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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 at 2.5 million years, and Kilimanjaro at 750,00 years of age is really an upstart. Time has really taken its toll, and the summit is thought to have fallen from 6,500m those millions of years ago to 5,199m today. The mountain is an extinct volcano, whose plug forms what is now the peak area. The crater was long ago, done to death, by the tireless agents of erosion of nature.
Mount Kenya is a wonderful sight that dominates the central highlands of Kenya. It is perhaps understandable that the Kikuyu people who reside on its lower slopes thought it was suitable for the abode of the Gods. 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, and his two companions, escaped and attempted to climb the summit. With a few handmade climbing tools, he managed to reach the Lenana peak, the third highest peak of the mountain.
But Benuzzi was at least an accomplished climber. In 1988, the rescue team of Mount Kenya discovered and recovered an elder of the Meru people in the cold altitude of Peak Nelion (5,188 m). Only experts, with proper equipment and guides reach Nelion. He seemed unaware of the feat he had accomplished and was disturbed by the commotion caused by his rescuers. He explained that his mission was to “go to God.” He was equipped in a way that you will not see recommended in any guide – in a single blanket and open sandals. Animals also do strange things: a few years ago, the frozen bodies of a leopard and a colobus monkey were discovered in Nelion.
Mount Kenya is located 180 km north of Nairobi. The mountain falls within the Mount Kenya National Park. The park consists of a protected area above 3,200 m altitude, together with two small salients that reach 2,450 m along the Naro Moru and Sirimon trails. It was created in 1949 and covers an area of 715 sq km. It is also 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 consists of three main areas: the rocky summit region, the Afro-alpine heath with its sprawling giant vegetation, and the extensive lower slopes covered with mountain forest and bamboo. The 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 great wildlife including buffalo, elephants, sykes monkeys and bushbuck. However, animals are usually hard to see. In addition, animals are even more scarce although hyena cats, leopards, buffaloes and civets have been sighted. The only animal you can see at the top
alpine zone is the rock hyrax. Although it is the size of a domestic cat, it looks more like a rat. The seemingly humble rock hyrax has some powerful relatives in the animal kingdom and counts the elephant as its biological relative.
The mountain attracts more than 30,000 enthusiasts every year. The Lenana peak (4,985 m), the so-called peak of trekkers, can be reached by any reasonably fit and well-prepared person. 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 mountaineering experience. This mountain is not easy to conquer and every year no more than 100 climbers make it to the twin peaks. Mount Kenya is in fact considered more technically challenging than the higher Kilimanjaro (5,894m). But those who make it to the top experience some of the best rock and ice climbing in Africa.
The mountain has many fans and fascinates technical climbers in particular. The author and climber, Rick Ridgeway – author of the Seven Summits, says that of all the mountains in the world this is his favorite. Halford Mackinder planned and led the first expedition on record to reach the summit in 1899. But if the former Meru mentioned above is anything to go by, the locals should be long at the top of the mountain. The Mackinder voyage was a great success and his party discovered many species of animal and plant life then unknown in Europe. A new species of owl, for example, was first recorded by this expedition and later named Mackinder.
Although Mount Kenya is practically on the equator, you will find snow and ice and even glaciers. However, in the hundred years that Mackinder conquered the mountain, the number of glaciers fell from 18 to only 7 that remain today. The culprit of this is global climate change which has accelerated in recent years. Scientists tell us that during the ice age, the great glaciers reached below 3000 m. Today the largest glacier is the Lewis Glacier at 4,600 m. The continued retreat of the glaciers is expected to have a negative impact on the downstream ecosystem, not to mention the mountain’s scenic appeal.
Mount Kenya is the source of the Tana River – Kenya’s largest river – and was for many years seen as an inexhaustible fountain of water. Not anymore – the loss of glaciers and forest cover has brought this assumption into disrepute. The loss of the forest is particularly worrying, because it is avoidable. How to save the forests of Mount Kenya has long engaged the environmentalist Wangari Maathai – the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2004. He was born on the lower slopes of the mountain and in his life he saw the changes in the mountain
You can reach the peak area by taking one of three routes: Naro Moru, Sirimon and Chogoria. Good roads take you from Nairobi to Naro Moru, Nanyuki and Chogoria – the base towns for each of the roads. There are alternative routes, but most of them have fallen into disuse and you need superior navigation skills and stamina to try them. This includes: Burguret, Meru, Kamweti and Timau. It is highly recommended to keep the three popular routes. But if you have a good reason to do otherwise, or even to pioneer your own path, you need to 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 served with rest huts and is the fastest way to the summits. However, it is the steepest and climbers prone to AMS (acute mountain sickness) may experience difficulties. The hike will last 4 days, but you can opt for an additional day at the summit. Start with a fairly steep 5-hour walk from Park Gate to Met Station (3,050m). This is where you spend the first night and acclimatize to the thin mountain air.
The next day is the longest and you will go, under varied terrain, for anywhere between 8 and 10 hours. Spend the night in Mackinders Camp (4,200 m), near the peak area. You really should have an early night on this day. Very early the next morning -2.00am is the usual time – you set off to try 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 symptoms of altitude sickness.
It will take you about 5 hours to reach Lenana. Here you should take some pictures, to show the people back home how you did on top of the Mountain of God. Then, 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 rest of the night is at Met Station, before the final descent to Park Gate.
The Sirimon road has its base in Nanyuki to the north of the mountain. The route offers an easier climb than the Naro Moru trail and is also more scenic. It usually takes 5 days to go up and down the mountain. Start with a 3-4 hour trek through the rain forest at night at Old Moses Camp (3,300m). The next day after breakfast, travel through the heath and the Liki and Mackinder valleys. Arrive at Shipton Camp (4,200m) after a 6-7 hour walk. Spend the night there before leaving very early the next morning to try for Point Lenana.
The road to Chogoria starts from the town of the same name to the west of the mountain. This is the most beautiful and scenic of the popular routes. You can enjoy dramatic views of waterfalls, valleys, tarns and rugged rock formations. But the path is not so popular because it is also the longest and therefore the hardest. It will take you 6 days to ascend and descend the mountain. There are no usable service huts along the trail and you must bring a tent. Whichever route you use, you can extend your enjoyment of these heights by taking a day to do the Summit Circuit Path.
It is important that you drink enough water – about 4 to 6 liters every day – to keep dehydration at bay. Dehydration makes you more vulnerable to altitude sickness and hypothermia. Hypothermia is a decrease in body temperature and symptoms include clumsiness and disorientation. The victims of the condition must be provided quickly with a warm and dry environment. At altitudes above 3,000 m, oxygen levels decrease and altitude sickness haunts the trekker. That’s why a fast climb is not recommended, because you don’t have the opportunity to acclimatize. Symptoms for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are nausea, headache, fatigue and general malaise. You should always descend to the lowest 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 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 likelihood of mountain sickness, it is advisable to acclimatize by spending an extra night near Park Gate or at the mountain huts above 4000 m. If you temper your zeal for the peaks and take a slow, sensible hike, you’ll enjoy the adventure and be fine.
In general, you need a guide and porters so you can concentrate on the walk. Always go for those who have high altitude experience and are accredited by the park authorities. They know the routes, 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 daypack with the essentials, such as warm clothes, fire making skills, some food and drink, a flashlight and a first aid kit.
Things you should bring include: warm clothing, waterproof hiking boots, rain gear, sleeping bags, flashlight, sunglasses, and hand gloves. Many escalators find it convenient to buy a Mount Kenya Climbing Package to take advantage of those with local knowledge. Such a package will include transportation, accommodation in mountain huts, meals while climbing, 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 the 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 Mount Kenya area. Before leaving the country, take to heart the sentiments of Italian mountaineer Carlo Spinelli, who said: “I consider myself a nature lover more than a mountaineer, and that is why Kenya has the best of mountains and the desert”. Take the time to see the wildlife on a safari in Kenya in this region or in other parts of the country.
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