Mount Kenya travel guide


2 MINUTE SUMMARY

It might seem impossible to ignore a mountain – especially when it’s nearly 5,000m high. But that’s what’s happened to some extent to Mount Kenya. A dormant volcano with flanks moulded by glaciation, Africa’s second highest peak has been metaphorically overshadowed by Kilimanjaro, 400km away. Kili gets 20 times more visitors, with trekkers looking to summit Africa’s highest mountain irrespective of its merits, yet Mount Kenya can trump its neighbour in all but height. It’s scenically spectacular, with jagged peaks, glaciers, waterfalls and U-shaped valleys crafted over three million years of erosion. Its flora ranges from bamboo forest to rare Afro-Alpine moorland with huge sci-fi plants like giant groundsel, and it is home to fascinating wildlife, including forest-dwelling elephants and iridescent sunbirds. Kenya is also fractionally quicker to climb than Kili – a week rather than 10 days – making an organised ascent cheaper, but no less arduous. This is a tough, challenging trek at altitude. Expect a huge sense of achievement on completion; just don’t expect to see crowds.
We bring Kenya’s highest mountain out of the shadows in our Mount Kenya travel guide.

Climbing Mount Kenya


What does this trip entail?

How long does it take?


As with Kilimanjaro, there is a choice of routes up Mount Kenya (four main routes in total), and most require around five days of trekking. Pick a trek itinerary that includes acclimatisation measures, too, either climbing high and sleeping low, or an extra night spent half way up the trail or just below Lenana Point, before the summit attempt.
Expect a mix of half days of hiking (4-5 hours) and some more demanding full day hikes. Some itineraries include the pre-dawn trek to the summit, plus a long descent to Old Moses Camp from Shipton’s Camp, a distance of 14km and the recipe for a very long day of walking. Choose your trip carefully and be realistic about your fitness levels.

Climbing or trekking?


There are two peaks over 5,000m on Mount Kenya (Batian and Nelion), but mere mortals leave these bigguns to experienced mountaineers. For those of us armed only with stout calves and a sense of adventure, “climbing” Mount Kenya is in fact trekking, and the trekkers’ goal is Point Lenana, at 4,985m. You won’t need technical experience to reach it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park. The terrain is varied and often challenging. Dense bamboo forest, boggy moorland and boulder fields test your fitness and agility. At lower levels, paths can be wet and slippery or disappear into thick vegetation, while at upper altitude expect ice and freezing conditions, with areas of scree and loose rock and no permanent footpaths around the summit. In order to see the sun rising over the vast Kenyan plains, the summit push up to Lenana usually kicks off at around 2am, with just head torches and perhaps the moon lighting the way. So, not easy, but never boring either.

Bear in mind, though, that the only way isn’t necessarily up on Mount Kenya. You can experience high altitude trekking on an African mountain without the pressure of a summit challenge. Organised walking vacations explore the eastern foothills of Mount Kenya, taking in spectacular waterfalls, lakes and the mini peak Mugi Hill. From here, you can watch the sunrise turn the main peaks bright orange – a view no one on the summit of Lenana ever gets!

Sleeping & eating


The Sirimon route is the only trail with huts all along it, while other routes have a handful of simple bunkhouses. These are basic and shared by men and women, with multiple beds in each room. You’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag – at least a three seasons thickness – and a bed roll.
Many organised treks choose to camp instead. This brings flexibility, as you can stay in more scenic locations off the beaten track, such as on the shores of the mountain’s lakes. However, camping trips are fully serviced and therefore tend to be more expensive than staying in bunkhouses, as they demand more organisation, with more porters needed to carry equipment. All food and water is carried by porters too, and prepared along the trail by the cook. Expect simple, hearty meals, perhaps with fruit to snack on in between.

Fitness & safety


Five days of point-to-point walking, rough terrain and high altitude mean trekking Mount Kenya requires considerable fitness. You’ll need some training, but not necessarily any high-altitude experience. There’s no way of knowing how well you’ll acclimatise to being above 3,500m and even experienced climbers can’t be certain they will, as it were, ‘walk it’! The acclimatisation process can differ from climb to climb and doesn’t respect fitness.

You’ll need good walking boots that you’ve already broken in, perhaps a walking pole, and lighter trainers or walking shoes are good for the lower levels. Stay hydrated, take it slow and listen to your guide’s advice on pacing. This is not a trek to rush, but to enjoy.

Guides & porters


An organised trek is the safest option, with a support crew usually consisting of a cook, porter for the cooking gear plus one porter per trekker. Crucially, there will also be an experienced guide who can regulate your pace, diagnose altitude sickness if necessary and make critical decisions, while also sharing a deep knowledge of the wildlife and flora on the mountain, to bring the environment fully to life. All guides and porters must be registered with Kenya Wildlife Services and should also be a member of one of the local guide and porter associations.
Before booking your trek, ask your operator about the welfare of porters. Do they have wet weather and cold weather gear (it can drop to -15°C at night at higher altitude)? Are they kitted out with suitable footwear? Reports of porters trekking in welly boots are not unheard of. Where will they sleep? Expect to tip porters and guides at the end of your trek. Some tour operators recommend an amount, while others leave it to your discretion.
It’s possible to trek Mount Kenya independently, but it’s not recommended unless you’re a very experienced high-altitude climber and trekkers do die here each year. Navigating the mighty mountain is the main challenge. Paths aren’t clearly marked and it’s easy to get lost in cloud cover. In addition, the park authorities do not allow trekkers to enter the park alone, so there will need to be two of you, carrying your own kit, food and, unless you stick to Sirimon route which has huts, camping equipment too. You won’t be popular with the locals, either; trekking independently deprives guides and porters of work.

After the trek


Unless you’re really time pressed, don’t just bag Mount Kenya and fly home – stick around, there’s tons to see! Adding in a safari is the obvious choice. Samburu is a couple of hours away, where lion, leopard and cheetah roam, and the mountain itself sits within the Laikipia Plateau, a patchwork of communal conservancies where local communities manage the land. As well as protecting wildlife – most notably both black and white rhino plus rare wild dogs – the lodges all employ and train local people. If you have more time then you can journey by road from Mount Kenya to the Masai Mara via the Rift Valley Lakes. Allow around six days for this extension.

Best time to visit Mount Kenya


TEMPERATURE & RAINFALL

Trekking tours here run year round, but the safest and best time to trek up Mount Kenya is during the dry seasons: Jan-Feb and Jul-early Oct, when the weather is most reliably fine. Avoid the two rainy seasons, mid Mar-Jun and late Oct to end of Dec. At any time of year, the temperatures can vary wildly during a single day. Above the cloudline and in the sunlight, it can get above 20°C, but nights can drop as low as -15°C at the highest camps, with ice and snow on the trails. It’s also possible to meet wet and snowy conditions at any time of year.
Photo credits: [Top box: Franco Pecchio] [How long does it take?: Franco Pecchio] [Sleeping and eating: kathrynbullock] [Guides and porters: kathrynbullock] [Temperature & rainfall: kathrynbullock]

Written by: Joanna Simmons
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