Expedition Rwenzori: Day Four (31st December, 2018): Bujuku Hut (3962m) to Elena Hut (4541m)
7:30am: I unzipped my sleeping bag, lazily propped myself up, said my morning prayer and then turned on the other side and lay on my belly. I needed to lay down a little longer as I wasn’t feeling too well. It felt like my gutts wanted to disconnect from the rest of my body. It was Altitude sickness galore!! 😖😖😖
Eventually, a few minutes later, I managed to get up and slowly get ready. Our usual morning routine was somewhat interrupted with Herbert reaching out to each one of us asking if we were sure we could proceed. Important to note (as stated by the notice pinned on the wall right opposite our small dinning table) was that Bujuku Hut is the point where if one felt certain listed symptoms of altitude sickness it was advised not to continue. Thankfully, we were all “OK’d” by the guides and after washing down our omelet and chapatti with maize porridge, tea and oats, we embarked on the day’s ascent to Elena Hut.
The ascent out of the moorland vegetation took us further and further up through and past the rocky Bujuku valley. As we continued to gain more altitude, I noticed how landscape was changing with more and more rocks appearing from the vegetation. The higher we climbed, the more rock we encountered off course with some elements of trees and the usual beautiful lobelias. Climbing on this day wasn’t like any other we had encountered. It meant going on all fours, using the belly and even sitting to be able to climb. The rocks were laden with moss and lichens and looked gorgeous from my point of view. Our lunch stopover 4 hours later was under a cave, where we were also able to cower away from the rain. At this point, food tasted like rubber and it was almost impossible to swallow because it felt like the entire alimentary canal had shut down for the holidays. It was key to keep hydrated – which I had to forcefully do.
We continued climbing slowly but surely; momentarily stopping to catch some breathes. I began to see glaciers from a-far as we continued to climb. Might I mention here that the beauty these glaciers present cannot be compared to anything. You cannot help yourself but yelp a thousand times over at how beautifully they are presented and how tall they stand like the long neck of a gazelle. I fell deeply in love with these beauties and more with the MAKER of them!
It was as if nature had been listening in to my thoughts because behold, the skies burst open and hailstones (or ice) began to rain down on us. It did feel nice and different from the rain-pour that we had been experiencing the last couple of days. This went on for almost an hour and once the last bits had fallen, we were left with even more beauty to stare in amazement at – the white on rocks!! Every footstep as we moved forward was a crunch crunch crunch under the weight of our boots. It was cold but very beautiful and this made all the painful feelings I had felt melt away. I loved every bit of being on the rocks with ice.
Meanwhile, throughout our ascent we kept meeting hikers and porters on their way off the mountain. The hikers had been to the Magherita and it was clearly written on their satisfied but weary faces. Kenyans, Japanese, Austrians etc. The Rwenzoris could easily pass as a meetup for the United Nations. They all kept giving me that keep going nod that helped elevate my courage levels.
Yes – this ascent was as tedious as ascents on the other days but was a different one as the spectacles to behold were nothing like seen before. Hours on of climbing and descending the rocks, we finally caught eye of Elena Hut – green and neatly seated high amongst the rocks. We still had a bit of distance to get to it but sighting of it was enough to encourage the soul that we were almost there. An hour later after seeing the Hut, climbing rocks, dodging frozen puddles and sliding over the rocks we finally arrived.
Elena Hut is the smallest Hut of all cabins we had stayed in and yet has many hikers coming in and out. This is because it’s the point at which hikers prepare for the summit of the Magherita. At this altitude, its freezing cold mostly from the melting ice but also from the fact that you literally up in the skies.
As had become the tradition, on arrival tea or coffee and hot soup awaited us. Dinner was delayed a little this time because we needed to go through some drills by Herbert on how the summit climb was going to happen. Fitting our harnesses and crampons, reducing the weight in our day packs, lots of pep talk and the final announcement that we would be setting off at 3 a.m. in the morning and that we would have to be up at 2 a.m.
At 9 p.m., Morris brought into the cabin our dinner of spaghetti and chicken which we ate in the confines of our sleeping bags. Meanwhile was it freezing cold or what? It reminded me of my winter experience in Sweden – soooo cold! We even made a unanimous decision to have all five of us hurdled in one corner close to each other to ensure sufficient distribution of body heat.
Also for a light moment as we ate our dinner, we reminded each other that it was the end of 2018 in a few hours and with the dawn of 2019, we had a lot to be grateful for. We wished each other a “Happy New Year” and after putting the plates and saucepans 😆 away, we tucked-in in an attempt to catch some shuteye.
It took me close to 45 minutes to catch even the lightest of sleep because I was shivering even if I was wearing thermals and jackets and sweaters and T-shirts. Also we were hurdled too close that every turn the guys made, I could hear and feel. The voice in my head was also calculating the maybe’s and maybe nots concerning the next day’s big summit. One thing was for sure Aloysious’ voice kept re-echoing his famous “Anita, if others can – why not you?”. Dude was in my head!!! 😂😂😂. I said my prayer thanking God for my life the last 12 months in 2018, drifted off and was wide awake by 1 a.m.
Expedition Rwenzori: Day Five (1st January, 2019): climbing to Magherita Peak (5109m)
Unableto sleep most of the night and wide awake by 1 a.m. – at 2 a.m, I blurted out a somewhat loud “Happy New Year”. There was no response as I think everyone’s mind was fixed on the huge exploit ahead and they too had probably not slept.
We all quickly got up, poured our breakfast down our throats (I wonder if Morris had slept at all, cause it was a variety of delights that he served us), picked up our gear and quickly got a brief from Herbert.
We set off at 3:15 a.m. with our head lamps to light the way and hit the ground climbing. We were not as fast as extrememly seasoned hikers but thankfully our guides were patient with us. I didn’t know what to expect with this part of the expedition so I decided to allow the day progress and keep surprising me.
We climbed up and descended down over rocks, walked through snow and had moments to stop and breathe. 3 hours later, a warm orange light started to slowly creep up on us – first shyly and then it burst out as if reaching out to hug us so tight. I kid you not, I could’ve sworn mother earth was literally saying “Here’s to a victorious 2019 Anita, you are deserving” because I stood still – blown away. This sunrise I will admit is the best sunrise I have ever seen in my life time. We all stood for a good 15 minutes to take it all in and broke into “Happy New Year“. This was our fireworks!!!
At this point Herbert pointed out to us the Alexander and Magherita peaks standing majestically next to each other with a sheet of snow seperating them. I was sold out! Herbert also mentioned that the Magherita is locally called “the shy peak” because she is most of the times hidden behind clouds and comes peeking out now and again.
We then walked for what seemed to be a hour or more and then made a stop to wear our harnesses and crampons, get our anti glare goggles and each got an ice-axe.
The rest of the journey was quite intense as it involved climbing over steep rocks, climbing rock walls using ropes (this was a huge surprise that engaged my entire body), walking over cliffs, being harnessed to the guides for safety’s sake and short breaks to rehydrate and eat. The more we walked towards the Magherita, the more she seemed to shy away from us (living according to her name – shy peak).
Walking over the glaciers and snow sheets was an intense and tiring encounter. By this point we had split up according to our speed and I walked with Henry, Aloysius and Elly.
To be able to climb the glacier, we were all harnessed to each other with Henry and I in the middle, Aloysius at the top and Elly at the back. We had to leave our daypack bags on a rock to pick them on our way down. Being the slowest, I was the determinant of how we moved. I kept screaming “Let’s go! ” to get us climbing and “stop” for us to stop and catch some breathes. This all happened in the midst of a snow storm and visibility was difficult. What kept me going was the constant tagging on the rope by Aloysius and the support on my ice axe to hold me steadily and avoid me from rolling down. At one point, I gave up. Yes, I gave up… I sat down, lay down my ice axe and yelled out “I’m done!. Poor Aloysius climbed down and pulled me up and spelt out some realities to me as if scolding a child: that standing too long wasn’t healthy as you’d freeze, going back meant Henry and the others giving up too and also I had come this far and shouldn’t give up (said this as he pointed at Magherita saying she was patiently waiting for me). I took sips of my Vitamin C laden water and painfully trudged on. We had to be careful not to put our feet in crevices as you’d fall in and break your leg. We finally got to the top of the first glacier, had a few rocks to climb and then embarked on the second glacier.
We were almost 2 hours into climbing this heavily ice laden glacier when Aloysius shouted “We are lost!!!“. At this point, Henry and I agreed that we had seen enough, had glanced at Magherita from afar and it was time to head back. We sat down in the cold and waited for the other guys to show up from the greyness so we could convince them to turn back. A few minutes later, we saw the other guys further ahead climbing confidently with Herbert leading the way. Our efforts to try and call them fell on deafness, as the storm carried our tired voices away (probably into the Congo). They kept climbing unaware of our decision.
For a second Henry and I looked at each other and without a word stood up and told Aloysius and Elly that we were going ahead with the climb. Honestly, I personally would’ve hated myself for hearing about that Magherita peak from someone’s else’s narration. I had to keep climbing. We had to climb back down a bit of a distance and climb onto another glacier (we later found out that we were climbing to Alexander peak – 😂😂😂😂). The next set of steps for me comprised of hallucinations (I was soaring in the sky on my blue wings), sleep walking (I must’ve taken short power naps as we walked), crying (yes, I cried so hard but very secretly) and breathing so hard as oxygen levels had depreciated.
“Look!!!! Magherita peak is behind that rock up there!!!!” Aloysious frantically yanked me out of my little world an hour later! I looked up in anticipation and almost felt discouraged by the rock climbing we still had to do BUT there, right infront and above me, in the thin clouds was the peak!!! From that moment, I never took my eyes off the little sign board as we climbed because I was afraid it would move away further as we ascended to it. I had to keep looking at it. With one last final climb and push I made it to the “Highest Point In Uganda”.
As I stood there staring into the clouds and reading what was written on the sign, I cried sooooo loud! I couldn’t believe I was standing here. I had made it!! Hugs and Happy New Year’s and Congratulations were exchanged and when Davina finally arrived, we propped ourselves into the small space around the sign to take pictures.
We had made it!!!!!!!
We spent a cool 15 minutes at the peak and couldn’t stay any longer because of the cold thin windy air that almost made it impossible to breathe or even open your eyes wide!
Time check 4:00 p.m. Please note that seasoned hikers/climbers on average will leave Elena Hut at 3 a.m., summit by 9 a.m. and are back at Elena by midday for a break and the proceed further down! For us, it was 4 p.m!!!!😱😱😱😱
The descent for me was long, tiring and I slowed down even more. Going down the rocks and the glaciers with the crampons actually eventually messed my right knee and left big toe. We had to go through the same ordeal we’d experienced going up – the ropes, the cliffs, the steep rocks and descent down the glaciers. “What if I just slump my body and roll down to base?” was a thought that hang around my head. I laughed at my own thoughts!!!
We slowly but surely made our way down and then it started to get dark and we had to use our head lamps. At some point – it must’ve been 9 p.m. – I looked down and saw a small group of people coming up with torches. When they got to me and Elly (Alyosious had moved on further with Henry), it was two new guides and Morris the cook. Apparently we had been up there too long and the entire team was worried about how we were dealing with the cold. Morris had made some hot tea, put it in a flask and came up to serve us. The other guides were mercenaries to our guides to help bring us down faster. Indeed it worked because the guide (I forget his name) literally propped me on his shoulder for support and also showed me where to put my foot each time. A couple of hours later I arrived back at Elena Hut at 11:45 p.m. – soaked in fatigue, dirt and shaking like a leaf. I entered the cabin, stood in one spot for 10 minutes trying to shake myself out of what seemed like a dream. Morris quickly brought me mushroom soup and noodles and I poured them down my throat. I threw off my summiting pants, got help taking off the harness and crampons, threw on fresh warms clothes and jumped into my sleeping bag. Henry that had arrived a hour earlier was already sleeping and I could’ve sworn he was mumbling, sleep talking and trembling in his sleep. He probably dreamt he was still on the mountain.
I closed my eyes and went back in my mind on how the whole day had turned out. It hadn’t occurred to me what had gone down but at the back of my mind, I felt something in me had changed and I would never be the same. I wasn’t the same person that had gone up earlier in the morning.
My date with Magherita changed me for life!
I finally fell asleep shaking from the cold that had now even gone bone deep but with a big champion grin on my face!!!! “Thank you GOD” is all the prayer I had in me. Nobody and Nothing could take this moment away……….
Look out for the final episode as I share our descent off the mountain and how I was evacuated by human ambulance in the last hours on the Rwenzoris!!! 😦😦
Photo-Cred: Pictures by AK Photography, Henry and Herbert