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Ascending Africa's second-highest mountain requires proper planning and preferably the services of an expert trekking and climbing company. It's possible to pick up freelance guides (locals who are, by and large, sufficiently skilled and familiar with the mountain), but you'll feel a good deal more secure if you go the route of hiring real professionals with solid credentials. If you do decide to take on casual guides, make sure they're card-carrying -- and the license must be one issued by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS); local guiding associations may also issue membership cards, but only the KWS card really stands up to some kind of scrutiny. The most popular place to solicit guides (or put together an all-inclusive trek or climb) is Mountain Rock Lodge (www.mountainrockkenya.com), not too far from Naro Moru, at the foot of the mountain. The lodge is often where climbing and trekking parties start and end their expeditions -- there are basic, slightly disheveled rooms (Ksh5,500-Ksh6,600 double, including all meals) and a great big garden with close-up views of the mountain in question. But the real allure is having access to expert mountain guides and staff who can provide you with intimate, hands-on knowledge of the mountain.

Ascending Africa's Everest

Mount Kenya's two main peaks -- Batian and Nelion -- are tough technical climbs and should be attempted only by experienced climbers. This is a distinction you need to bear in mind when deciding whether to tackle Kilimanjaro -- for which technical experience is not required -- or Mt. Kenya, which may not be quite as high but is certainly the more difficult option. You'll need ropes, crampons, and ice axes -- not to mention nerves of steel and ice-climbing experience. It's here that professionals come to prepare for epic ascents, such as those to the top of Everest.

The third-highest peak, Point Lenana (4,985m/16,351 ft.), is a workable option that may tempt less serious climbers and is a good choice for fit trekkers and anyone with doubts about the loftier twin peaks. However, don't think that the hike is, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. There are three principal tracks to Lenana. Naro Moru, on the western slopes, is touted as the easiest and is consequently the most popular (it's also the most accessible for anyone coming from Nairobi). Sirimon is longer and requires a higher degree of fitness and stamina. Chogoria, on the eastern slopes, is another slightly more challenging option and is considered the most picturesque. There is a fourth and more remote trail, Burguret, which is a good option if you're up for a real wilderness adventure.

To make the most of your time and actually enjoy your experience of the mountain, I strongly recommend venturing onto the mountain only if you've hired the services of a professional -- there's no point risking getting lost or having to carry weighty equipment. Recommended U.K.-based trekking operator IntoAfrica (tel. 114/255-5610 in the U.K.; www.intoafrica.co.uk) runs a 7-day trip combining Burguret with Chogoria for the most fascinating, unhurried, and challenging exploration of the mountain. The trip, which commences and finishes in Nairobi and includes 4 nights of tented camping, costs $1,800 per person for a party of two, and as little as $1,235 if you're part of a much larger group. If you want to go directly through a Kenyan operator, IntoAfrica also does bookings for Mountain Rock Safaris & Camps (www.mountainrockkenya.com), which has a variety of treks ranging between 3 and 8 days, rated with telling sobriquets such as "Mt. Kenya's Coca-Cola Route," "The Senior Citizen's Choice," and "A Precocious Option." Their longer packages are geared toward climbers and those looking to reach the summit rather than simply take in the scenery. KG Mountain Expeditions (tel. 020/203-3874; www.kenyaexpeditions.com) is run by James Kagambi ("KG"), a local mountaineer with loads of experience on mountains worldwide. He's based in Naro Moru at the foot of Mt. Kenya and puts together tailormade treks and technical climbs adapted to cater to different budgets.

Overzealous climbers, take heed: It's possible to gain altitude quite rapidly, and high-altitude sickness is a real risk here. A huge percentage of the world's pulmonary edema cases (a potentially fatal form of high-altitude sickness) happen on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, and the only deterrent is to tackle the slopes slowly and sensibly. This is no hardship, as the routes are all imbued with quite magnificent scenery, dominated by belts of Afro-alpine vegetation. Beautiful gnarl-wooded, feathery-leaved, red-bloom hagenia trees; giant lobelias; and huge groundsels (with flowers resembling cabbages) are some of the specially adapted plants that flourish here, and there's no end to the unusual flora you'll encounter right up to the snowline, from where lichen and moss takes over. For many, the highlights on the way up are the crystal-clear tarns, and there are 13 glaciers below the peaks, too (they're all receding pretty rapidly, though, thanks to climate change).

Solo hiking and climbing is not permitted, and you need to watch your timing on the slopes. Because it's practically on the equator, night descends with surprising rapidity (around 30 min. after sunset) and often catches climbers and hikers unawares. You need to have struck camp before the sun disappears.

Make no mistake, Mount Kenya can be forbidding and dangerous, with injuries and deaths every year. Make no attempt at the mountain if you aren't in good health, and don't skimp on gear, provisions, and adequate warm clothing. You're required to register with the Kenya Wildlife Service upon arrival at the mountain and must sign out on departure. KWS fees for entry to Mount Kenya are $55 per adult (children $20), and there's a 3-day package for $150 (although, strangely, children pay $70). Be sure that no fires are lit on the mountain and that you leave no trace of your visit.

Before considering any Mount Kenya hike or climb, contact The Mountain Club of Kenya (tel. 020/60-2330; www.mck.or.ke; MCKenya@gmail.com), which has been operating for 60 years and owns four huts on the mountain. Besides providing information on how to go about using the huts, they've published their own Guide to Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro (edited by Iain Allan), which features information of flora and fauna, as well as climbing and hiking routes. Whatever information you've stocked up on, you'll want to tackle Mount Kenya with a professional operator -- failing that, though, the Mountain Club can advise on how to go about choosing guides and porters.

View from Above -- For those who don't fancy the chill and hardcore exertions of a climb up one of Africa's toughest mountains, the most invigorating way to see Mount Kenya is from the cockpit of a modern biplane. Will Craig, owner of Lewa Wilderness, flies a bright yellow WACO biplane built to the same specs as those used during the 1930s, when flying was, first and foremost, about thrills, spills, fun, and excitement. The joyride from Lewa lasts between 30 minutes and an hour, and takes you as much as 4,200m (13,776 ft.) above sea level, flying over scenes ranging from forest and desert to mountain slopes and snowy peaks. You'll spot large animals that look like ants on the ground below, but your sense of perspective and bird's-eye view of the scene is riveting, and having the wind on your face (you're given a scarf and nice big leather bomber jacket to stave off the cold) is exhilarating. Flights can be arranged directly through Lewa Wilderness (tel. 0721/970-340).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.