Assault on the ice mountain

In the searing heat of equatorial Africa sits the glacier-capped peak of an extinct volcano. Rachel Palmer treks to the top of Mount Kenya

As the captain announced the beginning of our descent into Nairobi, I peered out of the window to glimpse the three majestic peaks of Mount Kenya, pushing their way through a ring of cloud blushed pink by the rising sun. Tomorrow we would be taking the first steps in our bid to climb Africa's second-highest mountain.

As the captain announced the beginning of our descent into Nairobi, I peered out of the window to glimpse the three majestic peaks of Mount Kenya, pushing their way through a ring of cloud blushed pink by the rising sun. Tomorrow we would be taking the first steps in our bid to climb Africa's second-highest mountain.

Why climb Africa's second-highest peak when its highest is only 320km away? Kilimanjaro might be the lion of Africa's mountains but, at just 16km south of the equator, it is Mount Kenya's glaciers that are something of a geographical marvel. It was this that drew me to one of the most impressive landscapes in East Africa. This ancient, extinct volcano rose to 6,500m during its active period, but now Mount Kenya's highest peaks, Batian and Nelion, stand at 5,199m and 5,188m respectively - just lower than Mount Everest base camp. They can only be reached by mountaineers with technical skills, but trekkers can reach Point Lenana, the third highest peak at 4,998m, and this is what we were aiming for.

Being independently minded travellers, Kevin (my climbing companion) and I planned to make our own way to Mount Kenya's foothills to find a guide. But our taxi driver from the airport insisted on taking us to the Mountain Madness office in Nairobi. Before we knew it we had signed up with them.

To our relief, Paul and Peter, our Kikuyu guide and porter, looked incredibly fit and sounded very knowledgeable about the mountain. After handing over our money we were swept back onto the chaotic streets of Kenya's capital, squeezed into a shared taxi and bumped along potholed roads, heading north on a hot, sweaty, three-hour journey to the small town of Chogoria.

The following morning we started our trek under a big African sun. We climbed 1,290m and covered 29km. We could have hired a Jeep-taxi, but that felt like cheating. With the mountain peaks in the distance we meandered our way through patchwork-quilted hills of tea, coffee, banana and cassava. Women picking the emerald green tea-leaves dotted these squares, glancing up as we passed. The cultivated land turned to majestic rainforest and our ascent became steadily steeper as we entered Mount Kenya National Park.

Paul set a good pace. He pointed out recent elephant trails. Immediately Kevin and I imagined we could hear these huge animals close by and increased our speed. Looking at the greying sky Paul predicted rain and, almost on cue, as we reached Meru Mount Kenya Lodge, a torrential African downpour began.

We arrived to a welcoming log fire, beers and a warm shower - the water heated by flames under the oil drum tank. Peter warned us to make the most of this luxury as he quipped, "you won't find another beer or shower en route". The next morning we woke to a view of the gleaming, snow- tipped peaks - thankfully looking a lot closer than they had the day before. We passed a herd of buffalo and an eland as we stretched our aching legs into the pace set by Paul.

The trees became sparse and were replaced by tall, thick heather. The clouds swept past, constantly changing the view of the dramatic landscape. The track eventually gave way to a narrow winding path. We elbowed our way through the thick undergrowth and up steep ascents until the view opened onto glistening Lake Ellis - our campsite for the night at 3,500m, the highest we'd ever been.

The altitude now began to take its toll. Walking at a normal pace and breathing became more difficult, even though the path we had chosen - the Chogoria Route, famous for crossing some of the most spectacular and varied scenery - climbs more gently than the others, allowing acclimatisation to the altitude. Over half of all climbers who allow themselves three days or less don't make it to the top. We began to appreciate why.

The afternoon rain set in while we sheltered in our tents. We collected firewood once it let up, and Paul and Peter roasted a hunk of beef over the red embers while Kevin and I opted for a more prosaic Pasta 'n' Sauce. As we lay in our tents we could hear the predatory cackle of the hyenas, as well as reedbuck around our camp.

Clear skies gave crisp views of Points Bation and Nelion as dawn broke. Climbing high we looked back over Lake Ellis and our route so far. With the grass waving in the cooling breeze and tiny flowers dotting the blanket of green, we could have been in the Lake District. The lush landscape, however, again gave way to shallow rocky craters dotted with weird, giant senecio plants. The gradient became steeper and our breathing shallower.

As we dropped over a ridge, the landscape changed dramatically. The balanced stone outcrops cloaked in a grey mist looked prehistoric and compounded the eerie atmosphere. This was the stunning Gorges Valley. Once again the rain poured down as we arrived at Minto's Hut, our next stopping place.

It was freezing, and we were feeling the effects of the altitude. Kevin and I had headaches and felt lethargic and sick. Piling on all our clothes we crawled into our sleeping bags and fell asleep listening to Peter and Paul argue about the direction of the mountain. Kikuyu custom dictates you must face the mountain when you sleep but they couldn't decide exactly which way this was.

Mount Kenya is the seat of Ngai - the one Kikuyu god. Traditionally only the high priest and rainmakers were permitted on the slopes of the mountain. As we drifted off to sleep we prayed that Paul and Peter had chosen the right direction. They must have done. We woke feeling fantastic. All signs of altitude sickness had vanished in the starry night.

The day was a scramble up a near-vertical face of muddy grit and scattered rocks that became covered in snow as we neared 4,620m. Cloud was shrouding the mountain, and my companions were mere shadows appearing out of the haze. To our left, hidden in cloud, was our mission - Point Lenana, just 300m higher. Poor visibility meant we had to descend. It was disappointing when we were so close to our goal.

Having become accustomed to the barren landscape it was as though we'd walked into a lush Devon garden as we emerged from the cloud. Shipton's Camp had the excitement of flushing loos and bunk beds but, having felt like the mountain was our exclusive territory for the past four days, it was a shock to come across other hikers.

We settled into a wet afternoon watching the rock hyraxes, the nearest living relative of the elephant, scramble between rocky outcrops and the emerald-green sunbird malachites dart and swoop through the darkening sky.

Our bid for the summit started at 3am. The sky was inky blackness broken only by a smattering of stars. The route was up. Straight up. Within 15 minutes I was feeling dizzy. I took some layers off, adjusted my kit and off we set again. Thankfully I got into my stride, keeping my sights firmly focused on Paul's ankles.

Paul, Kevin and I picked our way upwards over the scree by torch-light until we reached the snow-line. It was amazing imprinting slow footstep after slow footstep into the virgin covering. The route became a climb amongst huge boulders and then, to my surprise, as I pulled myself over a large rock, Paul took my hand and said: "Congratulations. You've made it." I was at the top.

Day was beginning to dawn. A strip of sunlight squeezed between the clouds and the horizon. As the light grew stronger we could pick out our route from Lake Ellis. It was stunning. Point Nelion rose magnificently to our side, with cloud wrapping around its peak. Below us were lakes and valleys. We felt on top of the world. A few days earlier I asked Paul what his favourite part of the mountain was. His response, "the top", came flooding back to me.

It was five degrees below freezing and we were cold, so we reluctantly began our descent. Kevin and I kept stopping, however, glancing back to seal the picture in our minds forever.

With a mixture of sadness and exhilaration we came down the large glacial valley of the Sirimon route. Our journey was virtually over. We had trekked 88km from the east to the north-west of the mountain, and climbed to 4,985m.

When we reached the park gates we were treated to an amazingly clear view of the mountain. But as we left, the clouds came down and Mount Kenya again disappeared from view.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

Kenyan Airways (01784 888222; www.kenya-airways.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) fly direct from London Heathrow to Nairobi. East African Safari Air (0870 421 4797; www.africansafariair.com) also flies from Heathrow to Nairobi and Mombasa.

KLM (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com) flies from regional airports via Amsterdam, Ethiopian Airlines (00 251 1 616161; www.flyethiopian.com) from London Heathrow via Addis Ababa, Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com) from regional airports via Amsterdam, Brussels and Zurich and SN Brussels Airlines (0870 735 2345; www.flysn.co.uk) via Brussels. Trailfinders (020-7938 3939) currently has flights with British Airways from £365 for departures from now until the end of November; they must be booked by 31 August.

STAYING THERE

Savage Wilderness Safaris (00 254 20 521590; www.whitewaterkenya.com) offers similar all-inclusive trips up Mount Kenya. A five-day group trip from Nairobi costs from around 64,410 Kenya Shillings (£435) per person with a British guide or from 36,340 Kenya Shillings (£246) with local guides. Mountain Madness (00 254 722 303689; e-mail mtnmadness@kenyaweb.com) is a Kenyan tour firm that also offers mountaineering trips to Mount Kenya. A seven-day trek from Nairobi with local qualified porters and guides costs around 28,830 Kenya Shillings (£200) per person. Mountain ascents can be arranged independently - factor in around 1,930 Kenya Shillings (£13) per day for park fees, 745 Kenya Shillings (£5) per day for a porter and 1,040 Kenya Shillings (£7) per day for a guide.

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