The snows of Erukenya
By Danny Caruso
Warren Miller's Snow World
Special to CNN.com
The Warren Miller film crew befriended a local tribal Kenyan during the filming of "Cold Fusion."
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Named for its founder, a legendary filmmaker and a pioneer in ski films, Warren Miller Entertainment is a 50-year-old production company based in Boulder, Colorado. With global warming threatening one of the last glaciers in Africa, the Warren Miller crew decided they'd better ski it before it was too late.
From the 16,000-foot summit of Point Lenana, one of three peaks that comprise the Mount Kenya massif, we can see Kilimanjaro's shiny white dome rising to the south, the blue of the Indian Ocean lying to the east, and a lush green canopy of jungle spreading to the north.
Is this really a place to go skiing?
The Masai call this peak we're on, Africa's second-highest, "Erukenya" -- mountain of clouds. And true to its name, it's obscured by weather more than nine months out of the year. For the Masai it's a sacred symbol of strength. To the rest of the world it's simply Mount Kenya.
Situated almost directly on the equator, the mountain endures scorching days and freezing nights. Weather comes in from all directions, usually with little warning. A torrential rainstorm can be followed by a spectacular sunset that leads into a raging blizzard. The massif's two highest peaks, Nelion and Batian, rise to more than 17,000 feet, with 1,000-foot-vertical walls leading to their summits and the famous Diamond Couloir in between. Just beneath these twin towers is Point Lenana.
We are preparing to ski the Lewis Glacier, one of the last permanent snowfields in Africa. The glacier starts just below the summit and extends for some 2,000 feet before giving way to huge boulder fields of volcanic rock. Like the snowfields of Kilimanjaro and the ice in the Diamond Couloir, the Lewis Glacier is shrinking at an alarming rate because of global warming. Some experts predict that if it continues to melt at the present rate, it may be entirely gone in little more than a decade.
We figure we'd better ski it before it disappears forever.
We step into our skis and begin our descent. The wind-deposited snow is variable, and the skiing is tricky. Miles below, another low-pressure system is brewing. Thunderheads creep toward the mountain. But up here the sun shines on the glacier, and fresh snow glistens in the intense, equatorial light. Most important, we're skiing in Africa. This is what we have lugged our skis halfway around the world for.
It is a rainy night in Nairobi when our Warren Miller film crew lands in East Africa to start this adventure. Nicknamed "Night Robbery" because it has the highest crime rate on the continent, Nairobi is not a relaxed place in which to clear customs with a load of plastic suitcases filled with movie-camera equipment and reels of film. Thankfully, our hired guides meet us at the airport and sneak us through the groping crowds and across town to our hotel.
Joining the small crew -- Chris Patterson as chief cinematographer and myself as assistant cameraman -- are two striking athletes: Kristen "Liggy" Lignell from Lake Tahoe and Justine Van Houte from Telluride. Tall and fit, the two women turn heads as they stride into the hotel lobby with ski bags over their shoulders.
Next morning we load our massive pile of gear into a muddy old Land Rover and head out of town. Our guides, Dixon and Ambrose, think we're crazy for hauling so much stuff all the way to Africa, but then they've never seen a ski movie before or even a pair of skis. Elvis and Felton, our load-hauling porters, just smile and smoke cigarettes, not really sure what to make of us. Our driver, Dixon's uncle, keeps his attention on the road.
It's a good thing, too, because Kenya's highways are as overpopulated as its cities. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, diesel-belching vans, and groups of school children on bicycles jam the roads. With all of us starting to feel slightly ill from the heat, humidity, and exhaust fumes, we leave the crowded villages behind not a moment too soon and head into the lush green plantation country beneath Mount Kenya.
The highway turns into a single-lane dirt road, and Dixon's uncle pulls the Rover into the final outpost this side of the mountain, the town of Chogoria Hospital, so named because it has the only healthcare facility for miles around. It also has a few bars, a few dusty shops, and scores of inquisitive townsfolk. What Chogoria Hospital really needs, we realize, is a fully equipped ski shop. Back at the hotel in Nairobi, Justine had been shocked to discover that the skis in her bag were not her own, and worse yet, the bindings wouldn't fit her boots. The likelihood of finding a Salomon mounting jig in Chogoria Hospital seems rather remote.
Ambrose inquires about a drill, and before long we find ourselves at the local machine shop with half the village crowding around to watch the blond girl redrill her heelpiece. No one here has ever seen skis before, but a few of the local men volunteer to help anyway. Justine decides to do it herself. With her skis remounted and all of us packed into the Rover, enjoying our last cold sips of Tusker Export, we head out of town toward Mount Kenya National Park, following the dirt roads deeper and deeper into plantation country. A light drizzle begins as we climb steep switchbacks, and the dusty road soon turns into slick clay. Sometimes we have to get out and push.
Many miles later, the road is but a faint single track in a thick bamboo forest. Our intrepid driver rallies onward, the Rover's tires crunching over fallen bamboo stalks and spinning out on the soft ground. We tell him we'll be happy to start walking whenever he wants to turn around, but he keeps the battered machine charging ahead like he's driving a tank. He claims to be following elephant trails. If an "ellie" can squeeze through, he says, then so can the Land Rover.
Just before sundown we reach the end of the line for the vehicle, unload our gear, and wave goodbye to Dixon's uncle, who turns around and charges back down the faint track. The Land Rover is out of sight in minutes, but for a long time we can hear him crunching bamboo and revving the motor in the distance. Darkness sets in as we proceed through the forest on foot.
Before long we emerge into a football-field-sized clearing known as Spa Camp, which is equipped with a few old shelters, a fire pit, and an ancient outhouse. We drop our loads, build a fire, and set up the tents. Dixon boils up some sweet tea, and we sit around the fire discussing life in Kenya. He says the corrupt government will only allow the local tea and coffee farmers to sell their crops at ridiculously low prices, so that the government-backed cartel can make big profits on the world market. We vow never to buy anything from these crooks, somehow forgetting what we're drinking.
For more on the Mount Kenya adventure: Part 2 -- Point Lenana