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Ascents in Uganda

Ascents in Uganda

George Hurley, Marmots


In mid-December my wife Jean and I drove from where we teach at Namilyango College near Kampala, to the western Uganda town of Fort Portal. The next morning we got from the District Commissioner the keys to the huts owned by the Mountain Club of Uganda, which are well located in the Ruwenzori range; we then drove south to the Bakonjo village of Ibanda, signed on Bakonjo porters, and at noon started the walk into the central peaks.*

At noon two days later we arrived at the Bujuku Huts — there are two, side by side — at 13,000 feet, situated above Lake Bujuku in the valley between the three highest mountains of the Ruwenzori, Stanley, Speke and Baker. We paid off our excellent porters and made ourselves at home, hoping to see the peaks we knew to be around us. (The weather had closed in three hours after we left Ibanda village.) Late in the evening the clouds did clear and we were impressed by the north face of Baker and the hanging ice cliffs of Stanley above us.

Our first day in the Ruwenzori was spent on Johnston (15,860 feet) and Vittorio Emanuele (16,042 feet), the two highest summits of Mount Speke. Our aim was to climb the northwest face of Johnston and then traverse the high ridge from Johnston to Vittorio Emanuele. We left the hut at 7:30 (early alpine starts are not a necessary part of.climbing in the Mountains of the Moon) and followed the dim trail through the surrealistic groves of giant groundsel and lobelia to Stuhlman Pass. There we turned right, climbed a series of mossy slabs, then easier slopes, and finally traversed to the snout of the Speke Glacier. The bare glacier’s few crevasses were easily seen. Crampons on and roped, we angled slightly right up the glacier toward the point where we hoped to get onto the rock of the northwest face of Johnston. As we moved up the glacier, we had wonderful views of Vittorio Emanuele on our left and Johnston on our right on either side of the head of the glacier above us. Behind us we could see, across the valley to the west, the ice cliffs and corniced ridges of Margherita and Alexandra, the two highest summits of Mount Stanley and of the Ruwenzori range.

After an hour’s climbing we were under the first icefall of the Speke Glacier. The rock face of Johnston on our right was steep and it looked as if it would be better to get through the first step of the icefall and then try to cross the bergschrund onto the face. We found a chute between the overhanging ice cliffs. I set up an ice-axe belay and Jean led up. The chute was about 100 feet high and gradually steepened until the last 20 feet were at a 60° angle. The snow was good and Jean chopped only a few steps in the final section. Once on top, we found a narrow snow bridge across the 30-foot-deep bergschrund. Here, looking down, we saw weird ice formations — icicles twisted into corkscrew shapes, some standing out horizontally into the schrund.

Above the glacier we angled up to our right over snow-covered rock and were soon on the 45° snowfield which lies on the northwest face. We were able to move together after two belayed leads and left the snowfield to go left up a snow-filled couloir which quickly led to a series of ledges overlooking the upper icefall of the Speke Glacier. Through gathering mist our views of the peaks were limited to occasional, brief but spectacular glimpses. We continued upward over mixed rock and snow until the cornice above us indicated that we were near the top. Above the cornice, we followed the ridge a short distance eastwards to the rock summit of Johnston. We had taken about four hours from the hut to the summit. Neither the climbing nor the route finding had been difficult.

The mist thickened while we lunched on the top until it was of white-out quality. As this kind of weather is a traditional part of Ruwenzori climbing, we started the traverse to Vittorio Emanuele. We moved along the jagged rock ridge until we came to an overhanging drop which we knew from the guide book was 70 feet high and above a narrow snow saddle. Jean rappelled into the mist and soon yelled back that the ends of our rope hung into the small bergschrund separating the snow of the saddle from the cliff down which she had come. She swung into the rock, found a place safe from rockfall and called me down. After going over or around two or three rock points, we expected the difficulties to be over, but they were not. The ridge was heavily corniced on our left and the visibility was about 20 feet. Jean led while I followed, checking occasionally with the compass. For 45 minutes we had been creeping along, trying to keep just high enough to see the edge of the cornice to our left but low enough to stay below the cleavage line. A compass check showed we were heading due east instead of northwest as intended. We sat down for a second lunch and hoped for a break in the mist, which did not come. Either the main ridge made an eastward jog which the map did not show, or we had swung right and were following the corniced crest of a secondary eastward-running ridge. We guessed on the second possibility and backtracked until our old tracks seemed to be curving southwards. Jean cautiously approached the edge of what could be a cornice and found herself at the junction of two snow ridges. We did not lose the main ridge again and gained the summit of Vittorio Emanuele seven hours after leaving the hut. The ridge, which would be an easy and pleasant high walk in good weather, had taken three hours of careful moving. We had difficulty in finding the normal descent route, but once on it old tracks were just visible, so that we could make good time down the snow slopes and were back at the hut nine hours after leaving it. This very pleasant climb is one which is not ruled out by thick Ruwenzori weather.

Because we were both suffering from colds developed while wading through the bogs on the walk into the mountains, we spent Christmas day in the hut, drying clothes and boots, drinking Teton tea and eating a canned Christmas pudding, which some previous party had inexplicably left behind. Because of worries about pneumonia it was not until two days later that we moved up to the 14,700-foot-high Irene Lakes Hut for an attempt on the east ridge of Margherita (16,763 feet), the highest peak in the range. This hut is a small, well-made, very neat A-frame building which comfortably holds two and can, we are told, hold four if the four are gregarious by nature.

The next morning we traversed onto the east ridge at about hut level and followed the crest westwards. The first section of this climb is rock, the second snow. The crux of the ridge is two rock pitches described as Alpine grade 4 if not iced. These have to be climbed since the ridge falls away very steeply on either side to the glaciers below. Finding the rock in good shape, we climbed fast to stay ahead of the mist coming in from the east. It caught us in the middle of the final crux pitch, 12 feet from the top of which I hung the only running belay used on the climb. Just above was a bulge which had good holds. Although exposed, it would probably be graded about National Climbing Classification System Class 4 (5.0 on the decimal system). Though snow was beginning to fall, we were over the rock section and the snow ridge above was straightforward. We had to bypass cross cornices at four different points. One forced us to traverse on a steep slope immediately under it for 40 feet until we could regain the crest. The snow was now falling heavily and we began to hear thunder. By the time we reached the summit, the electrical storm was close. The climb had taken five hours. On the descent the rock sections were much more difficult. Over an inch of snow lay on every hold and the rock was icing over in places. The storm was hanging around and once my hair stood on end with an invigorating tingle. We had to rappel three times, once because we left the ridge crest too soon. At 2:30 we were back at the hut, soaked.

We returned to the Bujuku Hut for a drying-out day and then moved up to the Elena Huts, two small A-frames at 14,900 feet, at the edge of the Elena Glacier and close to the Stanley plateau. We wanted to climb Alexandra (16,703 feet), but the hut book was not encouraging since the last party to try the peak had been turned back four days before by a "maze of crevasses”. The next morning our start was delayed by mist, wind and snow, but when at eight o’clock the sky cleared, we started for the Stanley plateau. The views were spectacular for one hour. We could see the summits of Stanley, Speke and Baker, though the two northern mountains, Mount Emin (15,740 feet) and Mount Gessi (15,470 feet), remained hidden. During the hour of good weather we crossed the Stanley plateau and picked out the route up Alexandra. The route up through a gap between two small ice cliffs was obvious. From that point it looked as though we should angle left, perhaps gaining the crest of the southeast ridge, perhaps staying below it on the Congo side. We could climb together through the ice cliffs. At the top of the gap, where the angle eased, we came to the overrated "maze”. Jean belayed while I crawled over the weak snow covering two crevasses. We made an end-run around another crevasse and were out of the broken area. Conditions were poor with about six inches of soft snow slightly adhered to a hard base. We tried to get off this by ascending to the crest, but the ridge was heavily corniced on the other side and blocked by a giant cross cornice just above us. We retreated from the crest and traversed on the Congo side upwards toward the summit. The clouds had closed in just after we left the plateau and now snow was falling. Worried about the slope which fell out of sight toward the Congo forests, we were delighted to gain the ridge crest at about the spot where the border between Uganda and the Congo crosses the ridge, a short distance below the summit. On the top we found a small flag left by the only other party to have climbed Alexandra during this "dry” season. We spent little time admiring the flag since the snowstorm was continuing and we could hear thunder. The climb had taken three hours and the descent took two.

Although we had hoped to climb some of the southern rock peaks of Stanley, the next day the weather was at its worst and at noon we accepted the fact that the Ruwenzori weather god was not going to cooperate. Through thickly falling snow, we headed for the Kitandara Hut below Mount Baker. We got lost in the snow among the hut-sized boulders of Scott-Elliot Pass and arrived late at the beautiful Kitandara lakes after having descended from 14,900 to 13,200 feet.

The following day, with threatening weather, we started up the normal, south-ridge route of Baker. From the hut we followed the trail through the oft described, colorful and fantastic Ruwenzori vegetation eastward toward Freshfield Pass. When it was necessary to leave the trail, the snow began to fall (we were hardly surprised), and the wind came up. The route was not difficult to follow; but even so, we managed to get lost once in the rock buttresses and gullies before gaining the ridge itself. As so often in the Mountains of the Moon, the climb was made attractive by the dramatic views of black rock and white swirling mist, and even occasionally by a sight of the green valley far below. We reached the summit five hours after leaving the hut, and since the snow was falling only lightly, sat down for a marmot-style rest before going down.

Our food supply was getting low. It took us two-and-a-half days to pack out instead of the ordinary two, but we had no porters — not a rare situation for American climbers but unusual for the Ruwenzori — and the trail, which is always wet, was now knee-deep in places. Conditions were worse than normal, I think, since two English climbers who came out when we went into the mountains had eight days of good weather and another party which entered the region ten days after our departure reported reasonably clear weather. The heavy precipitation we had seen while in the mountains had filled the bogs and softened all the trails.

Before we came to Uganda, we thought of the Ruwenzori as being fairly wild and inaccessible mountains. We found, however, that it is easier to climb there than in many North American ranges. The Bakonjo porters, the Mountain Club’s huts and the comparatively small elevation difference between hut and summit (but with all grades of climbing difficulty) contribute to the ease and enjoyment of climbing in the Mountains of the Moon.

[Editor’s note. In August, 1963, in the other "dry” season, which lasts from mid-June to mid-August, the Hurleys returned to the Ruwenzori. This time they went into the mountains by the Mubuku valley, used by the earliest climbing parties, including the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1906, but now almost never ascended. This was a much more difficult approach because the trail is not maintained. Their ascents included a traverse of three peaks of Luigi di Savoia: Stairs (14,910 feet), unnamed (15,000+ feet) and Sella (15,179 feet); the ascents of the three highest peaks of Mount Stanley: Margherita, Alexandra and Albert (16,690 feet); and another ascent of the highest summit of Mount Speke: Vittorio Emanuele. They also unsuccessfully attempted the unclimbed west face of Mount Baker but feel it an interesting challenge. Unfortunately limitations of space prevent a full account of this interesting trip.]


In the north of Uganda in the district of Karamoja is a volcanic plug which looks like the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming without the columns. Rwot is the Acholi word meaning "chief”. Before April, 1963, Rwot had been climbed only once and that by an Austrian party in 1957. From their account, written in "German” English, it is uncertain whether or not they used artificial aid.

In April, seven of us from the Mountain Club of Uganda — four English, David Pasteur, Henry Osmaston, Andrew and Pat Stuart; one Ugandan, Yekonia Kibaya; and two Americans, my wife and I — drove over the barely believable roads to Rwot. The next morning we hiked to the base and looked at the Austrian route, an unpleasant crack-chimney which rose continuously for 700 feet from bottom to top. Jean and I went about 200 feet left of this crack and tried a much better looking 50° slab. The three English climbers — Pat and Yekonia were acting as the ground support party — started climbing the Austrian route. About 15 feet up the slab, I decided it would not go since there were no cracks and the holds were of the ?-inch variety. I backed off, and we went over to observe the other rope. We watched the lead climber move up the wet crack and finish the first pitch. Knowing it would be some time before we could get into the crack, we went back for another look at the slab.

Meanwhile the rock had dried a bit and this time it went. There were no piton cracks, but 50 feet above the ground I ran the rope around a clump of moss with a small euphorbia growing out of it. From the moss I traversed right on improving holds for 35 feet to a small tree growing out of a crack at the rear of a foot-wide ledge. We rated the first 60 feet of this lead as NCCS 7 (Decimal 5.7). The English climbers called it V.S. on the English grading system. The next lead angled up and right over good holds with only 15 feet of delicate wet slab The third lead along an easy traversing ledge brought us into the Austrian crack above our three friends, now close below us but slowed by two direct-aid moves in the pitch just before our traverse ledge. The rest of the climb was up the chimney. The climbing, because vegetation now filled the chimney, was unpleasant but never more than NCCS 6 (Decimal 5.5) in difficulty, and that only for very short pitches. On the summit we found the cairn built by the Austrians.

When we got back to the road where the cars had been left, some of the local people asked us what we had been doing on the rock (like the tourists at the Devil’s Tower). But they did not believe we had been on top since there was, they said, a horrible creature which destroyed anyone who tried to climb Rwot.


Forty miles northwest of Rwot in the district of Acholi a granite tower called Amiel rises 600 feet above the highest limit of the grass slopes at its base and gives about 450 feet of good rock climbing. So far only one route has been found up this tower. Our party of Yekonia Kibaya, David Pasteur, Jean and I made the fourth ascent. The route ascended the northern buttress, starting at the far right. The first lead was a wide crack, 55 feet high, with at least one awkward move 40 feet above the ground (NCCS 5 or Decimal 5.4). At that point a root two inches in diameter at the back of the crack took a sling for a running belay. The second lead traversed left over walking ledges to a platform named Puff Adder Parlour by the first ascent party in honor of its deadly inhabitants at that time. From here we descended 20 feet to the base of a 75-foot-high classic chimney (NCCS 5 or Decimal 5.3). The exit at the top of the chimney was an exposed move upwards to the right onto a sloping shelf.

One hundred feet of easy climbing brought us to the bottom of the most attractive leads of the climb. Until now, although we were on the outer part of the buttress, we had been climbing in clefts. Here we started climbing the very narrow steep face of the ridge with great exposure on either side. The holds were excellent and reminded us of some of the routes in the Shawangunks. Running belays were not needed on the first 40-foot pitch (NCCS 4 or Decimal 5.2). From a comfortable ledge we started the crux pitch, which was a two-inch crack 40 feet high (NCCS 6 or 5.5). The crack, together with face holds and one layback, took us to another belay ledge. There was a natural rock anchor for a running belay in the middle of this lead. Three more leads, the first going up the ridge on large holds (NCCS 4 or Decimal 5.0), the second a left-right-left zigzag up through a split roof (NCCS 4 or 5.0) and then upward scrambling, took us to the top where approximately twenty giant marabou storks reluctantly flapped into the sky from their nesting places.

This climb was more enjoyable than the climb of Rwot since the rock was clean and excessive vegetation was never a problem. The angle of the rock was high but the holds were so good that the difficulty was never as great as a distant view would suggest. There are probably other routes which can be done on this tower, but a bolt kit might be necessary. Because of the distance of both Amiel and Rwot from paved roads, I doubt if either rock will get much climbing attention.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Western and northern Uganda, East Africa Ascents in Ruwenzori Group:

Mount Speke: Johnston, 15,860 feet, and Vittorio Emanuele, 16,042 feet, December 24, 1962.

Mount Stanley: Margherita, 16,763 feet, December 28, 1962; Alexandra, 16,703 feet, December 30, 1962.

Mount Baker, 15,889 feet, January 1, 1963. (All ascents by George and Jean Hurley.)

Ascents in Northern Uganda:

Rwot, April 13, 1963 (G. and J. Hurley, Osmaston, A. Stuart) — Second ascent.

Amiel, April 15, 1963 (G. and J. Hurley, Kibaya, Pasteur) — Fourth ascent.

Personnel: George and Jean Hurley, Americans; Yekonia Kibaya, Ugandan; Henry Osmaston, David Pasteur, Andrew and Patricia Stuart, English.

*Details on hut bookings, porters, trails, etc. are available from the Mountain Club of Uganda, Hon. Editor, Box 2927, Kampala, Uganda. The informative guide book, by David Pasteur and Henry Osmaston, is still in mimeographed proof edition.