mixture of jubilation and fatigue. As people peered back up at the summit they began to realise exactly what they had achieved. They had summited their mountain and achieved their goal. With the right tools and the right people, you really can do anything.
So what’s stopping you? Get out there. Nature is waiting.
Text & images: Dr Mark Willis MBChB, Expedition Medic.
Follow Mark on Instagram at @the_mountain_doc