Walking on the (Mountains of the) Moon
“You may be familiar with the Alps and the Caucasus, the Himalayas and the Rockies, but if you have not explored Rwenzori, you still have something wonderful to see.”- Douglas W. Freshfield, 1906
If someone were to quiz you on what you thought was the most exotic mountain range on Earth, you might suggest some unexplored alpine chain in Asia or South America. You might suggest a huge desert uplift in, say, Oman or Jordan. You might even suggest an urban “range,” like the crags of Hong Kong or Sydney. I’d put forth the Rwenzoris in Africa, a range of mountains so geographically, topographically and climatically unique that they defy every notion of Africa you’ve ever had.They are wet – so moist that Scottish missionary David Livingstone didn’t realize they existed (although he lived just a few miles away for 12 years) because they were permanently immersed in cloud. They are tall, for Africa, with the higher peaks reaching nearly 17,000 feet. They have glaciers and jungles, often only a few feet apart. They boast virgin summits and massive unclimbed walls. Their lower slopes are roamed by both noisy chimpanzees and machine-gun-toting guerrillas. And their very existence was a huge puzzle that took more than 2,000 years to figure out.I was lucky enough to visit the Rwenzoris (pronounced “Roo-wen-zorees”) last year as part of a guidebook-updating trip, and figured the new edition should include the standard routes on the three highest Rwenzori peaks (Mounts Stanley, Speke and Baker). The routes are quasi-technical walk-ups (you want to be roped up crossing the glaciers), to be sure, but my real goal was to explore the range for future climbing possibilities.With a couple of friends well-versed in African travel, I set off for Uganda. We were about to have a few issues of our own.
When you hit the ground in Uganda, an overwhelming sense of desperation overcomes you. Like most visitors, we flew into Entebbe and caught a taxi into Kampala, Uganda’s compact capital and the home of tribal and colonial rulers for centuries. The streets were filled with broken buses, overloaded public minibuses, scooters carrying four people (and furniture), skinny bullocks tugging ratty carts, and a red dust that swirled upward everyplace that was unpaved. Most people did not look happy. The poverty was obvious and extreme, and we passed dozens of vehicles driven by foreign-aid workers, some supplying food and medical supplies, others with clothing and educational materials, many with Bibles. Most vehicles, sadly, carried United Nations peacekeeping forces, headed for the northern part of the country and battle, literally, with the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army.Before leaving home, Benny Bach, Charlie French and I had studied the LRA and BBC reports of the atrocities being carried out along the Uganda-Sudan border. We’d also pored over news reports about troop build-ups in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda’s west (a 1996 war in the DRC, that showed signs of re-erupting daily, had ultimately involved nine other African nations and the DRC had, as one BBC reporter wrote, the “potential to drag down the prospects of the whole continent. “). Wide-eyed, we’d read reports about Ugandan crime, AIDS, the failing infrastructure, the bad roads and diseases. Worse still were the older reports, from the late 1990s, about the butchering of eight “gorilla tourists” (Americans, Brits and Kiwis) in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park by a guy who used the moniker “Van Damme,” and a report about Uganda Army officers who fought a pitched battle with Rwandan Hutu extremists in a national park on the eastern side of the DRC.Worst of all, though, were the vague reports that rebels fighting the Ugandan government – known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – might once again be using the Rwenzoris, the famed Mountains of the Moon, as a staging ground for attacks on the Ugandan army.Clearly, a range of issues.As the taxi climbed into the hill district of Kampala, a huge black cloud descended over the city, the taxi and us, and a monsoonlike rain began to pummel everyone and everything. The ghost of Idi Amin was hosting a celestial welcoming party.
The cleansing wash wasn’t just symbolic. Water is at the heart of the folklore, legends, and economy of the Rwenzoris, and it’s why they’re famous.In the Ancient world, centered around the “sea at the center of the earth” (the Mediterranean), scholars knew of the Nile River’s existence, but its massive output of fresh water flowing through the desert was a paradox. Where did it come from? Why was it so big? The origin of the Nile was a vast riddle.By most accounts, the first geographer to assemble a notion of mountains as the river’s source was the Greek philosopher Claudius Ptolemy, who in about 150 A.D. wrote of the Lunae Montes, or Mountains of the Moon. But Ptolemy had many predecessors, starting with Aeschylus, who in 500 BC wrote of “Egypt nurtured by the snows.” Aeschylus was followed by Heredotus, who in 450 B.C. described a spring fed by the waters of a bottomless lake located between two steep peaks, Crophi and Mophi, and then Aristotle, who in 350 B.C. wrote of a “silver mountain” as the source of the Nile.”There has been much dispute among geographers as to whether these early references applied to the Rwenzori, the Virunga Mountains, the country of Banyamwenzi (people of the moon), Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, or Ethiopia,” wrote Henry Osmaston and David Pasteur, British mountaineers who in 1972 produced the superb Guide to the Rwenzori. “There is evidence for the last, but the problem is probably insoluble and now the Rwenzori have, by superior publicity, firmly established their claim to be at least the modern Mountains of the Moon.”There is little recorded history between the time of the Ancients and the better-documented period of British exploration of East Africa, which occurred, for the most part, in the 19th century. Between the 1840s and the end of that century, explorers like Baker, Burton, Speke, Livingstone and Stanley plied the savannah from Mombassa to the Rift Valley in search of the Nile’s headwaters. They learned, eventually, that the various mountain ranges and East Africa’s Great Lakes all contributed to the Nile.Specifically, it was Henry Morton Stanley – originally sent to Africa to find Livingstone and who uttered exploration’s most memorable phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” – who realized there were mountains in the ever-looming clouds that boiled up over western Uganda from the Congo Basin. In 1888, in the middle of the an attempt to rescue a colonial ruler in western Uganda, Stanley was crossing the southwestern edge of Lake Albert when he beheld the snow-capped Rwenzoris, making him likely the first European to recognize the range as, well, a range.The origin of the colorful name “Mountains of the Moon” is unclear, but Ptolemy used it as far back as 150 AD. Thankfully, the word Rwenzori [not Ruwenzori] itself has a simpler origin; according to Osmaston it was made up by Stanley, who used several names given to the mountains by the area’s tribes.
As my traveling companions, Benny and Charlie, and I learned on our first day, these are wet mountains. The Rwenzoris are nearly always covered in cloud. The average rainfall is roughly 98 inches a year, according to the United Nations. Their valleys are steep, and the valley bottoms are clogged with mud, many feet deep. The foliage is surreal, with giant lobelias and groundsels dominating the forest, and massive, nearly impenetrable tangles of ground cover. Weirdly, though, the plants remain incredibly dry, and the local Bakanjo porters can start a fire using even the most sodden wood, anytime they must.On arrival in the tiny village of Nyakalengija, where most of the officially “required” porters and guides live, we quickly found our excursion would be more than just a horticultural experience. After a short briefing on the flora, fauna and rules of the park, Josiah Makwano, a cheery, round-faced Bakonjo ranger, slung his machine gun over his arm and explained he was coming along – to protect us.Compared to the highly regulated treadmill on Kilimanjaro (now up to about 28,000 trekkers and climbers annually, injecting millions of dollars into northern Tanzania’s economy), the Rwenzoris are still an East African frontier. Ironically, the infamous Idi Amin did a favor for mountaineers heading to the Rwenzoris by turning the whole world off. That’s why Rwenzori peaks remain, or seemed to remain, unclimbed.
Our plan was pretty simple: Wander up the big three (Mounts Stanley, Speke and Baker), then do a little “wildcatting,” as Benny likes to call it – exploring new ground. Prior to the trip, we had pored over books on the Rwenzoris and examined the remote valleys on the southern edge of the range. One peak, Keki (“Cake-ee”), grabbed our attention because, as Osmaston and Pasteur wrote: “13,500 feet … this appears to be steep-sided and may be difficult to climb. No ascent has been recorded.” Later, in a book from the 1930s, we found a watercolor painting of Keki, and it looked a lot like Hallett Peak in our own Rocky Mountain National Park: steep-walled and likely fun to climb.Andrew Wielochowski’s map of the Rwenzoris had Keki marked, too, but the way to get to the mountain seemed anything but straightforward. Also, the more maps we looked at, the more we realized that this portion of the range was something of an unknown, a black hole in mountain geography. We soon labeled our lack of information the “Keki Hole.” We managed to reach Henry Osmaston, however, and 32 years after the publication of his book, hetold us via e-mail that indeed, the plum cake-shaped hunk of land was, as far as he knew, still unclimbed. We had a mission.
Our first week was spent trudging up the standard trekking routes on the main summits. Sadly, though, before even our first peak, Mount Speke, one of our guides, Eric Baluku, suffered a debilitating bout of malaria and had to be sent home. Many Westerners – acutely aware of the well-publicized affect of AIDS on Africans – seem to forget about malaria, another one of Africa’s biggest killers. According to the World Health Organization, “there are at least 300 million acute cases of malaria each year globally, resulting in more than a million deaths. Around 90 percent of these deaths occur in Africa, mostly in young children.” All the East Africans I’ve met have had relatives die from it, and according to several knowledgeable Bakonjos, most of the Rwenzori guides and porters suffer from it. Eric was replaced a few days later by a small, smiling chap named Fred Bosco.We wandered over Mount Speke from east to west – a trip another one of our guides, a Catholic priest named Peter Babughagle, had done in the 1970s – to learn that the huge glacier that existed 30 years ago on Speke’s east side was now completely gone. Peter was in total disbelief. Two days later we wandered up Mount Stanley, to the highest point in the range, Margherita (5,109 meters), as the glaciers underfoot flowed with melting ice.Like mountains around the globe, especially those on the equator, the Rwenzoris are melting out as a result of global warming. Before the regional turmoil of the 1990s, scientists had repeatedly ventured into the Rwenzoris to examine glacial retreat, and had come away with shocking discoveries about equatorial ice fields. In 1990, a group of Austrian researchers found the Rwenzori glaciers had been retreating at about 12 meters per year for the previous two decades. In June 2003, after the region had become relatively safe again, British geographer Richard Taylor led a team that surveyed the ice on Mounts Stanley and Speke, and learned that the Elena Glacier had retreated about 140 meters since 1990, while the Speke Glacier had retreated 311 meters in the same period (glaciologists have for a long time painted rocks at the glaciers’ snouts, to measure the retreat). Taylor’s team concluded in its report that “snow will disappear from the Rwenzori mountains in the next two to three decades and possibly by the year 2023.” My strongest memory of the Elena Glacier is the distraught look on Charlie’s face as we stood on the pockmarked and dirty ice sheet, which was covered with a half inch of water, all of it draining quickly downhill.We wandered up Mount Baker a couple of days later and then, finally, had a chance to give back. Charlie had spent half our sole rest day staring at a pretty slab, opposite the Kitandara Hut in the middle of the range, and suggested it needed climbing – not just by us, but by the whole crew: some 12 porters (at that point) and the guides themselves. We set up a top-rope.Reaching summits is a fine reward in the mountaineering world, whatever the route, whatever the difficulty, and regardless of the suffering. But teaching folks to climb in an exotic region of the world – one that will surely see more and more visitors and where rock-climbing skills are virtually unknown – was the highlight of our journey.
The next day we set off, into the unknown, the Keki Hole. It was time to disappear down one of the Rwenzoris unfrequented valleys and play Stanley and Livingstone.By this point, about 10 days into our jaunt, the local guides and porters had become trusted friends. We were sharing meals and gear, and they had even sent one porter out to their village, Nyakalengija, to get us gumboots for walking. The deep layer of mud and moss and the wild steepness of the Rwenzori valleys combine to make foot-travel a serious undertaking. Indeed, after leaving Kitandara Hut, it took us a full day to cover a couple of kilometers on the nonexistent “trail” (well-marked on the maps, of course).The gumboots, though, stuck to rock as well as any climbing boots do, and we soon had the entire crew of Ugandans out bouldering in the forest.After cresting Bamwanjara Pass, we entered the upper Kamusongi River valley, and, at last, found Keki. Predictably, it was a miserable turd. There was naught we could do except scramble up the dirty hummock where, on top, we found a 30-year-old cairn. Our new peak was a bust.We continued down the valley to catch our final pickup at the southeastern edge of the mountains in a small mining town called Kilembe. We stumbled on through the mud, lamenting our shoddy research.
A few kilometers later, the topography began to change. The valleys became steeper, and the rock walls skirting them got taller and taller. By nightfall, at a rock shelter called Mutinda, we found ourselves sitting under a cluster of rock towers and walls that were a cross between Venezuelan tepuis and Costa Rican highlands. The next day we clawed our way up grass humps and sideways trees and bagged an elegant-looking spire, where the low-5th-class climbing was made significantly harder by huge sheets of moss that peeled off when we mantled onto ledges (we rated the route M2, from the moss-climbing rating system). It was Feb. 11, my first daughter’s birthday, so we dubbed the peak Zoe’s Needle, and descended. Halfway down, I decided to try another nearby summit. After all, I have two little girls and when birthdays come along they both get something, no matter how silly.While Benny and Peter Babughagle headed back to camp, Charlie and I attempted a summit similar to Zoe’s Needle. We ditched the rock gear, expecting lower-5th-class rock at the most, and were soon soloing up a dirty chimney with much harder climbing than expected. Charlie backed off, but our second “guide,” Fred, soloed the chimney behind me – eyes as wide as platters. We built a cairn on the summit, downclimbed the chimney, and descended to camp. Mollie’s Tower was in the bag.Naming the summits of these mountains after monarchs was a trend started by the Duke of Abruzzi in 1906, when he named Margherita, Alexandria, Elizabeth and a dozen other summits. I figured we were continuing the tradition; Princesses Zoe and Mollie, when I called them via satellite phone, were most excited, though a bit uncertain of what Africa was (and probably who I was – I’m never sure of that myself). We continued out to Kilembe. In all, it was a modest excursion, but it opened our eyes to the possibilities tucked away on the edge of the great Congo basin.Back in the village of Nyakalengija, we held something of a going-away party, in which we handed out tips and thanked our crew of locals. It was a sad farewell. Over the course of 15 days, three abbajungus from the West had grown tight with 18 Bakonjos they’d never met before – and they seemed to think we were OK, too, cash or no cash.
Mountain enthusiasts are often labeled selfish and, egotistical, but in places like Uganda, climbers (and trekkers) represent the front line of economic development and, often, stability. Between July and December 2001, there were 118 foreign visitors to the Rwenzoris, according to park statistics. In the dry season of the northern winter (January, February, etc.) of 2005, there were hundreds and hundreds foreign visitors – mostly trekkers, but a few climbers as well. And the Ugandan government is planning to foster the tourism. As Lilliame Nakanagi, from the office of the Advisor to the President of Uganda, told me in a chance meeting in Kampala, “It’s extremely important that foreign travelers know they can be safe here.”According to park officials, we had prompted the re-establishment of a route through the mountains’ southern section, something they had longed to do for years – to offer visitors more trekking options, and to inject some cash into a village (Kilembe) subject to the fits and starts of a mining economy.As for the more global issue of climate change, we all have to work on it. I’ve long believed energy policy is not just a federal or international matter, but a state, local and even a family issue. After our 2005 Rwenzoris excursion, I returned home and in four hours of Web-clicking was able to switch my family’s electricity supply to full wind power. I also installed compact fluorescent light bulbs in sockets that didn’t already have them, applied to my homeowners’ association to put up solar panels and signed up my family as the first family entity to join the Chicago Climate Exchange, so we could “offset” greenhouse gas emissions (my wife is adjusting the family menu to address my personal methane contribution).I’m exceptionally lazy, but cutting my greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half was easier than any boulder problem I’ve ever tried. And it’s certainly worth the trouble if I can help preserve a place like the Rwenzoris, not to mention helping tackle a few of our own environmental issues.In 2003, Cameron M. Burns attempted to offset his greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for his trip to East Africa by cycling to work for a summer, but quit after he was nearly killed by a SUV driver using a cell phone. He now plans to get a Prius when he can afford one.
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