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Kenya’s female mountain climbers

Mountaineering has become popular among Kenyans in the last couple of decades. According to experts, there are surprisingly more female climbers than males. Women mostly climb for leisure whereas most men climb only because they are helpers for the mountaineers.

Kenya has the second highest peak in Africa and has always been a popular mountaineering destination for foreign tourists. Traditionally, most Kenyan climbers used to be men who worked as helpers for foreign tourists.

Stella Kaburu, popularly known as the “mountain goat,” has over the last decade earned the respect of the mountaineering community. Although her parents had wanted her to take up nursing, Stella, from a very young age, knew that she wanted to be in the mountains. 

“I was born at the foot of Mount Kenya and woke up every morning to look at it. My grandfather was one of the first climbers to do porterage for some of the earliest foreign tourists. My uncle followed in his footsteps, and it was he who held my hand when I started climbing and would take me with him to the mountain.”

Stella, a Kenya Wildlife Service honorary warden, a certified safari guide, mountaineer and a martial artist now co-directs a tour company, Mara Expeditions, with her husband. “Being a woman mountaineer has never really been an issue, except the initial fear of being in the wilderness with male strangers. I only had trouble once with a translator who tried to attack me, but I handled him quite well.” 

She is one of the few female guides, which is the main reason she is sought after. “I understand female problems, and this has come in very handy with female clients. When people hire me as a guide, it is because I am a woman.” Stella is also a mentor to the new crop of female climbers and guides. She just finished doing a documentary on the less travelled places in Kenya.

Wandia Maina, a psychologist, on the other hand, never set out to be a mountaineer. “I call myself an accidental mountaineer.”  She was looking for something to do away from the city, so she joined her mountaineer brother in Ngong Hills. “I was immediately hooked, even though that first climb took the whole day instead of a few hours.”

Wandia would spend every Saturday of the next six months going up and down the seven hills of Ngong Hills. Turning mountaineering into a career happened by sheer accident. Her city friends, wondering why she was absent from their parties, asked to join her in her new hobby.

“I ended up organising the climbs. Pretty soon, I became very good at it. Once a month, there would be a climb somewhere, every month, the numbers increased. The biggest group I handled had eighty climbers.”

It was all going well, until one time a hiker broke a leg, and she realised she was not trained to lead excursions. “I was lucky though, because three of the hikers were doctors who had their emergency kits.” That incident was her turning point. She went for training and is now a qualified mountain guide and a wilderness first responder. 

Both Wandia and Stella hope to keep inspiring the next generation of female mountaineers.

Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki is a Kenyan author based in Nairobi.

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