I just spent 10 consecutive nights on Mt. Kenya, Kirinyaga, the heart and lifeblood of the country that’s inherited its name.
Ascending Mt. Kenya has been described as similar to just walking north from the equator, except that every thousand miles north is only a hundred meters up; you essentially pass through every biome on earth within a few days. When you arrive at the gate of Mt. Kenya National Park, you have already driven up out of arid savannahs, through lush farmland and into a dense deciduous forest, all in the space of a few hours. Hiking inward from the northernmost gate near the village of Sirimon, you literally cross the equator as you traverse a jungle rife with buffalo and elephants. After watching the trees grow shorter before your eyes, you emerge after only two hours of walking into an impeccable moorland dressed in heather and moss that would not be out of place in Braveheart. Another day’s hike sends you across mountain bogs and frozen tundra a mere 40 kilometers from tea farms and grazing cattle down below. Here the equatorial climate (summer at day, winter at night) encourages the alpine foliage to swell to unusual sizes—lobelias as tall as grown men and many-headed senecio forests. They hibernate instead of die and bloom just once in their decades-long lifespans.
By 14,000 feet, most vegetation has given way to barren slopes, great moraines where the legendary glaciers of Mt. Kenya used to sit. Even in the last 30 years, the mountain’s glaciers have melted at a disconcerting rate. The great white blanket that the Kikuyu believed their god to sleep upon is no longer there, but even the rocky scars it has left awe the imagination.
Above this line of life, rock and ice dominate, and Mt. Kenya is famous for its intimidating cliff faces, arduous routes that draw alpinists from across the globe to test themselves on Africa’s greatest rock climb. The climbs are so demanding that less than 1% of park visitors actually reach Point Batian, the highest peak in Kenya.
Most are satisfied with the still demanding trek to Point Lenana, the third highest peak. To avoid the regular snowstorms that immerse the mountain in dark clouds by midday, climbers of any peak must wake many hours before dawn and struggle up the steep scree under a breathtaking African night sky. One can watch tiny pricks of light from headlamps slowly ascend the mountain like a line of brilliant ants.
On a truly clear morning, the sun reveals the mountain’s monolithic cousin far away to the south, Kilimanjaro. Next week, I’ll be there.
[originally written for LUMOS blog, Summer 2017]