The history of Mount Kenya
‘One of the most impressive landscapes in Eastern Africa, with its rugged glacier-clad summits, afro-alpine moorlands and diverse forests that illustrate outstanding ecological processes'.
Above is the citation of the World Heritage Committee, which inscribed the mountain as a World Heritage Site in December1997
A giant born of fire and ice
Like most of East Africa's mountains, Mount Kenya is an extinct volcano with a massive volcanic cone, circular in shape and around 70 km in diameter. Born between 2.6 and 3.1 million years ago, it formed as successive layers of volcanic lava erupted with massive force from a central vent, which had burst open in the earth's surface.
Once the highest mountain in Africa?
Rising a majestic 5,000 m above its 800 m high surrounding plains, Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa (after Mount Kilimanjaro's 5, 896 m). Experts believe, however, that at its birth it may have been 1,000 m higher, which would have made it Africa's highest mountain. Over time the massive erosive power of the mountain's glaciers has gradually worn away the original peak and replaced it with the jagged topography of arêtes (knife-edge ridges), pyramidal peaks, U-shaped valleys, rock basins and glacial lakes (tarns) that we see today.
Batian and Nelion, remains of the giant
The jagged peaks of Batian (5,199 m) and Nelion (5,188 m) are all that remain of the original ‘plug' of the volcano (a plug of molten rock, which cooled in the volcano's vent).
Glaciers 16 km south of the equator
Considered the perfect example of an equatorial mountain, though it straddles the equator Mount Kenya is permanently crowned in ice. A number of glaciers extend from the peaks, the largest being the Lewis Glacier, which lies along the route from Teleki Valley to Point Lenana via the Austrian hut.
The retreat of the glaciers
Though information is sketchy, it seems that Mount Kenya's glaciers reached optimum size around 18,000 years ago, when they extended as far down the slopes as 1,000 m above sea level. Since that time they have been in constant retreat, as evidenced by the fact that when geologist J.W. Gregory surveyed the mountain in 1893 there were 18 glaciers, and today only ten remain. Furthermore, on maps produced in the early 1960's the famous Lewis Glacier is shown descending to the Lewis Tarn (at 4, 700 m), whereas today its snout ends almost 100 m above the tarn.
Maasai laibons immortalized
The peaks of Batian, Nelion and Point Lenana were all named by Sir Halford Mackinder (who made the first ascent of the mountain) in memory of three legendary Maasai laibons or medicine men, all of whom were renowned for their wisdom and bravery.
History of a mountain
Venerated for centuries by the people living beneath its crystal spires, Mount Kenya has always been considered the home of the gods. The Maasai believe that their divine ancestors came down from the mountain at the dawn of time. The Kikuyu, Meru and Embu peoples believe that their god, Ngai, lived among the snow and ice of the high peaks, and still regard the mountain as sacred today, traditionally building their homes with the doors facing towards the mountain.
Through a rugged and picturesque depression in the range (the Aberdares) rose a gleaming snow-white peak with sparkling facets, which scintillated with the superb beauty of a colossal diamond. It was in fact the very image of a great crystal or sugar loaf.'
Joseph Thomson, on first seeing Mount Kenya, 3rd December 1883
The snows of Mount Kenya are discovered
Soon after his colleague Johannes Rebmann caught his first glimpse of the tantalizing snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, missionary Ludwig Krapf first saw the glaciers of Mount Kenya on 3rd December 1849, from Kitui, 160 km away. When he reported what he had seen to the geographers of nineteenth-century Europe, however, the idea of snow on the equator was dismissed as being completely ridiculous. It was only in 1883 when the young Scottish traveller, Joseph Thomson, confirmed the mountain's existence, that the tales were finally given credit. Geologist J.W. Gregory (after whom one of the glaciers is named) then ascended to the glacier zone of the mountain in 1893, thus conclusively proving the existence of ice on the equator.
Count Teleki encounters the peaks on his way to Lake Turkana
The first Europeans to venture to any significant height on the mountain were two Austro-Hungarian aristocrats, Count Samuel Teleki von Szek and Ludwig von Hohnel, both of whom followed much of Thomson's epic route in their 1887 travels. Reaching a point some 900 m beneath the peaks (at the head of what is now known as Teleki Valley), they were discouraged by the cold and turned back to continue towards their discovery of Lake Rudolf (now known as Lake Turkana).
The mountain-top is like a stunted tower rising from among ruins and crowned by three or four low turrets, upon which we sat, feet inward. There was no snow there, and the thermometer slung in the air gave a temperature of 40 F while several kinds of lichen grew on the rocks. We dare, however, stay only forty minutes - time enough to make observations and to photograph - and then had to descend, not from any physical inconvenience due to the elevation, but for fear of the afternoon storm.
‘A Journey to the Summit of Mount Kenya, British East Africa'
The Geographical Journal, Halford MacKinder.
Sir Halford Mackinder conquers the summit
Twelve years later, in 1899 the great Victorian alpinist Sir Halford Mackinder made it to the summit, accompanied by his two Swiss guides, Joseph Brocherel and Cesar Ollier. But such was the remoteness of Kenya at that time that the significance of his achievement was largely underrated.
Eric Shipton makes the second ascent
In 1929 Eric Shipton, who later became Britain's great Himalayan specialist, made the second recorded ascent of Batian together with P. Wyn Harris. He also made the first ascent of Nelion. Rather more eccentrically, during the same year Ernest Carr drove a Model T Ford up the Chogoria route to a height of more than 4,260 m, making the so-called ‘Carr's Road' the highest motor track in Africa.
No picnic on Mount Kenya
The most unusual ascent of the mountain, however, was made during the 1940's by three Italian prisoners of war. Escaping from their British internment camp at Nanyuki, and armed only with some roughly fashioned climbing kit and the label off a tin of canned meat which showed the mountain's twin peaks, they made it to Point Lenana (4, 985 m) where they planted a flag bearing the coat-of-arms of the Commander of the Italian Army in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Cold and hunger then overcame them, and they returned to continue their confinement, but such was the epic courage of their exploit that it inspired Felice Benuzzi's famed 1953 book ‘No Picnic on Mount Kenya', which was later made into a film, The Ascent, in the 1990's.