The Perilous path up Congo's Mount Stanley / Financial Times
Of all the predicaments in which one could find oneself in war-scourged, guerrilla-infested, poverty-afflicted eastern Congo, this must be one of the most improbable.
I am lying prone and panting, on a steep glacier, scarcely 200m beneath the mist-shrouded summit of Africa’s third highest mountain. To one side I can see the menacing turquoise lip of a large crevasse. Below me, the ice falls steeply away, with only my crampons holding me precariously in place. After six hours of strenuous climbing that began before dawn I am spent, more exhausted than I have ever been, incapable of more than a few steps at a time without my wildly beating heart, oxygen-starved lungs and buckling legs forcing me to stop.
Nor is there the possibility of rescue. No helicopter could land in this vertiginous terrain of rock, snow and cloud; the nearest help is days of walking away.
Matt Barratt, a mountaineer from the Isle of Skye to whom I’m roped, is pressing me to abandon my effort to reach the summit. Even if I succeed, he argues, I would lack the strength to get down again. “You’re playing with your life,” he warns. But Alexis Paluku, a Congolese guide, urges me to keep going. “Courage,” he exhorts in French. “You’re so close.”
I lie there gasping for breath, wracked by indecision, trapped in a cold, harsh, black-and-white world thousands of metres above the lush green jungles of the equator.
I had first visited eastern Congo when the southern section of Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, reopened after two decades of near-constant conflict in 2014. Happily that section contained two of Virunga’s great glories — its 300-odd mountain gorillas, nearly a third of all those left in the world, and the Nyiragongo volcano, in whose crater the world’s largest lava lake bubbles and spurts like some malign, sinister being.
But I heard stories while there of Virunga’s third glory — the mysterious, snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains at its northern end, the original “Mountains of the Moon” Ptolemy identified as the source of the Nile some 1,800 years ago.
The Rwenzoris (the “rainmakers”) were so constantly obscured by cloud that their existence was not confirmed by European explorers until Henry Morton Stanley set eyes upon them in 1888. He recalled in his journals how a young local pointed to “a mountain said to be covered in salt . . . Following its form downward, I became conscious that what I gazed upon was not the image or semblance of a vast mountain, but the solid substance of a real one.”
Stanley marvelled that “in one of the darkest corners of the earth, shrouded by perpetual mist, brooding under eternal storm clouds, surrounded by darkness and mystery, there has been hidden to this day a giant among mountains.”
Another 18 years passed before the Duke of Abruzzi, assisted by 150 porters, became the first to climb Mount Stanley, the highest in the range and — at 5,109m — only slightly lower than Mount Kenya (5,199m) and Kilimanjaro (5,895m). It has since been scaled only intermittently. Straddling the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, the Rwenzoris — now a Unesco World Heritage Site — have been off-limits to all but the most intrepid for much of the past half-century as a result of wars and political upheavals in one or other country. But not any longer.
With a fragile peace now prevailing in eastern Congo, earlier this year Virunga’s authorities reopened the sole route up to Mt Stanley from the Congolese side, which has the advantage of being drier and even less frequented than the various Ugandan routes. They have restored the trail, renovated huts and trained rangers as guides. That is how a reasonably fit 61-year-old — but mountaineering novice — like me came to be aiming for the summit with the genial but hard-driving Barratt. Citing the risks of poor weather, altitude, injury and exhaustion, he put my chances of success at 50-50.
Our venture began inauspiciously when a bag of mountain gear failed to arrive on Barratt’s flight to Kigali, the Rwandan capital. We pressed on, taking a three-hour taxi ride to the Congolese border and spending a night in Goma as rain hammered on our hotel roof.
Early the next morning an 18-seat twin prop flew us north over Virunga’s vast green expanses to a dirt airstrip at Beni. From there the wiry, smiley Paluku drove us to a ranger station in the village of Mutwanga, where we met Syaira Baudowin, the president of the local porters’ association, who became the first African to climb Mt Stanley in 1969. We hired 10 of Baudowin’s men — short, stocky, gumbooted Bakonzo tribesmen — for $10 per head per day, and watched admiringly as they strapped great bundles of food and equipment to their backs and foreheads with strips of bark.
A Belgian colonial-era map of the Rwenzoris and faded photos of long-ago expeditions hung on Paluku’s office wall. He lent us a guide book to the range first published in 1972. He admitted, somewhat disconcertingly, that of the 15 people who had tried to reach the top of Mt Stanley this year, only three had succeeded. Finally, at 3pm, we set off, Paluku and a fellow ranger clutching AK-47s for protection against stray guerrillas, the porters carrying machetes to chop down undergrowth.
A narrow, unmarked track led us to the lower flanks of the Rwenzoris, which rose ominously into a formidable bank of dark cloud. We passed through fields of sorghum and cassava, maize and beans, coffee, cocoa and vanilla. We encountered ragged children playing in front of mud huts, and women carrying bundles of firewood on their heads. They were the last people we would see until we returned eight days later.
Soon we were hiking through a muggy jungle of towering trees with leaves the size of dinner plates, of vines and creepers, of ferns, fronds, fungi and exotic bird song. We forded streams on logs and filled our water bottles. Wet with sweat, and using head torches, we reached our first hut — Kalonge — well after dark and were pleased to find it dry and clean with a fireplace, mattresses, table and chairs, plus dire warnings of the dangers of mountain sickness. We ate the first of the rehydrated meals — spaghetti bolognese — that would become our staple, and slept.
Over the next two days we climbed to 4,000m. The temperature dropped. The air thinned. We stopped often to recover our breath, and at times it struck me we were engaged in a particularly perverse form of enjoyment. Nor was there much wildlife to divert us. We heard monkeys and chimpanzees, and saw leopard droppings, but, apart from a single distant sighting of a red duiker, that was it.
The scenery was astounding, however — a botanical safari. We ascended from jungle to bamboo groves to Tolkienesque giant heather trees, 10m tall with drooping beards of lichen, then to a fantastical, prehistoric landscape of giant spiky lobelias standing sentinel like triffids. “You wouldn’t be surprised if you frightened a pterodactyl,” Barratt remarked.
We struggled through boot-sucking mud. We passed through tunnels of vivid green moss dotted with pink orchids and criss-crossed by twisted tree roots. We encountered ghostly landscapes of white-flowered helichrysum bushes enveloped in mist. The rich soil and heavy rainfall had generated such prodigious vegetation that at times we felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag — an impression reinforced when we looked back at the majestic valleys filled with clouds below us.
Fantastical things happened, too. On day three, Barratt’s lost bag suddenly materialised, carried up from Mutwanga by a relay of porters.
We spent the fourth day acclimatising at Kiondo hut (4,200m) in a thick, drizzly fog that left us cocooned in our own tiny, celestial world. Barratt gave me a crash course in ropes, crampons and ice picks, then in the afternoon we climbed a modest peak named Wasuwameso. There another amazing thing happened. The fog cleared to reveal a magnificent line of pointed peaks and glaciers towering above us — among them Alexandra, the lower of Stanley’s two peaks, with the tip of Margherita, the higher, just visible behind.
Within 20 minutes they had vanished again, but that brief glimpse had filled me with awe and foreboding. They were like twin sirens enticing us on, daring us to proceed. That night, beneath a brilliant firmament of stars, we watched a mighty electric storm raging over the plains below as if to underscore the immense power of this elemental world.
The next day we stripped our baggage down to essentials, jettisoned half our porters, and worked our way round the broad, steep flank of Wasuwameso with the help of several prepositioned ropes. Beyond, we ascended through an other-worldly forest of giant groundsel, past a succession of lakes — Noir, Vert, Gris and Blanc — to a lunar landscape of black rock left bare by a retreating glacier. The Rwenzoris may be almost unvisited by humans, but they have nonetheless been severely scarred by the global warming for which humanity is responsible: their glaciers are expected to vanish altogether by 2025.
Eventually we reached the last and highest hut, Moraine, a glorified garden shed with the names of previous summiteers scrawled on the walls. In retrospect I suspect I was already suffering mild mountain sickness. I had a slight headache, diminished appetite and an acute insomnia that rendered me sleepless. At 2.30am we rose, drank tea and donned thermal clothes, waterproofs, helmets and harnesses in silence. An hour later Barratt, Paluku and I stepped out into the cold and dark.
Using head torches, we picked our way across a boulder field. We climbed a narrow, rock-filled gully so steep in parts that we had to haul ourselves up with ropes. At dawn we reached the West Stanley glacier, extracted our ice picks and donned our crampons.
With Paluku searching for crevasses in front, Barratt shouting instructions from behind, I worked my way up and across that wall of ice, but I was tiring. I had little time to admire the peaks protruding from thick banks of cloud. I only dimly realised that at some point we had crossed into Uganda, which offered the easiest final ascent. Beyond an expanse of smooth, black, ice-scoured rock, we reached the Margherita glacier, which is where I suffered my moment of crisis.
After an hour of excruciatingly slow climbing, with every step a Herculean effort, I accepted Barratt’s entreaties and admitted defeat. His GPS showed we had reached 4,913m — 196 short of the summit. But Paluku urged me on. I thought of the shame of failure, of having to tell friends and family I fell short, of living with this defeat for the rest of my life. I swallowed a tube of energy gel, summoned my last vestiges of mental resolve, and resumed the climb.
Somehow, 30 minutes later, we reached the top of the glacier. We traversed past a wall of exquisitely patterned rime ice and there, just above us, was the rocky, snow-blasted summit with a sign declaring Margherita the highest point in Uganda, not Congo, though in truth it is both.
There was no breathtaking view — just 360 degrees of cloud. I felt no great elation — just relief. We embraced, took photos and swiftly began our descent because the day was wearing on. I have little memory of the slog back, just of focusing on each step, ticking off each landmark, forcing myself on. It ended in darkness and heavy snow. Finally, mercifully, we reached Moraine hut 14 hours after leaving it. Too exhausted to eat, I wriggled into my sleeping bag and slept.
Barratt deemed it a “fantastic adventure”. As for me, I would do the magical climb to Kiondo, or even the Moraine hut, again — but not the final ascent. In future I’ll leave Margherita’s bewitching beauty to men younger and stronger than I.