Ask most people why they want to climb a mountain, and they'll give you the stock answer: ‘because it's there'. The real reasons may be more romantically rooted: particularly in the case of Mount Kenya, one of only two tropical mountains to be topped by ice. There is, after all, something other-worldly about leaving the hot plains of Africa behind and climbing up beyond the snow line: especially when you're on the Equator. There's also the lure of conquest, the camaraderie of the climb, and the undoubted cachet to be had from saying you were alpha-male/female enough to do it.
However, whilst anyone in reasonable health can attempt the steep trek to Point Lenana (4,985 m), which is the highest point achievable for trekkers on Mount Kenya, around 25% of the 15,000 people who attempt the climb fail: either due to altitude sickness; or due to the fact that they have not prepared correctly for the climb. The same applies to Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, which also attracts great numbers of climbers.
Climbing Mount Kenya: What you need to know
How fit do I need to be?
Because mountain climbing / trekking can be very strenuous, it is wise to be reasonably fit before you start. Strange as it may seem, the best training for trekking - is trekking, or walking, so the more you can do before you attempt your climb - the better. If you have any known medical problems or are concerned about your health, have a full medical check-up before you leave. Better to find out about any problems before you climb rather than halfway up the mountain. The same goes for dental health - you don't want a loose filling at altitude. Similarly, if you wear glasses: take a spare pair.
Having said all this, the ascent itself is mostly just a steep hike (rough underfoot in parts): it's the altitude that can cause the problems. Much more important than physical training, therefore, is that you allow yourself enough TIME to acclimatize, thus allowing your body to produce additional oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
How much acclimatization do I need?
Do not attempt to climb from the base of the mountain (Naro Moru village) to Point Lenana in less than 72 hours. If you have just arrived in Kenya, allow 5 days for the ascent. If possible, allow a week for the whole trek.
Do I need a guide?
Guides are not compulsory but unless you are an experienced mountain walker (and can use a map and compass), use of a guide is recommended: a) to improve your chances of getting to the top b) to avoid altitude sickness c) to help with your equipment.
Which guide? Guides (and porters) should be fully licensed and approved by KWS and should carry a KWS authorization card to prove this (this card also entitles them to a 50% reduction on their Park fees). Note: it is recommended that you hire your guides from the local rural community and insist on seeing a KWS authorization card since experience has proved that ‘guides' engaged in major cities or without possession of the KWS authorization card may prove to be totally inexperienced. Your guide, once engaged, can also hire reputable porters on your behalf.
What is the difference between a guide and a porter? Porters carry loads; guides show the way (and may require a porter to carry their own load).
How much do they cost? Costs vary according to route and you should agree a price before you start. Also, if you ascend the mountain via one route and descend via another, you will be expected to pay for your guide's transport costs back to his/her starting point.
Tips: if you wish to tip, the accepted rate is: an extra day's wages for every porter and guide (based on a 5-day trek). Tipping disputes have marred the end of many an expedition. To avoid dispute make it clear to guides and porters that good service will be rewarded by a specific tip to be paid at the end of the climb.
Porters: will carry up to 18kg for a three day trip or 16kg for a longer trip (excluding the weight of their own food and equipment).
How do I arrange my climb?
The best way to do it is by using a reputable organization which will organize the whole thing for you. The best-known are:
Naro Moru River Lodge arranges all-inclusive treks up the mountain, hire of equipment, hire of guides, porters and cooks and administers the two bunkhouses on the Naro Moru Route (the Met Station and Makinder's Camp).
Mountain Rock Bantu Lodge: offers all-inclusive mountain treks, hire of gear and tents and administers the two bunkhouses on the Sirimon Route (Old Moses and Shipton's Camp).
How do I avoid the effects of altitude?
As outlined above, make a slow ascent, thus allowing sufficient time for your body to acclimatize to the altitude. Also, keep your fluid intake as high as possible (3-5 litres a day is recommended) and avoid alcohol.
What is Acute Mountain Sickness?
Above 3,500 m you may notice the effects of altitude, especially if your body is tuned only to sea level. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) usually develops in the first 8-24 hours at high altitude, and is rare below 4,500 m. Physical symptoms are unpredictable and vary greatly between individuals but they can include: breathlessness, nausea, disorientation, slurred speech and headaches, especially at night. If you experience any of these symptoms do not proceed to a higher camp and treat the condition in situ with plenty of fluids, an 18-hour rest and anti-inflammatories. If the symptoms are no longer present, you may then proceed with your climb.
Note: in the event that treatment has no effect on your condition, or you experience further deterioration in your state of health, DESCEND QUICKLY as this may signal the fact that your condition of AMS (acute mountain sickness) has progressed to HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), which is fluid on the lungs; symptoms are shortness of breath and frothy/pink spit. Alternatively your condition may have progressed to HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) which is a swelling of the brain; symptoms are severe headache, vomiting, dizziness, loss of balance, blurred or double vision and drowsiness progressing to coma. Warning: both HAPE & HACE conditions are potentially fatal, and the only treatment is IMMEDIATE DESCENT.
What kit do I need?
Tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag (‘2-seasons' if staying in a hut or ‘3-seasons' if camping), emergency foil blanket, rucksack (50-65 litres) and daypack (approx 20 litres) if you intend hiring a porter. Stove, fuel, containers, cooking pots, cooking equipment, matches/lighter, fire-starter, water bottles (minimum 2 litres per person per day), water purifying tablets, map, compass, whistle, pocket knife, first aid kit, insect repellent, camera, zippered plastic bags, torch, eating and drinking utensils, sunglasses, trekking poles, headlamp/flashlight, spare bulbs, batteries, toiletries and toilet tissue.
Clothing: jacket(s), outer shell/waterproof jacket and pants, shirts, trousers, shorts, underwear, sun hat, woollen hat and gloves. Footwear: walking boots, training shoes, sandals, socks and gaiters.
What rules must I follow?
Food and cooking: because the boiling point of water is reduced at high altitude, fast-cooking foods such as tinned/pre-cooked/instant or dried meals are ideal. Also useful are citrus fruits, chocolate and dried fruit.
Eco-friendly trekking: some 15,000 tourists climb the mountain every year, leaving tonnes of rubbish in their wake, all of which must be removed by voluntary groups lest it damage the delicate ecosystem. So, as on any other mountain in the world, the rules are:
Pack it in; pack it out, collect ALL your rubbish and carry it with you to dispose of - off the mountain. Do not bury rubbish. (You will be required to show your rubbish to KWS personnel on departure).
Personal hygiene: where there is no lavatory or latrine bury your waste at least 100 m from any watercourse. Don't use detergents or toothpaste within 50 m of watercourses.
Respect the environment: stick to existing tracks and avoid making short cuts.
Do not remove the plant life; it keeps the topsoil in place.
Protect against fire: open fires in the moorland and peak zones of the mountain are strictly prohibited.
When is the best time to climb?
While the mountain can be climbed all year round, experts suggest that it is easier and more pleasurable to make the ascent during the driest months, which are usually January, February, August and September. There are two rainy seasons; the ‘long' rains, which last approximately from mid-March to June, and the ‘short' rains, which last from October to mid-December. Mount Kenya is unique in that its sheer faces and equatorial location give it at any time both a summer and winter climbing face. June-October the sun is on the north face of the mountain and the south face is covered in snow and ice, making for spectacular ice climbs. December-March, the sun is on the south face and the rock climbs are more popular.
There are three principal routes up the mountain; the Naro Moru Route, the Sirimon Route and the Chogoria Route. Climbers may ascend and descend using the same route, or traverse the mountain using the Summit Circuit Path which links all the routes, and descend by a different route.
How long will it take?
The number of days indicated for each of the routes given below is the ‘usual' amount of time taken, but much depends on fitness and altitude acclimatization
The Naro Moru Route
Overall altitude gain: 2,985 m. Distance: 38 km. Time: 3 days minimum. Start point: Naro Moru Gate. Finish point: Met Station. Highest point: Point Lenana.
The Sirimon-Chogoria Traverse
Overall altitude gain: 2,335 m. Distance: 77 km. Time: 5 days minimum. Start point: Sirimon Gate. Finish point: Chogoria Town. Highest point: Point Lenana.
Which peaks can I reach?
Anyone in reasonable health can attempt the steep trek to Point Lenana, which is the highest point for trekkers. However many people find themselves ill- prepared for the harshness of high altitude exertion and approximately 25% of those who attempt Point Lenana do not succeed.
Can I reach Batian and Nelion?
Only if you are an experienced and well-equipped mountaineer. These climbs are rated Grade IV in difficulty, i.e. they are more testing than most of the routes up the Matterhorn.