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The Planet Ice Project: Mountains of the Moon

James Martin, writing exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com as he photographs and researches his book, Planet Ice, reports from the Mountains of the Moon
By James Martin - March 15th, 2007

Editor's Note: 

Writer and photographer James Martin, author with Mark Twight of Extreme Alpinism, has turned his attention to the vanishing ice of planet Earth. Embarking on a new book, Planet Ice, Martin will blog exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com over the next two years as he visits the polar regions, the last of the Equatorial glaciers, and the ice of more temperate mountains, to document how they show, all too clearly, the devestating results of global climate change. For this, his third dispatch, he heads for the remote Mountains of the Moon in Africa.

"There are elephants here."

You don't hear that every day when approaching high altitude glaciers, but everything about the Ruwenzori Range, Ptolemy's legendary Mountains of the Moon, was unfamiliar. Looming on the Uganda Congo border, they are the highest range in Africa, rising to 16765 feet at the Margherita summit of Mt. Stanley. Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya are higher, but they are isolated volcanoes, not mountain ranges.

My wife Terrie and I planned to hike the Central Circuit, a short loop up one river, over two 14000+ foot passes, and down another river. We would hike only five miles a day and gain a couple thousand feet or so each day on the way up. A small army of porters would carry our food (including 4 dozen eggs, whole pineapples and a large watermelon) and packs, and we each had a guide. Easy.

The trail follows the Mobuku River for a while and then climbs up the prow of a ridge for a couple thousand feet. Switchback design is unknown in Uganda so one gets a good workout en route to Nyabitaba Hut, which sits on the crest of a ridge. Anyone who has been in cloud forest before will recognize the character of the forest, a mosaic of tall trees on steep hillsides. A blue monkey lounged in a tree near camp while a dark Ruwenzori Turaco perched nearby. Despite exotic fauna, I still felt at home here.

The next day we climbed through the rain into the heather zone and we weren't in Kansas anymore. Long trails of pale moss dangled from the trees. Multi-colored mosses blanketed the ground and wrapped all fallen logs, fairly billowing with exuberant growth. A few lobelias grew to 12 feet in open spaces, the first outsized houseplants that would supplant the trees at higher elevations. The river overflowed with runoff, postponing our crossing for a day. At sunset the clouds broke to the west and the glacier I hoped to ascend to the summit of Mt Stanley appeared brief, framed by waving moss.

After cooling our heels for a day waiting for the river to subside, we ventured across, filling our knee-high boots with water during the crossing. Then, we got wet. Lower and Upper Bigo bogs lived up to their reputations. Mud reached our ankles, then mid calf, then neared the tops of the boots. We tight roped on branches placed willy-nilly on a matrix of use trails resembling a map of the Amazon delta. The branches supported us; a false step consigned our feet to the sucking mud. At the wettest point we enjoyed a wooden walkway, now submerged under a few inches of water.

When the route steepened, we found ourselves in a forest of Giant Groundsel and Giant Lobelias. I had seen these Brobdingnagian houseplants dotting the slopes of Mt. Kenya, but not in such profusion. This weird forest covered any ground with soil from 13,000 to 14,500 feet.

Boggy conditions returned as we passed Lake Bujuku, hopping from grassy tussock to tussock. Sometimes they collapsed under our weight. We were pleased with ourselves upon reaching the Bujuku hut until we realized we had spent all day on a few miles of trail. Later, men balancing ten-foot long boards on their heads strolled into camp, the lumber they had carried over thousands of feet of rough terrain slated for an upgraded hut. Our sense of accomplishment waned.

A short steep day on relatively dry ground led us to the Elena Hut, perched on bare rock above 15,000 feet. Walls of vertical granite loomed nearby, and across the valley 16,000 foot summits appeared and vanishing in the mist. When the hut was built 35 years ago, the glacier flowed a few feet away. Today it requires several hundred feet of scrambling to gain the glacier.

I got up in the dark and started the scramble by headlamp, reaching the ice at sunrise. Cloud filled the valleys and mist partially obscured the summits of Mt. Stanley. What had once been a direct glacier route was interspersed with rocky sections where the ice had pulled away. The meringue of ice that had topped the summits had disappeared. In recent years the guides had installed ladders to bypass steep rock where earlier climbers had kicked steps in the firn.

From the 16.765 feet I looked west to the Congo Basin, one of the wildest and most dangerous places on Earth, full of guerrillas and gorillas, vipers and madmen, and a bestiary of killer microbes. I inhaled the thin clear summit air gratefully.

After regaining the Elena Hut, I packed and headed down, past Scott Elliot Pass, through boulder-strewn benches studded with Ground Sorrels, to the hut at Kintandara Lake. The next day's route crossed Freshfield Pass on the shoulder of Mt Baker, which provided a look back at the Stanley Group and a few poor shrunken ice patches. The trail wound down quickly, including some delicate scrambling interludes on slick rock. At times hiking in the creeks proved the easiest route. Once the trail hugged a cliff and came to a large hollow in the rock where the Duke D'Abruzzi made his base camp in 1906 when he completed the first ascents of the major peaks. After a quick descent to the river, we saw we had left the realm of the lobelias and sorrels and returned to the Heather Zone. We stopped at the Guy Yoeman Hut (named for a long time habitant of the range), our last night in the Ruwenzori.

The final day consisted of a steep descent on rock, often assisted by makeshift ladders composed of bare branches. Hours of tedious bog balancing followed. After crossing the river, we threaded our way through a dense bamboo forest on a ridgetop that rang with bird song. Then, we were back at the first hut, the circuit complete. We reversed the first day's trek in a couple hours and enjoyed a tepid shower and clean bed, breathing air as thick as syrup.


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