The Mountains of the Moon

“Rwenzoris” means rainmaker in Uganda’s local Bakonzo language, and the name is apt. With an average of 350 days of rain a year in the country’s western Kasese District, it is a soggy, boggy place, and it contained two of our seven summits: Mount Stanley and Mount Speke. Beyond East Africa, however, the Rwenzoris are known by a different name: Mountains of the Moon. At least that’s how Ptolemy and the majority of 2nd Century Greek and Roman geographers referred to them. At the time, the range, which contains mysterious peaks that only a few non-Africans had ever seen, was theorized—and eventually proven—to be the source of the Nile River. On ancient maps, the mountains are a jagged line across the center of Africa.

Just outside of downtown Kasese at Hotel Margherita, a 1950s throwback that could serve as a Stanley Kubrick backdrop, we got our first taste for the “mystical challenge” the locals refer to when they talk about trekking the mountains. Jessica marveled at how close the stars felt. “I don’t think those are stars,” Patrick said. “I think that’s a village on the foothills of the mountain.” Sure enough, morning revealed a steep incline across from us peppered with small houses and farm fields. Above the ridgeline were clouds that would periodically part to reveal a tree, or a ridge, or some other solid thing that had no place floating. This was where we were headed.

In the morning, we loaded into Land Cruisers with all of our gear and drove to the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS) offices. We had been told that the guides in the Rwenzoris were skilled but under-visited, partially as a result of the fighting that ravaged Western Uganda in recent history. The RMS compound didn’t seem like much when we pulled in: Just a few buildings, the biggest of which we were invited into. We sat in a horseshoe of couches as six men walked in. The one in slacks and a pressed shirt started talking to us in a manner that felt a touch officious, but we eventually learned was the standard for public address in this region: “Ladies and Gentlemen!” (Reminder, there are only nine of us.) “I am pleased to welcome you to our community and to our mountain!” (The exclamation points are accurate, I assure you.) “We are here to introduce you to your experience and your guides. As you are a group of professionals, we will give you the best guides. I introduce them, now, to you!” (The guides, standing directly behind him, gamely stepped forward as introduced). “Cyprus! Isaiah! Herbert! Dennis! And Philemon!”

Patrick felt like the fellowship of the ring from the Lord of the Rings had just been announced. Jessica wouldn’t know what that means because she doesn’t do fantasy. Regardless, they were impressed. After a quick introduction to the route we would be trekking, the guides led the group outside where it seemed the whole village was queued up to watch as our bags were loaded into white sacks. We learned later that RMS is the whole village. The mountaineering company is actually akin to a co-op, owned and operated by some 1,600 locals living in and around the area, including members from the bordering Congo. Those lined up on the street were RMS men hoping to be selected as porters on our trip, but whether or not they came along, much of what we invested in our adventure would filter back to the locals through the health clinic, schools, and scholarships RMS returns to the community.

With porters selected, guides ready, and gear triple checked, we began our walk into Rwenzori National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and home of Africa’s highest mountain range. All we could see from the outset were the ridges around us, but they were more than enough to occupy our senses: Among numerous other unique attributes, the Rwenzoris are known for their five vegetation zones, ranging from tropical rainforest to glaciers.

Within a 100 yards of the park’s gate, the gigantic wild banana plants and tree ferns had us grasping for something to compare our surroundings too. Everything is big, green, and beautiful. There is too much variety to even comprehend. It’s like if every plant you had ever seen in your life was gathered into one garden and grown on steroids. And the weird thing is, with all that life going on, you expect it to be a bit stinky, possibly unpleasant with insects . . . but other than a few buggy moments, the forest was so pleasant! Some sections of trail were even overpowered by the scent of flowers.

Before long we were walking along the roaring rapids of the Bujuku river, a torrent fringed by rainforest. We ascended over a few hours and a thousand feet to a ridge that would take us to our first camp, as we walked a strange hooting and screeching erupted from the far ridgeline: A family of wild chimps was either having an argument or calling alarms that there were other strange primates in the woods. Though we had experienced mountain gorillas at this point of the trip, the experience of being called out by our closest relative in the wild was exhilarating.

Then our guides said it was time to stop for our packed lunches. But our group was restless, eager to make it to camp, and one of the less patient folk started to say duende duende! Swahili for “Let’s go!” The guides raised eyebrows, but quietly threw their bags on and led us out of shelter.

Without warning, clouds quickly began to surge up the valley below us and a low single crack of thunder echoed all around where we stood. “I know this is terrible,” Patrick said, “but the only thing I can think of right now is how my only comparison to this experience is eating at the Rainforest Café in the Mall of America.” (A rainforest-themed restaurant that features frequent thunderstorms.) While Jessica was laughing, our guide Philemon turned around and said, ominously, “Do you have rain gear?”

“Yes!” we replied, laughing at such a silly question.

“You need to put it on, now.” And then we were all soaked by a torrential downpour while trying to pull on our Gore-Tex. Lesson learned: If the guides don’t want to go, there’s probably a good reason, and it probably starts with “rain.” But we were very near to camp and after a four-hour walk, the Nyabitabe Camp hut we stayed in was cozy, dry, and festive. We knew the next eight-hour day was supposed to be the hardest. However, the clouds broke for a sundowner, which cast a beautiful alpine glow on the Portal Peaks, the first summits trekkers reach in the Rwenzoris, which had only just appeared above us. Everyone was out with cameras, joking, and trying to get the best shot. It seemed the shy mountain might let us in without complaint.

The next morning began well, too. It was dry as we started our long hike, which was fortunate because we had been told we’d be crossing countless rock piles that were treacherous in wet conditions. We a and a collective ascent of some 3,000 feet ahead of us, so we progressed at a steady pace. Until it started to rain. And rain. And rain.   

The rest of the day consisted of one of our hardest Africa mountaineering pushes yet. Up and down piles of slick rocks and muddy, muddy, muddy slopes crisscrossed with logs and roots and bowls of more mud. Between slipping all over the place, we continued to progress upwards through the vegetation zones moving from one wild landscape to the next. The trek was strikingly beautiful, but through the mist of rain and mud that literally covered our pants up to our knees, it was hard to really appreciate the moment. When we finally made it to camp, Jessica turned and said, “This is the worst thing I have ever done in my life.”

Patrick, at this point, has learned to parse certain phrases Jessica uses to find the truth between the words. At this point, he knows “This is the worst” often means: If I have to walk another day in the mud, I’m going to strangle someone. A reasonable response. But there was something different in her voice. Normally Jess can grind out miles forever, whether or not she enjoys the quality of the trail. But she just seemed beat as we talked outside of the John Maate hut. Wedging ourselves into the little wooden building, Jessica pulled out her sleeping bag, tucked in, and passed out before dinner was served.

One element of responsible climbing is monitoring your vital signs. Every evening and morning our team mountain guide, Ake, checks everyone’s heart rate, blood oxygen content, and runs through a list of questions about sleep, digestion, and anything else that might indicate a bigger problem. Any of these indicators could help you to realize you’re suffering from high altitude sickness, a potentially deadly condition, especially when climbing in remote ranges like the Rwenzoris. When Patrick mentioned his concern for Jess’s health to Ake, he said that her heart rate was abnormally elevated.

“She could be fighting a bug. It’s hard to say. Should we just see how she is in the morning?”

Which is what we did, though in hindsight, it might have been a sign that Jess did not want to eat the rousing breakfast of pancakes and bananas. But she wanted to give it another go, so we continued upward, moving into the ominous “bog” zone. Over the following eight hours in the misty rain, we jumped, slid, and skittered across water and mud puddles that sometime held our weight and sometimes completely gave way, leaving more than one of our party waist-deep in muck. Though RMS had built an impressive number of wooden boardwalks to minimize the challenge of traversing bogs at 12,000 feet, it was still a ridiculously trying day. Like playing hopscotch over a mudslide. At one point, Patrick tried to go his own way near a beautiful small, still lake, and guide Nelson, who was helping Jessica jump from one grass tussock to another, said “You follow us or you disappear.” With this, he plunged his walking stick six feet into a mud hole—it showed no sign of stopping.

“Duly noted.”

We made it to Bujuku hut just before another major deluge and settled into the cozy hut. Once the rain cleared, our group made its way onto the porch and collectively gasped when we found the clouds had lifted from the valley we were in, revealing the lake in its center, surrounded by heath-covered hillsides that arched up into severe slopes of rocky scree, all capped by three impressive peaks: Mt. Baker, Mt. Stanley, and Mt. Speke. We’ve been to the Rockies, the Alps, Patagonia, and elsewhere, but these mountains felt entirely different: For one thing, we were nearly on the equator and there were glaciers hanging over us and snow falling just a little ways up the slope. And the lakes and plants and birds above 13,000 feet were so different from any other mountain environment we’ve ever experienced. Though the Rwenzoris are shy, and they punish you for invading their privacy with buckets of rain, they will eventually reward you with amazing views and dynamic ecosystems.

Once the light finally faded, we crowded into the hut’s dinner area to eat and get briefed on the following day’s activity, which was to summit Mt. Speke. But after dinner, Jessica’s health took a turn for the worse: Searing stomach cramps. We’ll spare you the details, but when someone is in so much pain that they can barely move, you take notice. It was decided that Jessica would obviously not go up Mt. Speke, and Patrick would stay behind with another teammate, fellow American Gabi, to monitor Jessica’s condition.

The rest of the team left before dawn for what turned out to be a successful summit assault, while “Team America” hung out at the hut all day. Jessica’s stomach cramps came and went. That evening, Ake, Patrick, and the guides conferred about the best course of action. It turned out that five teammates had reported varying levels of stomach cramps, so it was loosely agreed that Jessica had gotten the worst of some sort of a stomach bug. If Jessica was better in the morning, we’d all advance together to the next hut, Elena, at some 16,000 feet, from where the team would attempt to top Mt. Stanley. If not, Jess and Patrick would wait at the current hut with a radio, and give Jess the day to recover.

But Jess was doubled over with cramps the next morning, so Patrick, Ake, and guide Herbert made the final call: Jess and Patrick would go down with guide Philemon, and the rest of the team would proceed on to Elena. It’s hard to describe the disappointment of not being able to summit, but it’s easy to value your life and the life of the person you love over the abstract goal of standing on a pile of rocks. An hour after everyone left, Jessica crawled out of bed and said, “I want to go down, now.” So Philimon, Patrick, and three young porters split up her gear and began the descent. The Rwenzoris were kind and gave us dry weather to proceed, but the intestinal evil attacking Jessica was not: Within 20 minutes of leaving Bujuku camp she stooped over, then sat, then looked up at Patrick. Her face was pale white and the amount of pain she was in was more than obvious.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” she said through tears. “I really don’t feel well. And I’m so scared.”

“We can go back and wait until you feel better,” Patrick responded, not really knowing if there were any other options. Philemon looked on with an expression that communicated something less than confidence.

“There’s no way I can go back to that place,” she replied, leaving little doubt for the plan. We continued. As we walked, Patrick watched as Jess frequently doubled over, sometimes even whimpering as Philemon helped her to overcome bigger obstacles, like huge rocks she had to climb up over and descend back down. Patrick knew they had a satellite communication system if they needed to call for an evacuation, but he also knew that, because of altitude and cloud cover, it is almost impossible to get a helicopter evacuation anywhere near their location. Jess would have to make it. If she didn’t, it would likely mean carrying her over torturous terrain for two days at the least.

What is a summit? Literally, it’s a peak we reach while mountaineering. But it’s also a symbol of intense effort and perseverance. We did not get to summit Mt. Stanley or Mt. Speke, but we did climb to 13,000 feet, and then Jessica descended the entirety with a crippling stomach bug. So while we had to miss the literal summits four and five, there’s no question that Jessica put in double the effort and perseverance necessary to summit both peaks many times over. And in the department of anxiety load, Patrick may have cleared 20,000 feet. The important thing is: We were both safe and sound at the base after two days of descent.

There are so many more stories the Rwenzoris gave us–the rogue Belgians! the mountain gods! the roof rodents!–but we must end it here tonight. We're recovering from a successful and hard Mt. Meru summit and packing for Mt. Kilimanjaro (!!!) as we speak and we want to make sure we can send you a successful report upon our return! Until next time . . .