SI Vault
Gary Smith
May 27, 1985
It is Africa's most mystical mountain, and its denizens include forest children, a zealot and an ancient mother and son. Here is a tick of time in its fascinating history
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May 27, 1985

A Day In The Life Of Mount Kenya

It is Africa's most mystical mountain, and its denizens include forest children, a zealot and an ancient mother and son. Here is a tick of time in its fascinating history

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Waweru was here last year when the terrible drought crept down from Ethiopia. He was here when the old Kikuyu men brought a red lamb and a black lamb to a sacred place at the foot of the mountain, walked them eight times around a hallowed tree, pointed their heads toward the mountain summit and strangled them. "Long after that we finally got rain, but not enough," Waweru says. "I think it is because our young people do not follow the old customs anymore. The mountain is still like a magnet to our eyes, but it is not helpful to us anymore. We are scared."

His feeling of awe and fear is an old one. Mount Kenya has always seduced men, then blown them away. Some have been trampled by the five-ton elephants and the 1,500-pound Cape buffalo that roam as high as 14,000 feet. Some have died trying to scale the sheer faces of rock and ice that mountaineers consider to be among the most difficult on earth. Many have died from ascending too quickly into the rarefied air: Mount Kenya has caused more cases of pulmonary edema—the flooding of lungs with body fluid due to increasing deficiency in oxygen—than any other mountain in the world. One of every 300 people who hike or climb on Mount Kenya exits on a stretcher. At least 30 climbers have died in the last 15 years.

Mount Kenya lies 70 miles northeast of Nairobi. It is Africa's second-largest mountain and it erupts from the plains, a vast pyramid with a base 40 miles in diameter, until, at 14,000 feet, it narrows and makes a spectacular, jagged leap to-ward heaven. Once its summit was a live volcano, but 2� million years have gnawed away its crater and left a core of rocky peaks. Its extremes of blazing equatorial sun by day and subfreezing temperatures at night have helped create a landscape and fauna that seem to be transplanted from another planet. This mountain has lions, leopards, black rhino, zebras and tiny antelope patrolling it. It so hugs the equator that its ice face switches from one side to the other every six months as the sun moves from the northern to the southern hemisphere.

Mystery shrouds the strange mountain. Three-foot-high hillocks, evenly spaced 10 feet apart in parallel lines on the north side hint at what might be graveyard remains of a vanished race. Stories of murder and ghosts haunt the rangers of Mount Kenya National Park. What of the huge sloping rock standing isolated on the mountain with bones littered all about it? Locals say that elephants used it to kill invading human beings by grinding them against it until their bones protruded from their skin, leaving them to die in agony.

Few outside Kenya know much about this great geographical freak. It has been eclipsed in size and legend by a mountain 200 miles to the south, just below Kenya's border with Tanzania. Mount Kilimanjaro is 2,300 feet higher and has a more romantic name and Ernest Hemingway's short story to celebrate it, but it is lesser in many ways. " Kilimanjaro is this big plodding mountain, rising like a loaf of bread," says Galen Rowell, who makes a career of photographing mountains. "Mount Kenya is this dark, dramatic, surprising thing thrusting out of the plains. Kilimanjaro is serenity. Mount Kenya is ominous."

It is 7 a.m. Margeson has been descending slowly. He hears a groan below him. He continues on and finds Hodnett. "I don't know how he lived," Margeson says later. Hodnett has fallen 350 feet, bounced several times off the mountainside, avoided hitting any of several ledges and has come to rest. He has suffered two broken ankles and multiple lacerations. Margeson ties his friend securely so that he will not fall farther, feeds him a painkiller and settles down to wait for someone to come with a stretcher before the sun rises high enough to cause ice and snow to thaw and rocks above to fall. Mount Kenya's summit will not be conquered on this day.

It is said that the first man to reach that summit was the first chief of the Kikuyu tribe. He was supposedly lifted to the peak by the god Mogai, the lord of nature, and shown where to start his tribe. For centuries afterward, other natives had no desire to go to the top. They were terrified by the distant rumbling of avalanches and the mystical white sheathing that they guessed might be flour. The mountain was magic. Proof of this came when the first porters to accompany white men to the top returned with stories of water turning to stone overnight. The Mwimbi tribe from the mountain's eastern slopes believed it to be inhabited by evil spirits that entered men's bodies and made them epileptics. In 1899 an Englishman named Halford J. Mackinder and his two alpine guides were the first white men to conquer the main peak. He named it Batian after a Masai medicine man who had prophesied that beings with white skin would one day invade their land.

The name of the mountain itself derived from either a mispronunciation of the original Kikuyu name, Kere-Nyaga (mountain of whiteness), or from the natives' nickname for it, Kiinyaa, after a black-and-white male ostrich.

On the eve of Dec. 12, 1963, the day the colony was at last given full independence from the British, five citizens of the new sovereign nation scaled Mount Kenya, planted their country's new flag on Nelion, Batian's twin peak, and at midnight lit flares that illuminated the mountain so that it could be seen for miles. Kenya was born. So powerful a hold does this strange mountain have on the people living around it that it is the only one whose country has been named for it.

It is 11:15 a.m. The call comes down from the mountaintop to the ranger station at the park gate: Man hurt on ice. Injury uncertain. Ranger John Omira, 36, who is one of the few black mountain climbers in Africa, begins to gather his gear. He learns that some Polish and Swiss climbers are hauling Hodnett off the glacier down to another station at 14,000 feet. If the injured man cannot descend from there under his own power, Omira will supervise a rescue party. He has been a member of the ranger rescue squad since it was first formed, in 1971, after an Austrian climber broke a leg and was stranded on the peaks for nine days. The climber survived, but a helicopter aiding in the rescue crashed into the mountain and the pilot was killed.

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