Starting Altitude: 3,688 [12,100 ft.] (Mutinda Look-out is at 3,974)
Ending Altitude: 4,062 [13,327 ft.]
Total Climb: 660 meters [2,165 ft.] including Mutinda Look-out
Total Distance: 5.2 kms [3.2 miles]
Hours Taken: 6.5 hours (including climbing Mutinda Look-out)
Camp: Bugata Camp
Accent Rate (Climb/Distance): 127 m/km.
At dawn the skies are clear, and I tape my tender bleeding feet in the dim dawn light to climb Mutinda look-out. It is part scramble and part hiking with some small ladders over steep rock faces. The climb takes about an hour, and from the top, we can see Lake Edward, and all the way to the town of Kasese in the south.
We can also see Weismann’s Peak to the north jutting above the barren summits surrounding it, but it still looks about two valleys away and a long way above us. Snow has dusted the highest peaks, showing us how the range earned is fabled name as The Mountains of the Moon, since the mountains glow white like a full moon.
Bernard points West towards the Congolese border where a Congolese plane flying an aid mission crashed into the mountain mists. Then in a matter of seconds, the mists rise from the forest floor, absconding the surrounding peaks like a bridal veil, as if scolding us to wait until we summit to inspect the peaks.
The temperature is not that low, but we are freezing. The damp air somehow sinks into your bones like the fogs in San Francisco, and the gusting winds bite at your face and hands. Starting the day with the hike up to the look-out was worth the effort, but it means beginning the day’s hike to the next camp a bit tired, wet, and cold. We have a drawn out breakfast back at camp and then pack our gear and get on the trail in the late morning.
The mists have settled in the valley now, and we do not get any views as we ascend to the pass leading out of the valley and deeper into the mountains. The path feels like it is transforming itself into a river, and it is slippery and muddy. Every single step requires some thought and planning, so as to keep a forward moving rhythm without ending up waist deep in mud, or gripping a broken ankle in agony.
By day three, the walking stick has become a part of your body as you extend it to test the depth of mud, brace it at an angle to allow you to take a risky step on an unstable rock, or transfer your weight to it to give your knees a break from the constant impact they are enduring.
As we climb higher, rising through the pass and out of the Mutinda valley, we arrive at a sprawling meadow of tussock grass. The tussock grass grows in mounds supported by matted root structures that elevate some to waist height, like mini trees. Their blades are long and when they are new and green, they stick up and out like urchin spines, gently poking your legs as you brush by them.
For the most part, we walk in little meandering trails between the tussocks, and in some places there are boards laid out in a trail through them. Other times the muds of the meadow are so treacherous, we hop scotch from tussock to tussock trying to stay above the mud, but continually leaping about at 4,000 meters is hard, and the tussocks are quite easy to slip off, so this remains a last resort.
Towards the end of the meadow, the charred trunks of giant lobelia trees stand like statues from a fire about three years ago. At this altitude, nothing decomposes quickly. In fact, everything feels a bit sterile, the way things do at high altitude where not even much bacteria can survive the cold. The landscape feels timeless
Before leaving the meadows we finally sight a hyrax resting outside of its hole, and put a fuzzy little face to the mountain banshee cries of the night. We make a last little ascent to a bluff where Bugata Camp rests, and get a view of Weismann’s Peak, which still does not seem close. At sunset we take a stroll down to see Lake Africa, which used to be shaped like the continent of Africa, but today’s smaller glaciers in the mountains mean less water in the lakes, and its shape is now amorphous.
We end the day sipping tea in the shelters at Bugata Camp, wrapped in our warmest clothes, listening to the howling wind outside. We sleep early as we are scheduled to awake at 5:30am to attempt the summit in the morning before the sun rises.