Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Rwenzori Hike – 21st to 28th February 2009

"When you guys showed up at the base camp on Sunday I could tell [from the lack of equipment] that you didn't know what you were getting yourself into" This was the confession made to Dave (my co-climber and colleague at TechnoServe) and I by our guide on fifth day of our hike. He was right. We had not anticipated the low temperatures – it was sub-zero and snow above 4,000 meters; the rain – it rained every day even though it was the dry season; or the difficult terrain – we walked in deep mud for about 20 hours in total during the week. Thankfully we experienced some amazing highlights to make up for the relative hardship. We reached the peak of Mt Stanley in the afternoon on the fourth day, just as the clouds lifted around us to reveal below us the hills of the Congo in the west and the mountains, valleys and plains of Uganda in the east. But, to start from the beginning via some background…

Dave preparing and weighing gear

Troubled past

The Rwenzori Mountains is truly a hidden gem among East Africa's national parks. A world heritage since 1994, the mountains are merely visited by a few hundred tourists a year. According to the Uganda Wildlife Authority 416 people visited the Rwenzori National Park for more than one day in 2005 (the 1,200 includes day visitors). By comparison about 35,000 people climb Kilimanjaro every year – about 100 per day entering the park for more than one day versus about 1 per day in the Rwenzories – quite a ratio. Potential visitors to the Rwenzories are probably discouraged by: Inaccessibility, cost, difficult terrain, bad weather and lack of awareness (marketing). I think it is fair to assume that whilst most people can place Kilimanjaro on a map, very very few people have even heard of the Rwenzories.

Regarding inaccessibility, the Rwenzories have been off-limits to visitors during two significant periods. During most of the 1970s under Idi Amin and up until the end of the civil war in 1986, there was only a trickle of tourists visiting the mountains. Then again between 1997 and 2001 the mountains were occupied by guerrillas, the Allied Democratic Forces, who were involved in the then fierce war in Eastern Congo. During these years the mountains were closed to visitors, paths were land mined and infrastructure declined. Anyhow, by 2009 that is all history and safety no longer an issue.

I don't think I will write too much about the hike into and out of the mountains, but rather focus on the summit attempt. Suffice to say it’s the most amazing and most difficult wilderness experience I have ever encountered The pictures are more effective in describing the changing landscapes and what we saw than any words.

Bujuku River with Mt Speke in the background

The trek

We set out from Kampala on the 21st February. By bus… we arrived at the Rwenzori Base Camp, near the town of Kasase in Western Uganda, late in the evening and spent the night at the mountaineering services campsite there. The base camp is located at the lower reaches of the Mubuku Valley and in the west the mountains rise majestically above the small farms and large tea plantations of the area. The main mountains (there are six of above 4,500 meters in the range) can not be seen as the Portal Peaks (a smaller range of mountains) are in their way.

The next morning we got up early and were briefed on the challenge ahead by the local manager of the Rwenzori Mountain Services. We were then allocated a guide who would see us through the ordeal. Thankfully his performance was excellent throughout the six days we spent in the mountains – courteous, knowledgeable and security conscious – he made the many obstacles we faced bearable. We also got allocated a total of seven porters(!), which with the cook, brought or groups total body count to 11 – quite an entourage for the week-long hike.

Hiking up towards Elena Hut

It took our party three days to reach the Bujuku Hut in the upper part of the Bujuku Valley – the area from which attempts at the various peaks can best be made. The hike up-valley was beautiful in everything, with constantly changing landscapes and flora, though hard in parts with deep mud, river crossings and steep climbs. During the first three days we hiked through four vegetation zones as we walked upwards: the Forest zone, the Bamboo/Mimulopsis zone, the Heather/Rapanea zone, and eventually the Alpine zone. Above this again was the Afro-arctic zone, which we had entered by the end of the third day.

As it turned out, "arctic" in this sense actually meant arctic. As a Norwegian I had remained skeptical about how cold it could actually get on the equator, reminiscing about the neg.15c and high winds I have grown up with on winter holidays in the mountains back home. I was off the mark – the Rwenzories were arctic, and felt arctic, with the associated strong winds, snow-fall and below zero temperatures, both outside and inside the huts. That was the other significant detail I had not anticipated – that the huts would be without heating, and essentially be as cold as it was outside and even as windy (in one of the huts the door wouldn't shut).

Dave and the guide trekking across the Stanley Plateau. Moebius Peak in the background

This brings back our guide's observation about lack of equipment, and perhaps lack of adequate planning. We got acquainted with another group of climbers on the way up, three Poles who were hiking up-valley on the same schedule as we were. (They had 13 porters between them, so all in all it was quite a few people moving up the valley those days.) We learnt on the second night that the Poles had brought three sleeping bags each (type NorthFace Arctic -18), hence all the porters. Dave and I didn't quite get the point of the three sleeping bags. At 3,400 meters we still felt quite conformable in our more traditional gear. Dave had rented a pink sleeping bag at the base camp. It appeared satisfactory, even though it only reached him to the middle of the chest. I had got sent the wrong sleeping bag from home, a brand called Halti. Although I was glad to see this old relic from my boy scouting days in the early 90's, I assume Halti is a discontinued brand from South East Asia (from the days before that region started producing quality exports!). As I would later learn, although there was no label to verify it, the Halti was probably never meant for any temperatures below +10c. On the two coldest nights at above 4,000 meters I would crawl up in a ball inside the sleeping bag wearing all my five layers of clothing. Lying completely still I would then place a jacket and pair of trousers on top of the sleeping bag. While I never got quite warm I imagined this extra layer would prevent the outer layers of the sleeping bag from getting directly exposed to the freezing temperatures in the hut. Needless to say, I did not get much sleep.

The Stanley Plateau

Summit day

On the fourth day, we made a rather unplanned summit attempt. The original schedule had been to have a go on the fifth day to reach the peak in the small hours of the morning. It transpired as follows: From the Bujuku Hut we walked across a mud plain for about an hour up to a very steep path twisting and turning up towards the Elena Hut at 4,550 meters. It was on this steep ascent I first felt the effect of the high altitude – I had to stop every 10 minutes or so to regain my breath. We arrived at Elena Hut at 1pm and made the decision to attempt the summit immediately that afternoon. This was contrary to the original schedule which was to make the attempt very early the following morning. We made the decision for two reasons: First, the temperature at Elena Hut was sub-zero – in our inadequate gear it was simply to cold to not do anything for the rest of the afternoon. We would have to walk somewhere. Secondly, on all the previous days we had had grey overcast weather in the mornings followed by a lift in the clouds by mid-afternoon, hence, we felt the chance of clear weather was better by continuing up that afternoon. Our guide agreed and we set out at 2pm, Dave, the guide and I, finally without our backpacks.

Strong winds on the Margherita glacier. Alexandra Peak on the left, the lower reaches of the Margherita Peak on the right

The first stage of the ascent was a steep scramble up a rock face/gully. It was wet and slippery and didn’t seem all that safe, with loose rocks hanging out on both sides of the path. After about an hour we reached the edge of the Stanley Plateau (the large glacier that partly covers the top of Mt Stanley). The weather had been grey and foggy the whole day and we could barely see more than 30-40 meters about us. Crossing the plateau was comfortable and about mid-way out on the glacier the clouds partly cleared and we caught glimpses of the surrounding peaks protruding from the snow in all directions (there are 9 peaks on Mt Stanley). At the end of the plateau we fixed ropes and descended over rocks about 50 meters down to the Margherita Glacier. The next part of the climb would be to hike up that glacier until we reached the final rock face of the Margherita Peak. This proved to be the most strenuous part of the ascent as it was steep and we were nearly 5,000 meters above sea level. We stopped very frequently to draw breath and it took nearly an hour just to climb 500 meters or so. At the top of the glacier we were directly beneath the rocky summit. From here we were faced with the only technical part of the climb – getting up 7 meters or so of vertical rock face. Fortunately a small ladder was set up for the first meter and from its end a fixed rope started from a point further up. This made it relatively easy to pull oneself up. I was a little queasy though, as this was my first attempt at vertical rock climbing, ever. Once up we had an easy walk of about 50 meters to the summit.

The guide and me at the summit of Margherita Peak (5,109 meters)

The clouds had thickened again so there was no view, but amazingly, after a couple of minutes at the summit, the cloud cover lifted and revealed a beautiful vista of the surrounding mountains and valleys. In the west the green hills of the Congo emerged (the peak is exactly at the border between Uganda and DRC) and in the east we could see as far down as to where we started the hike four days earlier. Great feeling, great result!

Upper Mubuku Valley – Guy Yeoman Hut in the distance


After six days on the mountains we returned to the base camp, tired, wet and dirty, but extremely pleased with the outcome of the expedition. The majority of climbers do not make the summit. They don't try or give up, so felt like there was some uniqueness to the experience. For sure, Margherita Peak has been climbed by thousands of people during the last two decades, but many of the other peaks in the range have only been climbed some very few times, even only once for many of them, like the peaks of Cagni and Kinyangoma mountains according to the guide book. (An excellent but hard to obtain guide book is "A guide to the Rwenzori" by Henry Osmaston, 2006). There are even unclimbed peaks in the remote southern ranges of the mountains. I find that extremely fascinating – and definitely a reason to return!

The Mubuku River. Mt Baker hidden in the clouds

Peder Hanssen


  1. Two thumbs way up!!

    I have to say the way you depicted the events is great! Keep it coming!