Images of elusive, jagged, snow-capped peaks towering above a thick jungle canopy flashed through my mind when I first read about this mysterious mountain, strutting the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I have always had a strange attraction to such seldom visited, remote and unrelenting places, and the Rwenzori and one of its host countries the DRC, definitely fits that picture. The DRC is one of the largest countries in Africa and endowed in mineral riches, but also hosts some of the longest lasting, most brutal civil wars on the continent fought by rebels whose hideout is and has been this very mountain range.
Jungles of Rwenzori Mountains.
As early as the times of the Ancient Greeks, there has been rumours of mountains of snow and ice forming the source of the Nile River. Aeschylus talked about “Egypt nurtured by snows” and Aristotle noted “Mountains of Silver”, being the source of the Nile in the fourth century B.C. During this time, a number of ancient expeditions failed to reach the mountain until eventually, a merchant with the name of Diogenes stated that he had found the source of the mighty River, reporting that it flowed from a group of massive mountains with a permanent snow-capped peak, which the natives called “The Mountains of the Moon”.
It was only in modern times that Europeans resumed their search for the famed source; the most well known of these expedition being led by Speke and Grant, as well as Stanley. While the former failed to reach the Mountain Range, Stanley, the well known and maybe slightly infamous American turned British explorer (yes he of the Famous “Dr Livingstone I presume”) finally found the glacier capped mountains in 1889.
Henry Morton Stanley on the Rwenzori Expedition. (Source gettyimages.com)
Up until recently, the Rwenzori National Park was closed to all visitors due to rebel activity that killed a number of visitors in the region. The Rwenzori has been on many climbers lists as it hosts the third highest peak in Africa. Boasting the biggest glacier on the continent and reaching a height of 5,109 m, Margherita Peak is not that serious a climb, but reaching the base and scrambling through moorland and foggy old mans’ beard forests up to the summit glaciers in a pair of rubber boots (surfaces are super wet and muddy) sounded serious enough for me. The added fear (or maybe the allure – or maybe its both) of rebel activity makes the Rwenzori a peak that is unlike any other. Being located near the Virunga Volcanoes in the DRC this peak is in the middle of one of the greatest biodiversity hot spots on the planet, while also associated with history from Greek explorers to Stanley searching for the source of the Nile. What a story, what a place to visit. I simply had to see it for myself. Climb the mountain, face the fear of rebel activity and set foot on the summit glaciers – I had to go.
Margherita Peak from a distance.
The mountain is different to the other high peaks of Africa in that its not a volcano but rather a fairly large mountain range formed due to upliftment of crystalline rocks such as gneiss and granite. My visit was planned for July 2014 – one of the two season where the rainfall is measured in jugs,not buckets… The other favourable season being January. With that in mind I packed rain gear, an umbrella and more rain gear. I booked my flights and the climbing expedition through Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (one of two groups offering climbs on the mountain) and set off to fly from Namibia to Joburg and from there to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, followed by a short hop on a charter Cessna 210 which would deliver me to Kasese, the small town from the where the climb would start.
En route to Joburg I got a familiar feeling in my gut… that little voice that told me not to go, to turn around and go home. I tried to ignore it but it kept pestering me. Its a strange thing – why would you pay the money, go through the trouble of allocating time towards the climb, book (and pay, by the way) the climb, all flights etc. and then actually consider not going, while on your first flight? Was it fear that lingered, or just a nagging thought of how I would miss my understanding, caring and loving wife, my beautiful boys? I don’t know – but I do now this: if my mind is not a 100 % focused on a serious climb in a remote area of Africa, then I know I should not do it.
Needless to say, when I got off the plane in Joburg I contacted my Love and said I am coming home on the next available flight. As always, she understood and wanted to make sure that I was sure and then gave her unwavering support.
Mountains are strange creatures and summits even worse. I don’t particularly like summits. They scare me. They allure and inspire to such an extent that it becomes an obsession. And having that obsession is what drives many climbers to excel; they pass the point of normality and enter the dreamlike realm where the climber and the mountain become one. You forget fear, rationality and better judgement. The only thoughts that linger are those of the summit, not of getting back down, just that place where the mountain tip and the sky become one, ever higher. Non stop. I have had those thoughts, I know many that have had them and reached the summit, never to come down again. Their bodies lie buried in the snow or rubble on some remote mountain in an unknown country. I have vowed a long time ago that, although I understand summit fever and know that it is required, I will trust my inner voice, trust my judgement and stick to it. I have turned around on many peaks, sometimes just below the summit and sometimes without even setting foot on the mountain, and for that reason I am still here to write about it. Maybe I am too careful, maybe I need more summit fever or maybe I am just lucky.
So the July window passed and I made plans to visit the Lunar Mountains again in January 2015. Months passed and eventually I packed my bags – again the rain gear, ice axes and crampons and took the first of four flights from Namibia. No voice, no lingering thoughts, but still plenty of fear. Maybe the word fear is not right here, it was apprehension with a tinge of fear. Will I be able to do it? What about the ice work, the altitude and then of course the rebels hiding on the DRC side of the mountain…
After 24 h of traveling I checked into the very colonial Margherita Hotel in Kasese. Beautiful, rustic old place with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and of course the foothills of Mountains of the Moon. I packed, re-packed, met my guides and before I knew it headed for the start of the climb.
View from Margherita Hotel.
The first part of the climb passed through thinly populated, high altitude areas where huts clung to valleys sides and kids waved shyly to the lone Mzungu. The Mountain at this time was covered in cloud and although our hike was dry at this point, I wondered about those dark lingering clouds up ahead.
First part of climb through populated areas near Kasese Town.
We made good progress on this first day and arrived relatively quickly at the first camp. A hut located above the population zone in the so called old mans’ beard forests. The jungle was thick and filled with life. We heard chimpanzee calls and saw White Colubus Monkeys (yes, those from Naro Moru River Lodge) roamed in the canopy.
Camp one with Old Mans Beard Forests.
The next couple of days actually blend into one with lots of slogging up steep mountain passes, down vegetated valleys and through moorland bogs.Here we had to wear rubber boots due to mud, water and more mud. It’s here where you grasp the full meaning of rainfall measured in buckets. Luckily our days up to that point were still dry, but still very foggy. Some climbers we met on the way down also mentioned that, although they summited, the view was obscured by fog.
Walking in rubber boots.
We slogged ever onwards through some beautiful rocky scenery, in and out of thick forests up to a high point where I could see the peaks. What a sight. It was mesmerizingly beautiful. Snow capped peaks towering above a think high altitude jungle – just as I had imagined. Lets go, I can’t wait (summit fever showing its face here…).
Summit peaks from high point above pass.
The walk from the high point to the last hut was steep, crossing many streams and slugging up a hellish valley to our last camp where it was bitterly cold, windy and still very foggy. I lay down on my mattress and thought of Home. What were my Love and the boys doing at that very moment. My thoughts always cross over to them when I am not climbing. But as before, I knew that I had to focus the next day as we had to get up early (2 am) in order to reach the summit by sunrise and get back down the same day – almost 500 m of vertical ascent, some scrambling, abseiling down valleys, crossing two glaciers and ultimately climbing the last section over scree material to reach Margherita Peak.
Summit day was icy (for lack of a better word). Lots of crampon and ice-ax work up steep, long and unrelenting glaciers. The ice formations were beautiful. Deep, long gulleys leading up to meringues and vertical ice chutes.
Fantastic ice formations on Margherita Glacier.
Crossing Margherita Glacier.
After what felt like hours of scrambling, we reached the last glacier, a steep ominous looking beast leading up to a rocky chimney that would hopefully take us to the summit. I looked down into the valley and saw we were high above the clouds of earlier. As the Mountain Gods slowly opened the gates to the summit, just after sunrise, the summit post stared me right in the face – it was right in front of me!
I could not believe it, tears of joy streamed down my face and as I looked down the steep slopes of the mountain leading into the ominous DRC. I thought I heard some hushed chanting of rebellious voices rising above the old mans beard forests…
The climb down was fairly serious, gently creeping down the same way we came, hopping over deep crevasses and ultimately reaching our camp for the evening. The next day we “ran” down to the gate, completing the climb in 8 days, 7 nights. I felt elated. What a tremendous experience on a high altitude peak in a remote part of the Dark Continent.