Rwenzori Mountains, Mt. Stanley (Margherita Peak, 5,109m), west face, new route. In July, Steve Roach—44-year-old rocket scientist for NASA, orator of Robert Service ballads, experienced mountaineer, and Vedauwoo-trained offwidth aficionado—seven members of the Mountain Club of Uganda, and I accomplished a remarkably fun expedition to the fabled Mountains of the Moon.
The Mountains of the Moon—named site-unseen by second century Greek geographer Ptolemy and since then discovered to be one of the sources of the Nile, the world’s longest river
(4,132 miles)—rise smack on the equator along the border of Uganda and Congo. There are 18 individual peaks that rise to over 4,600m, including the triple-summits of both Mt. Speke and Mt. Stanley. The former was named for the persevering explorer John Hannings Speke, who discovered Lake Victoria in 1863, and the latter for Henry Stanley, a diabolically cruel man who found his ethical opposite, Dr. Livingstone, in 1871 dying in present-day Tanzania.
The four-day hike into the range is one of the most magnificent on earth. Surrounded by giant groundsel and giant lobelia and giant heather, it’s as if you have stumbled into the Jurassic Park of flora. The giant groundsel, 25 feet tall, resembled Joshua trees with enormous, arti- choke-like balls atop their furred branches. The giant lobelia, purplish spires of hair, stood up like blind gnomes in the swamp; a forest of giant heather hovered to either side resembling medieval leather-clad soldiers. It was the land of Little Shop of Horrors. At any moment I expected a giant groundsel to reach out and grab me, or a three-foot rosetta to spread its labial leaves and speak.
On the third day, leaving from the John Matte hut, Steve Roach, Greg Smith, Loren Hostetter, and myself managed to summit Vittorio Emanuele (4,890m), the highest peak of Mt. Speke via the original Shipton/Tilman route—once heavily snow-encrusted, now merely a rock scramble—and glissade moss back down to the Bujuku hut by dusk.
Two days later, leaving from the Elena hut in two roped parties—Steve Roach, Glenda Hostetter, Mike Barnett; Greg Smith, Loren Hostetter, myself—climbed Margherita (5,109m), the highest peak of Mt. Stanley and the third highest on the African continent, via the traditional route (easy glacier travel, one pitch of icy rock).
The following morning whilst the Mountain Club of Uganda team members descended, Steve Roach and I summited Mt. Savoia (4,977m), via a direct ascent of the Coronation glacier. With three summits for reconnaissance, we were now prepared for our secret goal.
Before our trip, I’d emailed Henry Osmaston, author of the long out-of-print 1972 classic Guide to the Ruwenzori: The Mountains of the Moon. Osmaston was the most dedicated climber of the Mountain Club of Uganda during its golden years, the 1950–60s. In my note I suggested that there appeared to be room for a new route on the west face of Mt. Stanley.
Osmaston, 84-years-young and living in Cumbria, UK, responded: “I think all you say is correct. The rock should be clean of moss and probably stones as it is so steep. But it is entirely in the Congo.... A bullet-proof jacket would be an important addition to your kit. I don’t advise it.”
For almost 20 years, between 1980 and 2000, Uganda and the Congo were at war (the causes of which are so convoluted as to dismay even Africans). By the mid-90s, Congolese rebels were using the Rwenzori mountains as a guerilla redoubt, periodically descending into Ugandan villages to murder, rape, and steal food and supplies. In July of 1997 the Ugandan government closed the entire park and sent in the military. Trail by trail, valley by valley, the rebels were removed.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park was reopened in July 2001 and an armed, radiocarrying ranger accompanies every expedition. No one really knew what was going on now on the other side of the border: the last documented ascent of the west face of Margherita was in 1956.
“I say we go have a look,” I said.
“I say we might get ourselves killed,” replied Steve, which didn’t mean he didn’t want to go.
From Osmaston’s guide, it appeared that no one had made a complete traverse of the Stanley Plateau. There was once a cabin, the Moraine hut, down on the Congo side, but even Osmaston didn’t know if it still existed. We figured we’d shoot for this hut, get a peek of the west face if we were lucky, and go from there.
An alpine start was requisite, but it was snowing hard the next morning and we scooched back down in our bags. By nine it was snowing only lightly and we set out, retracing our own steps up the Stanley Plateau, then veering left toward the pass. By chance, a hole opened up in the clouds and we spotted what we thought was a tiny hut, then the hole closed up. We crossed the invisible border and descended the west Stanley glacier until it disappeared, forcing us to rap down rock ravines. We were in the Congo.
As the mist momentarily cleared, we again spied the hut on the ridgeline...and two people standing beside it! We were speechless. This was the last thing we wanted. I thought we might be imagining things and stared through the wisps of white with all my might. I was trying to determine whether they were armed.
We slipped down into the scree and continued toward the hut. “Are they moving?” Steve’s voice was a wee higher than normal. “No. They’re not moving.” The mist rolled in, the guerillas disappeared, and we kept on. We were approaching like cats now, silent, shoulders tensed, creeping low to the ground through the boulders. The mist blew off again.
“They haven’t moved one bit,” I whispered.
Steve burst out laughing so loud I jerked. “Nope. They sure haven’t. Might be because one’s a cairn and the other one’s a giant groundsel.”
The hut was empty, but still in solid condition. We ate lunch inside with the door open for the little we could see of the west face of Mt. Stanley. The top 1,500 feet were engulfed in dark-bellied clouds. The glaciers, the icefalls, the three summits, we could see none of it.
Steve struck out up the face first, and I followed, both of us scrambling along steep, verglassed granite. Gaining what we presumed was the Alexander glacier, we roped up and
simul-climbed, only occasionally sinking an ice screw.
For the next three hours we climbed continuously. The ice was 50°–60° and we could never see more than 100 feet above us, so we never knew where we were going, other than straight up. The last two pitches to the summit were a gothic castle of ice—turrets, moats, curtained walls. Standing on top the fog was so thick we could barely see each other.
The following day Steve and I descended to the Kitandara hut, but not before I soloed the south ridge of Alexandra (another peak of Mt. Stanley) via a new line of crumbling, dripping 5.8 rock and ice which is definitely not worth repeating. From Kitandara we walked all the way out in one day.
Only 50 years ago the Mountains of the Moon were heavily glaciated but, due to global warming, they will likely be devoid of all ice—like Mt. Kenya and Kilimanjaro—within the next 10–20 years. If you have dreams of climbing snow and ice in Africa, go now. Ptolemy will soon be rolling in his grave.
Mark Jenkins, AAC