Historical Place Names
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Historical Place Names

More salient features (rivers, valleys, lakes, glaciers and peaks) have been named on Mt. Kenya, than on probably any other single mountain in the world! Many of the names have profound historical significance, and most of them bear testimony to the courage and skills and the early explores and climbers who left their mark on Mt. Kenya.


The Austrian hut was built in 1970 to commemorate one of the most dramatic human ordeals in Mountain history – the dramatic rescue of the Austrian, Gert Judmaier, who fell while descending a precipice Batian and who lay crippled for seven days on a small edge in appalling weather conditions, while skilled mountaineers from around the world tried to reach him. In appreciation of the sacrifices made (the helicopter pilot was killed) and the great risks taken, the Austrian Government later provided funds and training to establish the first official mountain rescue team on Mount Kenya.


Named after Dr. J.W. Arthur, a missionary, who, in 1909 established a mission  at Chogoria on the eastern slopes of Mt. Kenya. With other missionaries like A.R. Barlowand Dennis, he spent many years exploring the lower valleys, and in February 1916 reached Pont Lenana. In 1919 he attempted to climb Mount Kenya with Jack Melhuish- an accomplished climber. This was the first really serious assault on Mt. Kenya since Mackinder’s two decades earlier, but the attempt failed.



The highest Point on Mt. Kenya, at 5199 metres, often described as the “African Matterhom”. The first to conquer the summit was the Scotsman, Halford Mackinder, who climbed the mountain with two specialist Italian Guides. This remarkable feat was accomplished on the 13th September 1899, and it fell to Mackinder (the expedition leader) to name many of the natural features on Mt. Kenya – especially the two highest points: the twin summits of Batian and Nelion. Fortunately, the naming of the peaks had been discussed before hand at the Nairobi Railhead with S.L. Hinde, the British administrator of Maasailand, and history can be grateful that both were men of perception and sensitivity. Fittingly, Hinde had suggested that Mackinder should make his choice from a selection of Maasai names. The hero chiefs of the Maasai two or three generations before the white men came were the two brothers Batian and Nelion, who were responsible for uniting the fractious Maasai tribes. Lenana, Batian’s son, was the living chief of the Maasai at the time, and Mackinder had been escorted through the Kenyan plains by two Maasai warriors who carried Lenana’s knobkerrie by way of a “passport” to prevent possible conflict with the local tribes people. To honour Lenana, the last supreme chief of the Maasai, Mackinder name the third highest summit, Point Lenana. It was Chief Lenana who was coerced in 1904, and again in 1911, into signing agreements that surrendered the traditional Maasai grazing lands on the Laikipia Plains, beneath the tribe’s holy mountain, Mt. Kenya, to the British.

Other people too, enjoyed the privilege of naming many of the salient features on Mount Kenya, particularly Dutton and Melhuish. They recognized the great contribution that Ernest Carr, a local British administrator in the early 1920’s, had made by building a road through the forests from the village of Chogoria to the plateau above at 10,000 feet (known today at the “Chogoria Route”) by naming a group of names after him. Not only did Carr establish the Chogoria track, arguably the most beautiful approach to the mountain, but with Arthur he also established the first two climber’s huts on the mountain in 1922, all at considerable cost to himself. The Urumandi hut is at 10,000 feet and top hut at 15,715 feet on the Lewis Glacier beside the frozen pool known as the curling Pond. The two huts were designed by Arthur and Melhuish and paid for by Carr.

In reaching the summit of Batian, Mackinder was greatly assisted by his specialist Italian guides, Cesar Ollier and Joseph Brocherel, who, according to some accounts, virtually hauled their leader to the top! In recognition to their service to the expedition, Mackinder named the two Glaciers on the lower northern face of Batian, Cesar Glacier, and Joseph Glacier respectively.

As World War II drew close, Nairobi began to attract a small number of climbing enthusiasts from the around the world who would eventually establish the Mountain Club of Kenya in 1949. The man who dominated this period was Arthur Firmin, a climber from England who had opened a small photography shop in Nairobi. This was to become the Golden Age of climbing Mount Kenya, and Firmin had it all to himself. Two features are named after him, the Firmin Hut, and Firmin Tower.

The two highest peaks on Mount Kenya, Batian and Nelion (the difference in height between them being only thirty-six feet) stand approximately 400 feet apart and are divided by a narrow ridge that dips down 200 feet to a snow-covered saddle- the apex of the Diamond Glacier. Poetically, Mackinder called this the “Gate of the Mists”. For some reason he believed the mountains name, ‘Kenya’ was a corruption of the Maasai word Mists.

Mackinders named the sparkling sheet of water south-east of the Hinde Valley, which spawns the Nithi River, Lake Michaelson- after one of his closest friends. It lies beneath the sheer, 1,000-foot high cliffs of the Gorges Valley named after Captain (later Brigadier-General) Gorges who came to Mackinder’s rescue after the expedition had all but ended in a disaster. On the other side of these sheer cliffs stands another, smaller sheet of water, Hall Tarn, which Mackinder named after Major Hall, the British officer who was in command of Fort hall at the time- now the thriving town of Murang’a

In 1893, the famous British geologist Dr. J.W. Gregory arrived in Kenya to undertake a geological survey of East Africa. He had no intention of climbing Mount Kenya, but nevertheless spent much time there, and was the first to recognize that the mountain is what remains of an ancient volcano.

Harris Tarn honours Wyn Harris, the famous British climber who accompanied Eric Shipton on many outstanding climbs in the early 1930’s. Shipton, a former farm manager in the foothills of Mt. Kenya, and Harris, a colonial officer in Kenya, went on to become two of the greatest names in mountaineering history, nearly conquering Everest. Their skills, resourcefulness, and courage are indelibly inscribed on the pages of Himalayan Climbing History.

Mackinder named the valley beneath the Cesar and Joseph Glaciers after Campbell Hausberg, the expedition’s photographer who, using a system known as the Ives process, took what were certainly the first colour pictures of Mount Kenya, and probably among the very first colour photographs ever taken anywhere. Ironically, six years earlier Gregory had named the same valley in honour of Joseph Thomson, the Royal Geographical Society’s official photographer for whom Mackinder now named a minor crest beneath Nelion’s southern face, Point Thompson. To this day, no feature on Mt. Kenya has ever been named after the famous 1883 Scottish explorer, Joseph Thompson!

The great valley running north-east of the mountain in the direction of Meru, was named the Hinde Valley after the British administrator of Maasailand at the time, Major S.L. Hinde.

Ian Howell arrived in Kenya from England in 1967 and dominated East African climbing for nearly two decades. More than any other person, he was responsible for setting standards on Mount Kenya that brought it into a position where it could rate alongside the best of the great mountains in the world. Today, there are 33 major climbing routes on Batian and Nelion, and it might be said that this is the highest concentration of hard technical climbing at 5180 m (1700 ft) that exists anywhere in the world. Eleven of these climbs were pioneered by Howell in an effort to reduce the number of climbing fatalities which were increasing on the Normal Route to Nelion as climbers beat a hasty retreat off the peak in the dark to avoid a cold bivouac; Ian decided to build a hut on Nelion’s summit. First, he assembled the hut in his garden, carefully numbered each part, then he arranged for the sections to be airlifted to the Lewis Glacier. After this, he made a remarkable 13 solo ascents of the South-East Face, carrying the entire hut piece by pice to the summit! It sleeps three people comfortably, and there have been fewer deaths on the mountain since its construction.

On December 3, 1849, Johann Ludwig Krapf, a missionary working for England’s Church Missionary Society, became the first white person to see Mount Kenya. He arrived in Mombasa in 1844 with ambitions to establish a chain o mission stations across the continent. Within a few months of arriving, however, both his wife and child had died from malaria. Nevertheless he soldiered on, and is honoured today for his work in translating the New Testament into Swahili.
Like Johann Rebmann, a fellow missionary, who first sighted the glaciers of Kilimanjaro, Krapf’s account of snow on Mount Kenya was met with disbelief and derision in England. It was not until 1883 (after Krapf had died) that the Scottish explorer Joseph Thompson saw the snows of Mount Kenya from close by, and Johann Krapf’s word was vindicated.

In one of the majestical secret valleys on Mount Kenya lies a secluded lake, Kikami Tarn, so named because of the many ‘rock-rabbits’ that live on it’s shores. Kikami is the Kikuyu name for the hyrax.

In 1927, Dutton escorted Thomas Scott-Ellis, Lord Howard de Walden, up the mountain. On this occasion Dutton and his honoured guest hiked northwards towards Mugi Hill (the eroded, remnant rim of a parasitical crater), to explore the largest sheet of water on the mountain, and Dutton exercised his proprietorial pride in Mount Kenya by naming it ‘Lake Ellis’ in honour of his visitor.

The beautiful lake deep within the Gorges Valley, which Mackinders named after one of his closest friends. See notes on GORGES VALLEY.   

Halford Mackinder, a Scottsman, was the first to reach the summit of Batian, the highest point on Mt. Kenya, on 13th September 1899. The only feature on Mt. Kenya that bears his name is the Mackinder Valley, to the west of the mountain.

The second-highest peak on Mount Kenya, at 5188 metres (17,025 feet). See notes on BATIAN

Named after E.A.T Dutton, one of the early mountain pioneers of the 1920’s, who with his companion J. Melhuish hiked through many of the hitherto unexplored valleys and made several ascents of Point Lenana. These two undaunted explorers even attempted to climb Nelion with a long wooden ladder, which Melhuish carried for assistance! It was through the efforts of people like Dutton and Melhuish that Mount Kenya gradually became known. Much of it was mapped and although the summit was never reached, the mountain was thoroughly explored and enjoyed. In 1929 Dutton wrote Kenya Mountain, a delight book which captures brilliantly his insights and experiences. Both Dutton and Melhuish are remembered on the mountain-in Point Dutton, above the Joseph Glacier, and Point Melhuish, above the western edge of the Lewis Glacier.   

It was Br J.W. Arthur, the missionary stationed at Chagoria in 1909, who named two of the mountain’s main vantage points beneath the high peaks, Point John Na Point Peter, after the two apostles.

The third-highest summit on Mt. Kenya, at 4985 metres (16355 feet), facing one of the many amphitheatres that surround Mount Kenya’s sacred peaks that form natural cathedrals. The reverence these peaks inspire, even in the most cynical, is profound. The Italian Fathers at the Consolata Mission, Nyeri, felt this reverence so deeply that when Pope Pius XI sent the mission the gift of a cross they decided to place it near the summit of Mount Kenya. On 31st January, 1933, they climbed the slopes of Point Lenana and set the cross firmly among some rocks just below the summit.

A minor crest beneath Nelion’s southern face, named after John Thompson, the Royal Geographic Society’s official photographer at the time of Mackinder expedition to Mount Kenya – and not after the Scottish naturalist explorer, Joseph Thompson, who in 1833 saw and described a “shining peak twinkling with the superb beauty of a diamond”.

Some three kilometers to the North of Batian and Nelion, stand Mt. Kenya’s two other major peaks – Sendeyo (15,433 feet) and Tereri (15,467 feet) that Mackinder again named after local Maasai chieftains. Sendeyo, who lived until 1926, bears Lenana’s older brothers name.

Eric Shipton’s reputation as perhaps the greatest mountain explorer of all time began on Mount Kenya. He arrived in the country during the rains of October 1928, took a job as a farm manager in the foothills of the mountain, and had every intention of making Kenya his permanent home. Only 21 years of age, he was however an accomplished mountaineer, having already climbed extensively in the Alps. At the beginning of 1929, he teamed up with Percy Win Harris, and together they completed the fist ascent of Nelion. Before descending, they crossed the Gate of the Mists” and climbed Batian on the same day- January the 6th 1929. Two days later they repeated the climb with Gustav Sommerfelt- the third member of their party. A year later, with Bill Tilman, Shipton climbed Kilimanjaro and the more difficult peak, Mawenzi, before scaling the sensational West Ridge of Batian (“The West Ridge is the most beautiful thing on the mountain,” wrote Shipton), and a host of other summits. The successes of 1929 and 1930 on Mount Kenya immortalized Eric Shipton as the finest climber of his generation, and he was solely  responsible for placing Mount Kenya firmly on the map. In a short period of time he had made the second ascent of Batian, the first ascent of Nelion, the first ascent of the magnificent West Ridge of Batian and, with various partners, had pioneered the ascents of many of the mountain’s outlying peaks including Point John, Midget Peak, Point Piggot, Point Dutton, Point Peter, Sendeyo and Tereri.

When Shipton felt that he had exhausted the potential and possibilities of Mount Kenya he turned his skills and ambitions to the mightiest peaks on earth- the Himalayas. In 1931, at the age of only 23, he reached the summit of Kamet (25,447 feet) with Frank Smythe. Two years later, under the leadership of Hugh Ruttledge, he and Wyn Harris were members of the British expedition to Everest. In an epic climb, Shipton and Smythe established a cam at 27,400 feet, but their bid for the summit failed.

In 1924, after his porters swore that they had seen a lion on the shores of a small lake beneath Mount Kenya, Dutton christened it ‘Simba Tarn’. Simba in Swahili means lion.

Four years after the explorer Joseph Thompson’s confirmation of Snow on the Equator, a party led by the Hungarian count Samuel Teleki in 1887 became the first to set foot on the mountain proper. Climbing from the Laikipia plains, the expedition found a way to penetrate the bamboo thicket in the lower forests and reached an altitude of nearly 4,250 metres (14,000 feet) on the south western moorlands. The valley which Count Teleki ascended bears his name.

Tilman Peak was named after Bill Tilman, one of Eric Shipton’s great climbing companions. Together they made the first ascent of the difficult west ridge of Batian, and then went on to claim fame in the Himalayas.

The top hut is at 15,715 feet on the Lewis Glacier besides the frozen pool known as the Curling Pond. The hut, designed by Arthur and Melhuish, and paid for by Carr, was established in 1922.

The wooden hut built by Ernest Carr in 1923 on the moorlands above the forests on the Chogoria Trail at 10,000ft.

In 1928 a Swiss naturalist, Vivienne De Watteville, took up temporary residence at the Chogoria Track, basing herself at Urumandi hut, which she furnished comfortably and turned it into a little ‘home’ from home. This was Miss De Watteville’s second trip to Africa – her first had been with her father in 1923 when together they had made a collection of the fauna of East Africa for the Berne Museum. One time huntress, now turned naturalist, this trip on her own was primarily aimed at feeling Africa, and exploring some of its remoter parts. Mount Kenya, with its unique topography proved an irresistible attraction to her. From Urumandi she made countless trips across the moorlands and into the Nithi Gorge – a spectacular deep gash on the mountain’s eastern slope through which the Nithi River thunders, at one place cascading over a 60-metre (200-foot) cliff, later named Vivienne Falls. Her experiences are vividly described in her famous book, Speak to the earth. It is not difficult to see from the pages of her book the sheer joy and excitement the mountain brought her. As her days of solitude drifted by- all too quickly- her perceptions of what the mountain offered heightened to the point where every nuance of light, colour of sound was captured, absorbed, and ultimately stored joyously in her thoughts. While at Urumandi, Vivienne met Eric Shipton and Wayne Harris, who were on their way to make the first ascent of Nelion. It was Shipton who late names the waterfall that plunges into Lake Michaelson after her.

'Exceeding your Expectations'

University of Nairobi