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Mountains of the moon

Mark G. Reports On Uganda — Rwenzoris Mountains of the Moon” Part 2

The first rung of the lad­der was way out of reach, not even a dou­ble shoul­der stand would get a per­son close to it. Cli­mate change, believe it or not, was the cul­prit here, leav­ing a lad­der sus­pend­ed more than 30 feet above the rock that was once cov­ered in ice. Less than a cou­ple of decades ago moun­taineers could take a short-cut and climb down the lad­der onto the Marg­er­hi­ta Glac­i­er and start their ascent to the high­est point in Ugan­da, the 16,761-foot Margheri­ta Peak. Instead, we found our­selves descend­ing more than 500 feet over rocky slabs before we could find a pas­sage up to the dras­ti­cal­ly reced­ing glac­i­er and a point we could resume our ascent.

Ice blob below sum­mit. All pho­tos by Mark Gunlogson

This was day six of our trip, one that start­ed by head­lamp in the wee hours of the night. The day before we arrived at the Ele­na Hut, a place sit­u­at­ed well into the alpine zone, where life was left to some high­ly adapt­ed plants, lichens, and a few small mam­mals. We left the exot­ic foliage of giant senecios and lobelias below as we climbed high­er into the alpine zone.

Sun­rise on the climb day. 

Look­ing back while hik­ing to last last night’s hut after climb­ing Baker.

We were hap­py to be on the glac­i­ers though, despite our amaze­ment of their dimin­ished size. Kil­i­man­jaro is often seen as sort of the poster child of melt­ing glac­i­ers, but the Rwen­zoris offer an unde­ni­able por­tray­al of the state of affairs. If giants roamed the plan­et, these glac­i­ers could be slid into their pock­ets. To see more of this check out this video.

The melt­ing glac­i­er at the ter­mi­nus of the Marg­er­hi­ta Glacier. 

As we reached these glac­i­ers the day of our sum­mit climb the sun rose over the east­ern hori­zon in a range few vis­it these days. Jim, who fell in up to his hip in the infa­mous Bigo Bog, remind­ed me a few days ear­li­er that climbers have short-term mem­o­ry issues of the hard­ships of our ascents, but are always drawn back to the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of moun­taineer­ing. But, these are the moments that bring us back, regard­less of the blis­ters, headaches, bogs, and aching, tired bodies.

Walk­ing back to the hut after a long day climb. 

It was an amaz­ing day! Ted, Per, and Har­ry climbed three peaks and rolled into camp at the end of the day just behind the rest of the group. Most of us focused our ener­gy on the ascent of Margheri­ta Peak, which turned out to be a 12 hour day round-trip from the hut. Our climb was much like a clas­sic Cas­cades climb; some rock scram­bling to get onto the glac­i­er, a few crevass­es to dodge, and a rock scram­ble to the summit.

Hik­ing up to the Ele­na Hut. 

On the top of Uganda! 

But, the blob of glac­i­er below the sum­mit defied any sense of what nor­mal glac­i­ers do- this was a fea­ture of equa­to­r­i­al ice and offered a mem­o­rable pas­sage under­neath huge dag­gers of ici­cles that threat­ened to put an end to what was becom­ing a per­fect alpine day in one of the remotest moun­tain areas in Africa. An incred­i­ble day, but a long one for all of us.

Marg­er­hi­ta Peak. 

The mere two thou­sand feet of ele­va­tion gain belied the com­plex ter­rain we cov­ered dur­ing the climb and left us exhaust­ed. But, we were hap­py that our main goal was reached — any­thing after Margheri­ta would be icing on the cake. Of course there are always those that want more, like kids at a birth­day par­ty slather­ing icing over their faces! And so off Har­ry, Jim, Ted, and I went with delight to reach the sum­mit of Mount Bak­er, named after the 19th cen­tu­ry explor­er Sir Samuel Baker. 

Jim and Mark on the sum­mit of Mount Baker. 

This turned out to be anoth­er defin­ing day of why we would trav­el so far to some obscure peak in Ugan­da. A long, easy rock scram­ble to the sum­mit reward­ed us worth incred­i­ble views of the range; it’s deep, con­vo­lut­ed val­leys giv­ing rise to peaks that just a few decades past were home to exten­sive glac­i­ers. It was just a fine day in the moun­tains, mov­ing over ter­rain chal­leng­ing enough to make us think, but easy enough to allow us to move as quick­ly as the thin air would allow and with­out ropes. With Ted being the youngest of the group bare­ly past 40 and Har­ry, Jim, and I all in our 50’s or 60’s, the day remind­ed me that you’re nev­er too old to just get out and cruise in the moun­tains, what­ev­er your speed is, as long as you’re get­ting out! It was a fine climb.

Descend­ing Marg­er­hi­ta Peak. 

Our walk down to the next hut after the climb was clas­sic Rwen­zori, again made easy by our dry con­di­tions. Rock to rock, hum­mock to hum­mock, an occa­sion­al step in some mud, and not a sin­gle switch­back as we descend­ed thou­sands of feet. The last bit of the hike to the hut for the night was as good as it gets, with beams of light slic­ing through shad­ows of the ear­ly evening light, defin­ing the intri­cate, deep val­leys and high peaks of this amaz­ing range. 

The morn­ing after the climb near the Ele­na Hut. 

That night light­ning lit up the sky and a brief tor­rent of rain poured down on us after a final gath­er­ing of our entire group of porters, cooks, park rangers, and climbers. We were all tired from the cul­mi­na­tion of sev­en days of trekking and climb­ing, but what else could we have asked for- we had per­fect weath­er on a trip we had no idea what to expect, every­body was amaz­ing and great to be with, we all made new friends, and expe­ri­enced as much a real adven­ture we can all expect in these days of mod­ern travel.

The final hut and our last night out. 

And then there was the goril­las — more on that later….

~ MM Own­er Mark Gunlogson