3 Moving Experiences of Summiting and Descending Mt. Kenya in Just 7 Hours

I can say, “I was there when history was made.” On the 20 of November, 2020, Kenneth Kemboi, Sussy Chebet, and Alfred Moindi attempted the fastest time running up and down Mt. Kenya’s summit from the park’s main gate.

As part of the Enda team, I (Ralph Jani) went along to help with logistics and get photos as this group of Enda Elite athletes, with additional support from Janji, UltrAspire, and COROS, set records for the fastest unsupported runs and down Mt. Kenya.

Here are the stories they shared with me:

Kenneth Kemboi

Kenneth Kemboi at Mt Kenya summit

“At first, when I met the first two hills after the gate, my body struggled with the right rhythm for my breathing. I remember sucking in air in big gulps more than once before my breathing got steady,’’ says Kenneth Kemboi. I think it is at this point that Kemboi broke away from his friends and started trudging ahead much faster. I watched him pick up pace and lift his feet in the air, literally like a gazelle. It didn’t seem like someone on an ascent, and continuously gaining some altitude. It was like he was running on flat, he was flying.

From Sirimon gate (2650 meters), to the first camp by the name Old Moses (3,300 meters), is about 9KMs of continuous ascent with an elevation gain of 648 metres. Kemboi managed this first segment in under 50 minutes and set 3 course records on the climb. This first segment is mostly tarmacked and clear.

The second segment past Old Moses is a pure trail to the summit and back, about 40KMs in total. For most of the ascent on the trail (about 1,000 meters elevation gain), Kemboi points out that it felt like the challenge he had anticipated. A couple of falls, slips on the wet grass, and water breaks.

However, the ascent was a bit tough from the foot of the hill. “I had done reconnaissance to understand the route. However, there were extra layers of snow. It was almost my knee height, and that added an extra layer of difficulty. Additionally, I struggled with the paths a bit as the landmarks I had in mind were mostly covered in snow - most of the hills looked similar, ’’ says Kemboi.

Kemboi managed to make every effort and get to the summit in just 3 hours and 45 minutes, the overall fastest ascent time unsupported. The entire distance came to 49.2KM, and he did it unsupported in a record Fastest Known Time of 7hrs:00min:40sec. After a day of rest, while we left the camp, Kemboi had this to say - “I am happy I’ve made history, and can’t wait to come back and raise the bar even higher!’’

Sussy Chebet

Susy Chebet at Mt Kenya Summit

Sussy now holds the women’s record for the Fastest Known Time summiting Mt.Kenya and back. Her distance for the entire run was 48.73KM, and which she did in a record time of 7hrs: 50mins: 08 secs. “2020 has been a terrible year for most people, especially my fellow runners. I wanted to do something that would inspire others to feel like there is still hope!’’ Says Sussy.

“Hii rekodi nataka niiweke mahali ambapo itabidi imemulikwa na torch ndio ionekane...bure nitaambia nini watu” “This record, I want to put it so high up there that you will need a torch to see what’s up there, otherwise what will I tell people.” - Sussy.

The night before the attempt, Sussy kept mentioning how, if the stars aligned in her favor, her plan was to do the entire attempt in under 8 hours.“ I had a target of finishing in under 8 hours. My first indication of the under 8 hour possibility was covering the first loop of 9KM (elevation gain of 648m), in less than 1 hour. I had also hoped to get to the summit in under 5 hours, and I did. I was lucky not to get lost as I just went after the footprints from 2 of my male athletes who were also chasing the fastest men’s time.” says Sussy.

“It was intense, and I recall several moments during the descent when I found myself unwillingly in a butt-slide down the icy slopes. I had moments of throwing up more than once. Several slips and falls. Actually, speaking to my friends, there seems to be one spot where we all fell down during the descent. Someone, a hiker maybe, must have dropped a pen. I saw the pen, one of us saw the pen’s black lid, slipped and fell a few metres ahead. The third person (Kenneth Kemboi) fell down, touched the pen during the fall and picked it up to the finish line.” Sussy.

Alfred Moindi

Alfred Moindi on Mt Kenya

Alfred is always quiet and comes across with a charming demeanor. It is something you will easily notice from the way he listens intently to questions put to him, and the way he reflects on every response. “There are a lot of tough moments I experienced a few metres up and down from the summit I want to share, some not.” says Alfred. Alfred came in second place just after Kemboi, he also did 49.08KMs in a time of 7hours: 35mins:23secs.

You notice both Kemboi and Alfred had an extra 1KM. The actual distance from the gate to summit and back is 48.2KMs. Just like Kemboi, Alfred also got lost following Kemboi’s footprints on the snow during the descent.

I was curious to know why Alfred was not keen to share part of his experience. So, I asked him why he won’t share the other part of his descent story from the summit.

His response was: “I think climbing this mountain, first, is a beautiful experience that is hard to put into words. I enjoyed that during the scout trip. However, running it is a totally different story. I loved the challenge going up the summit. You are in a beautiful environment, and it feels dazzling getting to the top. We have two more challenges to go. That is, the other two routes. I want to ensure I am setting a record in one of those. If I speak about some of the tough moments coming down, I don’t think my wife will allow me to come back for the next challenges. But, I will share it all in the end.”