Thursday, 30 January 2014

Ruwenzori #2: The Wall at the End of the World

It's probably because I watched too many movies and read too many fantasy books as a kid, but the journey to Kasese followed by the journey into the Ruwenzoris themselves does give you the sense that you're entering another world.  As you travel from savannah to increasingly dense forest with increasingly low population densities, you can feel the land losing the characteristics you know one by one until it's transformed into a new earth with a new people.  New plants, new topography, new languages, increasingly few people and everything else create an area that's still attached to east Africa, but is quite different from the rest of it.  At the end of this transformation is the steep, jagged wall of the Ruwenzoris themselves.  You know you've reached a true frontier land.  By the time you've started to hike into them, the plant and animal life have changed entirely, so the mountains themselves almost send out a message that something so different and strange lies beyond and is held back by them that it would be totally unrecognizable.

Of course, what lies beyond them is the truly legendary Congo jungle, which just makes that description even more apt.  Until well into the twentieth century, it was regarded as a land of mystery and darkness that outsiders didn't understand and most feared to travel into.  The tales medieval and even Age of Exploration scholars used to tell of what lay south of the Sahara and beyond the narrow strip of coast on the western side of Africa were pretty fantastic stories of monsters, lost kingdoms, and a host of other fanciful notions.  However, the general characterization of the land as one of magic and mystery that's Completely Different stuck.  Between the DRC's past and its ongoing troubles, this feeling definitely still lingers in many people's minds.

In many ways, the characterization isn't altogether inaccurate.  The Congo jungle is the sort of deep and nearly impenetrable place that people and memories get lost in.  It is Completely Different from its neighbors in terms of geography and culture.  The DRC and Congo-Brazzaville together are almost the size of the contiguous US.  It's a microcontinent at the heart of a large and very diverse continent.  From the east, the Ruwenzoris are an enormous wall that separates this unique world from the Swahili Coast and all of the other exploring cultures of the Middle Ages.  If the speculation about the Ruwenzoris by Aristotle and Ptolemy is any indication, ancient Egyptian and Greek explorers must have made it to the area at some point, but even then they (very probably) would have stayed on the eastern, Lake Victorian side of the mountains, having used the Nile or Swahili Coast trade routes to reach them.  There aren't any extant, concrete records, though.  However, one tribe of people "discovered" by a missionary in the late nineteenth century living in the Congo Basin claimed to have been descended from a long-lost group of Egyptians that had just elected to stay where they'd journeyed.  Apparently, some cultural similarities backed this up.

In the modern era, even though you can (in theory) cross the DRC and reach the Ruwenzoris from the west, the DRC and its jungle are still deep and culturally complex areas rarely visited by outsiders and only studied by a few people with an avid interest in the area.  The Ruwenzoris are still a unique geographic feature that mentally and physically separates east Africa from the DRC.  You can drive around or fly over it now, but it still demarcates the border between Uganda and the DRC.  If you really want to cross over the Other Side of the Ruwenzoris, there's a trail specially made just to take curious people into the DRC and around the back of the range.  Officially, Margherita Peak of Mt. Stanley (referred to as "Ruwenzori" by most travel literature), which is what we set out to climb, is the highest point of both Uganda and the DRC because of its location right on the border between the two countries.

The trek that you use to access the summit is a long loop through the heart of the range.  It takes three to four days to reach high camp and most of the following day to achieve the summit.  It took us three days to reach the high camp.  The first day opened my eyes to how out of shape I'd become over the past few years.  It was only a half-day hike because we had spent most the day just getting through the logistics and hassles of getting into the park.  We still made the first camp, so clearly this is kind of the normal expected itinerary.  The first day and most of the second day were spent in the actual rainforest.  Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any great apes right in this particular area (though they are elsewhere in the Ruwenzoris), but we did see a few blue monkeys hopping through the trees from a distance.  Also, a chameleon.

The first hut was ridiculously comfortable.  I met two other groups, whom I would be spending most of the next several days hiking alongside.  One was a large group (around 10) of Germans.  I learned to speak German in high school, but in the ten years since, for a bunch of different reasons, I'd never actually made it to Germany and gotten to use the skill.  It's become fairly rusty, but I was still able to speak well enough to communicate and to understand.  The Germans spoke perfect English, so when it became obvious (...took less time than I'd like to admit) that my German was fairly patchy, they just switched to English for much of the rest of the journey.  It was a large group gathered from all over the Germany (with one German-speaking Pole), especially Bavaria, where Germany conveniently stores its finest mountains.  The other group was from Spain's Canary Islands, which are often more closely associated with Africa than the country that actually rules them.  The woman I met spoke limited English, which was still a pretty solid improvement over my simple, pidgin-y Spanish.  Somehow, though, we managed to communicate and get to know each other a bit.  Over the next three days, we all kept running into each other on the trails and in the huts, even after we broke away to get a day ahead to stay on our tighter schedule.

Also walking with us was a soldier.  He wasn't an escort, he just happened to be on patrol at the same pace as the rest of us.  He was explaining to me that he was a part of a division of the Ugandan army created just to keep tourists in the major Ugandan parks safe.  He was extremely friendly and constantly made conversation with all of us.  The soldiers who patrolled the gate area seemed to hate their jobs pretty badly, but they're stuck in the rain all the time for long periods.  The tourism soldier apparently just went on patrol, had a few days off, and then went back on patrol.  As far as I can tell, it's been a while since there was an actual Congolese incursion into the park, but I've heard other rumors.  In 1999, interahamwe (the people who carried out the Rwandan genocide), who operated in the eastern DRC at the time, came into the park for the sole purpose of murdering tourists to scare them away and so to hurt Uganda's economy.  Between the assorted armed groups in the Kivus and the LRA's old habit of shooting at great ape tourists in the north, Uganda's had to beef up border park security to preserve its image and keep the tourists safe.  The graffiti in the huts gives you an idea of how the violence affected tourism:  there's a lot of writing from the early 1990s, but nearly nothing between 1993 and 2010.

The second day was basically a longer and steeper version of the first.  Heavy, sweaty rainforest for much of the day.  Mercifully, few mosquitos and (ironically?) no rain.  February is a part of the very brief dry season in the mountains.  It still rains reasonably often, but you can have a week without rain.  We were lucky and had no rain for the first two days.  When it rains a lot in the mountains, the trails turn to sludge.  Even during the dry season, the guides recommend that you complete the hike in rubber boots, rather than normal hiking boots, because of how wet the trails are.  The train the second day had some muddy parts, but nothing extreme.  The final stretch of the hike was boggy, but the mud was avoidable.  The entire stretch of the trail had roots covered in eery, bright green moss with sections of old, broken bridges in between the you stepped and hopped between like hallucinogenic hopscotch where the punishment for missing your rhythm isn't being laughed at by your friends, but falling into the bog.  And then being laughed at by your friends.

The hut the second night was a little smaller, so it was a little cozy with all of us in there.  At least it kept us warm.  We ate a while after the other groups, so one of the Germans actually became concerned that I was not eating and offered me some of their food.  If there's one thing I've discovered over the past decade's travels, it's that your location can be awesome, but the people you spend the time there with can really be what makes a trip excellent or horrible.  I've done plenty of solo traveling, and (like a lot of climbers, I think) sometimes I just need to be alone, but some of the best trips I've taken have been either with good people from the get-go or with fun and interesting people that I've met while I've been away.  Despite the rough start, this became one of those trips.

The end of the second day and the beginning of the third day brought us into the bamboo forest of the mountain, which is pretty much what it sounds like.  Tall bamboo shading the entire trail.  The third day also brings you to the Bigo Bog.  Because all of the hikers would destroy the fragile system of grasses and other plants that live on top of the slushy mud (it's called the "Ruwenzori Mattress"), a wooden footpath has actually been built over much of the Upper and Lower Bigo Bogs.  There's only a brief stretch where you're required to actually slog through the bog mud.  That morning, I'd torn a plastic bag into strips to pack into the tongues of my boots so the bog water wouldn't seem through and make my boots and feet wet for the rest of the journey.  For such an on-the-fly solution, it worked really well.  My feet stayed dry and happy.

Because we'd decided to combine two days into one and reach the high camp on the third day, we diverted onto a different trail towards the end of the normal trail to the next hut and took a shortcut to the high camp.  It was relentlessly steep, muddy, and the rains finally began, which was fairly inconvenient on the Class 3 and 4 scrambles that the shortcut required.  Some were fairly precarious with unpleasant consequences for falling.  I had started the day kind of tired, so by the end of the day, I was zapped and concerned about marshaling enough energy to reach the peak the next day.  It also makes moves with bad falls a little more attention-getting.  However, we also got to hike through an enormous lobelia forest.  Lobelias are basically round-leafed yuccas that grow into big, woody trees.  The forest is an amazing sight that you won't find anywhere else.

One thing about the hike that I thought was amazing were all the large, climbable rock faces and minor peaks around us.  I kept asking the local guide if anyone climbed them and if any of the smaller, rocky peaks had names.  He looked confused as to why anyone would bother, said no, and that they were "just rocks" that didn't warrant names.  These were 14,000' and 15,000' peaks with sustained and difficult rock faces that would've been area classics anywhere in the US.

The third day ends at around 15,000', so the last stretch involved scrambling over bald rock faces because the vegetation finally ran out.  It's impressive, because it takes until nearly 15,000' for that to finally happen, which is far higher than meaningful vegetation reaches on most mountains.  The high camp hut is basically a low, A-framed shack for people to crowd into on the floor and sleep for a few hours before their summit bid.  We had it to ourselves that night because the only other group that had planned to make a summit bid the next day had a member with altitude sickness and left.  I laid down for a pretty serious rest before dinner to recharge as much as I could so my legs wouldn't wear out the next day.  It wasn't difficult to fall asleep after we ate.  The outhouses were kept down in a little valley that you had to use a broken ladder to reach, which made for a pretty interesting 2 AM adventure.

We woke up well before dawn the next day to begin the four-hour trip to the summit.  The journey opens with a Class 4 scramble up a smaller peak on the mountain, which gives you access to the glacier.  A brief crossing of the glacier brings you to another scramble up and around a minor peak.  Whenever a short stretch of easy technical climbing may have been required, a fixed rope is in place that you can hold onto and pull yourself over the stretch with.  The second scramble brings you to a steep and sustained glacier pitch.  Crampons and an axe are required.  We were roped together in case of a slip, but any time a fall was actually possible, we axe belayed each other (rather than using a belay plate to handle the rope and hold a fall, the axe is driven into the ice and the rope is held tightly over the top--not super secure, but better than nothing).  We had acclimated well, but going was still slow because it was so easy to get out of breath.  I could also feel my mind getting sluggish.  The further you go up the glacier, the gentler the incline gets.  It's nice on the way up, but it means it gets progressively more difficult on the way down, which is important when you're tired from getting up.

Finally, we reached an enormous crevasse at the end of the glacier, which we skirted until we came to the base of the peak.  From there, it was a short and easy scramble to the summit.  On a clear day, you get an amazing, panoramic view of western Uganda and the DRC, but it was foggy the entire morning.  We had about 10' of visibility throughout the climb and light snowfall.  Like a lot of summits, it felt good to have reached it, but the good feelings came in far more strongly after I'd safely made it back down the climb to high camp.

We stopped briefly for lunch at high camp (we'd been climbing for about eight hours), where we met up with the other groups that we'd been hiking with.  They were excited to know that I'd made the summit (they'd been concerned that rushing was going to make me ill from the altitude and I'd have to abandon the mountain) and wanted to know what the route was like so they could prepare.  Some of the Germans were pretty serious mountaineers who'd done Africa's other tall peaks and some impressive climbs on other continents, like Aconcagua in Argentina and Annapurna in the Himalayas.  We talked about mountains for quite a while over lunch before I had to head out.  We had to walk to a lower camp so that we could get ready to finish the hike over the next two days.  It was tiring, but it took us through one of the more spectacular valleys on the trip, which is saying something.  It was basically an enormous box canyon filled with boulder fields and lobelias.  The hike terminated at a pleasant mountain lake in this second lobelia forest.

The next day was an exhaustion slog over a pass that takes you to the trail leading to one of Mt. Stanley's tall, glaciated neighbors, Mt. Baker.  We had to climb back up so much it wouldn't've been overly difficult just to have summited Mt. Baker while we were at it.  We kept going.  We slept.

The last day brings you over a steep section that alternated between mud slogging and scrambling down rock faces in your slick boots.  It's unsafe.  The porters wait at the end in case you get injured.  We made it down alright, but it was good to get that behind us.  We passed by the hut we'd first stayed at and repeated the first day's hike.  Tiring, humid.  Good to finish.

After our worries that we'd end up having to pay more fees for staying one day more than the days we'd officially paid for, the ranger at the gate didn't even ask how long we'd been in the park and just waved us out.  It was a welcome relief.

After we'd met up with our ride out of the park itself and gotten down the road to headquarters, we had to square up with the porters.  We'd been able to tell them that we would take care of the tip once we were at headquarters, rather than any of the several times they'd asked earlier, so they couldn't stop working and leave our gear on the mountain to try to get a bigger tip out of us.  We had a feeling that no matter what we gave them, it wouldn't be enough, and we were right.  After they'd gotten the (low) tip that we could afford, they got angry and told us they wanted $100/person plus $150 for the local guide, so $550.  We could've just done the trip again for that much.  We made sure all of our stuff was in the car and we'd gotten our summit certificates from the park before we paid them.  We paid, listened to the complains, and got in the car and left.

Once we'd gotten back on the main road to Kasese, we saw the last bus to Kampala leaving.  We were able to flag it down and pay our fares on board, so we didn't get stuck in Kasese for the night.  We got into Kampala a little after midnight and found a cheap hotel to stay in.  The guide caught the early bus to Nairobi the next day, but I had already booked one of the cheap commuter flights between Entebbe and Nairobi.  The flight is less than an hour, while the bus ride can take 13-18 hours depending conditions and transfer schedules.  I spent the day holed up in my room.  I walked a couple blocks down to a bakery, got a sack of pastries, and then spent the rest of the day in the room resting.

After my flight home the following day, Marie (my wife) had correctly predicted that I would want a huge a protein-filled meal, so she cooked a tray of her awesome lasagna.  She was hoping there would be some left over.  I guess there was a little left.  It was a great post-climb meal.

I had three rest days to enjoy before getting up to Mt. Kenya.  Mostly, they were spent catching up on everything that had piled up while I was away.


Ruwenzori #1: Different Kinds of Epics

Mountains come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are short and gentle day hikes that can divert your attention from an otherwise busy week and help you to unwind on a weekend.  Some are challenging, but you can still get a nice view of the town that you are living or staying in from the summit.  Ruwenzori is neither of these.

Epics also come in all sizes and varieties.  Usually, when you hear the word "EPIC!" used to describe a climb, it means an adventure that  was stunning and awesome and you want to get out and do it again.  Climbers also use "epic" to refer to a situation that became really and unexpectedly complicated in a hurry and turned a straightforward day in a far more difficult adventure, but it's OK because you got through it anyways and it's time to celebrate now.  "Dude, that was an epic!"  "We seriously epiced on that climb when the rains hit and we dropped one of the ropes!"  It connotes something that's simultaneously adventure-cool and terrifying.

Mt. Kenya was the first kind of epic.  Ruwenzori was the second.

I feel I should state at the outset that, despite the problems we encountered, Uganda is a naturally beautiful place that has a lot of areas that are worth visiting.  The country has had a rough recent history (see below), but recently it has begun to seriously reopen to tourism and to welcome people.  Kampala/Entebbe is busy, but a generally friendly and well put-together city.  If the lack of barbed wire-topped walls surrounding all of the buildings (even President Museveni's home) is any indication, it has less violent crime than Nairobi.  The country's periphery is less put-together, but it's suffered a greatly more traumatic history than Uganda's center.

Hearing the word "Congo" doesn't normally bring images of mountains, glaciers, or snowfall to mind.  At best, most people will think of gorillas, the rainforest, and misty hills inhabited by only a few hardy people that know how to survive in the dense, tropical forest.  At worst, people will think of the First and Second Congo Wars of the 1990s and 2000s, during which some of the most devastating, brutal, and perverse fighting of the twentieth century occurred.  The Ruwenzoris form an enormous physical barrier that separates Uganda from the endless violence of the D.R. Congo's North Kivu province.

The journey just to reach the town that Ruwenzori trips are launched from shows you the mountain's remoteness all by itself.  Uganda has a good road and bus system, but it takes about seven hours by bus to travel from Kampala, the capitol of Uganda on Lake Victoria, to Kasese, the last major town in Uganda.  Once you get past the suburbs of Kampala, Ugandan towns get small and spread-out in a hurry.  From Kasese, it would only take you about half an hour to drive into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) if the Ruwenzori Range were not blocking your path.  To get to the trailhead, it takes about 15-20 minutes by car over very rough dirt roads through small farming villages.  You start the drive in the valley below the Ruwenzoris, but you spend most of it driving down a road lined with banana farms.

Uganda is actually as densely populated and relatively prosperous as it is in large part because of the banana.  Apparently, Ugandans began cultivating the fruit, which is originally from southern Asia, around a thousand years ago.  Ugandans became so good at it that it formed one of their staple food crops.  Over the years, they have created more than sixty different banana varieties, including some that are so sweet that they're like squishy little candies.  A bunch of them costs about 2,000 UGX, or US$0.80.  Uganda's Shillings are colorful and interesting, usually featuring the country's iconic wildlife, but a major purchase requires a brick of 50,000 UGX notes (starring the gorilla).  If you bring $400, you can enjoy the temporary sensation of being a millionaire.

[Actually, that's a good idea.  Kasese is a reasonably large and developed town, but the banking services are still limited and the exchange rates get worse the further you get from Kampala.  Should you ever find yourself in rural Uganda, bring some extra cash.]

As the area's location would suggest, it's no stranger to violence.   Uganda was one of the major belligerents in the Congo wars, when it helped to overthrow famous and hated Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.  Later, when Mobutu's replacement didn't please Uganda and its allies, they tried replacing him, then conquering, colonizing, and stripmining the eastern part of the DRC.  For a variety of reasons, the eastern DRC, especially the North and South Kivu provinces (which share a border with Uganda), are a violent mire of strained and complex race relations.  Uganda itself is more of a polyethnic confederation than it is a country.  Uganda is made of several different kingdoms that the British lumped together during colonization.  The country centers around the Buganda Kingdom, which holds much of the nation's political and military power.  The outlying kingdoms don't like this and have a tense relationship with the Buganda, to say the least.  They have a long history of vicious and vengeance-laden warfare.  There have been a lot of different separatist movements, notably Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Just to add to this, one of the world's worst AIDS outbreaks occurred in Uganda in the 1980s and 1990s.  The country's infection rate reached about 15% in the 1990s.  Since then, health efforts, including those by the EGPAF, have lowered the infection rate back to the single digits, but it's still pretty bad.

In this context exists the Bakonjo Kingdom.  Its people are ethnically distinct from the rest of Uganda, but their kingdom has only been recently recognized by Uganda's government.  Historically, it occupied the entire area surrounding the Ruwenzori Mountains.  It's now divided between Uganda and the DRC.  It spent around 40 years actively fighting for separation from Uganda, including a particularly nasty phase against Idi Amin, but currently is trying to get the UN to support its separation from its parent countries.  Right now, the Ugandan side of the area is stable, but people's attitudes reflect the area's history.

When you are in Kasese and environs, you have to be patient.  People range from "unfriendly" to "overtly hostile" towards outsiders, (I assume) in large part because their history hasn't seen many friendly ones.  Tourism in the area is just experiencing a renaissance after a decade of the Congo Wars kept people away.  Most random people in the street glare and service is slow, unfriendly, and comes with grandiosely inflated prices.  Because you're an outsider, your ability to negotiate and haggle is pretty limited.  If you ever want to go, try your best to find a reliable contact in the area before leaving.  Guiding companies can provide this.  It's not about safety, it's about convenience and having someone to negotiate on your behalf.  Despite the cold reception, if you're in Kasese during daylight hours, people aren't threatening.  Even at night, it's a relatively mellow town.  We arrived at about 12:30 AM and had to catch the last motorcycle taxi of the day to where we were staying, then find a bar that was still serving food to get dinner.  Not friendly, not threatening.

If you're going to eat street food, don't watch it get cooked.  You'll see... things.  Our cook dropped some of the chicken on the ground, but fixed the problem by frying it dirt and all in a pan of boiling oil before depositing it in the bag.  Well, it was sterile.  Wiping the knife he used to cut the chicken on a filthy towel he used to handle the dirtier ground objects around his cook station also didn't add the right elements to the chicken's flavor.  But you can't be too choosey at 1 AM.

Our hotel was pretty nice.  It was clearly built for tourists who come to the area for the mountains and the other nearby parks, including some of the gorilla reserves.  It was called the White House.  All over Africa, you'll see odd name and brand appropriations by different small businesses.  I think I've seen a good half-dozen different stores called the "Facebook Somethingorother" in different countries.  I guess it's aspirational and meant to karmically bring success, like a small start-up in the US that only has clients in one town calling itself "Smith Global" or "World Trade Partners" or something.  Realizing that I'd neglected to pack toilet paper, I made a small appropriation of my own from the room.  Don't worry, I left plenty for the next guest.

We slept for a few hours, then got up at a reasonable time so that we could begin preparations for the mountain itself.  Some gear was left behind in Nairobi, so we had to get crampons and ice axes locally.  This started a small odyssey unto itself wherein I learned the value of reliable local contacts.  Our local guy knew he was our only contact and that we had no one else to assist us in getting around the area, so he used it to his full advantage.  He opened the day by trying to charge us $100 to rent the gear, which is enough to buy a good, brand new axe in the US.  We talked him down to the less outrageous $50, but this was only the start.  Later, at the park, he wanted to skim three full days' worth of our park entrance fee for his "services", but we were able to get him down to two with us paying for yet another full day of park entrance fee.  Somehow, we still ended up short of two days in the park at the park gates (I believe those days' fees went to the park itself), so we theoretically had to complete the week-long trip in five days, which is very hard.

Part of our challenge was that I had hired a Kenyan guide, rather than a local Ugandan, to do the mountain.  A very recent change to the rules treats all outside guides as tourists who have to pay full entrance fees, rather than the minimal guide entrance fees.  That ate up our entire reserve fund for the trip.  We spent the first few days of the climb sweating about how we were going to be able to tip the crew and still buy our bus tickets home.

Thankfully?, the crew was bad.  None of the other climbing teams, all of whom used local Ugandan guides, appeared to have the same problems we did.  I think the solo trip combined with the outside guide really caused problems for us.  Other countries are also apparently trying to drive away outside guides to keep the tourism money entirely within the local community.  Small numbers make you vulnerable, and when you're someplace that isn't the home of any member of your team, you kind of have to play ball, no matter how bad the other side in a negotiation is being.  The park had also just changed its rules to require guides from the Kasese-based Ruwenzori Mountaineering Services for all technical ascents, so we had to hire a local guide as well.  We planned to hire a single porter for the food and cook gear, but the park wouldn't let us in without four.  We were really sweating our dwindling money.  The standard tip for porters in the area is apparently $5/day (so about UGX 12,500/day, or UGX 300,000 for four porters for six days, plus the Ugandan guide's tip, which "should've" been another UGX 100,000; bus tickets for both of us were UGX 50,000).  My Kenyan guide had about UGX 2,000 left and I had a little over UGX 200,000.  We spent the first two days of the hike just trying to figure a way out of the mess without starting an incident, which would only be complicated if we were unable to complete the trek in the five paid days.  It ultimately took us six, and we knew it would be hard to avoid that right from the beginning.

Partially in our advantage was the bad service from our porter army.  They showed up well over three hours late (so about four hours after we'd arrived at camp) on our first day.  Between that and our transport day, we hadn't eaten a real meal in two days, so we were... tense.  Also concerned that, after being cleaned out by them and the park, they might have just not shown up and we would've had to abandon the trip.  The first thing they did when they arrived was to ask how much their tip would be at the end of the trip.  This would turn out to be a theme throughout the hike.  I told him that we'd take care of it at the end of the trip after I'd seen all the service I was going to get from them.  He warned me that the porters might not work (...they'd been paid for a week of work in full in advance) if they didn't think they'd be getting a good tip.  I told him that I'd only tip at the end after I knew what service I'd gotten.  He relented, they worked.  But the complaining and demanding of tips with the threat of dumping our gear and leaving persisted throughout the trek.

Besides being nearly out of money, it gave us a great pretext for giving them a small tip at the end.  More on that later.

Anyways, the Ruwenzoris are stunning, but you'll be venturing into an area with a rough history and a dislike of outsiders.  The mountain itself did turn out as awesome as promised.


Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Mt. Kenya is EPIC: Blog #2

We ate early so we could go to sleep early.  We planned to wake up the following morning at 3:30, but woke up at 2:30 with excitement and nerves, so we got an early start.  This would turn out to be beneficial later.  The hike up to the actual climb was surreal.  Even though Mt. Kenya is very close to Nairobi, the skies are amazingly clear.  The starlight is cold and razor sharp, rather than dull and blurry as skies next to large cities often are.  We climbed under a nearly full moon, so large shadows were everywhere and the Lewis glacier, which we had to briefly cross, glowed under our crampons.

After scrambling over a scree field (which is reasonably precarious in the dark, even with headlamps), we reached the foot of the actual climb.  It looms.  However, you can see the start of your route fairly easily.  Thin and difficult faces make up much of the rock above you, but you can see the wide, eroded crack system filled with big, blocky handholds you'll be using to avoid most of them.  The climb is roundabout and involves several traverses to avoid the more difficult faces, but the extra climbing keeps you on a path that rarely gets above 5.5/3, which is reasonably physically easy.  The route ended up taking 14 pitches to complete, making it the longest climb I've ever completed.  It had also been quite some time since I had done a lot of "traditional" climbing (instead of clipping into preset bolts, you place little stoppers, devices called cams, and slings into and around different rock features to hold your rope and thereby you when you fall; it's more difficult and time- and energy- consuming while providing you with less secure placements that don't always hold when you fall, making it more psychologically challenging as well).  Even though most pitches were not overly physically difficult, 14 of them with a gear pack on your back adds up, making it a reasonably challenging climb, overall.

Because you're so high and exposed, the route can get under your skin and into your head.  The traverse pitches were the worst, because, even though I followed John on them (in other words, I was basically on a toprope that was securely anchored, so normally I would've been unlikely to have a long fall if I slipped), we only had a few placements on each pitch, so every fall would have turned into a 20-foot, dragging swing along jagged rocks.  If I'd fallen, the rope would've saved me, but I would have still needed to go to a hospital afterwards.

Over the years, my brain has developed some odd defenses against the mind games it otherwise likes to play in these situations.  Despite what you'd think, most climbers are as afraid of heights as everyone else.  With experience, we basically just learn different ways of dealing with the fear, ignoring it altogether, and gradually desensitizing ourselves to it.  The best technique I've learned is to just block out all of your surroundings that are more than three feet above or below you.  Creating this bubble works well, but it always takes me a while to get into this mindset, and I lose it if I stop doing long climbs for a while.  When this fails ( did on Mt. Kenya...I kept looking down), my mind starts playing clips of my favorite funny scenes from different TV shows.  It's weird, but somehow the distraction it provides focuses my mind.  The challenge can then become suppressing wildly inappropriate laughter that might shake me off the wall.

Anyways, we got through the more hair-raising sections and made it to one of the final pitches, which is affectionately nicknamed "the Big Rough".  As you can probably figure out, it's the most difficult pitch of the route and comes close to the end of the climb.  It's probably only about 5.7/4 in difficulty, but it's completely vertical and has a section with sparse holds that requires you to pull onto a semi-detached face that hangs +1,000' over the valley below, making it committing and mildly terrifying.  Once you pull over the edge at the end, you get a nice ledge to stand on and you're only about three easy pitches from the top of the first peak.

The summit of the mountain is actually split into two distinct peaks, Batian and Nelion.  To reach Batian, the tallest, you have to first climb to Nelion, then downclimb/rappel two pitches into the narrow, snowy saddle between them ("The Gates of Mist"), and climb two and a half pitches back out to the true summit of the mountain.  We reached Nelion later than we'd originally planned (which can be attributed to my slow climbing), so we had a very light lunch and rested for a bit before pushing on to the final stretch of the climb.  There's actually a little aluminum shed that three people can sit/lay in to spend the night on the summit.  I imagine it's pretty cold.  Unfortunately for us, by the time we started out descent into the Gates of Mist, the afternoon weather was starting to move in.  Once we were down in the Gates, the wind picked up and snow started to fall on us.  On this mountain, you want to avoid the storms, not because they're violent, dangerous, and very cold as they are on other mountains, but just because the snow makes the rocks very slippery and unsafe to climb.  We were so close to the summit, we pushed on through the remainder of the climb in spite of it.

We actually teamed up with another pair of climbers to get from Nelion to Batian to make the climb a little safer.  Once we were down in the Gates, we had to pull on crampons to navigate it and the first pitch of climbing, which was mostly getting up a moderate and thin snowfield to the next belay station.  After that, it was a wet and mildly desperate scramble over boulders sitting on the narrow spine of rock that connected the two peaks.  It was another situation where a slip would have turned into a long, penduluming fall over rough terrain.  Weirdly, it helps when I just tell myself that I can't fall, so I don't.  Knowing that you can't slip makes you pay a lot more attention to not slipping.  Adrenal strength also helps.  It took a surprisingly long time to complete the climb to the summit, in large part because of the weather.  Thankfully, we weren't very cold.  It was only about 25F/-5C, so just staying active kept us pretty warm throughout.

Finally, after about eight or nine hours of climbing, we reached the short bouldering problem to the summit.  We each stayed on rope while we climbed the last 10-15 feet to the summit and took our necessary photos.  Between the crowded conditions (even with only four of us) in the summit area, the bad weather, and the long journey down, we didn't linger very long.  Crossing the Gates in either direction takes a while because of the snow, which requires the changing of foot gear, and because you have to climb back out on your return.  For better or worse, a steep and thin snowfield is the exit back onto Nelion.  It's difficult to protect against falls on it, and snow can sometimes just fall out from under you, but snow and ice that are only a few degrees below freezing are relatively stable, yet easy to sink axes and crampons into.  My guide *cough* neglected to pack an axe for me, so I went last after solid footholds had already been stomped into the snow and ice, just jamming my fingers into the soft snow for purchase.  It actually worked pretty well.

After that, it was just a long series of rappels back down the mountain.  One team that had been climbing up behind us for most of the day decided to turn around on Nelion instead of going all the way to Batian.  Batian is only 11 meters higher than its twin, so a lot of people don't think it's worth all the extra effort and risk.  Unfortunately, when a few teams are on a mountain, traffic jams can occur, especially on the way down when everyone is waiting to use the same rappel stations.  Traffic jams can be a pleasant experience, though.  It gave us time to talk and get to know each other and to take it easy after a long journey up.  Two of our rappelling compatriots were a Polish couple that does a large African mountain every four years, Mt. Kenya being the final of the tallest three for them to complete.  One of the others was a Tanzanian who was learning technical climbing to enhance his guiding credentials.  When the afternoon storm rolled in, instead of continuing on to Batian with us, they had turned around and gotten stuck in a windy notch partway through their rappel, where they had hunkered down and ridden out the weather for a few hours.  Our approach to the storm might not have been as um safe, but I think it was a more enjoyable experience.

We reached the foot of the climb as the sun was beginning to set.  By the time we'd recrossed the Lewis glacier and returned to the hut, it was basically dark.  Our original plan had been to walk down to intermediate camp and spend the night there, shortening our exit hike the following day, but after deliberations that lasted all of about a minute, we concluded that it was a stupid idea.  After 16 hours on the mountain, we were tired and not ready to navigate a scree field for a few hours in the dark.  We had dinner and went to bed.

To make it out of the park by the required time, we got up at 4:30 the next morning, numbly munched on a few breakfast biscuits (in the Commonwealth, that means "cookies"), and started to trudge down to the lower camps.  We had around 27 kilometers to cover by mid-afternoon, so we just wanted to get up and get it done.  We did.  We were happy to reach the car that was waiting for us.

A few hours later, I was back in Nairobi, taking a very satisfying shower and then enjoying a very satisfying night of sleep.


Mt. Kenya is EPIC! Blog #1

So that was the most epic mountain I've ever climbed, and that was after doing Ruwenzori.  I realize I owe you a Ruwenzori blog, but we're talking about Mt. Kenya first.  Both of these mountains turned a little more epic than we'd originally planned, but Mt. Kenya has the higher good epic/bad epic ratio of the two.  Before getting to the mountain, I knew that there would be a significant amount of technical climbing required to reach the top, but the mountain itself is deceptive.

Mt. Kenya is about a three-hour drive from Nairobi along good highways, which makes it one of the easier of the Five to reach.  When you are about 45 minutes from the trailhead, you can see the mountain on the horizon.  It's huge, but it slopes gently, very gently, over an enormous footprint.  When the clouds shroud the summit, and they do on most afternoons, all you can see is what looks like a giant, mild shield volcano on the horizon.  However, when the clouds part, you finally see the angry spike of rock that holds Mt. Kenya's summit sticking out of the center of the mountain.  From a distance, it looks small when compared with the rest of the massif, which sprawls alone across the low and flat savannah.  Throughout all of the first day of the hike, you can barely see the tip of the peak peeking (giggle) over the foothills.  It takes until the very end of the second day to finally get to behold the summit crag in all of its intimidating grandeur.  It was cloudy when we reached the second camp, but a few hours later, when the clouds parted, suddenly I got a sense of how difficult the climb itself would be.

The trail that we walked over the first two days was very easy--Class 1 all the way.  Its only challenge is that it brings hikers to a very high elevation (close to 14,000') in a very short time, so many people get altitude sickness on the mountain; more so than on the other mountains of the Five.  I had an advantage in that I had been on Ruwenzori only five days before, so I was already reasonably well acclimated to the height.  I still felt the altitude a little, but a few members of the other teams felt pretty ill.  A couple teams actually decided to spend an extra day at the second camp before pushing on to the high camp and whichever peak on the mountain they were doing.

When the afternoon rains finally went away, the central spire of the mountain comes into full view and looms over the camp.  We approached the summit along the Sirimon route, which comes from the west, so the summit looked even more serious than it does from other directions.  The western side of the mountain is the side that gets the rainfall, so the face of the summit spire that... faces the second camp is filled with snow, ice, and rotten couloirs.  Thankfully, on the third day, we hiked around to the back side of the spire, giving us access to the dry side of the mountain.  This side receives relatively little snow and rainfall, so the rock faces leading to the summit are mostly clean and dry.  Otherwise, the entire climb would've been an uncomfortable and very difficult mixed climb with loose snow and ice, which is pretty unsafe.

As all roads lead to Rome, all Mt. Kenya trails lead to the same high camp, the Austrian Hut.  Whatever peak a team is doing, they all sleep in the same hut the night before their summit bid.  Oh right, did I mention that all popular African peaks have huts on them?  Not campsites, but actual buildings with bunk beds (with foam mattresses!) and roofs.  The mountains might be difficult, but sleeping isn't.  Usually, the higher you go, the more spartan the shelters become.  High camp on Ruwenzori is a low-roofed shack that people pack into like sardines to sleep for a few hours before starting their summit bid.  The Austrian Hut was the most comfortable of all the huts I've stayed in so far.  Warm, no drafts, thick and new foam mattresses.  It was cozy, which isn't a word you'd normally associate with a high camp.  Windswept, frozen insomnia is a little closer to the normal feeling.

All parties converge at this location because it is right in the heart of the mountain and provides easy access to all of Mt. Kenya's most prominent peaks.  The classic image of a mountain is basically a pyramid with a single, lonely peak.  However, most mountains have a few prominent points on them that are not separate enough to be considered distinct mountains.  Mt. Kenya has at least a dozen, most of which are technical.  Because the summit of the mountain is so technically challenging, many people hike up to Point Lenana, the third-highest peak on the mountain.  Pt. Lenana is easily walkable from the Austrian Hut, and many teams that have come to the mountain just to reach Pt. Lenana actually hike directly to it from the second camp.  It's no easy feat, since it's still well over 16,000' tall and requires fairly difficult acclimation to reach.  Most of the groups that I encountered on the mountain had come to Mt. Kenya just to reach this peak.

We finished our hike to the Austrian Hut very early on our third day, so the guide and I decided to hike it that afternoon to help ourselves to acclimate for the summit bid the following day.  Shortly after we arrived at the Austrian Hut and got unpacked, the winds picked up and clouds blew in.  While we were making our plans, it started snowing.  The guide, John, was concerned that I would not feel safe or comfortable trekking through the snow, but I told him that I'd spent most of the past few years of my life living and adventuring in the northern US and Canada.  He laughed, said OK, and off we went.  It took less than an hour to reach Pt. Lenana from high camp, so we enjoyed the summit for a little while before turning around.  The steep parks of this hike have been maintained with slick conditions in mind.  A cable handrail has been bolted to the rock face you walk alongside for much of the way, and handles made with rebar have been installed into the short rock face that you would otherwise have to climb.

After that, we went back to camp to eat and get ready for the climb the following day.


Friday, 3 January 2014


When I first came to Africa, I'd only planned on doing the iconic Kilimanjaro.  I knew that there were other mountains in the Rift Valley area, but I was unaware of their concentration and grandeur.  Outside of east Africa, there actually are few high peaks.  South Africa and Lesotho have a few and Morocco has the Atlas Mountains, but that's about it.  The reason that there are so many tall peaks in this part of Africa when there are so few in much of the rest of the continent is the Rift Valley itself.  Here, three tectonic plates are literally pulling the continent apart, creating the valley itself.  Because of all of this tectonic activity, the whole area is peppered with volcanoes.  Most of them are stratovolcanoes, which means that they form in such a way that makes their structure very stable and very high.  Ruwenzori and Ras Dashen/Dejen are actually ordinary mountains, but the other three and many of their neighbors are all stratovolcanoes.  Thankfully, most of them have been dormant for a long time.  Technically, nearly all of them are still active, but it has been so long since many of them have erupted that mountains like Kilimanjaro are referred to as "senile" locally.  This is great when you want to climb them.  Lava complicates things.

When I'd originally started to plan these climbs, I thought that I would do a few of them in my spare time just to enjoy and explore the area.  What really started to change things was my "discovery" of Ruwenzori.  Kilimanjaro is a grand-looking mountain because of its incredible relief from the surrounding area--it stands about 15,000 feet above the surrounding plans and dwarfs Mt. Meru by almost 5,000 feet.  It's a gentle giant, though, sloping gradually up to its peak over what is basically a really long Class 1 trail.  Ruwenzori, not so much.  The Ruwenzori Range the towering, jagged overlord of the surrounding forest, with peaks that can only be achieved with technical rock climbing.  Its peaks are surrounded by glaciers (along with Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, it's one of the only three mountains in equatorial Africa to be permanently snow-capped and to have glaciers), which you have to cross (carefully) to even get to the climbing.  It has unique vegetation that looks like something out of an old sci-fi novel.  When I first saw pictures of it, it's one of the few mountains that I've seen and immediately thought "I NEED TO CLIMB THIS."

On top of this, it's great for my inner history nerd.  It's been known to Europeans since at least AD 150, when famous geographer Ptolemy referenced it as the "Mountains of the Moon."  Its modern name means something more like "the rain maker" or "the cloud king" according to Uganda's parks service.  Also, because some of the most devastating warfare of the past couple of decades was raging in large scale just across the border in the Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) until 2006 (and the Kivus still aren't overly peaceful), it is just starting to regain popularity with climbers and tourists, making it probably the least traveled of east Africa's grandest mountains.

Seeing this mountain inspired me to make more of a climbing project out of east Africa's mountains.  As all of this was going on, I was getting myself back together after some serious career setbacks had really shaken my confidence in my ability to get things done.  I'd graduated from law school and gotten licensed only to find myself in the worst job market for attorneys in US history.  To say the least, I hadn't gotten where I'd expected to out of law school, and I'd spent the time between then and now sending off hundreds (maybe thousands now?  I stopped counting) of job applications to no avail while working odd jobs not strongly related to my education.  It might seem minor when compared with problems that people experience in Africa every day, especially in the DRC where there basically is no economy and intermittent civil warfare is still a real problem, but it's enough to really shake a person's confidence and make them question what they are even trying to do.

However, after a couple of months in Africa, not only did my hair stop falling out, it started regrowing!  Also, being in a new location with new things to do helped me to get some perspective on the issues that I was dealing with at home so that I could find new solutions to them.  It helped me to reevaluate my priorities in life so that I could find satisfying work and a satisfying life when I got back.  I hadn't been pursuing climbing and mountaineering nearly as much as I could have just because I felt slack and unmotivated, which just made those problems worse.  Having a real project to work on has helped me to get restarted and has made normal work a lot easier.

Because I felt like Africa had given me a fresh start, I decided that I wouldn't just climb these mountains out of pure self-indulgence, but I would try to make the project help other people, especially Africans.  It might not be the most noble reason for doing it, but it's what I have.  I have my own personal reservations about how much good certain types of aid do, especially purely economic aid, but I do believe that money put in the right place can sustainably improve people's lives and the area that they live in.

It took me a while to find an organization that I thought would fit these criteria, but eventually I did.  Healthcare is great, especially research medicine, because it's not the sort of thing that helps an ineffective government to limp on without change (at least not as much as economic aid) and it creates extremely useful products that everyone can benefit from.  I chose AIDS because it's a disease that's crippling Africa's ability to grow and develop.  Depending on what source you read, infection rates in some African countries can be as much as 30%, which is mind-boggling to think about.  Without much access to healthcare, those people are all going to die, and pretty soon.  Imagine the effect nearly a third of the US dying in a few years would have on its life and economy.  That's an incredible waste of human life and potential.  The cost of AIDS treatment and the other incidental effects it has on an economy are debilitating.  Eliminating this hobble, or at least preventing it from being passed on in large numbers to a new generation, has the potential to reduce the burdens on these countries and to help them to develop.  I like solutions that get at the roots of problems, rather than ones that treat symptoms of a disease after it has taken hold (both in a literal and metaphoric sense).  Preventing AIDS transmission to children so that they won't need treatment and will survive seems like one of the ideal solutions to these problems.

Anyways, on Monday, I'll leave for Ruwenzori.  Originally, I'd planned to take the bus from Nairobi to Kasese in Uganda, where expeditions to Ruwenzori are launched from.  Unfortunately, since the Westgate Mall attack in September, Kenya's be reworking its border and visa regulations to the great irritation of its neighbors.  The new civil war in South Sudan and the way Kenyans in Juba have been treated is making Kenya feel even more isolationist.  Now, these neighboring countries are creating their own new restrictions on travel in response (this is my theory, anyways).  A few weeks ago, Uganda banned travel across its borders after dark, so I could not longer do the bus ride in a single, 16-hour push.  The costs that it added to the transportation and the extra day that it added made it more cost-effective just to hop on one of the cheap commuter flights between Nairobi and Uganda's capitol of Kampala.  The flight's an hour and fifteen minutes, compared with nearly ten hours by bus.  After I fly to Entebbe International, I just have to catch a bus into town where I can catch another bus to Kasese.  I'll still get to see a reasonable portion of the area overland, and I'll get a proper view of Lake Victoria because I'll be traveling through Entebbe.

Speaking of Ruwenzori, I need to start getting my gear ready and packed so that I can actually do it.