Mount Kenya is Africa's second highest mountain, after Kilimanjaro. It is estimated to be 2.5 million years old, and Kilimanjaro at 750,00 years of age is really an upstart. Time has really taken its toll, and peak is thought to have dropped from 6,500 m those millions of years ago to 5,199 m today. The mountain is an extinct volcano, whose plug forms what is today peak area. The crater was long ago, done to death, by nature's untiring erosion agents.
Mount Kenya is an awe-inspiring spectacle that dominates central Kenyan highlands. It is perhaps understandable that Kikuyu people who reside on its lower slopes thought it fit for Gods' abode. And it inspires people in strange ways. In 1943, Felice Benuzzi, an Italian prisoner of war held at Nanyuki at base of mountain, and two companions, escaped and attempted to scale summit. With just a few handmade climbing tools, he managed reach Point Lenana, mountain's third highest peak.
But Benuzzi was at least an accomplished mountaineer. In 1988, Mount Kenya Rescue Team discovered and retrieved an elder of Meru people way up at chilly heights of Peak Nelion (5,188 m). Only experts, with proper equipment and guides reach Nelion. He appeared unaware of feat he had accomplished and was perturbed by fuss his rescuers raised. He explained his mission was "going to God". He was kitted in a manner you will not see recommended in any guide book- in a single blanket and open sandals. The animals do weird things too: a few years ago, frozen bodies of a leopard and colobus monkey were discovered at Nelion.
Mount Kenya is located 180 km to north of Nairobi. The mountain falls within Mount Kenya National Park. The park is made up of a protected area above 3,200m altitude, together with two small salients reaching to 2,450 m along Naro Moru and Sirimon trails. It was set up in 1949 and covers an area of 715 sq km. It is further surrounded by Mount Kenya National Reserve, which extends over 2,075 sq km. The park has distinction of being simultaneously a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
The mountain is made up of three main zones: rocky peak region, afro-alpine moorland with its scattering of giant vegetation, and extensive lower slopes covered in mountain forest and bamboo. The astonishing ecological diversity is one of attractions of this giant. The ecological processes that have brought about afro-alpine flora in particular intrigue scientists. There are 81 species of plants here that are found nowhere else in world.
In lower forest zone, there is plenty of wildlife including buffalo, elephant, sykes monkey and bushbuck. The animals are however generally difficult to see. Further up, animals are even scarcer though hyena, leopard, buffalo and civet cats have been sighted. The only animal you are likely to see in upper alpine zones is rock hyrax. Though it is size of a domestic cat, it resembles a rat more. The seemingly humble rock hyrax has some powerful relatives in animal kingdom and it counts elephant as its biological kin.
The mountain attracts over 30,000 enthusiasts every year. Point Lenana (4,985 m), so-called trekkers peak, can be reached by any reasonably fit and suitably prepared person. The summit has twin peaks of Batian (5,199 m) and Nelion (5,188 m), and is accessible to only those with technical mountaineering and rock climbing experience. This mountain is not an easy one to conquer and each year not more than 100 climbers make it to twin summit peaks. Mount Kenya is in fact considered to be more technically challenging than higher Kilimanjaro (5,894 m). But those who make it to top experience some of Africa's finest rock and ice climbing.
The mountain has very many fans and especially fascinates technical climbers. The author and mountaineer, Rick Ridgeway - author of Seven Summits, declares that of all worlds' mountains this is his favourite. Halford Mackinder planned and led first expedition on record to reach summit in 1899. But if Meru elder mentioned above is anything to go by, locals must have long ago been to mountaintop. The Mackinder trip was a great success and his party discovered many species of animal and plant life then unknown in Europe. A new species of eagle owl, for example, was first recorded by this expedition and subsequently named after Mackinder.
Though Mount Kenya is practically on equator, you will find snow and ice and even glaciers. However, in one hundred years since Mackinder conquered mountain, number of glaciers has dropped from 18 to only 7 that remain today. The culprit for this is global climate change that has accelerated in recent years. Scientists tell us that during ice ages large glaciers reached below 3,000 m. Today largest glacier is Lewis Glacier at 4,600 m. The continuing retreat of glaciers is expected to have a negative impact on downstream eco-systems, not to mention scenic appeal of mountain.
Mount Kenya is source of Tana River- Kenya's biggest river- and was for many years seen as an inexhaustible water fountain. Not any more- loss of glaciers and forest cover has brought this assumption into disrepute. The loss of forest cover is particularly worrying, because it is avoidable. How to save forests of Mount Kenya has long engaged environmentalist Wangari Maathai-the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. She was born on lower slopes of mountain and has in her lifetime witnessed changes up at mountain.
You can reach peak area by taking one of three routes: Naro Moru, Sirimon and Chogoria. Good roads will get you form Nairobi to Naro Moru, Nanyuki and Chogoria - base towns for each of trails. There are alternative routes but most have fallen into disuse and you need superior navigation skills and stamina to attempt them. This includes: Burguret, Meru, Kamweti, and Timau. It is highly recommended that you stick to three popular routes. But if you have a good reason for doing otherwise, or indeed for pioneering your own route, you are required to register with park authorities.