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Ice on the Equator

The Lac Gris with lobelias in the foreground. (Jeremy Bernstein)
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When I was about to start my teens, and having become interested in the mountains and mountaineering, my father gave me a book called “High Conquest” for my birthday. It was written by a Princeton-educated American journalist by the name of James Ramsey Ullman. Ullman had done some modest climbing in the Alps and had become smitten by the mountains. The book was published in 194, two years after the war in Europe had started, and just as our own was getting under way. In his foreword, Mr. Ullman shows his awareness of the context. He writes, “In such a world [the world of war], a book concerned with mountains and mountaineering, for their own sake, cannot but be labeled ‘a book of escape.’ And, in a sense, that is exactly what this volume is. The “conquest” of its title is far removed from the bloody, mindless conquest that stalks the earth today; and the human adventures that it records have precious little to do with dictators and generals, panzer divisions and the fall of nations. They have also precious little to do with disillusionment, despair and fear.”Ullman was, to put it mildly, a vivid writer. To put it less mildly, he was a romantic, often given to inflated and sometimes inaccurate prose. When I first read his book I was, of course, unaware of this, and the effect it had on me was inspirational. I immediately got the idea of at least seeing with my own eyes the 10 highest mountains in the world, none of which, in 1941, had been climbed. I imagine that I was one of the few 7th-graders in the Rochester, N.Y., public schools who could have told you about the 1924 attempt on Everest by George Leigh-Mallory and Andrew Irvine in which they disappeared somewhere beneath the summit. The geologist Noel Odell, who was supporting them from below, thought he saw the two of them moving toward the summit ridge before they disappeared into the clouds. Many years after I had read this, I had the chance to ask the great British climber Eric Shipton about it. He had stood where Odell had and saw the same two rock formations that Odell must have seen. I also had the chance to ask a lot of climbers of my generation what they thought about Ullman’s book. It turned out that many of them had been inspired by it also. Incidentally, over many decades I did manage to see the 10 highest mountains in the world.

Curiously, the chapter of Ullman’s book that had the greatest effect on me had nothing to do with the Himalayas, or even the Alps. It was a chapter called “Ice on the Equator.” Until I read it I did not have the slightest idea that there were mountains with a permanent covering of snow and ice in Africa. Africa, as far as I knew, was a land of jungles and lions. Ullman described three mountain groups: Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Ruwenzori. It was the latter that really got my attention, especially when I learned that they were generally known by the much earlier name “the Mountains of the Moon.” I had a small telescope that enabled me to see mountains on the Moon and here, somehow, they were also to be found in Africa. Making the whole thing even better was Ullman’s account of the first successful mountaineering expedition to the Ruwenzori, which had been organized in 1906 by the Prince Luigi Amadeo Giuseppe Maria Ferdinando Francesco of Savoy, Duke of the Abruzzi, and one of the greatest explorers who ever lived. Luigi, if I may call him that, was the third son of King Amadeo I of Spain. Actually Amadeo had been born in Turin, Italy, and was the second son of Victor Emmanuel II, who was at the time the King of the Savoy among other things. Luigi was born in 1873, in Madrid, which was the year that his father, reacting to a republican revolution, abdicated and returned to Turin with the title of Duke of Aosta. This is how his son became the Duke of the Abruzzi in Italy. Luigi was trained as a naval cadet and spent much of his life, when he was not climbing or exploring, in the Italian Navy. During the First World War he was its battle fleet commander until he was replaced in 1917, after disagreements with the French naval commanders, some of whom refused to serve under an Italian. After the war he tried to build a farming colony in Somalia, where he died in 1933.Luigi began his climbing career in the Alps under the tutelage of Italian guides such as Giuseppe Petigax of Courmayeur, which is on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc. The letter “x” is a common ending to proper names in the Savoy – “Chamonix,” for example – a souvenir of the Romans. He did a number of very difficult climbs in the Alps. In the spring of 1897, the duke decided to enlarge his climbing venue and chose for his target the then-unclimbed and very remote Mount St. Elias in Alaska. At 18,008 feet it is the second highest in the United States and notorious because of its bad weather. It is not often climbed. In addition to Petigax, the duke took with him Vittorio Sella, a Piedmontese mountaineer, who became one of the greatest mountain photographers who ever lived. He inspired generations of mountain photographers such as Ansel Adams and his work is often the subject of museum expositions. Sella wrote a journal describing this climb, which includes a description of a small mal-entendu with the duke. When Sella asked for one of the porters to carry his camera gear, the duke told him to carry it himself. Porters were only to be used to carry things essential to the climb. At this time the duke was all of 24. The expedition landed in New York, crossed the United States to Seattle, where they went by ship to Sitka. Here they charted smaller ships for the three-month duration of the climb. On July 31 they reached the summit and, after a very difficult descent, went in for a spot of bear hunting. Two years later the duke led an expedition to try to reach the North Pole. They got farther north than any previous expedition. Then came the 1906 expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.

Before I get into the history of these mountains I would like to quote the bit in Ullman that caught my attention. A little background is required.The Ruwenzori – now officially called the Rwenzori, but I will explain this name later – is a range of mountains that demarcate a border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. They run some 75 miles north-south alongside the western Rift Valley. They are about 40 miles wide. Lake Albert is to their north, Lake Edward to their south and Lake Victoria to their east. The range is broken up into six massifs that are separated by deep gorges, making a traverse of the range very difficult. There are several summits over 16,000 feet. What is, again for reasons I will explain, called Mount Stanley is the name given to one of the groups of separated peaks. Nine of the Stanley group are over 16,000 feet. The highest one, and the highest in the entire range, the Margherita, is 16,763 feet. The high mountains are still glaciated, although the glaciers are receding rapidly and will probably disappear in not many years, along with the snows of Kilimanjaro. A very important feature of the range is the climate. Typically, there is rainfall some 350 days a year. At altitudes of 9 or10 thousand feet the average annual rainfall is over eight feet. The only time when there is any sort of real dry spell are a few weeks in late December and early January which is known to the French-speaking Congolese as “la petite periode de la sécheresse.” People who try to climb in the range during most of the year report being literally submerged in water. Even when it doesn’t rain, the warm moist air that rises from the lowland marshes condenses into a thick fog that makes the mountains all but invisible from below. People who try to navigate the glaciers in these fogs, unless they have compasses, get completely disoriented. One effect of the moisture is to produce bogs on the approaches to the mountains – spongy, oozing bogs that literally suck your feet in when you try to cross them. If you try to walk on the stones or logs in the mud, they are so slippery that you risk spraining an ankle, or worse. This is the context in which to read Ullman.The expedition sailed from Naples with the object of arriving at the base of the mountains in June, when some research by the duke seemed to show there might be a period of relatively dry weather. The first stop was the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa. It was quite a group. In addition to Sella there was an assistant photographer. There were three other Aosta professional climbers along with Petigax. There was also the duke’s personal chef Igino Igini. There was now a railroad that took them to Lake Victoria via Nairobi. Once at Port Florence, on the lake, the expedition made the next step of the journey by boat. On the 7th of May they landed in Entebbe. This was in Uganda, a British protectorate. The next step was to reach Fort Portal, which was named after Sir Gerald Portal, who had been the British commissioner to Uganda. By now the full expedition, with all the porters, consisted of some 400 people. It took 15 days of walking for this ungainly group to cover the 290 kilometers between Entebbe and Fort Portal. From Fort Portal and the nearby Lake Albert the Ruwenzori are occasionally visible like some distant white specters. At Fort Portal the Duke met two groups, including one from the British Museum that had just returned from attempts to reach the high Ruwenzori summits. Both had gotten some way by following, on the advice of local hunters, the Moboku river valley to what came to be called the Moore glacier after the naturalist J.E.S. Moore. In 1900 Moore had followed the same river valley and managed to reach an altitude of about 14,900 feet on Mount Baker, another complex of summits whose highest, Edward, is at 15, 889 feet. He followed the Moboku river until a junction with the Bujuku river and then chose, as had his predecessors, to continue following the Moboku. This was a mistake. On the way down he realized that if he had followed the Bujuku River, it would have been much more direct. This is now the standard route. It was in describing the climb up Moboku river valley that Ullman’s prose became incandescent and I became riveted.He writes, “The region into which these climber-explorers now penetrated was one of unimaginable weirdness and savagery – a nightmare world of jungle, mist and rain. The gorges of the Moboku were a tangled, choked wilderness of dead and rotting vegetation, through which they had to hack their way, foot by foot. Men and pack animals floundered to their knees in muck and mold, and through the high foliage of the treetops the rain beat down upon them incessantly.” In reading the actual account of the expedition, there were at this point no pack animals. All the material was being carried by porters. Ullman goes on, “As they gained altitude the temperature fell, but the new coolness was, if anything, more oppressive than the full, glaring heat of the tropical sun. The sweating dampness of the forests pressed in upon them like a physical weight. No wisp of air stirred. It was as if they were moving along the bottom of a stagnant lake – a watery, choking world without light or sound or motion.” I cannot now explain why, but this description made me decide that I had to go there. But to me, then a kid in Rochester, it sounded wonderful. However it took me almost a half a century to do it. By then so much had changed that I did not go by the Duke’s route in Uganda, now the standard Uganda route to the range, but by an entirely different route from the Congo. Before I did this in January 1990, I had learned a lot more about the Ruwenzori.



The mystery of the Nile must have been apparent to anyone who lived in Egypt. The rainy season, such as it is, lasts from November to March, while the river floods in September when the climate is dry. This flooding is essential to Egyptian agriculture since it brings with it fertile soil. The river flows north out of the desert. The obvious question is where is this flood water coming from?As early as the sixth century B.C. the Greek polymath Aristotle suggested that it must come from a distant and “silvery” mountain range. That melting snow could be the source of river water was well-known to the Greeks. A century later the Asiatic Greek historian Herodotus in the second volume of his Histories writes that he has learned from a scribe in the Egyptian city Sais that “between Syene, near Thebes and Elephantine there were two mountains of conical shape called Crophi and Mophi [wonderful names]; and that the springs of the Nile, which were of fathomless depth, flowed out from between them,” although Herodotus does warn the reader that since he has not been there he cannot vouch for this information. There does exist a map constructed by Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus dating from 100 B.C. that shows the Nile originating from three lakes near the equator. How he knows this is not clear. Nowhere is the name “Mountains of the Msoon” mentioned. That came three hundred years later.Ptolemy – Claudius Ptolemaeus – was an Alexandrian of Greek origin. Not much is known about his life but his dates are roughly 100 to 170 A.D. He was an encyclopedic genius. It is difficult to believe that a single individual was capable of such a variety of original thought. It is sometimes claimed that he was as much a compiler as an inventor. He compiled or invented the Earth-centered cosmology that endured until Copernicus and Kepler. He wrote in Greek, but he became known much later through the Arabic translation of his work Almagest, which was in turn translated into Latin. In addition to the astronomy he published a geography that set the standard of map-making for the next 1,400 years. He makes the following suggestion about the source of the Nile: “At the latitude of 12″30′, between the longitudes 57 and 67, the Mountains of the Moon arise, whose snows feed the lakes from which flow the sources of the Nile.”Glen Bowersock, a professor of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has informed me that the Greek original of the Geography exists. In it Ptolemy refers to to tes Selenes oros, Mountain of the Moon in the singular. There it is. The first mention of Mountains of the Moon, but in the singular. Leaving aside the coordinates of the lakes, which do not correspond to any of the relevant lakes, there is the matter of the name. Where did it come from?. No one knows. It has been suggested that it was a mistranslation from the Arabic. The Arabic translation used the word “qamar,” (gamar) which means “moon”. But “aqamar” can mean “whitish.” Did the two get confused? Maybe it should have been “White Mountains” – a lot less poetic but much more sensible. The Latin translations all adopted “Montes Lunae” – the plural – and this is what appears on the maps. But this does not answer the question of what are the sources of the Nile.

The two principle tributaries of the Nile are the Blue Nile and the White Nile. They meet at Khartoum. The Blue Nile is the source of over half the water – four sevenths – while the White Nile produces about two-sevenths. The rest comes from other tributaries. Thus it is not clear what Ptolemy means by “sources of the Nile.” Until the 16th century, and even then, the maps were very confused. The source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in Ethiopia was basically settled in 1618 by the Spanish missionary Padre Páez, although an 18th century Scottish explorer, who knew about Páez, claimed the discovery.The discovery of the sources of the White Nile were a 19th century story that produced a splendid gallery of characters. One of the most extraordinary was Richard Burton, variously a soldier, a linguist and a romantic adventurer. Disguised as an Arab, he joined the Haj and became the first European to visit Mecca. Looking for the source of the White Nile and the Mountains of the Moon was a natural for him. He was joined in 1856 by a somewhat less glamorous British officer named John Hanning Speke. In 1858 the two of them became the first Europeans to visit Lake Tanganyika which is so long that it is shared by four countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Tanzania. Burton became unwell and Speke headed north alone. He then found a second lake that he named Victoria. He discovered that this lake had an effluent that headed northward and made the correct deduction that the lake was a source of the Nile. Burton rejected this and Speke and a Captain James Grant made a second trip to Africa to map the lake. He and Burton, who had an angry quarrel, were to have a much-anticipated debate on the source of the Nile. On the very day of the debate, September 15,1864, Speke was killed accidentally with his own gun while hunting.In the meanwhile there was the indomitable British couple Henrietta and Samuel Baker. They too were looking for the source of the Nile. They encountered Grant and Speke, who were tracing the river north to Egypt,and told them about the possibility of another lake. In March 1864 the Bakers discovered what came to be called Lake Albert and saw that it too had an effluent that headed northward. In fact, Lake Victoria, along with various tributary rivers, supplies most of the White Nile water. After leaving Victoria the so-called Victoria Nile eventually reaches Lake Albert and then heads northward. But this still left open the question of the mountains. Speke observed a distant mountain chain from Lake Victoria and decided that it must be the Mountains of the Moon. He was wrong. He had seen the higher of the Virunga volcanic peaks. The highest one, Karisimbi at 14,487 feet, does have snow on it from time to time, but this is atmospheric and not glacial. The real Mountains of the Moon are not volcanic. They were formed by the same plate tectonic motion that produced the Rift Valley.The true European discoverer of the Mountains of the Moon was another outsized Victorian figure, Henry Morton Stanley. His biography is as elusive as the mountains themselves. He was born, illegitimately, in Wales as John Rowlands, the name of his father, on Jan. 28,1841. He was abandoned by his parents and lived with his maternal grandfather. At age six, after his grandfather died, he was sent to the St. Asaph Workhouse, where he actually got a decent education. He left voluntarily. Stanley’s Dickensian account of this, and much else, is always suspect, but he did go to sea at age 17. A device that unscrupulous sea captains then used was to make life so intolerable that the crewmen would desert without collecting their wages. This is what Stanley did in New Orleans, where he went to work for a cotton broker named Henry Stanley, whose name he took. The middle name “Morton” he added later. In his autobiography Stanley invented a story about the death of the original Stanley and his wife. It seems as if in reality they were glad to get rid of him. The Civil War broke out and somehow Stanley was egged on to join the Confederate Army. He was captured at the Battle of Shiloh and, after six weeks of imprisonment, joined the Union Army until he was mustered out. He then joined the Federal Navy until he deserted. He then went west and began writing for newspapers. By 1867, he had become a stringer for the New York Herald which was owned by James Gordon Bennet Jr. In October 1869, after he had become a staff writer for the newspaper, he was instructed by Bennet to go to East Africa to find Livingstone.




No one knew if the Scottish missionary David Livingstone was alive or dead and, if the former, where he was. He had not been heard from for several years. How interested Bennet really was in this is not clear, but he thought it would make a good story. Livingstone, who was born in 1813, first went out to Africa as a missionary in 1841. When he returned to England he published in 1857 a bestselling book called Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. In 1864 he returned to Africa and a few years later disappeared. He was never really “lost,” but after several close calls with death and disease he found himself at the end of his rope on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where Stanley found him in October. When, late in life, Stanley was asked why he had said “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” he replied that at the time he couldn’t think of anything else to say. The older Livingstone became for Stanley the father figure he never had. Livingstone died in 1873, but his body was brought back to England and buried in Westminster Abbey. Stanley was a pallbearer at the funeral. In 1872, Stanley wrote a two-volume book, How I Found Livingstone. It made him both rich and famous. In 1874 he returned to Africa to make a fantastic expedition that went from Zanzibar on the Indian Ocean and finally down the Congo River to the Atlantic. His book, Through the Dark Continent, is full of the bloody battles he fought along the way with the natives, and was even more successful than the first book. One unfortunate corollary of this was that King Leopold II of the Belgians commissioned Stanley to help found an entity that was inappropriately called the Congo Free State. Of all the wretched colonial regimes in Africa, this was about the worst.In 1887, Stanley launched the expedition on which he was to find, and name, the Ruwenzori Mountains. An odd mixture of British public and private financing had been arranged to mount a rescue of a German named Eduard Carl Theodor Schnitzer, who had taken the name Emin Pasha and carved out a small fealty in the southern Sudan. The Emin Pasha, who had been trained as a doctor, was in fact the doctor to General Charles Gordon, who was brutally murdered in Khartoum by the Mahdi tribesmen before the British could rescue him, which had created a scandal. Now the Mahdis had the Emin Pasha under siege. Since he was a German, the British did not want to make this an official mission, but because of his relation to Gordon, they felt obligated to do something. Hence, in February1887, Stanley departed Zanzibar with a large army of mercenaries. When Stanley finally found the Pasha on the shores of Lake Albert at the end of April1889, he turned out to be an immaculately clad gentleman who felt no need of being rescued by a then-bedraggled Stanley. It took a great deal of urging to get him to leave.Stanley wrote a two-volume work on this mission titled “In Darkest Africa.” The entry that refers to the events of May 29 are of special interest here. He writes, “When about five miles from the Nsabé Camp [on Lake Albert], while looking to the south-east, and meditating on the events of the last month, my eyes were directed by a boy to a mountain said to be covered with salt, and I saw a peculiar shaped cloud of a most beautiful silver colour, which assumed the proportions and appearance of a vast mountain covered with snow. Following its form downward, I became struck with the deep blue-black colour of its base, and wondered if it portended another tornado; then as the sight descended to the gap between the eastern and western plateaus, I became for the first time conscious that what I gazed on was not the image or semblance of a vast mountain, but the solid substance of a real one, with its summit covered with snow. I ordered a halt and examined it carefully with a field glass, then took a compass bearing of the centre of it and found it bear 215 magnetic. It now dawned upon me that this must be the Ruwenzori, which was said to be covered with a white metal or substance believed to be rock …”

Several things strike me about this paragraph. On the 20th of April, more than a month before Stanley had his vision, the mountains had been sighted by two of his officers, T.H. Parke and A.J. Mountency Jephson. They presumably told Stanley, but he does not mention this in his account. He writes as if he was already looking for a mountain, or a mountain range, called “Ruwenzori.” He seems to have heard the Rutoro/Runyoro name “Rwenjura,” meaning “hill of rain,” and the Rukonjo name for the same thing, “Rwenzuru.” He apparently assumed that the mountain he saw was what the native people referred to. The presently accepted name is “Rwenzori,” to make it conform as closely as possible to the indigenous name. Stanley made the identification of these mountains with the Mountains of the Moon, since their snows were clearly feeding Lake Albert. The following year Stanley was back in the region. He deputized one of his officers, W.G. Stairs, to make a brief exploratory climb. Stairs got to about 10,600 feet on a ridge, but did not reach any summit. Then there is the matter of “snow.” There was no word for “snow” in any of the local languages. It was quite reasonable for the boy to think that the top of the mountain was made of salt. “Barafu” is the word for “snow” in Swahili, the lingua franca. This is an Arabic loan word that was in turn taken from the Farsi “barf.” I have an ineluctable memory of when I first heard this word.In 1969, in the company of a French Chamonix guide, Claude Jaccoux, of whom we will hear more shortly, and his then wife Michele, I found myself in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan. Jaccoux had located some modest mountain in the Hindu Kush that we were meant to climb. We had driven our Land Rover to somewhere near its base. Jaccoux had hired a stalwart from the nearest village who was to guide us to the mountain and carry our tent. We had just gotten out of the Land Rover when large flakes of snow began to fall. With a tone of disgust, the stalwart said “barf,” and that ended our climb.Stanley’s 1889 expedition was his last. He died in bed in England on May 10, 1904. He had wanted to be buried next to Livingstone in Westminster, but that was denied him. Instead he was cremated and entombed in the village where he had spent his last years. The Emin Pasha was not so fortunate. He was beheaded in 1891 by some Arab slave traders. He had an associate, the German explorer and naturalist Franz Stuhlman. In 1891, Stuhlman made the first exploration of the range from the Congolese side and got to 13,000 feet after following a difficult track that had been used by hunters. He stopped at a place that became known by its Swahili name, kampi ya chupa, the “bottle camp,” since Stuhlman left his name in a bottle. He produced the first systematic description of the flora and fauna of the region. As I have mentioned, there were a few other attempts to reach and climb the mountains before the Duke’s expedition of 1906. His expedition was simply in another category. It was one of the greatest mountaineering expeditions ever made. In 40 days the group made 30 ascents, 17 of them first ascents, along some ascents of the same mountain by different climbers. They climbed all over the Ruwenzori. One of their innovations was to make very early morning starts, when the weather was still clear. For example, they reached the summit of Alexandra – one of the peaks of the Stanley group and the second highest peak in the range – at 7:30 a.m. One can only wonder when they started.This expedition only whetted the Duke’s appetite. In 1909 he led another to attempt the climb of K2 in the Karakoram on the boundary between Pakistan and China. At 28,250 feet, it is the second highest mountain in the world. Its location is even more remote than the Ruwenzori. Technically the climb is much more difficult than Everest. The Duke and his fellow climbers reached 20,500 feet on a ridge that became known as the Abruzzi ridge. The Italian group that first climbed it in 1954 used this route. As a consolation prize they tried to climb the nearby Chogolisa – Brides Peak – at 25,147 feet. They got to 20,754 feet before they were stopped by the weather. The highest summit on the mountain was not climbed – then by the Austrians – until 1975.This expedition only whetted the Duke’s appetite. In 1909 he led another to attempt the climb of K2 in the Karakoram on the boundary between Pakistan and China. At 28,250 feet, it is the second highest mountain in the world. Its location is even more remote than the Ruwenzori. Technically the climb is much more difficult than Everest. The Duke and his fellow climbers reached 20,500 feet on a ridge that became known as the Abruzzi ridge. The Italian group that first climbed it in 1954 used this route. As a consolation prize they tried to climb the nearby Chogolisa – Brides Peak – at 25,147 feet. They got to 20,754 feet before they were stopped by the weather. The highest summit on the mountain was not climbed – then by the Austrians – until 1975.This is the first in a two-part series. Next week: The author visits the Rwenzori himself.


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