Cold Feet: Barefoot Free Solo With Peter NaituliInspiration
Filmmaker Ash Mulama presents Cold Feet, a short film documenting 22-year-old climber, Peter Naituli, as he free solos with bare feet up Point John, a 4,883m peak on Mount Kenya.
Climber Peter Naituli grew up in the remote countryside of Kenya, in East Africa. With limited access to the mountains, he trained for climbing using the equipment available to him, doing pull-ups on bars and lifting weights made out of cement. In January 2020, he risked his life on a climb that would see him free solo barefoot with nothing but the tools that nature gave him. Ahead of the film’s screening at this years London Mountain Film Festival, Peter shares his experience with us.
Sidetracked: You started leading climbing expeditions when you were just 15 years old. What draws you to the mountains?
Peter: I’m naturally drawn to big, powerful, wild environments that demand you to have a lot of character. The mountains give me everything I need in terms of fitness, mental strength, and resilience.
In January 2020, you set out to free solo barefoot up the south-east gully of Point John on Mount Kenya. What motivated you to take on this challenge?
Peter: I wanted to see what kind of climber I was when I stripped away the gear. It’s a very primal way of climbing. I also love doing stuff that people don’t really do. You almost never hear about people climbing barefoot, without a rope and on a peak that is higher than the peaks in the Alps. It was such an uncharted area and that suited me well.
Ash, why was it important for you to document this climb?
Ash: I’ve always found Peter’s drive and passion a fascinating force to be reckoned with. He pushes himself to accomplish great things with an infectious and optimistic zeal. Seeing Peter do what he does best in the place he loves most, was an experience I wanted more people to see.
What risks were involved in this challenge?
Peter: Falling to your death is the biggest and most primary risk when free soloing. You make a mistake, you fall, and you die. Then there is frostbite, hypothermia, rockfall – things that can kill any of us. A thunderstorm could roll in and you could get struck by lightning. With bare feet, because of the high altitude, the cold is the biggest risk. Temperatures on Mount Kenya can drop to -15ºC at night, but as long as the temperature doesn’t dip below zero you don’t get frostbite. The main thing was the cold and wind.
This particular granite, syenite, is challenging to free solo on with no shoes. Why is that?
Peter: It’s aggressive, so it can shred the skin on your feet. There are very small and sharp magnetic crystals in the rock, like metal splinters. I got a few of those. A lot of the moves are not clear-cut like a staircase. You have to put your foot on a surface and smear. Smearing is when you put your foot on an angled surface and smear it on the texture of the rock. A lot of the footholds on that particular peak are high smears rather than stepping on a solid rock.
How much did the high altitude impact your performance?
Peter: I’m not as fast or energetic on the mountain as I am at sea level because everything is working harder and your heart is beating faster. People die every year from altitude-related sickness on Mount Kenya. You can get high-altitude cerebral edema, where the brain swells with fluid, or high-altitude pulmonary edema, where the lungs fill with fluid. Fortunately, I grew up at around 2,000m above sea level so I am used to it and it doesn’t bother me. I just find it makes things slightly more exhausting and cold.
How would you describe your training compared with other climbers?
Peter: It consists of more weights and more exercises unrelated to climbing. I like feeling robust, picking things up that are heavy and being able to run long distances. I don’t want to just be good at climbing and have strong fingers. Growing up, I had almost zero access to climbing. Maybe a climbing trip once every two months. A lot of volume in the holidays when I would go to the mountain and do a lot of peaks. But the rest of the year I did nothing, I was just at home in the remote countryside in Kenya doing pull-ups and lifting weights made out of cement.
How much did you train before this climb?
Peter: I trained for four hours every day. I would walk and run around barefoot, go bouldering, lift weights and climb once or twice a week. I moved to Norway for a short while where I spent a lot of time in the cold with bare feet. I would run 1km with a big bag out in the snow and just sit outside in the cold, seeing how long it would take to completely lose feeling in my toes.
You visited your grandmother to get her blessing before the climb. What was going through your mind at this time?
Peter: It was just a naturally quiet and still moment, absorbing the song, the praise, the words. It’s always a possibility that it will be the last time I see her whether I am free soloing or not. That is something I have realised. That is how life works. Whether I am seeing her or anyone I am very close to. I know they might leave this world or I might leave this world. Especially with my grandmother who I see very little. I really cherish those moments we spend together.
How did you fuel yourself for the challenge? What food did you take with you?
Peter: In Kenya, we really like solid rich food which comes at the expense of carrying a lot. But it’s worth it to eat really well. We carried up 4kg of fresh meat, a mix of lamb and beef, green vegetables, and ugali, which is a maize flour that we mix with water and it becomes like a cake. I don’t mind carrying huge bags. There are some porters that we give employment to and they help to carry the load.
How long did the climb take? How did you feel when you reached the summit?
Peter: That trip was five days. The first day we slept, the second day we got to base camp, the third day we did the ascent and came back down, the fourth day we went to a glacier, the fifth day we came home. I felt wonderful. I didn’t feel exhausted. My feet didn’t feel like they were going to fall off. I felt perfectly in my environment, like a wild animal. It was a feeling of power.
Ash, what do you hope to achieve in producing this film?
Ash: I hope to shed some light on the Kenyan climbing scene, by showcasing the outstanding achievements of one of its members. And to inspire people to strive for goals that seem scary or even impossible.
What can we learn from this experience?
Peter: We put a lot of limits on ourselves but the human spirit can overcome so much with very little assistance. A lot of people told me, ‘that’s absolutely impossible’, projecting their limitations onto me. But I knew my calculations, I knew the skin on my feet would cope and my willpower could get me to succeed.
Watch Cold Feet at the London Mountain Film Festival Virtual 2021. Tickets available: londonmountainfestival.com/virtual21