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.