MOUNT KENYA DIARY: Virgin Atlantic Airways pilot on top of the world

A PILOT from Great Dunmow has returned from an altogether higher challenge – and has raised thousands of pounds for charity in the process. Ian Howe was one of 64 volunteers who climbed Mount Kenya.

A PILOT from Great Dunmow has returned from an altogether higher challenge - and has raised thousands of pounds for charity in the process.

Ian Howe, a captain of a Boeing 747 Jumbo with Virgin Atlantic Airways, was one of 64 company employees who climbed Mount Kenya - Africa's second highest mountain - as part of a charity trek last month.

Here is a blow by blow account of his mission:

Virgin Atlantic Mount Kenya Climb

On March 5, 64 Virgin Atlantic employees set off to climb Mount Kenya to raise money for the charity 'Free the Children'.

At 17,000 feet, Mount Kenya is Africa's second highest mountain and is usually bathed in sunshine most of the year.

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Ian Howe (a 747 Jumbo pilot from Great Dunmow) was part of the team.


Never attempted a climb of this magnitude, unsure of the affects of altitude sickness. Need a good general level of fitness achieved through running, biking and swimming.

Equipment - thanks to Jacks of Dunmow - expert advice for Darren Cox - provided all of the equipment.


Flew Virgin Atlantic down to Nairobi - then four-hour bus journey to the slopes of Mount Kenya.


Some of the finest forest walking that is to be had on any tropical mountain is found on the Sirimon route that approaches Mt Kenya from the North West - well known for its richness of its flora and fauna.

Near the top of the track giant heather and beautiful alpine flowers and giant Lobelia flourish. The first night was spent at Old Moses Camp at just under 11,000 ft.

Seven kilometre walk and a gentle introduction to the Mountain, although little sleep in the night due to the torrential rain. The logistics of the climb were becoming apparent to all - not only 64 climbers and six guides - supported by 94 porters, who carried all the tents, equipment and food.


Everybody up early for breakfast then as you climb higher the forest disappears and is replaced by heath land scenery reminiscent of some of the UK's higher areas.

Less scenic and there are several long very boggy sections, which are hard going.

One then drops in to the Mackinder Valley (named after Sir John Mackinder who climbed the summit in 1899) and there is the long gradual ascent along the edge of the valley and the scenery changes to craggy out crops and the main peaks of Mount Kenya appear.

In all a long and tiring day with a 16km walk and climbing up to just under 14,000 feet to camp at Shipton Caves.

At this altitude, several of the climbers were suffering from altitude sickness - serious symptoms do not usually occur until over 12,000ft and the onset and severity of the symptoms vary with the individual, speed of ascent and the amount of time spent at high altitude.

Severe headaches, nausea and vomiting and increased shortness of breath and a lack of co-ordination are the main symptoms.

Another sleepless night with an early wake up call, but the climb to Point Lenana is usually a trouble free ascent, but if icy the summit can be difficult to attempt.


The wake up call came at 0230 in the morning, and after a quick breakfast we set of for the initial climb out of the valley. Climbing at night by torchlight is a tricky experience.

It was quite a sight, looking back, seeing the trail of 60 lights spread out along the trail. After an hour it started to rain heavily, and as we approached the freezing level it turned to persistent snow.

The ground is mainly broken rock fragments and easy to slip. The initial route is a climb out of the valley, then follow the moraine ridge up towards Point Lenana.

Shortness of breath and tiredness affected everybody - small, carefully placed consistent steps is the most efficient climb technique.

Need to exercise great care as the rocks now very icy as approaching the summit.

On a clear day you can see Mount Kilimanjaro 300km to the south from the summit. When we climbed, the conditions were the worst that Mt Kenya has seen for some years - driving snow, cloud, 20 knots of wind with a temperature with wind chill of -15.

Climbers covered with ice and snow, the pipe from my water sack froze up and the cameras also froze quickly on top. I was extremely grateful for the warm waterproof clothing Darren Cox had insisted on.

At the summit of Point Lenana roughly each breath contained half the normal amount of Oxygen at sea level. Usually over half the climbers feel 'rough' at Point Lenana at 16,400 feet.

Whilst the view was non-existent a great sense of achievement from all the climbers who reached the summit.

The journey down the mountain was as much hard work as climbing - the scree was now wet and had the consistency of wet concrete, rocks were slippery.

By this time the climbers were spread over a large area as many had turned back due to altitude sickness, tiredness and the conditions.

Once down at the base camp, the snow started again in earnest and the trek down Mackinder valley was in thick snow. We arrived at the next camp after 14 hours of trekking - a total of 22 kms including the final climb to 16,400 feet - nine hours had been in rain and snow - we arrived tired and wet.

Some climbers jubilant and some disappointed - only 23 climbers out of 64 managed to get to the summit of Point Lenana (including myself).

The Charity

Virgin Atlantic is working in partnership with Free The Children, and the village of Sikirar has been adopted in Kenya. Virgin Atlantic will provide the entire community of 2500 with a new primary school with eight classrooms for 300 children.

To date Virgin Atlantic passengers and staff have raised �130,000 for the community in Kenya, with the Virgin Mountaineers aiming to fund the final �22,000 - but nearly �40,000 has been raised.

Ian Howe would like to everybody who sponsored him, including Jacks of Dunmow, Sweetlands, Feirn Engineering, The Cricketers Pub and Taylor's Service Center.