Climbing Mt Kenya
There are at least seven different routes up Mt Kenya. Of those, we cover Naro Moru, the easiest and most popular, as well as Sirimon and Chogoria, which are excellent alternatives, and the exciting but demanding Summit Circuit, which circles Batian and Nelion, enabling you to mix and match ascending and descending routes. Other routes include the Timau Route and Burguret Route.
Naro Moru Route
Although the least scenic, this is the most straightforward and popular route and is still spectacular.
Starting in Naro Moru town, the first part of the route takes you along a gravel road through farmlands for some 13km (all the junctions are signposted) to the start of the forest. Another 5km brings you to the park entry gate (2400m), from where it’s 8km to the roadhead and the Met Station Hut (3000m), where you stay for the night and acclimatise.
On the second day, set off through the forest (at about 3200m) and Teleki Valley to the moorland around so-called Vertical Bog; expect the going here to be, well, boggy. At a ridge the route divides into two. You can either take the higher path, which gives better views but is often wet, or the lower, which crosses the Naro Moru River and continues gently up to Mackinder’s Camp (4200m). This part of the trek should take about 4½ hours. Here you can stay in the dormitories or camp.
On the third day you can either rest at Mackinder’s Camp to acclimatise or aim for Point Lenana (4985m). This stretch takes three to six hours, so it is common to leave around 2am to reach the summit in time for sunrise. From the bunk-house, continue past the ranger station to a fork. Keep right and go across a swampy area, followed by a moraine, and then up a long scree slope – this is a long, hard slog. The KWS Austrian Hut (4790m) is three to four hours from Mackinder’s and about one hour below the summit of Lenana, so it’s a good place to rest before the final push.
The section of the trek from Austrian Hut up to Point Lenana takes you up a narrow rocky path that traverses the southwest ridge parallel to the Lewis Glacier, which has shrunk more than 100m since the 1960s. Be careful, as the shrinkage has created serious danger of slippage along the path. A final climb or scramble brings you up onto the peak. In good weather it’s fairly straightforward, but in bad weather you shouldn’t attempt the summit unless you’re experienced in mountain conditions or have a guide.
There are three good bunk-houses along this route: Met Station Hut is at 3000m, Mackinder’s Camp is at 4200m and Austrian Hut is at 4790m. Beds in Met Station and Mackinder’s are harder to find, as they’re booked through Naro Moru River Lodge. If you’re denied beds, you can still climb this route if you camp and carry all the appropriate equipment.
Those needing more luxury can doss in the lovely, KWS-run Batian Guest House, which sleeps eight and is 1km from the Naro Moru gate.
A popular alternative to Naro Moru, Sirimon has better scenery, greater flexibility and a gentler rate of ascent, but takes a day longer. It’s well worth considering combining it with the Chogoria Route for a six- to seven-day traverse that really brings out the best of Mt Kenya.
The trek begins at the Sirimon gate, 23km from Nanyuki, from where it’s about a 9km walk through forest to Old Moses Hut (3300m), where you spend the first night.
On the second day you could head straight through the moorland for Shipton’s Camp, but it is worth taking an extra acclimatisation day via Liki North Hut (3993m), a tiny place on the floor of a classic glacial valley. The actual hut is in poor shape and meant for porters, but it’s a good campsite with a toilet and stream nearby.
On the third day, head up the western side of Liki North Valley and over the ridge into Mackinder’s Valley, joining the direct route about 1½ hours in. After crossing the Liki River, follow the path for another 30 minutes until you reach the bunk-house at Shipton’s Camp (4200m), which is set in a fantastic location right below Batian and Nelion.
From Shipton’s you can push straight for Point Lenana (4985m), a tough 3½- to five-hour slog via Harris Tarn and the tricky north-face approach, or take the Summit Circuit in either direction around the peaks to reach Austrian Hut (4790m), about one hour below the summit. The left-hand (east) route past Simba Col (4620m) is shorter but steeper, while the right-hand (west) option takes you on the Harris Tarn trail nearer the main peaks.
From Austrian Hut take the standard southwest traverse up to Point Lenana. If you’re spending the night here, it’s worth having a wander around to catch the views up to Batian and down the Lewis Glacier into the Teleki Valley.
Many trekkers acclimatise by camping at Liki North Hut. If you’d like a little more comfort, book into the excellent KWS Sirimon Bandas, which are located 9km from the Sirimon gate. Each banda sleeps four.
This route crosses some of the most spectacular and varied scenery on Mt Kenya, and is often combined with the Sirimon Route (usually as the descent). The main reason this route is more popular as a descent is the 29km bottom stage. While not overly steep, climbing up that distance is much harder than descending it.
The only disadvantage with this route is the long distance between Chogoria and the park gate. These days most people drive, although it’s a beautiful walk through farmland, rainforest and bamboo to the park gate. Most people spend the first night here, either camping at the gate or staying nearby in Meru Mt Kenya Lodge (3000m).
On the second day, head up through the forest to the trailhead (camping is possible here). From here it’s another 7km over rolling foothills to the Hall Tarns area and Minto’s Hut (4300m). Like Liki North, this place is only intended for porters, but makes for a decent campsite. Don’t use the tarns here to wash anything, as careless trekkers have already polluted them.
From here follow the trail alongside the stunning Gorges Valley (another possible descent for the adventurous) and scramble up steep ridges to meet the Summit Circuit. It is possible to go straight for the north face or southwest ridge of Point Lenana, but stopping at Austrian Hut or detouring to Shipton’s Camp gives you more time to enjoy the scenery.
Allow at least five days for the Chogoria Route, although a full week is better.
While everyone who summits Point Lenana gets a small taste of the spectacular Summit Circuit, few trekkers ever grab the beautiful beast by the horns and hike its entire length. The trail encircles the main peaks of Mt Kenya between the 4300m and 4800m contour lines and offers challenging terrain, fabulous views and a splendid opportunity to familiarise yourself with this complex mountain. It is also a fantastic way to acclimatise before bagging Point Lenana.
One of the many highlights along the route is a peek at Mt Kenya’s southwest face, with the long, thin Diamond Couloir leading up to the Gates of the Mists between the summits of Batian and Nelion.
Depending on your level of fitness, this route can take between four and nine hours. Some fit souls can summit Point Lenana (from Austrian Hut or Shipton’s Camp) and complete the Summit Circuit in the same day.
The trail can be deceptive at times, especially when fog rolls in, and some trekkers have become seriously lost between Tooth Col and Austrian Hut. It is imperative to take a guide.
What to Take
Consider the following to be a minimum checklist of necessary equipment. If you don’t have your own equipment, items can be rented from some guiding associations. Prices vary, but expect to pay in the vicinity of KSh700/300/250/400 for a two-person tent/sleeping bag/pair of boots/stove per day.
- A good sleeping bag and a closed-cell foam mat or Thermarest if you’re camping (nightly temperatures near the summit often drop to below –10°C).
- A good set of warm clothes (wool or synthetics – never cotton, as it traps moisture).
- Waterproof clothing (breathable fabric like Gore-Tex is best) as it can rain heavily any time of year.
- A decent pair of boots and sandals or light shoes (for the evening when your boots get wet).
- Sunblock and sunglasses (at this altitude the sun can do some serious damage to your skin and eyes).
- A tent, stove, basic cooking equipment, utensils, a 3L water container (per person) and water-purifying tablets (if you don’t intend to stay in the huts along the way). Stove fuel in the form of petrol and kerosene (paraffin) is fairly easily found in towns.
- If you have a mobile phone, take it along; reception on the mountain’s higher reaches is actually very good.
- Technical climbers and mountaineers should get a copy of the Mountain Club of Kenya Guide to Mt Kenya & Kilimanjaro. This substantial and comprehensive guide is available in bookshops or from MCK offices; MCK also has reasonably up-to-date mountain information posted on its website.
A few other things to remember:
- If a porter is carrying your backpack, always keep essential clothing (warm- and wet-weather gear) in your day pack because you may become separated for hours at a time.
- Don't sleep in clothes you’ve worn during the day because the sweat your clothes will have absorbed keeps them moist at night, reducing their heat-retention capabilities.
- Fires are prohibited in the open except in an emergency; in any case, there’s no wood once you get beyond 3300m.
Guides, Cooks & Porters
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of the trek to Point Lenana. Unless you’re a seasoned trekker with high-altitude experience and know how to read maps and use a compass, you’ll be flirting with death by not taking a guide – people die on the mountain every year. A good guide will help set a sustainable pace, which should help you avoid headaches, nausea and other (sometimes more serious) effects of altitude sickness. And by spending at least three nights on the ascent, you’ll enjoy yourself more too. Your guide should also be on the lookout for signs of hypothermia and dehydration in you (fluids and warm clothing go a long way towards preventing both) and be able to deal with the unpredictable weather. They will also hopefully dispense interesting information about Mt Kenya and its flora and fauna.
Having a porter for your gear is like travelling in a chauffeured Mercedes instead of a matatu. With both a porter and guide on your team, your appreciation of this mountain will be enhanced a hundredfold. If you hire a guide or porter who can also cook, you won’t regret it.
The KWS issues vouchers to all registered guides and porters, who should also hold identity cards; they won’t be allowed into the park without them.
Park fees must be factored into the overall cost of climbing Mt Kenya, as well as the costs of guides, food and tips.
Guides, Cooks & Porters
The cost of guides varies depending on the qualifications of the guide, whatever the last party paid and your own negotiating skills. You should expect to pay a minimum of US$30/25/20 per day for a guide/cook/porter.
Park fees for non-residents are adult/child US$52/26 per day. There is no discount on fees for staying longer. Note that KWS parks no longer accept cash, so you will have to pay at the gate with M-Pesa or a credit card. If you only have cash, you can get a bank deposit slip from any Kenya Commercial Bank or Standard Chartered Bank.
In addition to the actual cost of hiring guides, cooks and porters, tips are expected but these should only be paid for good service.
For a good guide who has completed the full trek with you, plan on a tip of about US$50 per group. Cook and porter tips should be around US$30 and US$20 respectively.