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Mt Kenya, Pt Lenana

Travelling by bicycle allows one to visit remote places and have interactions not possible or likely when travelling by airplane and car, but it also has it’s limits. We are still largely confined to staying on or close to the roads, unless we abandon our bicycles and most of our gear and head deeper into the backcountry. Which is what we wanted to do. The idea of attempting to summit Mount Kenya first came up when in conversation with our friend Arturo, who mentioned he was considering doing it as it was apparently more beautiful and much cheaper than hiking the more famous Mount Kilimanjaro. We would be cycling right next to the mountain on our way from Northern Kenya towards Nairobi, and so it was difficult to put the thought out of mind. There were some concerns though, the main ones being the prospect of suffering from altitude sickness, the financial cost, and the fact that the rainy season had just started. But we still wanted to do it. We wanted a change of movement and pace, a different and new challenge, and we both love hiking and mountains.

Pt Batian and Nelion minutes before sunrise, seen from Pt Lenana

Point Lenana would be our goal, the 3rd highest peak on the mountain, and the only summit possible without extensive technical rope climbing (which is a whole other challenge for another day). This peak is 4985m high which is 178m higher than Mont Blanc (the highest peak in the Alps and Europe) but of course it is not as cold and snowy because it lies within a few kilometres of the Equator. Neither Emma nor I had any experience with high-altitude climbing and the associated risks, so we did quite some research into the different forms of altitude sickness and how to prevent them. There are 3 main types, all of which are caused by the reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes, and symptoms can start appearing anywhere higher than 2500m above sea level (m.a.s.l). The most common type (accounts for 90% of mountain sickness cases) but least dangerous is Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), symptoms of which include headaches, nausea, difficulty sleeping, shortness of breath and high pulse rates. The more serious and life threatening are cerebral edema (swelling in the brain) and pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs). The best ways to prevent all 3 types are by careful acclimatisation, drinking loads of water to prevent dehydration and reducing overall stress on the body before and during the hike. We would be cycling up from the lower altitudes of Northern Kenya to Nanyuki, which is the most common starting point of the hike and which lies at about 1950m.a.s.l., smack on the Equator line. This would already reduce our risk and would be safer than for example flying or driving in from a low altitude to the start of the hike. Here we would spend 2 rest days, as we had been cycling for the last 8 days and the climb up to Nanyuki was a tough 1300m ascent over only 30km and had taken it out of us.

We also had some uncertainties about our gear, and whether we would be able to rent gear in town. We got a recommendation for a gear rental shop called Mohakin Climbers, and when we arrived there the owner Mohamed would help us out with everything and put some of our concerns to rest. The main things we needed were warmer clothes (temperatures go down to -10 degrees Celsius at night, colder than anything we had experienced on our trip so far), hiking boots, backpacks and a warmer sleeping bag for Emma. We were originally planning on doing the hike unguided, to cut down on costs, but we were informed that a guide is mandatory for hiking in the Mt Kenya National Park, and we would understand why, later on. We would also be carrying all our own food and cooking for ourselves. Most of the few people we would see on the trail had (in addition to the guide) also hired porters and a cook, but this was out of our budget and we also felt we were strong and able enough to do that ourselves. We decided to go up one route called Chogoria from the East and back down another called Sirimon on the North West, on the recommendation of Mohamed, so that we could see both sides of the mountain. This also meant that we would have to carry all our gear and food all the way, as opposed to being able to leave some at the first camps to be picked up on the way back if doing the same route up and down. During our rest day in Nanyuki we carefully planned and stocked our food supplies for the 5 day hike, we didn’t want to take too much or too little. As opposed to when cycling, we would have to carry all the weight ourselves instead of our trusty steeds doing the work, and so we had to be even more thoughtful about what to take along.

To get to Chogoria (the town on the East of the mountain which gives its name to that ascent route) from Nanyuki which lies to the North West, we would travel 120km by 2 different matatus (mini-bus taxis). This was an experience in itself; when we transferred in Meru, we waited for about an hour in the matatu with blaring music while the the 12 seated vehicle slowly filled up with 20 people. Poor Desmond, who was our guide for the trip, had the taxi doorman sitting on his lap all the way! Another reason for starting from the East of the mountain and hiking out to the North West was the big differences in climate on the 2 sides. Our starting point was much more lush and had a huge expanse of beautiful rainforest; the difference was caused by the hot winds that would blow in from the much drier deserted North of Kenya. In Chogoria we bought all our fresh fruit and vegetables for the hike, it was important to have good nutrition and eat some crunchy stuff as well. Then we took another car the last 26km to the park gate (2950m.a.s.l) where we would camp before properly starting the hike the next morning. That drive was fantastic, and we passed through the most luscious rainforests either of us had ever seen, with huge trees, bamboo forests and 100 shades of green. We were mind-blown after the weeks of cycling in drought stricken and largely desert Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. It got progressively colder and quieter as we went further up, and that night we were in our tents early after cooking up dinner. Another reason for getting to bed early was because African Buffalo and elephants would commonly graze and feed at the camp at night and could be dangerous if bumped into in the dark. That afternoon Desmond had showed us a fantastic viewing point over a big open plain with a small lake where we saw Waterbuck, as well as 2 elephants in the distance, these were the first elephants of our trip!

Surreal first night's camp spot

The next morning we payed the park fees and officially entered the park at 10:30am. Park fees work on a 24 hour basis, so this would allow us to exit the park on the last day before 10:30am so that we could hike for 4 days while paying for a 3 day pass. The cost was about $50 per person per day, so that was a significant amount that we could save. The first kilometres of the hike were a bit tough. Both of us thought “shit, these packs are heavy”, but it was good to be on the road. We saw many new plant species along the way, and some that we recognised from South Africa like one species of Protea and a Red-hot-poker, as well as plenty of fresh buffalo tracks. We set up our tents at the road head (were the road ends and the trail starts) that afternoon (3300m.a.s.l), and then went for a walk to see a crazy waterfall which mesmerised us for half an hour, and also some caves and cliffs. That night we decided to cook up 2 packets of spaghetti for ourselves (calm down, they were 400g each, not 500g) because we were feeling hungry and spontaneous and didn’t want to carry half a packet of pasta up and down the mountain again. It turned more into a big pot of glue, we suspect for 3 reasons: the pasta/water ratio was a bit off; we had bought bottom-of-the-range spaghetti, and also we remembered that at higher altitudes the boiling point of water reduces significantly so we were boiling our pasta at about 88 degrees Celsius.

Beautiful Proteas we were so happy to see on the lower slopes

Views around the 2nd night's sleeping spot at the roadbed

The following morning we had brilliant sun and were out of camp by 8, we had a big day ahead with about 900m elevation that we had to get up. We were so happy to have taken this route up the mountain, for much of the day we walked up the side of the spectacular Gorges valley, before climbing higher up into the clouds where the temperatures started dropping further. We set up tent that night at Mintos camp, which consisted of a tin shack for cooking in and where Desmond also slept inside (we would figure out why that was a good idea the next day). The camp lay next to 2 small lakes where we could get drinking water, and sat above a massive cliff face called The Gate.

Spectacular Gorges Valley and Vivienne Falls

Desmond enjoying the lunch break

Lake Michaelson hiding in the clouds

We could see the 3 main peaks from the camp; Batian then Nelion are the 2 highest peaks on the mountain, named after the famous Maasai leaders Laibon Mbatian and his younger brother Nelieng who brought peace, power and prosperity to the tribe, and Lenana is the 3rd highest, named after Mbatian’s son. The mountain gave it’s Kamba name of ‘Kiinyaa’ (which comes from the white patches of snow and ice on the rocky peak looking like the black and white feathers of a male ostrich’s tail) to the country’s current name ‘Kenya’. Many tribes, particularly the Kikuyu (the largest tribe in Kenya) believe that the mountain is the throne of God (Ngai), and thus it is a very special destination and landmark for people from all around the country to travel to, climb, and pray. Kihara, who was another guide we met, told us that his father and grandfather used to make the journey by foot from their home next to Lake Victoria to the mountain, which would take them 5 weeks each way. Mt Kenya also used to be the highest peak in Africa, but over many thousands of years the natural erosion caused by the unusually large temperature fluctuations over day and night-time would crack the rocks and send them hurtling downwards, hence losing that title to Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We could see evidence of this erosion in the large amount of scree (loose fallen rocks) that we would need to climb the next morning in the dark before reaching the more solid rock of the peak itself. The mountain is also commonly climbed and studied by climate scientists and glaciologists, because it has seen such drastic changes due to the changing climate, even over the last 40 years. Mohamed told us about how the number of glaciers on the mountain has decreased, as well as the still existing ones shrinking dramatically in size, retreating back up the mountain even during his lifetime, and how he remembered as a child snow falling and not melting for a week in the town centre of Nanyuki, but no longer.

All 3 of us struggled to sleep that night, only later realising that this was also an effect of the altitude. I felt as if I had just had a couple of espressos with lots of sugar, and turned restlessly before finally managing to get about 1 hour of sleep. We woke up at 2am in order to leave camp by 3. It was icy cold, but the sky was clear and the stars bright. We rolled up the crunchy frozen tent, clumsily packed our backpacks with our stiff fingers and had a cup of coffee with water that Desmond had heated up for us. Headtorches on, we set off into the night past 2 other tents of sleeping hikers to do the final summit. Going was slow. We had to pace ourselves in order to not get out of breath, and also to continue acclimatising safely. We were very happy to have Desmond leading the way, he seemed to know exactly where to go despite there being no visible path up the scree. We were relieved to not have to also try navigate using old paper maps and not-so-accurate navigation apps in this cold and in the dark on top of an unfamiliar mountain.

Luckily it wasn’t raining! After 2 hours and about 500m ascent, we reached a point where we could leave our heavy packs; we would come back down the same way and pick them up. We put on all our layers (thermal undershirt, fleece jacket, puffer jacket, rain jacket, buffs, balaclavas, warm hats and gloves), I packed my camera and stuffed some ginger biscuits into my pocket to have at the top. The path became even steeper but felt more sturdy because we were climbing onto the solid rock peak itself, passed the scree section now. The sky slowly started lighting up and we could see the silhouettes of huge carpets of clouds below us rolling out to the horizon. The mountain we were on turned a deep warm orange colour. We were passing patches of snow, but could still not see what lay below the steep drop-off to our side, perhaps better that way. We finally rounded the last bend and could see the sign-markers at the top of the peak. The timing was perfect, we arrived about 5 minutes before the first sun rays fell on the beautifully stark and frozen peaks of Batian and Nelion a few hundred meters away from us on the other side of a small glacier, and then the rays reached us on Lenana. We could see for what felt like hundreds of kilometres in each direction, and could finally see the full expanse of the park surrounding the mountain; valleys and ridges snaking out in every direction, their surfaces first covered by only rock, then short grasses and tiny flowers, then dotted with the high-altitude growing Lobelia plants, then the Proteas and other bigger shrubs, then finally the trees and bamboo forests and jungle on the lowest slopes in all directions. We had a few minutes of stillness, but the wind started howling and penetrating our layers. It was so beautiful up there that I didn’t want to leave. So we snacked a couple of biscuits, took a few photos and then started the long trek downwards.

Emma and Desmond layered up for the last 300m climb to the peak, soaking in the orange pre-dawn light, having left our heavy packs at the path junction.

Emma doing the last meters of ascent, with the retreating Lewis Glacier in the background

Desmond and Emma at 4985m!

The view to the North looking out over the expanse of the National Park

First rays of sun hitting the highest peaks of Mt Kenya. I would like to return one day to do this technical climb!

We were actually happy not to have known beforehand how far down we would still have to go that day. It took us 2 hours of slipping and sliding down the treacherous and massive scree slope on the Sirimon descent route. 700m of descent felt like it completely finished our knees, and our legs (and nerves) were quite wobbly by the time we reached Shiptons camp at 9am. We had breakfast there (still had some relatively fresh bananas which we had lugged along with us), but could only rest for about an hour before continuing. We still had 14km to go (a 6-7hour hike), and another 1000m descent. We continued down through the serene McKinders valley, now thick with the Lobelias which were also the homes of the Malachite Sunbirds who dug nests into their dead leaves. Up and down we went, but slowly because the path for most of the way had turned into a stream; there was heavy rain the day before, and there were thick patches everywhere of still frozen hail from the storm. We were already super exhausted by the time we stopped for lunch and felt a bit deflated when Desmond told us we were only about half way. It also started raining on and off, the clouds racing up the hill to greet us and then leaving just as fast to open up the skies for the sun to pierce through. By the time we finally reached Old Moses camp at 5:30pm, my knees were finished and Emma also wasn’t feeling too fresh. Even Desmond said his feet were hurting and it had been a long day for him. As soon as we got to camp we unrolled the still partially frozen tent and desperately tried to dry it in the breeze, but unfortunately that was only a little bit successful because the breeze was more of a wet cloud rolling through camp. We cooked up 5 packets of 3-minute noodles, and got into our cosy damp tent, both of us completely exhausted but happy, and asleep in a couple of minutes. That was probably one of the longest days of our trip so far; we had been on the trail for more than 14 hours on only 1 or 2 hours of sleep and had summited a high-altitude mountain and then climbed halfway down again; we were a bit proud.

One of the small icy lakes close to the summit

Looking back up at the peaks and the scree we descended around their bases. On our way down to Shipton's Camp for breakfast after summiting.

We had about 9kms to hike out of the park before 10:30am, so we were up at 6 again and out of camp by 8. Desmond had said we could go ahead, we would now be walking on the tarred park road, and he would catch up to us after going to the toilet. I was walking 50m or so ahead of Emma and checking some messages on my phone (first time we had reception since start of the hike) when I heard some big crashing coming from the bushes in front next to the road. Zebra! We had both just been speaking about them, because we knew they lived on this side of the mountain where there were easier grazing options. Well, I quickly realised the sound wasn’t actually zebra when 2 big black African Buffalo stepped onto the road 60m ahead of me. Hmm shit I thought, knowing that these animals can be very aggressive and dangerous, so I started retreating and trying to get Emma’s attention. One turned towards me, and I was ready to start running but then they charged back off into the bushes. We heard more crashing in the bushes, before 3 adults, 2 teenagers, and a baby came running out and across the road in front of us into the bushes on the other side. We then saw another 12 charging off in the other direction. Desmond arrived then, we told him there were buffalo and he seemed a little uneasy. He unclipped his waist strap so that he could quickly drop his backpack if need be, and went ahead to look, because we had to now still go past the point where they were somewhere on both sides of the road. We asked him what to do if faced with buffalo, and he said when you see buffalo or elephants up close and you are on foot, you run, and hide. Lions you don’t run away from, because they will chase you and catch you, but for these animals you should definitely run. Emma and I had had a vague plan to hide in the big rainwater drainage pipes that went under the road every few hundred meters, and Desmond said yes, that would be a good option. As we continued, we had to stop and check what the noises in the bushes were a few times. We would stop, listen, and then Desmond would throw a rock in there to see if there was a reaction, then continue. We are quite sure we heard an elephant crunching some bamboo at one point off to the side, so we walked quickly past that section. We felt quite vulnerable; it was definitely different to being in a car amongst wild animals.

But the excitement also helped us forget our sore joints and the 9km of continuous downhill to the park gate. We saw more Waterbuck up close, and some Black-and-white-Colobus monkeys (which are definitely worth a Google image search!). A few kms before the gate we crossed the Equator again, back into the Northern Hemisphere. We got picked up at the gate, and drove away from this stunning mountain and experience feeling content, exhausted, mentally refreshed, and stinky as hell after 5 days without a shower. Back in Nanyuki we celebrated with a hot shower at the campsite, and then went for a full on Kenyan meal at a restaurant with coconut beans, coconut rice, spinach, Ugali, chapati, githeri (another type of beans and maize) and fresh juices, all for about 7 Euros. That was good :)

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1 Comment

Imke Maeyer
Imke Maeyer
Apr 12, 2023

I am so glad that you climbed that mountain, Helmut and I wanted to climb it in 1990, but losers that we were, didn't get it together:) I really felt the joy and excitement of this achievement in your writing, and also in our conversation when you returned to Nanyuki.

May you feed off that amazing energy for a long time still! 😍

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