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.


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