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Learning Trad Climbing in Lukenya

Report from the third trad training weekend at Lukenya

The vast majority of climbing in Kenya is traditional climbing, where climbers place their own removable protection as they climb. Traditional climbing offers incredible freedom and flexibility to climbers, but can be much more daunting that gym and sport climbing, because of the amount of technical knowledge required. So how do we encourage new climbers to get out and experience all of the amazing routes that Kenya has to offer? Well, we meet up and have a party of course!

This past weekend, a group of experienced trad climbers and eager students got together in Lukenya to learn about gear, anchors, fall factors, rope management, lead belay and lead climbing technique.


We started off the weekend by learning about the types of protection available in trad climbing (active, passive, and natural pro) and got hands on experience placing gear and getting feedback from experienced climbers. The broken boulders at the base of Cakewalk crag provide an ideal playground for practicing gear placements from the comfort of the ground.

Explaining how to place nuts


Once we understood the nuts and bolts (and cams and hexes) of climbing pro, we moved on to anchors. In essence, a climbing anchor just a way of linking multiple pieces of protection together so that they all share the load equally and provide a strong base for your climbing team. Participants tried their hands at making SERENEA anchors, using different types of rigging and arrangements of protection.

Mital and Vytas showing off a two-piece, self-equalizing anchor



Nick, Liz, and Katie demonstrating belaying off of a three-piece pre-equalized anchor



By now people were itching to put their skills to the test by actually getting off the ground, so we headed down to Boulder Crag and Jacob’s Ladder to talk about the whole safety system (harness, belay device, rope, pro, slings, biners, rope, harness),lead belay techinque, and the choreography of lead climbing. In supervised groups, teams practiced placing gear on lead, or mock-lead, depending on experience levels.

Denis on the sharp end, thinking about tricams


All in all, about a half dozen people logged their first trad leads and the stoke was high! It was really great to see so much enthusiasm for climbing in Kenya and to meet so many new, keen trad climbers!

The next day, everyone went out in teams to practice their skills, some getting their first taste of true Kenyan climbing…

Because no Kenyan climb is complete without a belly traverse through bird guano?


Join us!

We’ve been running these informal trainings for new trad climbers about once every six months, and topics have included:

  • Types of protection and placements
  • Building Trad anchors
  • Lead belay for trad and handling twin ropes
  • Mock leading
  • Managing climbing lines and rope drag for leaders
  • How to fall and catch falls on lead
  • Multipitch techniques
  • Belaying from above
  • Rappelling/Abseiling
  • Self-rescue skills
  • Aid climbing technique

So what would you like to see at the next trad training clinic?

Links to more information:

More info on getting in to climbing in Kenya.

A list of our favorite picks for trad leads of all levels.

Climb on!

RIP Simon climber

Sad news – Simon passed away last week (not climbing related).

Simon was synonymous with Fischers Tower in Hells Gate. From as far as i can remember he has been setting up his ropes and getting people to climb there and at the Fischers Cliffs. Numerous times he has retrieved gear that was stuck or left by us as a favour.

Occasionally he used to take people up onto Main Wall on selected climbs. His voice could be heard booming around the Tower encouraging mainly first timers up the rock.

Last year August I was climbing on the main wall and a friend fell and hurt his back. Simon and Maina heard his screams and were at the base of our climb to help. As I started lowering my friend 50m down to the base, Simon was there both guiding me and giving out instructions to the injured climber. They made a stretcher and carried him down till the car.

Again last month I was climbing on Main Wall on Gold Rush buttress. We abseiled from the top of this buttress (which is less than half way to the top of the Main Wall) and as I was nearing the end of the rope, the ground was still much further below me. Again, ever watchful Simon was there, asking if everything was all right.

He was the guardian over the park. RIP.


If anyone wants to contribute to his family the M-Pesa link is Monica Muthoni 0715007548

Below are some reflections from his friends – 

My name is Njenga Mungai, I knew Simon very well. I knew Simon very early in his life, when I consider Simon’s life I attribute a lot of his successes and failures in his life to myself…I remember long ago going to climb at Hells Gate; Simon was a small boy, he was extremely fascinated when he saw me climb the steep tower… he was awe struck! I am a teacher and naturally if you are a teacher you teach whoever is willing to learn.. you make the impossible possible, you unravel magic…you empower the powerless! You teach others to be better than yourself! Simon was a willing and quick learner. Initially, we had a mutual relationship; he was my free handy man, taught him   how to coil my ropes, to place my anchors, to place my protection… to tie my webbing harness (commercial harnesses were rare then so we used tubular webbing)…Simon learned fast and in a short while he made my work easier and became my de-facto assistant. He was always a cheeky boy and always loved the sandwiches I always brought for lunch!…I remember once when I made him a peanut sandwich and he made a comment we always many years after laughed about…”I don’t eat shit he said…” and surely doesn’t peanut butter look like shit?…Simon was frank and expressed himself with the most endearing and broadest smile and laughter…the biggest heart that will ever scale up Fischer’s Tower…you wonder what weight of heart those fantastic ropes can carry!…Simon never denied a willing climber a chance to discover their talent and how far they could push themselves…he never worked for profit! He loved climbing! He loved seeing others achieve! Who didn’t know Fischer’s Tower was Simon’s elder brother? Who doubts Fischer’s Tower himself mourns his younger brother?…Simon was a legend within a short time; you saw him dressed up with his gear belt of friends, Camelots, nut, Prussics and other assorted gear…his dear helmet and you knew you were in safe hands!…I remember us once rescuing a fallen climber from one of the ledges of the tower; he survived and Simon was the unsung hero in that rescue…Simon was a hand and a heart you count on; he trained even the most mighty; diplomats, soldiers (The British Army loved and used his skills), doctors, school children…he changed people’s mindsets, he touched many!…this is a hero we know is as good as they come!…Simon loved fan; unknown to many; if you are a safe and serious climber, it can be very stressful as you watch to make sure “no accidents happen!”…and as is the case; Simon who has probably clocked the most hours of climbing in Kenya for the sheer fact he was always based at the iconic tower never caused a single accident…if you have been a climbing guide on the tower; the serious attention to safety can deny you the  chance to eat… who eats and belays at the same time? Simon didn’t eat lest his safety guard goes down…you can imagine after a very stressful day, at day’s end; a little alcohol to calm the nerves would always be welcome; maybe I would imagine our hero was so tired he would fall asleep; maybe wake up the next morning and rush to do what he loved best!…you can imagine what years of such routine would do…in his last years if you knew Simon well, you knew something was going to give in. Many feared he would let go of his belay hand…No, it was not going to be the case! Simon’s honest and sure contractual belay hand never let go! It’s his faithfulness and safety obsession that would eventually eat him slowly…I don’t know the exact circumstances; but am told as usual Simon came from a day of climbing…to calm his tested nerves took a deserved rest and as usual took some alcohol to calm his nerves as usual…unfortunately, he lost count and  couldn’t hear the decibel of safety with the alcohol…I can imagine his already weakened liver couldn’t handle the toxins without food to help process…People who are good; very good at what they do; have a weakness they run to after performing the best note that makes the world declare them heroes! Beethoven, Mozart, Napoleon, Simon and the list is endless…Simon is a hero; and just like Beethoven’s ninth symphony or Fur Elise have made the iconic hero’s music reverberate in our hearts for ages, good Simon’s influence and heroic touch will echo through the ages of the hearts he touches…and as the wind blows through Fischer’s Tower who won’t miss Simon’s iconic and gentle instructions of how to go higher and touch higher ambitions! Simon, yes you had a weakness; just like you had great strengths…for us who you left,let’s not talk in hushed tones of what took you away…who amongst us doesn’t have an addiction and is strong?..only the weak! Simon am so glad it was alcohol and your belay hand as we said from the start… never let go! Thank you Simon; you never let go! I will always miss you…I will always love you! Go ahead, go on in peace…belay me safely into the heaven’s gate…just like you led me many times to the iconic tower! RIP Simon

Sultan 048 – This is soo touching. My first climb was made possible by Simon. This was back in college when I we went for a bushcraft and survival skills course at Hell’s Gate. I later come back here as a guide. Simon is immortalized at the tower. We will always see you there enroute to the gorge and recall how we used to call you ‘Mbíya’ which is rat in reference to the hyraxes at the tower. Fare Thee Well Simon.





The Shnoz (5.9 VS 5a IV- 17 NTB Grade III 330m) at Ololokwe

Ololokwe: a horseshoe-shaped cliff a mile long, up to 1500 feet high, and covered in a patchwork of overhangs, slabs, and vegetation. Despite its length, this gneiss monolith does not fracture continuously and has yielded relatively few routes and even fewer moderate ones.

With 4 days and limitless optimism, Fish, Nick Quintong, and I departed from Nairobi with the goal of avoiding a vision quest while exploring a new line. This would be my last climbing trip in Kenya, and we focused our attention on the far West face of the mountain, where the height and angle is at a more human scale. Fish spoke of an area dubbed The Tulip, and photos revealed several appetizing aretes that could be moderate enough for us. After an eventful drive, we arrived in the surprisingly green and always stunning landscape north of Isiolo.

The far left of Ololokwe – The Tulip

Our recce led us up the Wamba road, where we turned North from Larata and drove into the bush to approach the base of the mountain. Luckily Nick didn’t mind some trophy scratches on his paintjob, and we bulldozed our way through dense thickets and dry laggas until we found a manyatta where we could park the car. Anything to avoid walking.

We scoped the wall as best we could, and decided that the rightmost blunt arete looked the most suitable: low angle, exposed, and with visible features and cracks. Lower on the feature, we could even spy a long, thin crack that was invisible from the road. It wasn’t the Nose, but it certainly was a Shnoz.

The Tulip closer up, with the rightmost arete in profile.

Given the height of the cliff and the length of the approach and descent, we knew we had to bivy at some point. With no obvious ledges on the route, and reluctant to carry the water required for 2 days, we decided to bivy at the base and try to complete the route in a day to get back to Sabache camp by evening. We packed hammocks, a bit of food and water, and planned to find a suitable place close to the start. The weather looked stable so we left the tarp and took one raincoat. Our intrepid guides, Jackson and Anthony, showed us the way up the hill on elephant tracks, which made for surprisingly easy walking up to the last few scrambles.

Loading up at the manyatta before heading into the bush

Jackson leading the way

Up the slab approach

Once we were closer to the base, we scrambled up a few slabs and found a perfect ledge. Covered in soft vegetation and surprisingly devoid of animal shit, we quickly set up hammocks and couldn’t believe our luck in finding such a 5-star bivy spot. The views stretched out to Mt Kenya, and with plenty of daylight we settled in for a relaxing evening.

Luxury bivvy

Pretty quickly, we noticed dark clouds gathering in the South. A wind began to blow, whipping the dust in the plains below into a massive cloud. A sheet of water appeared to our left, erasing the hills that had been there a few minutes previously. In a moment of inspiration, Nick proceeded to strip down, hide his clothes and climbing gear in a waterproof bag, and sat down to wait. With some confidence, I predicted that due to the wind direction and atmospheric conditions, the rain would surely pass us by.

I’m sure it will miss us…

All hatches battened down

The first drops were fat and quickly grew in number as the rain clouds flanked us and crashed over the top of the wall. Pretty quickly, the three of us were down to underwear and clustered around the fire, where Anthony and Jackson were also resigned to the soaking, though reluctant to get completely weird with us.

No pants, no problem

Just five dudes getting wet

Drying out after the storm

After drying out and getting dressed, we ate and got into our hammocks and spent a long night pretending to sleep. The wind blew away any warmth from the fire as we each silently swore never again to sleep in hammocks without insulation. The welcome sunrise saw Anthony and Jackson heading down as we headed up.

An illustrious tree start

The first pitch traverse

A bit of a squeeze behind the first pitch flake

A team effort of dynamic traversing and backpack wrestling saw us lead the first pitch across a ledge system that would carry us to the cracks and arete we had seen the day before. Fish led the next pitch up to the base of the beautiful “thin crack”. This turned out to be a monster squeeze/offwidth – 40m long and apparently unprotectable. Staying realistic about my abilities, I found another corner crack farther right that took pro and gave back moderate, fun climbing up on to the Shnoz itself. Another 20m of plate pulling and crimp crushing without any real protection led me to a belay. Our position on the arete yielded panoramic views in all directions, with hardly a dark cloud in sight. Surely it wouldn’t rain again. Nick took over, pushing the rope a full 60m up some beautiful face climbing before finding a creative belay.

Fish finding our way up to the crack

The neighboring walls

Nick questing up the Shnoz

A quick transfer and Fish is off

Abundant opportunities for protection

Fish then brought us 60m higher, where the angle eased off considerably and we could unrope and scramble up to the bridge of the Shnoz to find an exit. We explored a direct exit up the final headwall before deciding the safer option was to traverse right off the arete and find a way out of the neighboring gully. The first drops started to fall as we moved into the vegetated gully, dubbed Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park

Once inside, the rain began to fall steadily, and wouldn’t stop until the next morning. We rushed to find an exit before the rock was too soaked to climb, or we had to bivy in a gully that likely would become a torrent in heavy rain. I hastily led up a series of squeeze chimneys, through loose vegetation, and over packed kitty litter, desperate to reach the top in one pitch. What followed was one of the worst pitches I’ve had the pleasure of climbing in Kenya – it was fitting that Ololokwe wouldn’t let us through with just the easy climbing below. I laughed as I thrutched up to the final bush belay, somehow glad that my last pitch of climbing in Kenya turned out to be a complete horror show. Nevertheless, we were all ecstatic to have reached the top and in good style!

It was now around 4 pm and the clouds were only getting heavier. We knew the descent was the crux of the whole adventure, so we threw on our packs and headed out on a circumnavigation of the rim along elephant trails, hoping to arrive at familiar ground on the far side of the plateau.

Wet, then dry, then wet, then dry…

After two hours of walking in the pouring rain, we were soaked and in high spirits. We knew that another group from MCK was planning to hike and camp at the top of the mountain, but given the rain we were doubtful that we could find them. Darkness was approaching, and none of us knew the right way down, so we were anxious to find the right trail before we would have to stumble through the bush by headlamp. On a whim, we sent a few shouts and whoops out into the bush and to our immense surprise we got a few back. Relief flooded through us as we quickly met a few guides and walked to the top camp.

Unfortunately, we quickly learned the situation: most of the group had already gone down because their pack donkeys had gotten lost on the way up. Everyone was very low on water and food, and there were no guides available to help us walk down the mountain in the dark. We were in for another night in the open, with a few bars and a liter of water between the three of us. Nick and Fish immediately set about building a shelter while I went through the seven stages of grief. The rain kept falling, but pretty soon we had a cozy lean-to in a dry spot under a tree. After drying ourselves by the fire, we settled in for the night, laying shoulder to shoulder under the lean to with our feet poking out into the rain.

Our modern and effective shelter

Unfortunately at about 1am the real rain started and pretty quickly any vestige of shelter disappeared. We tried to squeeze ourselves into the far corner of the lean-to, away from the open side, but this proved futile as the wind and torrential rain drove in through every gap. After an hour or two of bearing the confinement and cramps, we decided to surrender the idea of the rain subsiding and us getting any sleep, so we dove out and crowded around the remaining fire. What followed was a long night of spinning in circles, alternating which side got wet and which side got dry . Our morale remained high as we tried to appreciate the situation we had found ourselves in.

Did we even have a shelter?

By first light, however, we were all eager to get out of there. The rain subsided and brought an incredible inversion to the plains below. We threw on our soaked packs and stumbled down the hill to camp.

One last mission remained, however. Nick’s car was still at the manyatta and the rain meant that the laggas would now be flowing. Apprehensively, we walked in and found that the crossings were actually milder than expected. Nick zipped back to his car and drove it out through the bush and mud like a hero, putting us back on the road and on our way to Nairobi. With no sleep for 48 hours, and hardly anything to eat, we took turns driving until we were finally each in our beds. We still can’t quite believe that we were able to climb a new route on such an imposing and incredible cliff!

Nick riding intrepidly into the bush to retrieve his car

One last hiccup

Overview of the route

The Razor’s Edge (5.10+ A1): New Route on Main Wall, Hell’s Gate

Another weekend at Hell’s Gate found Fish, Hamish, and I on a mission to complete the route that Hamish and I had spied and explored a few weeks before. We geared up with all the tools we would need to send: 2 days, drill and bolts, a rack that would envy any wall monkey, and endless patience for faffing.

Fish, who had never been on the route, would be our secret weapon for sending the gnar. Hamish started us off by linking the first two pitches, gracefully dancing across the small holds and even smaller gear of the Wilson Traverse.

The legend crossing the Wilson traverse, below the final corner above

Across the Wilson traverse, arriving at the Fish Finger crack!

After the traverse, we found ourselves at the base of the first perfect splitter crack. Steep and clean, this beauty eats fingers and gear. Fish racked up and dispatched the Fish Finger Crack that had forced the rest of us to resort to aid! Then followed the only chossy part of the climb: a traverse on flaky rock and bird shit to get to the base of the white pillar.

Fish sending the crack!

In the corner, Fish had to pull on gear once through a steep tips layback, and gingerly put himself atop the monster detached flake that had been the source of much consternation. The Guillotine Flake is a car-sized block that is wedged into the back of the chimney by its back edge. As Hamish and I sat at the previous belay, we could hear the reverberation of Fish’s movement as he set the anchor. The top of the flake, where we hoped to find an ideal belay, ended up being a wicked knife edge that made for a cramped place to hang out.

Fish at the Guillotine belay

Our duplex belay in the corner

A bit of faff and building of multiple anchors allowed me to lead up into uncharted territory – above more hanging flakes and into a stem below the final roof. The hour was already late, so we decided to build an anchor and leave our ropes fixed to return in the morning.

Setting the rap anchor, so we can jug up the next day

Unfortunately we had one more surprise in store. After shedding our heavy harnesses and freeing our bruised hips, we threw all of our gear in the car. A shutting door, the thump of the locks, and an exclamation from Hamish told us that we had locked the keys in the car. Time to walk to the gate. After chasing away some buffalo, we found the tools we would need in the bike repair shed, caught a ride back to our vehicle, and set about breaking into Hamo’s car. Unfortunately Hamish is a better trad climber than he is a thief, but after a few minutes we were in.

Just before we (Hamish) locked the keys in the car

The tools of the car-thieving trade

The morning of the second day saw us taking turns commuting up our ropes with one jumar each. After figuring out our systems, we managed to huff and puff our way up 50m to establish ourselves at the final belay before the roof. Given that the space was barely enough for one person, faff we did until I could set out on lead on the beautiful roof crack that Hamish and I had seen months earlier.

The morning commute on the second day

Fish jugging free

The massive Guillotine Flake – one of many sharp edges

A cozy belay for Hamish and Fish. Visible is the bolt of Capital Punishment, where the line cut out of the corner and traversed right to escape the roof.

The final roof proved to be short and very stout. The initial stemming brings you out of the safety of the corner and into wild exposure, where a plumb line drops almost to the ground 50m below. The crack was thinner and greasier than expected, and the feet nonexistent, so I had to resort to aid after a few moves. Nevertheless, the position was incredible and I was able to savor every move farther out into space.

The final roof!

Exploring the moves around the corner before deciding that the anchor should be at the end of the roof.

Soon I found myself at the edge of the white pillar, where the arete interrupts the roof crack and leads to broken rock. What had previously seemed like a few steep moves to a belay ledge proved to be extremely difficult, with a very real potential to slice the lead rope on the razor-sharp arete in a fall. After some discussion we decided to bolt a rap anchor in the solid rock at the end of the roof crack. I tagged up the drill and pretty soon Hamish and Fish were able to follow the wild roof to my hanging stance.

Real exposure as Hamish starts the final roof

Rarely seen dynamic aid moves

From our new anchor, the free-hanging 55m abseil dropped us directly at the base of the route. Beers and burgers met us soon after at Carnelly’s. A brilliant adventure with great friends! For me, the perfect way to wrap up my last visit to a crag that has meant a great deal to me over my years in Kenya.

The Left End of Main Wall, crossing with Capital Punishment for a section of the white corner.

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