Mount Kenya's 'fatal attraction'

The allure of the snow-capped and mist-shrouded volcanic peaks of Mount Kenya that stand guard over the Great Rift Valley and the equator is as deadly as it is powerful.

    12 US tourists and two South African pilots perished when their light aircraft crashed into the mountain.

    Tourist climbers, local marijuana growers, elders from the

    Kikuyu tribe who hold the mountain to be sacred and sightseeing

    occupants of light aircraft have all met their end on its slopes.

    The most recent casualties claimed by Africa's second highest

    mountain - after Tanzania's Kilimanjaro - were a dozen members of

    an extended US family on holiday and two South African pilots whose

    plane crashed on Lenana peak on July 19.

    "Since 1985, at least 150 people have died on the mountain,"

    Kenya Wildlife Service Warden Bongo Woodley told AFP, attributing

    many of the deaths to altitude sickness and some even to suicide by

    jumping off cliffs.

    "This mountain is indeed famous, it has brought adventure to

    some and death to others," Woodley said, as investigations continued

    into the latest tragedy.

    The warden explained that thousands of people climb Mount Kenya

    every year, and that dozens of them have to be rescued.

    "You see," he said, pointing to a van packed with tourists

    driving up to one of several starting points for the long climb.

    "This mountain is indeed famous, it has brought adventure to

    some and death to others."

    --Kenya Wildlife Service Warden Bongo Woodley


    "It attracts many vistors because of its both simple and

    complicated climbing routes for serious climbers and less

    experienced tourists," he said, explaining that the apparent

    easiness of some routes was deceptive.

    Altitude sickness, caused by caused by low oxygen levels, can

    kick in at around 1,500 metres, well below the

    mountain's 5,199-metre summit.

    Early symptoms include light-headedness, dizziness, headaches

    and insomnia caused by over-exertion of the heart in pumping blood

    devoid of enough oxygen.

    If sufferers fail to descend at the onset of symptoms, altitude

    sickness can kill.

    "This is the fatal attraction of this mountain," said Assistant Park Warden David Sitienei.

    Mount Kenya has also claimed fortune seekers who plant marijuana

    on its lower, hyena-infested slopes.

    "An unknown number of people have been killed by freezing

    weather and fierce wild animals in the course of planting and

    inspecting their illegal marijuana plantations," Sitienei said.

    Other casualties include elderly Kikuyu tribesmen.

    "Elderly people in the (Kikuyu) tribe living around Mount Kenya

    still believe that apex of the mountain is home of their God," said

    Warden Gilbert Mweiga, who has studied the mountain and people

    living around it for over 15 years.

    "No wonder climbers and rescue wardens have often caught up with

    dazed elderly (people) hobbling hopelessly towards the snow line

    atop the pinnacles, resembling cathedral pillars, apparently

    searching for God," Mweiga added.

    Researcher Gabriel Kimetto said that members of nomadic

    Masai tribes believe their ancestors descended with cattle, their

    source of wealth, from the mountain's highest peak.

    Europeans' fascination with the mountain began in 1849, when a

    German missionary, Johannes Ludwig Krapf, reported to an incredulous

    British Royal Geographical Society that a mountain full of snow and

    glaciers sat around 30 kilometres from the equator.

    Explorer Joseph Thompson, despatched by the society in 1893,

    confirmed Krapf was correct and put Mount Kenya on the map.

    In 1899, Sir Halford Makinder made the first recorded ascent of

    Batian peak (5,199 metres) in his celebrated attempt with a party of

    170 people, mostly native porters who died atop the mountain, amid

    dwindling oxygen, food supplies and cold weather.



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