Written by: Nick McGee
It’s 1.30am on summit day, and adrenaline and anxiety won’t let me sleep. Lying in my sleeping bag I force myself to get up, change into warm clothes and brace for the below zero temperatures outside. We are at Elena, the highest hut on the central circuit of the Rwenzori Mountains, at 4,500m above sea level in Uganda.
Rwenzori, meaning ‘rainmaker’ in the local language, is very apt as the range is notorious for being one of the wettest places in Africa. And being on the equator, the clouds form quickly and the weather can change in an instant.
Although standing outside and looking up at the stars, the gods are being kind to us. For the Bakonzo tribe, the mighty Rwenzori is home of the God, Kitasamba, and there are a few simple rituals to follow: don’t speak about rain, don’t eat the blackberries and don’t have sex. It seems we have followed them to his liking.
Since the dawn of civilisation, one of man’s biggest mysteries was where the source of the Nile – the world’s longest river that runs through the hottest desert on earth – received its water. Around 150AD, Ptolemy, a renowned Greek geographer, wrote of the great lakes of Africa that flowed into the Nile and were fed by water that came from snow-capped mountains that he famously referred to as the Mountains of the Moon. The first European sighting was that of Henry Morton Stanley and his expedition in 1889, but it wasn’t until 1906 that the Duke of the Abruzzi and his team were the first to summit the Rwenzori Mountains.
Back in Cape Town, a group of 10 of us – a relatively inexperienced bunch when it comes to mountaineering – were preparing for our own ascent. We signed up to do altitude training in chambers with low oxygen levels and we hiked at almost every possible opportunity. Spending a small fortune at Cape Union Mart, we were as prepared as we possibly could be.
The central circuit is an eight-day trek through Africa’s highest mountain range, and I wasn’t expecting the altitude to be as bad as it was. Intense headaches kicked in with dizziness reminiscent of a hangover and I decided to take medicine to help with the altitude sickness.
My adrenaline doesn’t subside until we get going at 4am. Feeling strong and excited we set off in the dark with torches strapped to our heads. When we reach the first glacier, the sun starts to rise. Above the clouds, we feel close to Kitasamba who has truly blessed us with the most amazing day for a summit.
We walk across the glacier in groups of three roped together.
My crampon comes undone and I shout for everyone to stop. Looking right and left, there are crevasses large enough to swallow a human. Ruben, our guide, unties himself and casually jogs over to help me tie it up again. Ruben’s father was the first of the Bakonzo tribe to summit these mountains and his son, who is a porter on our trip, hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps.
As we reach the Margherita glacier, which is the second glacier, we notice a ladder that is 50 metres long and leads up to nowhere. Ruben describes how a few years ago that was the route up to the glacier. We stop before ascending to take a look at where the glacier is now and see that it has retreated by 100 metres in less than seven years.
These glaciers are shrinking at an alarming rate and are predicted to disappear in 10 years. With less than 200 people summiting the Rwenzoris each year, not many people come here, and in a few years they will not get to see the glaciers that Ptolemy, Stanley and the Duke of the Abruzzi, among other golden age explorers, tried so hard to find.
These peaks aren’t as spectacular as the ones found in the Himalayas, but there’s something about them that I struggle to pinpoint. Perhaps the fact that it’s an anomaly being on the equator and on a continent that one doesn’t associate with snowy glaciers.
Or maybe it’s the five vegetation zones that one goes through to reach the summit.
Or perhaps it is the long-fabled history with its political instability that made it one of the hardest places to reach.
Whatever the reason, these mountains and its people have left me in awe. And still, their allure remains. Kitasamba’s playground holds the mystery that I’ll hopefully get to see again.
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