Mount Kenya is a stratovolcano created approximately 3 million years after the opening of the East African rift. Before glaciation, it was 7,000 m (23,000 ft) high. It was covered by an ice cap for thousands of years. This has resulted in very eroded slopes and numerous valleys radiating from the centre. There are currently 11 small glaciers. The forested slopes are an important source of water for much of Kenya.
There are several vegetation bands from the base to the summit. The lower slopes are covered by different types of forest. Many alpine species are endemic to Mount Kenya, such as the giant lobelias and senecios and a local subspecies of rock hyrax. An area of 715 km2 (276 sq mi) around the centre of the mountain was designated a National Park and listed as a UNESCO World
Heritage Site in 1997. The park receives over 15,000 visitors per year.
Mount Kenya National Park
Mount Kenya National Park, established in 1949, protects the region surrounding the mountain. Currently the national park is within the forest reserve which encircles it.In April 1978 the area was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.The national park and the forest reserve, combined, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
The Government of Kenya had four reasons for creating a national park on and around Mount Kenya. These were the importance of tourism for the local and national economies, to preserve an area of great scenic beauty, to conserve the biodiversity within the park, and to preserve the water catchment for the surrounding area.
Mount Kenya is a stratovolcano that was active in the Plio-Pleistocene. The original crater was probably over 6,000 m (19,700 ft) high; higher than Kilimanjaro. Since it became extinct there have been two major periods of glaciation, which are shown by two main rings of moraines below the glaciers. The lowest moraine is found at around 3,300 m (10,800 ft).Today the glaciers reach no lower than 4,650 m (15,260 ft).After studying the moraines, Gregory put forward the theory that at one time the whole summit of the mountain was covered with an ice cap, and it was this that eroded the peaks to how they are today.
The peaks of Mount Kenya are almost all from a volcanic origin. The majority of the peaks are located near the centre of the mountain. These peaks have an Alpine appearance due to their craggy nature. Typically of Alpine terrain, the highest peaks and gendarmes occur at the intersection of ridges. The central peaks only have a few mosses, lichens and small alpine plants growing in rock crevices.Further away from the central peaks, the volcanic plugs are covered in volcanic ash and soils.The vegetation growing on these peaks is typical for their vegetation band.
The highest peaks are Batian (5,199 metres (17,057 ft)), Nelion (5,188 m (17,021 ft)) and Pt Lenana (4,985 m (16,355 ft)). Batian and Nelion are only 250 m (270 yd) apart but separated by the Gates of Mist gap, which is equally deep.Coryndon Peak (4,960 m (16,273 ft)) is the next highest, but unlike the previous peaks it does not form a part of the central plug.
The glaciers on Mount Kenya are retreating rapidly. The Mountain Club of Kenya in Nairobi has photographs showing the mountain when it was first climbed in 1899, and again more recently, and the retreat of the glaciers is very evident.Descriptions of ascents of several of the peaks advise on the use of crampons, but now there is no ice to be found. There is no new snow to be found, even on the Lewis Glacier (the largest of them) in winter, so no new ice will be formed. It is predicted to be less than 30 years before there will no longer be ice on Mount Kenya.Glacial retreat and disappearance can be caused by change in temperature trends, or by change in precipitation trends.
Mount Kenya is the main water catchment area for two large rivers in Kenya; the Tana, the largest river in Kenya, and the Ewaso Ng’iso North.The Mount Kenya ecosystem provides water directly for over 2 million people.The rivers on Mount Kenya have been named after the villages on the slopes of the mountain that they flow close to. The Thuchi River is the district boundary between Meru and Embu. Mount Kenya is a major water tower for the Tana river which in 1988 supplied 80% of Kenya’s electricity using a series of seven hydroelectric powerstations and dams.
Mount Kenya has several distinct ecological zones, between the savanna surrounding the mountain to the nival zone by the glaciers. Each zone has a dominant species of vegetation. Many of the species found higher up the mountain are endemic, either to Mount Kenya or East Africa.
There are also differences within the zones, depending on the side of the mountain and aspect of the slope. The south-east is much wetter than the north,so species more dependent on moisture are able to grow. Some species, such as bamboo, are limited to certain aspects of the mountain because of the amount of moisture.
The climate of Mount Kenya has played a critical role in the development of the mountain, influencing the topography and ecology amongst other factors. It has a typical equatorial mountain climate which Hedberg described as winter every night and summer every day. Mount Kenya is home to one of the Global Atmosphere Watch’s atmospheric monitoring stations.
Most of the peaks on Mount Kenya have been summited. The majority of these involve rock climbing as the easiest route, although some only require a scramble or a walk. The highest peak that can be ascended without climbing is Point Lenana, 4,985 m (16,355 ft).The majority of the 15,000 visitors to the national park each year climb this peak. In contrast, approximately 200 people summit Nelion and 50 summit Batian, the two highest peaks.
There are eight walking routes up to the main peaks. Starting clockwise from the north these are the: Meru, Chogoria, Kamweti, Naro Moru, Burguret, Sirimon and Timau Routes.Of these Chogoria, Naro Moru and Sirimon and used most frequently and therefore have staffed gates. The other routes require special permission from the Kenya Wildlife Service to use.
The Chogoria route leads from Chogoria town up to the peaks circuit path. It heads through the forest to the south-east of the mountain to the moorland, with views over areas such as Ithanguni and the Giant’s Billiards Table before following the Gorges Valley past the Temple and up to Simba Col below Point Lenana.The Mountain Club of Kenya claims that Ithanguni and the Giant’s Billards Table offer some of the best hillwalking in Kenya.