Mountains of the Moon: Trekking In The Rwenzoris

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By Shannon Orcutt, January 2016

When I first found out I would be moving to Uganda, I started searching for good adventure opportunities and came upon information about the Rwenzoris. Since then the “Mountains of the Moon” have been on my list. Everyone talks about Kilimanjaro, the continent’s highest peak that has become overrun with tourists, but outside of Africa the Rwenzoris are relatively unknown.

Several things drew me to the Rwenzoris. First off, mountaineering on an equatorial glacier sounded badass. Secondly, the route requires more days on the trail than most of Africa’s other highest peaks. Thirdly, it is less crowded and more remote. Finally, despite more trail days than peaks like Kili it is way cheaper and being a poor NGO worker that sealed the deal.

I finally got the opportunity to make the Rwenzoris happen when Matt Battani organized a Mountain Club of Uganda trip to celebrate the club’s 70th anniversary. MCU was highly engaged in the development of trekking in the Rwenzoris in the early years of the club and built several of the original huts. I would greatly like to thank our forefathers for this because the outfitters and Uganda Wildlife Authority remembered this contribution and gave us a major discount.

10 of us made our way from Kampala to the Rwenzori Trekking Service (RTS) offices outside Kasese where were joined by our 4 guides, 36 porters and Paul, a British solo hiker who lives in Nairobi.

At the start of the trail
At the start of the trail

Getting to Margherita Peak

Day 1– We started off early in the morning with a quick breakfast, safety meeting and gumboot distribution. I was a bit skeptical about trekking in these rubbers but with my hiking boot insole stuck inside it worked quite well and became really necessary in the many bogs to come. Despite the substantial elevation gain, the terrain on the first day was easy going I was able to put off the wearing gumboots and walked comfortably in my good old Chaco sandals. The first half of the day was quite a gradual uphill following a scoured out stream bed most of the way. The guides found a chameleon we took turns holding, amused by its alien fingers.

We ate lunch by the river and a bold few went for a dip in the freezing waters. The uphill steepened significantly after that as we climbed the bulk of the 1,146 meter (3,759ft) elevation gain. After making it to Sine Hut we dropped our packs and walked over to Enoch falls, named after one of our guides who helped discover and build the route. Even before reaching the falls I could hear the shocked howls of the first ones who made it down to the glacially fed creek jumped in and then quickly out of the water. I brought my Campsuds to do a quick wash to get off the day’s sweat and mud then warmed up with hot chocolate on the porch.

Hot chocolate became one of the most coveted commodities on the trip and we soon had to ration the spoonful’s to make it last. The other hot-ticket item was Diamox, which we took to prevent altitude sickness. Both of these things became the prizes for our nightly poker games. It is amazing the things you covet on the trail.

Day 1 creek crossing. Photo by Yuheng.
3 Horned Chameleon
3 Horned Chameleon
Enoch's Falls
Enoch’s Falls
Day 2– The second day was another big one with a 1,103 meter (3,618ft) elevation gain. We started off hiking in the rain and spent a lot of the day shrouded in clouds with only occasional windows of partial clearance. Today was perhaps the most varied in terms of eco-systems. We started the day in Montane zone before making it into the Bamboo and eventually the Heather zone. Each of these eco-systems was very unique and as we reached the Heather zone, the plant life evolved into what reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s the Lorax with wild shapes and moss dangling from the trees and rocks.

The steep section through the bamboo was quite a slog in the mud and rain but at least the bamboo proved helpful to grab onto for both the uphill and downhill. The last bit of the day we hiked along a small stream before making it to Mutinda camp. This is the only camp where we stayed in tents rather than a hut. 8 of us crammed into one large tent under the large overhanging cliff. It was quite chilly and damp and several of us caught a cold afterwards. Definitely the least favorite camp for most of our crew.

Porter in the mist

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Lobelia
Adam the Moss Man. Photo by Christin.
Adam the Moss Man. Photo by Christin.

Day 3- Another start to the day with cold rain. Eventually the clouds cleared for a short 15-minute window revealing massive mountains and gorgeous valleys. I hoped it would last but again the clouds swallowed the view. For this reason I recommend people wanting to hike the Rwenzoris to go during the dry season if you want to see past the veil of clouds and avoid the worst of the bogs. Rain can happen any time in the Rwenzoris and I can’t imagine the bogs ever fully drying but you can attempt to mitigate some of these factors through timing.
Group photo in the 15 minutes of sunshine
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Today was our first true bog day and took awhile to get used to hopping on tufts of grass to keep from sinking in. I was not always successful and at one point I filled my boot with water. The sun finally came out as we entered the last valley and moods radically improved. Giant rocky mountains surrounded us and the view stuck around for the rest of the day. Before bothering to drop packs at camp, we walked directly to the lake and jumped in. Another freezing experience but with the warmth of the sun it wasn’t too bad. This day was relatively short. We only gained 374 meters (1,227ft) over 4.9km and arrived at Bugata camp in the early afternoon. Bugata was my favorite camp by far and situated at 4,062 meters (13,326ft) was the highest point we slept at before making it to the hut at the base of Mt. Stanley. The huts were quite nice and the view was stunning. Also there is an enclosed hut for eating and relaxing in, which was especially nice for the late night poker.

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Gorgeous view before the clouds moved in
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Christin climbing one of the many ladders

 

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View of the lake from above. Glacial lakes, or corrie lakes, were shaped by extinct glaciers hence the steep backwall (Bergschrund), lake lip, and descending U-shaped valley (Info from Matt)
Looking out of the shelter at Bugata
Looking out of the shelter at Bugata
The trail continually shifted between forest and bog and Christin and I went ahead of the group with one of the guides. After stopping to take photos I got left behind and ended up hiking solo for close to 2 hours. At first it was really nice, I quite enjoy solo hikes and paddles from time to time but being somewhere so remote without a map and no one in sight started to concern me. I sat for 10 minutes for the group behind to catch but got bored and carried on eventually making it to the camp and having words with the guide. Most of the evenings I was quite cold and was often one of the first to bed to seek refuge in the warmth of my sleeping bag. On the trail it was never a problem but the nights at altitude were freezing. This is not an exaggeration and on several nights things froze if left outside. Thankfully the porters had a few rubber water bottles they would heat up and we would share between the sleeping bags. They would even dry our clothing by the fire, which was freaking incredible.Day 4- Our fourth day started with a steep rocky climb that eventually returned to gradual uphill as we entered the Alpine zone. The group had naturally divided into slower and faster section and due to my lack of fitness, I generally found myself in the later. For the first time the trail turned steeply down as we cross the Bamwanjara pass. After making it down the hill and having lunch Birgit spotted a rock hyrax by the trail, one of the little wildlife we would come across. Christin and I had walked right by it without noticing.

The campsite was situated between massive mountains. It is unreal how beautiful this place is. The entire day was filled with amazing views and was another relatively short one with only 6.2km.

Nick thigh deep in the bog. Photo by Yuheng

Photo by Shannon

Massive rock mountains. Photo by Shannon
Massive rock mountains
Gorgeous surroundings of camp. Photo by Matt
View from camp. Photo by Shannon
View from camp
After the longest uphill Karen and Adam caught up with me and I joined them until we reached the Scott Elliot Pass when Birgit also tagged on. From the pass to the camp it was really rocky with long moss covering the boulders. The plant life and scenes were just fantastic. The camp was right by the mountain and occasionally the clouds would clear enough to give way to spectacular views of the glacier. Crampons and ice axes were distributed and we went to bed soon after sunset to prepare for the early start.Day 5- On the fifth day we finally made it to the base of Mt. Stanley gaining 511 meters (1,676ft) up to 4,485 meters (14,714ft). The trail was very diverse starting in bog, moving into rocky forest then several long hills. It was the first day with no rain and the views were absolutely stunning. We walked by several lakes and small waterfalls trickling down the sides of the massive rock walls. I spent the first half of the day hiking with the faster group but the altitude and the chest infection I developed sometime after Mutinda really began to wear on me. Catching my breath was difficult and I spent a lot of time wheezing. It was particularly bad when I laid flat at night. Enoch took his time hiking with me; the guides were all incredibly patient and having four enabled us to go at our own pace which was hugely helpful.
One of the many gorgeous lakes we hiked by. Photo by Shannon
One of the many gorgeous lakes we hiked by
Karen hiking through the crazy landscape.
Karen hiking through the crazy landscape.
View from camp. Photo by Shannon
View from camp. Photo by Shannon


The Peak

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Global warming has made a visible impact on the glacier, which is receding rapidly. There was a ladder going up a cliff that hung 15 or so feet from the glacier. Our guide told us that only 5 years ago they could still reach the ladder. It has also increased the risk of crossing the glacier as many crevasses became more exposed as the snowpack melted. Enoch later told me that he had guided a team of scientists conducting research on the glacier and one of the crevasses they measured was 100 meters deep.trail by 4 starting the hike with headlamps up the steep trail past Elena hut towards the glacier. The sun started to peak behind the horizon as we fixed or crampons and ropes. We were split into four groups and I went up with Yuheng, Paul and our guide. We started with the Stanley glacier, which was a slight incline and good practice for the steeper Elena. The sun fully rose when we were on Stanley in one of the best views I’ve ever seen. There was a lot of rock scrambling between the two glaciers but we eventually made it to Elena, which took about 2 hours to ascend. I felt strong as we got started and was just in full joy mode but towards the end my energy was definitely waning and I would count 40-50 steps then rest for 10 seconds. Despite the difficulty my inner-masochist was loving it.

Once we made it past the Elena glacier, we dropped our axes and crampons then made the final 20-30 minute hike to the summit. As each of us reached the summit we were cheered on by those who had arrived first. Elation. Our entire crew made it to the top and the guides rewarded with Snickers bars. At the time felt like the best thing in the world, only to be made better when paired with the whiskey Alistair cracked open that he and Nick had been carrying for his 30th birthday on the trail to celebrate.

Those feeling the strongest crossed over to the DRC side of the border to climb the Albert Peak, the highest peak in DRC and second tallest on Mt. Stanley while the rest of us basked in the sun, taking in the views. We were incredibly lucky with the weather on the way up and on top and being above the clouds felt heavenly.

The way down was much more challenging.

In mountaineering, most accidents, deaths, and injuries occur on the descent. Climbers are often drained from going up, in a rush to get down, and the steepness can be quite difficult on already tired muscles. Gravity does its job which can work against you and a small stumble could produce a fast slide.

While the weather on the ascent and at the summit was fantastic, our luck ran out on the way back down. As we descended the clouds came in and temperature dropped. It began to snow and the steep way down was a major challenge.

In order to get us off the mountain more quickly, my guide and another decided to combine forces. This ended up backfiring. The six of us and two guides was too large of a group and made communication even more difficult. We often could not see or hear our guide who was lowering the rope from above. While the poor English and timid nature of the guides wasn’t a major factor on most of the trip, it made things on the mountain very problematic. We spent a lot of time waiting around getting cold unsure of what was going on.

At one point Yuheng slid into a crevasse. Paul dug his ice axe in above her to stop the slide and I did the same from below. She only fell 1-2 meters but it was filled with water and her gloves were soaked. It is important to note that there are numerous crevasses on the glaciers, which is why we were roped together and mountaineering should not be done solo. We also were carrying rescue equipment in case a more serious fall had occurred. Anyone undertaking a glacial crossing should know, accept, and understand the risks. That said, at this point in the trip people were exhausted, confused, cold and stressed. At one point both Yuheng and I both slipped and started sliding down the glacier before digging in our axes. The long and stressful descent was mentally and physically exhausting.

After years outdoor instruction, I’ve observed that many people become complacent when there is a guide and expect the guide to do all the thinking for them. In this case, the guides had not exercised the best judgement. Perhaps it was because they the pressure they felt from us as clients but either way, it led to a rough situation.

We eventually made it down from Elena, crossed the rocks between the glaciers then traversed Stanley. I mostly held my own until that point, then my energy came crashing down. The way back to camp was slow, steep, and rocky. I was towards the back with Matt and his guide when just a few meters from the camp I fell hard on the rocks. I told them to keep going and once they were out of sight I broke down in tears. I rarely cry in public or on trips but my nerves were shot. It was an overwhelming day.

I pulled myself together then made my way to the hut immediately going to my bed and not getting up for the rest of the night. Adam was also in rough shape so were a few of the others. Even laying flat I wheezed with every breath. I was concerned about HAPE but thankfully Dr. Yuheng had brought her trusty stethoscope and checked me out. This alleviated my fears, it was definitely nice to have a doc on the trip. Still just the chest infection and exhaustion. Either way I felt damn miserable constantly coughing up phlegm from my lungs. Alistair and Karen helped bring me and the other few that were suffering the most water, tea and food and I was truly grateful.

Despite the arduous descent, Margherita peak was an incredible experience. I don’t think I have ever been anywhere so gorgeous or remote. I live for these type of adventures and it was worth every blister, cough, and fall that it took to make it.

Photo from the first ascent of Mt. Stanley in 1906. Compare to the next picture to see how much the glacier has receded in the past century. Photo from Heart of Africa Tumbler
The trail up to Margherita peak. The text on the bottom right marks the hut where we started that day
The trail up to Margherita peak. The yellow text on the center right marks the hut where we started that day
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Frozen cairns to guide the way
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Lake in the sky
5,109m on top of Margherita peak
We all made it! 5,109m on top of Margherita peak
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The strong few who also made it up Albert peak in DRC
The guys on Albert Peak
Mountains hiding behind the clouds on the top of Margherita peak
Mountains hiding behind the clouds on the top of Margherita peak
Matt climbing Elena glacier. Photo by Birgit.
Matt climbing Elena glacier. Photo by Birgit.
On the way up Elena Glacier
On the way up Elena Glacier. Photo by Birgit
Yuheng snapped this shot of me and the overhanging ice shelf while our guide helped repair Paul's crampon
Yuheng snapped this shot of me and the overhanging ice shelf while our guide helped repair Paul’s crampon
Climbing Elena Glacier
Climbing Elena Glacier. Not actually sure who took this one.

The return
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We eventually made it up the pass but it was starting to get dark. Several of the porters had come back to help us bringing lights and taking our packs. On the way down to the camp we came across a Ruwenzori Red Duiker, a rare small antelope. There had been one on day 4 at far distance but it was pretty cool to see one fairly close.Day 7- The next day was rough. We were meant to having gone from Margherita back to Butawu camp the day before but the descent from the mountain took so long there wasn’t time. It snowed all morning making the rocks slick for the hike out and some of the crew had difficulty with the lack of tread on the gumboots. We ate lunch at Butawu and kept moving down. It was a long day and the steep 400-meter downhill we had done on Day 4 was a nightmare to go up. Adam, who had been feeling rough for a couple of days was finally doing better after ample rehydration salts and making it down to more oxygen-rich air as Alastair joked in his best Geordie Big Brother-esc accent “Day 7, Adam is now overhydrated and sees the world in butterflies and rainbows.” I however was still struggling and really appreciated the energy snacks from Birgit and Karen that helped me up the killer hill.

Starting off in the snow. Photo by Matt
Photo by Birgit.
Photo by Birgit.
Photo by Yuheng
Back a Bugata hut
Back a Bugata hut

Day 8- The 8th day was meant to be our last but we would have to cover the distance of the first four days in only one. The fastest group made it but in the second group we stopped at Sine Hut. After struggling for several days with the altitude and chest infection, I finally felt like I could breath again and it was fantastic. I wanted to keep going past Sine but after the rest of the group had been so patient with my struggles the day before, it was my turn to wait. I spent most of the day in the front with Enoch talking about outdoor adventure in Uganda and hiking. Enoch described how the trails were developed and the intense training they underwent. He is really passionate about mountaineering and was disappointed that more Ugandans do not share that interest. If I ever decide to change careers I think I would love to develop a program to get more Ugandans involved in outdoor adventure. After making it to Sine, we played our last game of poker and woke up early to finish off the hike.

Rock Hyrax skull
Rock Hyrax skull
Hiking through the bambo. Photo by Birgit
Hiking through the bambo. Photo by Birgit

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Day 9– The final day was so great. I would run down the trail and wait on others to catch up. I felt alive and was just stupid happy to be in such an amazing place. The downhill was rough on the knees but I really didn’t feel the full impact until finishing the trail. They hurt for 2 weeks after. As we approached the camp the rest of the team stood on the road slow-clapping us in for the finish. We ran to them and big hugs and laughs were shared. Most of us were strangers before the trip but I couldn’t have asked for a better group. We distributed the well-deserved tips to the guides and porters then headed on back to Kampala.
We survived!
We survived!
The entire crew at the finish
The entire crew at the finish

In Retrospect and Suggestions for Future Rwenzori Trekkers

I hadn’t been on such a long backpacking trip in a decade and it felt amazing to be completely disconnected from technology and reconnect with nature. The Rwenzoris are so remote and unique. It was such a special experience.

One of the factors I struck me about Rwenzoris was the remoteness. You are completely out there. There are no roads, no paramedics, nobody passing through who isn’t also trekking in the mountains. It is a serious undertaking. There are two helicopter landing sites in case of emergency at Bugata camp and at Margherita hut but depending on where the injury requiring the evacuation occurred, getting an injured person out could be incredibly difficult. Being so far out has major perks though. We pretty much had the trail to ourselves and being far removed from light pollution produced amazing night skies.

That said, you don’t need to have any mountaineering experience to do this trek. I think some backpacking experience is helpful but also not 100% necessary. RTS does a lot of the difficult work so the most important thing is to have a good attitude and be fairly in shape. You also don’t have to climb Margherita peak, there are plenty of other trekking options in the park and RTS can build a trip to fit your needs. Even just hiking to the base of the peak was fantastic experience.

Things I wish I had done differently: I really wish I had spent more time getting into backpacking shape before coming on the trip. It was a great trip and doable at my fitness level but would have even been more enjoyable had I done additional prep.

Things I wish I had brought or brought more of: I truly regretted not bringing waterproof gloves. Water resistant did not do the trick and at one point I had to put my gloves inside zip lock bags. There were also things I wish I had brought more of namely ibuprofen, Diamox, and high-energy snacks. We ended up sharing all three of those things among the group but ran out towards the end. I had brought a ton of Clif Bars but those also needed to be supplement with quick-energy things like gels.

Things I was really grateful for having: Good rain gear, trekking poles, camera, solid boots, Clif bars, sunscreen, a buff, hat, baby wipes…

The company and guides: Overall I was really impressed and happy with the guides, especially Enoch and Bernard, and porters from the Rwenzori Trekking Services. While I was disappointed by a few of the guide’s performances on the descent from Margherita, RTS took our comments seriously and decided to require the two guides to attend additional training before leading clients up Margherita again. The training the lead guides go through is intense and I felt completely confident and comfortable with both Enoch and Bernard on the mountain. I would like to emphasize that other than the experience on Margherita, all of the guides were spectacular the rest of the trip. I’ve never used porters or go backpacking with a company before but it was a great experience and I highly recommend RTS for trekking in the Rwenzoris.

Check out Flickr for more photos!

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