Growing up in Kenya, Peter Naituli didn't have a conventional route into climbing, but driven by his passion for the outdoors, nature and extreme challenges, he has become a figurehead for African climbing. The film 'Cold Feet' documents his journey to free solo Mt Kenya, barefoot.
We chatted to our VALLON ambassador about free soloing barefoot, the growth of climbing in Africa, and his latest projects.
What first ignited your passion for climbing?
That is a tough question, because I can never really come up with a concrete answer of what it was! I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, wild animals, and extreme environments, they all hold a very special place in my imagination.
I went on a couple of school trips to Mount Kenya, up to the third highest peak, which is a lot tamer than the other peaks, but still up at high altitude in that same environment. After watching a bunch of “I shouldn’t be alive” episodes I found myself drawn to wanting to do that over and over again. I had discovered rock climbing and decided to take on the highest peak on Mount Kenya, so the fact that I was doing it a lot, and was actually good at it, all led that to it becoming a big part of my life.
My interest level has fluctuated since I started at 14, but my achievements in the mountains are the highlights of my life.
What would you have done if not for climbing?
That's a good question! At the time (14), I was interested in birds of prey, and falconry etc. but also working on drawing, writing, and films.
My climbing is starting to now come back full circle into the film side of things, which is good. I could have been anything, I was obsessed with rugby, football, and I could have been a sprinter! I used to do it a lot when I was around 10 years old. I could have chosen anything outdoors; physical, or creative, writing a book, but It’s a tough choice when it comes to narrowing things down to a career!
Perhaps you can combine all three; film, rock climbing and birds of prey. Just need to get up high enough!
Yeah! Definitely! They still excite me and are very cool animals.
'my achievements in the mountains are the highlights of my life.'
What made you start to do free solo climbing?
Ooof, yeah, free soloing. I think it happened by itself initially. When guiding on Mt Kenya sometimes a rope would get stuck, so the best option after you’ve narrowed everything down is just to free solo a little bit to remove it, on terrain you feel comfortable on, so there were occasions I’d have to free solo out of necessity.
A lot of people say it's very irresponsible, but there is an appeal to that level of extreme discomfort when doing something like that. The idea of floating up without a rope is just mastery at its finest.
At the start of my career, I didn’t have a lot of experienced people to climb with, so I went from being a complete beginner to being thrust in at the deep end pretty early. The idea was always just not to fall!
And then you made the decision to start free soloing barefoot. Was this totally new or something you had tried before?
Before in the past I have climbed barefoot at Hells Gate National Park. For Mt Kenya in particular, I was thinking how can I take this to the next level? What can I do which is a bit different? And then I thought about doing it barefoot. A lot of people said it was impossible, but I low-key knew it was possible and so I thought, bring it on!
What are the specific challenges you face doing it barefoot as opposed to using regular climbing shoes?
The number one thing people would worry about is the temperature at that altitude, because it’s fluctuating so much. Storms can come in, and because of the surrounding elements the risk of damage to your feet is very high.
The surface of the rock and sheer abrasion on your feet is intense, and on top of that you’re free soloing. It was the most extreme way I could possibly attempt the route.
How did the film Cold Feet come about? What was the goal of making it?
I have often documented things I do in the mountains, so I knew I would film it, but with barefoot free soloing Mt Kenya, I didn’t know whether it would just be me using my Go-Pro, or I’d get some help.
I wanted to try and take my career to the next level and in the end, I approached a friend of mine who studies film was in Kenya, who I’d taught to climb, and asked if he was up for making it. He was down, and it ended up becoming a much bigger project than I expected. I thought it could be interesting and would just pop it on YouTube, but it went way beyond that!
Do you feel there is a big interest and appetite for climbing in Kenya? Has that changed since the film was released?
I think the thing that the climbing community is lacking is representation. Although diversity is increasing within outdoor media, the representation of athletes from non-Western backgrounds is virtually non-existent. But with climbing in Africa and developing countries, this is even more extreme. Sponsorship is non-existent for this kind of stuff, the facilities to train are just hardly there, and whatever is there is barely accessible to anyone.
The main thing with this film was to show athletes that are not the typical you see in climbing films, not a western athlete going to a different country and attempting something big. It is someone like me who looks very different, talks very different, and has a very different background when it comes to my route into climbing. In a way it has helped to put Kenya on the map when it comes to extreme sports, climbing, and Kenyan climbers.
From climbing with ropes, to free soloing, to free soloing barefoot. How do you find your next challenge and where do you go from here?
This year I have been working on another film. I just wanted to free solo some harder routes, and also break the speed record on Batian, the highest peak on Mount Kenya. Alpine free soloing and speed free soloing has been the focus (basically, free soloing as quickly as you can!) That’s primarily what the film is about, in addition to exploring new parts of the country and putting up new routes.
I want to be a well-rounded climber, so was putting up technical boulder problems and free soloing routes. I also went out to Mt Kenya to break the speed record. Initially I tried it barefoot, but I quickly learned that it was not sustainable! I was feeling it a lot more in my feet at that speed on such a big route that had serious alpine sections and weather conditions.
So, it has been about doing different objectives in a diverse range of disciplines.
'a lot of people say it is very irresponsible, but there is an appeal to that level of extreme discomfort... the idea of floating up without a rope is just mastery at its finest.'
How does climbing help you connect with nature?
It’s a very intense mind space when you’re grounded in the moment, in this harsh environment, and you have to be physically, mentally, spiritually on point.
It’s that level of focus you need… for example, if you were an animal or human on a hunt and trying to catch something so you don’t starve; you need that level of focus and precision, you need bravery, to be strong, athletic, and you have to execute it perfectly.
The free soloing headspace is similar. It is more meditative, but you get up there and have to deal with the elements, as horrible as it is, your life would be pretty boring if there was never that excitement. Being in that headspace and experiencing nature in such an intense way is very addictive. It’s not possible to put into words exactly why I’m drawn to it, but one reason is the intensity of being there and the experience.
There is, however, balance required, and I am taking a VERY serious break from extreme climbing right now as I am mentally exhausted.
You’ve done a lot of climbing on Mt Kenya, how does it compare to the climbing on Kilimanjaro?
I think the primary difference is the commercial element. Both mountains have the potential for easier and harder objectives, for example, on the south face of Kibo there is a big wall with lots of falling rock and ice routes that no one has visited in decades. The problem is how commercial the mountain is and how it is operated, it is extraordinarily restricted. They don’t have climbing guides and don’t want people to go climb there anymore. I hardly ever go there any more as there are too many rules to be able to enjoy such an incredible place. Mt Kenya is less trashed, and arguably a more beautiful mountain; you can hike, climb, enjoy more lakes, valleys, gorges, and peace.
Both mountains have potential for really badass routes and climbs, but the way the parks are managed is the primary difference.
How was It out on the mountain with the VALLON sunglasses?
It was great, the photographer I was with is incredibly talented and the light out was amazing. Not good light for climbing, but pretty damn good for photos!
Well, we won’t complain…!