Endurance to scale Muhabura

Members of the Big Family Health Club, Nansana dare Mount  Muhabura heights. Photo | | Edgar R Batte.

What you need to know:

  • Going higher. Biting cold, steep elevation and difficult terrain call for your fitness and endurance to climb Muhabura, writes Edgar R. Batte.

Peter Ntale joined a group of more than 40 individuals who are part of the Big Family Health Club which offers a variety of sports activities, including aerobics, football, netball, hiking, road runs, and end-of-year sports galas, and annual party celebrations.

As part of their annual activities, members of the Nansana-based club, embarked on a one-day hike up Mount Muhabura in South Western Uganda, which stands at 4,127m above sea level.

Muhabura straddles the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo, and is entirely a hiking vertical challenge. Last year, four members of the health club scaled  Mount Kilimanjaro.

“On April 27, our team embarked on a journey from Kampala using Uganda Wild Authority (UWA) bus and a mini-bus. We stopped at Brenda’s Sante Bar in Mbarara for a hearty breakfast before continuing on to Kabale, then Kisoro. The team danced along the way,” Ntale, one of the group leaders, explains.

Adding: “We aimed to reach Kisoro early, rest, and prepare for the Muhabura expedition. By 8pm, all team members had arrived and checked into their hotel rooms.  On April 28, the hiking team began their expedition at 6am. Another team, unfit for hiking, stayed behind and toured border areas of Bunagana, Kyanika, and the gorilla park. They also enjoyed a boat cruise on Lake Mutanda.”

The Big Family largely comprises experienced hikers who conquered Mount Muhabura in 2021 and Kilimanjaro in 2022, footballers from the youth group, and gym/aerobics members who are typical of an advanced age group.

To become a member, one must have an interest and ability to regularly participate in any of the available sports. That, keeps members active and in great physical shape. The momentum of these sports activities increases during major events such as hiking.

As Ntale adds, the team has worked hard to achieve their fitness goals in preparation for the Muhabura ascent since January. During the briefing, the guides noticed that the hiking team was generally in high spirits, although some members were unfit.

Set off

The team was dressed in heavy jackets and raincoats with hiking sticks and set off from the base camp at 2,380m above sea level at exactly 8:30 am. The first rest point is situated at an altitude of approximately 3,117 meters above sea level, while the second is located at about 3,860 meters above sea level.

Ntale narrates, “A considerable number of hikers gave up and did not make it to the first hut. Only a few reached the first hut at 3,116m, where they took a break and ate their lunch before deciding to head back to the starting point. Those who decided to continue faced even greater challenges to reach the second hut (stop) at 3,855m, where physical fitness, endurance, and perseverance were required due to the harsh coldness, steep elevation, and difficult terrain.”

By that point, there was no turning back as the summit was only 40 minutes away. At 3,855m, some hikers began to experience altitude sickness, which manifested as a pounding headache, flu-like symptoms, coughs, and chest heaviness. The guides advised hikers to stop and rest if they felt unable to continue. Due to the slippery ground, hikers were also vulnerable to ankle, knee and back injuries.

The successful team

Out of the 40 people who began their journey from the base camp, only 23 were able to successfully reach the mountain top. Upon reaching the summit, in addition to cutting a cake, one can enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the beautiful countryside, lakes, and other volcanoes within the Virunga ranges such as Sabyinyo, Gahinga, Karisimbi, Bisoke and Nyiragongo. The summit provides a feeling of complete detachment from the real world. The area also presents opportunities to witness primates, birds, and even large forest mammals such as buffaloes and elephants.

Also, there is a crater lake located at the summit with clear and beautiful waters. Although it’s possible to swim in the lake, most hikers are discouraged due to the usually cold temperature.

This group has a yearly tradition of mountain hiking. In 2021, a team of five successfully climbed the same mountain, and in 2022, another team scaled Mountain Kilimanjaro. Ntale says this year, the plan was to take a larger group to Muhabura to test their fitness levels after years of engaging in various exercises.

Godwin Kayizzi, chairman of the group and Dorah Nanyunja, his vice organised the trip, took care of bookings, accommodations, meals, transportation, hygiene, and support to ensure that everyone enjoyed their money’s worth.

For four months, people trained rigorously, with physical fitness coaches working hard to prepare them for the challenge ahead. Coach Meddie Kiface helped them to  develop strong leg muscles, a crucial requirement for hiking.

One of the challenges was that most of the hikers who embarked on the mountain trail were inexperienced and failed to comprehend the mountain’s scale and steepness, as well as the obstacles ahead.

“When we left Kampala, many individuals celebrated the occasion, causing them to feel drained the next day. Furthermore, many lacked proper hiking equipment and were not physically or mentally fit, which significantly impacted their hiking skills.  A few experienced slight mountain sicknesses, hindering them from going beyond the 3,000m mark,” Ntale recounts.

Lessons  learnt

To tackle the steepness of the mountain, hikers should focus on exercises that strengthen their leg muscles and core balance. Neglecting these muscles could result in muscle problems that hinders progress.

Even then it is important to improve internal strength and resilience of the lungs, heart, and brain to adapt to extreme conditions. These organs work hard during challenging hikes, so it is essential to perform exercises that enhance their proper functioning.

It is important to brief hikers on what is and what is not allowed. It is crucial to give guidance on the appropriate hiking gear, such as clothing, shoes, and head protection, to prevent any weather-related issues or accidents. Consuming alcohol or overeating before or during the hike can lead to serious challenges, so hikers should avoid doing so.

Spending a day in Kisoro areas especially at the foothills of the mountain before hiking to acclimatise to high altitudes and cold weather conditions of Kisoro was vital.

Going forward, the  Big Family Health Club realised the need to have a medical doctor on such trips to take care of health emergencies such as the ones they experienced during the hiking where one of their members collapsed before reaching the first hut and carrying her back was challenging.

Did you know?

Muhabura is the third highest in Uganda after Elgon, which stands at 4,321m, and Mountain Rwenzori, which is 5,109m high. It is considered the most challenging in terms of complexity and difficulty.

Peter Ntale, Big Family chairman, recommends a major overhaul if UWA is to attract more hikers and other tourists.

 “There are no toilets, and dustbins along the trail. Water bottles, polythene bags, are thrown all over the trail which puts the expedition in health-related problems but also causes environmental damage,” Ntale adds.