The Gentle Art of Bush Climbing
TROPICAL ICE…A LITTLE MORE HISTORY…
“THE GENTLE ART OF BUSH CLIMBING”
While our name Tropical Ice is synonymous with the glaciers on Mount Kenya and our climbing achievements back in the 1970s and 1980s, we also played an important part in the development of a unique form of Kenyan climbing: Bush Climbing.
Scaling big cliffs in the African bush presents challenges that are as different to rock-climbing as mountaineering is on alpine peaks. Accessing these bush cliffs presents access problems where a machete or a pair of secateurs can be as important as the ropes and climbing equipment necessary to ascend the route. Meeting a cape buffalo or a hippo on the way to the foot of the cliff, avoiding bees whilst high on the wall, and having enough water for the duration of the outing, all offer potential complexities, which are very different to normal climbing. Occasionally, on the cliff itself the climbers can find themselves ascending vegetated walls that look like a vertical mangrove swamp. We were playing Raiders Of The Lost Ark 15 years before the movie came out.
Bush climbing still takes place today, and even attracts overseas visitors. Tropical Ice’s Alex Fiksman was not so long ago climbing in the bush of northern Kenya with current “superstar” Alex Honnold of Free Solo fame.
Iain is currently writing a memoir, and here is a short extract from it, which we feel captures the “gentle art of Bush Climbing”. It involves Iain and Ian Howell and took place in 1968.
Ian Howell on a new route in Maasailand
Ololokwe, a spectacular mountain which rises out of the semi-desert country in northern Kenya was one of the first big bush walls we set out to climb, and it initiated us harshly into the vagaries of African bush climbing. The cliff is about 305 metres (1,000 feet) high, but the approach to the base of the face involved clambering through thick, tangled, and frequently thorny vegetation. We underestimated the time it would take us to reach the cliff, and we were finding ourselves on our hands and knees crawling through the undergrowth up the side of the mountain. This was what we were doing when Ian, who was a yard or two in front of me suddenly stopped. We heard a rustling sound above us. I slowly looked up and slithering across the bush canopy some five feet above my head, was a green mamba, at least six feet long, moving in the same direction we were going. We remained motionless for what seemed like several minutes but may have been only seconds. The green mamba was moving fast, seemed to have other interests, and if it knew we were there it didn’t seem to be overly bothered. We watched it disappear in front of us. Crawling as quietly as possible we continued on our way, but it was disconcerting to know that somewhere between our present position and the point we were headed was a fully functioning green mamba, which was arguably the deadliest snake in Africa. Crawling soon gave way to clambering, and then finally we were back on our feet again, thrashing through the bush to emerge onto an open glade, which rose above us with a boulder about the size of a bus standing like an island in the middle of it. We moved past the rock and saw that the cliff was some two hundred yards beyond us, with a line of thick green trees at its base. We tentatively walked past the boulder, highly alert for the snake, and we had covered half the distance from it to the cliff base when we saw the dense foliage of the trees ahead start to move. We stopped sharply then I watched Ian turn and flash past me as he tore down the slope back towards the boulder. No words were spoken but I could see from the expression on his face this was serious. I was about to follow when the huge grey head of a Black rhino emerged from the vegetation about eighty feet above and began thundering down towards me. I followed Ian at the speed of light down across the glade, dropping my pack at some point, and we leaped at the same time behind the boulder. To our right, no more than six feet away, the rhino charged past us and continued on its downward journey, its massive grey body crashing through the thick brush snapping it like it was wheat.
Iain Allan checks the way ahead
For some minutes we sat gasping for breath then Ian in a voice that suggested nothing untoward had happened, thought it might be a good idea if we sipped a little water. I finally broached the subject of our proposed scaling of the one thousand foot rock wall above us, and wondered if our recent meetings with a violent rhinoceros, as well as a green mamba might have quenched our thirsts for adventure this day. Ian didn’t reply for several moments then calmly stated that we had probably run out of time to make much of an impression on the cliff anyway. I took this as a yes and rose to walk back up the slope to retrieve my pack. It was going to be an easier descent because we were able to follow the just created trail through the bush that the rhino had recently created. It felt like the longest hike I had ever made.
Ian Howell in typical bush climbing atmosphere
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