Mountains of Mud
In ancient times, a Greek merchant claimed to have located the source of the Nile at a snow-capped mountain range in East Africa called “the Mountains of the Moon.” Some people claim the Rwenzori mountains, along the border of Uganda and the DRC, are those Mountains of the Moon, even though the facts don’t really line up. What is certain is that these mountains, which mean “rainmaker” in the local language, are full of mud. The Rwenzoris are also home to some of Africa’s last remaining glaciers, and the continent’s third-highest mountain, Margherita Peak on Mt. Stanley. I think they are worth trekking through the mud for.
The Trek to Margherita Peak
I have a goal of doing a glacier climb on every continent. Margherita Peak is really the last mountain in Africa where the glaciers pose actual obstacles for climbing. We booked an 8-day Margherita Peak trek with Rwenzori Trekking Services. They are widely reputed to be the best operator on the mountain. The trek to Margherita Peak includes sleeping in huts, having porters carry your stuff, and having other people cook for you. Basically all you have to do is show up and walk. In mud.
Day 1: to Sine Camp
This was one of the prettiest days. We hiked through the village of Kilembe to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (Uganda’s version of the national park service) entrance point to pay our $35 per day per person fee to enter Rwenzori National Park. The credit card reader was out and the ranger didn’t like many of our US bills, so we had to pay our park fees in some of the Ugandan schillings we’d been saving to tip the porters and guides with. If you go to Uganda, get pristine US bills! I got about $800 out of the bank before I left and maybe only $400 was useable. People will generally not take dollars in Uganda if they have any marks, tears, folds, etc.
After stressing about money one last time, we headed up through the forest. As we ascended, it transitioned from jungle to cloud forest, and was very pretty. It also began to rain. My umbrella with rain pants did a decent job of keeping me dry without overheating. The mud wasn’t bad yet, so we were still in our trail runners. There was a nice covered table where we could eat lunch.
Sine Camp was the nicest camp of the whole trek. There was a covered porch with a picnic table where we ate our meals, a larger dining hut with a covered porch, and indoor lighting and battery charging. The food was good, with large portions. Lots of vegetables in addition to carbs and meat. I don’t normally eat meat, but since I can’t eat cheese it seemed necessary to get some protein.
We witnessed a rescue from one of the higher camps- 15 or so porters carrying a guy down in a litter. Apparently he had severe AMS so they were trying to get him down as quickly as possible. It was raining so hard that it seemed like he was in danger of drowning in the litter. I hadn’t yet experienced the difficult parts of the trail, but later wondered how they had gotten the litter down ladders and wet rocky waterfalls.
Day 2: to Mutinda Camp
This day probably had the most show-stopping scenery of the whole trek. We started the day in rubber boots, although the mud wouldn’t really start until the afternoon. The bamboo zone started directly above Sine Camp, with really pretty flowers. The bamboo zone was short and the environment quickly transitioned to the heather zone. We reached 10,000 feet around 10:30am. The air felt thinner, and I had to walk slower. I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance about having altitude symptoms while below treeline.
We entered a magical Tolkein-esque moss land of waterfalls and orchids and mossy heather trees. Eventually this started to transition to more open country with giant lobelias and giant groundsels, and we spotted our first red dika. The red dika is a cute little deer I once saw in a zoo and never thought I’d see in the wild. Jack and Bernard were both very knowledgeable about the plants and animals, although they mostly knew the Latin names for plants so I had to look up some of the common names later.
The heather zone began with boardwalks, but eventually transitioned to trudging through mud we would learn so well. The guides tried to show us where to step. Even though we were wearing rubber boots, if we stepped in a deep spot the mud would go over the top of our boots. I saw one porter who’d attached gaiters to the top of his rubber boots.
Mutinda Camp was less posh- no chargers or lights in our hut, and we ate in a dining tent. They told us it was cold because it was in a hollow next to a creek. We told ourselves we would be warmer the following night.
Day 3- Mutinda Lookout and Bugata Camp
We hiked up Mutinda Lookout that morning, from which we had pretty good views. I should have asked about hiking the lookout the night before, since we got a later start than was ideal with that much hiking. Going up to Mutinda lookout (13,159 feet) was our first experience of vertical mud and wet rock. Our guides told us that RTS has to replace the ladders every season because they rot. Even though it was a relatively easy hike, I was glad to summit something just in case the rest of the trip did not go as planned.
After the lookout, the mud began in earnest. The only breaks from the mud were when we descended and ascended wet rocks when we basically hiked in the creek, and the occasional boardwalk (“like a vacation”) in the words of my friend.
Bugata Camp sits on a rock outcropping at about 13,300 feet. I was experiencing some nausea from the altitude sickness when we arrived, but managed to not throw up. We could charge our devices in the dining hut. We learned that tarped huts are warmer than wooden huts, but the upper bunks in the hut are colder than the lower ones because there’s an opening near the top of the door. The upper bunks are also not quite high enough, so you hit your head on it a lot when getting in and out of a lower bunk or taking layers off. This is also where I realized that my 16-year-old 15 degree sleeping bag is no longer a 15 degree sleeping bag. We told ourselves it would be warmer or at least not colder at the next camp, which would be at a slightly (200 feet) lower elevation.
Day 4: Weisman Peak and Hunwick’s Camp
This was probably the hardest day of the trek. We climbed Weisman Peak (15,157 feet), which involved possibly more bushwacking than normal, although the whole trail seemed like a bushwack at this point anyway. I learned that rubber boots work reasonably well for both rock scrambling and snow.
My friend had a terrible headache and wanted to descend Weisman as quickly as possible, but was hindered by my lack of coordination, which requires me to take deliberate steps when descending in steep mud so I don’t fall over and hurt myself. Bernard, one of our guides, would take my poles and hold them in his hands while walking face-out on ladders hands free (basically walking down them as if they were stairs), while I carefully climbed down them face in. I also had an altitude headache, and every step down created a jolt in the back of my head. It started to rain when we were about a third of the way down, which only added to our misery. This was probably the worst mud day of the trip.
After we descended to Hunwick’s, my friend realized that her headache was not getting better, had not gotten better the day before, and was likely a migraine triggered by altitude instead of an altitude headache. It did feel better after she took migraine drugs, but this just meant her migraines would continue to be triggered while we were at altitude, and would not be helped by going up. I hung out in the dining hut with a jolly German who talked about “going back to real Africa, where it’s warm.” This was the night we started sleeping with hot water bottles.
My left foot completely cramped up after I sat for awhile and I had to limp around camp using a trekking pole as a cane. My friend massaged it, I took some ibprofen, and by the time I went to bed it was fine. I think it was likely from overgripping in the rubber boots as we descended.
Day 5: to Margherita Camp
The trail to Margherita Peak started out with descending mud, then crossing a boardwalk and walking across more mud in a narrow valley. In the middle of the mud section, we came across the dilapidated Kitandara Hut, which is supposedly maintained by Rwenzori Mountaineering Services. They didn’t appear to be running trips when we were there. Their Central Circuit route is supposed to be slightly easier than the Kilembe route we did, but RMS has a terrible reputation and RTS seems to have taken all of their business.
After Kitandara, the trail went uphill and we eventually reached actual dry trail. Unfortunately it ended when we had to cross a boulder field in the rain. After I fell (no injuries), the guides took my poles away so I could use my hands for balance and one of the guides spotted me and helped me across the wet rocks. I am not sure how the porters do this day in and out with more weight and still go faster than us.
At Margherita Camp, we got outfitted with harnesses and ice axes and made sure our crampons fit our boots. One of our guides, Jack, demonstrated how to use an ascender, and we had an opportunity to practice. I could tell my friend was not feeling well, but she was a good sport and practiced anyway.
This was the coldest camp, and not just from altitude. We were in a wooden hut instead of a tarped one and there seemed to be cold air drafting in everywhere.
Day 6: Margherita and Albert Peak, Return to Hunwick’s
My friend decided not to go for the summit at 1am, since her migraine had gotten worse and she hadn’t slept for multiple nights in a row. So it was just me, with two guides. I drank a cup of Ugandan tea with some local Rwenzori honey and started up at 2am. Younger me would have been upset with all of the help I got, but older me realized this was the most technical climbing I’ve ever done at that altitude. I was fine with having someone help me with my ascender and show me where to put my feet on wet rock at 15,000 feet. My lungs were not doing great with the altitude, even after taking my maintenance inhaler multiple days in a row, and I’m seriously considering taking diamox the next time I spend extended time above 13,000 feet.
The climb started with rock scrambling/use of ascender up, then switched to snow/rock mix. We put our crampons on and it seemed like we were on a glacier but it was dark and foggy so hard to tell. Then it was back on rock, with crampons still on. First scrambling up, then Jack lowering me down. Then up a steep glacier. I had to take more frequent breaks to breathe, and Bernard urged me to slow down. Eventually I found a snail’s pace that allowed me to keep moving, and the guides were great at matching my pace exactly.
We ended up summitting Margherita Peak right as the sun rose. It only took us 4 hours and 13 minutes, including breaks. The guides estimated 7-8 hours, and they had been spot on with previous time estimates, so I was shocked I had beaten that by so many hours. I felt like I had been the slowest person ever. They said they were surprised by how fast I’d been. Apparently Jack took a longer break than planned before the summit block just to slow us down so we didn’t summit before the sun came up. It does go fast when you’re following guides who know the route!
The summit was windy, but we managed to shelter behind one of the signs after taking the obligatory summit photos. Since we had so much time, I asked if we could climb Albert. Albert is a subsidiary peak of Mt Stanley on the DRC side of the border. They had mentioned it as an option during our pre-trip briefing. They said it would be an additional $150 US, which sounded like a cheap trip to the DRC.
For Albert, we scrambled down snow and rock to a saddle between the peaks, and then up to Mt. Albert. This was a craggy peak and I was happy to follow someone else on the scrambling. They also lowered me down some of the steep sections on the descent. The worst part about Albert was that we had to summit Margherita Peak again to descend.
By the time we started going down the skies had cleared and it was really pretty. We had in fact crossed two glaciers on the ascent, and were now descending them. On the first one, I had a huge grin on my face, thinking, “this is so cool, I’m on a glacier in Africa!” Then on the second glacier I was sad, thinking “this is the last time I’m going to be on a glacier in Africa.” 🙁
The descent took about 3 and a half hours. The glaciers were faster to go down than up, but most of the rock sections took about the same since they were up and down. I almost bonked, but we took a longish break when it was crampon removal time and I was able to refuel. I was wheezing anytime we had to do the least bit of uphill, and had to take my albuterol on the descent.
Upon returning to camp, I tried to eat some of the food they’d given me for the climb. I was proud of myself for eating an apple and some cookies, when the cook, Joshua, dropped some fried plaintains on my plate. I picked at those, and when I felt like I’d eaten enough to not be rude, I got up to leave. Then Joshua came over with a rolex. A rolex is a basically an omelet rolled in some chapati bread. Since eggs and bread together always sound good, it was something I’d been wanting to try. But my appetite had been suppressed the entire time we’d been above 13,000, and I only made it through about half the rolex, then was concerned about throwing up.
We descended back to Hunwick’s. It of course rained when we were on the wet boulders and in the mud.
Day 7: Descend to Kitaro Camp
We hiked through mud, up over Bamwanjara Pass, descended to Bugata camp for lunch, and then finally passed below 13,000 feet as we descended through mud and a wet waterfall to reach Kitaro Camp (I’ve also seen/heard it spelled/pronounced Kiharo Camp and Kikaro Camp).
The views into the DRC as we went up to Bamwanjara Pass, and the rocky sections going down to Bugata camp were quite nice, but the rest of it was pretty bad mud. The guides told us that the Margherita climb is actually easier from the DRC side- only 5 days instead of 8- but there’s no one with the know-how to run the trips over there and the current violence makes it a no-go zone anyway right now.
We came across another client who lives in West Africa and needed duct tape because their cheap pants tore down the entire thigh. I just gave them all of the rest of my gear tape, since there wasn’t much left anyway. My appetite was still pretty suppressed at Kikaro Camp (11,300 feet). A fool-proof weight loss plan is to stay above 10,000 feet for a week and engage in strenuous exercise while you’re at it.
Day 8: Hike Out
We hiked past a series of waterfalls on our way back into the forest zone. I originally thought there would be more mud in the forest, but there’s enough leaf litter that it kind of sops up the wetness in the dirt, and the leaves stop the water from hitting the forest floor directly. The area above treeline has no such protection. We were able to switch back into our trail runners at lunch. The porters were stopping at the same place we were, so we had access to our bags. The rest of the trail was quite pleasant, down trail that you didn’t have to think about to walk on and through pretty forest. We saw a troop of blue monkeys, which made me happy because I stayed at the Blue Monkey guesthouse in Entebbe and I wanted to see them in the wild.
When we reached the Rwenzori Backpackers’ Hostel in Kilembe, I handed over the schillings we’d counted out for the tip. The amount we each put in came to about 20% of the trip cost for each of us. We left it to the guides to distribute the tips among the porters while we awkwardly unpacked. I personally thanked the porter who had carried my bag throughout, and I also gave him a poncho I don’t particularly want or need. This was my first time using porters. I hoped we were doing it as ethically as possible, but still felt awkward about it.
RTS puts together a really good operation, and I highly recommend them for anyone going trekking in the Rwenzoris. The guides were knowledgeable and professional. The rest of the staff was also professional and helpful, although we didn’t interact with them as much. RTS has gone out of their way to recruit poachers to work as porters. Animals like the red dika are coming back as a result. This is a place where I felt like my tourist dollars were making a positive difference, as opposed to contributing to an overuse problem. However, we agreed that the ideal number of days to trek, if you aren’t climbing, is four. It gives you enough time to see all the different ecosystems but less time in the mud.
My achilles was generally ok throughout the trek, which surprised me. The crampons-on-rock scrambling on summit day seemed to make it a little sore on the descent, but I didn’t have any lingering ill effects. I was happy to have my Bottle Roller cozy on my nalgene for rolling my calves and quads, though.