Wednesday 22 July 2015

The Mountains of the Mind

Lake Bujuku in the centre of the Ruwenzori
How a decision to try something different made a dream possible

I should never have taken up mountaineering, mainly because I was so bad at it. I’ve lost count of the crags and cliff’s I’ve fallen off, but remember the avalanches I’ve been in and the occasional long drop, such as falling headfirst down a Scottish gully after getting to within 10m of the top. 200 m later, I was dazed and confused at the bottom, with only a dodgy knee and a deep scar where an ice axe impaled itself.

It’s these precious moments that, as a friend said, “puts life into perspective”. But in 1990, I was a young climber, in the English Lake District, who had been all over the local rocks, started snow and ice climbing in Scotland and was taking the next step, that of progressing to the French and Swiss Alps.

There were a couple of problems. One was that I had a healthy concern for my own well-being that expressed itself as a wish to stay alive. This is a barrier to the heights of mountain climbing. Secondly, I was more interested in doing something different. After a weekend’s ice climbing, I was staying with a friend, who was a Himalayan expert. Our conversation moved onto the commercialisation of mountaineering and that it was harder to do any exploration. As I headed off to bed, I picked up a small guidebook to read, on the Ruwenzori mountains of Uganda. 

Published in 1972, it was recognised as a small but insanely complete guide to the 150km long range on the Congo/Uganda border. These fabled mist covered mountains have fascinated travelers for millennia. Around 500 BC the Greek poet Aeschylus wrote of " Egypt nurtured by the snows". Not to be outdone, Aristotle in 350BC, declared the source of the Nile to be " The Silver Mountain ".

An account of a journey to the Ruwenzori was written by the Syrian geographer Marinus of Tyre in 120 AD. He related the tale of a Greek merchant, Diogenes who claimed a 25 day journey inland from the African East coast to "two great lakes and the snowy range of mountains where the Nile draws it's twin sources." A few years later, in 150 AD, Ptolmey wrote of the Lunæs Montes, or Mountains of the Moon being the source of the Nile.

The mystery began to clear after the mountains were sighted, in the far distance, by Henry Morton Stanley in 1876, who took a brief respite from savagely beating his porters, to name them after his boss, the editor of the New York Herald, Mr Gordon Bennett, whose lifestyle and editorial flair turned his name into a British slang term for ‘I don’t believe it’. Sadly, the 5,107m high main summit has been renamed to Mount Stanley.

The more I read, the more intrigued I was. however, looking at the remoteness and other factors, such as a conflict going on in the area, I realised this was a journey I was never going to make.

Then I stopped. Why would I never go there? What was stopping me? I quickly realised that the main thing stopping me was... myself. So I decided to go. To make the trip happen, there were several steps, so I tackled them. 

Finding a climbing partner was easy. I take pride that many of my friends were up for climbing through a jungle to scramble over glaciers on the equator. The biggest issue was information. The guidebook had been out of print for many years, but I tracked down a second hand copy from the original publisher, who only sold me the book after I had assured him that I was actually going there. Maps were more difficult. I found a 1:150,000 map, that seemed to be alarmingly vague.

Money was a problem, so we booked the cheapest flight to Nairobi and jumped on a bus to the Uganda  border and another to Kampala and another to Kasese in the foothills of the mountains.

The warm and misty atmosphere also meant that anything living grew to outlandish size. Earthworms were 3 or 4 cm thick and the heather grew to the size of trees. As we entered the centre of the high peaks, we were already higher than Mont Blanc but were still having to cut our way through jungle.

It was a hard trek into the Bigo bog, under the main summits. This was because the range is also known as the Mountains of the Mist, and the bog turned out to be very bigo indeed. We spent days jumping from tuft to tuft to make progress. 

Eventually we got on the rocky slopes and then the glacier, until we climbed above the mist to the summit.

Since then, I’ve never told myself that I can’t do something. I’m also going to return to the Ruwenzori. I’ve had an idea for a journey that has never been done. Want to come along?

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