Climbing Mount Kenya

Not only is Mount Kenya the highest mountain in Kenya, it is the second highest in Africa. What really sets it apart though is its rugged beauty. Centuries of erosion have left it with deep valleys and a jagged rocky top. The valleys are filled with glacial tarns, steep cliffs and unusual vegetation. The vertical wall to the summit seems to be purposely made for climbing. It’s the perfect place for an unforgettable mountain adventure.

Before summiting Mount Kilimanjaro we spent a week on Mount Kenya. There are a few hiking routes on the mountain, but they don’t take you to the summit. The only way to Mount Kenya’s summit is by climbing one of the technical rock climbing routes. Since we had never done a technical rock climb at a high elevation and route finding is known to be difficult on Mt. Kenya, we hired a guiding company for this trip.

Day 1 – Naro Moru Park Gate to Met Station
Distance – 10 km; Elevation Gain – 650 m

We had only arrived in Nairobi from Canada the day before and had not done any exploring. When we got to Naro Moru Park Gate (2,400 m) we could tell that this was going to be a different climbing adventure than our usual. A large group of baboons were hanging out near the park gates letting us know we were definitely not in Canada anymore.

The first day of the hike is an easy walk, mostly on a gravel road. It travels through a thick jungle, full of massive trees and interesting plants.

Met Station (3050 m) is a small basic bunkhouse in the jungle where we spent our first night. There’s not much to do so we were glad when a resident troop of Sykes’ monkeys came by to keep us entertained.

Day 2 – Met Station to Mackinder’s Camp
Distance – 10 km; Elevation Gain – 1150 m

The second day of hiking began by climbing up through the forest. After an hour or so the trees became less dense and we entered a fascinating moorland called Vertical Bog. Conditions on this steep hillside can range from damp to a spongy bog depending on the time of year. We left the trees behind and hiked up the steep, open hill. At times the earth was so wet we had to hop between clumps of tussock grass.

There was interesting vegetation in the moorland such as gladioli, heather, lobelia and the odd-looking giant groundsels. As we climbed higher, mist came in making the moorland even more mysterious.

The trail climbs to a ridge above the long Teleki Valley. From there we had our first view of Mount Kenya far above. The silhouette of its serrated peak is spectacular.

The moorlands continued, as we slowly descended to the floor of the Teleki Valley. Not far from our camp, we spotted a cute rock hyrax. To us it looked like a small marmot. As we got further up the valley more and more of the mountain’s rugged south side came into view. When we arrived at the large hut at Mackinder’s Camp (4,200 m) thick clouds were rolling in over the mountain.

Day 3 – Mackinder’s Hut – Acclimatization hike to Austrian Hut
Distance – 10 km (approx.); Elevation Gain – 490 m

In the morning we woke to see fresh snowfall on the peaks of Mount Kenya. We were getting nervous that we may not be able to climb as the ice and snow would make it unsafe.

When hiking at altitude, its important to not climb too high too fast. As well, to help acclimatize it’s good to hike higher during the day, and sleep at a lower elevation at night. Mackinder’s Hut is over 4,000 m so we would spend two nights to help our bodies get used to the elevation. During the day we hiked with our guide Benson to Austrian Hut for acclimatization and also to get a better look at the mountain.

The path continued to climb up the moorland with amazing views of the mountain on our side. We had better and better views of its rugged beauty the closer we got. Eventually the moorlands ended as we approached a large moraine. Crossing the moraine, we passed the picture-perfect Lewis tarn under the twin peaks of Mount Kenya.

A little further on is Austrian Hut. It has a stunning location on the edge of Lewis Glacier with the steep Nelion Peak towering above. We hiked a little higher to get our first peek at Gorges Valley on the other side of the mountain.

That evening at Mackinder’s Hut we met two other climbers. They had attempted to climb a different peak on Mt. Kenya the day before. Unfortunately, they had to turn back because it was too icy and said they wouldn’t try again. We were still hopeful.

Day 4 Mackinder’s Camp to Austrian Hut to Point Lenana
Distance – 18 km; Elevation Gain – 785 to Lenana

After our acclimatization hike the day before, it was time to move up to Austrian Hut (4,790 m). The hut is used as a base for climbers attempting to climb Nelion. There was more fresh snow on the ground from a snowfall overnight. At this elevation, the glare from the sun reflecting off the snow is very intense. Our guide and porters didn’t have sunglasses. Instead, they cut small slits into pieces of a garbage bag and wore them over their eyes. We had an extra pair of small ski goggles so we lent it to our guide. He was very thankful and the three of them shared the goggles for the few days we were on the snow.

There are three main peaks on Mount Kenya. The highest is Batian at 5,199 m. The second, Nelion, is only 11 m shorter at 5,188 m. These two make up the central spire of the mountain. The third peak is Point Lenana at 4,985 m. It is a very popular trekking peak as it is the highest point you can reach on the mountain without climbing. Point Lenana is set away from the central spire. We hoped to be on the summit of all three by the end of our trip.

After a quick stop at Austrian Hut we hiked up to Point Lenana with our guide. The trail is steep as it traverses the edge of Lewis Glacier and then follows a rocky ridge to reach the highest point. The rocks had a skiff of snow on top which hid a layer of ice so we had to be careful with our steps. This new snow didn’t make us feel very good about our upcoming climb.

The tip of Point Lenana is small pile of boulders with just enough room for the three of us. From Point Lenana the views are spectacular. The steep face of Nelion was directly in front. On the other side we had views of the stunning Gorges Valley of Chogoria Route. We would use this route for our descent in a few days’ time.

Day 5 – Summit day

We woke early, still hopeful that conditions on the mountain had improved. Our climbing guide Kenneth arrived the night before to discuss the route. We planned to climb to the top of Nelion, traverse across the Gates of Mist and climb Batian.

The climb on the SE Face (Standard Route) of Nelion is rated 5.6 (IV+). It’s not difficult by climbing standards, but at 5,000 m elevation it would feel much more difficult. Together with our climbing guide and his assistants we hiked around Lewis Glacier and up the moraine to the base of the cliff. It had stopped snowing and the sky was clear, but the shear rock was covered in snow and ice.

The climb is 20 pitches which is quite a long climb. A pitch is as close to the length of a climbing rope (60 m) as possible. We put on our helmets, harnesses and tied in to the rope. Our guide led us up the first two pitches on Nelion. The climbing was not difficult. There were large hand and foot holds, but everything was icy. Large icicles, snow balls and rocks were falling all around us. We made the difficult but right decision to turn around. The weather forecast for the next few days was to be even worse, so we wouldn’t be able to make another attempt.

The porters were very cold when we returned to Austrian Hut. We brought our warm sleeping bags, but they only had light blankets. They were very excited to get down to a lower elevation the next day.

Day 6 – Austrian Hut to Chogoria Gate
Distance – 20 km; Elevation Loss – 1,750 m

After a chilly night at the hut we woke to an amazing scene. The sun’s morning rays were bright causing a gorgeous alpenglow on Nelion. The rocky landscape around the hut glowed a stunning red. It looked as if we were on Mars.

Once we saw the beautiful Gorges Valley from Point Lenana we were glad that we chose this route for our descent. It’s a gorgeous steep valley with impressive red cliffs and mountain lakes scattered throughout. Giant groundsels and lobelia added to the interesting landscape of this magical valley.

Our porters hiked with us on the way up the mountain. On the way down though that changed. They were cold and anxious to get down to a warmer elevation so they ran ahead. We met up with them at the final hut.

As we got further down, we looked behind us for even better views. Tall waterfalls fell from mountain tarns enclosed in rocky cirques. Soaring high above was our last view of the peaks of Mount Kenya’s rugged top.

As we got lower, the vegetation began getting thicker and larger. We walked through a forest of rosewood trees, many had Old Man’s Beard lichen hanging from the branches. Just before arriving at our final camp our guide spotted an elephant in the forest. He asked us to be very quiet as we passed by so as not to startle the animal.

We finished at Meru Mount Kenya Lodge where we had a celebratory beer with our guide and porters. We were warned that buffaloes graze on the grass at night and that they can be aggressive. Elephants, buffaloes, monkeys it was wildlife safari on Mount Kenya. What a great way to end this fantastic trip.

When to climb and hike
The dry period for the SE face of Nelion is January to February and Late August to September. Hiking is best from January to March and June to October.  Expect ice and snow on Point Lenana year round

Do I need a guide?

You are not required to hire a guide to hike or climb on Mount Kenya. Park fees and campsites can be purchased at the park gates. Depending on the season, you may need to book campsites in advance.

Coming Next: Visiting a Maasai Village and a Safari in Maasai Mara

For extra pictures from Kenya click here. For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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