My Rwenzori Story: Day 5 – Margherita!

During the review meeting on the night of Day 4, the guides told us we would wake up at 3:00 a.m. to have breakfast and then start the hike to the peak by 4:00 a.m. That evening we ate supper early and some of us slept in the clothes we were going to wear the following day. We went to bed by about 8:00 p.m.

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Climbing boots fitted with crampons

The next morning we were woken up by Jacob our chef, bringing us our compulsory oats porridge. He also brought us our lunch for that day which consisted of a boiled egg, small packet of biscuits and a chocolate bar. We were finally ready for the hike at 4:30 a.m. and we set out with either head lamps or torches in hand. The air was cold, the night was dark, but the night sky was lovely! There were stars everywhere! The sight was picturesque! We did a brief descent from Elena Hut and then started a very steep climb through a ravine. The walk was slow, partly because of the time of day, but also because of the strain of climbing so steep. At some point, to enable us navigate the steepness, there was a rope. It looked like it suddenly appeared before us out of nowhere. We were told to grab onto the rope to hoist ourselves up. I was scared because I was not sure that the rope could hold all of us. I was afraid that maybe the boulder around which the rope was tied could easily become undone. The rope felt slippery as I tried to grab with my gloved hands. I decided that I as safer grabbing a hold of the rope with my bare hands, so I took my gloves off. We used the rope for about 5 to 7 minutes and by that time my fingers were freezing! At the same time though, I was thankful for the cover of darkness. I think I would otherwise have been frightened by the sight if I had been able to look all the way down from where we had climbed.

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Philemon

We walked in silence, each person engrossed in their own thoughts. We arrived at the first glacier just as the sun was beginning to peep over the horizon. We stopped to have our crampons fitted onto our boots. We also wore our harnesses. The guides demonstrated how to use the crampons to get a good grip while walking on the glacier. One had to walk with a stomping motion to enable the crampon clamp into the glacier. It looked easy enough – doing it was a whole other thing! We were divided into two groups and then roped together in those two groups. At the head of each group was a guide and we were to follow the guide as we walked up the glacier. The first glacier wasn’t too bad. The walk was up a gentle hill and then downwards towards a rocky area where we stopped to take off the crampons.

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Me in the foreground with Johnson our guide

Once again we climbed up some steep rocks and then we started a steep descent, where we had to let ourselves down by way of rope and ladder. The rope and ladder were a creation of and were named after our lead guide Philemon! Again I marveled at the level of skill and leadership on display deep in the mountain. Philemon, who has been a guide for well over 10 years, has so mastered the mountain, that he innovated a way to help ease the climb for hikers. I thought to myself that if ever there was a Ugandan deserving of a national medal, Philemon was surely that person! The original climb to Margherita has, over the years, been rendered impassible, and so Philemon devised another route to the peak and through his innovation, many hikers have been able to make their way to Margherita. I think this is the kind of leadership and innovation on which our country thrives, and yet, it sadly goes unnoticed and uncelebrated.

After making our way down Philemon’s Rope and Philemon’s Ladder, we climbed another steep ravine until we came to the second glacier. This one is much longer and much steeper and is mostly covered with snow. We stopped at the bottom of the glacier and once again had our crampons fitted. We were roped together in two groups and then we started the steep ascent. Just as we started up the glacier, one of my crampons gave way, so Johnson, one of our other guides stopped to help me re-do them. We were instructed to yell “Zero” if at any point during the climb we needed to stop. We would all stop and proceed only after we had received the instruction to do so. When you are roped together, you can only walk in front of each other in one long line and so there was often quite a distance between climbers who were roped together.

The climb up that glacier was long, slow and laborious! It was made precarious by the various crevices we encountered along the way. Some of the crevices are deep and quite dangerous. As each person encountered a crevice, they shouted down to the person below them to enable them avoid the crevice. The walk on the snow and ice was the longest I have ever done. The day was quite cloudy and the visibility was so poor to the extent that at some points, the cloud cover would not enable you see the person behind you, or the person in front of you. You just had to trust that because you were still roped together, all of you were present and therefore fine. Every once in a while, the thick cloud cover would lift, but only momentarily and just enough for you to see that you still had a long way to walk.

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Penny

This was the part of the mountain that tested me the most. I panted a lot and fought to breathe because of the thin air. My nose ran so much, at some point I just gave up blowing my nose altogether so that I could concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. I wanted to give up and go back down to Elena. I asked myself what point I was trying to prove by climbing the Rwenzori. I tried praying and quoting scripture to get me through. I tried thinking happy thoughts – like – we were doing this climb for the benefit of charity. I tried visualizing myself at the end of the day, asleep on my bed. I tried counting to 100 and lost count along the way. I was cold and frustrated. I wondered why people even like snow. Where was the fun in all this? This was just one cold, long misery, in the middle of nowhere. I wondered again what had possessed me to climb Rwenzori! I kept asking the guide if we were anywhere near being done with the snow and glacier and he kept re-assuring me that we were almost done. One hour later and I would ask, and he would give the same re-assurance. After some time, I stopped speaking to him. I didn’t want to know how much longer we had to climb. I just wanted it over with. Getting to the peak was no longer a goal for me. I just wanted to get off this mountain as fast as I could!

After what seemed like a half century, we finally made it through the snow and glacier. We came to a stop at the foot of another steep section of the mountain. Here again, we found another rope. I was quickly getting tired of ropes. Because of the slippery nature of my gloves, I had to take them off each time we encountered rope, in order to enable me get a firmer grip. And of course each time I took my gloves off, my fingers literally froze! We hoisted ourselves up on the rope and came to a final resting place a few meters below the peak.

We had been warned by our guide that because the last stretch to the peak was very steep, we would have to climb that section like goats – using all fours! I was not amused. I did not relish climbing like a goat. At that point I hated all goats and vowed to even stop eating goat meat. I was just fed up and cold!

We waited for the rest of the team to join us. We rested for about 30 minutes. My brother was totally tired at this point and said he would not make it to the top. We all encouraged him to climb the last bit. The peak was so near! We finally gathered our energy for the final ascent. Tired and haggard, we inched our way to the top. Joy got there first at about 2: 28 p.m. and I followed closely at about 2:31 p.m. As she took pictures of me at the peak, she tried to get me to smile, but I was totally beaten – physically, mentally and emotionally. I was too tired to even look around. I wished that a helicopter could come fetch me and take me back down the mountain. The victory of getting to the top was dampened by the thought of the descent. I was glad for the moment at the peak. I had worked hard to get to this moment. But I just wanted it to be over and done with.

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All six of us at Margherita

We took pictures at the peak – as a team, as individuals and then we braced ourselves for the descent back down the rocks, back down the snow and glacier, back down those treacherous ravines. The descent, which we started at about 3:00 p.m., was even slower and more painful than the ascent. I slid down part of the glacier and was scared that I would fall off the mountain. My brother had several near misses on the glacier as his crampons came undone. It was fast becoming dark and it was getting colder. We were shivering. We were tired. We were in the middle of nowhere.

We finally got back to Elena camp at 1:20 a.m. We had to spend one more cold and bath-less night at Elena Hut. Mercifully for us, Jacob our chef had prepared some tea for us on arrival and we also had some food. We quickly had a change in plans and agreed to sleep a bit longer the next day, walk to Kitandara Camp, rest and then on the 7th day, make our way to the base camp all in one go.

As I settled into my sleeping bag that night, I could not believe the day was over. I could not believe I had finally made it to Margherita and back. Those who said Rwenzori was a hard climb were totally, 100% right. I was glad that I came, I saw and I conquered the mighty Rwenzori. I was glad that this victory would forever be etched in my history. I was glad that I had a story to tell, not just to my children, but my children’s children, God willing. I was glad to have walked with my 5 climbing mates. I was glad that all of us had made it to the top. I was glad just to be alive.

And I slept off……

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