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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?