Words & photos: Justin Long
I asked for the cook to make the most fattening, sugary food for breakfast. In ten minutes, I sat down and ate chocolate banana crepes with coffee and a bun. This was the first day of the expedition and we planned to ascend 2,000 meters across 8 kilometers and I didn’t want to run out of energy.
Our group started with ten people. There was myself, our guides Bernard and Enok, six absolutely hilarious porters, and our AK-47-toting Uganda Wildlife Authority Ranger that we just called “Ranger” (none of us ever found out his real name). The UWA provides Rangers to protect mountain expeditions from the threats of the Rwenzori. The mountains are divided by the Uganda-Congo border, and political rebels have used the forests to hide in recent conflicts. Our ranger was also there to protect us from any leopard attacks.
Our first day was spent crossing rivers and ascending through the lower forest. This is when we encountered the most wildlife. We had to dodge crazy lines of ants that creep up your pants if you didn’t keep moving and avoid the giant forest worms that spray black ink if scared.
Much of our journey was spent in the clouds. The Rwenzori is a tropical mountain range and you can expect the weather to normally be wet with a chance of clouds. However, we were luckier than most and saw bluebird for a third of the trip.
Each campsite was uniquely beautiful and all had an amazing atmosphere. The lower camps were often used for tourist treks through the lower forest, and they had most of the necessary amenities.
The only exception was the lack of a proper toilet. The UWA had strict regulations for toilet construction, and we often had to use a hole in the ground for relief. The first day was the most painful, since our porter that carried the toilet paper got lost and we had nothing but leaves to clean ourselves. I’m usually not bothered by leaf-wiping but some dirty local food created the exception.
After the first day, every camp and trail was filled with mud. The excessive rainfall that the Rwenzori experiences throughout the year has turned the entire mountain range into a vertical bog. This is also the reason why the Rwenzori Mountains are considered some of the toughest to climb in the world: imagine spending eight days walking in wet mud that often creeps to your ankles and knees and will take your boots if you’re not careful.
After 5 days on the trail, we finally reached Camp 5. This was the last camp before the summit and was wedged between Mt. Stanley and Mt. Baker (another nearby mountain). By the time I arrived I was as haggard as haggard gets. It was too cold to shower during the ascent and my B.O. was lingering on my clothes and body. I stank, was sunburnt, and I grew a dirty mustache, too.
Camp 5’s location puts it directly in the path of the wind and rain. It was cold, wet, and lacked any firewood or shelter. We set up our tents on top of this muddy-moss mixture where it was flat, and we tried to keep warm. One of the porters brought some charcoal, so we set up a tiny fire next to a rock and huddled as closely as we could. There were seven of us at this point, and we all looked pathetic trying to dry off all of our clothes over a fire no bigger than 10 inches.
This was the last time I got a glimpse of the mountain before the final ascent. Just before Camp 5 the clouds had cleared enough for us to view the lower ridges of the mountain. All we could see were rocks jetting up into the sky.
That night the rains came out and the wind was howling. We had no idea what the next day would look like, but we planned to head out at 4am.
Stay tuned to NS next weekend for the third and final part of the journey. If you like the story and adventure, then please donate to the children’s hospital at http://www.snow4innocents.org/donate. The charity was made possible by Oakley, Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland, ACG, IonEarth.com, and the Vancity Buzz.