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Reaching New Heights (Nomad Magazine)

At Lukenya, a golden-copper vista of jumbled granite cliffs that glitters over Mombasa Highway just north of Machakos, Samson Mwangi glides from foothold to foothold like a much lighter man. A rope is tied to his harness, which jingles with dozens of metal gadgets — he occasionally pulls one off and places it into a crack in the rock to protect himself from a fall.

Twende twende!”

This is the attitude Sam Mwangi looks for in a rock climbing partner. “Hiking, you can just wake up and you can go. Climbing, you have to train, learn the skills, the technique, the terms for safety,” he says. Rock climbing takes commitment, and Sam is among a small but growing number of Kenyans for whom it has not just become their sport, but has changed their lives.

A Nairobi local and manager of Climb BlueSky, a climbing gym in Westlands, Sam says he started climbing “for exercise, trying to do something unique.” As he delicately shifts his weight from one toe to another, gripping the crystals with his fingertips, the physical prowess is evident. But he’ll be the first to tell you that climbing quickly becomes more than exercise: the more you climb, “the more you find that freedom, that connection with nature. It’s about the skills, the flow, the mindset, the risk assessment — it’s really all-around for a person.”

Rock climbing is a unique sport: equal parts adventure and athleticism, requiring technique and tenacity and courage. Some people are drawn to it for the personal challenge — you compete against no one and nothing except your own strength and flexibility. Some love the thrill of taking risks, of pushing yourself exactly to the edge and knowing when to stop, and still others love the technical complexity — the systems and equipment and creativity needed to problem-solve and stay safe.

If you’ve ever taken an outing to bike through Hell’s Gate National Park and looked up at the towering orange walls of volcanic rock, imagine yourself a hundred meters in the air over the savanna on a sheer vertical journey, spying on giraffes and tourists — and you might understand the appeal.

The sport of rock climbing hit the global scene in the last several decades, a culture and industry emerging centred around the U.S. and Europe but rapidly expanding, but in much of Africa it remains at best a fringe activity practiced by visiting foreigners.

Kenya is an exception: the intimidating granite massif of Mount Kenya was first climbed well over a century ago in 1899, heralding in a rich history of vertical exploration in the country. Beginning in the 1960s, a tiny squad of adventurous climbers started pursuing the sport in earnest, writing guidebooks full of hundreds of ascents in places as far apart as Mount Kenya, Tsavo National Park, and clifflines hidden away in the Ngong Hills.

That heritage has been kept alive in large part by the Mountain Club of Kenya, a melting pot of Kenyan and expatriate climbing enthusiasts, and places like Climb BlueSky, the first public climbing gym in the country. Long-time climbers can find their people and interested newcomers can both cut their teeth and find experienced mentors.

It’s multi-generational: you might meet lanky teenagers from Nairobi who have found their passion on the colourful walls of the gym and will hotly debate you on the best way to make a particular move, or you might encounter someone like James “KG” Kagambi, the Kenyan schoolteacher-turned-mountaineer who was the first black African to ascend some of the tallest mountains in the world, like Denali and Aconcagua.

“Not a lot of people do it, so it feels like something I can have an impact in, to push the sport in Kenya,” says Peter Naituli, a young mountaineer who has pushed his own limits on Mount Kenya.

With this consistent climbing community around for decades, why has climbing never taken off in a mainstream way? (Besides, of course, the part where you cling to tiny edges of rock high above the comfortable ground.)

Whereas most sports bring people together to a central and convenient location like a football pitch or even a yoga studio, climbing serves the opposite purpose — it takes small groups of people well off the beaten path. It requires a lot of technical equipment, which historically, because of the sport’s relative obscurity, has been hard to find in Kenya. You often have to go places a matatu won’t take you, and you need the knowledge and know-how to get back safely.

“The risk is real,” says Mwangi, “You have to spend a lot of time learning. [My friends] think I’m doing something unreasonable. They don’t know how we train to achieve that.” But last year alone, Sam says he took almost two hundred people out climbing, sharing his knowledge and love of the sport in the way it has always been passed down, person-to-person.

And just like for Sam, climbing quickly teaches them more than fitness: “People become more focused, whether in life or in climbing. They become more disciplined, knowing that if you can’t make it today, you can make it tomorrow.”

As Kenya’s capital continues to grow and its residents continue to become wealthier, more and more Nairobians are looking to escape the crowds, hiking and camping and exploring the country around them. With this adventurous spirit spreading palpably across Nairobi, rock climbing, too, is becoming increasingly accessible. There are more places to learn and to find equipment (like Decathlon sports at Yaya Centre), and there are more opportunities to get outside with experienced climbers.

Climbing will never be for everyone, but for those looking for something more strenuous than a day hike and more remote than Karura, rock climbing might be the perfect next pursuit to challenge both the body and the mind.

[published in Nomad Magazine, spring 2020]


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