We were flying out of Uganda to Nairobi the next morning. Our plane left at 10:50 am. Jay got a text from a woman named Remmy who said she was coming to the hotel to give us our full money reimbursement based on orders from her boss, Jon Hunwick. We were shocked. We went to the hotel restaurant to get breakfast, and sure enough, Remmy showed up and gave us all of the money we had lost. She was very apologetic and kind about the whole matter. Once we got our money back, we were grateful and breathed a sigh of relief. We were seriously worried about how we were going to pay for the rest of our trip.
But there was no time to waste because we had to get to the airport. We thanked Remmy and ordered our Uber. Unfortunately, Kampala traffic was pretty bad. Plus, our Uber driver didn’t have any fuel, so we had to stop for him to get money and put gas in his car. After all of this, we were running very late. Just before we arrived at the airport, we had to wait in a long security checkpoint line. We actually had to get out of the car and go through a metal detector while our Uber driver followed behind us. When we arrived at the airport, we had 10 minutes before check-in for our flight was closed. But, the airport was very small – only 4 gates – so we got through immigration and security in a matter of minutes. Our flight also ended up being delayed so we had even more time. We flew to Nairobi on a tiny little prop plane which was interesting. They tried to sell us watches and duty free items while on the flight. We arrived in Kenya at around 1:00 pm and headed to the hotel.
Today we took the bus from Kasese back to Kampala. It was the same link bus that we rode down. Just like before, it was about 8 hours on a hot, crowded bus. When we finally arrived in Kampala, we were so ready to get off the bus. We grabbed our bags and navigated the incredibly crowded streets of Kampala to our hotel. We were pretty exhausted from everything we had just been through, so we grabbed a quick dinner at the hotel restaurant. Then we decided to celebrate with some bakery treats. We found a bakery nearby and bought some cakes to have back at the hotel. The next day we leave Uganda and head to Nairobi, Kenya for our safari.
We still had t heard anything from the Ugandan police about our theft case, but Brian from RTS had given us the WhatsApp number for the owner of the Rwenzori Trekking Company (RTS). His name was Jon Hunwick and he lived in Kampala. Brian said he had been talking with Jon, and we decided it would be a good idea to tell him what happened from our point of view. So during the bus ride, Jay was texting him. At first, he was very apologetic and offered to pay us half of what we lost. We thought this wasn’t 100% right because it was their company that screwed up and now we were essentially taking partial blame for being robbed. When we didn’t whole-heartedly accept Jon’s offer of 50% of our losses, Jon started playing hardball. He accused us of not having any common sense when we left our money-belts at the hostel, told us we were to blame, and said that we are stealing money from the poor Ugandans. When we reminded him that we were the victims in this situation, and it was his employee who broke protocol and did not log and lock our money in the safe, he stopped texting. So we decided we would leave it up to the courts.
We ended up staying in Kasese an extra day because we had to go back to the police station the next day and provide our official statements. The RTS van picked us up a little before 11:00 am and took us back to the police station. We met the Officer in Charge of the Station again who was now in uniform where she had been in plain clothes the day before. She took us to meet the OC CID who was the Officer in Charge of the Criminal Investigation Department. We gave our official statements while the OC CID hand wrote them. Jay gave his first and then I gave my statement as his witness. It took a long time, but finally, we had officially filed our statements. They were hand written, hole-punched, and tied together with a purple piece of yarn and that was the document that was taken to the higher court. We were told that it would take several days to hear back from the courts on whether Jean would be further investigated. At this point, she had been in jail a night, but she still hadn’t confessed. The officers called her a “hard woman” and said that she was not talking. So basically we had to wait and see what the higher court said.
We were so excited to have made it through the 8 day trek and back to the hostel. We were looking forward to taking a shower and putting on some dry clothes. Henry has arranged for Brian, our driver who brought us up to the hostel on the first day, to drive us back down to our hotel in Kasese.
At the hostel, we asked for the bag we had locked away for safe keeping at the beginning of the trek. This included our money belts and some extra clothes and camping stuff. Jay grabbed the white plastic trash bag that we had stuffed everything into from the “massage room” we had locked it in earlier at the advice of Jean, the accountant / receptionist. Before the trek, we told Jean that we had valuables including money and passports that we needed to lock up in a safe place. Jay had also talked to the company via email before we left the country to ensure we would have a safe place to leave our things, and they said they keep people’s valuables all the time while they’re in the mountains. Jean told us, yes of course, let’s lock up the bag in our massage room and Jay carried the bag in there and watched her lock it up.
Once Jay got our bag back from the massage room, he started going through it. Like he always does, the first thing he did was check the money in his money belt. He was shocked to find that it was all gone! As I was repacking all my stuff, I heard Jay say, “We’ve got a big problem here. All my money is gone.” I asked him if he was joking. He was not, so I quickly looked in my money belt. All my money except a couple Ugandan bills was gone as well.
We called over Henry and told him what happened. He went and got Jean. Jean had a strange reaction. All she said over and over very quietly was, “Who could have done this, who could have done this?” But then she never did anything to follow up. When Jean failed to act, we went and told Brian. Both Brian and Jay confronted Jean because she was the one responsible for our valuables. She denied taking it or knowing anyone who did. But Jean was the only one with a key to the massage room.
We then found out that there is a safe where money is supposed to be counted, logged, and locked away per protocol. We told Jean in the beginning that we had money, and she failed to follow protocol and log our money and lock it in the safe. This was very suspicious to us as well. Especially because she knew our money belts were in the plastic bag. When I rented boots from her, she saw me take my money belt out of the plastic bag and get the money to pay for the boot rental.
At this point, we decided we needed to call the police. We had almost $2000 stolen which was not ok. We were driven down to the police station and filed a complaint.
The officers immediately got back in the van with us (they don’t have their own police vehicles), and we headed back to the hostel to confront Jean. It was actually kind of funny because all of the officers got really excited to get to do an interrogation. They piled into the van with their rifles. The Officer in Charge of the Station (OC), a plain-clothed woman, had to tell all the of excited officers to leave their rifles. So, about 3 officers had to file out of the van again to put away their weapons.
Then we headed back to the hostel. The officers interrogated Jean and did a thorough search of the premises. At one point, Jay saw the officers talking to Henry and said, “oh good, they’ve got Henry vouching for us now.” Then the officers brought Henry up to us and started to question why Henry had US dollars. We had given him a tip from the money Jay had kept in his wallet. So, we quickly cleared Henry’s name and he was able to go.
After what seemed like forever (probably about an hour and a half) the officers had concluded their interrogation and search. They didn’t find the money, but they did end up arresting Jean. It was a little awkward because we had to ride down in the van with her and the officers. Once we dropped off the officers and Jean at the police station, we were asked to return the next day to provide our official statements. So the Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) van took us back to the hotel and told us they would pick us up the next morning to go back to the police station.
Everyone was in disbelief that this had happened. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and we could tell that Brian, RTS, and even the police officers were shaken up by the event because it hurts the company, it hurts tourism, and it hurts the country. We were also disappointed that it had happened to us, but we were impressed by how seriously the police and RTS took the issue.
Day 8 was the last day of the trek. It was primarily supposed to be descending with some “gentle rolling hills” in the middle. We left at around 8:30 am and it was supposed to be about a 6 hour hike out.
This hike was definitely easier than the day before, but it was still difficult. There was more than 2000 m of steep descent which reeked havoc on our knees.
We took a quick detour over to a couple of waterfalls, one right next to the camp, and the other a little further down called Cathy Falls which was named after Jon Hunwick’s (the owner and founder of the Rwenzori Trekking Company) wife.
Then there was about 600 m of climbing split into 2 very steep sections in the middle. We wore our gum boots the whole way and they rubbed the bottom of our feet and smashed our toes. I had blisters and swollen feet the next day and Jay had blackened and bloody toes.
But with all my experience from the day before, I was getting better at navigating the mud. And my boots weren’t getting stuck as much. I still did some dancing when I slipped on the trail, but it was much better than yesterday. I could tell which logs to step on, and which ones were more slippery. I was also able to descend the steep inclines without crawling on my butt. I retired my trusty walking stick that Henry had gotten for me and used an actual trekking poll that Jerome, one of the executive porters, so kindly gave to me to use.
We were so excited to see the metal bridge we had passed on the first day and were told that would be the way we would be returning.
After the metal bridge it was another 20 minutes to the rangers station on flat ground. Once we reached the rangers station, all the porters were waiting there with our bags. And we all walked out the 3.2 km back to the hostel where we started.
Overall, the trek was extremely challenging. The level of physical and technical skill it required to ascend and descent the mountain was very high and everyone in the group thought so. The Germans had done many mountaineering treks and by the end, Klous was limping along and Marina was done. Thomas has also done many difficult treks in his days and said that he had never done one this difficult. The mud, the snow, the ice, the rain, the steepness, the crampons, the ropes, the ascenders – every day presented a new challenge, but we made it through together.
I’d have to say the trek was as much of a mental challenge as a physical challenge as well. By day 3, you are exhausted and haven’t even reached the halfway point yet. Navigating the mud and terrain requires that every step be calculated and deliberate which can be exhausting. You are also constantly trying to reconcile the desire to get to the top with your energy level and knowing the next days will require just as much energy. I had to take each day one at a time. By the end of the day, I was sure I couldn’t do anymore, but then I’d wake up after a good rest and feel like I could go again. It was all about believing that you could keep going.
I also have to say that the difficulty of the trek is highly weather dependent. If it snows on the peak, the difficulty level skyrockets. If it rains and creates mud and the rivers swell, the difficulty level again skyrockets. We had beautiful weather the first 5 days and were very lucky. However, the 6th and 7th day, the snow and the rain took a toll. It seems like you could start the trek a different day and have a completely different experience.
I was proud to be able to complete what I did on the trek. I know Jay was sick a lot of the time, but I think he really enjoyed the challenge. It is an experience we’ll be talking about for a long time to come.
Day 7 had a reputation of being brutal. Not only was it 16 km of hiking, which is more than double what we had done previous day, but there was about 500 m of climbing and about 1500 m of steep slick descent. We started our day at around 9:00 am in our gum boots as usual. It had rained the night before. We heard the thunderous roar of the storm overnight which rattled the huts as it rolled in. It was still drizzling that morning and we knew we were in for a muddy day.
I still had my mud boots that were just a little bit too big, even with Sam’s extra soles. This resulted in a rough start to my morning. I kept getting stuck in the deep mud and Jay would have to help me pry my boot out as I used all my might to pull myself up. It took so much more effort to pull my boots out of the mud and it was exhausting. I also kept falling down and by about an hour into the hike, I was already wet and covered in mud.
Sam suggested that Jay walk behind me so that I could set a little bit slower pace. So I walked directly behind Henry. I watched his every step and put my feet exactly where he did which helped a lot with me getting stuck in the mud.
After a big climb we were high enough in elevation that we hit snow. There was about 2 inches on snow on the ground when we reached Oliver’s Pass at around 12:30.
After the pass was a very tricky section. It was a steep boulder field covered in snow. For the past week, Henry and Jay has been telling me to “trust the gum boots” on the rocks. However, they were always able to stay upright and I was the one that kept falling over, so I was hesitant to step on the steep slick rocks. I instead proceeded to scoot on my butt down the rocks which felt much safer, but left me with a very wet butt.
After the boulder field, we had finally descended enough to get out of the snow.
But after the snow fall two days ago and the enormous amount of rain last night and today, the rivers had swelled and were raging. Of course we had to cross these rivers several times to get down the mountain. On one river crossing, I slipped and went for a little swim in the river. Fun Fact: the Rwenzori Mountains are the source of the Nile River. Now at least I can say I’ve been swimming in the rivers that feed the Nile.
After I fell in the river, Henry and Jay were extra careful about me crossing the river. Henry showed me every rock to step on and held my hand across.
As we trudged through the mud, water, and boulders, I joked with Jay that I was like a horse on roller skates. I just couldn’t seem to stay upright. It was a long day for us, but we finally arrived to camp around 6:10 pm.
We faired much better than some others though. Henry told us a story about a client who was in her 60s, coming to the river crossing in the pouring rain at around 11:00 at night with 4 hours of trekking left. So even though we were tired, we had a pretty good day.
Thomas, the South African, faired much worse as well. He had fallen and hurt his back on the snow covered boulder field. He didn’t make it back to camp until 11:00 pm. Porters were going out to bring him warm tea and food just so he could make it in. But in the end, our whole group finished up day 7 which lived up to its brutal name.
The Rwenzori Mountains are known as the “mountains of the moon.” They are called this because during the day, they are completely covered in clouds and you can’t see them. But, at night – early in the morning hours – the clouds clear and reveal the peaks under the moonlight.
At least that’s what is supposed to happen. We had a little bit different experience. We had perfect weather the entire trek – blue skies, sunshine, and when the occasional fog rolled in, it rolled out fairly quickly to reveal blue skies. But remember those clouds with the lightening we saw the night before. Well, they rolled in and stayed all night long. When we woke up the morning of the summit, it was snowing.
I had decided to at least attempt to summit after Sam had repeatedly told me that hundreds of people who have never ice climbed or been above 14000 feet had done it. All I needed was the determination and he could get me to the top. So that convinced me enough to try.
But on summit day, as soon as we started climbing, I noticed how icy the rocks were. I told Jay that I wasn’t sure it was a good idea for me to do it once we were at about 50 m up from camp. But Henry, our guide, convinced me to keep going. We were climbing icy rocks at steep angles with cliff drop offs all around in the middle of the night. Plus, my headlamp batteries were dying so I had less than ideal lighting. I have climbed mountains, ascended, and repelled before, but the weather added another element to the mix.
Basically, the climb consisted of scrambling up steep icy rocks; two ascents with ropes separated by a traverse on a steep cliff in the middle; more scrambling up icy rocks to the first glacier; two repels on steep icy shoots, and then a climb to the second glacier. The second glacier required that the guides place ice screws to hold the ropes that would allow us to ascend. There were three pitches on the second glacier to ascend. Then there was lots more steep climbing on the glacier and a scramble up the rocks to the Margarita Peak. Piece of cake. Lol.
So we started off. After talking with Jay about my ability to continue the climb, he said that he agreed the conditions were bad, but it was probably more dangerous to try to down climb all of those steep sections right now. He thought if we kept going, by the time the sun came out, it would stop snowing and the rocks would dry up, so we continued.
We ascended the two roped areas separated by the traverse across a cliff. Then we kept climbing up without ropes. I was starting to get exhausted.
We finally reached the first glacier and I was glad because this part was going to be much easier. Here, we could walk with crampons and not worry about slipping and falling. We put on our crampons and we were all tied together with a rope for safety in case someone slipped. We also carried ice axes so that we could self arrest if we did happen to fall, but this area was relatively flat. The first glacier was probably the least scary of all the parts. After the glacier, it was back off with the crampons and back on with the scary icy climbing. At this point, Jay pointed out that there were ice crystals forming on the rocks and metal ladder we just came down denoting even more dangerous conditions. But again, we all agreed that downclimbing the steep icy rocks right now wasn’t safe either. So we continued to wait until sunrise to see if some of the ice melted and the rocks dried off. We didn’t want to stop and wait for fear of getting cold, so we continued on. We completed two more very steep repels and I was getting nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to get back off the mountain if we kept going.
We were about 30 minutes from the second glacier when the sun started to rise. Unfortunately, the snow did not stop with the sunrise. We reached the second glacier which required the guides to place ice screws and ropes to ascend. We once again put on our crampons and got ready to climb with the rope and the ascenders. There were 3 pitches.
After the second pitch, which Henry basically pulled me up because I was tired, one of the other people, Thomas, decided he was going to turn around. At this point, it was still snowing, the sun was up, but clouds prevented any views, and I was still 2 hours from the top. So I decided to turn around too.
The guides were really amazing throughout the whole process, and I know they could have gotten me to the top had I wanted to continue. They do this climb every week for years in all weather conditions and know every inch of the mountain. They tell you where to step if you get stuck. They pull you up the ropes if you get tired. They don’t even use the ropes to ascend and descent. They are able to basically run up and down the steep cliffs we were using ropes to get up and down without a second thought. But, I was done and wanted to go back down. I believe that if the weather conditions were better, I would have been able to summit, but I was happy with reaching how far I did on my first ice climbing adventure.
I was assigned a guide, named Amos, to take me back down the mountain. Amos was awesome. He held my hand in dangerous spots, and was always roped to me in case I slipped. He showed me the best ways to go down steep rocks and where to place my feet. It took 4 hours, but we finally made it back to camp. Amos told me he was about 40 min from the top when Sam called him to come back down and take me back. He showed up by the time I had repelled back down the glacier, so that shows you how fast he was.
Jay continued to the peak with Henry and summited at around 9:30 which was way after sunrise. The weather prevented us from going any faster. The Germans also summited. They saw a really cool ice cave which would have been really neat to see in person, but there was no view from the top due to the clouds.
Jay also saw the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He found it very amusing to say that he had been to DRC.
Jay got back to camp about and hour and a half after I did. He said it got even more difficult later on, and I made the right decision to turn around. Additionally, we had to hike back to Hunwick’s Camp that same day, so I was glad I had saved some energy for that hike.
We left Margarita Camp around 3:30 pm and finally arrived at Hunwick’s camp around 6:30 pm after 3 more hours of hiking. We were exhausted. Jay was actually quite delirious on the walk back to Hunwick’s Camp. He said he felt like he was in a dream like state from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. He was just watching my feet and stepping where I stepped. We had finished the hardest part of the trip, but it wasn’t over yet. We still had two more brutal days of descent back down off the mountain.
Today was our last hike before the peak. We were told it would be a relatively short day, but it was about 500 m of climbing fairly steep sections of rock. One of our favorite things Robert, one of the guides, would always say in our nightly briefing meetings was that we would have some “gentle rolling hills.” Whenever we would heard that, we knew it meant extremely steep climbs. It is interesting because the guides grew up in these mountains and don’t see climbing them as a challenge. They all easily ascend and descent the steep sections, wet rock, and mud like they are walking on a sidewalk. So to them, I’m sure they did seem like gentle rolling hills.
We left Hunwick’s Camp at around 9:00 am and headed down into the Kitendara Valley. We then hiked up the valley which was fairly muddy like the previous day. We passed lower Kitendara lake and then upper Kitendara lake. After the valley, we started the climb up Mount Stanley toward Margarita Camp. The climb was more what I was used to hiking in the US – more dirt trails and scrambling on rocks. We passed the lunch spot because we only had about 40 min left to camp by the time we got there.
We crawled through a boulder field and then up many more steep sections until we reached Scott Elliot Pass and finally to Margarita Camp.
I was never planning on summiting Margarita Peak, so once we got to Margarita Camp, I had reached my goal for the hike. The guides were however very insistent that I would be able to make it up to the peak, so I said I would at least attempt to summit.
After we rested at camp and dried our socks by the stove, I went on a small acclimatization hike with Thomas and Sam toward Elena Camp which was a camp for a different mountaineering company. Jay was already up in the mountains. He still had a cold and said that he only coughed when he was standing still, so he was on a mission to keep moving. We met him out on the rocks and walked back with him.
Jay had also been trying to get Sam and Henry to let him lead the ice climb tomorrow. He hasn’t gotten a “yes” yet, but he also hasn’t gotten a “no,” so we’ll see what happens.
The guides had brought up all the gear necessary for the summit including crampons, harnesses, ascenders, rope, and helmets. We had a short lesson on how to use the ascenders to go up steep sections of the mountain.
After our lesson, we had our usual dinner of too much food and watched some lightening in the clouds in the distance.
After dinner, we met with the guides again to discuss the plan for the summit. They suggested that Thomas leave a little earlier at 2:00 am because traditionally he has been slower then the rest of us. Sam wanted the Germans and us to leave at 2:30 am. That way we could stagger the ascents and repels and prevent backups in the lines waiting to get up. Based on our previous hiking times, it would also allow us to summit the peak around sunrise (weather permitting). The Germans refused and said that they were going to leave at 2:00 am. They have very direct personalities and know what they want. I could tell Sam was a little annoyed at their refusal, but as always, the guides were extremely accommodating and let the Germans do what they wanted. We went to bed and got ready for our 2:00 am wake up call.
Today we had a large climb, an even larger descent, and then had to reclimb to about the same altitude as the day before (just slightly lower). We left at about 8:30 am and climbed about 400 meters from Bugata Camp up through Bamwanjara Pass.
It was fairly steep, but had many amazing views. There was a forest fire in 2011 that killed much of the vegetation, so the forest looked kinda of eerie.
The climb was relatively dry and there were many rock pathways we were able to walk up, which was a nice departure from the mud. We still had on our gum boots though because they are very sticky on the rocks.
Once we reached Bamwanjara Pass, we took in the views which were spectacular. But we headed down shortly after because it was going to get chilly with us standing around all sweaty.
Next was the long descent down. The climb down was extremely steep and tricky. The rocks and roots somewhat made stairs to climb down, but the mud made it challenging.
The climb down was just as exhausting as the climb up. We eventually reached a valley and I thought we were down, but after the valley, we continued to descend the steep wet rocks. We finally reached our lunch spot and refueled.
Then we started back out on the hardest part of the descent. This section was even more wet than the previous section. Climbing down the rocks became a little scary. There were multiple ladders we had to climb down and steep sections that seemed to go on forever.
In all, we descended about 500 meters. I ended up slipping and falling on some wet rocks right after lunch which shook my confidence some, but I took it slow and made it down.
Once we finished our descent, we had a long hike across another valley. This section was like walking through a swamp. There were branches laid down to step on, but they would move and squish in the mud making it extra challenging. Some sections had board walks which made it much easier, but you could feel the mud squish underneath the boards.
The final climb was the most difficult yet. It was about another 100 meters up, but it was like climbing wet stairs. The mud made us slide all over. I was exhausted by the time we finally reached the ridge and dropped down into Hunwick’s camp at around 2:00 pm.
Jay was feeling pretty good after the hike which was good because he was feeling really sick the day before. I however had a headache and was a bit dizzy. It seemed strange that I would have altitude sickness because we were actually lower than we were the day before, but we did have some large ascents and descents today. I took some Diamox around 4:00 pm and ate some dinner around 6:00 pm and started feeling better. Our hike up to Margarita camp tomorrow is the last one before the summit day.
We knew today was going to be a tough day in the mud. Little did we know, we would be wearing our gum boots every day except summit day from here on out. We left Mutinda Camp at around 9:00 am. Sam gave me an extra pair of sole inserts to put in my mud boots because they were too big, and I had slipped out of them he day before. The extra soles helped to at least keep my boots on. We went through about 6 km of mud. Luckily, there were some boardwalks to help us along. Otherwise today would have been very challenging.
Jay woke up feeling like he had a cold so we took it pretty slow today. Plus, we were exhausted after climbing to the lookout yesterday. Going through the mud was challenging. You had to think about every step you took to make sure you didn’t sink too far or get stuck in the mud. It is also much more exhausting because you are constantly pulling your feet out of the suction cup created by the mud. But after our initial climb through a valley, the terrain was relatively flat until right at the end when there was a steep climb to Bugata Camp.
We ate lunch at a nice rock looking out on a glacier lake.
Then we headed up the steep climb to the camp. We went through a field of what Henry told us were Everlasting flowers which was very pretty.
The terrain is much more alpine up here with fewer trees and shorter shrubs and bushes. We made it to Bugata Camp around 1:10pm.
Today was actually a very sunny day and it felt nice to sit outside in the warm sun. It also helped to dry out all the wet clothes we’d been wearing for the last 2 days.
Our camp was perched on top of a large rock that overlooked the valley and glacier lake. It was very picturesque so I took advantage of the scenery and sun and laid out on a rock for some time which was really nice.
After our hike we relaxed with our tea and cookies as usual and lazed around. I played solitaire while Jay rested and tried to get over his cold. Then we had a spaghetti dinner, had our evening briefing, and went to bed.