By Collin Barry
“In the immensity of these ranges, at the limit of existence where men may visit but cannot dwell, life has a new importance … but mountains are not chivalrous; one forgets their violence. Indifferently they lash those who venture among them with snow, rock, wind, cold.”— George Schaller, Stones of Silence
On Sunday, August 21, just past noon, the Challenge21 Team —Jake Norton, Dan Fillipi, Ned Breslin, Charlie Lovering, Tim Ryan, and I, along with our three steadfast and eminently capable Ugandan guides, Edison, William, and Enok—were standing atop the third-highest summit in Africa: Margherita Peak on Mount Stanley (16,763 feet / 5,109 meters). Our purpose for climbing Mount Stanley was to raise money and awareness for the Denver, Colorado-based nonprofit organization, Water for People. (Challenge21’s initial goal was to raise $16,763, however, as of this writing, over $25,000 was donated to the cause.)
Looking back, our reaching the summit, while noble in purpose, was eclipsed by a real physical struggle (difficult and steep terrain coupled with unrelenting elements), one of our team members suffering from the effects of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and the tragic and demoralizing death of a young porter who was struggling to make his way in this world. To these ends, our mountaineering expedition was marked by no small degree of uncertainty. The Rwenzoris captivated the imagination with a certain beauty and enchantment, and in equal measure unknown vicissitudes and perils.
Backing up a bit…
Uganda’s Rwenzoris Mountains, nicknamed “The Mountains of the Moon” by Ptolemy in 150 AD, are some of the most dramatic, unique, and least-visited mountains on earth. (The Rwenzoris reportedly see fewer adventure travelers in one year than Mount Kilimanjaro sees in an average week. Outside of our group of seven, four guides, one cook, and 15 porters, we did not see another soul for nine days with the exception of summit day, whereupon a single climber was being escorted by two guides.)
Laying four degrees north of the Equator and running along the troubled border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Rwenzoris’ ramparts range from lowland, equatorial bogs to towering, craggy summits. The Rwenzoris are Africa’s highest range. Though rivaled only in altitude by Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, the Rwenzoris offer outdoor enthusiasts a far more punishing and daring adventure.
Our trail, dubbed “Kilembe,” was pioneered by Scott Elliot in 1895 and only re-opened to the public in 2009. For years, Kilembe was used by poachers hunting for monkey, chimpanzee, antelope, leopard, and birds. In 1991, the Rwenzoris were gazetted and established as a national park; in 1995, the park was declared a World Heritage Site. Throughout our nine-day expedition, we passed through rain forests filled with monkeys, all manner of birds, Dukier (a small antelope), and the elusive Rwenzori leopard, as well as bamboo forests, large bog-laden fields filled with tussocks, boulder fields, and fallen trees covered in Sphagnum moss, flowing rivers, high-altitude moorland zones, landscapes of alien-like giant lobelias, and lowland areas dwarfed by towering granite peaks draped in a persistent, mysterious, cold, and ominous mist.
Amidst the unique, Jurassic-like, and awe-inspiring landscapes, our days were filled with two certainties: inclement weather and mud. Our expedition endured violent thunderstorms, graupel (hail-like), and cold temperatures. And the mud … the relentless, enervating, life-sucking mud. The mud was everpresent on the trail, on our clothes, on our bodies, as well as in our backpacks, duffel sacks, and climbing gear. The mud was viscous, deep … knee-deep, cold, and all together insufferable.
Following is a brief summary of each day’s trek:
Monday, August 15: We set out from our hotel in Kampala to Kilembe—a six-hour drive through the Ugandan countryside. Along the way, we stopped at various Water for People sites to talk with village elders and get a sense of each project’s impact on the respective communities. Tonight we stayed at the “White House Hotel” in Kasese. We indulged in African-brewed beer and Indian curry … the food was truly outstanding.
Tuesday, August 16: We drove from Kasese to the base of the Rwenzoris Mountains, whereupon we met our guides and staff for a briefing, an equipment check, and a final packing. We then set out to the Ranger Station to register and pay park fees. After formalities, we continued trekking through montane forests and bamboo forests. At the end of our first day, the trees cleared for impressive views of Lake George and Queen Elizabeth National Park. We stayed at Samalira Camp (10,493’).
Wednesday, August 17: Our trek continued along a steep climb up moss-covered ridges with canopies of giant heather. Kilembe crossed over the Chavumba Pass (10,879’) and a second ridge at 11,532’ before dropping to our lunch spot in the Nyamwamba Valley. In the afternoon, we continued to climb through giant heather to Kiharo Camp (11,771’).
Thursday, August 18: We began up the narrow Nyamwamba Valley under the Rwenzori’s towering granite summits. Eventually, the valley widened as we walked along the Nyamwamba River through bogs and forests of giant lobelia. Massive, mossy cliffs rose above us as we reached the confluence of the Nyamwamba and Namusangi Rivers. Our third camp (unnamed) was situated at 13,333’, from whereupon we could see glacial lakes punctuate the rolling and verdant valley landscapes below.
Friday, August 19: Today’s climb began with a steep ascent to Bamwanjara Pass (14,596’); thereafter we dropped to the Kachope Lakes area, one of only three areas where sightings of the rare Rwenzori leopard have been made. After Kachope, we climbed steeply, and descended again (portions on fixed ladders) to McConnell’s Camp at 13,644’.
Saturday, August 20: We trekked from McConnell’s Camp up to Scott Elliot Pass and past the Kitandara Lakes. Camp Five (unnamed) was situated at 14,628’ and offered impressive views of Lake Bujuku, Wiesman’s Peak, and Mount Speke. This was by far our shortest day—about five hours of trekking. The previous days averaged seven to eight hours of trekking over remarkably rugged and steep terrain. By the time we reached Camp Five, all of us were feeling sufficiently exhausted.
Sunday, August 21: We awoke at 3 a.m. to get dressed, eat, hydrate, pack, and make a final equipment check. We were on the trail by 4 a.m. After one hour, we passed the Elena Hut and started climbing steeply over solid rock (using fixed lines). At this stage, one of our team members started to evidence symptoms of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. After a consultation with Jake, Barb turned around and began her descent to Camp Four (McConnell’s). This was a difficult moment for all of us on the trip; we had come this far as a team and endured quite a bit in the process. Above all else, however, we were more concerned for Barb’s safety and well being.
At 15,650’, we reached the glacier and put on our harnesses, crampons, and roped up. After a couple of hours, we reached the 16,482’ saddle between Alexandra and Margherita peaks. From this point, due to climate-related glacial recession, we had to scramble over 4th class rock, cross a bergschrund on a series of (loosely connected) ladders, and scramble up relatively firm rock to the summit at 16,763’. Mother Nature bestowed no small measure of kindness on us today—we reached the summit under bright blue skies that afforded us breathtaking views across the Rwenzoris and into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
After staying at the summit for approximately 30 minutes, we descended following the exact same route back to Camp Five, arriving around 4 p.m. Knowing that Barb had already descended to McConnell’s Camp, our team spent a quick hour eating, hydrating, and re-packing before setting out at 5 p.m. We knew that we had at least four hours of trekking ahead of us, and of greater concern, the sky would turn completely dark around 7:30 p.m. Without fail, just as nightfall arrived, the wind kicked up, and the rain poured down. Our headlamps provided but meager light in the absolute darkness that engulfed us; still, we pressed on—completely dependent on our guides’ familiarity with the route. Even in broad daylight, the trail was not always so well-defined; trekking in absolute darkness provided an interesting twist on the narrow margin of safety we had already accepted.
A quick note about the darkness: There are few places in the world where there is a complete lack of ambient light reflecting off the nighttime sky. The Poles being the two foremost locations followed by large swaths of territory across the African continent, Australia’s interior, eastern China, Mongolia, and parts of South America. (Satellite photos, courtesy of NASA, taken during the evening hours drive this point home: http://geology.com/articles/satellite-photo-earth-at-night.shtml.) The entire African continent consumes roughly 4 percent of the world’s total electrical output.
Separately, having eaten very little throughout the day (my appetite waned considerably at upper altitudes), I started bonking around 7 p.m. As I walked, I felt as if my peripheral vision was closing in on me—as if I were trying to see the way ahead through a straw. At some point between semi-consciousness and complete delirium, my body shifted into a self-piloting mode and kept going. Our team staggered into McConnell’s Camp at varying intervals between 8:45 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. At this point, we had been awake for over 18 hours … climbing for nearly 16. The total distance we covered was (conservatively) somewhere in the realm of 14 miles. The exhaustion we felt the night before was but a mere shadow of the extreme fatigue and weariness that had now overcome us.
Monday, August 22: As Barb was still suffering from the effects of HAPE, our team decided to make a push for Mutinda Camp (12,096’), though our guides advised us it would be another long day—at least 10 hours of trekking covering a distance close to 12 miles. Our route retraced Scott Elliot Pass, the Kitandara Lakes, the Kachope Lakes area, the steep climb over Bamwanjara Pass, open moorlands, tussock grass, and bogs … more godforsaken, mind-numbing, mud bogs.
On this day, the Kilembe Trail descended through the beautiful Namusangi Valley replete with waterfalls and mossy mountains. Also, the dramatic Mutinda Peaks appeared ahead of us, barely visible though they were through the driving rain. We camped for the night at the Mutinda Rock Shelter, a massive, natural rock overhang capable of sleeping over 80 people.
Ned, Tim, Charlie, and I, along with our guides William and Moses, maintained a steady pace with the intent of arriving into camp before 7:30 p.m. (Earlier in the day, the decision had been made for the team to split into two groups.) A violent thunderstorm rolled in around 2 p.m. and did not let up for the next five hours, which only served to fuel our intense pace. Of greater concern, however, was the fact that temperatures had dropped to a much lower level than we had experienced in previous days. I was surprised, and grew somewhat concerned, when I saw Moses stumble on a few occasions—for we regarded Moses (and all of our Ugandan companions) as being far stronger and more agile. Alas, the elements coupled with a persistent, if not deepening, exhaustion were beginning to affect all of us.
A quick note about our guides and porters:
With the exception of Tim, whose pack was loaded down with photographic equipment, water, and a change of clothes, and Jake, whose pack was loaded down with much the same as well as a laptop, an Iridium satellite phone, solar panels, and a large supply of emergency medical supplies, the rest of us carried only water, a change in clothing, snack food, and a camera. On average, our packs weighed maybe 30 pounds. Our guides, cook, and porters carried packs that easily weighed twice as much (and likely more). Amazingly, the majority of the porters chose to walk with packs balanced on their heads—all the while wearing rubber boots (dubbed “Wellies”); most also opted to forego a walking stick or trekking pole for added stability. All this notwithstanding the fact that our guides and porters were mostly wearing cotton clothing; few had rain gear, and I suspect that most were without socks.
To characterize our Ugandan companions as extraordinarily strong is an understatement; shaking their hands was like holding on to a vice grip. And their climbing in the Rwenzoris, escorting expeditions such as ours, was their livelihood. Their work was grueling, long, and frequently subject to inclement weather. The standard wage for guides was U.S. $17 per day; porters just U.S. $8 per day. In spite of these hardships, our climbing companions’ disposition and general outlook on life was remarkable; every man on our crew outwardly displayed a firmness of spirit and resolve.
By the time we reached camp, in spite of the fact that Ned, Tim, Charlie, and I were wearing weatherproof layers, we were soaked to the bone, and it did not take long before our core body temperatures lowered and a chill set in. Some of the porters were trying to start a fire, but the extremely damp conditions and saturated wood made for a futile effort. At this point, everyone fended for themselves, changed into what dry clothing they had, and hunkered down in their sleeping bags. As Barb, Dan, Jake, Edison, and Enok were still en route, it was a restless night. The minutes passed like hours as we listened for the faintest sound of their arrival, which came just past midnight; they had been climbing for 15 hours. Thankfully, Barb’s condition continued to stabilize.
Tuesday, August 23: This morning, we were greatly distressed to learn that a porter named Santi had passed away while climbing from the base to Camp 6. His climb involved nearly 7,000’ in elevation gain over a total distance of nearly 10 miles. Apparently, Santi did not set out until late afternoon on Monday. The same violent thunderstorm and cold temperatures that inflicted no small measure of discomfort on our crew was the same system that ultimately succumbed Santi. He died from complications related to hypothermia. Santi was only 15 years of age.
Before we set out for Camp 7, Edison warned us that we would be walking past Santi’s body. A team of porters had been dispatched from the base to retrieve Santi’s body earlier in the morning, however, they would likely not arrive until mid-afternoon. As we walked past Santi’s body, I chose not to look at him out of respect, though I offered a few words under my breath for his salvation and wished his spirit flight from his hardships and struggles.
We continued our descent, in total silence for quite some time, into the ethereal Kalalama Valley, which was shrouded in moss and lichen. About 30 minutes from Santi’s body, we saw the sack he had abandoned, which was heartbreaking—a clear sign that his situation had become desperate.
That night, we slept at the Kalalama Camp on a high ridge overlooking the Kilembe Valley—the lights of which we could see far below. Our first glimpse of civilization in eight days; a most welcome sight for our fatigued bodies and weary souls.
Wednesday, August 24: This was a long, but relatively easy day as we moved down the Rwenzori through bamboo forests and past the Musenge Rock shelter. We checked out at the Ranger Station and continued to the Trekkers Hostel whereupon we bid a final farewell to our Ugandan staff. After a two-hour drive to Fort Portal, we checked in to the Rwenzoris Travelers Inn, whereupon hot showers, Indian curries, beer, and beds awaited us.
Not every test or challenge stands to reason. The arc of the adventurer’s journey reflects an individual calculus that is limited only by imagination and courage. There were moments on the climb when I wondered why we could not have organized a 10k or a marathon to raise money for Water for People. But that would have been too easy. Climbing is a supreme testament to human will and endurance, and ultimately, triumph over adversity. And therein lays the very reason that brought Jake, Ned, Dan, Barb, Tim, Charlie, and me to Uganda—to go beyond the platitudes and commit ourselves to action; to take a stand for those who live in less fortunate circumstances; to help them reclaim some sense of dignity; to give them a reason to believe that tomorrow will be better.
As I get on in years, I find myself realizing more and more that our lives require some encounter with necessity; it is both important and meaningful to dedicate ourselves not solely to elementary pleasures, but something noble, something fine, something that reaches beyond. Necessity is the ground for taking one’s life seriously. And though many may regard a mountaineering expedition a pleasure, (I can assure you otherwise…), I see it as being more symbolic of the adversities that each of us face throughout our lives. Mountains are the quintessential metaphor for the struggles and the hardships that we must all (eventually) endure; and there are times when our struggles and hardships are not solely to a better end for ourselves, but rather a means to help others achieve opportunities and possibilities that may, for whatever reason, lay beyond them.
As I walked through Terminal Five at London’s Heathrow Airport waiting for my connecting flight to Frankfurt, gazing at the well-dressed men and women running to and fro, traveling hither and yawn, I reflected on the previous days—the discomforts, the frustrations, the exhilarations, the awe, and the sadness. I also thought about the resilience of our team and our Ugandan companions. Danger lurking from sheer exhaustion and an adverse change in the elements notwithstanding, the greatest risk that any of us faced was to simply “give up.” Ours was a courage forged out of the intensity of the pursuit and an unwavering dedication to a worthwhile cause that extended beyond any of us.
I also thought about the Rwenzoris and other mountaintops of the world that behold the shaping and guiding powers of nature—destructive and lethal those powers can be at times. The vicissitudes of both weather and me reveal an exquisite beauty and inexhaustible transformation that will long endure the memory of humankind.
Nature is healer, sanctuary, and sage; her wisdom inherent is a meditation on life; her grand and wavelike vastness tempts the speculative temperament and unleashes a spirituality grounded in deference to the sublime mysteries of the universe and the very riddles of both me and creation.
Lastly, my participation in the Challenge21 expedition in Uganda was dedicated to my mother, whose memory I cherish through the vale of years.
Keep on keepin’ on…
NOTE: Collin Barry is, aside from a deep thinker and talented wordsmith, a great friend of both Wende and Jake. He is a graduate of University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and currently lives in Stuttgart, Germany, where he is a senior consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton. Despite his claims to the contrary, Collin powered through the mud and rigors of the Rwenzori with a smile, even in knee-deep mud in the middle of the night!
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