the phantasmagorical mountain
In stark contrast to Kilimanjaro, rumors of whose existence had been spread throughout the Old World by Arab tradesmen centuries before the first European explorers arrived in Africa, Mt. Kenya – the continent’s second tallest peak – managed to maintain a low profile until the very end of the nineteenth century. In fact, the first European explorers to see the mountain, circa 1850, were belittled by their own countrymen, their findings discredited when those who followed in their footsteps failed to see the peak, its distinct outline swallowed by the mists that frequently hide it from view.
Having climbed Kilimanjaro with S two summers ago, her dad was excited by the prospect of attempting Mt. Kenya. Hence, in our travels around the country, we had heretofore given a wide berth to the region, saving the climb for his visit. Unlike her dad, S’s mom is not a climber and rather than rough it on the mountain for five days, she spent that time at a secluded guest house, which offered nature walks, horseback riding, and plenty of safari opportunities in the nearby Aberdare mountains. S’s sister arrived from Chicago several days after her parents, and early the following morning we piled our gear into our guide’s car and headed north.
As we neared Mt. Kenya, we saw that its hillsides were burning. Though unconfirmed, the cause of the fires that destroyed over 10% of Mt. Kenya’s forests over the last several weeks has been widely attributed to poachers, who are rumored to start the fires to divert the energies and attention of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Sadly, the exorbitant prices fetched by elephant ivory and rhino horns on the black market continue to fuel the illegal hunting and slaughter of both. Thanks to conservationists and the outstanding work of the KWS, Kenya’s decimated elephant herds have recovered somewhat over the last two decades, though several hundred continue to be killed each year. The rhino populations have been less fortunate, as all of the world’s half dozen different rhino breeds are on the endangered species list.
Though disconcerting, the fires did not affect our climbing plans. They had rendered the Naro Moru route impassable, but we had planned to ascend via the nearby Sirimon route and descend down the other side of the mountain to Chogoria. After a three hour drive, which included a visit to an unremarkable curio shop and another long stop for lunch, we finally arrived at the Sirimon trailhead in the late afternoon. We had left Nairobi more than an hour later than we had planned, so we had to hustle, arriving at the first refuge at Old Moses camp just as the sun was beginning to set.