The words “Equatorial Africa “ will call a lot of images and ideas to a person’s mind, but glaciers and mountaineering are probably not among them. However, Uganda is home to one of Africa’s most tall, challenging, and historically important mountain ranges. Jutting thousands of feet out of the dense, surrounding rainforest, the Ruwenzori mountain range forms a massive wall separating Uganda from the D.R. Congo. Despite its hot and humid surroundings, Mt. Stanley’s Margherita Peak, the tallest in the range, is capped by a glacier and receives light snowfall on most days. Due to the area’s tropical humidity, the peaks are shrouded in misty clouds nearly all day every day, giving them a thoroughly mysterious and mystical feel.
Like the mountains themselves, their exploration history is shrouded in mystery. While people have been living in the area since prehistoric times, it is unknown when the first outside explorers reached them. One of the earliest historical mentions of the Ruwenzoris came in 150 AD, when Ptolemy described them as the “Mountains of the Moon” and speculated that they were a source of the Nile. This turned out to be true, as their snowmelt drains into Lake Victoria. The first recorded Europeans to have reached them were famous African explorer Henry Morton Stanley and his team (thus the name of the range’s tallest mountain). However, it took another 17 years for someone to reach the summit of Mt. Stanley.
The climb itself is very fun, but also very difficult. You will need to be in good physical condition to complete it. The journey takes six or seven days, depending on how well you acclimatize, and will bring you through diverse terrain ranging from rainforest to high-altitude bogs and lobelia forests. Because these mountains are so jagged and rise so high above their surroundings, the trip requires relentlessly steep hiking over rough terrain. January to early March is the best time to go, as it is the driest time of year in the Ruwenzoris. We were very lucky and only had rain for a single day, but much of the hike was still very muddy. Most guides recommend that you bring rubber boots to hike in. The trek will often require you to alternate between slogging through mud and scrambling over boulders and rock faces in your slippery boots. The summit itself is also a strenuous affair. As with most mountains, the summit bid begins before dawn. It alternates between Class 4 rock scrambles (hard, but no technical climbing) and glacier crossings. The final glacier crossing, which brings you to the foot of the summit, has steep sections that require the use of a mountain axe and hopping over small crevasses, so it has your full and undivided attention. However, if you reach the summit during clear weather, the view of western Uganda and North Kivu in the DRC is extremely rewarding.
I climbed Mt. Stanley a few weeks ago as part of a larger African mountaineering project. I am climbing Africa’s “Big Five”, or five tallest, mountains to raise money for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. If you are interested in the project and want to continue to learn more about African mountaineering, I write a blog dedicated to it for the fundraiser. You can find it on the project’s website here.