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Climbing Mount Kenya

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There are four main routes up Mount Kenya. From the west, the Naro Moru trail provides the shortest and steepest way to the top. The Burguret and Sirimon trails from the northwest are less well trodden; Sirimon has a reputation for lots of wildlife, while Burguret passes through a long stretch of dense forest. The fourth trail, Chogoria, is a beautiful, much longer ascent up the eastern flank of the mountain, on which you have to carry tents. In practice, Naro Moru, Sirimon and Chogoria account for nearly all hikes; if you want to use any other route, you have to inform the warden in advance (this can be done by radio by the rangers at any park gate).

The technical peaks of Batian (5199m) and Nelion (5189m) are accessible only to experienced, fully-equipped mountaineers, and the easiest route is Grade IV, making them a lot more testing, for example, than most of the routes up the Matterhorn. If you want to climb these peaks, you should join the Mountain Club of Kenya, who will put you in touch with the right people, and can give reductions on accommodation charges.

Anyone who is reasonably fit can scale the third-highest peak, Point Lenana (4985m). The climb has acquired a reputation for being fairly easy, and lots of people set off quite unprepared for high-altitude living – a quarter of attempts fail for this reason. Above about 4000m the mountain is often foggy or windy and freezing cold, wickedly so after dark. The air is thin, and it rains or snows, at least briefly, almost every day, though most precipitation comes at night.

Mount Kenya’s weather is notoriously unpredictable. There are days when it’s fairly clear even during the rainy seasons, but driving up the muddy roads to the park gates may be nearly impossible. If it’s really bad, you probably won’t be allowed in anyway. The most reliable months are February and August, although January and most of July can be fine, too.

What to bring

Above all, it’s essential to have a really warm sleeping bag, ideally with an additional liner and/or a Gore-Tex bivouac bag, capable of keeping you warm below freezing point. One thick sweater, or better still, several thinner ones, and either a windproof jacket or a down- or fibre-filled one are also essential, as is a change of footwear, as you’re bound to have wet feet by the end of each day. Gloves and a balaclava or woolly hat are also handy. A light cagoule or anorak is good to have, as is a set or two of thermal underwear for the often shivering nights. A torch, ideally a wind-up one, is always handy, and essential if you’re trekking without a guide. An emergency foil blanket is advisable, weighs next to nothing and packs down very small. Another prerequisite is a stove, as you’ll be miserable without regular hot drinks. Firewood is not available and cannot be collected once you enter the park (no burning is allowed). For food, dehydrated soup and chocolate are perhaps the most useful. The Naro Moru River Lodge has a rental shop where you can get just about anything, though at prices that may make you wish you’d simply bought it in Nairobi.

Altitude and health

The various ascents themselves are mostly just steep hikes, if rough underfoot in parts. It’s the altitude rather than the climb that may stop you reaching the top. Much more relevant than the training programmes that some people embark on is giving yourself enough time to acclimatize, so that your body has a chance to produce extra oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

Above 3000–4000m, you will be well outside your normal comfort zone and are likely to notice the effects of altitude. You may want to take Diamox (acetazolamide) to speed up your acclimatization and keep painkillers handy for headaches, which are fairly normal at first, especially at night. Keeping your fluid intake as high as possible will also help – three to five litres a day is recommended. Most water sources on the mountain are reckoned to be safe (one or two exceptions are noted). It’s best to avoid alcohol while climbing.

The effects of altitude can be largely avoided if you take your time over the trek, as minor symptoms gradually disappear. Going up the Naro Moru route, you shouldn’t attempt to climb from the base of the mountain (that is, from Naro Moru town at 2000m) to Point Lenana (just under 5000m) in less than 72 hours. Five or six days is much better, especially if you’ve just arrived in Kenya and are used to living at sea level. Assuming you allow a day to get down again, giving yourself a week for the whole trip is a good idea. If you can, climb for an hour or two higher than the altitude you are going to sleep, or spend two nights at the same altitude.

The symptoms of altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, vary between individuals, and appear unrelated to how fit you are – indeed, fit young men often suffer the most acute symptoms. If you climb too fast, extreme breathlessness, nausea, disorientation and even slurred speech are all possible. If someone in your group shows signs of being seriously tired and weak, you should descend a few hundred metres. If the symptoms develop into unsteadiness on the feet and drowsiness, descend rapidly until the symptoms improve. The effects of altitude, especially on bodies tuned only to sea level, are remarkable, and they can quickly become very dangerous and even fatal if high-altitude pulmonary or cerebral oedema (water in the lungs or brain cavity) develop.

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