Livin’ on the Edge: Mountains of the Moon

Fifteen minutes after I read my acceptance letter for the Fulbright, I got on Amazon and ordered Lonely Planet’s guide to East Africa. That book has been pretty useless to me once I arrived in country, but for a guy who knew absolutely nothing about Uganda, it informed me that there were some pretty cool things to do here.

At the very top of that list were the fabled mountains of the moon. The tallest mountain range in Africa, the Rwenzoris were predicted by Ptolemy in 150 CE to be the source of the mighty Nile River. Even though Ptolemy got it wrong and the Nile actually flows from Lake Victoria, these mountains are still pretty awesome.

 It’s been a month and a half since I climbed these mountains with my friends Lincoln and Alyssa, so instead of recreating the entire experience, I will use entries from my journal and pictures to document the journey.

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We started off at an elevation of 1,500 meters and began ascending at a spritely pace of 1,000 vertical meters per day.

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We were joined on our journey by two Egyptian brothers who were studying in Germany and vacationing in Uganda. Between the five of us, we had fifteen porters to carry our bags and haul food and supplies up the mountains.

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The scenery was unlike anything I had ever seen before. For most of the climb, I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie.

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My climbing partners were wonderful. They live in Colorado and Alyssa was the President of the Middlebury Mountain Club. I had never gone on a multi-day trek before and I bought my mountain boots at an open-air market in Kampala. So once the rains began, my shoes lost traction and every rock became a death trap.

I had two goals: make it to the top and don’t get hurt. I succeeded, but it was slow-going and very, very tough.

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Here’s an excerpt from my journal after we summited Weisman Peak at 4,620 meters. Keep in mind that I was totally exhausted when I wrote this and I feel a little differently six weeks later.

The mountain kicked my ass today. Literally, I fell on my butt a dozen times.

Someone told me that the first day of the trek would be the hardest. They were wrong. The second day was the hardest, then the third, and then the fourth.

Sometimes it’s great to imagine that you can do anything. But in reality, you can’t.

All of my friends in Kampala told me (or implied through questions) that I wasn’t fit enough to trek in the Rwenzoris, so I set out to prove them wrong.

The good news is that my fitness wasn’t an issue. When we climbed 500 vertical meters in less than an hour, I was certainly huffing and puffing, but I kept going, ascending into the troposphere.

The real challenge we’ve faced is the terrain. I have never seen anything like it; the Rwenzoris seem like another planet.

We started our journey in Kilembe, the town in the foothills where I bought some groundnuts to complete my trail mix. After a few hours hiking through foothills, we entered the Degoba system, where Yoda lives. Please excuse the movie metaphors, but I have no other way to describe the jarring and intense landscape.

On the second day, we pounded out another thousand vertical meters through the bamboo zone, which reminded me a lot of China, and the heather zone, which had the most jarring landscape of all. After saying goodbye to our Egyptian friends (who did a three-day trek instead of six), we had lunch in a swamp that looked like the set of ET.

This made me feel like Frodo Baggins on my way to Mordor. Rocks, swamps, cliffs, but no Gollum. Like Frodo, I could feel my burden getting heavier and heavier the higher we climbed; but for me, it was my backpack instead of the ring of power.

The second night Lincoln, Alyssa, and I took shelter under giant rocks on the side of a cliff. This was the first night sleeping above 3,000 meters and it was cold—very cold. After dinner we spent most of the night huddled around the fire with the guides and porters.

Our guides have been incredible. They know the mountains and wildlife well, they are very adept at cooking, and they are oh-so-patient with me when I climb at the speed of a 78-year-old woman.

I cite this age because a decade ago, a 78-year-old woman came to the Rwenzoris and climbed all the way to Margareta Peak on top of Mount Stanley. At 5,200 meters that is the third highest point in Africa and much higher than Weisman Peak, which we summited.

As I tripped, slipped, and stumbled on rocks and mud these last four days, I think about that woman with awe. How did she do this? She told the media that it was her life dream to climb to the top of Stanley and after many days of slow, steady walking, she made it!

I doubt that I will add climbing Stanley to my list of life dreams, but who knows, maybe I’ll come back here someday.

On the third day we ascended past 4,000 meters to our third rest camp, which is where I’m writing this journal entry. The terrain is still unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There are mountains, yes, and we are in the Alpine zone, but the ground is still lush. Strange-looking plants pop up between the rocks and say hello.

Whenever you go above 12,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, there wouldn’t be a tree in sight. Here I feel like I’m in a botanical garden and there are dozens of flies swarming around me. I guess they don’t mind the altitude.

The third day we had two challenging climbs: one through the marshes to our third rest camp and another to a pass where we could see Mount Stanley and Virunga Volcanic National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After a grueling trek in the morning, I was not too eager to participate in the “bonus hike” up to the pass. But because I’ve been researching and studying the Congo for the last four years, I knew that I didn’t want to miss my chance to gaze across the border.

So up we went—about 500 meters through difficult terrain. It started raining 30 minutes into our walk, which was the perfect time for me to discover that the poncho I brought in Kampala was a dud.

I also learned that the mountain boots I bought on the streets of Kampala for $30 USD have absolutely no traction on any wet surface. Whether on rocks, mud, grass, branches, or anything else, I felt like I was on a slip ‘n slide up and down the mountain.

When we finally made it to the pass, the rain cleared and the sun came out, exposing incredible views of Stanley and the DRC. It was the highest I had ever been above sea level—higher than any peak in the continental U.S.—and well worth my misery.

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We made it back to the rest camp before nightfall. I have been pretty exhausted before, but last night may have been the most tired I have ever been. As the temperature quickly dropped, I put on every piece of clothing I brought and cuddled into my sleeping bag provided by the trekking company.

But to my dismay, I still felt like I was freezing! I have never slept with a coat, a wool hat, a scarf, and gloves on, but I was still cold. My only complaint for the trekking company is that they really need to invest in some cold-weather sleeping bags.

I managed to endure through the night, but I was so cold that I kept waking up. When I had to endure the biting wind in the middle of the night to use the bathroom…well, let’s just say that wasn’t very pleasant.

After a long, hard day yesterday, I figured that today would surely be better. Our guides woke us up at 6:30 so that we could get an early start and I loaded up my warm-weather gear to climb up to Weisman Peak.

Almost immediately, the elevation hit me worse than on Day 3 and I had a tough time breathing. I felt nauseous at one point, but I didn’t throw up. I reminded myself of my two goals: to get up the mountain and not to hurt myself.

With my shoes slipping on every rock, hurting myself was a serious concern. The terrain was rougher than anything I had ever climbed. When I signed up for this trip, I remember reading that it was a “non-technical climb.” This means that we didn’t have to use any ropes or harnesses to make it up the mountain, but for an inexperienced climber like me, the hike was very technical. An experienced mountaineer can scale rocks and jump from boulder to boulder like she’s playing hopscotch. But for me and my slippery boots, every tricky leap was a perilous death trap.

So I took my time and went slowly—pole pole they say in Swahili. What should have been a four-and-a-half hour hike to and from the peak turned into seven hours.

It was a miserable seven hours, to say the least. Making it to the peak was physically the hardest thing I had ever done, but unfortunately, that paled in comparison to how difficult it was to come back down.

You see, we trekked up to the peak while it was still dry. It was tough to push myself and my pack up boulder after boulder, but I made it.

At the summit, we were not rewarded with a view. The Martian landscape was dotted with strange plants, but the fog was so dense that we couldn’t see more than ten meters in front of us.

Then it started raining. “Oh,” I thought. “This is okay.” I had ditched the useless poncho that morning, but I still had my rain jacket and rain pants on. No worries, right?

Wrong. The rain destroyed the trail below us. Every boulder that I had struggled to climb up was now a water slide waiting for me to tumble down.

And fall I did. I trekked down as slowly as I could—even annoying my guides and fellow hikers with my turtle pace—but I still fell a lot. Luckily, I mostly fell in the mud and I wasn’t too proud to slide down the mountain in the least elegant way possible: using all four limbs and my butt when I needed to.

All in all, it was miserable experience and almost all of the clothes I brought are somewhere between wet and soaked. We still have two more days of trekking, but all I want is a hot shower and a warm blanket.

Which makes me wonder—why did I sign up for this? I’m no mountaineer and summiting these peaks seems beyond my abilities and the traction of my shoes. I needed a respite from the bustle of Kampala, but I’ve been too busy trying not to kill myself that I haven’t had time to rest, reflect, and ponder.

I still love the mountains but on my next trek, perhaps I should think more carefully about the difficulty of the climb, my skills and experiences, and the quality of my gear. Maybe this trip will get better, but so far, these variables haven’t exactly aligned in my favor.

So right now, I am cold, wet, and exhausted, but thankful that I achieved both of my goals today. I made it to the summit and I’m still in one piece.

Epilogue:

Looking back, I am very glad that I trekked through the Rwenzoris. It was tough, as the journal entry attests, but I came to Africa to push myself more than I’ve been pushed before. And even though I was nervous at times, I had two trustworthy and experienced climbers by my side. Together we gazed upon incredible vistas, saw beautiful birds and strange plants, and peeked into the DRC. Maybe next time I’ll be tough enough to make it all the way up Stanley, which we saw from the pass.

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