Mount Kenya looks like a giant hill of scree, from which jagged little mountains appear as if carefully placed and buried. But it is actually the remains of an ancient volcano, worn down over time by glaciers to leave this remarkable and challenging landscape.
Name: Mount Kenya
Height: 5,199m (17,057 ft)
Location: Mount Kenya National Park, Kenya, East Africa.
First Climbed: 1899, by J Brocherel, H MacKinder and C Ollier.
Climb Time: 5-7 days (1-2 days from base camp).
Best Time to Climb: December to March and July to October.
Introduction to Mount Kenya.
Now extinct, this stratovolcano was last active several million years ago. Multiple pyramidal peaks, jutting spires, sheer cliffs and complex ridges make this massif a fascinating African landmark and a tantalising challenge for adventurers.
Mount Kenya (5,199 m/ 17,057 ft) is the highest mountain in Kenya and the second highest in the whole of Africa, after Kilimanjaro (5,895 m /19,341 ft). It consists of ten separate peaks, ranging between 4,700 m (Midget Peak, 15,420 ft) to 5,199 m (Batian, 17,057 ft).
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It is also a Unesco World Heritage Site, located among the pristine East African wilderness of Mount Kenya National Park.
History of Mount Kenya.
The local Kikuyu and Meru communities regard Mount Kenya as a holy peak, using the mountain for ceremonies and rituals. It is believed that their god Ngai lives on Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya).
In their creation myth, Ngai gave the father of the tribe, Gikuyu, a share of the land around the mountain. Whenever Gikuyu needed something (such as sons to marry his 9 daughters) he need only sacrifice an animal and raise his hands to Kirinyaga to gain Ngai’s attention.
But the myths around Mount Kenya stretch far beyond the local communities. One Egyptian myth from around 15,000 BC told of a southern land of gods called Ta Neteru, where the three main Egyptian Gods lived before travelling north at the dawn of man. Ta Neteru is a direct reference to Mount Kenya.
There is also reference to Mount Meru (named after the local people) in the Indian epics Mahabaratha and Bhaghavad-Gita, and it is strongly believed that this also refers directly to Mount Kenya.
The naming Mount Kenya itself is a unclear, though it’s meaning is relatively self-explanatory. The traditional names for the mountain (with associated peoples) are Kirinyaga (Kikuyu), Kirenyaa (Embu) and Kiinyaa (Kamba). All three names translate as ‘God’s resting place’.
The three major peaks (Batian, Nelion and Lenana) are named after Maasai chiefs.
Geography of Mount Kenya.
The power this extinct stratovolcano once had is represented in the scale and appearance of the Mount Kenya massif. It is thought that, when last active around 3 million years ago, this volcano reached a height of around 6,100 m (20,013 ft). The action of glacial erosion has worn the peaks down by almost a kilometre since then.
But the span of this massif is still very impressive, covering an area with a diameter of almost 120 km (75 miles).
Near the many summits, the rock is syenite – a tough rock similar to granite. These dark grey rock faces rise sharply from the gentler scree slopes lower down. The jagged variability and reliable strength of these rock faces are what make Mount Kenya so attractive to climbers.
Lower down, the rock type varies. This is a result of the multitude of eruptions leading to different lava flows forming different types of rock deposits, as well as the debris of syenite from higher up.
Located in the sprawling 2,124 km2 (820 sq mile) Mount Kenya National Park, Mount Kenya lies 193 km (120 miles) north north-east of the capital city Nairobi. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, lies 320km (199 miles) south in neighbouring Tanzania, and is visible from the Mount Kenya’s southern slopes on a clear day.
Of its ten peaks, the twins Batian and Nelion (5,188m/ 17,021 ft) are the two highest points of the massif, joined by the saddle known as the Gates of Mist.
The other peaks in the Mount Kenya massif are:
• Point Lenana – 4,985 m (16,355 ft).
• Point Pigott – 4,957 m (16,263 ft).
• Point Thomson and Thomson Flake – 4,955 m (16,257 ft).
• Point Dutton – 4,885 m (16,027 ft).
• Point Melhuish – 4,880 m (16,010 ft).
• Point John – 4,863 m (15,955 ft).
• Point Peter – 4,757 m (15,607 ft).
• Midget Peak – 4,700 m (15,420 ft).
The climate on Mount Kenya is also worth noting. As it sits over the equator, the north and south sides of the mountain often experience opposing conditions.
From mid-December to early March, the south side receives more sunshine, making rock climbing more possible. But from July to October, this side receives less sunshine and ice climbing become the preference, as deep snow and ice build up.
The north side has the complete opposite, with ice climbing preferred early in the year and rock climbing possible in the middle of the year.
In between these dry periods are two significant wet seasons, where climbing and ascents are difficult, if not impossible. As biologist Dr. O Helberg said in 1957, the climate of Mount Kenya is like: “winter every night and summer every day”.
All this variation makes the mountain an ideal site to study the world’s weather. As such, it is home to one of the Global Atmosphere Watch’s monitoring stations.
Given the mountain’s location, it come as a surprise to learn that it has 11 glaciers running among and down its peaks. The action of these glaciers, and the huge ice sheet that once lay over and around the massif in the last ice age, that has carved out the deep U-shaped valleys and tarns (small mountain lakes, of which there are twenty) between the peaks.
All the glaciers on Mount Kenya are, however, in quick retreat. Since 1890, at least seven other glaciers have vanished completely from the massif. The others may follow as quickly as within the next 25 years. This situation is comparable to that found on Kilimanjaro and other mountains around the world, as the negative effects of Global Warming take their toll on this sensitive natural phenomenon.
Wildlife of Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya’s equatorial location also gives it several different ecosystems. From the semi-arid savannah grasslands at the outskirts of the National Park through the tropical rainforest to the alpine ecosystem, the range of vegetation and plant life around the mountain is quite incredible.
Dense rainforest covers lower elevations in the wet zones to the south-west and north-east, while in the drier zones below 2,500 m (8,200 ft), typical mountain confiferous forests are found. These contain common Podocarpus conifers and the Junipers procera, which are endemic to Africa.
Around 2,500-3,000 m (8,200-9,840 ft), quick-growing bamboo begins to dominate the conifers, before opening out into alpine meadows, moorlands and tussock grasslands above 3,000m (9,840 ft).
As the ground becomes more scree and rock, vegetation all but disappears (around 4,500 m/ 14,760 ft), although some individual specimens have been found over 5,000m (16,400 ft).
The animal life found in this area is as diverse as it would be exotic to mountain environments elsewhere in the world.
Elephants, buffalo and eland antelopes roam the forest and savannah around wider national park. The largest population of Grevys’ zebra are also found within this area.
Some rarer sights possible during a visit would include leopards, giant forest hogs and bongos, which are the largest of Africa’s forest antelopes. And then there’s a distant relative of the elephant, tree hyraxes, which are small nocturnal mammals found amongst the dense rainforest.
Catching sight of any of these would truly be a special memory.
Meanwhile, up to 164 species of bird circulate up above. These include 9 varieties of sunbirds, with their vibrantly-coloured plumes, and numerous species of predatory eagles, buzzards and kites.
First Ascent of Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya was first climbed in 1899. Joseph Brocherel, Halford MacKinder and Cesar Ollier climbed Nelion up to its South Ridge, then traversed onto the Diamond glacier to reach the summit of Batian via the Gates of Mist.
The second ascent happened 30 years later, when the famous British adventurer, Eric Shipton, alongside Percy Wyn Harris, climbed what is now known as the Nelion Normal Route (see below). Shipton also completed the first traverse of the mountain the following year, climbing the West Ridge to descend via the Nelion Normal Route.
But arguably a more remarkable achievement occurred in 1943.
Three Italian prisoners of war escaped their internment camp and planted an Italian flag on the summit of Point Lenana. They did so with improvised equipment, barely any food and no maps or prior knowledge of the landscape. One of the three, Felice Benuzzi, recounts this extraordinary story in his book ‘No Picnic on Mount Kenya’.
Climbing guide to Mount Kenya.
Unlike Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya offers no non-technical route to its true summit. As such, it is less visited and less climbed than its southern neighbour (and some would argue this means it should be one of the Seven Summits – but, in the end, height matters).
Mount Kenya’s two highest peaks, Batian and Nelion, can only be reached by rock climbing. They are technical ascents, with routes over rock, ice or both. There are 10 routes in total, reaching one or both of the peaks (they are connected by the Gates of Mist), with technical severity varying between Grades IV and VI+ (East African grading, a system that grades from I-VII).
The easiest descent from either Nelion or Bastian is via a bolted abseil route. It consists of 14 separate abseils, each around 25 m in length. It follows the Nelion Normal Route closely, with the bolts visible to climbers on the way up.
As many guides begin from named base camps, let’s quickly consider the three routes onto the mountain (they are discussed in more detail in the section below).
The quickest and most popular route is the fast ascending, though not very scenic, Naro Moru route. This approaches the mountain from the west.
The Sirimon route approaches from the north, and its gradual ascent offers the best conditions for acclimatisation. Finally, the Chorogoria route is the most scenic and arguably the most interesting. So if you’re not in a hurry, choose this one.
Once at the relevant base camp (Austrian Hut or Shipton’s Camp), the two most popular ascent routes up Mount Kenya are discussed below.
The Nelion Normal route, as first climbed by Eric Shipton in 1929, ascends the south-east face of Nelion. The climbing is particularly technical at the upper reaches of the climb, reaching a maximum of Grade IV. Allow 1-2 days to complete from base camp, with a bivouac hut on the summit of Nelion the best overnight option.
Most guides begin at the base camp for the route, Austrian Hut (4,800 m/ 15,748 ft). From here, cross the Lewis glacier and scramble up the steep scree before beginning the real climb. A zig-zagging, up and down style climb, the route itself is too complex to describe fully here.
However, the principal instructions and landmarks of the route are: cross the base of Mackinders chimney; head up the one o’clock gully from the top of Mackinders chimney; ascend to Mackinders gendarme; climb to the amphitheatre and on to the summit of Nelion.
To reach Batian, you must descend (rappel about 45 m/ 147 ft) to the Gate of Mists, traverse around the north of the tower and find the Batian summit ridge there.
The Batian North-east Normal route, first opened up in 1944 by Arthur Firmin and P H Hicks, takes 1-2 days.
It involves twenty different pitches of difficulties from Grades I-V, each lasting 15-60 m. They are separated by simpler climbs, traverses or scrambles. Several pitches are typically icy, especially early in the year, though many also have permanent anchors and fixed belays for assistance.
Shipton’s Camp (4,240 m/ 13,911 ft) is typically used as the base camp for this route. To arrive to this route, follow the normal trail towards Point Lenana. Leave this route at the first flat section, taking the right fork towards the north-east face of Batian.
The climbing route begins almost level with the bottom of the Krapf glacier, and is marked by a painted blue cross in circle. This approach from base camp takes around an hour.
If climbing this route over two days, there are several places to bivouac near or under the West Ridge.
One other route, regularly listed but considered no longer safe to attempt, is the Diamond Couloir ice climb. The glacier it scaled has now retreated to such an extent that the route has all but melted into history. The last recorded climbs were in the mid-2000s.
The other principal ice climb, the Ice Window is still available between late December and March, though it is considerably harder and less reliable than several decades ago.
Information on trekking around Mount Kenya.
Other rock climbing opportunities can be found around Point John (East African Grades III-V) and some of the other subsidiary peaks.
Three non-climbing options are the treks that also act as approaches for the ascents: the Naro Moru, Sirimoni and Chogoria routes.
Arguably the most scenic route is the Chogoria route. Walking through rainforest, bamboo enclaves, expansive heather and moorland, this a route with much to offer a nature lover.
This is the itinerary for a three-day hike on this route that culminates in summitting Point Lenana (4,985 m/ 16,355 ft):
Entering the national park via the eastern gate, day 1 is 6-7 hours of hiking up to Mintos Hut at 4,300m (14,108 ft). Day 2 summits Point Lenana, with a choice to descend via either of the other two routes for variation. Day 3 is a descent back to the nearby park gate.
The Sirimoni route enters the park from the north-west and requires five days to complete. Beginning at the Sirimoni gate (2,600m/ 8,530 ft), day 1 is a gentle, half-day 9 km (5.6 mile) hike to the Old Moses hut. Day 2 is a full-day hike up to Shipton’s camp.
Day 3 is summit day. Following the summit circuit from the west, you approach Austrian Hut via the Houseberg valley and two tarns, then push on for a return to the summit. The descent follows the same route ascended and takes 1-2 days.
Finally, the efficient Naro Moru route is a three or four day hike.
While the most direct, it also covers the largest distance, as the national park extends like a finger out along the length of the Tekeki valley and Point Lenana is on the east (opposite) side of the massif. A suggested itinerary is described here:
Beginning at the western park entrance (2,400m/ 7,874 ft) day 1 consists of a 8 km (5 mile) hike through dense rainforest to the Met station (3,050 m/ 10,007 ft). Day 2 is a 6-7 hour hike up the Tekeki valley to Mackinders camp (4,200 m/ 13,780 ft).
Day 3 is summit day, climbing to the top of Point Lenana. It is a four-hour climb, followed by a half day descent to the Met station. Day 4 completes the descent.