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.
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.

Source : AFP

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