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Mount Kenya – Up High at God’s Mountain
Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa, after Kilimanjaro. It is estimated to be 2.5 million years old, and Kilimanjaro at 750,00 years old is really an upstart. Time has indeed taken its toll, and the peak is thought to have fallen from 6,500 m 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 made long ago, made to death, by nature’s indefatigable erosion agents.
Mount Kenya is an awe-inspiring spectacle that dominates the central mountains of Kenya. It is perhaps understandable that the Kikuyu people who live on its lower slopes thought it fit for the house of God. And it inspires people in strange ways. In 1943, Felice Benuzzi, an Italian prisoner of war held in Nanyuki at the base of the mountain, with two companions, escaped and attempted to climb the summit. With only a few handmade climbing tools, he managed to reach Point Lenana, the third highest mountain.
But Benuzzi was at least an accomplished mountaineer. In 1988, the Mount Kenya Rescue Team discovered and recovered an elder of the Meru people who had climbed the frigid Mount Nelion (5,188 m). Only experts, with appropriate equipment and guides reach Nelion. He appeared unaware of the feat he had accomplished and was troubled by the commotion his rescuers had raised. He explained his mission is to “go to God”. He was outfitted in a way you won’t see recommended in any guidebook—in one blanket and open sandals. Animals also do strange things: a few years ago, the bodies of a leopard and colobus monkey were discovered frozen in Nelion.
Mount Kenya is located 180 km north of Nairobi. The mountain falls in Mount Kenya National Park. The park consists of a protected area above 3,200m altitude, as well as two peaks that reach 2,450m on the Naro Moru and Sirimon trails. It was established 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 km sq. The park has the distinction of being both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
The mountain consists of three main areas: the rocky peak region, the afro-alpine moorland with its spread of giant vegetation, and the vast lower slopes covered in mountain forests and bamboo. Amazing ecological diversity is one of the attractions of this giant. The ecological processes that brought about the afro-alpine flora in particular intrigue scientists. There are 81 plant species here that are found nowhere else in the world.
In the lower forest area, there is a lot of wildlife including buffalo, elephant, sykes monkey and bushbuck. However, animals are generally difficult to see. Further, the animals are even rarer although hyenas, leopards, buffalo and civet cats have been seen. The only animal you have the chance to see from above
alpine zone is the stone hyrax. Although it is the size of a domestic cat, it looks more like a rat. The seemingly humble stone hyrax has some powerful relatives in the animal kingdom and counts the elephant as its biological family.
The mountain attracts more than 30,000 enthusiasts every year. Lenana Point (4,985 m), the so-called peak trekkers, can be reached by anyone who is reasonably fit and well prepared. The summit has the twin peaks of Batian (5,199 m) and Nelion (5,188 m), and is accessible only to those with technical mountaineering and rock climbing experience. This mountain is not easy to conquer and every year no more than 100 climbers make it to the top of the twin peaks. Mount Kenya is in fact considered 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 many fans and especially fascinates technical climbers. The author and alpinist, Rick Ridgeway – the author of the Seven Summits, declares that of all the world’s mountains this is his favorite. Halford Mackinder planned and led the first expedition on record to reach the summit in 1899. But if the old Meru mentioned above is anything to go by, the locals must have been on top of the mountain for a long time. Mackinder’s 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.
Even though Mount Kenya is practically on the equator, you will find snow and ice and even glaciers. However, in the hundred years since Mackinder conquered the mountain, the number of glaciers has dropped from 18 to only 7 remaining today. The culprit is global climate change that has accelerated in recent years. Scientists tell us that during the ice ages, the great glaciers reached below 3,000 m. Today the largest glacier is the Lewis Glacier at 4,600 m. Continued glacier retreat is expected to have a negative impact on downstream ecosystems, not to mention the mountain’s scenic appeal.
Mount Kenya is the source of the Tana River – Kenya’s largest river – and has been seen for many years as an inexhaustible source of water. Not anymore- the loss of glaciers and forest cover has discredited this assumption. The loss of forest cover is particularly worrying, because it is avoidable. How to save the forests in the mountains of Kenya has long engaged the environmentalist Wangari Maathai-winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. He was born on the lower slopes of the mountain and witnessed in his life the changes up in the mountain.
You can reach the peak area by taking one of three routes: Naro Moru, Sirimon and Chogoria. Good roads will take you to Nairobi Naro Moru, Nanyuki and Chogoria – the base cities for each of the trails. There are alternative routes but most have fallen into disrepair and you need superior navigational skills and stamina to attempt them. These include: Burguret, Meru, Kamweti, and Timau. It is highly recommended that you stay on the three popular routes. But if you have a good reason to do otherwise, or indeed to pioneer your own way, you must register with the park authorities.
The Naro Moru road approaches the mountain from the west and is easily the most popular. The trail is well serviced with rest cabins and is the fastest way to the top. However, it is the steepest and climbers vulnerable to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) can experience difficulties. The trip will take 4 days, although you can choose to spend another day at the summit. You start with a fairly steep 5-hour walk from Park Gate to the 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 varied 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 that day. Very early the next morning – 2.00 am is the usual time – you started to try Point Lenana. The mountain is generally clear in the morning and stormy in the afternoon, so the idea is to go up and down the peak when you have good traction. This is the part of the trip where some experience symptoms of altitude sickness.
It will take about 5 hours to reach Lenana. Here you have to take some pictures, show how you got back home and how you went to the top of the mountain of God. After that, you descend in 3 hours to Mackinders Camp for breakfast. Then riding back to Teleki Valley via Camel Rocks, you reach the Met Station in about 4 hours. Overnight rest is at the Met Station, before the final descent to Park Gate.
The Sirimon route has its base at Nanyuki in 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 to go up and down the mountain. You start with a 3-4 hour walk through the rain forest to arrive overnight at Old Moses camp (3,300 m). The next day after breakfast you travel to the sea and valley of Lycia and Mackinder. You reach Shipton’s camp (4,200 m) after a 6-7 hour hike. You spend the night here before heading out early the next morning to try Point Lenana.
The road to Chogoria begins in the town of the same name in the west of the mountain. This is by far the 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 tougher. It will take 6 days to go up and down the mountain. There are no service cabins that can be used on the road and you must bring a tent along. Whichever route you take, you can extend your enjoyment of these heights by taking a day to hike the Summit Circuit.
It is important to drink enough water – about 4 to 6 liters per day – to prevent dehydration. Dehydration makes you more vulnerable to altitude sickness and hypothermia. Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature and symptoms include clumsiness and disorientation. Victims of the condition need to quickly provide a warm and dry environment. At altitudes above 3,000 m, oxygen levels decrease and altitude sickness stalks the trekker. That’s why a quick climb is not advised, because you have no opportunity to acclimatize. The symptoms of 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 serious medical conditions that can occur are High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). The onset of HAPE is betrayed by a dry cough and difficulty breathing. HACE is marked by slurred speech, severe headaches and disoriented behavior. HACE and HAPE are both potentially fatal and you should always descend to lower altitudes and seek treatment. To reduce the chance of mountain sickness, it is recommended to acclimatize by spending an extra night near the Park Gate or in the mountain hut above 4,000 m. If you temper your wings for themselves and take a slow sensible hike you will enjoy the adventure and will be fine.
You will generally need a guide and guard so you can focus on the hike. Always go for those who have high altitude experience and are accredited by the park authorities. They will know their way, and a good one is worth its weight in gold, in case of illness and other contingencies. Porters carry the heavy stuff while you carry a bag with essentials such as warm clothes, the ability to make a fire, some food and drinks, a flashlight and first aid kit.
Things to bring include: warm clothing, waterproof hiking boots, rain suit, sleeping bag, flashlight, sunglasses and gloves. Many climbers find it best to buy a Kenya Mountain Climbing Package in order to take advantage of people with local knowledge. This package will include transportation, accommodation in mountain cabins, meals during the climb, park entrance fees, services of an experienced mountain guide and porter and cook.
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 the year but the most comfortable climbing is achieved in the dry months of January and February and from July to October.
After your climb, you can relax in some of the excellent hotels and resorts in the Kenya mountain area. Before you leave the country, take to heart the feelings of the Italian climber Carlo Spinelli, who said: “I consider myself a lover of nature more than a mountaineer, and for this reason Kenya has the best of both mountains and desert”. Take time to see wildlife on a Kenyan safari in this region or in other parts of the country.
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