Climbing Mount Kenya

Hiking in Kenya: Mount Kenya

Hiking-in-Kenya: Mount Kenya

Brief Overview of Climbing Mount Kenya

Of the five mountains in Africa whose peaks rise over 14,000 ft., only three are permanently snow-capped – Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft), Kenya (17,058 ft) and the Ruwenzoris (16,763 ft). They were climbed in that order; Kilimanjaro being first in 1888, Kenya second in 1889, and the Ruwenzoris in 1906. Every year, when the faces are in condition, thousands of intrepids take to these three mountains for the climbing challenge. Mount Kenya, which is more scenic than faunal, is a walkers paradise for explorers and mountaineers. It is a huge extinct volcano, of which the crater has been substantially eroded away, leaving a central core of hard rock which form the highest peaks, draped by many glaciers, and sharp ridges. The highest peaks of Batian 17,058 ft., and Nelion 17,022 ft., can only be reached by those climbers who are skilled in the use of rope and ice-axes. The third highest peak, however, Point Lenana 16,355ft., can be reached by almost anyone who is fit, and was in fact been ascended by a 6-year old from the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia in 2008; with the oldest yet being an 80-year old Asian man. It can be reached through eight different trails, but the two most popular are Naro Moru and Sirimon. The snowy peaks of Mount Kenya, lying just south of the equator, rise from the Laikipia Plains in the central region of Kenya. All the area over 11,000 ft., forms Mount Kenya National Park, which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 for its unique flora and biodiversity selection. It covers parts of Nyeri, Embu, Meru, Tharaka Nithi and Kirinyaga Counties, controlled by a National Park Warden based at Nyeri. Approximately half of the remainder of the area between the 11,000 feet contour and levels between 5,000 and 7,000 feet is the Mount Kenya Forest, which is controlled by Forest Officers situated at Nanyuki, Gathiuru, Kabaru, Hombe, Ragati and Castle Forest Station, and at Embu Forest Station at Irangi. There are two main seasons for climbing Mount Kenya; December to Mid-March (when the South Face is in condition), and July to October (when the North Face is in condition.)

Hiking in Kenya: Scenery on the way up Mount Kenya. Image by Travel Blog
Scenery on the way up Mount Kenya. Image by Travel Blog

Brief Overview of the Vegetal Profile on Mount Kenya

The Central Region of Kenya is dominated by the large bulk of the dome-shaped Mount Kenya volcanic pile, that bears a chain of ten small glaciers on its peaks. Its volcanics are believed to be primarily of Pleistocene age. Mount Kilimanjaro, having an immensely broad, flat dome-shaped top, has a considerably greater surface of snow (than Mount Kenya) for its glaciers to draw upon. Presumably this alone would cause its glaciers to be pushed further down the hill than is the case on Mount Kenya. In addition to that it is almost 2,000 ft, higher, so there’s 2,000 ft more of snow. The snow, then, on Mount Kenya is inconsiderable when compared with that on Mount Kilimanjaro. The vegetation on Mt. Kenya shows strong altitude zoning, and the flora of the higher part of the mountain has been called an “Afro-Alpine” flora, which shows considerable similarities to that of the other high East African mountains. The vegetational belts are: Alpine Belt; Ericaceous Belt; Montane Forest; and Savanna and cultivated Belt. The lower most belt (Savanna and cultivated belt) extending up to the lower edges of the Mount Kenya Forest at altitudes between 6,000 and 7,000 feet is the cultivated or pastoral belt. The second belt – Montane rain forest – extends up to levels of 11,000 feet on the west and south side and to 10,000 feet on the east and north.

The Montane rain forest zone reaches its maximum development on the south-east sector of the mountain. It is distinguished by the occurrence of evergreen hardwood trees and some conifers. Cedars and Podos are the most widespread on the western slopes, and camphor trees mainly occur in the south and south-east. The Montane rain forest passes upwards into the bamboo zone, which is best developed on the south-east slopes. The lower margin of the bamboo zone is at approximately 8,000 feet in the south-east, 7,000 feet in the south, rising to 9,000 feet in the north-west. The bamboo zone thins markedly in the north-west, and is absent in the north. Podo trees occur in the bamboo in the west and south sectors, but in the south-east there are large areas consisting exclusively of bamboo. The lower margin of the Ericaceous belt is generally well-defined, and is marked by the transition to giant heather. On its west the forest is thin, absent or dead, the higher parts of the belt containing only patches of shrubby heather obviously affected by fire and regenerating by means of basal shoots. The Alpine belt is synonymous with “the moorland”, and is open, often marshy ground marked by the well known giant groundsel, tussock grasses, and shrubs.

Batian Peak from a distance. Image courtesy of WikiMedia
Batian Peak from a distance. Image courtesy of WikiMedia

Brief History of Climbing Mount Kenya

For eons, since the 1500’s when the Bantu tribes living around Mount Kenya settled here, it was considered implausible, even an absurd idea, to ascend this great mountain. Mount Kenya invariably stood as a sanctum to be revered, as the home of the holy, and, to others, the upper slopes were the habitat of devils and all kinds of spirits. The natives were very superstitious concerning almost any mountain, and still more so about one of this size. The local people seldom penetrated even to the bare grass slopes above the bamboo belt. On some few occasions they penetrated so far in search of medicinal plants obtained from the roots of plants growing in this area. The locals who returned from the upper slopes were not at liberty to speak about what they had seen; the idea being that they had been let off by the “demons” of the mountains. “Not perhaps one in a thousand, however, of the native living close up against the foot has penetrated more than a mile or two into the forest. It is curious that the natives, even those living close round the foot of the mountain, never realise that this white shining mass is solidified water, akin to hail; nor do they know that it melts. They refer to it as the “white rock ” at the top of the hill, or the pure silver” – C.H. Stigand, 1912. That is how things stood until 1849, when it was first cited by a westerner.

The first European to sight Mount Kenya would be Johann Ludwig Krapf. In December of 1849, Krapf, affiliated with the Church Missionary Society (CMS), set foot in Ukambani (from his base at Rabai near Mombasa) to kick the ball rolling for the wave of modern Christianity in this region. He had made it to Ukambani with the blessing and support of the influential Kamba Chief Kivoi through whom he had joined a trade convoy from Mombasa to Ukambani. It was on this voyage that Krapf crossed the Athi River and climbed up the Yatta Plateau where, from a vantage point near Kitui, he became the first white man to behold the snows of Mount Kenya. “The sky being clear, I got a full sight of this snow-mountain… It appeared to be a gigantic wall, on whose summit I observed two immense towers [Batian and Nelion], or horns as you many call them. These horns, or towers, which are at a short distance from each other, give the mountain a grand and majestic appearance which raised in my mind overwhelming feelings” – Krapf. But on reporting his discovery to Rebmann, who had discovered Kilimanjaro the previous year, his reports were attacked by several European geographers, who maintained that what had been seen was not snow but calcareous earth. Krapf’s claim was not confirmed up until 1883, when Joseph W. Thomson in 1887 saw Mount Kenya from the Laikipia Plateau.

At the turn on the twentieth century, as the challenge to summit mountains got bigger around the world, earliest explorers from Europe assembled at the five mountains of over 14,000 ft., looking for challenges in other continents, where there are high peaks were not so widely-known. East Africa began experiencing this migration, and it’s not surprising as there are five mountains over 14,000 ft. The first climb to the upper part of Mount Kenya was made in 1887 by Count Teleki, who reached a height of 13,800 ft., in the Teleki valley. A further attempt to climb the mountain was made by Capt. Dundas and C. Hobley in 1891. They tried the climb from the south but were turned back while still in the forest by the difficulty of the country. The most illustrative piece of work to be done on Mount Kenya to date was carried out by J. W. Gregory, during his expedition in 1893. Gregory climbed up as far as the Lewis Glacier, and reached a height of about 16,000 feet. While Mount Kenya had been visited by explorers, scientists and mountaineers on many occasions since 1887, the summit was not climbed until 1899, when it was reached by the Mackinder expedition, in a fine feat of mountaineering. Mackinder carried out a circuit of the peak and named some of the glaciers and valleys on the northern sector of the mountain. The upper part of the mountain was not visited again till 1908 when H. McGregor Ross and D. E. Hutchins carried out a circuit on the lower moorland, to scrutinize the forest.

View of Mount Kenya along Nanyuki-Meru Road, near Timau.  Photo Courtesy
View of Mount Kenya along Nanyuki-Meru Road, near Timau. Image Courtesy

Overview of Climbing Trails to Mount Kenya

The best vehicle trail penetrating the whole of the forested belt is the Sirimon track, which leaves the A1 Nanyuki-Timau road, 10 kms north-east of Nanyuki, and runs up a ridge to the ends on the moorland at an altitude just short of 13,000 feet. The most direct climbing trail which accesses the higher parts of Mount Kenya is along the Naro Moru trail, which follows the Naro Moru river and ends in a clearing at 10,000 feet. A well marked path continues up the mountain, following the Teleki valley and reaching Top Hut at 15,700 feet. Although the highest levels on the mountain to which a vehicle can penetrate are reached on the Sirimon track, it is the Naro Mora track which provides the most direct access to the peaks; the distance from the end of this track to Top Hut is 11 kms. The Kamweti trail on the south side of the mountain reaches an altitude of 10,000 feet, with a link road that joins the trail to to Castle Forest Station. The Irangi trail on the south-east sector leads upwards from Irangi Forest Station in Embu and ends at 7,600 feet. Chogoria trail (or Carr’s route) is a pleasant, dry path through cedar forest up a ridge south of the Ontulili river. It gives access to the head of the Mackinder valley, and is a good but long route for pack animals. The Chogoria trail leaves the Mutindua village above Chogoria to the east of the area and follows a ridge north of the Nithi river to the Urumandi Hut (10,100 ft.) at the forest edge. It continues as a well-marked path via the north ridge of the Gorges valley to Hall Tarns and then to Top Hut.

The 7 Hiking Trail on Mount Kenya

Hiking Routes at the Mount Kenya National Park.  Image Courtesy

1. Kamweti Trail to Mount Kenya

The excursion up Kamweti Route commences at Castle Forest Lodge, located about 22 kms from Kerugoya Town. Conquering the Kamweti Route is fairly challenging, largely because it is on the windward side of the mountain that is often marked by a rough underfoot, dense forests, muddy after rains, no huts and a forest trail used more by animals than humans.  The popular Sirimon and Chogoria routes are mostly dry owing to the rain-shadow of Mount Kenya. At Mackinder’s Camp, the Kamweti Routes meets up all other routes for the final climb to conquer Point Lenana.  Having arrived at Mackinder’s, where several circuits branch off from, you might be in luck to join other parties heading to Point Lenana. That is to say, up to this point the Kamweti Track is in the back of beyond. This secluded route takes on average 5 to 7 days (round-trip). It is also, by far, the longest trail up to Point Lenana and it aligns up with Nyamindi West River. That said, it has some pleasing waterfalls along the way, most notably of Kamweti Falls. Mountain Rock gives shrewd insights about the Kamweti Route.

2. Naro Moru Trail to Mount Kenya

Naro Moru trail, maintained by Kenya Wildlife Service and Mountain Club of Kenya, is the most direct access to the higher parts of Mount Kenya. The trail commences at Naro Moru Gate, nearby Naru Moru Police Station, on a pathway which leads through farms to the Forest Station. It follows the Naro Moru River and ends in a clearing at 10,000 feet. If climbing from Naro Moru River Lodge, the path leads to their Met Station Lodge at 10,000 ft. From here, a well marked path continues up the through moorland and vertical bog on a narrow path that goes past the ridge overlooking the Teleki Valley, to Kwarwill’s Hut at 13,500 ft.  From here it’s a sharp trail to Top Hut (15,700 ft.). The distance from the end of the clearing to Top Hut is 9 kms. From Top Hut, the walk goes through Firmin Hut to Lenana. Although the highest levels on the mountain to which a vehicle can penetrate are reached on the Sirimon Track, Naro Moru Route provides the quickest route to Point Lenana. It takes on average just three days (round-trip).

3. Burguret Trail to Mount Kenya

The less travelled wilderness Buruget Route to Point Lenana, descending on the Sirimon or Chogoria trail, is the least hiked of the 8 routes; only favoured by parties ascending the mountain with pack-animals. Originally a wild trail, it was the adventuresome mettle of the famed Italian prisoner of war and writer Felice Benuzzi, going-up and descending via Chogoria Route, who first put in under the limelight. Felice’s epic escape in 1943 and his ascend to Mount Kenya using the Burguret Route, aiming to put the Italian Flag on the summit, is detailed in exotic detail in his captivating book “No Picnic on Mount Kenya“. The Buruget Route commences on the west side of Mount Kenya near Mountain Rock Lodge, recognized as the company which revived treks on this route. It also provides a restful base to acclimatize and prepare. Burguret Route extends about 30 kms and takes on average 6 days (round-trip). It is not motorable above Gathiuru Forest Station (15 kms away). From here, the ascent goes through the Bamboo Forest to Giant Bamboo Camp, through the pencil cedar forest to the Highland Base, Shipton’s Camp, Old Moses and Top Hut, before aiming for Point Lenana.

4. Sirimon Trail to Mount Kenya

There are seven public entrances into Mount Kenya National Park: Naro Moru, Sirimon and Chogoria Gates on the east, northeast and west side being the most popular. Sirimon trail 28 kms from Nanyuki Town launches at Sirimon Gate 2600 ms (8530 feet) ASL and is about 25 kms in length to Lenana Peak. This is the most popular starting-point and perhaps the most scenic trail, which is also fairly navigable as it passes on the leeward (drier) side of Mount Kenya. Old Moses Camp, Liki North Camp, Shiptons Camp are the main camps along this route. Once through the gate, it’s a wondrous walk through the moorlands and gallery forests to Old Moses Camp at 3300 ms and the first overnight stop. It takes about 3-4 hrs, gaining in elevation 680 ms, on a moderate gradient. Day 2, leaving Old Moses Camp, the trail returns to the moorlands with switchbacks in alpine heath, past the splendid Mackinders Valley, before reaching Shiptons Camp at 4200 ms, the second night’s stop. Day 2 is long days climb of 14 kms covered in about 7 hours and gaining 900 ms in altitude. Although subject to preference, Day 3 is traditionally a rest day at Shiptons Camp and a useful way to acclimatize and inspirit the beauty of the mountain before the push to Point Lenana. Day 4 kicks-off early, at 3:00 am, on a 3-hours hike to Point Lenana at 4985 ms. The route goes up a steep frozen scree and past Hall Tarn. Mount Kenya Bandas are the layover on Day 4 on the descent. Day 5 is an easy 10 kms descent via Chogoria Route to Chogoria Town on the east-side of Mount Kenya.

Old Moses Camp. Image Courtesy of Trip Advisor
Old Moses Camp. Image Courtesy of Trip Advisor

5. Theemwe Trail to Mount Kenya

Commencing at Chuguu in Murungurune of South Imenti, Theemwe trail up Mount Kenya is one of the most recent and easiest routes to Point Lenana. At the forest edge, just a 100 ms from the tarmac road, is the first campsite where hikers can layover for the night before ascending the Mount Kenya. The camp has a viewpoint to see all the three peaks early in the morning when the sky is clear with no mist. 5 kms from the camp climbers go past the Theemwe Camp and Lodge which serves as a useful base for those not aiming to climb Mount Kenya to Point Lenana. Of interest for those staying at Theemwe Camp is a visit to the picturesque Makobo Waterfall. The next camp to be reached is the Iraru Camp at the foot of Ithangune Hill. About 2km from Iraru Camp, in stupefying view, is the spellbinding Giant Billiard Table Mountains, sometimes known as Kiringo. Further along River Mutonga is crossed on the approach to Mugi Hills at 3657 ms before reaching the junction splitting Theemwe and Chogoria Trails.

6. Marania Trail to Mount Kenya

Marania Route to Mount Kenya commencing at the Marania Forest Station in Ntirimiti of Kibirichia Location takes on average four days round-trip to Point Lenana. Some sites of interest along Marania Route include Mbaru Crater, Solo Camp (which is located 8-10 hours hike from Marania Gate), Rugushu Stream near Solo Camp and Major’s Camp (about 10 hours hike from Solo Camp). The hike from Major’s Camp to Point Lenana is relatively short and accomplished in three hours. Other highlights include Minto’s Camp reached on the return back from the Major’s Camp on one of two ways to descent the mountain. Marania trail passes through Mount Kenya Forest up to the Kenya School of Adventure and Leadership (KESAL) and to the moorland of thick shrubs and glades. Past the moorland, the three peaks – Batian, Nelion and Lenana – are clearly visible.

7. Chogoria Trail to Mount Kenya

Most hikers aiming to hike Chogoria trail make Chogoria Town 58 kms north of Embu and 41 kms south of Meru along B6 Road their starting-off place. The Chogoria Route leaves Mutindua Village above Chogoria Town (to the east of the mountain) and follows a ridge north of the Nithi River to the Urumandi Hut (10,100 ft.) at the forest edge. It continues along a well-marked path along the north ridge of the Gorges Valley to Hall Tarns and finally traverses the eastern and southern slopes of Point Lenana to reach Top Hut. It was the traditional trail up the mountain in the 1920’s, and is still used occasionally by hikers who require the assistance of Meru porters. Its drawback is its length, for the ascent to Top Hut requires three days. Chogoria Route stretches out for 30 kms from Chogoria Gate to Point Lenana on the eastern side of Mount Kenya and it is the longest route to Point Lenana, and perhaps the most difficult of the seven trails. For all the difficulties of using it, hikers are rewarded with once-in-a-lifetime views including Lake Ellis, the Temple, Lake Michaelson, Hall Tarns, the Giant Billiard Table, Ithaguni Hills, Nithi Falls, Vivienne Falls and Mugi Hill. It has spectacular cliffs too. Chogoria has been vouched for as the most scenic route to Point Lenana. From Chogoria Gate it takes on average 5 days, round-trip. Most hikers on arrival at Chogoria Gate opt to drive up through the Bamboo Forests to Mount Kenya Bandas and the first stopover. This shortens the trip down to 4 days. Day 2 takes on the 17 kms stretch to River Nithi Camp over a wide forest track with plenty of wildlife to sights en route. The popular Urumandi Hut near Nithi Falls is no longer in service. From here hikers can scout Nithi Falls, Lake Ellis or Mugi Hills. From Nithi Camp it is 5 hrs to Minto’s and the jumping-off camp to Point Lenana. The pre-dawn final push for Point Lenana begins around 3 am and take about 3-hours, arriving just in time for sunrise. The descent goes through Shimpton, Mackinder’s Valley to Judmiere’s Camp and the last layover.

Normal Trail to Batian Peak

Point Batian on Mount Kenya. Image courtesy of Adventure Alternative

“Leave Top Hut before dawn and cross the Lewis Glacier to the foot of Nelion’s south-east face. Start to the left of large ice couloir, and scramble up easy rock onto a terrace about 200 yards away from the couloir. Climb a gully on the left of the terrace “Donkey Walk” for 80 ft., and then work over to the right to the foot of “Mackinder’s Chimney”. If this is climbed it will be found about severe in standard, and more normally a variation is taken round it on the right, known as “Rabbit Hole”. This is climbed to the top of the “Chimney”. From here “One o’clock Gully” is taken up to the right, and above it easy slabs are climbed to the main ridge, where Rusty Baillie’s Alluminium Bivouac Shelter is reached. From this point one of two ways can be taken into the main Nelion “Amphitheatre”. Either follow round the left of “Mackinder’s Gendarme”, to “Rickety Crack” which is about IV, or traverse left, to the foot of “De Graff Variation”, and climb this into the “Amphitheatre”. From the “Amphitheatre” ascend a steep wall into a boulder strewn gully. This is followed to the summit of Nelion. If the top of Nelion is reached after 11 o’clock, the climb should not be continued to Batian, unless the intentions are of bivouacing. Climb down into the “Gate of the Mists” which could be Grade IV. Cross the ice rib of the “Gate” which may be corniced. An easy ledge is now climbed round the south side of Batian Peak until a gully is found leading up to the summit. Descent is mainly by abseiling. The Minot peaks of the mountain can also be ascended by the experienced; in the following list, the grades of the easiest route up each peak is stated after: Point John (III); Midget Peak (IV); Point Pigott (III); Thomson’s Flake (V); the Point Peter (III); Point Dutton (scramble); and Point Lenana (scramble).” – Reuter and Gostling

Mount Kenya from a distance. Image courtesy of Adventure Trails
Mount Kenya from a distance. Image courtesy of Adventure Trails

Mount Kenya One-Day Trips

For mountain, forest and nature-lovers a day out on Mount Kenya is the next best thing to heaven provided the weather is good. An early morning start from Nairobi could bring you to Meru, Timau or Nanyuki in time for breakfast. Then suitably fortified with a robust car you can reach Old Moses Camp (from Meru or Nanyuki) or the Meteorological Station (from Naro Moru), having checked through the gates. From Naro Moru, a well signposted mostly paved road leads 17 kms to the Park entrance at 2400 ms. If driving from Nairobi one can also follow the signposts for Naro Moru gate around 10 km before Naro Moru Town, following a good paved road which then joins up with the road from Naro Moru Town itself. Past the entrance a paved road leads to the Met Station trailhead at 3050 ms where cars can be parked. Along Sirimon Route 28 kms from Nanyuki, a paved road from the gate leads to Old Moses Hut and Judmaier Camp at the roadhead at 3350 ms. The track climbs 300 ms up the hill behind the hut to a communications station. Just beyond this point the track splits with the left hand route proceeding to the Mackinder Valley direct, and the right hand route going via the Liki North Hut. These are normally the terminus and travellers can enjoy strolling along the paths and trails. Only fit persons should try walk further up the mountain – but the views, one you have negotiated on foot the vertical bog and reached Teleki Valley, are well worth the effort. With not too much effort, using either Naro Moru or Sirimon Gates, you can reach the edge of the glacier before returning home. Prior arrangements must be made with the Mountain Club of Kenya if you want to stay in a hut on the mountain but there are do-it-yourself bandas at Met Station and the Sirimon Gate. Otherwise Naro Moru, Nanyuki, and Meru Towns have plenty of accommodation options.

Climate of Mount Kenya

The climate of Mount Kenya is of particular interest on account of its extreme range from the warm lowlands to the severe alpine region with its very large diurnal temperature range. The range between the minimum and the maximum temperatures decreases with altitude, being 11-5° Celsius at 10,000 feet, 7-5° Celsius at 13,700 feet and 4° Celcius. at 15,700 feet. On almost all sides of the moorland and alpine zones of the mountain the maximum temperatures are reached between 900 and 1200 a.m. On the western slopes the temperature drops after noon due to the afternoon cloudiness, but this is less marked on eastern slopes. At levels between 10,000 and 14,000 feet the relative humidity on the western slopes varies inversely with the temperature, being at a mean minimum of approximately 35-45 per cent in the midmorning, but rising to a maximum at 7.00 p.m. in the early evening, when it reaches 70-90 per cent. At Top Hut (15,700 feet) however the relative humidity minima and maxima are earlier in the day, at 7.00 a.m. and at 12.00-4.00 p.m. respectively. Rainfall is strongly seasonal and occurs mostly at changes of the monsoon in April-May and November-mid December as does with the rest of Kenya in a general sense.

Mount Kenya: What to Pack in Your Porter Bag

Ready to Climb Mount Kenya

In retrospect, it seems perfectly natural that anyone in good shape can conquer Mount Kenya – with its vast carpets of flawlessly layered snow spread across its peaks. If unrehearsed, however, when the climb to Mount Kenya commences, things look a little different and most people oft-times underestimate the task at hand. Which is why it is aptly advisable to attempt at least five smaller hikes before taking on Mount Kenya. Traditionally, most people take on Kijabe Hill, Elephant Hill, Mount Kipiriri, Satima Peak and Rurimueria Hill – all near or on the Aberdare Mountain Range – as a precursor. The latter in particular helps hikers and walkers to judge the stresses of climbing up Mount Kenya and their physical limits. Having thus attempted to prepare for climbing Mount Kenya by way of hiking smaller trails, you can get in touch with Mountain Club of Kenya who organize expeditions up the mountains. There are also a few private outfits (Hikemaniak & Tipwa Tipwa) that organize group hikes to climb Mount Kenya.