A Travellerspoint blog

Kenya

No Picnic on Mt Kenya

A Six-day Trek to Point Lenana, Mt Kenya

semi-overcast
View Mt Kenya Trek on IvaS's travel map.

I emerged at last, stumbled a few steps in the mud and then I saw it. An ethereal mountain emerging from a tossing sea of clouds, framed between two dark barracks: a massive blue-black tooth of sheer rock, inlaid with azure glaciers; austere yet floating fairy-like on the bear horizon. It was the first 17,000-foot peak I had ever seen.

The first time Felice Benuzzi saw Mt Kenya while incarcerated in POW Camp 354 located at Nanyuki, Kenya 1943.
From: Benuzzi, Felice No Picnic on Mount Kenya (1948). Maclehouse Press, London.

One morning in May 1943, in a combination of desperation, boredom, and adventure, three Italian men, Felice Benuzzi, Giovanni Balletto and Vincenzo Barsotti, escaped from POW Camp 354 and climbed Mt Kenya.

There was no going to the nearest mountaineering shop to pick up the latest gear. They handstitched their rucksacks, created crampons from barbed wire, fashioned tents from ground sheets and made ice axes from hammers nicked from the prison store. Provisions were meagre. With no established trails, the only map being on a tin of beef, they made their way up the mountain: first an unsuccessful trek up to Batian peak and then a successful ascent up to Point Lenana.

I had no such hardship when I took a six day trek up Mt Kenya 76 years later in July 2019. Unlike Felice and his compatriots, I had experienced guides, excellent food, well-marked trails and a tent that managed to withstand the gale force winds, rain and sleet we experienced the night before our ascent of the mountain.

Mt Kenya, located in Mt Kenya National Park, is Africa’s second-highest mountain. It is an extinct volcano that belongs to the series of volcanoes that occur along the fault lines of the Rift Valley. Two peaks can be accessed only by skilled mountain climbers – Batian (5,199 m) and Nelion (5,189 m) – while the non-technical peak of Point Lenana (4,985 m) can be tackled by avid hikers like myself.

There are three main routes for ascending Mt Kenya: the Chogoria Route, Sirimon Route, and Naro Moru Route. I decided to go up via the Chogoria route and descend along the Sirimon route. I selected this way as I was told that the Chogoria route was more scenic with sneak previews of Mr Kenya, U-shaped valleys and glacial lakes known as tarns. It was also the longest route and required camping for at least five nights. The Sirimon Route also afforded views of the mountain but followed mainly open moorland peppered with giant lobelias and accommodation was in huts.

It is obviously up to each trekker to ensure they are prepared to hike up Mt Kenya as safely as possible, but as a word of warning, it’s not the climb that will get you, but potentially altitude sickness and sunburn. I was lucky and did not experience any symptoms of attitude sickness. I think drinking copious volumes of water (despite this meaning frequent wee stops) and a slow pace helped. Our very intrepid guide, Mohammed, continuously hammered into us “the key to the mountain is going slow”.

For sunburn protection, the same applies as going to the beach: I use at least SPF +50 sunscreen (with invisible zinc to be doubly safe), a hat and sunglasses that provide good eye coverage.

So off I went.

Day 1: Nairobi to Bandas Camp (2,983 m)

I, and my three trekking companions, were picked up by Mohammed early in the morning in the dusty, congested city that is Nairobi.

We headed northeast towards the village of Chogoria, discovering quickly that Kenya was a country of speedbumps so no great speed was attained despite the limit being 110 km/hour. Passing plantations of corn and tea, small farms, roadsides markets and multitudes of brightly painted green buildings we eventually stopped by the road where a lunch was set up for us in an open, grassy area.

Lunch consisted of baloney and tomato sandwiches, and bananas which sustained us to our starting point which was on the edge of the bamboo forest zone about ten kilometres below Bandas Camp, our first campsite.

A stroll around the camping area that evening to a couple of viewpoints in the forest did not reward us with any animals: but we did hear a hyena howling in the distance and we managed to avoid the great dumps of very commonly dropped elephant turds.

Chogoria Gate

Chogoria Gate

Bandas Camp vegetation

Bandas Camp vegetation

Day 2: Bandas Camp to Lake Ellis Campsite (3,469 m)

It was cold in the morning but the night’s mist had lifted to expose a crystal clear sky with nary a cloud. We set out at 0800 after a hearty breakfast of pancakes, omelettes, toast and sausages.

The walk was uphill, but not steep. We passed from the forest zone of lichen covered trees and elephant grass to the open heath zone. The heath region we walked through had been burnt out but many of the proteas were coming back as new shoots. A small herd of eland quietly grazed on one of the distant hills.

After lunch we took a side trek to the 100m high Nithi Falls and then resumed our trek to Lake Ellis sighting Mugi Hill and the flat topped Giant’s Billiards Table along the way.

The weather changed in the afternoon. We watched as the mist rose out of the lower forest area slowly enveloping the valley in its damp glove. The weather turned to thunder and light rain but we got to our campsite on the shores of Lake Ellis without mishap and barely wet.

Morning at Bandas Camp

Morning at Bandas Camp

On the way from Bandas Camp

On the way from Bandas Camp

Burnt protea on slopes of Mt Kenya

Burnt protea on slopes of Mt Kenya

Nithi Falls

Nithi Falls

Lake Ellis

Lake Ellis

Day 3: Lake Ellis to Lake Michaelson (3,972 m)

Another early start and we were again rewarded with clear sky. We were now in the alpine zone dotted with giant fuzzy headed groundsels, water retaining cabbage and the geometric giant lobelia.

The trail was uphill the entire morning following the ridge overlooking the broad Gorges Valley, eventually meeting up with the main Chorgoria trail. Mt Kenya looked at us enticingly in between bouts of mist and we had unlimited views of Lake Michaelson. We descended to our camp on the shores of Lake Michaelson, a tarn located in a horseshoe shaped amphitheatre of volcanic rock.

Lobeilia leaf pattern

Lobeilia leaf pattern

Water retaining cabbage

Water retaining cabbage

Giant Lobelia leaf pattern

Giant Lobelia leaf pattern


Groundsell Man

Groundsell Man


Lake Michaelson amphitheater

Lake Michaelson amphitheater

Mt Kenya peaks from Lake Michaelson

Mt Kenya peaks from Lake Michaelson

Lake Michaelson

Lake Michaelson

Hyrax near Lake Michaelson

Hyrax near Lake Michaelson

Sunbird at Lake Michaelson

Sunbird at Lake Michaelson

Day 4: Lake Michaelson to Tooth Col (4,592 m)

We woke up to a wee bit of excitement in the morning. The descent to Lake Michaelson was very steep, uneven with thick patches of mud making for very slow going. It was obviously too hard a slog for a number of people from another trekking group and in the morning, a helicopter landed in the valley to evacuate them from the mountain.

After that excitement and our usual hearty breakfast, we began the slow trudge up out of the valley of Lake Michaelson on a sunny morning following a steep, uneven, rocky and muddy track for about 16 km up to Tooth Col. This was our steepest and highest ascent made in one day and given the altitude and very strong winds, it was a slow trudge with frequent breathers. The lush vegetation was fast disappearing being replaced with bare volcanic rock. Our treats for the day were seeing our first hyrax, unimpeded scenes of Mt Kenya and eating fried trout freshly caught in Lake Michaelson the night before.

As the day progressed, the weather deteriorated. Our camp was set up with great difficulty on the rocky col that was exposed to every direction of weather. The wind howled, the sleet stung my face and the fog made it very easy to trip over those insidious gyre ropes that thankfully kept the tent tethered to the ground. It was one of those times when you think “why”.

It was worse in the morning.

Trek to Tooth Col

Trek to Tooth Col

Trail to Tooth Col

Trail to Tooth Col

Camp at Tooth Col

Camp at Tooth Col

Day 5: Tooth Col to Point Lenana (4,985 m)

We were woken at 0400 in the pitch dark. The wind had shrieked and gusted all night, while the sides of the tent were trying out new flapping rhythms which resulted in an unsettled sleep.

And it was cold. I had worn to bed just about all the clothes I had: singlet, long sleeved thermal underwear, merino top, pink puffy jacket, flannel overpants, two pairs of socks, foot warmer booties, balaclava, hat and gloves. I was warm but I still felt a chill in the core of my body. To contribute to the discomfort, the cold and altitude rattled my braces, making my teeth very tender and not happy chappies.

The weather was totally not on our side when we started our steep ascent to Point Lenana. It was dark, the fog was as thick as, the wind gusty and the snow joined the sleet covering the rocky, uneven trail with snow and ice. You could not see anything but knew the sides of the trail dropped into an abyss. It was head down, slowly going step by step watching where you put your every footstep. As we neared the top of the point, we navigated a series of support wires that helped us get around some big boulders and steps made of rebar inserted into the vertical rock face which gave us the final umph to the summit.

It was only through the skill and patience of our guides, and our diligence that we made it to the top.

We could see bugger all. We did not stay long. One of our group started to complain of dizziness and a headache so one of our guides hightailed him back down to Tooth Col, leaving the rest of us to make our way to Shipton’s Camp. The weather never let up. The descent was steep, with boulders covered with ice and snow, all melding to a slope of scree. I don’t know if the small stones or ice was worse: I just made sure I took small, sure steps so that my ankles stayed in one piece.

The entire ascent to the point and the descent to Shipton’s Camp took us about 4.5 hours. I arrived at the hut at the camp cold and drenched. I was going to stay at Shipton’s Camp overnight - but, it was bucketing rain and as there was no form of heating or way to dry myself out, I opted to continue walking to Old Moses Hut. It was not an easy walk. It had been raining over 24 hours straight so the mountain was one rivulet after another pouring down the mountain, all converging on the trail. This meant that we had to walk for a further five hours in ankle deep water along trails that were in essence creeks.

At the top of Point Lenana

At the top of Point Lenana

Overflowing stream along Sirimon route

Overflowing stream along Sirimon route

It had been a long day so it was a relief to get to the township of Nanyuki where a warm shower was awaiting. And once I was warm with a full tummy, I decided the experience had been worth it.

Benuzzi and his mates took 18 days to escape from the POW camp, summit the mountain and sneak back into the camp. For their efforts, after a haircut and donning freshly ironed clothes, they were tossed into solitary confinement. The camp commandant later lowered the punishment to a week in recognition of their “sporting effort”.

A couple of notes:

A useful map for trekking Mt Kenya is: Mt Kenya. 1:50:000 Map and Guide. Published by EWP Map-Guides.

Tour company: I organized my trek through Mohakin Climbers which is based in Nanyuki. The owner, Mohammed Muthiri, is very helpful and responded to my queries as quickly as possible (he leads many of the treks on the mountain). His web site is www.mohakinclimbers.com and his email is Mohaclimber@yahoo.com

Porters and guides: The guides, porters and cooks were essential to our success. They carried our tents, food and backpacks. The set up camp, cooked fabulous meals, broke down the camp and carried everything to the next camp. They made sure we didn’t get lost and stayed safe. Without them, it would have been very difficult to accomplish our goal.

My dilemma was having someone carry my gear. I had a few talks with Mohammed and he rightly pointed out that his treks give jobs to the men in a country with a very high unemployment rate. So may I suggest you make life a bit easier and comfortable for the people who look after you on the mountain by thinking about the following: Get to know them – most speak English, they have families they like to talk about, and are an encyclopedia of information about the mountain. Bring extra socks, hats and gloves and give them away after advice from the main guide. Share your munchies. Pack as little as possible to make a lighter load for them without compromising your safety and comfort.

Mohammed, our guide, with lichen beard

Mohammed, our guide, with lichen beard


Our intrepid porters and guides

Our intrepid porters and guides

Happy trekking.

Posted by IvaS 00:33 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 1 of 1) Page [1]