By Laker Winfred L
Our climb to the Promised land was an estimate of 3.8km and could have taken anything from 6 hours onwards. The distance from Irene Lakes to the peak, you should know, is shorter with less rope manenos compared the Camp Elena route. So we were in luck!
Our ETA at the peak was 2pm. Don’t fool yourself; we didn’t get there at that time! If the weather was friendly, they said we would stay at the peak from 15 to 20 minutes give or take; this happened.
Advise to work as an expedition team was drummed into us as the hands of a traditional bul drummer would hit the village drum when calling for an urgent clan meeting. Ni since we had decided to come for the trip as a team, competing against each other would expose us to unexpected circumstances like accidents. They even mentioned landing in something called a crevice!
You know how some people “bees” carried away by the urge to win? They discouraged us from those; from feeding that sort of spirit. So I said to myself “Aaaaaaa ku. Mot mot ocero munu poto. I will be slow but sure. I will crawl to the top ka odoko rach” If push came to shove, I would wobble up if I had to.
“No medals but certificates are going to be given at the end” they drummed some more. It was more like saying “Calm down, drop your urban-lugezigezi here in one of these 2 dark minuscule lakes and enjoy the experience. Y’all can get them back on your way down the mountain”. Okay, I just added the urban-lugegezi thing for effect.
The use of crampons and other tools never used in my life before were mentioned too. The things would definitely slow us down given that some of us had not used them before. I don’t think anyone on our team had used them anyways, except for the tour guides.
And of course the usual “listen to your guides” sermon was preached. They promised that new vocabularies would be added to our word collection as soon as we reached the snowline. Imagine they hoarded these words for the next day! Letting me know some new things would have reduced ko on the tension in my belly as I went to bed that night.
It was also predicted that coming back to Irene Lakes was expected to be easy except for some participants. Yes, they called us participants….like we used to be called in those pre-pandemic workshops where you sat all day listening to a consultant and ate mandazis and sumbusas while sipping tea from tiny cups every evening, until you traveled back to your upcountry nook.
We were certainly going to have some knee problems. Yeah, the tour guides are fine Prophets of knee issues too!
Also, the downward journey to Omuihembe was calculated on the Rwenzori calc and found to be an approximation of 4 hours; all factors remaining constant.
Now when people say “all factors remaining constant” just know your plans are already in shambles. Your expectations are being managed by sugar layering it with 4 words like those scientists who eurekad that sucrose lining over quinine. Thing is still bitter on the inside FYI, much as it fights malaria.
The guides made us believe that on our way back we would merely beep Irene Lakes, kiss it good-bye, and be on our merry way down to Omuihembe. No. Rwenzori is no place that takes beeps or merry ways.
Heck, I don’t even remember blowing a nice tired sayonara kiss at this beast of a beauty when I reached the UWA main gate on my way back. All I was thinking about was a long hot nice shower, no darn sleeping bag, and a night with my limbs scattered all over a bed!
Ok, back to the real story!
By bedtime on the eve of summit day, not only was I scared sick but I was feeling weak, my appetite a whack, and my mood a thin fragile existence ready to snap.
Sleep was hard to come by. I was anxious. I was tense. It was cold. It was scary. It was dark!
That night we entered our sleeping bags already dressed up for the summit. If going to bed in our shoes was a possibility I would have done so. I just wanted to save every ounce of my energy!
You can imagine the discomfort of trying to sleep in all those layers of clothing. I felt like some sad piece of ringo turkey restricted by-not-so-green-veggies and rolled up into a bad moody sandwich.
Like that wasn’t bad enough, my enemies, if there are any, had worked hard that night to take revenge on me and my sleep. Whatever libations they threw to their gods that night, they must have done it while crawling backwards; their ashy pale bottoms upward, chests to the ground, and heads stiffly tilted to the side; because it did work.
Nino orweny calo cente De la Rue! Sleep eluded me like money when you need it the most! I couldn’t sleep. I mean how do you sleep when you are all wrapped up like a human sandwich anyways?
But God is a Good God. He made the haters of my peaceful sleep fall backwards and I finally got sleep. It was this sweet-sweet sleep; the kind you don’t want to be disturbed because it took long a cajole for it to come.
And so it was, that when I found my spot on the mattress, the sleeping bag finally agreeing with my Mucwini limbs, and I was about to start cozying up with the arms of warmth that the alarm went off. It was time to wake up! Damn!
It was 2:30am and breakfast was ready. I think I may have cursed or something before wrangling myself out of the sleeping bag, and tent to go brush my teeth. Yes, that one I did faithfully but not the showers. Nobody takes baths in the mountains!
I put on my first pair of socks, added on those big light green buveeras on each foot. You know, the kind your Mama Mbooga gives you when you have bought a big cluster of bogoya, eggplants, buuga, and sukumawiki from her stall and she is in quite a chirpy mood. Yes, those polythene bags. I then wore another pair of socks on top, and pushed my feet into my hiking boots.
I took a while to get out of the tent, all the while muttering cursings at the shoes, socks, the cold, and nothing in particular. I was feeling weak and my appetite was gone! Again, the enemies of my progress wouldn’t let me prosper with food as well and had succeeded in keeping my appetite hostage at Omuihembe camp.
I lagged behind with breakfast. The Chef thought I wasn’t going to eat. I somehow struggled and managed to get the cold millet porridge down my belly. The rest jammed, much as I tried.
So in the midst of the dark early morning of 2nd March 2021, wrapped in layers of warm clothing, headlamps perched on our foreheads, armed with ice axes, crampons, harnesses around our waists and thighs, our day packs, hydration bladders, and our courage, we set off for one of the greatest and craziest things I have done in my life.
Twas dark dark dark! The kind of dark that would make you run away from your own wucu wucu sound before anything else. I believe the mzungu calls it pitch dark. We put ourselves into the solid reason for going to the mountains and walked on; in a single file towards our dream, to Margherita.
All I could see were the lights from the person ahead; William, who kept on darting about like an excited rabbit buck; and making everything else look like a breeze playfully tagging at the clouds on the side of the mountain. Those guides aren’t human! Hehe!
He would hurriedly go well ahead of us, then rap something fast in Rukonzo to Herbert the guide behind me, then the rest of guides would talk fast some more, and we would be told to follow in a certain direction.
We kept doing this routine for a while. Deep within I knew it was a brilliant idea moving at this time of the night because no sane person would go up these rocks in the brightness of the day.
We walked past the sign going to the summit point from Camp Elena. Apparently it is not so close to summit point from where we had come.
We continued up the mountain in the dark for some more time. I remember going over rocks, some slippery, and some not so slippery and using my headlamp to sometimes see what I was walking over.
At some point we reached an incline. After one of the hikers at the front took a while to get up a boulder because it was one heck of a climb, ropes are introduced. We finally got to know what the harnesses we had been carrying for the past days were for! Heeeeiiii!
This point of the ropes was new. My very first mountain rope encounter. Very testing moment. I wished at this point that I had gone to Muyenga to do some practice on rock climbing using the ropes before bringing my round forehead to these mountains!
This rope thing ojone, you would reach that ka part where you are suspended in space and have to trust the guide behind you and the one above. Those people we see on TV lied. That thing is not as easy as the one we see them do in movies!
We eventually let go of the ropes. Ok, we successfully went over that annoying boulder using the ropes and walked a little more.
Along the way, before we took a break, I slid, lost balance and was headed for a backward fall, but in a split second the guide above had grabbed my hand and the one behind had held my jacket from below.
When I was helped up, I asked for a minute. I just sat there, on the rock I had been hoisted onto. That is when I really wanted to cry, ate cry in Acholi not those things of crying in leb-munu! I wanted to wail in real mother tongue not English!
For the first time I wanted to end my hike here and go back home to safety; to my normal routine and old ways!
As I tried to muster the courage to let the words out, I looked at William who was up with me and Herbert who was down below.
Herbert’s expression was a very clear “Don’t you dare” while William’s was “Don’t you even think about it. Not today Ma’am. Hapana!” I wasn’t hurt. Heck I didn’t even fall! It was fright playing its card very smartly!
We had been told that William had joked with the previous group that after going past the junction coming through from Elena, if someone said they wanted to go back at that point, he would get odoo and just tengo kom whoever it was for balo cawa pa dano.
I used the minute I asked for not to catch my breath but rather to rethink my life choices, question my state of mind on my decision to go to the mountain and asked God to let me summit without falling off in the space below.
I got up and fixed my attitude. I mean what sense would it have made to head back after reaching here anyways? I would never have forgiven myself considering I wasn’t even injured. It was just fear rearing its ugly head in my business.
After my sad attempt at being melodramatic, we set off. We walked some more and then took a break and had time to gain some strength, drink from our hydration bladders, do susu, and then continued on.
We reached the snow line eventually. The snow! Turns out you don’t have to go to outside countries to the far lands of the Mzungu to experience snow! All you have to do is get your bottom to Rwenzori!
Because it was the dry season, it was more of ice at the beginning than snow or glaciers if you like. The view ahead of us was all grey, mist filled, and icy.
We were split into two groups and told we would be joined to each other by rope. We were also finally shown what the use of the ice axes were and the new words finally mentioned!
We wore the crampons and as we struggled to balance and walk on them, we were shown how to use them. Papa the tour guide and total expert showed us how it’s done!
He was there stepping on the ice with this vigor like a supple 18 year old yet the guy is 60 something! He did it in this rapid intense dance-like thing on the glacier and several tiny splinters of ice were scattering around his feet as a result. If skating were a thing in the Rwenzoris, Papa would be the forever champion in Uganda! See how we have missed gold medals?! Hmmmm.
After the crampons were properly secured to our hiking shoes, we got connected from one person to the other using rope. I was in the last group and second last from behind.
Now, the crampons are no easy thing. It cramps your pace! Digging into the ice with them are not a simple thing.
In the snow however, though not easy was interesting. As we walked on, I kept feeling like I was walking on this layer of frozen sugar crystals and with every step in the snow I would hear this slow crunchy sound coming from my feet up to my ears. The mountain was making me hear things. Strange things.
I was struggling at this point. When we came upon our first crevice, all I could see was something like a crack the gods had left on the icy grounds as they played sword or as they were fighting wars to save our lands from great evil.
I tried to look down naye all I could see was an endless pit of ice. I delicately placed my Luo foot one after the other and continued on. The last thing I wanted was falling into a crevice and getting sliced by those sharp icy needle like things below!
We went past some more crevices as my tired feet sank into lots of snow and sometimes walked unsurely on the glaciers. We kept yelling “crevice” every time we saw one so that the person right behind you would be made aware and relay the same message to the person after them. We also were asked to say “Zero” in case we wanted a break. And boy did I take many of those of zero breaks! Eeeeissssh!
During a zero moment, we were advised to rest in a lunge position but not just stand there fwaa like you are waiting for a taxi at your village stage.
We eventually reached a point and we were asked to wear our snow glasses. It was super bright. Funny how one minute we were in this gray space of snow and ice and then suddenly it was super bright! The sun was up and it was crazy bright. It was white all over and after some distance we reached a space where above us was bare rock after bare rock.
After going past a space that had a dangerously deep crevice on the side, we reached a spot that had a rock plate pushed up high to the right and a nasty looking steep slope ahead to the left.
We climbed a little along the rock plate and were told to be ready to ditch the crampons.
When Herbert asked me to move a little down towards the slope, I imagined myself just sliding downwards to my earthly end at this tender age and told him I wasn’t comfortable. So I was made to climb a little up and move towards the team ahead of us in some space between rocks.
We all collected ourselves in this space between the rocks and left our crampons and ice axes behind as we continued to more rope!
This time the rope thing was even more insane ojone! There was William in front telling you to trust him and pull the one side of the rope from him and not try to swing your legs towards the rocks for support while Herbert was pulling the other side from behind you down. And this time it was in broad day light! Yesu!
I was constantly worried about the strength of the rope as they kept saying “Very good. No, don’t try stepping on the rocks. No no no no! Do like this. Yes! Ok pull the one on your hand. Ok release the red rope. Release. It is ok! You wont fall!” Trust is tested to the core here!
Boy was I glad when I was done with the rope business!
There was some more climbing, just a little more. We got a little higher, walked a little more while complaining about how we were not reaching and then sauntering ahead we saw it! The summit point! There it was! That beautiful white sign post with those bright blue letters on was right there in the bright bright afternoon!
It was 12:30pm! We were panting but did a mad rush for the sign post amidst a keyboard of victory shouts! And we got there! First, second, third, and I lost count once I get myself up there!
It’s beautiful! It’s bright! It’s epic! The sun is up! Bits of snow are on the 4 sign posts. The other side is Congo they say. We are excited! We are exhausted! We are exhilarated! We are breathing hard! We are shouting amidst the winds! We are above the clouds; literally, metaphorically!
We are champions! Our lives wont be the same! We and Margherita are marked for life!
Down the peak I saw planes of snow all around and the rest were bright beautiful white clouds beckoning the winds into a raspy flow against the humanoids that had just rose up to the skies at Margherita!
Nothing can explain the feeling! No amount of words can. We took pictures and cheered our last warrior who had gotten injured along the way onwards.
She joined us! We absorbed the moment, the air, the view, and the victory!
There were tears of joy! Tears of victory! Tears of achievement! Tears of just tears!
This is the moment I expected to cry but the tears bailed on me. I was surprised I was not crying. Instead I was numb to the core!
15 to 20 minutes later we started back down. This time sliding down pretty much to where we had left our crampons and other day trek belongings. We did more ropes backwards and the whole thing was not as dramatic as it was going up.
We got back to the crampons, the ropes and more ropes then the snow. The trip down to the snowline was not fun. I lost my cool several times. The icy terrain was not an exciting experience for me.
I wasn’t moving in sync with the hikers I was sharing rope with. And I was pissed about this. I felt like I was being dragged downwards. Speed ne onongo dok tek tutwal. It felt like we were dancing to one Bob Marley reggae song except the people at the front were dancing Lingala moves and me, I was doing slow dance; those squeeze things to the song. In the process I snapped at the one person who was trying to show me the easiest way to get down! When I arrived down at Irene Lakes I had to apologize!
We reached the snowline eventually and I was happy there were no crampons.
Finally I could walk like a normal person and not a pretend penguin in Uganda! I was also tired of walking like a mugole as Herbert had advised to walk on the snow. If walking down the isle is like that, then me I will do mine dancing or running. I just need to convince Min Laker.
We found the chefs and the other guides that didn’t go with us to the peak waiting for us at the snowline.
The walk back to Irene Lakes had a lot of hand holding and literally sliding down the rocks on 5WD or sliding down using your bottom while engaging all your four limbs if you like.
We reached camp eventually, spent, but a bouquet of achievers! We all summited! All 8 of us! Epic!
We spent the night at Irene Lakes. We could not proceed to Omuihembe as earlier planned. The Rwenzori calc had messed up the numbers! It did not have battery!
So, day 4 was the culmination of it all; the challenge, the beauty, the mysticism, the summit. Nothing prepares you for that experience! It’s when you get there that it strikes you.
I felt different. I was not the same person that had gone up hours ago! Neither was I the person that had left Kampala days before! I was a true summiter!
That night, as the Rwenzori gods brought back my zizz crystals from my supposed enemies and sleep started to sneak up on me, turning my eyelids into this heavy form, it finally dawned on me why Rwenzori is a hidden treasure and a mystical challenge.
You had to give it your strength, courage and emotions for you to enjoy its beauty. You had to allow it to level up with you; else poteya just! No courage no summit! That’s it!