Bittersweet experience of climbing Mount Rwenzori

Saturday January 16 2021
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The mountaineers that made it to the peak of Mt Rwenzori. PHOTO/IAN ORTEGA.

By Ian Ortega

Fatigue, extreme coldness, the snow, the injuries, high altitude sickness and losing connection with loved ones make hiking Mt Rwenzori a painful experience. But overcoming all this and making it to the peak is a  worthwhile adventure. Mt Rwenzori is a beautiful girl that makes you pay for her love.

I am still struggling to summarise the hike to Mt Rwenzori. I had planned to hike Mt Rwenzori two years ago. But it was issue after issue. At first, it was the gear. Then I got the gear. Then, Covid-19 happened. 

Post Covid, the mountaineers organised a September hike but I did not qualify. I had not slept at a mountain before neither had I hiked a major mountain. Without evidence of these, I was denied a chance to join the team that went hiking. And I appreciate their strictness because Rwenzori is not a child’s play park. 

So I went out, climbed some mountains, Muhavura and Sabyinyo to be specific in preparation for Mt Rwenzori. Of course, you can do Rwenzori without any prior experience. But it is advisable to attempt a smaller mountain before daring Rwenzori. This is how the events unfolded:

Pre-Mountain
At this point, you are training the mind and the body. I spent time doing some push-ups and squats. I would do 10 push-ups every morning and evening. I would add in a 15km run every week. I also spent the rest of the time watching YouTube videos of people climbing different mountains. During this time, I was also trying to secure my gear. 

A hiking gear will take up most of your costs. From the duffel bag to the jackets to gumboots, you want to keep as warm as possible on Rwenzori. Trying to get a proper attire in Uganda can prove to be hell. You want as many water proof things as possible. If your undies too can be water proof, the better. Rwenzori will always shock you with coldness and rain. Having the right gear can make all the difference. I used a checklist, went from head to toe, ticking off all that I needed.

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When it comes to gear, be ready to spend as long as it is worth it. With these, add things like snacks and some medication. Here, you stock up some high altitude sickness medication and pain killers. I repeat, being underprepared with gear is the worst mistake. 

Day zero
The D day was finally here. We set off for Kasese. Everything is going just right. We were about to get to Fort Portal, then I see our car getting off the road. At this point, I begin to panic. Those 10 or more seconds as the car overturns become the longest. My only prayer is; “God stop this rolling.” When the car settles, I begin wondering; “why the hell does something always stop me from going to Rwenzori?” I get out of the car without a single scratch but my friend sustained some deep cuts on his arm. 

People gather around to rescue us. My friend was rushed to a nearby clinic. I keep around waiting for the rest of the team to fall in. I am hoping none wants to cancel the trip. The other team arrives and we all agree we are proceeding with the trip. More than ever, I am determined to climb Rwenzori. I had lunch in Fort Portal, some checks at the hospital and I was cleared to proceed. The jokes start about the car, about the famous stone that got us rolling. We arrive in Kasese late in the evening ready for the climb next morning. Over dinner, we are briefed, we get extra gear for hiring.

Day One: Mihunga Gate to Nyabitaba 
We are at the starting point. Time to meet our porters and guides. These will become family for the next one week. Each of us is assigned a porter. There is a limit of 20kgs per porter. We also get a chance to meet the chefs (shout out to Shadrack and Simei). Walking stick in check, day packs have snacks and water, book and we set off for Nyabitaba hut. 

First day is beautiful. It is threatening to rain but no, it will not. We begin crossing the rivers. We are taking photos. A few minutes to the first rest point and the rain maker opens up. We gather at the rest point and share snacks. But it continued to rain. Time to engage our rain gear. I put on my poncho and face the mountain. By the time I arrive at Nyabitaba, I am freezing. We are welcomed with flasks of tea. Then a sigiri to warm up. Our staff arrives wet. It is time to warm things over a sigiri. Sleeping bags, socks, gloves.

I call my porter aka the great Mathias and ask him to dry my gumboots. Your porter becomes a personal assistant. I eat chicken and rice etc and then enter the sleeping bag ready for day two. 

Day Two: Nyabitaba to John Matta 
It is now clear to all of us that the mountain is not a joke. It will always rain. It will always get cold. There are two camps, team shower and team wipes. For now, there is one or two people in team shower. The walks are getting longer and harder. Because Rwenzori is made up of mountains, you keep climbing and descending.

The divisions in the teams begin. There are fast trekkers, team Bajaj, we have the middle pack and then the slow team. They keep arriving long after we have all rested in. But they keep having better photos. Get to John Matta, have a dip in the river and then sunbathe. Once again, get your porter to dry up anything of importance. Get the hot water bottles refilled and prepare for the next day. 

Day Three: John Matta to Bujuku 
At this point, things are getting harder. You are spending time in swamp. I finally got the true meaning of being bogged down. Of course, the board walks through the bog are heavenly. But without access to internet or phone network, it is now getting to survival for the fittest. Injuries are beginning to develop. It is getting colder. We play some games in the evening. Once again, we take a shower in the water streams. The beds are getting smaller. It is getting harder to do number two. 

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Hiking to the peak of Mt Rwenzori is a challenging but beautiful experience. PHOTO/IAN ORTEGA.

Day Four: Bujuku to Elena 
If you make it to Elena, you have made it to the hardest point on Rwenzori. I dread Elena. People have had to be evacuated from Elena. It is here that high altitude sickness always hits. It snows here. You get frost bite. I look at my friends that I convinced to hike Mt Rwenzori and they have no kind words for me. If you don’t die at Elena, then you can’t die elsewhere. It is rocky and slippery. One slight mistake and your life is gone. We are welcomed with noodles soup. And then Herbert, the lead guide begins to crosscheck summit items. Where are the crampons? Gaiters? Harnesses? We sleep early that day waiting for the trouble ahead.

Day Five: Elena to Summit 
We wake up at midnight for breakfast. And then we start fitting our final stuff. I get the ice axe but my hands can’t warm up. I am getting worried. What if I freeze? By 2:30am, we are all set to go with our headlamps. At some point, I wonder; “why am I paying to suffer?” 
As I am lost in the thought, we are welcomed with ropes. Imagine climbing up on a rope with nothing else holding you. “Look for the crack” they say. “Step on the crack.” How the hell should someone see the crack? A few minutes in the summit trail, someone throws up. It is high altitude sickness. Everyone is convinced he should return to the hut. He is having breathing complications. The moment he hears about these plans, he rejects them. He assures us he will make it. We soldier on behind him. It is time to start the walk on the glacier. You have to learn on the job. Walking on ice is not a walk in the park. We get the crampons and begin moving through. It is just 4am. 

Mastering the drill 
I now know the drill. If it is not ice, it is a rope climb. At the final glacier-the Margherita glacier, our team of five now has the friend with altitude sickness. We are arguing, we are lost between motivation, anger, frustration and pain. We abuse him at some point, he becomes hardened and he refuses to hold his rope. I see a friend falling in a crack. We make a step and stop. It is as ugly as beautiful. It is everything, every emotion. We make it to the peak at around midday. I often wondered why people always looked sad at the peak. But imagine we have hardly slept. We started walking at 2am.

It is now midday. I am at the peak dreading the journey back. Rwenzori peak is underwhelming. I just stand there like a zombie. Then the descent starts. Ropes after ropes after ropes. I advise anyone planning Rwenzori to spend a day or two at the Muyenga quarry. My one day lesson there is now paying off. 
We descend to Elena. I am the first person to arrive at camp at about 7pm. The rocks are even more slippery. I dread spending a night here but I had no option. 

Day Six: Elena to Kitandara 
This turns out to be the longest walk ever. It is also the section that broke most people. Two people had to be evacuated. As usual, I am now in the first pack. We spend hours and hours walking to Kitandara. We chose the Central Circuit trail. If you are weak, avoid this trail. Mt Rwenzori is a beautiful girl that makes you pay for her love. We get to Kitandara and wow, the lake welcomes us with love. Have lunch and set off for Guy Yeoman. “How much time?” We keep asking the guide. He refuses to answer. Frustration kicks in. It is getting to 7pm and we are still walking. The camp appears in site, we arrive at 8pm. The next pack only gets to arrive at 11pm. Imagine walking through the mountains in the dark. 
There is the last team. One person keeps walking and only arrives at 6am. He basically kept walking, sleeping and walking. Another group is forced to sleep in a rock cave. 

Day Seven: Guy Yeoman to NyabitabaI am tired of Rwenzori. I assure people that if it means walking on my back, I will. But I won’t spent another night in this park. Everyone else agrees. So, we set off for Nyabitaba. Now, the chef ensures everyone has had food, then he has to run ahead of everyone and prepare the next meal. This time round, we get to Nyabitaba before he does. The complications of last night have changed everything. We by-pass a group of men carrying the reed sisal stretcher for evacuating our friend. We keep walking. At around 5pm, the main gate shows up. We are all emotional. I am finally out. It is unbelievable. 
What is happening in the country? I am seeing memes of the bush. I have no idea what it means. I try to download my Facebook app. It is failing. I had gone off in early December. My WhatsApp is crashing, too many messages. Where do I start? People have died. I hear this and that is blocked. I am totally out of touch. It has been seven days of zero contact. I am reminded of curfew and masks. 

Day Eight: Kasese to Kampala
This marks the end of everything. I am haunted by Rwenzori. It will torture you with its beauty. I keep wondering; “is this the toughest mountain in Africa?” Does this explain why it receives just 1,000 visitors annually? Kilimanjaro has 50,000 each year. What would this mean if we just doubled those numbers? 
Having been to Rwenzori, I have now revised my list of beautiful places in Uganda. First is Kasese, then Kisoro, Fort Portal, Jinja, Kabale and Karamoja. I am also convinced Rwenzori has a branding problem. It is high time we described it as; “the toughest, most beautiful mountain in Africa.” Once you hike Rwenzori, you can do any mountain in Africa. Rwenzori makes Kilimanjaro look like a hill climb. 

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com 

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