Starting Altitude: 2,596 [8,517 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 3,688 [12,100 ft.]
Total Climb: 1,092 meters [3,583 ft.]
Total Distance: 7.2 kms [4.5 miles]
Hours Taken: 6.5 hours
Camp: Mutinda Camp
Accent Rate(Climb/Distance): 152 m/km.
We sat up the night before at Sine Camp, sipping tea and watching flashes of lighting far off in the mountains. It was far enough away that we could not hear the thunder, but we knew it was in the direction we were headed, and could mean some rough weather ahead of us.
Before climbing into our sleeping bags Bernard had come to warn us about the hyrax that lives in the mountains. It is a small fuzzy little animal, akin to an enormous hamster, but it makes a very strange noise at night, and we should not be alarmed.
The night was a deep dark where you could not even see your own hand, as the canopy even blocks the starlight. The shriek of the hyrax pierces the blanket of darkness, and sends a chill shivering up your spine. Its call sounds like the frantic wail of someone that has been mortally wounded, and is slowly dying alone in the woods. As the hyrax call to each other, it seems like haunted spirits are flying around the jungle wailing in the night. They are the mountain banshees of the Rwenzori.
We were surprised in the morning that the rain had not drifted over the camp, and it was a nice and sunny. I made the critical mistake of attempting the trek in trail runners, and already had oozing blisters running all along both of my heels, which I spent some time tapping up for the day. The first hour of the day is a steep ascent through a giant bamboo forest, which reminds you that just south of the Rwenzori range is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where the mountain gorillas live. The African mourning dove coos in the bushes, and the blue monkeys crash through the trees in the distance.
Then the forests of bamboo give way to groves of giant heather, views open up and you can see down to the bluff that hosts Sine Camp, and all the way out of the park to the town of Kasese. However, the temperature drops, and a cold mist blows from above. Old man’s beard (Spanish moss) hangs from the trunks and branches of the heather, making them seem wise. There is a lot more exposed rock on the trail, and as it starts raining on us, we jump into our rain gear, and slow down as everything becomes perilously slippery.
In the afternoon we start seeing lobelias and giant groundsels. The ground becomes saturated with water, and acts like memory foam when you step on it, allowing our feet to sink deep into the ground, and then holding the imprint like putty. Everything is getting ready to turn into a seasonal bog.
In some places there are fields of deep black mud that my walking stick shows me would easily envelope my calf. We have to hop scotch through these sections, leaping between exposed rocks, and fallen branches. Walnut-sized, wild blackberry bushes grow all around the path. They are juicy and tart, making me scrunch my face as I eat them.
Reaching Mutinda Camp, I am dead tired. It has rained twice, and we have been hiking in full rain gear almost all day. My feet feel torn and raw in my shoes, and we are soaking wet and the day keeps getting colder. We have hiked up into a valley with steep rock faces on either side, but the low mists have not revealed the extent of the peaks yet. We had planned to climb another 300 meters up to Mutinda look-out for a view and to help acclimatize, but given the weather we decide to do it in the morning.
In front of us we can see the pass we will have to climb through in the morning leading to the last valley from which we will attempt to summit. Mutinda Camp feels like an old military tent from the 1970s, which has been snugly nested under a giant rock overhang, and feels almost like a cave. The air is cold already, and long before the sunsets, we can already see our breathe in the air.
The porters make a fire under the overhang, and we all pull up rocks and logs, and sit by the fire to warm ourselves and dry off what we can. The mists glide through the valley like wild animals chasing each other, offering a moving mosaic of short glimpses of the sheer rock faces that surround us.
Around the campfire we are able to unwind from the day. The guides and porters choose to teach us about Ugandan dowries and dictators, while we answer their questions about Donald Trump and explain how the Sierra Nevada in California compare to the Rwenzori mountains of Uganda.
It is a wonderful cultural exchange. We realize both how much we can learn from each other, and also how men of all countries find humor in similar things around a campfire. Bernard tells a story of how he tries to explain his profession to the people in his village. However, the villagers cannot believe that foreigners actually pay to do something as hard as scale these mountains.
When they hear how much we have paid, they laugh, and tell him that he is being fooled. For that amount of money, we must be sneaking off in the night and collecting gold in the mountains. That is the only way it could make sense. Bernard says it has been hopeless to try and convince them of the value of the experience of being alone in the alpine lakes and meadows of the Rwenzori. It was hilarious to hear of him dealing with this cross cultural issue in his own village, and also wonderful to hear him talking about the mountains with the same respect for their beauty and power that I had been taught on the other side of the world.
We all retire before too long, as we had gained quite a bit of altitude during the day, and everyone is exhausted. We make a plan to wake at dawn to check the weather and see if we might climb Mutinda’s look-out. Throughout the night the wailing hyrax calls echoed off the surrounding mountain faces, sounding like the mountain banshees were circling over our tent, but we were so tired they had no chance of keeping us awake.