A Serious Mountain on Serious Earth
There’s no getting around it, Mount Kenya is a challenge. As this is a national park, there’s no village structure for you to sporadically resupply (no surprising luxuries of the Nepalese Himalayas here). Sleeping bag, cooking equipment, food and maybe a tent; all of it will be going in your backpack to carry with you from the park gate to the top.
The first few days of the trek actually lull you into a false sense of security. You gain a lot of altitude, but relatively gently along well defined paths. The summit day on the other hand is a brutal battle up scree slopes to the top. Naro Maro may be easier in this respect as you can break up the ascent by chilling at the Austrian Hut at 4,790m, but Sirimon (and by the look of it Chogoria as well) was an absolute slog!
The first day of the trek: enjoy the obvious and gentle path while it lasts.
You could of course solve this problem by hiring one of the many willing porters in town to carry your bag for you. A good solution for some, but absolute sacrilege to the indie trekker mindset of truth, freedom, beauty and suffering!
Acclimatisation is a Bitch on Mount Kenya
The altitude cranks up the difficulty even more. On most of the routes, there is no sensible way to acclimatise, all three of them gaining around 1,000m on the second day, breaking right through the conventional wisdom of “no more than 500m ascent per day”. As the route up the mountain is climbing almost the whole way without significant descent, you’re unlikely to be able to climb high, sleep low either. The only time you can achieve this is by adding an extra day at base camp to hike the summit circuit path, circling the three main peaks and returning back to base camp by the end of the day.
Little to say, altitude symptoms such as a headache and breathlessness are pretty inevitable. If you’ve never experienced high altitude trekking before (4,000m+) this may not be the trek for you.
Temperatures can Fall to -10ºC… in August
Your mental picture of Africa may be a malnourished child carrying a dirty bucket of water over cracked, dry desert. Well, on the slopes of Mount Kenya you’ll find yourself in a very different Africa. Climb to 3,000m and you’ll be walking through misty plains of boggy tundra; climb to 4,000m and rain drenches the mountain in the afternoon like clock work and temperatures drop well below freezing at night.
Our tent: still miraculously standing through wind, hail and frost.
And before you ask, no this isn’t a special dry African cold, which is somehow warmer than the point of freezing everywhere else on the planet. Let me illustrate: after waking up at Shipton’s camp one morning, I found both my 1 litre bottles of water had frozen solid and that was despite keeping them in the tent with me. And this was in August!
The cold can be very demotivating. So, take a sleeping bag that is warm – or at least bearable – below 0 degrees and as many thermal layers as you need… while not taking so much that you weigh yourself down too much (the light packer’s conundrum!).
Water: From the Ground, not the Bottle
Unfortunately, there are no hidden cashes of bottled water to be found on Mount Kenya. Instead you’ll have to rely on camp site streams and running water in the huts. As there are no inhabitants nor livestock in the national park, the water is reasonably clean. Still, it’s advisable to purify it in some way just to be safe. You have three options: a backpacking water filter, purification tablets or boiling the water (I discussed each option in detail in this post on Ladakh).
No livestock, but adorable marmots aplenty.
For trekking on Mount Kenya, I’d recommend purification tablets as both an effective and lightweight solution to the problem. You simply fill your water bottle up, put in a tablet, wait 30 minutes and voilà: safe water (just with a slightly chemical tang to it).
Finally, I’ve read a lot of advice that says you should carry three litres of water each day. I found this excessive and unnecessary considering the distances between water stops are not much more than half a day’s walk. I think it’s safe to stick to two litres and save yourself the exertion of an extra kilo.
Cooking: Even More Stuff to Carry
Unfortunately none of the huts come with an attached restaurant to cook you food. Instead you need to come armed with your own cooking equipment, bringing up the age old question of gas vs methanol stoves.
Our trangier: our sturdy but unnecessarily heavy stove.
Gas burns at a higher temperature, which is convenient to reach boiling point faster. However, because it goes well below freezing at base camp, your gas stove is likely to freeze at the top. In these conditions, a methanol liquid stove is preferable.
You can easily pick up both screw top camping gas cannisters and methanol at supermarkets, such as Nakumat or Tusker, in Nairobi. Be careful on your purchase though! We bought “fuel gel”, which on the packaging promised to boil a litre of water in 6 minutes, but in the cold temperatures could barely burn hot enough to boil the water at all. Make sure that you’re buying actual methanol for your stove, which we later realised is readily available!
All in all, this is a challenging summit that will test your fitness, high altitude experience, camp craft and all round resilience. If you’re not experienced in any of those things, you should probably get a guide. If you are experienced though, prepare yourself for an epic adventure!
Epic mountains and me.
Even if you sleep in the huts, you have to be largely self-sufficient on this trek, which means you need to bring a lot of stuff. There is a very fine balance between bringing everything you absolutely need, while not ending up like a donkey. This list attempts to achieve that balance.
- Sleeping bag (needs to be comfortable at 0°C – note, there is no bedding in the huts)
- Survival bag (inexpensive plastic bag that you can sleep in if things go badly wrong)
- Optional: backpacking tent (depending on the route you choose this may be compulsory).
- Optional: sleeping mat (again, if your route requires a tent, this becomes compulsory equipment)
- Alcohol stove
- Methanol fuel 500ml
- Cooking pot x1
- Plate x 1
- Spork x 1
- Matches x 2 (just in case one box gets wet)
- Dehydrated meals (porridge, rice, pasta, snacks)
- Water purification tablets (pack of twenty will do it)
- 1 litre water bottle x 2
- Walking trousers x1
- Polyester T-shirts x2
- Fleece layer x1
- Down jacket x1 (this is important for sitting around at a cold camp-site)
- Lightweight waterproof coat x1 (it may be Africa, but it rained a lot)
- Lightweight waterproof trousers x1
- Underwear (use your own judgement on the number of pairs necessary)
- Wool hiking socks x2
- Liner socks x2
- Hiking boots (thoroughly worn in so your feet stay happy)
- Wooly hat
- Gloves (I didn’t bring these and regretted it)
- Sunblock (you burn easier at higher altitudes)
- Washkit (toothbrush, mini-toothpaste, mini-deoderant and mini-shampoo – OK the last two are maybe optional depending on your trekking partners…)
- First aid kit (including plasters, bandage, wound cream, paracetamol, imodium)
- Toilet roll
- Quick dry towel
- Head torch
- Optional: pair of comfortable shoes to wear at camp (completely unnecessary weight, if you ask me).
- Optional: Swiss army knife