On Saturday 8th May 2021 at 00h00, two Uganda speed climbers started their attempt at the first 24-hour ascent and descent of Margherita Peak (5109 meters), a distance of just over 40 kilometers and 3545 meter elevation gain.
Text and photos by Timothy Latim
Margherita Peak is the highest peak in the Rwenzori mountain range in Uganda and the third highest peak in Africa. It is a mystical place, given far less attention than its more famous peer Kilimanjaro. Ugandan hikers Herman Kambugu and Edward MacWilliams Mponye currently hold the country’s records for the fastest summits of Kilimanjaro (15 and 23 hours respectively). Their strategy for the Rwenzoris: to reach the summit as fast as possible.
The starting point was the gate at Nyakalengija, at an altitude of 1615 metres, while the highest summit of the seven mountains in the Rwenzoris, Margherita, is 5109 meters.
The Rwenzori mountains have been legendary since the scholar Ptolemy claimed that these “Mountains of the Moon” were the source of the Nile. The once abundant glaciers, which have considerably receded since the early explorations by Prince Luigi Amadeo of Savoy, Duke of Abruzzi in the 1940’s and Henry Osmaston in the 2000’s, were said to feed the Nile with its melting water.
Despite the decline in the glaciers, the rest of the mountain remains in the same condition as was first experienced by the early explorers, in the words of Osmaston ‘The paths are steep, muddy and although the difficulties of walking are sometimes exaggerated, it is undoubtedly far slower and more tiring than on much drier East African mountains’.
The trail remains largely boggy and indiscernible, making a local guide an absolute necessity.
Kambugu and Mponye had both climbed the mountain before their 24-hour attempt, but this time around they would be following a different trail, and do it in under 24 hours instead of the customary 7 days that hikers use.
After two hours of hiking, the duo was in good form to make their ascent time in under 14 hours. They intended to navigate the steeper and more technical glaciers by daylight. The mountain wanted it different. Rains from the previous day had left a section of the trail with many boulders moist and slippery. From the looks of it, the section of the trail could have once been a river bed or flooded by stones from the mountain. Making his way in the dark, Mponye slipped, fell and almost got snatched by the night. He was saved by Kambugu, who pinned his hiking stick to the ground which allowed Mponye to use it to support himself from sliding further. This could have been the end of the entire attempt, but these are stubborn hikers and they decided to continue onwards in the dark.
Three hours later the lead guide, Herbert, met a similar fate as he slipped and fell, injuring his leg. The adrenaline was still pumping, so the team agreed to reassess their strategy when they got to the breakfast point. After a quick stop, Kambugu, Mponye and Herbert all agreed to continue for the summit, albeit at a pace that could cater for the injured parties.
The weather stayed wonderful throughout the rest of the day, and the normally elusive summit was visible.
However, as the sun set the mountain started issuing out more punishment. The ever steepening trail changed from heather, to rock, to glacier until they finally reached the summit, 19 hours after they had left the park gate. The duo had managed to break the standing ascent record by a tourist.
Sometimes you think the summit is the end of the journey, but what comes up must come down. And a descent in the Rwenzoris is dark and full of terrors. The descent started as the sun had set and went through the night. The same trail was now covered with snow which made it even more slippery. Moving on the boardwalks that have been put up in small sections of the trail, one of the guides slipped and fell and got an injury that required him to stay behind to be evacuated off the mountain. Demoralised, the vigil out of the mountain proceeded.
After hiking for 36 hours, the duo finally exited the mountain. They had set a new record for the fastest ascent from Nyakalengija to Margherita (19 hours) but they were both demoralised and hungry for more. The mountain had beaten them bloody, but they were already planning the next attempt.