It is difficult to sleep in the thin air at 4,200 metres. For the past hour, I have lain awake, waiting for my alarm to pierce the dead silence of the night. Finally, at 2am, the welcome "beep, beep, beep" signals it is time to get up. The stone bunkhouse begins to stir with climbers preparing for the day's hike. By the light of a torch, I lace up my boots and step out into the chilly, cloudless night. A nearly full moon illuminates the serrated, saw-toothed peaks that loom over the Teleki Valley. In the distance, the icy pyramid of Lenana Peak, at 4,985m, still seems impossibly far away.
Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa after its more famous relative, Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895m) in neighbouring Tanzania. But unlike Kilimanjaro, a gently sloping volcanic cone with an easy hiking trail to the summit, Mt Kenya blew its top thousands of years ago, creating a craggy summit plateau that involves difficult climbing to surmount. There are eight trekking routes that lead to Lenana Peak. Of these, the Naro Moru route is the shortest, but also the steepest.
Esleen, my climbing partner, and I began our hike two days ago at the Naro Moru gate in the tropical jungle at 2,400m. Shouldering heavy 12kg packs that contained all of our gear and food for three days, we walked the nine-kilometre muddy track that carved through the dense forest of east African junipers and podocarpus trees. We kept an eye out for elephants, buffaloes and leopards that are occasionally seen in these wooded slopes. All we spotted, however, were some red-bottomed baboons and a train of army ants.
After three hours, we reached the Met Station, a weather research camp at 3,100m on the edge of the forest. Our luxurious, wide trail ended here as we entered the area known as the "vertical bog". When it rains, as it often does, this steep grassland dotted with chaparral and heather becomes a soggy swamp. We slogged our way through the mucky mess for another five hours until late in the day when we found a flat, dry perch on which to pitch our tent. After cooking a tin of processed spaghetti, we crawled into our shelter just as it began to rain.
It rained the whole night and into the next morning - not ideal conditions to start day two of our climb. At 10am, still tent-bound in the light drizzle, we made the decision to pack up and head down the mountain. There is no point in spending our holiday wet, cold and miserable, we thought. Maybe we could come back and try the climb again in the dry season. As we packed the tent and prepared to descend, the rain suddenly stopped and a bright sun barely peeked through the grey clouds. This dried out our soaked gear and warmed our spirits. Maybe we can continue a little bit farther up the trail and see what happens, we thought. Within a few hours, we had left the vertical bog and entered the much drier Teleki Valley and the third climatic zone of Mt Kenya - the Afro-alpine zone. The area is an otherworldly moonscape of burnt umber rocks punctuated with giant lobelias and groundsels.
By mid-afternoon we had arrived at Mackinder's Hut at 4,200m, the base camp for climbs to the summit. Plump rock hyraxes that look like small beavers scampered about on the rocks and munched on blades of grass. The hut is essentially a long, stone dormitory that sleeps two dozen in basic bunk beds. A mix of international hikers was already there, preparing for their summit climbs. We cooked a dinner of baked beans and instant noodles and retired to our bunks as soon as the sun set to try and get some sleep. The next day would require an early start.
The bright moon provides plenty of light, making a torch unnecessary. We are struggling up the side of a steep slope of scree, or small, loose volcanic rocks. At 4,500 metres our breathing is laboured, and we stop and pant after each step. The rocks soon give way to snow that crunches under our boots. We have reached the ice cap, the final climatic zone above the tree line. The only vegetation here is some hardy lichen that clings to the side of boulders.
Just before sunrise, we reach the Austrian Hut. The primitive shelter at 4,790m is the highest hut on the mountain and is sometimes used by climbers who become stranded near the summit. We rest here for a few minutes and eat some dried mango to recharge for the push up the final 200 metres. The summit pyramid is a steep pile of icy boulders. We carefully scramble upward, using our hands to pull ourselves atop ever-higher blocks. One slip could mean a 500-metre fall to the glacier below. Esleen is scared and wants to turn back. I convince her that the summit is close and to keep moving slowly, cautiously.
Finally, the end is in sight. There is one more boulder to scale. We hoist ourselves up and see that there is nothing higher to climb. We are on top of the second highest mountain in Africa. The sun is just peeking over the horizon. The clouds break and we drink up the views of the continent stretching in all directions below us. As we contemplate the long descent back to civilisation, I am humbled by this massive mountain. We did not conquer Mt Kenya. The mountain allowed us to pass. email@example.com
It is possible to climb the mountain without the help of guides. This is the cheapest option, and a three- to four-day trek can be done for less than US$100 (Dh367). Guides, porters and cooks can be hired near the entrance to the national park for about $10 (Dh37) to $20 (Dh73) per person (www.mtkenyaguides.com). Adventure travel companies offer package tours that include guides, porters, food, accommodation, gear and transport from Nairobi from $800 (Dh2,940) per person (www.whitewaterkenya.com; www.tropical-ice.com). Return flights on Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) from Dubai to Nairobi cost from $556 (Dh2,042).