Monday, 8 February 2016

16 Jan 16, Climbing Mt Stanley, Ruenzori Mountains, Uganda - Day 6 Margerita Camp to Mt Margerita Summit (5109m) to Hunwick Camp, 17 Hours

16 Jan 16 Day 6 - Margerita Camp (4485) to Hunwick Camp (3974), 10.4 km, 17 hours

We were woken by one of our guides at 0200 and groggily got dressed. Breakfast was porridge, and eggs on toast and knowing we had a long day ahead I stuffed myself, despite not really being hungry. Everyone was concerned about the cold. I poked my head out of the door and it didn’t seem cold so I went with my normal Merino hiking top, a 260 weight Merino top and my Rain Jacket. For my legs it was some lightweight Merino thermal pants and my lightweight wet weather trousers. I wore my normal merino hiking socks with my hiking boots, 2 layers of gloves and my windproof thin hat. I attached my torch to my helmet, attached my ice axe to my pack using a modified holder and crampons wrapped in cardboard into a side pocket. Then harness and helmet on, walking sticks in hand and I was ready to go. 

We gathered outside the hut and were away - almost. Just before we were leaving I remembered I hadn’t taken anything for altitude headache prevention, despite having no headache I remembered from Kilimanjaro that I was likely to suffer slightly higher up and it was better to take something now while I was warm and not tired. I took one Panadol and one ibuprofen and either this worked or I had no altitude issues as I didn’t experience even the slightest headache all day.

I quickly caught up to everyone and we made our way up the rocks by torchlight. It was very slow going as Anne Marie was struggling, especially where we had to take large steps up, which was most of the walk. We climbed steeply up the rocks for nearly an hour when we reached the base camp for the other guiding company operating on the mountain. Shortly after this was the first of the rope sections. Our guides attached Jumars (metal attachments that can go smoothly up ropes but not down) to the ropes and clients to the Jumars and people made their way up. While it was not vertical, for people who had not done rock climbing, at night, by torchlight, it was a good challenge. As the guides were aware of my experience they didn’t clip me into a Jumar. I did suggest giving me a prussic as I did not know what it was going to be like but instead they just clipped me into the rope with a carabiner which was not the safest practice. However it was an easy scramble up. We went up one steep section, then switched to ropes to move sideways before climbing another steep section. Then it was off ropes and the slope eased slightly though was still a good climb. Despite the frequent stopping I was at a good temperature and was glad I had decided not to go with a down jacket under my raincoat. Many of the others had to stop to readjust their clothes as they were getting too hot. I guess it is experience to be happy to start slightly cold knowing you will warm up quickly rather than having to stop after 10 minutes to remove layers.

Heading up the mountain by torchlight
The pace continued to be frustratingly slow with lots of stops. Yesterday we had suggested to the guides that Anne Marie start earlier than us and we catch up to her just before the first glacier so we would not be stopping so much. I had been concerned about the cold with stopping all the time. The guides would not consider it and insisted we stay together hence having to leave an hour earlier than they normally would and going so slow. I felt sorry for her to be suffering so much and relieved it was not me. To her credit she was determined and continued to push herself onwards despite being so tired. Looking back down I could see the lights of the other company starting their climb.

Eventually the guides split the group just short of the glacier so we could be getting ready when she caught up to us. We continued on at a faster speed and 10 minutes later were at the first glacier, Stanley Glacier. We attached crampons, prepared ice axes and the guides prepared the ropes. As this was the first time for the others in crampons I gave some advice on how to walk with them and how to carry and use the Ice Axe and switch which hand it was in so it stayed on the uphill side and how to use it to self arrest. I had expected last night when we were given the gear to be given a lesson but this did not happen. It also appeared that nothing was going to be said now either hence me giving advice. Enok heard me and then decided to tell the others who were slightly around the corner how to walk with legs wider apart from usual but nothing else. Definitely an area that can be improved by the company.

We had been briefed that we were going to rope up in two ropes of 4; 1 guide and 3 clients, so I was surprised when they put all of us on one rope, once again not great practice. They did take my experience into account and put me in the middle to help them out if something happened.

We clambered up the high step from the rocks to the glacier and climbed steeply up the glacier for 10 meters then it flattened out. This was pretty scary for those who had never done this before, straight onto a steep slope on ice. Thankfully everyone did well and made it up the steep bit okay. We then walked on a gentle slope and I called ahead to the person in front and behind to help them get the rope tension right and keep their feet further apart so they didn’t trip on their crampons. When there are glaciers you do not want the rope too loose as if someone falls it gives more time for them to build up speed as they fall which makes it harder to stop.

Thankfully the crossing was uneventful and no big crevices encountered. We descended steeply and dropped back onto the rocks. Now the ritual was reversed as we unclipped from the rope, crampons off and ice axe attached back to the packs. As I knew this would take a while I made the most of the opportunity to go around the corner to go to the toilet and was disappointed at the human waste and used toilet paper all over the place.  Better education about packing out waste would be good to prevent this sort of thing, or build a toilet in what is an obvious stopping place.

While waiting I had a snack of my Scroggin (nuts and dried fruit) and water to try and keep my energy up. We then headed around a small hill and then dropped steeply with ropes fixed to lower ourselves down. The guides had decided to keep us split in two groups so we were now moving at a good speed. Once down the steep bits we then started climbing again up a dry stream bed to the base of Margherita Glacier. We arrived at 0700, 4 hours after starting. Here we put all of our climbing gear back on ready to start on the glacier.

Putting on Crampons to tackle Margherita Glacier.
When we were about to leave Anne Marie and Enok caught up and she told us she was turning back as she did not want to hold us up any more and was feeling really tired. After some discussion it was decided that Enok would escort her back to camp and we would continue on. I was pleased with her decision from a selfish perspective as it would have taken a long time to get to the top with her but I really empathised with her. It is actually very brave to make the decision to turn back when you have committed so much to get to this point. Having been in her situation many years ago when trying to climb a peak in Nepal I knew exactly what she was feeling. There is no way to really understand the effects of altitude without experiencing it. Your body reacts in different ways but the most common effects are headache, nausea and the hardest is the absolute fatigue. When I was climbing the mountain in Nepal I would take a step, pause for a minute and take another step. The pause between steps got longer and when I was up to 5 minutes resting in between taking steps I made the decision to turn back. The other frustrating thing about altitude is it is random who is affected. In Nepal I was the fittest and youngest in the group but worst affected.

We were now 1 guide, 5 clients and another guide who had no experience on snow so was effectively now another client. Once again I was in the middle of the rope to help out if someone slipped. There was a large gap between the glacier and the rocks so it was a difficult step onto the ice and then a steep sidle up to a flatter bit. This lasted 20 meters and then we were at the steep bit. The guide went up first and then belayed us up, without placing any protection (ice screw to attach a rope to)! It was more a comfort to the others rather than any real protection. If one person slipped there is no way he could hold a rope of 5 people with no protection placed. We made our way up slowly and the South Africans did an excellent job adjusting to walking in crampons up such a steep slope. I actually found the guide annoying as he was trying to pull people up the slope. Once I was approaching him he almost pulled me off balance by trying to pull me up the rest of the way. We continued to climb up the glacier by repeating this with the guide going up then pulling us up once he was in a stable position. Unfortunately the stopping at the top while he then pulled the rest up and moved to a new location was pretty cold and a freezing wind got worse as we left the shelter of the cliffs. On the way up we had to step over many small crevices but none were more than 20 cm across, though looking into them they were deep.

Introduction to Glaciers

Disappearing up into the mist

Freezing cold at the belay points

Getting used to the steep slopes

Nearly vertical climbing

Williams the guide going ahead to find a belay point

Slope starting to ease off as we get near the glacier.

Looking down - way way down!

Nearly at the plateau - loving it.

After nearly two hours of this we reached the plateau where the slope eased off and there was more snow than ice underfoot. We did not need belaying so we just walked together with the guide leaving marks in the snow to tell us where to be careful crossing a crevice or to go around. We could now see 
the rocks where the final scramble to the summit is but the mist was still hiding the summit.

The weather started clearing and we were now walking on crisp white snow under a deep blue sky with views back down the mountain to a lake. While the slope had eased it was still climbing and we made our way up with frequent stops to rest and take photos. 

On the plateau. The peak is on the right
Getting excited, end is nearly in sight.
Avoiding the large, deep, cravasse

Clearing weather, the top is just out of sight

Williams, Gerald and Nichola

Taking a breather

Nearly to the Ice Falls
After 45 minutes we reached the base of the ice falls which were spectacular, sparkling in the sun with deadly looking icicles poised above us. We walked under the ice falls and back onto rock. Now it was crampons off and a final rope climb up steep rock and then a climb up through loose rock to reach the summit at 5109 meters. I was still feeling strong and had not suffered any effects of altitude on this climb, for which I was very relieved. We reached the summit at 1000 so it had taken us 7 hours to walk the 3.6 km and climb 624 meters.

Ice Falls

Final rope climb
The rest of the team
With Williams and Ochura
After many photos by the summit sign I walked behind the sign to stand with my feet in both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I joked that I should just head down the mountain into DR Congo for a quick return back to my temporary home in Goma. In hindsight this may have been easier than the walk back to the Hostel.
We sat drinking the fruit juice the guides had carried up feeling pretty happy with ourselves. While I had been excited when I reached the summit of Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro I felt more satisfaction on this peak. Given how hard it was to get here I felt I had truly earned the privilege to be sitting on top of a mountain looking down at the world. It was also pretty strange looking down at the glaciers we had crossed remembering how close I was to the equator, an area associated more with extreme heat than glaciers and snow. Unfortunately the Glaciers of the Rwenzori Mountains were melting at a rapid rate and it will not be many years before they are completely gone.

Stanley Glacier top left, Margherita Glacier centre.

Panorama of Margherita Glacier. 
Reluctantly we left our position at the top of the world (really just third highest in Africa but still pretty impressive) and started the long descent. Back down the ropes, crampons back on, under the ice falls and down the glacier with the mist starting to come back. 

When we reached the end of the glacier we saw the other company’s group. They were going really slowly but in good spirits, especially when we said how close they were. We waited until they were through and then the guide put in some ice screws to belay us down the hill properly. His placement was lovely with two screws and a sling for the belay and another screw for the Belayer to attach securely. We walked down the hill all attached with William the guide lowering us down. It was very awkward being restricted in the speed we could descend and balance was also hard as we would be stopped in the middle of a step. Everyone made it safely and gained a secure position before William descended himself. He set up another lovely belay point but then I watched and saw that he wasn’t actually using it as he started lowering people down. He did not clip himself in to protection and was not using any form of friction device on the carabiner he attached the rope to, replying on his hand strength. Also as people passed him he had to reattach the rope past their connection and instead of reattaching and then releasing the original attachment he took the rope completely off the belay system leaving people below completely unsecured. I was appalled at this technique. The company I was using had a good reputation for the standard of their guides training. I know William had recently transferred from the other company who had received bad reviews for their guides techniques, obviously he had not received the upgraded training as his safety practices were dangerous. If one person fell he may be able to hold them but he had all of us on one rope so the chances were if one person fell he would take others with him and with no friction device there is no way to hold 6 people on one rope, especially when I was the only one who knew how to self arrest. I would have preferred to be off the rope but decided to stay on and watch for any fall and self arrest to help hold them.
I could see the person in front of me was not steady and twice they fell but I saw it happening and was braced to hold them as the fell. I continued to find it difficult to walk when being so restricted by the rope being so tight and this made one crevice crossing really difficult. It required a step down and over the crevice. I was about to step down when the person in front sped up and nearly tipped me over. I braced and tugged on the rope to get them to look back and asked them to stop and asked the person behind to stop so I could do the crossing without being tugged. I then made sure that the people behind me were also given some freedom to get over the crevice without pressure.

Williams showing Ochura how to put in Ice Screw belay point.
Going down was harder than going up
Nichola about to cross one of the little crevaces
Nearly at the bottom.
Glacier end
Removing crampons again.
We reached the bottom of the crevice nearly 2 hours after leaving the summit. Now we were back into the routine of crampons off and after a quick break we headed back down the hill. Now it was daylight we could see the ladder which used to be the route to the glacier last year that was now over 20 meters higher up the hill. I was horrified at the speed the glacier was shrinking.

Once down to the access point it was back up the rocks with the rope to help us and around the hill to the next Glacier. 
Heading down from the glacier
Looking back up to the peak (right of the top of the glacier
Coming down from the mountain but still climbing.
I must have been getting tired by now as I looked ahead and saw what looked like a grass field with tyre tracks on it and fresh snow. This was actually the glacier that had a yellowish green folour in the top few centimeters of the ice. For the final time we put our crampons back on and climbed up and over the glacier. This glacier had black stuff on it that looked like fungus. Waiting at the bottom were some of our porters so we were able to give them our crampons and ice axes and descend with lighter packs. It was also a relief to take the harness off for the first time since leaving the hut.

Green/Yellow colour of glacier looking like dry grass with light snow overtop at Stanley Glacier
Climbing onto Stanley Glacier

Looking back at the mountain we just climbed.
I was surprised how steep the track descended down the rocks, now I could see where we were going. The roped section was steep but we were happy to just hold on, rather than connecting to Jumars. We quickly reached Margherita Camp and were happy to be back.

Rock hopping

Heading down through the rocks.

Looking down on our camp
Anne Marie was waiting for us and was really encouraging at us having reached the summit. It is a testament to her personality and caring nature that there was no resentment evident as we arrived, beaming from our achievement. There were also some guys who were going to be doing the climb the next day who I spoke to for a while.

After changing out of our thermal clothes Err, Gerald and Anne Marie decided to leave, to the consternation of the guides who were expecting us to stay there a bit longer. They sent one guide with them but Matt, Nichola and myself decided to wait to have lunch before heading down. Lunch was a toasted sandwich and I could only finish half. After saying goodbye to William who was staying to guide the next group up the mountain we started down at a fast pace, catching the others not far down after the saddle. 
Back in view of the lake. Last photo taken before exhaustion set in beside the lake.
We then slowed the pace and walked together though Err was starting to struggle up the hills so we would walk ahead and then catch him up. We had one hill to climb up and then knew it was downhill all the way until just short of the camp.

We kept a good pace and I was feeling good until just after we got to the lake and then I ran out of juice. I had been walking for 16 1/2 hours and just hit the wall, feeling good one minute and then exhausted the next. I slowed down and the little uphills suddenly became really hard. Err had already dropped back and insisted we continue on and I slowly started to drop behind as well. Nichola stopped to wait for Err so I passed her continuing on slowly. I was starting to feel nauseous and eventually had to give some nutrients to the bushes beside the track, which relieved the nausea slightly. Just as I was charmingly donating my lunch to the bushes Err and Nichola caught up and we walked together for a while. Thankfully we were close to camp and only had to cross a bog before getting to the final climb of the day which normally would not have been a problem but now was harder than climbing the mountain. I was stopping to rest frequently but stubbonly plugged my way up the steep hill, donating the last of my lunch, snacks and breakfast to the bushes at regular intervals. Finally I spotted the toilet and after a quick detour there made the final push to the hut. I arrived at 1700 which was 17 hours after starting out this morning. When I arrived I just sat there for several minutes absolutely wiped out. Eventually I gathered enough energy to set out my sleeping bag and tried to have a cup of tea but my stomach did not want to accept this so after a quick Wet Wipe wash I crawled into my sleeping bag and was asleep very quickly. Not long after the others went to bed I had a sudden attack of nausea and desperately fought to get out of my sleeping bag and out the door, hoping I didn’t see anyone as I was in my underwear and gumboots, not a sight you want to see. I then thankfully slept through the night.


  1. Wow, you guys reminded me my last visit to northern areas of Pakistan, it was one hell of experience. Always good to see people having interest in hiking such hilly areas

  2. Its great content which you have posted here. Its very motivational for me. Thank you very much for sharing this post with us. webstagram

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