What it took us to conquer the Rwenzori mountains.Last month, a group of friends decided to beat the heights of Mountain Rwenzori. Four ladies, Jackie Asiimwe, Joy Mirembe Abola, Mitchelle Barlow, Penelope Sanyu and two gentlemen, Bernard Tabaire and Peter Mugarura, set off to meet Margherita peak, Rwenzori’s highest point. Their boots met the rock on July 14, and seven days later, after a five day climb and a two-day descend, they were back from the mountain top, having reached the peak. It is a milestone they will not be in any hurry to forget because, as Asiimwe intimates, it took all they had in them to reach Margherita.
“Easy is not always the right word to describe a mountain climb. It was tough. We battled on for days. You had to give your all and just keep putting one foot before the other. But in the end, it was worth it. The sight up there, no words can correctly paint it. And all six of us made it to the peak, which is an achievement in itself. I think our success came down to preparation,” Asiimwe tips.
As it is always said, the only time success comes before work is in the dictionary. Nowhere else, and surely not in the case of summiting a mountain. In order to pull off a mountain climbing expedition, preparation is key.
“A week in the gym is most certainly not going to cut it,” quips Tabaire. “You need to be in the best shape in as far as fitness goes. This is not something you attain in a week. It takes a lot more time than that - many weeks, if not months.”
Knowing that their Rwenzori climb was scheduled for July, the team started steady preparation in January, six months prior.
The physical preparation regime
For the first weeks, they started by climbing stairs. Workers’ House being one of the highest buildings in the city, they made it their training ground.
“We would go there five days a week in the evenings and trudge up and down the stairs. We did this for about four weeks,” Asiimwe narrates. Climbing the staircase helps alert and develop one’s climbing muscles, a quality one needs on the mountain because of the mountain’s vertical and steep nature.
Soon, they incorporated long walks as part of their workout schedule. They embarked on such walks every after a fortnight. As Mirembe reminisces, “We walked from Nsambya to Kisubi. Then we did the full length of the Northern Bypass, which is from Namboole to Busega. We also did one walk circling the seven hills of Kampala.”
The walks they did always ranged within 20 to 25km. They knew they had to get used to walking long distances because usually during mountain climbing, it takes around six hours to walk from one camp to another, moreover ascending. They needed all the muscle strength and perseverance they could get. They even made two trips to Mabira forest to carry on simple two-hour and six-hour hikes respectively.
“It is important to train in an outdoor environment like the forest rather than the artificial surrounding like the gym. This gives you a feel of the kind of environment you will be facing. In fact, as part of our Rwenzori preparation, we climbed mountains Elgon towards the end of May and Muhavura at the beginning of June,” Tabaire shares.
It is not a requirement to climb another mountain in preparation for another but training in hilly areas is key. This equips your body with the ability to easily acclimate in a mountainous environment. As Mugarura reveals, “the climb becomes harder as you go higher. Suddenly, you feel like a load is pressing down your chest, breathing becomes harder because higher areas do not have enough oxygen. All these are altitude effects. So one needs to hold a few training sessions in areas of higher altitude to be prepared.”
Much as one can still do fine when training on their own, employing services of a professional workout coach is advisable, more so when one is preparing for their first mountain climbing adventure.
This team employed someone to guide them through the drills and in Asiimwe’s view, it was worth it. “Our workout coach had a better image of the kind of training that would better equip us. Also, he helped us take workout more seriously. We did a lot of testing drills with him. We jumped on steps and over logs, we skipped ropes, dragged heavy tires around. We also did dancing and swimming exercise, though this was carried out on individual basis.”
The team’s climb had a charity aspect to it. Some people had pledged to donate good amounts of money for every member that made it to the peak and the team had in turn decided that they were to donate this money to babies’ homes around town to help buy mattresses and blankets for the children. It is the awareness that her presence at the peak was to bring in money to change children’s lives that kept Asiimwe inspired not only during the climb, but even during the vigorous training sessions before.
This is the kind of inspiration that everyone needs before and during the climb because as Asiimwe noticed, it takes more than physical fitness to make it. “You need to be mentally and emotionally prepared. You need to be inspired.”
“My inspiration was my brother. He had climbed Rwenzori before and it is his success that kept me inspired through the whole process. Also, July being my month of birth, I couldn’t think of a better way to mark my birthday,” Mirembe says. This pushed her to workout extensively to ensure her success on the climb.
Mitchel Barlow adds that you need to develop an attitude that embraces challenges. “The climb is a challenge, so is the preparation. What keeps you going is an attitude that welcomes challenges and is actually set to accomplish them. I looked at climbing the Rwenzori as my top challenge for this year. I kept telling myself that I had to put this challenge behind me no matter what. Mentally, this pushed me.”
Timing is paramount. Apart from the fact that Mirembe wanted to mark her birthday at the peak, the team decided to book for their climb in July because usually at Rwenzori, July is a dry month, which makes climbing easier. Doing the climb in wet seasons is more challenging as the mountain is a lot more slippery.
It is for this reason that Barlow advises that before booking, one needs to make research on the best time to climb basing on the mountain’s condition, but also their personal programmes, especially where work commitments are in the picture.
First, you have to pay a fixed amount to a mountain climbing service provider. Each member paid $750 (about Shs2.5m) to Rwenzori Mountaineering Services. This amount is to cater for your whole experience, including accommodation, feeding and the tour guides and porters.
“Then you have to spend more money to acquire climbing gear and other equipment, which include warm clothing, climbing boots, sleeping bag, gloves, hiking stick and some other necessities. This may cost you about $250 (about Shs850,000),” says Mirembe. But if you want to get top quality climbing gear, then this amount will shoot to around $1,000 because as Tabaire observes, quality climbing shoes that are light, have grip and are water-proof, cost about $500 (about Shs1.7m).
Nonetheless, the cost should not be one factor that deters you because there is always an option of saving. Mirembe says she started saving for the trip months to the scheduled date. “All the other members did the saving in their preferred fashion but I remember at one point, Asiimwe and I were saving Shs20,000 each day. And we were able to raise the required amount. If you are committed to something, you will always figure out a way.”
Be mentally prepared. Ensure you are aware of the task that lies ahead.
Have a good sense of humour. You will need to incorporate the fun throughout the entire trek to make it more bearable.
Know your strength. It is important to gauge your body’s strength.
Practise, practise, practise. Put in effort.
This makes it Africa’s 3rd highest mountain.
Location. It is located at the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its highest peaks are snow-capped throughout the year, sharing this quality with only mountains Kenya and Kilimanjaro.
World ranking. Mountain Rwenzori is ranked in the top 15 world’s best hikes, according to National Geographic because of its exceptional glaciers and the beautiful flora and fauna. It is one of Africa’s most sought after hiking experiences.
The number of days it took the members to ascend and descend the mountain.
Average amount ($250) each member paid to acquire climbing gear.
The amount ($750) each member paid to Rwenzori Mountaineering Services.
Average amount ($1,000) each member contributed to the whole expedition.