Mount Kenya – The Most Gorgeous Defeat Ever
There is a place in Kenya that seems to have exploded right out of the vast expanse of the African savannah eons ago. Its vain attempt to reach and pierce the skies above ultimately failed and its peak collapsed towards the very ground that birthed it. Only three pieces of it remain standing, forever encased in the cover of snow and ice, as if punished for its transgression. It is now known as Mount Kenya.
The piéce de résistance of our entire Kenyan trip was meant to be the climb to Mount Kenya’s third highest peak – Point Lenana. The other two peaks, Batian and Nelion, are about 200 metres higher than Point Lenana. That is mere 15 metres short of “five grand”, but they can only be accessed by technical climbers.
FUN FACT – SOME MORE INFO ON MOUNT KENYA
Mount Kenya is the highest mountain in Kenya, from which the country got its name. It is also the second highest mountain in Africa. It is a stratovolcano that lies almost on the equator, some 15 kilometres south of it. The original volcano was interestingly around 6000 metres high, actually taller than Kilimanjaro.
Mount Kenya Day One – Fun and Games
It all started inconspicuously enough. Our guide, Chris Temboh Muriuki, picked us up in Nairobi early one morning, and we headed off towards Nanyuki. We were going to meet the rest of his team there. Let me just digress for a second here to mention that they took amazing care of us. We felt safe and in good hands throughout this entire endeavour.
Once the team was assembled and the not insubstantial amount of gear loaded up, we started our drive towards the Sirimon Gate. That was to be our entry point into the Mount Kenya National Park. As we drove up the still gentle, but steadily rising, slopes of the Mount Kenya, the weather started shifting, alternating between light drizzle and beautiful sunny spells.
Let the Trek Begin
Once we cleared all the paperwork at the gate, and changed into our trekking gear, we entered the park proper. In all fairness, this first part of the climb actually did not require any special gear. The way from the gate to our first overnight spot just a few dozen metres shy of the Old Moses Mountain Camp, turned out to be, surprisingly, a well maintained asphalt road.
Although this part of the route was not particularly challenging, we still went from 2650 metres above the sea (at the Sirimon Gate) to around 3300 metres, just below the Old Moses Camp. We covered all this distance in our first afternoon alone. Despite this road being reasonably busy with vehicles and trekkers alike, we still encountered a great diversity of wildlife.
Unexpected Companions, the Baboons
Apart from the countless beautiful birds we saw along the way, we had an incredible encounter just a few kilometres up from the Sirimon Gate. First we saw one large baboon come out of the bushes on the side of the road. He was then quickly joined by two others. They walked alongside us for a while until we reached a bend in the road, where they suddenly disappeared. When they returned, they were accompanied by a large troop of baboons, of all ages and sexes. The troop slowly crossed the road, just a few metres in front of us, taking their time while doing it. We throughly enjoyed watching them and felt ourselves captivated by the unique personalities of each monkey.
While baboons are often portrayed as aggressive, dangerous monkeys, (which they are, if threatened), this troop did not exhibit any threatening behaviour whatsoever. They seemed to be interested in us just as much as we were in them. The troop stopped at the edge of the forest to observe us pass by. Occasionally, a toddler would run towards us, to the obvious dissatisfaction of their caring mothers. We spoke about this encounter for the rest of our hike to our overnight camp.
It was sunset when we reached Old Moses camp. Chris’ team had already set up tents, and delicious smells emanated from their outdoor kitchen. Under the warms rays of the setting sun, we got down to the business of getting ourselves ready to enjoy our first evening on Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya Day Two – Victory and Defeat
The night was cold, really cold. The insides of our tents were covered in icy condensate and the ground was freezing as well. You knew immediately if any of your extremities slipped off the sleeping mat. However, the morning sun rose quickly and increased the temperature rapidly. It helped make the breakfast all the more enjoyable. I honestly do not know how Chris’ crew managed to keep us fuelled with the most amazing hot food and beverages in the modest conditions they had to operate in.
Once we ate and got ready, the second day of adventure was about to start. The entire mountain was bathed in beautiful, warm light. Little did we know what Mount Kenya had in store for us. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We were going to take the Sirimon Route. It leads to Shipton’s Camp, at 4200 metres above sea level – our destination for the night.
The Weird and Wonderful Flora of Mount Kenya
Our spirits were high, the weather was lovely, and the ascent was actually much gentler than we anticipated. The vast, rolling hillsides were covered in low shrubs, most of which were dotted with small flowers. Many endemic species grew all over the lush grassy carpet as well. The most impressive were these ubiquitous scaly green pillars. They are in fact the flowers of the Lobelia plant. Some of them reached up to 3 metres in height, dwarfing all other plants on the mountain slopes. Lobelia is actually a semelparous species – it grows for several decades, saving all its energy for this one giant flower. It flowers, and then dies.
Altitude Sickness is Not Fun
Although time seemed to pass at a leisurely pace, lunchtime came round far quicker than I thought it would. Surprisingly enough, I did not have much appetite at all. I was not aware of it at the time, but a loss of appetite is one of the first symptoms of altitude sickness. There is no need to go much further into details about altitude sickness here, much information is already available online. One thing to know is that it can strike randomly. The best and only way to somewhat decrease the chance of getting it is to acclimatise oneself to the heights by spending time on varying lower altitudes, day(s) at a time. However, we did not have such luxury on this occasion.
The Mountain Weather is Unpredictable
To add insult to injury, the weather, as it does in the mountains, took a rapid change for the worse. One moment, we were crossing small streams, observing strange flora, and wondering what were the mountain ranges we could see far in the distance. Minutes later, we were scrambling to put up our rain jackets and backpack covers. The visibility lowered to a mere 50 metres or so, due to the swirling fog and vision impairing showers.
While bad weather can make you feel miserable at times, and we all like to complain about it every now and then, I actually enjoy the occasional thunderstorm. You can never feel so close to the raw power of nature as when exposed to its anger and majesty all rolled in one. With sharp, wind driven raindrops seemingly piercing your skin, and the heavy skies above threatening to smite you to the ground with the thunderous roar of their electric discharges. You feel both humbled and in awe at the same time.
Soul Searching Amongst the Onslaught of Elements
Another amazing thing that happens in situations like this is how detached we all became. What was a tight, chattering group a moment ago, quickly turned into a line of distinct individuals. Everybody became concerned with their own well-being and personal issues. It was a great moment for some soul searching and retrospective.
In the end, it was not the bad weather that did it for me, but the ever worsening altitude sickness. As we were getting higher and reaching that 4K height, I was getting increasingly short of breath and dizzy. I kept myself hydrated and tried to take it easy and slow. Unfortunately, I had to put the camera away. It was becoming more and more difficult to carry it around my neck, let alone focus on looking around and making shots.
Snow on Mount Kenya
The final stretch of the ascent became an exercise in single-minded focus. The only thing that mattered was the next step and the stretch of 2 metres of the path ahead. Mount Kenya’s microclimate decided to spring its final surprise as well. It started snowing! So, for the last hour or so of our trek we literally walked through a blizzard. That was really not something one expects when planning a trip to Kenya, but it was amazing in any case.
Shipton’s Camp to the Rescue
As we entered the Shipton’s Camp’s hut, my concentration and stamina finally gave way and I literally fainted. Chris was there yet again, to catch me and prevent a fall. The amount of support he gave us this entire time is really praise-worthy. We were supposed to spend another night in tents, but with the really bad weather outside, Chris arranged for us to spend the night in the bunk beds of the Shipton’s Camp instead.
It is amazing how one’s standards and expectations are so circumstantial. Those beds seemed to be the best thing ever after a difficult day under the elements. In the meantime, one more member of our group fell victim to altitude sickness. Therefore, only 4 of the group were to get up in the wee hours of the night and ascent Point Lenana. The two of us were off to a long night’s sleep instead.
Mount Kenya Day Three – Elements and Creatures
After a reasonably uneventful night, we woke up before the rest of our group returned form their early ascent. As we set foot outside the hut, we were treated to an amazing sight. Not in my wildest dreams could I have expected to see the snow covered vista all around. It was dwarfed by the peaks of Mount Kenya, magnificently lit by the golden rays of the rising sun. The entire top of the mountain seemed to have caught on fire.
We were not the only ones in awe. Groups of guides and porters were gathering around as well. Although they have done this trek countless times before, this was apparently one of the most beautiful moments ever, even for them. Gone were the gloomy layers of clouds, instead the blue of the sky was beautifully contrasted against the golden hue of the rugged snow covered peaks. We were all positively enthralled by the scene unfolding before our eyes.
The Stories of the Ascent
Once the guys came back form the summit, we all returned to the hut for a hearty breakfast. They also needed a short break, to recuperate a bit before what was supposed to be a trek down towards the Old Moses camp. Their stories of the early start, frozen steep slopes, the magnificent sunrise, and the views of the vast African expanse all around, due to incredibly clear morning skies, made up somewhat for the disappointment of our own failure to do the ascent.
Little Bird and Its Frozen Stream
I took a final walk around the camp clearing. Numerous little creatures in the vicinity of the Shipton’s Camp, namely many small birds (and quite a few mice as well) seemed to be as perplexed and charmed by the odd, beautiful morning as we were. I spent quite some time watching this one cute tiny bird. It was basically a tennis ball sized bundle of feathers on two stick legs. The bird wandered around the semi-frozen stream that run close to the camp. It was not afraid of me at all, probably having lived around humans its entire life. It also did not seem to mind the photographs being made.
You may read online that wildlife encounters are frequent and diverse on the Mount Kenya treks. However, do not go in expecting to see large game and fierce predators around every corner. While the sightings of elephants are reasonably common on the lower altitudes, you are more likely to encounter their traces, i.e. the droppings, than the animals themselves. However, you will very likely encounter monkeys, countless birds and many small mammals instead. That is not disappointing at all, quite the contrary – they are all amazing. But, it is good not to have grandiose expectations.
Let the Descent Begin
The time soon came to start the trek back. Chris warned us that the weather was likely to change again. Looking at the blue expanse above, it was a bit difficult to believe his words. Having experienced the rapid weather changes the day before though, we knew better than to doubt him. The first part was really great, getting over the first ridge and into a long, wide valley below. The frozen, slightly crunchy, ground beneath our feet offered surprisingly good purchase. Everything around seemed to have a shiny new coat of paint applied to it.
All this time, we kept on looking back every now and then. The rosetta of Mount Kenya’s peaks always appeared completely different. We were able to observe its crevices and ridges from ever changing angles.
High Altitudes Have Their Own Unique Flora…
While the lower altitudes of Mount Kenya were covered in endemic Lobelia plants, these higher regions had their own special species on offer. The giant groundsels, Dendrosenecia, that are actually members of the sunflower family, were everywhere around. While not as endemic as Lobelia, they only grow on the higher altitudes of the ten mountain groups in equatorial West Africa. They did not have any problems in maintaining the “tradition” of the alien looking flora of Mount Kenya.
…and Incredibly Cute Fauna
It was not only the flora that was amazing on the first part of our return trek. Not long after we started walking on the valley floor, one of our guides stopped next to a small rock outcrop just off our path. He waved me over, gesticulating to keep quiet. Once I made my way to him, we saw this super cute creature peaking at us from under a rock. It was actually a rock hyrax.
Now, hyraxes generally look like oversized rodents, or marmots. They are however, and absolutely surprisingly, closely related to elephants, of all creatures. The ones living on Mount Kenya are an endemic subspecies. They are larger and with longer fur than their common siblings. Although they generally live in groups, this one seemed to be solitary. It was not really afraid of us. After a few moments of checking us out from under its rock, it came out to the open and we engaged in a staring contest for a while. Rock hyrax is genuinely one of the cutest creatures we ever came across. We hope to have many more encounters with hyraxes in our future travels to Africa.
The Mountain Weather Strikes Back
As I turned my gaze away from the hyrax and looked down the valley, I recalled Chris’ words of warning from earlier that morning. A wall of fog appeared seemingly out of nowhere at the far end of the valley and was moving up towards us at a fast pace. Moreover, as the day’s temperature was rising rapidly, the snow on the surrounding peaks all started melting. In turn, it created hundreds, if not thousands of tiny rivulets, all rushing down towards the valley floor. However, by far the worst surprise the mountain was to spring on us was not yet obvious.
The Ground Melts Beneath Our Feet
The previously frozen soil that provided good purchase started rapidly melting. The infusion of those countless small new streams turned the entire valley floor into a swamp within an hour. What was once solid ground quickly became a half metre deep marshland with nowhere solid to step on. We tried hopping between exposed rocks and tufts of tall grasses, which were soon the only somewhat reliable purchase points. However, all that jumping soon took its toll on both our stamina and our time. So, we just had to go for as straight a route as possible and use our walking sticks to try and avoid the deepest hidden pools.
The situation became even more incredible once we crossed the valley and had to traverse up and down several slopes. The mountain sides seemed to be melting and turning into giant mudslides. We spent more time on our backsides than on our feet. The rain kept on pelting down on us all this time and the visibility was virtually none.
Camaraderie in Times of Hardship
But you know what – although we were miserable at times, it was actually great fun. We helped each other with getting out of the mud time and time again. Everybody kept on saying that this was the most unbelievable terrain and nature we ever experienced. We were genuinely amused by the entire ordeal. The final bit of the way down, we decided to walk through a river that was not there a day before. Nobody cared that we were often knee-deep in water. See, the river bottom was the hardest surface we had available to walk on. It actually helped us make it down before dark.
Once we returned to our designated camp space, we had a quick chat with Chris and decided to go back to Nanyuki and spend a night in a hotel there instead of roughing it in tents for one more, wet and cold, night.
Although I ultimately did not make it to the top and have felt miserable on quite a few occasions, I really would not change anything in this trip. Experiencing the power and unpredictability of nature at a point blank distance, taking in those incredible vistas, and encountering some amazing flora and fauna, but above all bonding with the friends I was with on this odyssey in a way you can only do when overcoming the challenges together – priceless!
FAQs for Mount Kenya…
Mount Kenya is located roughly centrally in the country it gave the name to. It lies almost exactly on the equator, and some 150km north of the capital, Nairobi.
Mount Kenya is an extinct stratovolcano that last erupted between 2.6 and 3.1 million year ago.
Mount Kenya has three distinct peaks. They are Batian (5199m), Nelion (5188m), and Point Lenana (4985m). Only the latter can be reached by trekkers. There are countless companies organising the trek. We went with Chris Temboh Muriuki, and could not be happier with the entire experience.