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Triumph, Teamwork, Tenacity, and Tragedy in the Rwenzori
Posted on August 26, 2011

Guide Jake Norton is in Africa kicking off Challenge21, a four-year project in which he will attempt to climb the Triple Seven Summits—the three highest peaks on all seven continents. The challenge is an effort to draw funds and attention to one of the world’s greatest crises—water and sanitation—while raising $16,763 for Water For People in the process.

Story by Jake Norton
As you might have guessed, it’s been a wild and busy couple of days here in the Rwenzori Mountains, with lots of ups and downs—both literal and figurative. And, given all that’s been happening, I’ve been unable to put up any posts … my apologies! So, let me fill you in.

“It’s not so sad … It is God’s will. He tells us when we die.” Pasco, one of our elder porters, said with an earnest look of deep sincerity. He was speaking of his nephew, 15 year-old Santi, who died of hypothermia on the trail last night while trying to carry a resupply load to Camp 6.

Is everything God’s will? Are things fated, destined, or do things simply happen, and we happen at the same time? I found myself pondering these questions and more over the last couple of days.

We awoke at 3 am on Sunday, the 21st, to begin our ascent of Margherita Peak. Unfortunately, Barb Neary—our great friend and fellow team member—had gotten sick during the night and was not feeling up to the task of climbing. She joined us up the slabs partway to Elena Hut, and then wisely decided to turn around with one of our porters and aspiring guide, Moses. I was a bit concerned, as I could hear some rails in Barb’s chest, a possible indicator of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), so asked Barb to return to camp, and head back to Camp 4 several thousand feet below after sunrise. She agreed, we all said a teary goodbye, and continued onward.

Fortunately, we had the weather on our side: It was one of the best, clearest mornings we had yet enjoyed in the Rwenzori. As the sun rose, the behemoths of this equatorial jungle range showed themselves: Baker, Speke, Alexandra, Margherita, their craggy, sharp summits jutting from a sea of cloud far below, drenched in the pink light of dawn. They are an impressive and odd lot, these peaks. They look like something out of the Himalaya, or even Karakoram, with massive, moss-covered walls of granite rising thousands of feet above the dense jungles. Ever shrinking glaciers still carve their topography; when the Duke of Abruzzi was here in 1906, he documented some 40 distinct glaciers in the range. There are reported to be fewer than 20 today.

At any rate, after about two hours of scrambling up slabby rock with fresh snow, we reached the edge of the Stanley Plateau Glacier at 15,500 feet. We donned our crampons, roped up, and headed off. The weather was still stunning as we traversed the gentle plateau angling to the northeast and the Margherita Glacier. Here’s where things got a bit more interesting. Due to glacial recession, the rock rib that once led easily onto the Margherita Glacier from the Stanley Plateau is now quite exposed, and requires a near-vertical descent of some 200 feet. There are some shoddy fixed ropes and ancient, welded ladders in place, but not put in well. So, we had to improvise, figuring our efficient and safe ways to get our team down the angling 200 feet of wet rock, past free hanging ladders, and onto the glacier below. It was quite a procedure, especially since neither Charlie nor Ned had ever been on steep terrain like this before!

But, with the help of our Ugandan guides Edison, William, and Enoch, and also Dan Fillipi, we worked it all out, and were soon enough down on the Margherita Glacier and headed toward the top. From the rock rib, it’s an easy, straightforward snow ascent along mellow glacier and then rock to the top. We reached the 16,763 foot summit of Margherita Peak under still-cloudless skies, and had our moments of celebration and reflection as we stared off into the depths of the Democratic Republic of Congo and back again to Uganda. As always, just before leaving, I took a Tibetan Buddhist kata scarf off my backpack and tied it to the summit rocks—a tradition I’ve had in the high mountains for years.

And, then we were off, retracing our steps across glaciers, scrambling up the ladders and ropes of the rib, and finally back down to Camp 5. It was 4:00, and Barb had descended hours earlier to Camp 4. Everyone was tired, but we all knew what we needed to do: pack and move. We were on the trail again by 5:00 PM, rain gear and headlamps at the ready. While a beautiful trail, the Kilembe Trail has many issues, as we found. One of them is distance between camps, coupled with interminable mud which is often knee-deep. We had some 6 miles to go to Camp 4, and the team—tenacious as ever—pushed through driving rain, sleet, hail, and lightning, to make it back to a soggy Camp 4.

We spent a brief, damp night at Camp 4, and the following morning found that Barb’s condition was not helped greatly by our descent. It was obvious that she was weakened by possible HAPE … and the longest, toughest day of the Kilembe Trail lay ahead. For the day, we needed to ascend some 2,000 feet to 14,780-foot Bamwanjara Pass, and then descend another few thousand feet to Mutinda Shelter at 12,000 feet. En route, we’d cover some 12-15 miles of heavily mudded, challenging terrain. Knowing we’d be having a long day, we decided to send Collin, Charlie, Ned, and Tim ahead with William, as they would move quickly. Dan, Barb, and I would move as fast as we could, accompanied by Edison and Enoch.

Altitude illness is a tough thing, as it comes on fairly quickly, often is very severe and debilitating, has few very effective treatments, and ultimately requires descent of several thousand feet. Although Barb Neary is tough as nails, and has incredible determination and fortitude, with even a slight case of HAPE she couldn’t fill her lungs and oxygenate her system: Moving along this difficult terrain was nearly impossible, but simply not an option. William, Edison, Enoch, and I huddled, and made a decision we never want to make, but sometimes have to: We’d have to scramble some of the porters, giving some double loads and freeing others to help us piggyback Barb over Bamwanjara Pass and on to Camp 6. Understandably, Barb was not in love with this idea, but also understood it was a necessity.

Teamwork was now key, as well as tenacity. For the next 16 hours we moved over the toughest terrain I’ve ever had to deal with in the mountains. From 50-degree, knee-deep mud slopes up Bamwanjara to mile-long fields of boot-sucking bog to descents down steep canyons in rushing water, the day—and night—were absolutely relentless. But everyone understood the job at hand, the magnitude of it, and no one complained—everyone just did what needed to be done. We carried, we fought through the mud, we listened as cracks of thunder reverberated through the skies. We pushed through a storm that dropped an inch of groppel and then gave us two hours of driving rain. And, we still laughed … at least some of the time.

The entire time I kept thinking to myself: “Did I do something to anger the mountain gods? Maybe they didn’t like the kata, and are punishing me? Why is all this happening here, happening now?”

Eventually, cold, exhausted, and dangerously close to the hypothermia threshold, we made it to Camp 6. Dan helped Barb into her sleeping bag, and they were soon off to well-deserved sleep. I went down to check on Charlie, Collin, Ned, and Tim, who had had a long, grueling day as well, but had made it to camp just before sunset. Finding them all safe and sound, I went to check on our guides and porters, who were drying their clothes around a giant fire. There was something bothering us all: As we approached Camp 6 at just before midnight, we noticed two headlamps flickering on a distant hillside. Edison informed me they thought it might be porters coming to resupply Camp 6 with food, fuel, etc. They were still out in the cold, cold night, no doubt drenched by the evening rains and struggling through the unending, unforgiving mud. Edison told me that, as soon as they were warmed up by the fire, Pasco and Nixon would venture out to check on them.

Knowing I was too tired to be of much help, I wished them well and collapsed into sleep. I rarely remember dreams, especially when I’m as exhausted as I was last night … but I remember dreaming of an angry, vengeful mountain, lashing storms and wind and rain and terrain against me for hours. I awoke to the lulled chatter of porters around the fire and dim sunlight slipping through the mist.

“Good morning, Jake,” said Edison with his characteristically soft, calm voice. “There is something I must tell you. The porters we saw last night. Pasco and Nixon went to them, there were three, but one did not make it.”

“Oh, no, Edison. Is someone going out to help bring him to camp now?” I said, hoping I was right but knowing I was wrong.

“No, Jake, I mean he did not make it. When they reached him, he had breathed his last.”

My heart sank as tears welled in my eyes. I could imagine what he went through, shivering uncontrollably in driving rain, knee-deep in mud. We had been close enough just hours before. And, after years on the Board of Porters Progress, I know well that porters often do the toughest work for the lowest pay in the harshest conditions. My heart sank further. Was there something I could have done, should have done? Could we have saved him? My mind raced, replaying the events of the night, and asking hurried questions.

What was happening? What had we done wrong? Who, or what, had we angered to make all this happen?

Just then, Pasco walked by. Pasco has an amazing face, one that immediately asks you to say hello and offer a smile. He’s disarmingly kind and gracious and sincere. I gave him a quick hug, still hit hard by the emotion of what Edison had told me. “Did you know the boy, Pasco?”

“Well, yes sir,” he said solemnly. “He was my brother’s son. Just 15 years. A nice boy.”

My heart sank further. Just 15. A child porter. Probably portering out of desperation, trying to make enough money to buy school supplies and help his family. I’ve seen it many times in Nepal. “I’m so sorry, Pasco,” I said, giving him a hug. “It is so sad your nephew is gone.”

Something like a smile creaked across Pasco’s face: “It’s not so sad … It is God’s will. He tells us when we die.”

And that thought has been with me all day. How do we relate to mountains, to the events in our lives, and in the lives of others? Is everything God’s will, some sort of pre-ordained order that we simply wait to see? Do things like mountains act against us, sometimes happy and sometimes angry?

Today the mists hovered gently over the towers of the Rwenzori. Sunlight splashed on the green moss of the river, and the mud was surprisingly tame. The mountains—these Rwenzori whom I’ve praised and cursed repeatedly these past 9 days—seemed strangely calm, serene, pacified. But, I cannot get the image of Santi out of my head. Why? Why did that have to happen? Why was he up in the cold, late in the day, in the rain, in cotton clothes, carrying a heavy load to high altitude? Why wasn’t he in school, studying hard and bettering his life?

Because of poverty, of desperation. Santi, like so many others, had no choice. This is what he had to do so that he and his family could simply survive. And, this is what has to change.

Author: - Friday, August 26th, 2011

  1. Stephan Schnitzler

    We were touring the Ruwenzori’s at the same time and by coincidenced saw the guy’s funeral in Kilembe on 27.August 2011.
    I’ll try to get a reader’s letter into Uganda Vision to emphasize to Ruwenzori Mountaineering Service that they’ll need to assure training and equipment for the porters.
    Any other ideas?

  2. Winy Birungi

    This is really very sad and i must say is very common for young children to work so they can survive and also help their parents and siblings.
    The solution to this,i really can’t tell.Well atleast protective gears should be made available for all porters.
    I am really sorry to the family for the loss and i pray that God sees them thru this tough time

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