CAIRO does not seem to be a logical place to start a climbing expedition, but that is where this one began. I had just spent four and a half months travelling the length of Egypt, doing the field production for a film on the rise of Pharaonic civilization. The Nile has played such an important part in the history of Egypt that I wanted to trace it to its source. A prelude, showing the birth of the river, high in the Mountains of the Moon, would be a powerful force in establishing mood for the story of ancient Egypt. I must also confess that it would afford the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong ambition—to climb in the Ruwenzori.
The work in Egypt was made possible by a special grant from the Harmon Foundation. These funds would not cover the extra journey to Central Africa. In addition, the time required for the overland journey would be prohibitive. The obvious answer was to fly. I told my sad story to the local public relations director of the British Overseas Airways Corporation. He contacted London. In two days I had my answer. B.O.A.C. would fly me, plus 50 kilos of baggage, to Kampala and return—gratis! This unexpected stroke of good fortune was only the beginning of a long series of extraordinary coincidences.
The distance from Cairo to Uganda is about 2500 miles and would take close to eight weeks by overland travel. I took off from Cairo at midnight on 19 August 1951, stopped one hour at Khartoum in the Sudan, and landed at the Kampala-Entebbe airport at 11.00 A.M. Eleven hours! I was now in the heart of British East Africa, on the north shore of Lake Victoria, just a few miles above the Equator. The Ruwenzori still lay more than 200 miles to the west.
I was stranded with all of my photographic equipment. I had no climbing gear, no companions, no way of getting to the mountains. Then things began to happen. I. R. Menzies, of the Uganda Mountain Club, welcomed me with open arms. I had sent a letter to the secretary of the club several days before, but it had not arrived. Now Mr. Menzies took me in hand, loaned me his personal climbing outfit, and spent the evening poring over maps with me. Another climber, former secretary of the U.M.C., loaned me a chop box and cooking utensils. This was Ashley Greenwood, who, in 1939, had been selected for the Everest Expedition which was ruled out by the war. The next day Mr. Menzies made a number of inquiries which finally solved my transport problem.
In 1906 the Duke of the Abruzzi’s expedition took two weeks to walk to Fort Portal. For me it was a pleasant day’s drive in the company of an obliging tea corporation executive. The Mountains of the Moon Hotel had no room for me, even though I had telegraphed for a reservation. Fortunately, Mr. Menzies had given me a written introduction to the local British District Commissioner. When the D.C.’s office heard of my plight, I was invited to stay in a grass-roofed hut on the grounds of one of the British officials. The next morning I met the Assistant D.C. who was to make my safari arrangements. It seemed that I had really run into a snag this time. A large British geological expedition, now in the mountains, had hired all available porters.1 Here I was very close to my objective, but it seemed farther away than before. On the way in, the previous day, I had caught a glimpse of the foothills looming through the clouds; but I had not yet seen the mountains. It was possible that I would never see them. That night my luck seemed to have run out.
The next morning I hired a car, drove into town for provisions, and then 40 miles to the British base camp. From here to the mountains proper was a five-day journey on foot. When I arrived at base camp, I noticed a sporty little roadster with a large pair of climbing boots protruding from underneath. My cheery greeting was warmly answered by a strapping young Englishman named Anthony Purkiss. He and his friend, David Bushell, had arrived only a day before. They were on a vacation trip from a Rhodesian mine where they worked as engineers. They wanted very much to climb Mount Stanley if they could find an experienced companion! This solved one of my biggest problems.
That evening the director of the Uganda Geological Survey, Peter Matthews, told us that we were welcome to use some of their porters. This was a fabulous piece of luck, for the men were completely outfitted and we would be spared this heavy expense. To recount: in four days I had received free transportation all the way from Cairo to Fort Portal, a complete outfit from a total stranger, a warm welcome and the promise of a full-fledged safari, the friendship of two fine climbing companions! Everything was working as smoothly as if it had been planned for years in advance. Now only a continuation of the present foul weather could bring about failure. The mountains remained heavily hung with clouds. I had been told by everyone who knew anything at all of the area that August was one of the worst months in a region where the best were bad. Stanley camped at the base of these mountains for months, unaware of their existence. Our terrestrial good fortune would now require celestial cooperation if the photographic and mountaineering ends were to be achieved.
The road from Kampala to Fort Portal had crossed gently rolling savannah, with a few papyrus swamps along the route. The weather had been sparkling clear, with brilliant cloud formations hugging the horizons. Here, at the base camp, the sky was dark and brooding, the valley walls heavily wooded, and the dark mass of Portal Peak lost in the swirling mists. Here is an on-the-spot impression from my diary: “This is indeed a thrilling experience. Here we are at the end of the world preparing to ascend into the legendary Mountains of the Moon. The clouds, which louse up my pictures, only serve to increase the weirdness of the scenery. I view it as a complete outsider—haven’t really had time to adjust to this strange land. Cairo is too few days away.” This is the great disadvantage of the airplane: it outspeeds the perceptions. The Duke was better prepared by his lengthy approach journey.
Base camp was in a highly photogenic location—if only the clouds would lift. The road, twin ruts for the last five miles, ended at a cluster of native huts. These were made of grass and were conical in design, with tiny pagoda-like ornaments at the apices. The British camp, now a part of the village itself, was composed of two large tents, a few grass huts and three bright aluminum prefabricated houses. These were also round, with flattened conical roofs. They were very practical, roomy, cool in the sunshine (when it shone) and easy to transport when disassembled; but they looked out of place in this African wilderness. The village was set on a small mound at the bottom of a tight valley. To the east the valley swept down to the open plains; to the west it climbed until the huge black bulk of the Portal Peaks turned it aside. The scene, spectacular though it was, was not unlike many of the valleys of our own Rockies. The vegetation, the conformation of the mountains, looked much the same; but the primitive village and its people reminded one that this was Africa.
That night there were eight of us for dinner: Purkiss, Bushell, Matthews, four other members of the expedition and myself. The talk was highly stimulating: as always in the mountains, we talked of those things from which we were now far removed—politics, religion, art, music and literature. I shall never forget that evening —the good food, the good talk, the warm hospitality. Most of all, I shall never forget Peter Matthews. Cultured, conservative, intensely devoted, he seemed the very epitome of the classical best of the Briton in far lands. It was not until the end of a long evening that we turned to the business of maps and final preparations for our safari. It was finally decided that we should require the services of 13 porters for ten days. The members of the expedition, if they lent us these men, would have to curtail a portion of their work; but they graciously insisted that we should take them.
At high noon on August 24th Dave, Tony and I, with 13 porters (or, rather, twelve porters and a headman), pulled out of base camp and started up the valley. Nine of our twelve carriers were transporting our food and equipment; the remaining three carried heavy loads of smelly fish, corn meal, sugar and tea—enough to last all 13 for ten days. Our porters were rather elegantly fitted out in sweaters, Eisenhower jackets and woollen shorts. Each also carried two woollen blankets. The headman, maintaining the dignity of his position, wore an ankle-length black woollen overcoat. A battered pith helmet completed his costume. All were barefoot, and each carried a stout six-foot stave which we were to see put to good use on the trail.
Soon after leaving the base, we began to encounter deep pockets of mud along the trail. The traffic of the expedition’s support parties, which was an advantage in clearing the heavy underbrush, had made a bog of the path. Incredibly, the mud persisted on 45- degree slopes! We could not slip very far because of the tangle of roots, but it was very tiring. In the bottom land we frequently sank in above our knees. After struggling through four deep streams, we began to pull up one of those interminable ridges which are the bane of mountaineering. Here the trail was firmer, but the continuous pull up the steep slope was so exhausting that I feared for my future as a climber—until I remembered that only a few days ago I had been at sea level in Cairo. Encouragingly, Tony and Dave seemed just as bushed. The natives, even though they carried heavy loads, appeared to be in fine shape. Their staves, used as third legs, proved so helpful that we had some cut for our own use. They were particularly useful in probing the depth of mud pockets.
At twilight we reached Camp II. Here was a prefabricated aluminum hut, about 20 feet by nine, divided into two rooms. It had no bunks or flooring, but we had enough tarps to shield us from the damp ground. A slow drizzle settled in for the remainder of the night, so we were very thankful for the roof above our heads. This hut, erected by the Uganda Mountain Club, will later have a floor and permanent bunks. The altitude was 8400 feet.
On the morning of August 25th, at ten o’clock, we took leisurely leave of Camp II. The sky was overcast, threatening more rain. For the first hour and a half the trail was easy. The grade was gentle, and the footing sound. Then we came to the Mobuku River. Swollen by the rains to a wild torrent 60 feet wide, it gave us some anxious moments. My camera-bearer, who was carrying the lightest porter load, expertly fought his way across. I followed, wearing my boots. The water was very swift, the bottom uneven; a ten-foot fall lay directly below. I blessed Menzies for the gift of his hobnails: without them, I believe I would have gone down. Both Tony and Dave crossed barefooted, chilling their feet to numbness. The water was close to waist depth and icy cold, but it did not chill me through my woollen pants and socks. (This is a strange thing—that wool can protect against cold even under water.) Once across, I had to empty my boots and wring out my socks.
A half-hour later we had to recross. Fortunately, we found a fallen tree which made an interesting bridge, eight feet above the churning torrent. Now we faced another exhausting pull up an endless ridge. The monotony was broken at one point when the camera-bearer pointed excitedly upwards and we watched a family of five large baboons swing overhead.
At about 9500 feet we passed through a bamboo forest. This would have been a real barrier if the British expedition had not already slashed a path through it. Beyond the bamboo we moved into a dank rain forest. The afternoon journey was a nightmare of mud, vines, roots, brambles—and more mud, mud, mud. It was not actually raining, but the air was heavy with moisture. Many trees were so completely covered with lichen and hung with moss that the trunks were invisible. The trail was a veritable swamp in places, and even on the steep slopes there was no relief from the tenacious mud. The continuous strain of pulling our feet clear, and the weight of the thick, black mud clinging to our boots, made us look as sad as we felt when we staggered into Camp III. This hut (10,640 ft.) was completely finished. The aluminum outer shell was insulated; there were four comfortable bunks and a most welcome stove.
The following day we pulled out of Camp III at 9.30 A.M. Again we fought mud all day long. At noon we reached a large cache of provisions left by the geological expedition. This included food for the porters as well as for whites. We had permission to help ourselves, but we planned to go right on at this time and send the porters back the following day. Dave waited here for a while with the porters (who insisted upon cooking a noonday feast) while Tony and I bashed (British term) on ahead. The trail so far had led through a maze of twisting valleys; now we began to head up the main canyon of the Bujuku. The side walls were very steep and hung with lacy waterfalls. The canyon bottom went up in a series of broad shelves, covered with exotic vegetation. Amid the swirling fog and out-of-this-world foliage, we could easily imagine ourselves on another planet — perhaps cloud-shrouded Venus. We shall always remember this experience more as dream than as reality. The groundsel, giant lobelia and senecio combined with the lush heath forest to create a landscape of indescribable fantasy. The complete absence of insect or animal sound added to the weirdness. It was as if we had stepped back millions of years into the remote past, when the first primitive growths crept across the face of the cooling earth.
The ever-present mud was now dotted with small clumps of grass. Each tiny island had a stout “trunk” which reached down to the solid earth beneath the mud. The grass heads rose two feet, on an average, above the muddy surface. The best way of travel was to jump from island to island, from swaying clump to clump.
Because they were spaced about four feet apart, it was necessary to maintain a rather rapid, full-length stride. At this speed it was important to gauge accurately the distance and angle of impact—or suffer a humilating mud bath.
At 3.00 P.M. we suddenly burst upon Lake Bujuku—a bright jewel set in the cirque formed by Mounts Stanley, Speke and Baker. The sun came out briefly, revealing the peaks in all their glory. The Stanley Glacier was plainly visible; it seemed to be several hundred feet thick where it overhung its high plateau. After our days of dull skies and dark foliage, the brilliance of the high snows was excitingly beautiful. The trail led around the shore of the lake and over a half-mile beyond. It ended at the door of another aluminum hut. This one was fully insulated and had comfortable bunks. A good wood stove with a drying rack and a full-sized dining table made it a very comfortable base of operations. This was the highest hut, at an altitude of 13,000 feet. Even with this array of comfortable shelters, only six parties have reached the summit of the highest peak.
We spent August 27th in taking pictures and in a short climb up to the Stuhlmann Pass. Here, at 14,757 feet, we could look down into the Belgian Congo. Patches of sunlight and swirling clouds made for some spectacular photographic effects. But even up here the deep mud persisted! It grew very cold. That night the hut was a small, snug island of warmth and cheer in a chilled, mysterious world. Our porters camped in a shallow cave down near the lake. They must have been freezing. We could hear the wind whirring through the groundsel and senecio and the thunder of the waters in their mad rush to join the Nile.
On the morning of August 28th I left the hut alone and shot pictures on my way down to the porters’ cave. The rain drove me to seek shelter with them for an hour. This was a strange experience. They crouched like animals around a communal bowl, eating thick porridge with their fingers. So Neanderthal man must have crouched over his food, ages ago.
When Tony and Dave arrived we organized a six-porter safari and started up the slopes of Mount Stanley. First we had to cross the floor of the valley above the lake. We did this very carefully, in an attempt to keep our feet dry. We supposed there would be little mud higher up. Unbelievably, though the path became very steep, the mud was still a major problem. The thick maze of roots held it in pockets so that, even though we had to pull ourselves up 75-degree slopes, we still had mud to contend with. At about 14,500 feet we finally moved on to solid footing.
The sun was in and out all day, clouds continually veiling and unveiling the high peaks. The trail followed a zigzag course until it finally broke out onto a high rocky ridge. This was as high as our porters would go. The sky had clouded over once again, and the air was bitter cold. The porters had done very well to carry our loads thus far, so we instructed them to return to Lake Bujuku. (Bare feet—brrrrr!)
We set up camp at 14,858 feet. The ridge was quite steep, but our site was out on a spur and well beyond the range of falling rock. Suddenly the sun broke through, providing me with the most wonderful cloud effects I have ever photographed. Then the clouds swept over us, and we had an anxious hour because Tony had wandered off to scout our route for tomorrow and we could not locate him in the fog. I did a lot of fancy climbing searching for him. He answered none of our calls although we could hear their echoes rolling down to the valley. He soon returned—even missing completely the rain squall which wetted our camp.
Menzies had loaned me an alpine tent specifically for this camp. It would not shelter the three of us. We decided that Tony and Dave would sleep in the tent, while I, with the only air mattress, would shelter under a tarp. It began to snow as we climbed into our sleeping bags at seven o’clock. It snowed the rest of the night.
At dawn on the 29th—the day we were to make the attempt on Mount Stanley—I was awakened by a shout from the tent. It was very difficult for me to move. I was buried under seven inches of snow! Tony and Dave called to say that they were preparing to descend to the hut. Their body heat had melted the frozen tundra beneath the tent and flooded the floor. My air mattress had kept me well clear of the ground. Dave, in particular, seemed to be on the verge of pneumonia. We do not know how low the temperature had dipped, but our drinking water was frozen solid. They packed their bed rolls and started down, quickly disappearing in the swirling snow. I stayed put, remaining in position for 17 hours. I was following the advice of Paul Petzoldt, who says that the best way to contend with a storm on a mountain is to make yourself comfortable, put your mind on other things, and wait it out with cow- like stolidity.
My horizon was limited to ten yards of pearly fog. Occasionally I could hear avalanches rumbling down. I was very much alone in an unreal, mysterious world. My reasons for remaining were twofold: the ridge was an excellent photographic location; and, with me still up there, the boys would not give up the attempt on the peak. Since it was only one day away, even a small break in the weather would give us our chance.
By noon it had cleared sufficiently for me to crawl reluctantly out of my warm cocoon and see what I could do about drying and repitching the tent. When the sun appeared I left the tent spread on a rock to dry while I shot film furiously in all directions. As soon as the sun ducked behind the overcast again, I repitched the tent in what promised to be a drier location. At 3.00 P.M. two porters came out of the mists looking exactly like the Asiatics in Lost Horizon (except that these had no shoes). Indeed, the approach to the camp looked very similar to the ledge leading to the “Valley of the Blue Moon.” Their mission was to help me down the mountain. When, with my two words of Swahili and a great deal of sign language, I indicated my intention of remaining, they obviously thought I was mad—even for a white man. I gave them a note urging the boys to come up the following day. After another futile appeal to reason, they reluctantly started down. Bare feet in the snow—and they thought I was crazy!
That evening the world was dim and damp and chill, and I was the only creature left alive. I huddled over a small fire, crouched in a frail shelter. All that separated me from earliest man was that my fire was a Heatab (works like a charm) and my shelter an alpine tent. A supper of hot spaghetti and steaming tea brightened the outlook enormously. I began writing this account.
August 30th was perhaps the best day for photography in the history of the Ruwenzori. If Tony and Dave had been able to stay, we could have climbed the mountain. Everything I had read, everyone who had advised me, indicated that late August was one of the worst possible times to expect decent weather. If I had been able to order weather at will, I could not have asked for better conditions than now existed. The recent storm had scoured the atmosphere and dusted the peaks with gleaming snow. Everything stood out in sharp, clear relief. Great towering cumulus clouds crowded the horizon, and filmy wisps clung to the topmost peaks. This was indeed a day to remember. It was on this day that I made the shot which was the real objective of the entire venture: the birth of the River Nile as single drops of water falling from the snout of the Stanley Glacier.
The watershed of the White Nile is vast, encompassing much of the Southern Sudan and British East Africa.2 Lake Victoria collects a considerable portion of these waters and sends it northwest to join with the overflow from Lake Albert. These combined waters then sweep northward into the Sudan. Since the Ruwenzori Mountains are considerably higher than any other portion of the entire watershed, I believe that we can justly claim with Ptolemy that here indeed the mighty Nile is born. Some 1800 years ago he wrote: “There rise the Mountains of the Moon, whose snows feed the lakes, sources of the Nile.”
All that morning I had a photographer’s field day, scrambling all over the ridge and the tongue of the glacier. Several hundred feet above the camp there was a spectacular, clear view of the east face of Margherita Peak—topmost point of the Stanley massif. At noon I suddenly was conscious of the cheery clink of an ice-axe, and then, promptly, of Tony’s tow head. He had come all the way from Bujuku Hut, valiantly trying to catch up because he thought the brilliant weather would force me into a solo attempt. I must admit that the temptation was great, but reason ruled it out. It was now too late to try for the summit, but we decided to get a closer look and plan our route for the morrow.
We moved further up the rock ridge, which at this point was parallel to the tongue of the glacier. After two false starts we were able to cut up 400 feet of moderately hard 45-degree ice to the practically level top of the glacier. Perhaps “ice cap” is the more accurate term. The Stanley Glacier is a huge ice cap at about 16,000 feet, with several minor peaks rising from its edges. We should now have had a pleasant walk over the snow to the base of Margherita. Not so: the sun had overdone its work, and we sank in to our knees. A half-mile of this was exceptionally exhausting, but it brought us close to our objective. We now stood at the base of Alexandra, the second highest peak. A short distance away was the heavily corniced face of Margherita. Forty-five years ago the Duke’s party was able to traverse from the summit of Alexandra to Margherita. This no longer appeared practicable. The gently rising east ridge seemed to be the answer, but there did not seem to be a weak spot in its formidable array of cornices. We knew that other parties had made it up this ridge, but we had also been told that constantly changing snow conditions offered a different problem to each attempt. At 4.00P.M. we started back, reaching the ridge camp in two hours. After a little tea, we squeezed into the tent for the night.
The last day of August dawned clear and cold. We left camp at the first light—6.30 A.M. Again we had to cut steps in the ice up to the top of the glacial plateau. (Those of yesterday had melted and refrozen.) Snow conditions were absolutely perfect for walking. We strode rapidly across the level field to the base of Alexandra. The sérac area between the two peaks looked as if it might prove troublesome, but we easily passed it on several convenient snow bridges. We took some movie shots of the twisted ice formations, and then cached the tripod and all movie equipment under a sheltering ridge.
The main (E.) ridge of Margherita now lay directly ahead. Its protective cornices went up in a series of giant steps. We had to find a way between the steps and onto the ridge proper. We had been advised to gain the ridge as low down as we could. It was possible to kick steps up to the lowest cornice. I then proceeded to cut steps around its base. The top of the ridge lay just beyond, but it was first necessary to traverse about 40 feet of very hard, steep ice. Since I did not relish the job, we decided to see about trying to turn the second cornice. This took a good half-hour of cutting. Again I looked across an ice cliff, even more forbidding than the first. We retreated to the first position.
The weather was behaving perfectly, so we were not in too great a hurry; but my arms were feeling the strain of step-cutting. Dave (who had remained in the Bujuku Hut with a bad chill) had had some experience in the Alps, but Tony had never climbed before. He was equipped, however, with the build of a Petzoldt or a Pownall—with nerves to match. Tony was one of the finest natural mountain climbers it has ever been my privilege to be roped to. He quickly learned sound belay techniques, so that I felt securely protected; but it did not seem wise to have him lead. This put all the burden of cutting on me. That he had learned his lesson well was proved in the next few minutes.
At the base of the first cornice, Tony jammed his ice-axe into the snow to belay me. The ice wall was at an angle of 70 degrees. It was unusually hard. It required many sharp blows to hack out even the smallest foothold. I tried to save strength by cutting very shallow steps. I was moving in a direct traverse, some 25 feet from Tony, when I slipped. I swung in a great arc, spidering in against the face with hands and feet so as to protect my head. All I could think of during this action was my precious Battersby hat sailing down into the depths. I swung down beneath Tony and out of his sight. He had a few anxious moments because I could not immediately answer his hail. When I recovered breath and equilibrium, I shouted instructions for Tony to lower me to a rock outcrop. The only injury was a pair of lacerated hands, but the cuts were mere scratches. I quickly cut my way up and continued on. The sun— in and out during this adventure—now burst out in force, and I badly needed protection for my head. By tying the four corners of a handkerchief I made a passable hat. This, of course, was poor defense against Equatorial sunshine, so I placed a cone of snow on top of it. As long as I kept this replenished, there was no danger of sunstroke.
Forty feet from Tony’s position I came to a mass of huge icicles. I lashed at this in fury, cutting it down to a secure hook-shaped anchor. I then proceeded to cut across the face beyond it, with my rope running over the hook. A fall now would result only in a minor swing. The surface gradually grew softer as I continued, until I finally stood in the snow on the top of the ridge. Tony came across the face like a veteran. When he joined me we found that the ridge, so terrifyingly corniced along its edge, was a mere walk-up. During this trudge up the easy snow slope, we felt the altitude for the first and only time. We were forced to halt frequently. We were now close to 17,000 feet—not very high as mountains go—but we were fresh from the jungles.
We could not walk all the way to the top. About 25 feet from the actual summit, we faced a huge cornice, 15 feet high and apparently encircling it. There were but two visible possibilities. At one point a wedge of ice reached to within seven feet of the cornice top. It seemed barely possible to stand atop this wedge and try to cut through, but I did not feel up to it. To the left a sheer wall met the cornice. This offered little hope, but another sloping ridge seemed to join the cornice around the corner. If we could cut out and around this corner and gain the ridge, it looked as if we could walk to the summit. I started cutting up the practically vertical ice wall. The ticklish part of this was that Tony could not get into position to give me an adequate belay. He got into a hollow under the cornice where he could stop me after a 20-foot fall. This would have been a perfect spot for an ice piton, but we had none. I cut five steps straight up. Under the rime the ice was as sound as granite. I cut steps very deep, slanting them in and down. When I reached the cornice, I started cutting left. It was just like climbing up to the eave of a tall building and angling your head around the corner to see the other wall. Fortunately, the other ridge abutted just to the top of the cornice. Six more deep steps were necessary to reach it. Once on top of this cornice, we had only a short walk to the summit proper, whose last defenses were two miniature cornices of two and three feet. Tony passed me and was first on top. The first mountain he had ever climbed was a real one.
We stood on the summit of Margherita at 3.20 P.M.—eight hours and 50 minutes from Ridge Camp. This highest point of the Ruwenzori is 16,794 feet above the sea. The summit was entirely snow-capped; there was no sign of rock except on the ridge running northwest to Albert Peak. The view, seen through sweeping clouds, was magnificent. From our arctic perch we could look down into the steaming tropical jungles of the Congo. To the east and south the great masses of Mounts Speke and Baker dominated the scene.
We were excited by the realization that the snow under our feet, and that of the entire range, would some day feed the Nile and sweep majestically through the land of the Pharaohs. (A geologic quirk turns even the south and western drainage north into Lake Albert to join the White Nile.) Our perceptions were soon dulled by a bitter cold wind. The descent over the edge of the big cornice was a tricky business. I went first, placing Tony’s feet in the steps. Once back onto the ridge, we walked quickly to the lower cornice. Our steps were still in good condition, and we experienced no difficulty in crossing the face where I had fallen.
The snow down in the sérac area where we had left the pack had become very soft. We sank to our knees. The prospect of the long hike across the top of the glacier with the snow in this condition was very discouraging. Our fears were groundless, for we found the glacier firm and were able to stride rapidly across it. We had hoped for a quick descent to the rock ridge. Not so: our steps had melted and the edge of the glacier was refrozen. We lost much time, and the remainder of our strength, in cutting steps down to the ridge. Once on the rock it was a mere scramble to the camp. We arrived at 7.00 P.M.—twelve and a half hours for the round trip, but we had made many stops to take movie and still shots. There was just barely enough light left to arrange things snugly for a cold night.
When we awoke on the morning of September 1st, everything was coated with rime ice. We remained in the tent until the sun had thawed things out. Four porters hove into camp, followed at some distance by Dave. These men had come up seeking us late on the previous day, and their report of an empty camp had worried Dave a bit. He had come up to see whether we were all right. While he packed things up in preparation for the descent, Tony and I crossed over to the snout of the glacier for more shots of the birth of the Nile. The sky was partly cloudy, but we had enough sunny periods to get our shots. No one could hope for better photographic weather than we experienced for at least part of every day that we spent above timberline. Several of these days were continuously bad down below. The entire day that Dave spent down at the Bujuku Hut was overcast and rainy—yet on that same day we reached the summit in bright sunshine. All of which suggests the possibility that there may be good weather high on the peaks at any season, though it may well be concealed from those below timberline.
By midafternoon, the cloud cover being complete, we hit the trail back to the Bujuku Hut. After five days and four nights on the mountain, I found the prospect of comfortable shelter most welcome. Tony had hurried on ahead to prepare our victory dinner. His efforts resulted in a culinary triumph. Over the years I have sampled the cuisines of four continents, but dinner that night at Bujuku Lake surpassed all I had tasted before. We began with sardines on crackers. Next came a large, delicious vegetable salad. The entrée was inspired: a concoction of corned beef, beans, peas and tomato sauce, seasoned to an epicure’s taste. I never dreamed that such mundane ingredients could make such a heavenly combination. Dessert: canned apples, strawberries, cheese and crackers. Like the Lost Chord—it may be that only in heaven we shall eat such a meal again.
I should like to end on this pleasant note, but an uncomfortable experience lay just ahead. The night was bitter cold, and we were thankful to be indoors. Our safari started down at nine o’clock the next morning. Dave, Tony and the porters, with the exception of my camera-bearer, went off at a rapid pace. I remained behind to take a series of shots of waterfalls and rushing streams to develop my Nile sequence. The weather again was superb. Ah-mair-ree, my Bakonjo porter, showed no nervousness about the disappearance of the rest of the safari. I went on merrily burning up film. The sky, filled with brilliant cumulus, provided a fine background for a series of studies of the fantastically contorted forms of the giant senecio. In a region of unreality the senecio, with its twisted stems, its crowned heads and draped beards, provided the most unreal touch of all. So engrossed was I that I paid no heed to the passage of time. Suddenly it was 5.00 P.M. The safari probably was now approaching the hut at Camp III, many miles ahead. We set off at a fast clip.
For the next two hours we fairly skimmed over and through the mud of the trail. By the time we reached the heavy heath forest, it was pitch dark. In addition, it had begun to hail. Ah-mair-ree made a valiant attempt to continue. My problem now was to follow a black man through a black jungle, and not step off a rock, fall into a hole, or bash my head on a tree trunk. Vines and creepers were constantly stroking us with cold, wet fingers. It was a nightmarish experience. To add to the confusion, we had language difficulties. He called me “Bwana,” and I could pronounce his name. The only other word we had in common was “no.” In the jet blackness we had only our ears and sense of touch to guide us. I marvelled at his ability to keep to the trail—until I realized that we were just wandering aimlessly through the forest. Soon we both fell into a stream. Since we were already soaked to the skin, this did not really matter. I hoped that we had pulled the camera and film cases out of the water in time. Both cases had tight covers making them practically watertight. We were, figuratively and literally, up a creek. The hopelessness of finding camp that night was now apparent.
I held Ah-mair-ree with one hand while I groped for a tree trunk with the other. Putting both cases on the ground, I sat on them with my back against the tree, and drew him down in front of me. Holding him between my knees, back to my chest, I clasped my hands around his stomach. Since I was better dressed to withstand the cold, this seemed to be a good idea. We were still above feet and could expect a chilly night. If we could only keep the middle of our bodies warm, we might escape ill effects. Ah-mair- ree seemed to be shaking with fear as well as cold. We discovered the reason for this next day.
My watch had just enough radium left on the dial to clock the progress of an incredibly long night. It stopped hailing, turned to rain, then stopped altogether at ten o'clock. But all night long water dripped down on us from the heavy foliage. Twice I pushed Ah- mair-ree away, took off my boots, and wrung out my socks. On both occasions I got to my feet and shadow-boxed to restore circulation. I took Ah-mair-ree’s arms and tried to persuade him to exercise a bit. He answered, “No,” and slumped to the ground. Not being able to understand my reasons, he undoubtedly thought this but one more eccentricity of an obviously mad white man.
As we shivered and shook on our lonely vigil, I had visions of the wonderful meal Tony and Dave were probably holding for my arrival. We sat and vibrated for eleven and a half hours! (Here on the Equator the nights are about twelve hours long. My five other enforced bivouacs had occurred in the temperate zone where the hardship had lasted only about eight hours.) At long last a dull grey dawn gave us enough light to see by.
We got up—and fell down again. It was several minutes before we could make our legs behave, and then we could only stagger drunkenly along. Ah-mair-ree quickly located the trail. In 40 minutes we reached the hut. Naturally, I was a bit miffed with Tony and Dave for not sending a party out to look for us. They said that the Bakonjos would not travel in the forest at night because of the leopards! This was why Ah-mair-ree had shaken so hard during the night. It is questionable whether a leopard would attack two full-grown men; but we were such sad, sorry-looking specimens at the time that no self-respecting leopard could have feared us. At any rate, this is a question we would just as soon treat as academic.
Both Ah-mair-ree and I had to hug the stove for quite a while before we were defrosted enough to think about food. I then ate the big dinner which had been saved for me—at 7.00 A.M. By nine o’clock our safari was again on the march. One hour out of camp we found leopard spoor on the trail. Later on, at Fort Portal, we learned that the Bakonjo have a real respect for leopards: a few years before they had refused to travel at night even to carry a message for a white woman who was dangerously ill. These natives will go anywhere in the daytime, carrying only their staves, but they will not travel at night. Poor Ah-mair-ree!
At noon we were surprised to encounter Matthews on his way up the trail. This was a bit of a disappointment, for we had hoped to enjoy another evening with him at base camp. When we told of our successful climb he kept saying, “Good show! Good show!” in the explosive sort of way I imagine Teddy Roosevelt must have used when he shouted, “Bully! Bully!” It was so delightfully British, and came from a gentleman normally so reserved and conservative, that I felt like giggling and glowing all at the same time. We talked a good long hour away. As we parted he told us that we were not to pay for any of the food we had eaten at the huts or for the supplies we had taken from the expedition’s cache. All he would let us pay was the porters’ salaries. Ours was probably the least expensive safari ever to enter the Ruwenzori.
Nine hours after leaving Camp III we swung into base camp, the Bakonjo singing their wild chant, we carried on by the melody. We made a grand entrance—but there was no one to welcome us. Professor W. Q. Kennedy, the leader of the expedition, had gone to Fort Portal for the day. While we three waited for him, we wallowed in the luxury of a bath and clean clothes. By eight o’clock that evening he had returned, and we sat down for another good dinner and hours of stimulating conversation. Professor Kennedy, a distinguished geologist, has such a wide range of interests that, weary though we were, we talked on until midnight.
Four days later I was back in Cairo. I had been away only 19 days. A short time afterward I flew homeward. At one o’clock in the morning on September 15th I was shopping for curios in Iceland; at three o’clock the same afternoon I attended Mai Miller’s wedding in Tarrytown, New York.
A Note on Ruwenzori: The Mountains of the Moon
[ We are indebted to Peter Matthews, of the Geological Survey of Uganda, for the following note.—Ed.]
The great mountain massif of Ruwenzori, as you probably know, has been an enigma for many centuries. Aristotle mentioned a high mass, a possible source of the Nile, which was touched by the Moon and turned to silver. Even to the present time this enigma remains, for the great mass when viewed from the broad, sunny plains surrounding it is seldom visible below its extensive cover of clouds. Stanley, when he camped in the country below in 1888, did not see the snow until he had been there for several months. The mountain is of course still a mystery from many points of view. One may mention the extraordinary types of giant vegetation, the geological setting of the mountain in the middle of the western rift valley, or the nature of its past and present glaciation.
On the map the mountain is roughly elliptical in shape, pointed at the northern end and broader at the southern end. It is about 75 miles in length and 35 miles at its greatest width. The line of the Equator passes about 20 miles south of the central area. The nose rises in a single ridge to the highly dissected central area. A general picture is that of a whale-backed mass. It should be remembered that the mountain is not a folded range, but a great earth block which the elements have sculptured to its present form. For this reason, the setting of the high peaks is unusual. There are six high masses rising to more than 15,000 feet in the central area, and in the south there are others above 13,000 feet. The six high masses are named Mounts Stanley, Baker, Speke, Emin, Gessi and Luigi di Savoia. All support permanent snow fields. Mount Stanley is itself composed of six peaks, including the two highest, Mount Margherita (16,794 ft.) and Mount Alexandra (16,749 ft.).
The first large-scale expedition to Ruwenzori was that of the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1906. An account of this expedition has appeared both in Italian and in English; it contains many magnificent photographs of the snow peaks. The achievement of the expedition can be measured by the fact that none of the high peaks was left unclimbed, and that the approach to the mountain was on foot from Entebbe—a distance of over 200 miles. Captain G. N. Humphreys made a series of journeys on Ruwenzori in 1926 and 1932, in the company of G. Oliver. The distances covered and the new ground explored made for a feat of endurance and a notable contribution to our knowledge of the mountain. In 1932 a Belgian expedition, led by Count Xavier de Grunne, approached the mountain from the Belgian Congo for the first time. The British Museum sponsored an expedition in 1933. A party led by P.M. Synge followed the Nyamugasani Valley from the south to the most southerly of the high masses, Mount Luigi di Savoia. Between 1933 and 1951 a number of traverses by members of the Uganda Mountain Club and by members of the British Expedition have opened up new routes on the mountain.
The British Expedition to Ruwenzori, under the leadership of Professor W. Q. Kennedy, completed the first part of its program in 1951 and will begin the second and final part in July 1952. The Expedition is sponsored by the Government of the Uganda Protectorate, the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Geological Society of London and the British Museum. One of the aims is to publish an accurate map of Ruwenzori from an aerial photographic survey.
Exploration on Ruwenzori has been under way for more than half a century, but considerable areas still remain unknown. This is true particularly of the southern end of the mountain. From the experience the writer has had, the ascent to the central high mass from the southern end is by far the most attractive, as the route follows along high ridges in contrast to the traditional route from the east up the steep-sided valleys of the Mobuku and Bujuku Rivers.
There are four Mountain Club huts on the route up the Bujuku Valley. The hut at 13,000 feet near Lake Bujuku is the terminal point, situated in the cirque formed by the three highest masses, Stanley, Speke and Baker. It is a good starting point for climbs on the high peaks. In 1951 a fixed bivouac (14,800 ft.) was established near the Elena Glacier below the snow-covered Stanley Plateau, which is the usual starting point for assaults on the two highest peaks, Margherita and Alexandra. A memorandum of the Mountain Club of Uganda states: “The peaks of Mount Stanley may be climbed from this bivouac (Elena Glacier Hut) by a competent party under experienced leadership. The ascent of Margherita is a moderately long snow and ice expedition, the difficulties of which vary greatly according to the state of the cornices, which guard the summit and the summit ridge, and the size of the crevasses on the lower part of the final peak.”
During the latter part of the Ruwenzori Expedition’s work in 1951, we had a very welcome visit from Mr. Ray Garner. He had the good fortune to strike a patch of perfect weather and did a fine ascent of Margherita in the company of Mr. Anthony Purkiss, of Northern Rhodesia. He is, we believe, the first American to have reached the summit of Ruwenzori.
The great masses of the Mufumbiro, Mounts Kilimanjaro, Kenya and Elgon share with Ruwenzori many features of their natural beauty. They have a similar geographical setting, but Ruwenzori remains unique. It is the only one of these great Equatorial mountains that is not of volcanic origin.
List of References
Elliott, G. F. Scott. “Expedition to Ruwenzori and Tanganyika,” Geographical Journal, VI (1895), 301-25.
Filippi, Filippo, de. Ruwenzori: An Account of the Expedition of H. R. H. Prince Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of the Abruzzi. London, 1908.
Grunne, Xavier de. Le Ruwenzori. Brussels, 1937.
Humphreys, G. N. “New Routes on Ruwenzori,” Geographical Journal, LXIX (1927), 516-31. “Ruwenzori: Flights and Further Exploration,” ibid., LXXXII (1933), 6.
Moore, J. E. S. The Mountains of the Moon. London, 1901.
Synge, P. M. The Mountains of the Moon. London, 1934.
1See note by Peter Matthews, pp. 278-81 below.
2Although the Blue Nile rises in Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the major volume of water comes from the White Nile, which has its beginnings in Equatorial Africa.
*This was established after we left. A small aluminum hut now occupies the site of our high camp.—R.G.