Ian Howell has climbed Mount Kenya more than 160 times—probably twice as many times as any man ever—but he remembers the first time well. He had paused at an altitude of 14,000 feet, nauseated from his exertions and the thin air and awed by what remained, when two Africans appeared through the mist, dragging a goat up to the base of the peak. The snow was coming down hard when they saw one another: the white man, with his nylon all-weather clothing, his portable cooking gear, his shiny climbing spikes and axes and his book about the mountain; and the black men, with their hair in dreadlock strings down to their buttocks, flimsy white gowns and bare feet. The black men stretched their hands toward the summit, fell to their knees, strangled the goat and prayed to the god on the peak for rain. The white man climbed the summit and exulted.
This glacier-crowned African mountain has always cried out to two needs in man. Some men never feel secure unless they surrender to something larger than themselves, and some never feel secure unless they overcome it. The climber and the worshipers descended, feeling stronger but bewildered by one another. None of them, climber or Africans, realized it was just another day in the life of Mount Kenya.
It is 5 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1985, and it is barely light on Mount Kenya. Two men, Tim Hodnett and Mike Margeson, expert mountaineers from England, shiver with cold and anticipation. They are at 15,000 feet on a mountain crowned year-round with ice even though it sits precisely on the equator. In seven hours they expect to realize a three-year dream, arriving at the 17,058-foot crest of Mount Kenya.
Below them, the morning has already begun to come alive. Elephants nonchalantly devour their daily quarter ton of some of the most unusual vegetation on earth. Leopards, bloated and weary from a night of hunting, look for dry places to sleep. Much farther down, at the base, Moses Muchugo, 82, husband of three and father of 38, spreads his palms toward the mountaintop and prays, as he does each morning at this time, for the strength to stand.
He must pray to Ngai, the god who lives on the ice at the summit, while the predawn pink halos the peaks. By sunrise, Ngai will have dispensed all of his blessings upon earlier-rising men. Muchugo thanks the god for protecting him and all the other Mau Maus in the early 1950s, when they hid on this mountain and took oaths in blood to kill or drive away every European from the land. He recalls those fierce fighting years: "No warplanes' bombs could kill us, no wild animals could touch us, no cold could harm us, because we stayed near our god. Our god and our mountain were our only friends then."
Muchugo shakes his head sadly and gazes at Mount Kenya. Once only holy men on sacred missions went up this mountain. Now white men, like the two Englishmen who are clinging at this moment to the icy steeps, ascend it for reasons he does not understand. Each year the power of the great mountain seems more disturbed.
It is 6:30 a.m. The climbers are on their way toward the top. Hodnett, a 27-year-old climbing instructor, moves confidently up a nearly vertical-approach glacier to Batian, the highest peak. Too confidently. He has not troubled to belay himself by sinking a large screw into the ice and attaching himself to it by his rope. "One must be humble to approach this mountain," says Iain Allan, a professional climber and owner of a company that guides more that 100 tourists up Mount Kenya each year. "This mountain has a personality. In one word—brutal."
All at once, Hodnett is grasping air instead of ice. Not far below, Margeson is startled by the body flying past him. He hears a scream that will haunt him for life. Then there is silence. Numbly, Margeson begins the descent toward what he is certain will be his friend's lifeless body.
At this same hour, at the foot of the mountain, Edward Waweru, 28 and already balding, steps barefoot out of his little house on his 12-acre farm. He is holding a small pot of fertilizer. It is late in the season, but his corn plants are stunted and dry. He looks up at Mount Kenya. He is not going to pray like Moses Muchugo and other elders of the Kikuyu tribe. He is looking to see if this mountain is stirring up any rain clouds for this day. It appears unlikely.
Waweru is a modern African. He understands that the mountain forest has in recent times been cut back to half its original size to supply a rapidly growing population that needs more and more wood for more and more houses. He believes that the fewer trees there are to absorb moisture, the less moisture will be returned to the atmosphere and the less rain there will be. He understands that the ancient tribal practices are vanishing because they are supposed to be foolish and superstitious. Yet there is a certain yearning in his voice when he says, "Years ago rain would come only 10 minutes after my people sacrificed to Ngai on the mountain. Now all our requests are bounced."