History of Climbing Mount Kenya & Route to Batian Peak

Climbing Mount Kenya

View of Mount Kenya along Nanyuki-Meru Road, near Timau.  Photo Courtesy
View of Mount Kenya along Nanyuki-Meru Road, near Timau. Image Courtesy

A Brief History of Climbing Mount Kenya

For ages, since the 1500’s when the Bantu tribes living around Mount Kenya settled here, it was considered implausible, even an absurd idea to ascend this great mountain. Mount Kenya invariably stood as a sanctum to be revered, as the home of the holy, and, to others, the upper slopes were the habitat of devils and all kinds of spirits. The natives were very superstitious concerning almost any mountain, and still more so about one of this size. The local people seldom penetrated even to the bare grass slopes above the bamboo belt. On some few occasions they penetrated so far in search of medicinal plants obtained from the roots of plants growing in this area. The natives who returned from the upper slopes were not at liberty to speak about what they had seen; the idea being that they had been let off by the “demons” of the mountains. “Not perhaps one in a thousand, however, of the native living close up against the foot has penetrated more than a mile or two into the forest. It is curious that the natives, even those living close round the foot of the mountain, never realise that this white shining mass is solidified water, akin to hail; nor do they know that it melts. They refer to it as the “white rock ” at the top of the hill, or the pure silver” – C.H. Stigand, 1912. That is how things stood until 1849, when it was first cited by a westerner.

The first European to refer to Mount Kenya would be Johann Ludwig Krapf. In December of 1849, Krapf, affiliated with the Church Missionary Society (CMS), set foot in Ukambani (from his base at Rabai near Mombasa) to kick the ball rolling for the wave of modern Christianity in this region. He had made it to Ukambani with the blessing and support of the influential Kamba Chief Kivoi through whom he had joined a trade convoy from Mombasa to Ukambani. It was on this voyage that Krapf crossed the Athi River and climbed up the Yatta Plateau where, from a vantage point near Kitui, he became the first white man to behold the snows of Mount Kenya. “The sky being clear, I got a full sight of this snow-mountain… It appeared to be a gigantic wall, on whose summit I observed two immense towers [Batian and Nelion], or horns as you many call them. These horns, or towers, which are at a short distance from each other, give the mountain a grand and majestic appearance which raised in my mind overwhelming feelings” – Krapf. But on reporting his discovery to Rebmann, who had discovered Kilimanjaro the previous year, his reports were attacked by several European geographers, who maintained that what had been seen was not snow but calcareous earth. Krapf’s claim was not confirmed up until 1887, when Joseph W. Thomson in 1887 saw Mount Kenya from the Laikipia Plateau.

At the turn on the twentieth century, as the challenge to summit mountains got bigger around the world, earliest explorers from Europe assembled at the five mountains of over 14,000 ft., looking for challenges in other continents, where there are high peaks were not so widely-known. East Africa began experiencing this migration, and it’s not surprising as there are five mountains over 14,000 ft. The first climb to the upper part of Mount Kenya was made in 1887 by Count Teleki, who reached a height of 13,800 ft., in the Teleki valley. A further attempt to climb the mountain was made by Capt. Dundas and C. Hobley in 1891. They tried the climb from the south but were turned back while still in the forest by the difficulty of the country. The most illustrative piece of work to be done on Mount Kenya to date was carried out by J. W. Gregory, during his expedition in 1893. Gregory climbed up as far as the Lewis Glacier, and reached a height of about 16,000 feet. While Mount Kenya had been visited by explorers, scientists and mountaineers on many occasions since 1887, the summit was not climbed until 1899, when it was reached by the Mackinder expedition, in a fine feat of mountaineering. Mackinder carried out a circuit of the peak and named some of the glaciers and valleys on the northern sector of the mountain. The upper part of the mountain was not visited again till 1908 when H. McGregor Ross and D. E. Hutchins carried out a circuit on the lower moorland, to scrutinize the forest.

Normal Trail to Batian Peak

Point Batian on Mount Kenya. Image courtesy of Adventure Alternative

“Leave Top Hut before dawn and cross the Lewis Glacier to the foot of Nelion’s south-east face. Start to the left of large ice couloir, and scramble up easy rock onto a terrace about 200 yards away from the couloir. Climb a gully on the left of the terrace “Donkey Walk” for 80 ft., and then work over to the right to the foot of “Mackinder’s Chimney”. If this is climbed it will be found about severe in standard, and more normally a variation is taken round it on the right, known as “Rabbit Hole”. This is climbed to the top of the “Chimney”. From here “One o’clock Gully” is taken up to the right, and above it easy slabs are climbed to the main ridge, where Rusty Baillie’s Alluminium Bivouac Shelter is reached. From this point one of two ways can be taken into the main Nelion “Amphitheatre”. Either follow round the left of “Mackinder’s Gendarme”, to “Rickety Crack” which is about IV, or traverse left, to the foot of “De Graff Variation”, and climb this into the “Amphitheatre”. From the “Amphitheatre” ascend a steep wall into a boulder strewn gully. This is followed to the summit of Nelion. If the top of Nelion is reached after 11 o’clock, the climb should not be continued to Batian, unless the intentions are of bivouacing. Climb down into the “Gate of the Mists” which could be Grade IV. Cross the ice rib of the “Gate” which may be corniced. An easy ledge is now climbed round the south side of Batian Peak until a gully is found leading up to the summit. Descent is mainly by abseiling. The Minot peaks of the mountain can also be ascended by the experienced; in the following list, the grades of the easiest route up each peak is stated after: Point John (III); Midget Peak (IV); Point Pigott (III); Thomson’s Flake (V); the Point Peter (III); Point Dutton (scramble); and Point Lenana (scramble).” – Reuter and Gostling

Climbing Mount Kenya
Close-up View of Batian Peak in Mount Kenya National Park

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