Mount Kenya: Climbing Mt. Kenya
Mount Kenya stands tall in the central highlands of Kenya and Africa. Mt. Kenya was once an outstanding volcano, almost 22,000 feet tall but what remains is a quite steep, eroded core, which is just over 17,000 feet high. The mountain’s nearby neighbor Mt. Kilimanjaro which is a couple thousand feet higher and best known all over the world as the roof of Africa, does not offer nearly the same climbing challenge and alpine character of Mount Kenya.
When most groups talk of trekking Mount Kenya, they can only manage to hike all the way to Point Lenana which is a a much easier satellite peak to conquer. The “real” Mount Kenya climb is a long and serious climb, involving many pitches of grade Five rock climbing to reach The main peak at Batian via Nelion Peak.
Mt. Kenya climb has two main peaks with the highest being Batian at an altitude of 5199 meters and Nelion which is slightly lower at 5188 meters. Both Batian and Nelion Peaks are only separated by the “Gate of the Mists” , a deep notch that is quite difficult to cross.
Because of Mt. Kenya’s proximity to the equator cutting across Kenya, the best season for climbing Mt Kenya depends primarily on which side of the peak one would like to do. Commonly, Batian Peak is climbed via the “North Face Standard Route” and the best season for doing this is July through to the end of September each year. On the other hand, Nelion Peak is best done through the Naromoru Route, aka MacKinders Route with Top Hut aka Kami Hut being the base camp. The climb is South East Facing and is best done from December to the end of February. The popular routes of the Diamond Couloir and Ice Window are South Facing, and the best season is June to October.
In Mount Kenya climbing, there are a myriad of possible choice of itineraries. In choosing the route, the main questions are would you want to climb in the north-side season (July to September) or the south-side season (December through February), and second, how many total days are available for you.
The shortest possible trek itinerary to Point Lenana is 4 days and to Batian is6 days. Such a short climb involves little or no acclimatization and gives the climber one possible summit day without leeway for weather. It is best recommended to spare at least 8 days, so the climber can have a bit more acclimatization time to accommodation possible summit as well as options for second or third summit days to have room for weather, which keeps varying.
Batian, 5199 meters (17,053′)
The North Face Standard Route is climbed via Shipton’s Camp with Kami Hut as the base camp. This is a long climb considered to be more serious and difficult than the MacKinders route on Nelion. Shipton’s Camp at 4200m can be reached easily via Sirimon Route and Old Moses Camp in 2 days from Nairobi. However, we strongly recommend allowing more time acclimatising, perhaps by first including a hike up Point Lenana, or preferably a three-day circumnavigation of Mt Kenya trekking, taking in Lenana on the way prior to going to Batian Peak.
Often we climb the lower section of the route in comfortable approach shoes or lightweight mountaineering boots. For Batian and Nelion Peaks, rock shoes are useful for the more difficult upper pitches.
The North Face Standard Route to Batian is a serious Mt. Kenya climb for experienced rock climbers and experienced alpinists. The summit day is well over 12 hours long whilst most of the climbing is on mid-5th class rock grade and there is one 5.9 pitch and several pitches at 5.8 standard. On top of this, the challenge of technical rock at 17,000 feet above sea level, and the alpine nature of the route, this makes it a very demanding route. Climbers considering the ascent via this route need to be solid 5.9 followers with proven experience on long technical routes of at least 10 pitches in length. In addition, they need be adept at moving quickly over rough terrain, and scrambling on steep and exposed 4th class rock, both in ascent and descent. Overall, excellent physical condition is a must.
Nelion, 5188 meters (17,017′)
This is the most preferred route to Nelion via the MacKinders route. It is a class 5 rock route with a maximum difficulty of perhaps 5.7. There are easier sections where climbers can move together, typically some 15 plus pitches are belayed. Descent is by the same route, with a few of the rappels taking more direct lines down cleaner rock. It is a fun route, on generally good rock, very sunny. Rock shoes are appropriate while taking in this route. Approach boots can be left at the base of the route. Though the route is still long, it is considered to be easier than the North Face Standard Route to Batian. With better rock, and a sunnier position, it is also more fun.
It is possible to continue on to Batian from the summit of Nelion, crossing the impressive “Gate of the Mists”. This is much more difficult, and involves crossing steep snow slopes, rappels, and possibly fixing a rope for the return out of the “Gate”. Most climbers who attempt this plan on a bivouac at the Howell Hut near the summit of Nelion. The hut is tiny and can accommodate three or four in a pinch (don’t sit up quickly!). Climbers will need to carry a stove and sleeping bag for the bivy, as well as boots and crampons for the traverse to Batian. This additional weight of these items makes the climbing to this point much more challenging to the technical climbers, even to the experienced. And the bivouac at over 5000 meters suggests the need for thorough acclimatization.
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