Quick Guide: Ngai's Throne, Kenya
Climbing Mt. Kenya, the second highest mountain on the African continent, is an absolute must; aesthetically more beautiful and far less crowded than it's rival, the highest mountain on the continent, Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Kikuyu tribe, who dominate the lower slopes of Mt. Kenya and also Kenya itself, believe it to be the throne of Ngai, their god who lived on the mountain. Mt. Kenya is a stratovolcano, which prior to the Ice-age rose to 7000 metres. As the ice receded, it left the eroded and sharp peaks of Lenana (4985mts), Nelion (5188mts) and the highest Batian (5199mts). These summits would not look out of place in the Chamonix Valley, with their tall, red, granite looking walls. Five glaciers still remain on the mountain, with the main being the Lewis glacier, tucked between the higher summits and Lenana. Sadly, it is predicted that by 2050 these glaciers will have completely disappeared, so if you would like to experience some of the continent's last equatorial snow and ice, then now is the time! When climbing what’s known as 'the trekking peak,’ Lenana, the glaciers no longer need travelling on, although you will still find, especially during the rainy season, that heavy snowfall can happen. The main summits of Nelion and Batian all require pitched rock climbing and numerous abseils to get up and down, so the majority of people who come to climb the mountain often opt for Point Lenana, which gives a good trekking summit but with little in the way of technical mountaineering. A good level of trekking experience and fitness is more than sufficient.
When to go:
The seasons, as with many places around the world due to climate change, have become a little less predictable than they once were. When my Grandfather lived in Kenya he once commented that you could set your watch by the rains but in the years that I have lived in Kenya these season have become much more erratic. Generally, the climbing season on the mountain is best in the summer months, which are January to the end of March, when the long rains should arrive. The short rains come in November through to mid / late December. That said, in practise, the mountain is climbable throughout most of the year.
Getting to Mt Kenya:
The point of entry is into Kenya's vibrant and colourful capital city, Nairobi. With some time to spare, then it's well worth spending a night here on the way to or from Mt. Kenya, to experience some of the wonderful restaurants and cafes. It’s also the only capital in the world to boast a national park cutting into it, complete with 'The Big Five.'
Leaving Nairobi it is about a four hour drive North to the highland town of Nanyuki, which sits at the foot of the mountain and straddles the Equator. This seems to be the favoured point to come to for a night or two before the ascent and has all the amenities you would need for food shopping and getting last minute supplies before heading up. It also has a wide range of very good places to eat and a range of options for different budgets. From the high end Mt. Kenya Safari Club, nestled in the Mt. Kenya National Park, to affordable options in town and camping for those on a lower budget. I would highly recommend eating at Cape Chestnut in Nanyuki for good home cooked food.
There are three transport options to get to Nanyuki; the best being a taxi which can be arranged on arrival and costs about 9000Ksh or $90 split between the group. Large and normal cars are all available.
For those on a tighter budget, then the public buses or ‘matatus’ are the way the general population get around and are small combi minibuses. This should cost around $10 per person but it is prudent to try and get a direct one, rather than one which stops along the way to drop off and pick up lots of people. Be prepared for a rather tight squeeze and some frightening speeds! To catch a matatu, the best option is to take an Uber in Nairobi to the rather hectic bus station on River and Accra road. Ask anyone and you will quickly be hustled to the right spot.
The final option is to fly using one of the operators that get you to the Nanyuki airstrip in around an hour. Have a look at Tropic Air for further details on times and prices.
Which route to take:
There are a number of routes which take you to Point Lenana; the main ones being the Naro Moro route, Timau, Sirimon and Chogoria routes. The quickest route to the top and back is via the Sirimon route but the most scenic is to combine an ascent of the Chogoria route with a descent of the Sirimon. This gives a nice traverse of the mountain, taking you through deep valleys and past high mountain lakes to the rocky Alpine summit areas, giving great views of the other summits. The descent takes you down past Shipton’s Camp and out through the stunning Mackinder's Valley, before plunging to the the Sirimon gate, via the lush Mt. Kenya forest. The gate is only then a short thirty minute drive back to Nanyuki.
For all the routes, it is best to allow three to four days in ascent, which allows for one flexible day for weather or acclimatisation issues and two days for the descent to the gate and out.
The trekking terrain is all straightforward walking; sometimes on well worn paths and sometimes on rough ground, with the occasional boggy section. The summit climb can often be icy and hard underfoot with fresh snow, which can be tricky, but with a slow steady pace very manageable - with no feet and hands climbing bar the final short ladder and step to gain the summit block.
For the summit day and if the weather allows, it is best to make the summit bid very early in the morning, at around 2am, which means gaining the summit in time for the sunrise. Weather permitting, huge views await the successful climber and if very clear, then the possibility of spotting Kilimanjaro in the distance.
Mt. Kenya National Park entry costs $260 for five days and $312 for six days per person. This can only be paid by card or Mpesa via the gate or website. No cash is taken at the entry gates.
Porters, guides and cooks:
Being a multi day journey at high altitude, the hiring of porters, guides and cooks is highly recommended for two main reasons. Firstly, you don’t want to feel your expedition is a Duke of Edinburgh journey and spoil the trek by having to carry everything down to your cup and spoon. It is far better to enjoy and soak up where you are and what you are seeing, without being too weighed down to appreciate it. It will also help you ease into the altitude more pleasantly. Secondly, by hiring local help, you will be supporting a community of people who rely on the mountain expeditions to make a living, in the same way as a guide does in many other parts of the world.
Along with the team of porters, there will be a local guide, who will know the mountain inside out and his local knowledge will be invaluable in insuring that you have a successful and safe expedition - and that you don't get lost!
One tip - porters on Mt. Kenya do not use head straps, like their counterparts in Nepal and India, so luggage should ideally be rucksacks and not duffel bags and your bags should not exceed 18kg in weight.
Don’t forget that tips are often one of the main sources of income so check what’s current when you are there and try to keep to that rather than too much or too little.
Rough price guide per day, Guide $20, Porter $10 and cook $15
There are two options on the mountain: the rather dilapidated mountain huts or camping. I far prefer the latter option for a number of reasons - it is much warmer at night to be in a tent and the huts are often rather dark and not that clean. Sadly the huts have lacked some TLC in recent years and as such are very run down. The campsites are located near to the huts and if the huts are not occupied then the cooks will use them to cook in and you can eat inside using the tables, which is especially nice if the weather is not so good. The toilets and facilities are outside the huts and all have running water. I would advise those camping to use the water that’s running above the huts, rather than below the huts, for hygiene purposes. A good mountain tent, a comfortable mat and warm sleeping bag will make your trip a lot more pleasant. These can all be rented in Nanyuki or if you're using the company listed below then all this will be provided.
What to wear:
This is a high altitude mountain and as such gets all kinds of weather from hot sunny days to blizzards, torrential downpours and strong winds. Mountain weather is extremely changeable and nowhere more so than at high altitude. So it is important to take the right equipment to be ready for the elements. The lower days on the mountain, you may well find you are in shorts and a t-shirt, with a warm layer handy for when you take a break and sit down. It is certainly important that you have good waterproofs, as at any point on the mountain you could be hit with heavy rain. A top tip would be to carry an umbrella, I have taken one on every trip on the mountain and have used it every time! Quite often, the rain comes in but with very little wind so it is a very effective piece of kit. You will find these easily in Nanyuki and I am sure when you leave you could give it to a porter who would be glad of it on future trips. The higher summit days, I would liken to Scottish winter; there is the chance of snow and high winds, so good waterproofs will act as a good wind layer coupled with a good down jacket, hat and gloves to keep warm. Generally, there is no need, although snow may be on the ground, to have an ice axe and crampons.
At night things get very chilly and often dip below freezing on a clear night. This can lead to hard frosts on the tent and frozen boot laces if left outside for the night. A good set of warm thermals for sleeping in and wearing on the summit day are essential. A warm down jacket can make the evening much more pleasant and again plays an important role in keeping warm on the summit day.
Footwear is also important but a good pair of trekking or summer alpine mountaineering boots are sufficient along with some warm mountain socks.
Other Essentials to bring:
Head torch for the evenings and also for the summit day (spare batteries)
Binoculars, great views and the possibility of spotting some big game early on
GPS, mapping is available but it's not that accurate and so a GPS is not essential but can be useful along with a compass especially if a rescue is needed.
Trekking poles very useful on any mountain trip
Dry Bags, try to have things packed into dry bags as the rain can be heavy and there is nothing worse than wet kit. Pay special attention to making sure that your sleeping bag is waterproofed during the day
First aid kit that has things to deal with cuts and rubs and something antiseptic to keep a wound clean. Cuts seem to almost always get a bit green around the edges in the Tropics so a good antiseptic cream is helpful. Aspirin is a good thing to add to the kit as its a blood thinner and can relieve some of the early AMS symptoms. I am not a fan of suggesting Diamox as in my personal opinion should the symptoms become such that its not possible to go on then some aspirin to relieve any headache and the prompt decision to descend will be the best move. Diamox does little more than relieve symptoms - it is not a cure.
For more information and to book a trip to take you safely from airport to summit and back then have a look at Rift Valley Adventures and send an email to find out the different expedition options.