Mt Kenya’s Diamond Couloir VI has received its first ascent in many years by Kenyan climber Julian Wright along with visiting South African mountain guide Trystan Firman. Strange weather patterns and an unusually wet rainy season produced enough ice to allow for their ascent.
Over recent years the equatorial ice has been vanishing, leaving many of Africa’s glaciers and ice lines almost non-existent. Mt Kenya (5199m) – a stratovolcano and Africa’s second highest mountain – is no exception and has been greatly affected with shrinking glaciers and snowy summits getting drier and drier. One of the saddest loses was the famous Diamond Couloir, a 640 metre line leading almost to its summit.
The Diamond Couloir’s first ascent was claimed by Phil Snyder and Thumbi Mathenge in 1973, avoiding the steeper high section by a ramp on the left. The difficult upper section, named the ‘Headwall’, was pioneered in 1975 by Yvon Chouinard and Michael Covington, who helped to establish the Diamond Couloir as one of the world’s greatest ice climbs.
For many years, the Couloir attracted climbers from all over the world. However, over the last 15 years the line has hardly seen any ascents and the climbing community had largely written this gem off as a victim of global warming and shifting weather patterns. The top section remains intact, but the lower half is the problem due to its melting ice and dangerous rubble shoot.
However, all hope is not lost quite yet, as mountaineering instructor Julian had been watching the developing conditions recently and along with Trystan seized the moment. The pair headed up via the Naro Moru route, which leads past the Mackinder hut and through the Teleki Valley to the Black Hole Bivi staging post for climbs on Mt Kenya’s highest points Batian (5199) and Nelion (5188). A 6am start on the couloir allowed the team to take advantage of the cooler hours and they made good progress, finding the ice to be AI5 (A2) in difficulty.
‘Despite good ice, pitch two was hard with an overhanging rock cap to finish. Once past that the ice remained in good condition,’ Julian commented. After a night spent on a bar stool-sized bivvy, the team continued up through the couloir, hitting the upper section’s Headwall and finding the ice to be in top condition. ‘The ice was in good shape on the Headwall with a hard final pitch to gain the gates of the mist and onto Nelion’s summit,’ Julian added. ‘It was a pleasure to have the chance to climb a world class ice route on spectacular mountain in my back yard.’
As for the future health of Africa’s equatorial ice, who can say for sure – but keep an eye on the rains and you might get that chance to climb one the world’s best ice lines.