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.


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