Mount Kenya: A Peak Experience

I can only vaguely remember the first time I climbed up Mount Kenya. This is largely a consequence of my notoriously bad memory – which isn’t helped by the fact that the trip took place eight-or-so years ago. What I do recall though, was spending a windy night next to my chemistry teacher at Shipton’s camp who spoon-fed me cough syrup to alleviate both my altitude sickness, and the annoyed groans of my classmates who longed for a good night’s sleep before our summit attempt the following morning. Since then I have heard glowing reviews from friends who recently attempted the climb, and it made me long for a similar experience. So, accompanied by my friend Oscar, we headed north for Naro Moru – the starting point of our climb up Mount Kenya.

There are three main routes up the mountain: the Sirimon route, which approaches the peaks from the north-west through the Mackinder Valley; the Chogoria route, which is considered the most picturesque and snakes through the eastern moorlands of the park; and finally the Naro Moru route, which is by far the quickest and therefore most popular path for those on a tight schedule. We had just four days, so opted for the latter. After a hefty lunch at the Naro Moru River Lodge, we headed into town to pick up our guide Reuben and porter Anthony. While waiting at a petrol station – our rendezvous point – one of the station attendants asked if we wanted some air, indicating towards the front left tyre of our range rover. No thanks, I thought, but if you can bottle it for me to take up the mountain, then we’re in business. Alas, he had no such facilities.

After hiring some walking boots and a suitable backpack, we made our way to the park gate. From there it was a three hour walk up to the Met station, the base camp engulfed by the thick bamboo forest that covers the lower fridges of the mountain. The Met station is accessible by road, which means it is possible to drive up, walk to the following camp Mackinder’s, summit, and be back down through the park gates the very next day. Numerous cabins dot the campsite, and there is ample space to pitch either your own tent or have one set up for you before you arrive. The camp is patrolled by a group of resident Sykes monkeys who help themselves to your valuable rations of food, as they did with our loaf of bread and a bag of tomatoes.

Early the next day we embarked on the 10km journey to Mackinder’s camp, which lies at the foot of Mount Kenya’s jagged peaks. Although the Naro Moru route is not considered the most picturesque, the change of landscape with altitude is breath-taking. The fertile farmland that encircles the mountain’s lower base lies below a thick bamboo belt and timberline forest. Once through the lush forest, we emerged into a clearing of striking silver and green – the silver was the remnants of an extensive rosewood belt, which had been burnt down by a careless climber’s campfire. The hillside then transforms into heathland, characterised by what is known as the ‘vertical bog’. When dry, this section is easily traversed, but when it rains it can be treacherous. As we gradually made our way towards the peak, which now pierced menacingly through the thick fog that enveloped it, the vegetation quickly turned unearthly. The giant groundsels and lobelias make you feel as though you’ve suddenly been transported to a distant planet. These plants line the impressive Teleki valley, which leads to Mackinder’s at the foot of the peaks.

Sir Halford John Mackinder was the first European to conquer Mount Kenya’s highest point – Batian. On the 13th of September 1899 he, Cesar Ollier and Josef Brocherel cut steps into the Lewis glacier and carved a route to the summit. This was, and remains, a very technical climb. As a result, at 3 am the following morning, we flanked the Lewis glacier and inched our way up the vertical scree slope to Point Lenana, the third highest and most accessible peak. In retrospect, I was grateful we climbed at night. Our headlamps illuminated only a metre ahead, making us largely oblivious of the sheer slopes surrounding us. The cables placed below Pt. Lenana made it relatively easy to scramble up to the top, which we reached for sunrise, revealing a view that will no doubt stay with me for a very long time. For a few minutes, our spectacular surroundings were swathed in deep orange. ‘When you reach the top’, Reuben said, ‘you quickly forget the struggle it took to get there’.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation