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Mount Kenya is Africa’s second highest mountain, after Kilimanjaro. It is estimated to be 2.5 million years old, and Kilimanjaro at 750,00 years of age is really an upstart. Time has really taken its toll, and the peak is thought to have dropped from 6,500 m those millions of years ago to 5,199 m today. The mountain is an extinct volcano, whose plug forms what is today the peak area. The crater was long ago, done to death, by nature’s untiring erosion agents.
Mount Kenya is an awe-inspiring spectacle that dominates the central Kenyan highlands. It is perhaps understandable that the Kikuyu people who reside on its lower slopes thought it fit for Gods’ abode. And it inspires people in strange ways. In 1943, Felice Benuzzi, an Italian prisoner of war held at Nanyuki at the base of the mountain, and two companions, escaped and attempted to scale the summit. With just a few handmade climbing tools, he managed reach Point Lenana, the mountain’s third highest peak.
But Benuzzi was at least an accomplished mountaineer. In 1988, the Mount Kenya Rescue Team discovered and retrieved an elder of the Meru people way up at the chilly heights of Peak Nelion (5,188 m). Only experts, with proper equipment and guides reach Nelion. He appeared unaware of the feat he had accomplished and was perturbed by the fuss his rescuers raised. He explained his mission was “going to God”. He was kitted in a manner you will not see recommended in any guide book- in a single blanket and open sandals. The animals do weird things too: a few years ago, the frozen bodies of a leopard and colobus monkey were discovered at Nelion.
Mount Kenya is located 180 km to the north of Nairobi. The mountain falls within Mount Kenya National Park. The park is made up of a protected area above 3,200m altitude, together with two small salients reaching to 2,450 m along the Naro Moru and Sirimon trails. It was set up in 1949 and covers an area of 715 sq km. It is further surrounded by the Mount Kenya National Reserve, which extends over 2,075 sq km. The park has the distinction of being simultaneously a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
The mountain is made up of three main zones: the rocky peak region, the afro-alpine moorland with its scattering of giant vegetation, and the extensive lower slopes covered in mountain forest and bamboo. The astonishing ecological diversity is one of the attractions of this giant. The ecological processes that have brought about the afro-alpine flora in particular intrigue scientists. There are 81 species of plants here that are found nowhere else in the world.
In the lower forest zone, there is plenty of wildlife including buffalo, elephant, sykes monkey and bushbuck. The animals are however generally difficult to see. Further up, the animals are even scarcer though hyena, leopard, buffalo and civet cats have been sighted. The only animal you are likely to see in the upper
alpine zones is the rock hyrax. Though it is the size of a domestic cat, it resembles a rat more. The seemingly humble rock hyrax has some powerful relatives in the animal kingdom and it counts the elephant as its biological kin.
The mountain attracts over 30,000 enthusiasts every year. Point Lenana (4,985 m), the so-called trekkers peak, can be reached by any reasonably fit and suitably prepared person. The summit has the twin peaks of Batian (5,199 m) and Nelion (5,188 m), and is accessible to only those with technical mountaineering and rock climbing experience. This mountain is not an easy one to conquer and each year not more than 100 climbers make it to the twin summit peaks. Mount Kenya is in fact considered to be more technically challenging than the higher Kilimanjaro (5,894 m). But those who make it to the top experience some of Africa’s finest rock and ice climbing.
The mountain has very many fans and especially fascinates technical climbers. The author and mountaineer, Rick Ridgeway – author of the Seven Summits, declares that of all the worlds’ mountains this is his favourite. Halford Mackinder planned and led the first expedition on record to reach the summit in 1899. But if the Meru elder mentioned above is anything to go by, the locals must have long ago been to the mountaintop. The Mackinder trip was a great success and his party discovered many species of animal and plant life then unknown in Europe. A new species of eagle owl, for example, was first recorded by this expedition and subsequently named after Mackinder.
Though Mount Kenya is practically on the equator, you will find snow and ice and even glaciers. However, in the one hundred years since Mackinder conquered the mountain, the number of glaciers has dropped from 18 to only 7 that remain today. The culprit for this is the global climate change that has accelerated in recent years. Scientists tell us that during the ice ages large glaciers reached below 3,000 m. Today the largest glacier is the Lewis Glacier at 4,600 m. The continuing retreat of glaciers is expected to have a negative impact on downstream eco-systems, not to mention the scenic appeal of the mountain.
Mount Kenya is the source of Tana River- Kenya’s biggest river- and was for many years seen as an inexhaustible water fountain. Not any more- the loss of glaciers and forest cover has brought this assumption into disrepute. The loss of forest cover is particularly worrying, because it is avoidable. How to save the forests of Mount Kenya has long engaged environmentalist Wangari Maathai-the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. She was born on the lower slopes of the mountain and has in her lifetime witnessed the changes up at the mountain.
You can reach the peak area by taking one of three routes: Naro Moru, Sirimon and Chogoria. Good roads will get you form Nairobi to Naro Moru, Nanyuki and Chogoria – the base towns for each of the trails. There are alternative routes but most have fallen into disuse and you need superior navigation skills and stamina to attempt them. This includes: Burguret, Meru, Kamweti, and Timau. It is highly recommended that you stick to the three popular routes. But if you have a good reason for doing otherwise, or indeed for pioneering your own route, you are required to register with the park authorities.
The Naro Moru route approaches the mountain from the west and is easily the most popular. The trail is well serviced with rest huts and is the fastest way to the peaks. It is however the steepest and climbers vulnerable to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) may experience difficulties. The hike will take 4 days, though you may opt for an additional day at the summit. You start with a fairly steep 5-hour walk from Park Gate to Met Station (3,050 m). This is where you spend the first night and acclimatize to the thinning mountain air.
The next day is the longest and you will walk, under varying terrain, for anywhere between 8 and 10 hours. You spend the night at Mackinders Camp (4,200 m), in the vicinity of the peak area. You really should have an early night on this day. Very early the next morning -2.00 a.m is the usual time- you set out to attempt Point Lenana. The mountain is generally clear in the morning and stormy in the afternoon- so, the idea is for you to ascend and descend the peak when you have good traction. This is the part of the hike where some experience symptoms of altitude related ailments.
It will take you about 5 hours to reach Lenana. Here you must take some photos, to show the folks back home how you fared at the top of God’s Mountain. Afterwards, you descend in 3 hours to Mackinders Camp for breakfast. Then ascending back to Teleki Valley via Camel Rocks, you reach Met Station in about 4 hours. The night rest is at Met Station, before the final descent to Park Gate.
The Sirimon route has its base at Nanyuki to the north of the mountain. The route offers easier climbing than the Naro Moru trail and is also more scenic. It normally takes 5 days up and down the mountain. You start with a 3-4 hours walk through rain forest to overnight at Old Moses camp (3,300 m). Next day after breakfast you hike through the moorland and the Liki and Mackinder valleys. You reach Shipton’s camp (4,200 m) after a 6-7 hour hike. You spend the night here before setting out very early the next morning to attempt Point Lenana.
The Chogoria route begins at the town of the same name to the west of the mountain. This is the by far most beautiful and scenic of the popular routes. You will enjoy dramatic views of waterfalls, valleys, tarns and rugged rock formations. But the trail is not so popular because it is also the longest and therefore toughest. It will take you 6 days to ascend and descend the mountain. There are no usable service huts along the route and you must carry a tent along. Whichever route you use, you can prolong your enjoyment of these heights by taking a day to do the Summit Circuit Path.
It is important that you take enough water – about 4 to 6 litres daily- to keep dehydration at bay. Dehydration makes you more vulnerable to altitude sickness and hypothermia. Hypothermia is lowering of body temperature and symptoms include clumsiness and disorientation. Victims of the condition need to be quickly provided with a warm and dry environment. At heights above 3,000 m, oxygen levels reduce and altitude sickness stalks the trekker. That is why a fast climb is not advised, as you have no opportunity to acclimatize. The symptoms for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are nausea, headache, fatigue and general malaise. You should always descend to lower altitude with the onset of symptoms.
Other more severe medical conditions that can arise are High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). The coming of HAPE is betrayed by a dry cough and difficulty in breathing. HACE is marked by slurred speech, severe headache and disoriented behaviour. HACE and HAPE are both potentially fatal and you should always descend to lower altitude and seek treatment. To reduce chances of mountain sickness, it is advisable to acclimatize by spending an extra night near Park Gate or at the mountain huts above 4,000 m. If you temper your zeal for the peaks and take a slow sensible hike you will enjoy the adventure and will be all right.
You will generally need a guide and porters so that you can concentrate on the hike. Always go for those who have high altitude experience and are accredited by the park authorities. They will know the routes, and a good one is worth his weight in gold, in event of sickness and other contingencies. The porters shoulder the heavy stuff while you carry a daypack with essentials such warm clothing, fire making capability, some food and drinks, a flashlight and first aid kit.
The stuff you must bring along includes: warm clothing, waterproof hiking boots, rain suit, sleeping bags, flashlights, sunglasses and hand gloves. Many climbers find it expedient to buy a Mount Kenya climbing package in order to take advantage of those with local knowledge. Such a package will include transport, accommodation in the mountain huts, meals while on the climb, park entry fees, services of an experienced mountain guide and porters and cooks.
The main rainy season in the Mount Kenya region falls from late March to June, with secondary rains appearing from late October to December. You can climb the mountain at any time of year but the most comfortable climb is achieved in the dry months of January and February and from July to October.
After your climb, you can relax at some of the excellent hotels and resorts in the Mount Kenya area. Before you leave the country, take to heart the sentiments of the Italian climber Carlo Spinelli, who said: “I consider myself a nature lover more than a mountaineer, and for this reason Kenya has the best of both mountain and wilderness”. Take time to see wildlife on a Kenya safari in this region or in other parts of the country.
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