At 17,058 ft, Mount Kenya is a gathering of nature’s wonders. It is the second highest mountain in Africa after Mt. Kilimanjaro and holds at its highest point one of the world’s rarest sights – equatorial snow. For centuries, this glacier phenomenon has puzzled scientists, at the top of a mountain that abounds with legend and history.
Stories are told of how 3 million years ago, Mount Kenya, called Kirinyaga by the Kikuyus and Ol Donyo Keri by the Maasai, stood a staggering 23,000 ft above sea level, surpassing Mount Kilimanjoro’s 19,340 ft.
Documentary evidence records the first successful climber to conquer Mount Kenya as Sir Halford John Mackinder (15 February 1861 – 6 March 1947). Sir Halford was an English geographer who led an expedition that made the first ascent of Mount Kenya in 1899.
But centuries before Sir Halford and his team lay claim to the prestige of being the first to climb the mountain, Kikuyu legend spoke of visits Gikuyu, the father of the Kikuyu people, made to Mount Kirinyaga to meet with Ngai, the God of the Kikuyu.
Whether it was Sir Halford or Gikuyu who reached the mountain first, the lure and fascination of Mount Kenya did not end with them. Since then, many have conquered its heights. But one climb remains etched in the memories of Kenyans to this day.
It was on chilly morning of 12th December 1963, when the late Kisoi Munyao, proclaimed the historical words:
“Hamjambo wananchi wote pamoja na wageni wetu. Mimi ni Kisoi Munyao ninaozungumza nanyi kntoka kileleni Mlima Kenya. Kenya, Kenyatta, bendera imepepea. Kenya popote mwangaza umeenea”.
(Hello all citizens and our visitors. I am Kisoi Munyao, speaking to you from the peak of Mount Kenya. Kenya, Kenyatta, the flag is flying. All over Kenya, the light is shining).
He had just hoisted the new flag of an independent Kenya on the highest peak of Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya is spiritually significant to the Meru, Maasai and Embu communities living around it. The Kikuyu believed their God, Ngai, had his earthly throne on Mount Kenya. This spiritual attachment to the mountain led the Meru and Embu to construct their houses with their doors facing the mountain.
Glacier movement and reduced volcanic activity may have had a hand in denying the mountain the coveted title of the tallest mountain in Africa. Yet the same glaciers helped to sculpture one of Africa’s greatest masterpieces of nature, as beautiful as it is treacherous.
Today, only seven of the initial eighteen glaciers recorded in 1893 still exist – it would seem the grand mountain of the gods is losing its aesthetic glory – and environmentalists predict the remaining glaciers may vanish within 25 years.
But perhaps Mount Kenya is not out just yet. Renowned the world over for its exciting and challenging hiking experience, Mount Kenya, – unlike the flatter Kilimanjaro – has a series of rough, jugged peaks that are as unforgiving as they are tempting to ardent climbers. Three of these peaks provide the much sought after adrenalin kick that sees thousands of local and international travellers come here every year to conquer the mountain’s heights.
Batian, the highest, stands at 17,058 ft. Nelion (17,021 ft) and Point Lenana (16,355 ft) follow closely. Batian and Nelion are the toughest to scale and only professionals or the very tough can dare challenge them. The most popular, and by far the easiest, for most climbers, including those just starting-out, is Lenana. In most cases when climbers say they have scaled Mount Kenya, they actually only go as far as point Lenana.
It may take between 3 and 5 days, through a fascinating world of forests, wildlife, and unique mountain vegetation including giant lobelias, podocarpus, grounsel and even a local sub-species of rock hyrax to reach the peaks. The primary health hazards to look out for include altitude sickness and hypothermia.
Several options exist for supplies, porterage, and climbing tours. The towns of Naro Moru, Chogoria and Nanyuki are
good starting points for climbers. From these relatively developed towns, teams can coordinate trips and find reasonably priced accommodation.
Kilimanjaro can be climbed all year round, although the main dry climbing season begins from January-February and June-September. Climbers short on time can easily fly to Kilimanjaro International airport from either Nairobi or Dar es Salaam and stay overnight in Moshi or Arusha town.
Mount Kenya can also be climbed any time of the year, but the experience can vary from a nice and easy one, to a wet and muddy nightmare. There is quite a lot of rain in March, April and May, which breaks and then resumes again in October to November. Temperatures as low as -17°C have been recorded at the foot of Lenana point, but they usually never go below -5°C. The mountain can also be plagued with sudden gusts of winds, which can be fierce at times, so it is good to carry warm and windproof clothing.
The mountain today faces a bigger challenge than the effects of climate change on its receding glaciers. It is located inside the Mount Kenya National Park, a 715 sq km protected area established in 1949. But at the foot of the mountain are some of Kenya’s most fertile lands. Their acreage is increasing as population levels rise threatening the area’s bio-diversity as people clear more land for farming, exposing one of Kenya’s prime sources of water to the elements.
Some 15,000 visitors every year may also be starting to exert its own pressure from the increased littering around the site.
Its beauty may yet save it, however, with the park’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this priceless gem of Kenya will be preserved..
Trekker’s DiaryHenry Kimathi Muuthia writes for Enchanted Landscapes, a Kenyan information website.
Mount Kenya stared at us in all its mystery as we entered the Sirimon Gate. Five hours ascending through bamboo and pine forest on a dusty track took us to a secluded campsite by a small mountain stream. We rose before sunlight for the trek towards Leki North, through scenery that changed from pine forest to alpine moorland.
The next morning we trekked over a deceptive ridge into Mackinder’s valley before a long climb to Shipton’s camp, right below Batian and Nelion and within sight of two small glaciers.
Our bid for the summit started at2:30 am in the freezing darkness. The barometer showed bad weather coming in. Pools of ice reflected in the moonlight. At day break we summitted, having climbed a short rock face, and all gave smiles for the camera, before starting our descent. By then, the wind was unbearable, and turning into a storm. We struggled down a scree slope, reaching camp for a late breakfast, before heading back to first camp by nightfall. It is a day I will not forget, summitting one of the most difficult mountains in Africa.
Smartlife October – December 2011