When you think of Africa, images of Mount Kilimanjaro, the River Nile, the vast Serengeti plains & the people of the Masaai Mara come to mind. Yet there is a greatness to be found elsewhere in this incredible, humbling continent; an un-spoilt beauty in the form of Africa’s best kept secret: Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya History
Once upon a time, this truly superb summit reigned as King in Africa, towering over its now larger neighbour, Mount Kilimanjaro. At the time, Mount Kenya used to stand as tall as 7,000m, competing against some of today’s giants of the Himalaya. It has since erupted itself into collapse, during numerous periods of volcanic activity, as well as undergoing many centuries of glacial erosion.
Mount Kenya’s first discovery by a European was made in 1849, only a year after the discovery of Mount Kilimanjaro. At the time, the Embu tribe populated the lower slopes of the mountain, but due to the cold weather and conditions found higher up, nobody had yet summitted the peak.
Many years came and went, and with them, many unsuccessful expedition attempts. British Geologist Dr John W Gregory made a fantastic attempt in 1893, reaching as high as 4,730m, having spent several hours on the Lewis Glacier, before having to descend.
It was not until 1899 that the summit was finally conquered inan expedition that spanned 48 days. John Mackinder set off from Nairobi with his team, consisting of over 150 people, made up of Europeans, Maasai guides, Swahilis and Kikuyu. Many difficulties were overcome along the way, including plagues, famine and hostility from local people. Numerous summit attempts were made in this single expedition, one of which finished a mere 100m short of the summit. Blizzards and poor weather thwarted further attempts until, on the 13th of September 1899, Mackinder, with partners Ollier and Brocherel, reached Batian summit at noon having spent the previous night near the ‘Gendarme’ of the South-East face of Nelion.
For the subsequent few years the mountain saw little activity and it was not until the 1930’s that many more explorers began to leave their mark. First ascents of Nelion, Point John and traverses through the Gates of Mist were all achieved during this period, as well as many new approach routes made on the mountain.
Flora & Fauna
Once ice-capped and covered in snow, Mt. kenya now takes on a much more colourful appearance. Basalt spires stand proud, high up in the glacial/alpine zone, towering above a multitude of varying altitudinal belts, each with their own unique arrangements of wildlife.
Mount Kenya can be divided into numerous climatic zones, respective of their height above sea level. On leaving the agricultural and plantation areas behind, majestic rainforests are soon reached. This extremely rich habitat provides a home for many forms of life. A huge mixture of vegetation – copious specious of trees, vines, flowering plants, orchids, grasses and ferns – create a camouflage and shelter for both predator and prey.
Typically, the wetter forests on the Southern side of the mountain will offer a higher possibility for potential sightings of animals, including all of the impressive ‘Big 5’ – Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino, Lion & Leopard (however on Mount Kenya, Leopards are usually sighted a lot higher up, around the alpine zone at 4500m) – as well as many other species such as wild Eland, Zebra, an array of bird life and the most peculiar of animals found on the mountain, the Rock Hyrax.
The Rock Hyrax, unimaginably, is actually the closest living relative of the Elephant; With a pair of prominent upper incisors, large, soft pads underfoot and permanently abdominal testes, all of which are shared characteristics of the elephant.
Higher up from the rainforests, on some parts of the mountain a bamboo belt can be found, and moving higher still, noticeably more quickly on the Northern side, the land becomes drier and colder, housing only the toughest of flora and fauna.
Vegetation consists mostly of open moorland, grasses, heather and tussocks, with plant-life such as the flowering species of Lobelia, Senecio and Everlastings living in this zone (4’000m+), with the most stubborn of these thriving in sheltered locations alongside mosses and lichens, close to the snowline (alpine/glacial zone).
Training & Skills
Although throughout the year Mount Kenya is no more than a trek (unless climbing to Batian summit, it should not be underestimated. At just shy of 5’000m, Point Lenana (the highest trekking peak on the mountain) is a high-altitude summit and deserves respect. At this altitude your body will need to work much harder to cope with the limited oxygen. It goes without saying that a high level of ‘personal admin’, or a good ability to be self-reliant are needed when operating at such heights.
With a team of porters it is unlikely you will ever be carrying too heavy a load, but it is worth having exercised for long periods of time with a heavy rucksack, to ensure you are fit enough, both physically and mentally to continue along the trail when the going gets tough. From day 1 it is obvious to say that the majority of each day’s hiking will be spent going uphill, however, some days are easier than others. The final ascent to Point Lenana, depending on which route you take, can be an arduous and lengthy process, up what sometimes feels like an unrelenting scree slope.
In the winter months (October-January), it is common place to need use of an ice axe and crampons to reach the summit safely. Similarly, it is not uncommon to find snow high up on the mountain most of the year round. For people attempting the summit in the winter months it is advised to have previous experience in the use of axe and crampons.
Gear & Equipment
Rising from around 1,400m to 5,199m, Mount Kenya is the only large feature seen for miles and as a result is a clear obstacle that prevailing winds must overcome, creating orographic rains on its slopes.
To a degree the weather systems on Mount Kenya come with a certain level of predictability. The low pressure belt around the equator is responsible for two wet and dry seasons, seen every year on Mount Kenya. Although the mountain sees two of each season, the weather patterns remain fairly similar throughout. The wettest months on the mountain are from March to June.
A common occurance on the mountain is that of ‘anabatic’ and ‘katabatic’ wind flows. In simple terms, as the sun shines and the earth warms during the day, winds are heated and flow up the mountain (anabatic), usually condensing into clouds by the afternoon and bringing rain. In the evening, as the earth cools, cold winds reverse and flow back down the mountain (katabatic), leaving behind a cool, clear night and even frost in the morning (without clouds there is nothing to keep the heat in. Imagine a lid being removed from a boiling pan of water.
On Mount Kenya it is ‘Winter every night & Summer ever day’, as some of the locals put it.
Suitably warm and waterproof equipment are therefore a necessity on this mountain. Even though temperatures during the day may soar, in the afternoons and evenings on the mountain the weather can be fiercely cold and wet. An umbrella is not an uncommon sight on this peak.
Double-layer boots would be overkill throughout most of the year, but in the depths of winter it could be a useful item to have. For anybody wishing to climb Batian summit, general climbing equipment such as a helmet, harness and either climbing shoes or mountaineering boots, dependent on one’s ability, are all essential items.
And for obvious reasons, if the mountain is to be attempted in the winter months, then even more warm layers, crampons, an axe & a pair goggles, will also be required on top of one’s usual ‘summer’ kit list.
Mount Kenya is undeniably stunning. A plethora of colours and fascinating wildlife cover the landscape around the base of the mountain, making the journey to its summit an unforgettable experience. Coupled with the fact that much of the mountain is still inhabited by tribes such as the Kikuyu, Embu, Ameru & Maasai, it provides a wonderful experience to be had physically, visually and culturally.
For most people, reaching the highest trekking peak of Mount Kenya, Point Lenana (4985m) is a hugely-achievable challenge. If you have got the taste of African mountains having already completed Mount Kilimanjaro, then I would highly recommend Mount Kenya next. This mountain is not one to disappoint. Arguably the more beautiful of the two and much less-crowded, you can really have that ‘off the beaten track experience’ on Mount Kenya and be rewarded in the magnificence and splendour of Africa’s best-kept secret.