After we crossed back into Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo, we were driven two hours to Sabinyo Silverback Lodge, nestled in the foothills of the DRC border mountains Sabinyo, Bisoke, and, our goal: Karisimbi. Had we known what was coming, we would have reveled in the lodge’s amenities more fully—our villa had a fireplace, huge bathtub, coffee and biscuits served with our wakeup call, and a personal attendant, Ernest, whose accent made him seem incredulous no matter the subject. But our only warning for the coming climb was that Karisimbi’s trail might require some light bushwhacking, so we slept, ate, and wondered what the summit of mountain number two might hold for us.
Once we finished a press conference with a good portion of the Rwandan press corps, we were off. We started in a small village on the edge of Volcanoes National Park, made famous by gorilla researcher Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver played her in Gorillas in the Mist, for those of you sleeping during your environmental studies seminar). Ake, one of two professional mountaineers on our trip, filmed our departure with his drone, which brought every child within a mile running to accompany us to the forests’ edge. Emanuel, our local guide who grew up on the mountain, with Fossey known to him and his friends as the “white lady who acts like a man,” led the children in a chant of “Ka-ri-sim-biiiii! Our Moun-taaaaain!” Listening to him instill a sense of pride in the kids was both inspiring and very cute.
The sun gave us a false sense of optimism for what was in store as we progressed onto a grass path between fields of potatoes and Pyrethrum (a white flowered plant used to develop organic pesticide across Rwanda). The complexity of Rwandan history is far too tangled to tackle in a blog post, but from a superficial vantage point one thing is easy to report: The country is stunningly beautiful. Agriculture, communities, and wilderness all intersect seamlessly with every square inch of lush green land growing something for people or animals to eat and live. The closest we could come to describing it is an equatorial Ireland crossed with rural Guatemala, a living vision for the hippy Permaculture lessons Patrick learned in his holier-than-though Environmentalist days.
Forty minutes later, the path led to a buffalo fence (to keep the Cape Buffalo from rampaging in the potato fields) and into the forest. From a lifetime of Hollywood movies set in assorted jungles, one knows what to expect from the rainforest: Vines, loud insects, carnivorous animals, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. And yet somehow we were still surprised to find the one thing these forests are named for: Rain and evidence of rain (creeks and pools). From here, our hike to camp for the next five hours became a cross between hopscotch and hurdles where missteps were punished by an ankle-deep plunge into mud. We quickly became adept at identifying the grass tussocks that would hold our weight and tapping our hiking poles into the mud to uncover rocks we could to use like stepping stones. Our slow pace gave us ample time to ponder two questions: Why in the hell had we been told to leave our mud boots back at the hotel in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, and was there a time in modern history that this trail had been used by anything but buffalo?
But we pressed on. There were vines. There were loud insects. There was lots of rain, water, and mud. And, while Schwarzenegger did not make a showing, we were treated to an escort by Rwanda’s military. Emanuel assured us that the elephants, gorillas, and buffalo known to frequent the area were kind, but could be aggressive, hence the guard.
As our elevation increased, so did the rain and cold wind. Jess’s feet were freezing and Patrick had run out of encouraging jokes. What had been laughable was getting grim and dark, literally. We both breathed a sigh of relief when we saw the sleeping shelter materialize from the evening dusk. Closer inspection, however, revealed more of a Christmas manger look-a-like, complete with straw bedding. Quickly it became clear that this shelter had not been used in a long time and that the porters confused about how to set up the tents, nor had they thrown plastic over the sleeping pads during the rain.
Having spent plenty of nights in deer camp with bats swooping overhead and a dangerous amount of wood smoke in the air, Patrick was ready to bed down and get through the night. However, Jessica, who had lost feeling in her feet a few miles back, was not happy. That said, when our alarms went off at 3:30 a.m., she rolled over and said with a scowl: “We came this far, right? Let’s do it. Ugh.” We threw our gear on and started the ascent.
Climbing by headlamp reduces the world to the few square feet ahead of you, turning the mountain into individual obstacles. Our lights shone mostly on tree roots that formed a sort of ladder upward, with buckets of mud cradled between them. In our early morning daze, we managed to push up and up and up, with Dio, a porter who had taken a shine to Jessica the previous day, helping her over the hard sections that Patrick identified by tripping over into pools of water.
Though the sun rose, thick clouds clung to the mountainside. Lobellias—a Dr. Seuss-looking tree—came and went in the mist and we deepened our breathing as the air became thinner. Eventually shrubs gave way to a crushed-rock slope interspersed with large portions of volcanic rock. The wind picked up, such that our gear didn’t feel warm enough for the conditions. Though we did what we could to mitigate the situation, Jessica’s body temperature wasn’t headed in the right direction. Ake insisted she stop in the rain to put to put on an extra down layer and made her sip some hot water he had in a Thermos. Because our limbs felt like icicles, he told us to slap her hands together and stamp our feet on the ground as we upped our pace.
And then, three hours later, there it was, a summit with a sign that helpfully informed us to “mind the weather conditions because it might quickly become too cold or too windy.” If the clouds had cleared, at 14,786 feet, we could have seen all the way to Mount Nyiragongo and the huts we had slept in just nights before, but as it was, we could barely see ten feet in front of us and we were freezing cold. After a few quick photos, we hustled back toward the trail and began our descent.
It didn’t take long for the wind to die down, our temperatures to return to normal, and our summit concerns to fade. Once we returned to tree line, however, the same challenges from our ascent were trebled by the physics of our bodies needing to progress downhill. And so we stumbled and tripped and sloshed our way down for another 11 hours, stopping for a moment at Fossey’s grave to show respect for a great woman, but acknowledging to one another quietly that we were over it and just wanted to get back to dry ground. Standing over her grave, however, it was hard to ignore how our two days on the mountain revealed how tough she must have been to survive two decades in this place, nearly singlehandedly saving the mountain gorilla from extinction.
By the time we returned to the fields of Pyrethrum and potatoes, the sun had returned and all felt normal once again, emphasizing how much a summit is a separate world. We didn’t emerge unscathed, however. From our knees down we were covered in mud and were mostly soaking wet elsewhere. We loaded into the truck to head back to Sabinyo Silverback Lodge, where at our arrival, the staff immediately descended upon us and commenced to tearing off our gaters, shoes, and any other muddy clothing we had on. The hostess grabbed Jessica and I specifically and ushered us towards our cabin. She must have seen something in our faces we couldn’t communicate and said, “You two just get in bed. We’ll bring dinner to you there.”
Thus ensued a relay race with Ernest delivering every single course by hand while Jessica showered and Patrick sat by the fire. At that point, the WiFi kicked in and our phones started to buzz with text messages. Patrick happened to glance at his phone and saw a message from Jess’s mother, Lisa, telling us that Jessica’s Grandpa Lewis had passed away. We had just visited with him before leaving Minnesota, and, in his old age, he had been strikingly aware, asking Jessica about her plans to climb mountains in Africa. Although his health had been deteriorating for some time, we both expected we would see him again after our return home at Christmas. Lying on the bed together, crying, it was hard not question our situation: Why are we here, so far from our families, on such a challenging expedition?
We called Lisa the second we could to ask what the plan was for Grandpa’s funeral. There wasn’t much to say specifically, it was more good just to hear a loved one’s voice. Lisa kept returning to how proud and excited she thought Grandpa was for Jess’s adventures in Africa, making it clear that coming home wasn’t something expected from us.
After the call, we turned the lights out and listened to the fire crackle and the sound of rain on the roof (more mud tomorrow, of course). Climbing mountains and travelling can feel like selfish, lonely work, even when your partner is along for the ride. You ask yourself again and again: Why are we here, and is it even worth it? Then you wake up, and look out over the valley and the sun is shining, the mountains look beautiful, and Ernest is shouting that your coffee is ready despite the fact you’re still in your underwear. You think about the fact that yes, the trails and Karisimbi need some work, but then you think about the way Ake broke down the economics of what would happen if the trail was fixed and the park developed in a sustainable way: By the time those kids that followed us en route to the park entrance are adults they could be collecting $1,000 per porter per week in income in a country that currently has an average annual income of $700. With the historical element of Fossey’s legacy, the endangered mountain gorilla population as well as forest elephants, buffalo, and tons of other wildlife, and the raw beauty of the place, there’s no question that the Rwanda Development Board could make an economically beneficial park a reality.
Following in our footsteps to Mount Karisimbi might not be for everybody, but you should definitely follow us to Rwanda, and definitely to Sabinyo Silverback Lodge. When we ventured down for breakfast in the morning, our boots and gaters were like new, the food was amazing, and the people couldn’t have been kinder. Come here during the dry season, walk the thousand hills, and most importantly meet the people: We promise you won’t regret it.