Can Mt. Kenya’s porters get the same professional respect as Mt. Everest’s?
Only at twilight, after their clients have been fed and are taking in the expansive Afro-alpine views, do the porters finally begin cooking for themselves. And not the pasta, salads, and curries that they’ve been preparing for their clients – but Kenyan dishes. A pair of young men huddled over a sufuria (pot) stir ugali (maize meal porridge) over a charcoal fire. There’s also wet-fry beef and sauteed greens – hearty foods, perfect fuel for long days.
Here at Likii North Camp, nearly 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) high, the thin, oxygen-poor air can sometimes cause altitude sickness in the uninitiated. But to porters who come from nearby villages, these high slopes are a second home.
On Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain after Kilimanjaro, porters make expeditions not only possible, but downright comfortable. They set up and take down tents, haul clients’ gear, and cook three full meals each day – all accomplished before their guests even step foot into camp.
WHY WE WROTE THIS
Unlike Mount Everest’s sherpas, the porters of Mount Kenya still endure low pay and little respect. Can mountaineering culture shift from gratifying Western tourists to achieving best employment practices?
These porters are highly competent, both physically and in their knowledge of capricious mountain environments. Elsewhere – the most high-profile case being sherpas on Mount Everest – the sometimes-invisible work done by local guides is finally earning rightful recognition. Yet the porters upholding East Africa’s largely informal mountaineering industry remain woefully underpaid, observers say, and face a long journey toward proper recognition.
And the growing popularity of mountaineering in Kenya may bring fresh challenges. Rather than fostering a healthy local economy, new moves to raise the sector to match global standards risk shutting out local guides who are knowledgeable and experienced, but can’t afford expensive certifications.
Culture of recognition
David Miano has provided support to hundreds of trips in his two decades working as a freelance porter. Eight years ago, he became a certified guide after training with James Kagambi, the first Kenyan national to summit Everest.
“There have been many changes over the years,” says Mr. Miano, who comes from the small town of Naromoru, a base for those ascending Mount Kenya.
Some have been for the better. Porters’ daily rates have gone up from around 50 cents when he started to roughly $8.40 today. But tipping, a vital salary component for porters, is still not compulsory. Still, Mr. Miano prefers that there’s no set day rate. “It feels more like a conversation between the porters and the client,” he says.
Conditions on the mountains also dictate client interest, trickier now that the weather has become more erratic due to increasing extreme weather events. When business is slow, Mr. Miano takes odd jobs like fixing fences for the state tourism board’s Kenya Wildlife Service.
Renson Muchuku, head of outdoor education at Savage Wilderness, East Africa’s largest guiding company, says his company has established a tipping ceremony at the end of every expedition, where the clients congregate with the porters to thank them properly.
Despite these nudges in the right direction, a culture of recognizing the crucial role of porters hasn’t taken root. It’s not uncommon for people to say, “Oh, I didn’t catch our porters’ names,” says Alex Zachrel, one of the few American mzungu (non-African) guides on Mount Kenya. “Like, what do you mean? You were with them for four days.”
As night sets in
A sharp chill sets in the moment the sun dips behind the jagged peaks surrounding the camp. Temperatures here drop as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) at nighttime. Students from the Nairobi-based German School bundled up past their chins waddle about, sipping hot chocolate and snacking on popcorn.
The following morning, tents are frozen over. The delicate helichrysum flowers studding the terrain seem unperturbed, twinkling in the gentle morning light. The porters are already hustling back and forth, laying out sausages, eggy toast, and fruit.
Excitement buzzes among the students; small dramas over lost gloves and homesickness are quickly placated by the necessity to forge onward.
As views of Batian emerge – at 5,199 meters (17,057 feet), the highest peak – Mr. Zachrel points toward the spires, where swirling clouds occasionally release a flurry of snow. “Peter should be up there with some clients now,” he says, “unless the weather forced him to bail.”
Peter Naituli, son of a Kenyan father and Norwegian mother, grew up in remote Nakuru County in central Kenya. He believes the flexibility of Kenya’s nascent industry is its biggest strength.
“The informal nature of the outdoors industry here allows locals to benefit from working on the mountain,” he says. “There’s a lot more freedom since it’s not as regulated as Western countries.”
But it’s a bit of a Catch-22. With more training and resulting certifications, porters and guides could charge their clients more. But to benefit locals, these courses would have to be affordable and accessible. For now, few can afford a few hundred dollars for an outdoors certification course when the typical salary in Kenya is under $600 a month.
Not everyone agrees that informality is an advantage. Mountains, after all, intrinsically have the power to kill. “You can prepare as much as possible, think of everything, and even then, there’s an element of risk that’s beyond your control,” Mr. Naituli says.
A few years ago, a guide trying to free a stuck rope died. His clients were stranded on a ledge overnight, before eventually making their way down. And in 2015, a 14-year-old called Warren Asiyo died from acute mountain sickness while on a church trip.
Warren’s mother, Connie Cheshire Asiyo, channeled her grief into increasing transparency within Kenya’s outdoor industry. She established The Warren Foundation, which partners with Kenya Wildlife Service to bolster guide and training certification to prevent such future tragedies. “Our organization has noted a decrease in accidents since 2017. It helps to be making some noise.”
Lilian Wamathai, an instructor at Savage Wilderness, is optimistic about the industry’s future as Kenyans are beginning to embrace and appreciate outdoor activities more, investing more money and time in the sector. The grassroots Porter and Guide Association is partnering with Kenya Wildlife Service to gazette regulations. For instance, they’ve determined that porters’ packing weights should not exceed 35 kg (77 pounds).
Ms. Wamathai believes professionalizing a previously informal industry will cushion and protect local employees’ interests in particular.
At Shipton’s Camp
At Shipton’s Camp, altitude 4,260 meters (13,976 feet), a stopover before Point Lenana (Mount Kenya’s third-highest peak), the students gather for a summit eve briefing: 3 a.m. wake-up, summit attempt to catch the sunrise, and then hiking back down – over 18.5 miles of walking in total.
One classmate in particular had been woozy ever since the group reached higher elevation – he’s been sitting listlessly as his friends chatter around him, barely picking at his food.
Mr. Zachrel and his team monitor the students with experienced eyes.
At 11 p.m., they opt to evacuate the student. The required number of guides with medical training and a few porters begin the long hike down in the dark. Helicopters can’t fly into Shipton at night; waiting until dawn could be fatal.
Meanwhile, the student’s classmates begin walking the other way. They trudge up the steep ridge of Lenana, the vault of stars overhead fading fast with the imminent dawn. By the time they return to camp, their classmate is back to safety, and the porters have laid out another hot, delicious breakfast for them.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.