In June 1990 I went on my first mountaineering expedition, to the Ruwenzori mountains in central Africa. This range has been linked with the fabled Mountains of the Moon, for centuries postulated to be the source of the Nile, hidden deep in central Africa. They are home to the third highest peak in Africa, Margherita, 5109 metres. I was climbing with Stephen Kelsey, from Johannesburg, and we approached the mountain from the Zaire (now DRC) side.

This article was first published in Southern Rock #1 Aug-Nov 1990

Equatorial Ice
by Cathy O’Dowd

Perched uncomfortably on my pack, feet jammed between a large bag of meal and a large African lady and rapidly going numb. The rest of me wedged between Stephen and 25 other adults (children and chickens extra) on the back of a bakkie. Discomfort increasing with every bump and hole in the road, and the road consists of little else. Coated in dust, sweating beneath a powerful equatorial sun, staring numbly at the savannas of the Great Rift Valley, I wonder what on earth I am doing here. It seems to bear very little connection to mountaineering.

At the end of 1989 I decided to go to Bolivia to climb, but a few months later that plan fell through. Nevertheless I was determined to go somewhere. A quick change of climbing partner and continent and I was going to the Ruwenzori mountains with Stephen Kelsey.

The Ruwenzoris are in Zaire, a country where the disorganisation is rivaled only by the corruption. Travelling is a nightmare. Their equivalent of the Greyhound on the N3 takes 12 hours to cover 350 kms, with an extra two hours for breakdowns. Generally we traveled on the back of bakkies. Our record was to be 35 adults plus luggage on the back of a one ton Toyota Stout.

Officialdom exists only to exploit foreigners. Military police demand climbing rope so they can wear it as belts. Airport officials look insulted if you underbribe them. Pseudo-police helped themselves to large amounts of our cash. The only South African they have ever heard of is Mandela, and they think he is president. While we were there their president had 200 students killed, with the result that Sabena airlines, on which we had return tickets, immediately stopped flying to Zaire. This is Third World Africa with a vengeance.

It’s not all bad. Where else can you get picked up by an expatriate coffee-trader, a complete stranger, and have food, hot baths, beds and unlimited amounts of beer forced on you? But in retrospect it is the endless epics that stand out. Still, as long as we kept laughing about it, it was good. All this and we hadn’t even got to the start of the walk-in yet.

After parting with a large amount of US dollars in park fees, we had a guide, his porter, two porters for us and we were ready to go. With all the arrogance of “real climbers” we assumed that because lots of tourists walk the first three days, it must be easy. The porters took the food, the rest we carried ourselves. Big Mistake no. 1. They breed gapers tough and rugged in Zaire. Halfway through day one we gave ourselves hero status. Halfway through day two we upgraded it to martyrdom. Halfway through day three we thought we were about to die. At the end of day four we stopped, fell over and decided this was basecamp.

Fairly soon Big Mistake no. 2 became apparent. The catering was ample for three weeks in a kloof. It was far from ample for three weeks over 4000m doing hard labour. Rationing was introduced, quickly followed by food as the main and then only topic of conversation. Rest days became a nightmare as we lay in the tent anticipating the next meal. By the third week visions of food were floating at eye level, a long line of it, moving left to right. The final injustice came after we walked out. Stephen consumed everything he could lay his hands on while I went down with gut-rot and was eating almost nothing.

Climbing was a good way to keep our minds off food … when we could see the mountain to climb it. The clouds came in at about 10am and lifted at sunset. In between we got very cold bums sitting in the snow waiting for the mist to part briefly and reveal where we were. As the clouds rolled back in the late afternoon a beautiful sunset would reveal exactly where we were, which would be several hours from basecamp. Little snow and very hard ice had pros and cons. Crevasses were hard enough to stand at their edges and knock off icicles to hear the musical tones (with Stephen looking on nervously). But then the ice was also hard enough to resist any attempt at self arrest – so Stephen stopped when he hit the ice below. Elsewhere it would crunch interestingly, like crumpled tinsel paper, depart from the face when assaulted by an ice tool and land on the head of the party below – me.

Above the glaciers are the rock peaks, a masterpiece of precariously balanced boulders, which headed downhill at regular intervals. They are carefully moulded to form bomb alleys of scree and knife-edge ridges of choss which we climbed up and down. When solid it was bomber and well protected by a soapy sheet of lichen. Descending was easy. Pegs had been left for rap points, or else bit of cord wrapped round rubble. The only drawback was that they were 30+ years old. We thought of Stew’s gear tests and abbed with a hope and a prayer.

In the beginning dawn starts were the order of the day. By the end we were going well if we got out of bed by nine. Hunger was eroding energy and motivation. Heat was eroding the glaciers as well. They looked nothing like the Ugandan route book (from 30 years ago) indicated. These are not glaciers to be saved for your old age. We climbed the area out. It was time to go home.

I learnt a lot in those six weeks. Like the fact that one did French at school does mean that one can speak it. And that looking right before crossing a street is a quick route to death when they drive on the wrong side of the road. That it is possible to teeter on the edge of one crampon, on a steep glacier, unroped, in the dark and adjust the bail on the other crampon and still manage not to burst into tears. That I can carry heavier loads further than I ever thought possible, but that I really don’t want to. That white peaks, looming through the mist, glistening beneath the moonlight, in an intricate pattern of crevasses and seracs, have a powerful attraction, a lure to return. That heaven on earth is the discovery of a shop selling 200g slabs of Cadburys chocolate. At around R8 a slab we bought one each.

Stephen Kelsey was killed while attempting the west face of Salcante in Peru in 1993.