I believe it is every climber’s dream to get to the peak. Ever since we started the journey from Kampala to Mbale, we had been filled with anticipation of the day and the moment that we would reach the peak of Mount Elgon. Even the precipitous climb we experienced on the first day did not dampen our resolve to get to the top. Throughout those first three days, we kept chanting that Walai, we would reach Wagagai – no lie! So it was with much excitement that we woke up on Wednesday 27th May. Our dream was going to come true!
The climb to Wagagai from Mude Cave Camp is 9 kilometers, and Wagagai is 4,321 meters above sea level. That day I was purposeful about what I wore. My t-shirt bore the word Uganda. I wanted to take pictures at the top of the mountain, wearing that particular t-shirt, as a representation of my Ugandan-ness, but also in honor of the saying that Uganda is gifted by nature.
We started the hike to the peak at 6:50 a.m. Just before we that, Francis, our lead ranger-guide, warned us about altitude sickness, since we were going to climb quite high that day. He told us that one of the signs of altitude sickness is a fast beating heart and a feeling of loss of breath. He told us that if we experienced any of the symptoms, we were to stop and take a rest.
The hike that day was quite steep. It was only made pleasant by the sunny conditions and the beautiful vegetation. We stopped about three times, to rest and catch our breath. One of the stops was by Jackson’s pool, a small but very beautiful pool. The water was clear and it looked clean. There was no outlet or inlet into the pool. Jackson pool is one of the Jackson three on the mountain – the other being Jackson Peak, the second highest peak of Mount Elgon, and Jackson table – a large, long, flat rock.
We walked over quite a number of steep rocks and at some point, we managed to access telephone network – well, one of us did, and that was Michelle. We were glad that she had enough airtime, because that enabled each of us to call one family member, to update them about our journey and assure them that we were safe. You should have seen the spring in our step after we made those calls! I sensed some renewed energy and a briskness like I hadn’t witnessed since the start of the hike that day. That surge of energy alone spoke volumes to me about just how important family is. Family is so important that it gives weary climbers the added oomph they need to keep going.
As we made our way to the top, we passed by some crater lakes in a valley. We stopped at that point to rest, take pictures and admire the scenery. We then proceeded on towards the level just below the peak. We were told that that level, about 20 minutes before the peak, is called the failures hill. There are actually rocks piled there by people who fail to make it all the way to the peak. We asked the ranger why anyone would stop so close to the top and fail to make it. They told us that it’s often attributable to altitude sickness. Some people get it so bad that they can’t continue to the top. We thanked God that apart from dizziness, which most of us felt, none of us had had a bad experience of altitude sickness.
Reaching Wagagai peak was a feat in itself. I can’t quite fully explain the feeling of getting there. There is an exhilaration, a feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of awe at being at the top of a mountain that is quite different from anything I have ever experienced. It’s also a humbling feeling – to know that you are among a select few Ugandans that will ever experience getting to the top of any of the many mountains we have in our country.
What struck me was that the peak was not necessarily pointy. Right from childhood, we are taught to draw a mountain as an inverted letter ‘V’, but a mountain is nothing like that. It’s not one straight line up and one straight line down. Mountains are a collection of many hills, they are also interspersed with a few planes, and that is what we saw when we got to the peak – not a sharp pointy tip, but a flat-ish, very rocky top. And standing at that point and looking around, we saw many of the hills and plains that are a part of Elgon Mountain.
We spent about 30 minutes at the top, taking pictures, resting and taking the scenery in. We couldn’t stay too long because it was quite cold at the top. After that we started the 9 kilometer descent. We left the peak at noon and were back at Mude Camp at 3:57 p.m.
That evening, for supper, we had a meal of matooke and beef stew – our own small way of celebrating our achievement.