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Southeast Face of Nelion

5.7, Trad, Alpine, 1200 ft, 20 pitches, Grade IV,  Avg: 3.8 from 9 votes
FA: E. E. Shipton and P. W. Harris, Jan 6, 1929
International > Africa > Kenya > Mt Kenya

The Classic Rock Climb of the Southern Hemisphere

When it's winter up north, this is a 15 pitch rock climb that can be done with a small rack, single 60m rope, and rock shoes (or boots). Lots of novices have been guided up Nelion, even though it takes thirteen rappels to get down (25m raps). January and February are the driest months. The rains might stop by December for Christmas holidays.

Be aware: even in the thick of summer, conditions can vary wildly. Weather is unpredictable and what starts as a perfectly clear day can quickly deteriorate to full-on conditions. Dry season DOES NOT guarantee no precipitation, so come prepared for weather and cold.

Mount Kenya from Point Lenana Southeast Face on left. East Pillar & North Face are best done June through September (warmer). cosmic Wiki-photo by Stefan Leitner (month unknown)
Once Nelion is climbed, continuing down to the Gate of Mists and up to Batian is more advanced and committing. There is a tiny hut at the summit of Point Nelion and some parties spend the night either before or after traversing to the summit of Batian.
Howell Hut atop Point Nelion, Mt Kenya. In decades past, climbers camping near Hall Tarns would emerge from their tents in the morning to find themselves surrounded by elephants. Same camp would make the Temple an amazing top down opportunity. Unfreeclimbed?
From the summit of Nelion, downclimbing to the Gate of Mists requires one long rappel, found about half way down to the Gate. From the Gate, easy fifth class rock leads to the top of Batian (and adds on a few more rappels back down to the Gate). To ensure a safe return back up the fixed rope to Nelion, team members should have their own ascenders and know how to use them!
Mt Kenya, South Side from near the MacKinder Hut. At the notch, behind the white G in Gate of Mists, is the step where the rope gets fixed. by KT late January
For reversing the route back up to Nelion, some have used ice gear to climb around left of the ice/snow patch by the rappel. However, it is much easier to travel in Africa with extra rope & ascenders than to carry ice boots, crampons, screws, and two ice tools.

A real route description follows, but first a few basics.


In the photo above, the Diamond Couloir is very dry and sunny in January. Even during July, August, or September, when the south side is coldest, the lower section never forms well anymore. Adapting to the change, ice climbers have dry-tooled the start (M7!). The couloir is now widely accepted as too dangerous due to rockfall.

No matter what time of year, the nights are twelve hours long and sunset is quick on the Equator.

There are many companies to recommend for the Naro Moru trekking route, here are two. Expect to commit by paying in advance.

The Naro Moru River Lodge has cooks, porters, climbing guides, equipment rental, safe lodging in a nice place, and a ride to the airport. They own the huts on this approach too. Other guided treks will make arrangements with the lodge. My family did not hire a climbing guide because we are a team, but we did have a trekking guide and porters. If we had changed our minds, then a guide could have been called up via cell phoned in from near MacKinder's Hut.

Savage Wilderness is operated by the man who made the only good map of Mount Kenya. I observed the operation of Savage Wilderness all over the mountain and they are excellent too.

Approach Nelion via the Naru Moru Trekking Route

Southeast Face of Pt Nelion
While most hike the road from the park entrance, it is possible to hire a vehicle from local guides to drive up to Met Station Camp. Usually best to stay two nights at 10,000ft. Then, hike up to the hut at Mackinder's Camp (ca 14,000ft/4,000m).

On summit day, use the "Lewis Tarn Approach" up the west side of the Lewis Glacier (red on map below). This way is dry enough for trail running shoes and only requires a 3,000 ft elevation gain from the Mackinder Hut to the summit of Nelion.

Staying at the chilly Austrian Hut means crossing the ice of the Lewis Glacier to approach the Southeast Face and that requires mountaineering gear.

The map below shows the approach route from Mackinder's Camp to the regular route on Nelion (SE Face). From Lewis Tarn, climb up left to gain the slabs and ramps way above the glacier. The cairns get bigger and better as one gets closer to the start of the Southeast Face.
We met Mr Savage at Met Station Camp and he was fine with me using his excellent map of Mount Kenya. I would certainly hire Savage Wilderness on my next trip to the big free climbs. Forget Patagonia, brrrrr!

Route Description for Nelion's Southeast Face

The description below is for one of many variations to the route. For other descriptions, please get in touch with the Mountain Club of Kenya and find their official guidebook to Mount Kenya.

Southeast Face of Nelion photo by M Trout from Lenana paint by Ken Trout
The first nine pitches are easily seen on the photo-topo above. Franco Pecchio's photo of the traverse to MacKinder's Chiminey shows how the route traverses past the obvious big chimney/corner. The rappels are even further to climber's right. It is a nice 5.10- top rope off the last rap' anchor.
Mt Kenya Southeast Face Nice sunny start in NH winter!
After the juggy roof of Mackinder's Chimney, it's fun and easy for several pitches up to the top of the Southeast Faces's knife-edge summit which must be crossed at rappel #7's single shiny rappel anchor.

The photo below shows the downclimb off the knifedge and easy traverse to the start of pitch ten. I guess that the bolt marked with red is to keep ropes off the loose blocks.
Hard to keep the shoes dry
Pitch ten is easy 5th up to a single bolt (for the 6th rap anchor).
pitch 11 and rappel anchor #6
I chickened out on finishing up Shipton's Crack, but on the descent it looked no harder than my exposed traverse to Rickety Crack, where a cold wind blows on the arete. Both cracks end on a beautiful ridge at belay number twelve, marked on some photos. The pitch thirteen 5.7 traverse is harder than it looks...(see photo below)
Point Nelion, Southeast Face Zoom in to see Pt St John. Ian Allen's book say's the steepest route is A4 (his!). Of St John's three other aid walls, the original, Rusty Baillie's, is described as ten pitches of A1 and A2 straight to the summit! " real stances."
Pitch Fourteen Crux
There is an easier chimney just left, out of the photo and filled with an ice blob. Ian Allen's 1998, Mtn Club of Kenya, guide book rates it III (5.3). Cameron Burn's, 1998, Mountaineers, guide books give it IV (5.5). The chimney looked like a valid escape if the 5.9 layback proves to much.

In 2016/7 the single glue-ins were backed up with additional bolts.

13 rappels down the Austrian bolt line (30 meters maximum). Green arrows for rappels and green x's for each rap anchor on the photo-topo.
Mt Kenya Descent
A very exposed single bolt rappel - the first of several down a steep headrush/headwall!
The 3rd anchor is on a wildly exposed ledge. The 4th, 5th, and 6th are off single Austrian glue-ins.
This photo was used above
After rappel #6, reverse the easy ledges down to bolts (red on photo) and then up the 4th class chimney to the top of the knife-edge ridge and the seventh anchor.
second time for this photo too
Lonely glue-in bolt set atop a lovely knife-edge. Perhaps a radial dike ridge like those around Shiprock, NM? Only gigantic and much better rock of course.
Oops on the "unclimbed" face. I meant to say "unfreeclimbed!
8th rappel anchor
9th rappel anchor
10th rappel anchor
11th rappel anchor

Photos [Hide ALL Photos]

Glacier between Austrian Hut (at the right side) and South-East-Face in January 2017, seen from pidge 9: crampons not necessary due to climate change!
[Hide Photo] Glacier between Austrian Hut (at the right side) and South-East-Face in January 2017, seen from pidge 9: crampons not necessary due to climate change!
Be ready for variable conditions, even in summer.
[Hide Photo] Be ready for variable conditions, even in summer.
Looking down the ridge to Pt John from above DeGraff's Variation
[Hide Photo] Looking down the ridge to Pt John from above DeGraff's Variation
Mt Kenya from Naru Moru
[Hide Photo] Mt Kenya from Naru Moru
Rockin the jimbe in Nanyuki!
[Hide Photo] Rockin the jimbe in Nanyuki!
Nairobi on the way to Mt. Kenya
[Hide Photo] Nairobi on the way to Mt. Kenya
RAPPEL #2<br>
Just one bolt for a very steep rap. The following four raps are fairly easy to find and all single bolt.
[Hide Photo] RAPPEL #2 Just one bolt for a very steep rap. The following four raps are fairly easy to find and all single bolt.
RAPPEL #1<br>
From the highest rap bolt, looking down to my pile of green rope. I down-climbed instead. <br>
Green dashes lead to the second, very steep, 26 meter rappel.
[Hide Photo] RAPPEL #1 From the highest rap bolt, looking down to my pile of green rope. I down-climbed instead. Green dashes lead to the second, very steep, 26 meter rappel.

Comments [Hide ALL Comments]

Nate Flynn
United States
[Hide Comment] On the first or second pitch (depending on linkage) make sure you traverse extreme left enough. We did not and started climbing some 5.10 plus chimney. Aug 16, 2013
Portland, OR
[Hide Comment] Very nice write up. May 19, 2016
[Hide Comment] A local climber had installed shiny new bolts and chains the day before our ascent (January 2017 - thank you!).

We hired a climbing guide at the last minute for navigation purposes and it proved to be a smart choice. It's a complex route. We were a team of 3. One partner followed the climbing guide while the other two team members followed behind on their own rope. This allowed us to get to Batian and back down to the hut in a single day.

We climbed in January and did not need crampons. The Lewis glacier is so minuscule at this point. Nov 15, 2017
[Hide Comment] Dear Ken, my questions are: how long are the pitches (upwards) in maximum? Same question for abseiling? Which sizes of rocks/friends did you use? Were there icy sections in January and did you take your crampons up to the summit for that purpose? Thanks in advance, Andi Dec 19, 2017
Yvonne Durbin
[Hide Comment] We climbed just before Christmas. You will never need crampons to cross the Lewis Glacier again. While there was a little bit of snow around the route, there was no need for crampons/axes/anything like that. Because the glacier has receded, the approach to the climb is pretty sketchy. Think melting ice causing constant mini rock slides and large chunks of moving scree under your feet. This was especially difficult to come back down when we were exhausted, so highly recommend making sure you come down in the daylight. Route finding without a guide was pretty challenging for us, but was manageable. Awesome climb! Jan 3, 2018
[Hide Comment] Since when was the Normal Route of Nelion and Batian graded 5.8? The crux of the route is either Rickety Crack, or the alternative and slightly less exposed De Graff Variation, both of which are about UK hard severe, or Australian 13, or American 5.5. Owing to the altitude it might seem harder than this, but it definitely is not. 5.8 is UK hard very severe, or Australian 17. It isn’t easy to give an alpine route a rock climbing grade, but this route is at its hardest 5.5. Apr 21, 2018
Jack Charity
Shreveport, LA
[Hide Comment] Absolutely agree with Iain Allen's comment regarding grade. I have climbed this route many times and personally think that de Graf's variation (the definite crux) is only UK HS (hard severe) because of its altitude, and that you encounter it late in the climb. As a stand-alone pitch, it is no more than UK Severe (US 5.5-). It also has superb protection with a bolt protecting the upper part of the pitch, where the step out is slightly awkward - I have been guilty of using a knee!
Remember, the recently deceased Mt Kenya great climbing legend, Ian Howell, SOLOED this route many times carrying all the building materials to build the summit hut! Jan 20, 2019
Lindsay Bingaman
Nairobi, KE
[Hide Comment] Hi all, a few questions regarding this route:

- is it worth carrying two ropes to link rappels and/or to leave a fixed rope at gates of mist?
- can you link any of the pitches with a 70m?
- has anyone simul-climbed this?
- how miserable is it to sleep in Howell Hut? :)
- are ice axe/crampons necessary for gates of mist?

Asante! Jan 31, 2019
[Hide Comment] @lindsay, answering your questions from what I remember

-Many of the raps are longer than 30m so 2 double ropes are ideal.
-Yes, you can probably link much of it - the pitches and stances aren't very predictable for much of the route, just go till your rope runs out or you hit a big ledge
-Yes alot of it is simul, you'd have a hard time pitching out the whole route in a reasonable time frame
-Not bad to sleep in the hut if you're 3 or less. There's also space near the hut to bivvy out if the weather is decent.
-Don't know latest gate conditions - should ask around in the club! Feb 13, 2019