Mount Kenya is the country’s highest mountain. It is a broad, largely symmetrical volcanic cone whose diameter at base is about 120km. It sits astride the equator it’s icy summit reaches to 5199m (10,058ft.). It was formed between 2.6 and 3.1 million years ago by eruptions of successive layers of volcanic lava and agglomerates from central vent in the earths’ surface. A fine example of this type of formation can be seen on the hike down to “The Gates” on the Chogoria route. All of the mountain above the 3200m contour forms a National Park. The mountain consists of three principal zones; the rocky peak area, with it’s mantle of glaciers and snowfields; the alpine zone with it’s distinctive giant vegetation; and the vast gentle lower slopes drenched in mountain forest and bamboo jungle. Mt. Kenya is climbed at all times of the year. However if possible, it is best to try to avoid the rainy seasons that may start in mid March and last through till mid June (the long rains), and the short rains from late October through till end of December. The driest times on the mountain are usually January till mid March and again July through mid October.
Typically, the daily weather pattern is such that it is crystal clear, soon after, as the ground warms up, the air in contact with it, starts to flow up the mountain and by 1000hrs., the clouds that may have been down around 2,200m. in the early morning, have usually reached over 3,000m, and by noon the whole mountain is often completely enveloped in cloud. From then until early evening, rain, snow or sleet, can be expected depending on the altitude. In the evenings, as the temperature falls, the reverse happens. The ground surface and air in contact with it gets colder and so the air starts to flow back downhill. The cloud disappears, starting from around the peaks, and by 2000hrs. they are usually back below 3,000m., this phenomenon is known as anabatic/katabatic effect. For visitors who are camping, select a site that will be protected from the anticipated downhill flow at night.
The Zonation of the vegetation show clearly when driving up, and when walking on Mt. Kenya. On leaving the agricultural and plantation areas at around 1,900m., one enters the majestic rain forests that cloth the lower slopes. The southern and eastern slopes are by far the wettest. The forests in these parts are rich in trees of various species, most noticeable are the giant camphor’s. vine-like lianes and epiphytes thrive. On the forest floors, numerous varieties of ferns, orchids and small flowering plants abound. On the other sides of the mountain, the drier climate favors the smaller conifer type trees such as podocarpus and pencil cedar. In most areas above the forest there is a belt of bamboo, often growing to heights of 12m. or more. This belt is widest on the southern side of the mountain but almost non existent on the other side around Timau and Sirimon passage.
The forests are rich with wildlife, buffalo, sykes, and colobus monkey are often seen. However due to the denseness of the vegetation and the natural shyness of many other animals, most of the other species are rarely seen, except at the lodges where there are large clearings in the forest, and salt is often put out as an attractant. Here giant forest hog, rhino, numerous species of antelope, lion can be seen. Bird life everywhere is plentiful and varied.
First of all do not underestimate this mountain. Mt. Kenya is big, and the whole exercise is hard work!!. You will most certainly be cold at times. Worse still you may get soaking wet in rain or sleet. At higher altitudes, (+4,000m.), 50% of your group will suffer a headache. Some may feel sick/vomit. You will discover muscles you didn’t know you even had, and at times you will consider yourself a prime candidate for a lunatic asylum. But do not worry, this is quite normal on such a mountain. console yourself with the thought that most of the others with you are feeling the same way, and often worse, and that it can’t go on for ever.
Below is a bief synopsis of how an average walker might expect to feel while ascending the mountain. That is If you are still intrested in climbing.
At the park gate(or about 2,000m), the first few hour or so’s walk is a novels experience. The scenery is interesting, pulse rate is between 3-4 steps. By 11:00am you start sweating abit, your legs start to feel the strain of the non-stop uphill walk. A sit down breather every 30-40 minutes is welcome. On reaching the camp a cup of tea revives you and you feel better.
3,000m - 4,000m. You slept well, breakfast was great, you are somewhat stiff but it soon wears off after you get walking. The scenery and vegetation changes are spectacular. After a while the walk becomes a drag and blisters start forming on your instep but what the hell!. On reaching the hut a mild headache will probably occur. Appetite is not so good and you suffer leg cramps that night.
4,000m summit. You get up at 0300, by then you have put on all the clothes you have, but you are still frozen with the cold. The tea and biscuits you forced down earlier still tastes foul, and after half an hours walking you bring them back up. Immidiatley you feel better. Ulike the previous day it’s now scree slopes to Lenana. Just before dawn you reach the Austrian Hut. Now you have a choice either to lie down and contemplate the walk back down though preferabley you wish you could die, or there’s Pt. Lenana just 45 minutes away. Decisions should be iiegal at this point.
To make things easy during the climb you can get porters and guides to help carry your equipment up the mountain. These peoploe are generally from the kikuyu and associated tribes and are characteristically friendly people who supplement the income from their farms, by working for visitors to the mountain. If you use them, I recommend you arrange and get them through a recognized group. Check that your guide has been licensed by the parks authority and obtain a voucher giving names of all your porters. The rate of pay varies with the route you take to go up the mountain, and is fixed by the local “union”. The load porters carry, excluding the weight of their own food and equipment, is limited to 18kg. on a three day hike, and 15kg. on routes of four days or more duration.
As on any high mountain, proper equipment is vital to a safe enjoyable climb. In good weather conditions you can climb the mountain in a pair of old trainers, T-shirt and beach shorts, and with a couple of sweaters thrown in you may only suffer a bit during the last day of the ascent up Lenana. However, if the weather changes for the worse: a heavy rain storm and a strong wind a couple of hours before reaching the hut, you could die from hypothermia very rapidly. It has happened and will probably happen again, that is why proper clothing is very essential for both the climbers and the porters.
Generally when climbing a mountain the faster you walk the more likely you will feel the effects of altitude and to feel ill, specific altitude problems can caused through the inability of the human body to adjust to a rapid gain in altitude, oddly enough young fit males seem to be the most badly affected by altitude. Symptoms of acute mountain sickness include headache, nausea, vomiting, anorexia, exhaustion, lassitude, muscle weakness, a rapid pulse even at rest, insomnia, swelling of hands and feet and a reduced urine output. Climbers with severe symptoms must stop ascending and seriously consider descending to lower altitude to allow acclimatization to take place. Precautions a visitor can take to help minimize the severity of mountain sickness include staying a night at 3,000m. and an extra night at 4,200m. plus Maintaining a slow steady pace whilst walking up. Drink at least 3 litres of fluids everyday. Dehydration, even mild, leads to a thickening of the blood with increased possibility of pulmonary embolism or a thrombosis.
Cooking on the mountain is much slower than normal, the boiling point of water is considerably reduced. The higher you go the lower the boiling point. It is advisable then to carry pre-cooked food eg pasta, rice, potatoes as they save fuel. You can carry vaccum packed meats, which when properly frozen can last 3-4 days. Fresh tomatoes, onions, celery and mushrooms help make the menus tasty. Altitude often brings a craving for acid type fruits and fruit drinks, eat whenever you like nibble nuts, fresh or dried fruits, sweets or biscuits along with your water bottle. For lunch chocolate is a fovourite, as is mild flavoured cheese with a tomato and smoked meat with mayonnaise on a bread roll. Fatty foods should be avoided. In the evening a large mug of soup with a bread roll is a good starter. To reduce fuel consumption, use a pot that is 4-5 cms larger in diameter than the burner on which it stands. A lid to the pot will reduce boiling time, avoid cooking inside a tent as the fumes produced are poisonous.Liquid fuels and the stove should be packed separately as a leakage may contaminate the food badly
During the descent after leaving Lenana, the run / slide back down the glacier to the Austrian takes an exilarating five minutes. With each descent the air gets thicker and heavier to the lungs. Now that it is daylight you can see the full horror of the scree slopes, and you wonder how you ever made it up. Continuing the walk on down from the hut by then all the blisters you forgot to tape are aching and on reaching the camp yu have them taped and you feel alot better. Further down it starts to rain but you still feel good, particularly as you now pass several groups noe struggling upwards. That night at the base of the mountain you sleep of the greatful dead, though the next morning it is a struggle to get up. 101 muscles are hurting.
Mountain climbers have to really be careful as the environment above the forest on Mt. Kenya is very vulnarable to damage and pollution. Beacause of increasing number of visistors, the areas around the huts and campsites are particularly sensitive. Both huts and camp areas should be left clean and tidy. All rubbish and unused food should be carried of the mountain. Where toilets are not provided, care should be taken to ensure that seepage of water around your waste will not result in pollution to nearby tarns or streams. toilet paper should be burnt as mountain soils lack in microbes that decompose matter.
Security is another important factor to consider when climbing a mountain, accidents can occur at any time and one has to be prepared for them. The Mountain National Parks are responsible or the safety and if required the posssible rescue, of all persons on the mountain. In the event of injury / accident, report to the park authority should be made. Visitors are not permitted to hike alone in the National Park and if you wander off on your own and rescue is called out, you will be fined and presented with a hefty bill for expences incurred.
For those who wish to savour the mountain air, the glorious views, to marvel at the mountains beauty and the peace and tranquility which emanates from it, there are many hotels around the foothills among the the famed Mount Kenya Safari Club. Try it and it could turn out to be holiday of a lifetime.
WHERE TO GO: Mount Kenya
WHEN TO GO: During dry season that is January till mid March and again July through mid October.
WHAT TO BRING:
Footwear: Mountain boots, though not essential, will make the walk far more pleasant and keep feet much warmer and give proper protection to ankles and feet on descent. Several pairs of thin wool or wool/synthetic mix socks are better than one pair of thick ones.
Upper and Lower body underwear: Thermal underwear, eg polypro is ideal, it wisks moisture away fron the skin. Avoid cotton materials as they dry slowly and sweat from the body keeps them damp.
Shirt and Trousers: Breeches and salopettes are favoured by professionals over normal trousers as movement is unrestricted and because of their specialised construction, body ventilation can be better controled by the wearer.
Headgear: A woolen/fiber balaclava and neck scarf are invluable in helping to keep warm. On the walk up a wide brimed hat will help stop sunburn to the face and lips.
Hands: Gloves or better still mitts play an important part in keeping one comfortable in the evenings and early morning.
Rain gear: Use of calouge or waterproof/gortex jacket and trousers can help minimize chills form rain or sleet.
Sleeping bag: Night temperatures at 14,000’ are often at -10c, thus a down or fiberfil sleeping bag, rated to “3 seasons” or better is required.
Rucksack: One with or without a frame is a matter of choice. If carrying your own gear one with a capacity of 65 liters is required. All gear must be put inside a strong polythene to prevent soaking when it rains.
First aid: A basic first aid kit for 3-4 days duration may include drugs such as Paracetamol and Aspirin for headaches, fever and aches, Throat and cough Lozenges for dry throat, Sun block:10% PABA or factor 25+ sun block plus lip salve act as anti sunburn apply 30 mins. before exposure, Strapping and bandages, 2 adhesive tape, gauze rolls and pads for blisters, sprains, binding splints or fixing packs, Ophthalmic used for conjucvitis or snowblindness, Tincture of iodine and permanganate of potash for sterilizing wounds, Anti diarrhoea: Imodium. Mountain sickness Diamox speeds acclimatization, reduces inter occular eye pressure and hedaches, Pain killer to sever pain, Sutures for sewing up deep cuts and Sterotabs for water purification. Certain basic equipment is essential even for a day hiker.
Other useful equipment: Gaiters to keep snow or stones out of boots. Spare socks, shirt, trousers. Torch, camera, film & water bottle. Small wash kit. Plastic bags, knife, fork, plate and mug. Map and compass. Ski poles.