The 17,058 feet-high Mount Kenya is a gathering of nature’s wonders. Apart from being the second highest mountain in Africa, after Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya holds, at its highest point, one of the world’s rarest sights – equatorial snow. For centuries this glacier phenomenon has puzzled scientists as it has awed climbers.

Located about 180 KM from Nairobi, the mountain abounds with legend and rich history. Stories are told of how 3 million years ago, Mount Kenya, also called Kirinyaga among the Kikuyus and Ol Donyo Keri by the Maasai, stood a staggering 23,000 feet above sea level – even surpassing Mount Kilimanjoro’s 19,340 feet.

Documentary evidence indicates that the first successful climber to conquer Mount Kenya was Sir Halford John Mackinder (15 February 1861 – 6 March 1947). Sir Halford was an English geographer who led an expedition that made the first ascent of Mount Kenya in 1899.

But centuries before Sir Halford and his team lay claim to the prestige of being the first to climb Mount Kenya, Kikuyu legend spoke of visits Gikúyu, the father of the Kikuyu people, made to Mount Kirinyaga to meet with ngai, the god of the Kikuyu.

This effectively made him the first man to climb Mount Kenya long before the English man even journeyed to Africa – but then it is only a legend and we live in an evidence-based world.

Whether it was Sir Halford or Gikuyu who reached the mountain first, the lure and fascination of Mount Kenya did not end with them. Since then, many more have conquered its heights. But one climb remains etched in the memories of Kenyans to this day.

It was on the chilly morning of 12th December 1963, when the late Kisoi Munyao, proclaimed the historical words on top of Mount Kenya’s highest peak.

Hamjambo wananchi wote pamoja na wageni wetu. Mimi ni Kisoi Munyao ninaozungumza nanyi kutoka kileleni cha Mlima Kenya. Kenya, Kenyatta, bendera imepepea. Kenya popote mwangaza umeenea.

He had just hoisted the new flag of an independent Kenya at point Batian. Translated, this means, ‘Hello all citizens and our visitors. I am Kisoi Munyao, speaking to you from the peak of Mount Kenya. Kenya, Kenyatta, the flag is flying. All over Kenya, the light is shining’.

Mount Kenya holds great spiritual significance to the Meru, Maasai and Embu communities living around it. The Kikuyu believed ngai had his earthly throne on Mount Kenya.

This spiritual attachment to the mountain led the Meru and the Embu for instance, to construct their houses with their doors facing the mountain as a sign of reverence to their gods that called Mount Kenya home.

It is said that glacier movement and reduced volcanic activity may have had a hand in denying this mountain of many names the coveted title of the tallest mountain in Africa. Yet the same glaciers helped to sculpt one of Africa’s greatest masterpieces of nature that is as beautiful today as it has been treacherous.

Sadly, only 7 out of the 18 initial glaciers recorded back in 1893 still exist. It would seem the grand mountain of the gods is losing its aesthetic touch. In fact some environmentalists predict that the remaining glaciers may all vanish in 25 years!

But perhaps Mount Kenya is not out just yet. Renowned the world over for its exciting and challenging hiking experience, Mount Kenya, unlike the more flat Kilimanjaro has a series of rough, jagged peaks that are as unforgiving as they are tempting to ardent climbers.

Three of these peaks provide the much sought after Adrenalin kick that sees thousands of local and international travellers come here every year to conquer the mountain’s heights.

Batian, the highest, stands at 17,058 feet. Nelion (17,021 feet) and Point Lenana (16,355 feet) follow closely. Batian and Nelion are the toughest to scale and only professionals or the not so faint-hearted can dare challenge them.

The most popular, and by far the easiest, for most climbers, including those just starting out, is Lenana. In most cases when climbers say they have climbed Mount Kenya, they actually only go as far as point Lenana.

It may take between 3 and 5 days, through a fascinating world of forests, wildlife, and unique mountain vegetation including giant lobelias, podocarpus, groundsel and even a local subspecies of rock hyrax, to reach the peaks. The primary health hazards to look out for include altitude sickness and hypothermia.

Several options exist for supplies, porterage, and climbing tours. The towns of Naro Moru, Chogoria and Nanyuki are good starting points for climbers. From these relatively developed towns, teams can coordinate trips and find reasonably priced accommodation.

Mount Kenya can be climbed any time of the year but the experience can vary from a nice and easy one, to a wet and muddy nightmare. There is quite a lot of rain in March, April and May which breaks and then resumes again in October to November.

Temperatures as low as -17°C have been recorded at the foot of Lenana point but they usually never go below -5°C. Mount Kenya is known for sudden gusts of winds which can be fierce at times so it is good to carry warm and windproof clothing.

Mount Kenya today faces an even bigger challenge than the effects of climate change on its receding glaciers. Located inside the Mount Kenya National Park, a 715 KM2 protected area established in 1949, there is a lot of pressure on the rich biodiversity around the mountain.

The large visitor number of about 15,000 every year may also be starting to exert its own pressure from the increased littering noticed around the site. At the foot of the mountain are some of Kenya’s most fertile lands. Their acreage is increasing as population levels rise and this may very well lead to loss of biodiversity as people clear more land for farming.

This is exposing one of Kenya’s prime sources of water to the elements. One can only hope that the park’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site will help preserve this priceless gem of Kenya.

Have you climbed Mount Kenya? What was your experience like? Share by leaving your comments below.

This article was first published on the Nakumatt SmartLife Magazine.