The achievement of climbing to Wagagai Peak was slightly dampened for me because of the prospect of walking 37 kilometers on our fourth day of the climb. It was with dread that I went to bed that night, wondering whether and how I was going to make that long journey. I prayed hard and I prayed long that God would give me the strength to get through it.
As part of our preparation to climb Mount Rwenzori in July, our team has been doing long walks every two weeks since January 31st of this year. Most of our walks have been between 21 to 24 kilometers, and have taken us an average of 4 hours to do. We upped our game a week before climbing Mount Elgon, by doing a six hour hike in Mabira Forest. Despite that, most of these walks have been on fairly flat ground or gently undulating hills, so nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to experience that Thursday May 28th!
We got up bright and early, packed up our bags and were ready to hit the trail by 6:15 a.m. For our descent, we did the Sipi Trail. We did the journey in two parts – the first was a 20 kilometer hike to Kajeri Camp, where we stopped for lunch, and then the remaining 17 kilometers took us all the way to Tutum Cave Camp where we spent our final night on the mountain.
The scenery along the trail is breathtaking! We walked by a big gorge called Simu Gorge. We also walked through part of the caldera. A caldera is a large volcanic crater, typically one formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of the volcano. Mount Elgon has one of the largest calderas in the world! We also walked by a big cave in Simu Gorge, and our rangers told us that that particular cave is used by smugglers who ply coffee between Uganda and Kenya. We were lucky we did not encounter any smugglers that day! I did not want to imagine what we would have done if we came face to face with them.
What was most frustrating about the walk that day was not only its length, but the very many steep hills we had to climb. Our vision of descending a mountain was that we would be going downhill all the way. Indeed, I had visions from some movies I have watched where people run down a mountain. I expected to run down the mountain with a hop, skip and jump, but that was far from it! We ascended 18 very steep hills during the 37 kilometer walk! One lesson I learned that day – the only way to go up a mountain is up, and the only way to go down a mountain is to go up!
At some point during the hike, as we walked through a forest, it began to rain. We walked through the rain for two and a half hours. Luckily we had the appropriate rain gear, but it was still unpleasant walking through the rain and the cold and the slippery forest surface. At some point during the rain, with legs tired, fingers frozen from the cold, my gloves wet from the rain, I called out to the lead guide that I was tired of the journey. I literally wanted to sit down and give up on walking. My feet were aching and they felt heavy. I was tired of what seemed like aimless and endless walking. I almost cried at that point. I tried hard to hold back the tears because as head of our climbing party, I did not want the rest of the team to see me crying and either laugh at me or be discouraged by me. I soldiered on through sheer force of will. I was no longer enjoying the walk, I was enduring it. I just wanted it to end!
The journey was not helped by the fact that the last descent to Tutum Cave Camp was perilous. We had to go down very slowly over moss covered boulders. They were very slippery and wet and so slowed our journey considerably.
I was glad to finally reach Tutum – our resting place for the night. By the time we arrived, our tents were already pitched. I drank a cup of tea, ate a sandwich and promtply went to bed. I did not have strength to eat supper. As I drifted off to sleep, I marveled at how we had walked for 11 hours and 30 minutes that day and still managed to arrive alive.