An extinct volcano some 3.5 million years old, Mount Kenya is Africa’s second-highest mountain, with two jagged peaks. Formed from the remains of a gigantic volcanic plug – it rose more than 7000m above sea level until a million years ago – most of its erupted lava and ash have been eroded by glacial action to create a distinctive, craggy silhouette. The peaks are permanently iced with snow and glaciers, the latter in retreat due to climate change. On the upper slopes, altitude and the equatorial location combine to nurture forms of vegetation, seemingly designed by some 1950s science-fiction writer, that exist only here and at one or two other lofty points in East Africa. When you first see them, it’s hard to believe the “water-holding cabbage”, “ostrich plume plant” or “giant groundsel”.
Europeans first heard about the mountain when the German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf saw it in 1849. His stories of snow on the equator were not taken seriously, but in 1883 the young Scottish traveller Joseph Thomson confirmed its existence to the outside world. The Kikuyu, Maasai and other peoples living in the region had venerated the mountain for centuries, and park rangers still occasionally report finding elderly Kikuyu high up on the moorlands, drawn by the presence of God – Ngai – whose dwelling place this is. It is not known, however, whether anyone had scaled the peaks before Sir Halford Mackinder reached the higher of the two, Batian, in 1899. Another thirty years passed before Nelion, a tougher summit, was conquered. Both were named by Mackinder’s expedition after nineteenth-century Maasai laibon, or ritual leaders.
The KWS-managed national park encloses all parts of the mountain above 3200m plus stretches down the Naro Moru and Sirimon streams. Inside this area fees have to be paid, and strict rules control your activities. Outside this zone, surrounding the national park, lies the Mount Kenya National Reserve, in which your movements are normally only limited by your inclinations and equipment – though on some access roads, such as the one for Mountain Lodge, fees are payable even in the reserve. Various specialist guidebooks and maps are available to help you explore on your own.
There are four main routes up Mount Kenya. From the west, the Naro Moru trail provides the shortest and steepest way to the top. The Burguret and Sirimon trails from the northwest are less well trodden; Sirimon has a reputation for lots of wildlife, while Burguret passes through a long stretch of dense forest. The fourth trail, Chogoria, is a beautiful, much longer ascent up the eastern flank of the mountain, on which you have to carry tents. In practice, Naro Moru, Sirimon and Chogoria account for nearly all hikes; if you want to use any other route, you have to inform the warden in advance (this can be done by radio by the rangers at any park gate).
The technical peaks of Batian (5199m) and Nelion (5189m) are accessible only to experienced, fully-equipped mountaineers, and the easiest route is Grade IV, making them a lot more testing, for example, than most of the routes up the Matterhorn. If you want to climb these peaks, you should join the Mountain Club of Kenya, who will put you in touch with the right people, and can give reductions on accommodation charges.
Anyone who is reasonably fit can scale the third-highest peak, Point Lenana (4985m). The climb has acquired a reputation for being fairly easy, and lots of people set off quite unprepared for high-altitude living – a quarter of attempts fail for this reason. Above about 4000m the mountain is often foggy or windy and freezing cold, wickedly so after dark. The air is thin, and it rains or snows, at least briefly, almost every day, though most precipitation comes at night.
Mount Kenya’s weather is notoriously unpredictable. There are days when it’s fairly clear even during the rainy seasons, but driving up the muddy roads to the park gates may be nearly impossible. If it’s really bad, you probably won’t be allowed in anyway. The most reliable months are February and August, although January and most of July can be fine, too.
Above all, it’s essential to have a really warm sleeping bag, ideally with an additional liner and/or a Gore-Tex bivouac bag, capable of keeping you warm below freezing point. One thick sweater, or better still, several thinner ones, and either a windproof jacket or a down- or fibre-filled one are also essential, as is a change of footwear, as you’re bound to have wet feet by the end of each day. Gloves and a balaclava or woolly hat are also handy. A light cagoule or anorak is good to have, as is a set or two of thermal underwear for the often shivering nights. A torch, ideally a wind-up one, is always handy, and essential if you’re trekking without a guide. An emergency foil blanket is advisable, weighs next to nothing and packs down very small. Another prerequisite is a stove, as you’ll be miserable without regular hot drinks. Firewood is not available and cannot be collected once you enter the park (no burning is allowed). For food, dehydrated soup and chocolate are perhaps the most useful. The Naro Moru River Lodge has a rental shop where you can get just about anything, though at prices that may make you wish you’d simply bought it in Nairobi.
The various ascents themselves are mostly just steep hikes, if rough underfoot in parts. It’s the altitude rather than the climb that may stop you reaching the top. Much more relevant than the training programmes that some people embark on is giving yourself enough time to acclimatize, so that your body has a chance to produce extra oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Above 3000–4000m, you will be well outside your normal comfort zone and are likely to notice the effects of altitude. You may want to take Diamox (acetazolamide) to speed up your acclimatization and keep painkillers handy for headaches, which are fairly normal at first, especially at night. Keeping your fluid intake as high as possible will also help – three to five litres a day is recommended. Most water sources on the mountain are reckoned to be safe (one or two exceptions are noted). It’s best to avoid alcohol while climbing.
The effects of altitude can be largely avoided if you take your time over the trek, as minor symptoms gradually disappear. Going up the Naro Moru route, you shouldn’t attempt to climb from the base of the mountain (that is, from Naro Moru town at 2000m) to Point Lenana (just under 5000m) in less than 72 hours. Five or six days is much better, especially if you’ve just arrived in Kenya and are used to living at sea level. Assuming you allow a day to get down again, giving yourself a week for the whole trip is a good idea. If you can, climb for an hour or two higher than the altitude you are going to sleep, or spend two nights at the same altitude.
The symptoms of altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, vary between individuals, and appear unrelated to how fit you are – indeed, fit young men often suffer the most acute symptoms. If you climb too fast, extreme breathlessness, nausea, disorientation and even slurred speech are all possible. If someone in your group shows signs of being seriously tired and weak, you should descend a few hundred metres. If the symptoms develop into unsteadiness on the feet and drowsiness, descend rapidly until the symptoms improve. The effects of altitude, especially on bodies tuned only to sea level, are remarkable, and they can quickly become very dangerous and even fatal if high-altitude pulmonary or cerebral oedema (water in the lungs or brain cavity) develop.
The Kikuyu and other tribes venerated Mount Kenya as the dwelling place of God. It was believed that if you went up to the peaks you would find him, and medicine men and diviners routinely trekked up the mountain to seek miraculous cures or spiritual inspiration. Nowadays, it’s mainly tourists, some 15,000 each year, who tread in their steps. Few of them, it seems, particularly respect, never mind venerate, the old mountain deity, and many tonnes of rubbish are left behind every year. Take all your trash back down with you.
The mountain’s vegetation is zoned by altitude. Above about 2000m, shambas and coniferous plantations cease and the original, dense cloud forest takes over, with the best areas on the mountain’s southern and eastern, rain-facing slopes. At 2400m, forest gives way to giant bamboo, with clumps up to 20m high. The bamboo, a member of the grass family, appears impenetrable, but dark-walled passages are kept open by elephants and buffalo. Again, it’s the south that has the best bamboo areas; on the dry, northern slopes, there’s very little of it.
Above the bamboo at about 2800m you come into more open country of scattered, twisted Hagena and St John’s Wort trees (Hypericum), then the tree line (3000m) and the start of peculiar, Afro-Alpine moorlands. Above about 3300m, you reach the land of the giants; giant heather, giant groundsel, giant lobelia. Identities are confusing: the cabbages on stumps and the larger candelabra-like “trees” are the same species, giant groundsel or tree senecio, an intermediate stage of which has a sheaf of yellow flowers. They are slow growers and, for such weedy-looking vegetables, they may be extraordinarily old, up to 200 years. The tall, fluffy, less abundant plants are a species of giant lobelia discovered by the explorer Teleki and found only on Mount Kenya. The name plaque below one of these (there’s a little nature trail along the ridge above the Naro Moru stream) calls it an “ostrich plume plant” (Lobelia telekii), and it’s the only plant that could fairly be described as cuddly. The furriness, which gives it such an animal quality, acts as insulation for the delicate flowers.
Any nights you spend up in the mountain huts will normally be shared with large numbers of persistent rodents, which you won’t see until it’s too late. Remember to isolate your food from them by suspending it from the roof. The familiar diurnal scavengers that you’ll see are rock hyraxes, which are especially tame at Mackinder’s Camp; the welfare service provided to them by tourists preserves elderly specimens long past their natural life span. Hyraxes are not rodents; the anatomy of their feet indicates they share a distant ancestry with elephants. You’re likely to come across other animals at quite high altitudes, too, notably duiker antelope on the moorlands.
Relatively few tourists approach Mount Kenya from the park’s southern boundary, which offers some excellent accommodation options and great basecamp hiking. If you’re keen to try an unusual approach to the summit, consider the Kamweti route which begins at the road-head, a steep 8km north of Castle Forest lodge. This southern part of the mountain shelters the last remaining wild bongos on Mount Kenya, as researchers’ night-surveillance cameras proved in 2008.