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To Hell With the Map. Climbing in the Mysterious Mountains of the Moon

Wherein the author finds some good bouldering, is cursed by the gods and experiences an epiphany in Africa’s legendary Mountains of the Moon.

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At 2 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1855, a band of Somali bandits known as “the penis-cutting people” attacked the first British Royal Geographical Society (RGS) expedition charged with finding the Mountains of the Moon, the mythic source of the Nile. At the first sign of trouble, the 42 porters hightailed it into the night. Most of the white bwanas were slaughtered when the Somalis cut down their tents and thrust spears into the masses writhing under the fabric. Expedition leaders Richard Burton and William Stroyan stepped from their quarters to face the sabers, curved daggers and war clubs of the attackers. Burton fought with a cutlass and managed to stay alive by cleaving a swath through the swarm. Stroyan brandished a Colt revolver in each hand but soon ran out of bullets and was hacked to pieces. John Speke, another expedition leader, battled his way toward Burton but he was unable to fire before a warrior thrust his spear clean through Burton’s face, piercing both cheeks, cutting his palate and busting out several teeth. Burton grabbed the spear and continued chopping his way toward the coast. Miraculously, he escaped and ran three miles down the beach—all the while steadying the spear impaling his face—to a British ship anchored just offshore.

Speke was not so lucky. The Somalis took him prisoner. They tied his hands behind his back and roughly forced him to the ground. They ripped his pants off and fondled his genitals, debating, no doubt, the most excruciating method of cutting them off. Apparently, they wanted to finish looting the camp and save the entertainment of castrating the Brit for later in the evening. To make sure that Speke didn’t escape, they plunged their spears deep into his thighs, severing several of the muscles in his quadriceps and hamstrings. Then they wandered off, combing the camp for spoils.

While his captors looted the camp, Speke began to drag himself down the beach. He made the safety of the British vessel at dawn after an agonizing crawl.

The Mountains of the Moon. Kitsamba Peak from the Elena Hut. Photo by David Clifford

This was the first concerted bid by whites to find the legendary snow-capped Mountains of the Moon—purported for centuries by Herodotus and Ptolemy, and in the mythology of African tribes and Arabic slavers, to be the source of the Nile—and it never even left the east coast of Africa. Yet despite their ill-fated beginning, both Burton and Speke returned two years later to try again.

Like many climbers, I am fascinated with the history of exploration. People like Burton and Speke mesmerize me with their monomaniacal focus. More often than not, they were outcasts, marginalized by their scars and the demented fire that lit their eyes. Who wants to volunteer for this trip: two years of sickness, starvation and almost guaranteed death? Pick me, they say. Oh, please, pick me.

After reading every book ever printed about Burton, I felt a peculiar kinship, a true understanding of why one chooses to face certain misery (at best) for a chance to explore. My ardor for first ascents had driven me through two marriages, countless low-paying jobs and around the world in search of unclimbed rock. It is hard to dismiss these guys as total crackpots when I’ve spent five weeks sleeping alone in a one-man tent in the Yukon.

Last year, however, I took a job as editor of Rock and Ice and suddenly the 20-year grand adventure ground to a halt. My ex-wives, parents and friends assured me that this was the best/only job I’d ever be able to tackle. They envisioned it as climbing and thinking about climbing, 24/7, which was pretty much what I’d been doing for the last 20 years anyway.

“They’ll send you all over the world to write about climbing,” my buddy EP said as we lifted glasses to the new job. “You’ll be getting paid to climb.”

The reality was a little different. We did get out and climb a lot. I even found new crags to sate my compulsive desire to establish new routes. But mostly I sat at my desk, struggling to spruce up trip reports and wringing my brain like a dishrag to come up with another way to say, “Never let go of the brake hand.”

Checking out the trekking routes at the Rwenzori Mountains National Park headquarters just outside of Nyakalengija. Photo: David Clifford

Then, in mid-February I received a call from a Jeff Kriendler on behalf of the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB). He wanted to know if I was interested in surveying the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda. It was the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of Margherita Peak, the highest summit on Mount Stanley, by Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, the Duke of Abruzzi, the famous Italian explorer and climber who began his lifelong quest to climb the remotest mountains by making the first ascent of Mount Saint Elias (18,008 feet) in Alaska in 1897 at age 24. In 1899, he set off for the North Pole and though he didn’t get there, he did set a new record for coming the closest. In 1906, the intrepid Duke turned his sights on the Rwenzori and made the first ascents of all the major peaks including the remote and stormy Margherita (16,763 feet). In 1909, he climbed K2 to a record height of 24,600 feet (7,500 meters) establishing much of the route that today bears his name, the Abruzzi Ridge.

The Duke’s infatuation with East Africa was predominant, however, and he returned again and again, eventually marrying a Somali woman. He died in Ethiopia and was interred there.

In preparation for the forthcoming centennial celebration, the UTB was looking for climbers to scope the Rwenzori for new modern climbs.

“Do you know about the Rwenzori?” Kriendler asked. “They’re also called the Mountains of the Moon. You’d leave in two months. Interested?”

The Mountains of the Moon! The name inflamed my brain like a case of swamp fever. Maybe this was Destiny, peeking his lion head over my desk. Just as life was turning the color of lead—a dull routine of eight-hour days—I was being offered a trip to Africa. Surely that had to mean something? There could even be new climbing to discover. There was a small chance, but that was enough. I glanced around my cluttered office, at the papers ringed with coffee stains, the cup of red pencils, the potted plants. Bingo, I thought.

Jeff Jackson boulders the Nybitaba boulder just outside of the Nybitaba Huts in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda. Photo: David Clifford

As soon as I hung up with Kriendler, I started researching the Rwenzori. I learned that the Rwenzori Mountains are located smack dab in the middle of the world. They straddle the equator and the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The range extends for roughly 60 miles north to south and 30 miles east to west, with six peaks over 15,000 feet. Unlike the other East African monarchs, Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, the Rwenzori are not volcanic in origin, but are comprised of sharply upthrusted quartzite and gneiss—ultra-hard rock that lends the range a craggy, alpine aspect.

From a climber’s point of view, that sounded appealing. The descriptions of the climate were less encouraging, however. David Pluth, in his book Uganda Rwenzori wrote, “Trekkers should therefore be prepared for heavy rain at any time of year, even during the dry seasons, which can be more theoretical than real.” The climate is extremely humid and it is common for the higher elevations to be shrouded in cloud for weeks at a time. It can rain 20 inches in a month. Trails become streams of mud and feed the many bottomless bogs.

After I’d read and digested as many factoids as I could find about the Rwenzori, I contacted a couple of fellow climber/writers for the inside dope. Cameron Burns had just returned from a trip to the range, researching his new guide to East Africa. Mark Jenkins, a writer for Outside, had also recently visited the Rwenzori. They both weighed in with some sound advice regarding equipment and climbing potential. In fact, they both said the same thing: Endless mud and rain, vegetation-covered rock, rime ice and snow slogs. 

“What about the rock climbing?” I asked Jenkins.

“Be prepared to climb in the rain.”

“Any bouldering potential?” I asked Cam.

“Only if you like to climb over carpets of moss.”

Jeff Jackson pulls on some virgin rock in the Rwenzori Range Uganda, Africa. Photo: David Clifford

Then, as I was perusing Henry Osmaston’s 1972 climbers’ guide to the Rwenzori, I noticed numerous references to “rock shelters.” “Rock Shelters” were also pointed out on A. L. Weilochowski’s 1989 topographical map. Maybe these little “n” shaped symbols marked bouldering caves—bulletproof quartzite hollows ripped with holds and sheltered from the rain. I’d received my itinerary for the trip, which I checked against the Osmaston and Weilochowski maps. There was a rock shelter at almost every camp.

“This is a very stubborn tree,” Fred said.

Fred Munaba, our guide, was around 30 years old. He was dressed in a brown Rwenzori Mountain Service (RMS) shirt with the sleeves rolled up and worn brown canvas pants. He spoke an interesting Lukonzo-inflected English—clipped and musical.

Hannah (my wife), Cliffy (photo-god), me, Fred, Philemon Mubiwabo (the second guide), Dezi Manimba and Wilson Wakibanahi (cooks), four porters and 10 porters’ porters had just left RMS headquarters at Nyakalengija and entered what Fred referred to as “the mountain forest zone.” It looked to me like a snarled mess of wide leaves, tangled grass and trees as big around as a tabletop. Fred, who seemed to know every plant by both its common and Latin name, was telling us about another smooth-barked, six-foot-thick tree growing beside the narrow trail.

“He is a sausage tree,” Fred said. “The womens hold the fruits to her breasts and they grow to the size of the fruit.”

Philemon Mubiwabo tries out bouldering for the first time on the waxy slopers at the Omukibatsi shelter cave, just before entering the Bigo bog. Photo: David Clifford

The pendulous fruit hung from the tree like a five-gallon bag of tapioca.

“And the man’s, too,” Fred said. “He holds the fruit to his reproductive organs and they grow—oh, so very large. But then he must cut the tree. If he doesn’t cut, the reproductive organs they grow and grow and continue growing until he cuts the tree.”

The sausage tree didn’t sound like something to fool around with and neither did the man-power tree (good for when “the woman fails you”) or the floating timber tree, the next “stubborn” (or magico/medical) tree we passed.

“To use this you must cut your hen,” Fred said.

“Your hen?”

“No, your hen,” Fred emphasized.

Eventually I understood that a person wishing to use the floating timber tree must first offer a blood sacrifice by cutting his or her hand.

“If you do not let a little blood flow and you try to cut it,” Fred said, “you will hear voices cursing or the tree might fall onto your friend.”

I made a pact to leave the vegetation alone. There were trees to make your breasts grow, one for fertility, a menstrual-cramp-relieving tree, a rash-relieving tree and an anti-divorce tree—all of them very stubborn. I didn’t want to blow it and wind up with gonads the size of cantaloupes.

I’m superstitious about the usual things: dwarves (lucky), midgets (unlucky), fat people, numbers, shoes, labels, coffee cups, knots, traffic lights, the order in which I eat my food. Back home I had devised a system to counter any deviations, but Africa had introduced a whole new echelon of superstitious juju to contend with. I needed help navigating this maze. Impulsively, I called on the gods.

“Gods of the Rwenzori,” I prayed, “bless this trip. Help us to avoid rubbing up against or smashing down dangerous flora. I know it’s gonna rain, but please give us good weather on summit day and let there be holds in the shelter caves.”

At that moment, a loud clap of thunder sounded. We had stopped for lunch at the base of the Panga Ridge, a steep two-hour climb through Podorcarpus forest to the first day’s destination, the Nyabitaba hut.

“Do the gods have names here?”

I asked Fred. “I just  prayed for them to bless our trip.”

Fred turned away, but not before I saw his face fall into a deep frown. He walked a few steps down the trail, shaking his head. Philemon had heard me, and he responded.

“Yes, the gods have names,” he said. “But we don’t mention the gods while we are in the mountains. Very bad luck. Very, very bad.”

“And don’t eat the blackberries,” Fred said gruffly, still standing a little distance away. “That will make it like to rain, please.”

We hiked through increasingly wet and muddy conditions—through forests of bamboo and St. John’s Wort, under 60-foot heathers with drooping moss and around giant lobelias with meter-long flower cones. Freakish groundsels towered above us like Joshua Trees juiced on Dianabol. The plants were jumbo and the landscape seemed especially suited to dinosaurs and Sasquatch. I watched the surface of the lakes for massive fins. Any righteous monster left on the planet would do well to look at the Rwenzori before settling on a place to lurk.

On day three, just before entering the Lower Bigo Bog, we broke through the heathers and came upon a humongous black quartzite cave. It was called Omukibatsi on the Weilochowski map and I could tell right away that it was the goods. Twenty feet tall, 30 feet deep, the rock was busted up in a series of angled shelves. The landing consisted of a flat green lawn. It was perfect.

Fred and Philemon looked on as I pulled out my toothbrush and set to work, gripping the rock, slapping on chalk, ooohing and ahhhing and grunting and occasionally shouting “Yes!” when I found a good hold.

A typically lovely Bakonzo woman. Photo: David Clifford

Hannah had seen it all before so she went off exploring. Cliffy tinkered with his camera, checking out the angles.

“What are you doing, please?” Fred asked.

When I explained that I was going to try and climb out of the cave, Philemon, who was standing with Fred, said, “The people won’t believe it!”

I turned away and smiled. To be honest, I was hoping to impress Fred and recover some luster I lost with my little gaffe about the gods.

Scrubbing up the Omukibatsi cave, I was again struck by the similarities between exploring and first ascents. To a climber, the cave was a terra incognito as mysterious and as fascinating as any undiscovered country. I traced the line of holds—fondling, studying and scouring each one with a zeal that fascinated our guides.

“Why do you wish to climb out of this shelter?” Philemon asked.

“That’s a very good question,” I said.

Philemon found a stick broom in the nearby Bigo hut and used it to help sweep off the ledges. In an hour, we had cleaned up three problems. The best-looking rig was a 30-foot traverse along a low rail to a series of horizontal pinches. The rock was grievously slick, almost waxy, and the crux moves were stacked up over the only bad landing, a five-foot-deep pit, dug in front of a low boulder.

Confident, I pulled on my shoes. “Ready?” I asked Cliffy.

“It’s all you, Jefe.”

I slopped my way up the slippery rail to a good shake and wedged a heel, trying to recover. My hands melted off the pinches like warm beans on a rubber doorstop. I looked down and saw to my horror that I was positioned directly over the pit.

“I’m fading!” I shouted to Cliffy.

“Send,” he said calmly, eye pressed to the viewfinder.

I glanced at Fred and Philemon. The consternation showed in their faces—brows knit, mouths agape. I thrutched for the next rail, a bad slope. My heel squeeged out of the lock just as I made contact. My feet swung out like two iron pegs thrown down a long tunnel. I held the black wedge for a beat, enough time for my legs to complete their pitiless arc. Then my hand popped off the hold like a kid spitting a cherry seed and I tumbled headfirst into the deep hole.

Fred walked over and peered down at me. “There is tree for wounds,” he said.

Almost all of the shelter caves had bouldering, albeit sooty and draped with spider webs. Most of the caves came equipped with stick brooms which Fred and Philemon put to good use sweeping the ledges. I’d concentrate on scrubbing with my toothbrush and within an hour we’d have the caves fluffed and ready. Fred and Philemon were naturals, laughing and cranking V2 moves in their gumboots. We found standout problems in the Omukibatsi cave, the Cooking Pot cave and the Bujongolo cave. There were interesting traverses at Kitandara and Kichuchu. With some attention, the Scott Eliot Pass would be world class. Acres of erratic quartzite blocks choke the slopes leading down from the Duke’s camp at Omukabamwanjara.

The trouble started at the Elena hut, a bleak little shelter perched on slick and precipitous rocks at 15,000 feet. This was our last stop before the summit of Margherita.

Aside from the ever-present pelting rain, I had enjoyed the trip. The landscape was stunning, our guides, porters and cooks treated us like kings and the bouldering had been top shelf. Now I was looking forward to topping out Margherita (16,763 feet), by all accounts a short three-hour snow slog. Hannah found a summit register in a corner of the hut and pointed out that a group of Korean women, all over 60, had climbed the peak a couple of years before. How bad could it be?

True, a storm was blowing outside and rime ice was building on the roof, walls and rocks, but it would clear. The humid cold seeped into the hut like incense smoke filling a room. I looked at Philemon. He was shivering. “It’ll clear, right?” I asked.

Philemon shrugged. Fred was giving me a dark look, no doubt still sore about my chat with the gods.

David Clifford checks the weather outside the Elena Hut.

An unpleasant tightness in the upper left side of my belly startled me from a restive sleep at 2 a.m. My gut gurgled and bubbled and made audible whistles and moans. It sounded like whales were communicating in my sleeping bag. I alternately sweated and shivered for another hour. I could only lie on my right side. If I shifted, nausea swept through me like an oily green wave. I smacked my lips. My mouth was dry and my breath tasted like roadkill. At one point I felt like I could break wind and I rejoiced at the thought—anything to relieve the hideous pressure. Carefully, patiently, I tried to ease one out. The terrible pressure increased. It was like some perverse bellow-lunged demon was puffing up my bowels.

  I struggled up, ripped off my britches and stumbled out half-naked into the now raging storm. I turned on my headlamp but saw only a wall of big, wet snowflakes. Visibility was about three feet. The ground was coated in rime ice. To reach the latrine I’d have to negotiate the slick rocks that dropped off 30 feet in every direction, locate a ladder, climb down it, walk through a canyon, climb another ladder, open the door and squat over the hole. The rumblings in my belly sounded like elephants channeling Hank Williams. I was not going to make it to the latrine.

Instead, I found a spot as close to the edge as I dared to venture and hung my ass over the inky blackness, hoping to drop whatever was boogering my guts into the abyss.

I’ve had stomach complaints in the past—waylaid by tainted tacos in Mexico, jingus couscous in Morocco and bad beef heart in Peru, but nothing compared to the storm that descended on me that night in the Mountains of the Moon. By the time I struggled back inside, weak-kneed and flat-out awed, the area outside the hut looked like a Super Fund site.

Thankfully, it was still snowing hard.

Walking down from Elena, through the maze of killer boulders, bent at the waist by the army of imps dragging a cultivator through my large intestine, I reflected again on the history of white guys in Africa. They   all got sick. So did the natives.

Jurassic Park vegetation. Trekking through the Heather Zone. The moss is called Old Man’s Beard. Photo: David Clifford

On Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to find David Livingstone, the porters, the soldiers, the Arab boy Selim, the donkeys, even Omar the dog died of dysentery. Getting the trots was simply a consequence of traveling through flooded jungles and bogs. Yet, in spite of the obvious health hazards, Stanley undertook six expeditions to Africa.

In 1887 Stanley became the first white dude to lay eyes on the Rwenzori. He was on his way to rescue the German explorer Emin Pasha, who was surrounded by rebel Madhist forces. When Stanley found him, Pasha, like Livingstone before him, refused to be rescued. He would rather die than leave Africa.

The pen really is a lot like a sword. You can whack away with it until you’ve cleared a space and imposed a sort of order within that space. I’ve given you a story about the Rwenzori but I can’t give you the Rwenzori. You have to go there for that. People and places are far too complex to be elucidated in words on a page.

Some people say the explorers were simply whacking out a space, too—for Britain, for themselves. All told, the devout David Livingstone spent almost 30 years in Africa, seven of them searching for the Mountains of the Moon. A lion seized him by the shoulder and his hair turned white. His teeth fell out. He became too weak to walk and had to be carried in a litter, but still he searched and refused to leave.

Some writers say that he was compulsive. Some say he was evangelical or nationalistic or that he simply needed to label that little spot with the name of an aristocrat or himself and in that way bring some good Christian/Victorian order to that crazy country and the debacle that had become his life.

I like to think that Livingstone and the other Africa explorers—Burton, Speke, Stanley, Emin Pasha and the Duke—weren’t bonkers, but conversely, chose the complexities of frontier Africa over the conveniences (and mores) of Victorian England.

Burton was hardly an incapable man. His expeditions to Africa were models of efficiency and scientific accuracy. Before Africa he became the first white man to visit Mecca (disguised as a dervish). He was fluent in 29 languages and made the first and still definitive translations of The Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra.

Perhaps all adventurers—climbers as well as explorers—possess what John Keats termed a Negative Capability—the ability to tolerate and thrive in uncertainty and mystery, a state of intentional open-mindedness. Think of the mental disposition you adopt to onsight a difficult route. You tromp upward into the foreign space like these men walked into Africa—every move is unknown.

My fundamental epiphany came as I palmer-housed down the steep trail from the Elena hut with a belly full of bad bacteria. This life is a lot like exploring Africa. We’re born into a world of hurt. The years pass, but still we stay. It is a search as desperate as Livingstone’s, a search for the source, that mythic place some call the soul or enlightenment but could just as easily be labeled the Mountains of the Moon.

“He is a sausage tree,” Fred said. “The womens hold the fruits to her breasts and they grow to the size of the fruit.”

In 1852, 101 years before that other Holy Grail, Mount Everest, was finally climbed, the RGS founder Sir Roderick Murchison focused Britain’s colonial consciousness on the Mountains of the Moon.

Ironically, the cutting-edge climbing in the range was on the boulders, and in the future, mountaineers looking to push the envelope in the Rwenzori will focus on the subsidiary peaks.

“It must be said that there is no exploration in Africa to which greater value would be attached than an ascent of these mountains from the east coast,” said Murchison. “The adventurous travelers who shall first lay down the true position of these equatorial snowy mountains … will be justly considered amongst the greatest benefactors of this age.”

Murchison’s address to the RGS effectively whipped any British vagabond with free time and backing into a frenzy of Victorian nationalism. With the seas mapped and the continents delineated, finding the source of the Nile became the

new lodestone for exploration. Between 1798, when the British Admiral Lord Nelson decimated the French at the Battle of the Nile and secured North Africa for His Majesty King George III, and 1857, the year Burton and Speke returned to East Africa for round two, many self-styled explorers had set out to find the Mountains of the Moon. They never even got close.

What they found was hideous, miserable suffering and death. Lions and crocodiles munched on them, as did an insufferable collection of flesh-eating maggots, hookworms, black and green mambas, cobras, mosquitoes, tsetse flies and blood-sucking leeches. They starved or died from pneumonia, dysentery, elephantiasis or tropical fevers. And if the critters, both macro and micro, didn’t kill them, the natives did. Centuries of Arabic slavers had conditioned most East African tribes to view white caravans as enemies and they swept out of the dense jungles in painted, howling, spear-bristling tides to wipe out the troublesome muzungus (white people) before they kidnapped their women and children and marched them off across the desert to be sold as human pack animals and concubines.

Nevertheless, the explorers kept coming, much as they did on Mount Everest a century later, giving up their health, wealth and even their lives for the glory of finding and climbing the Mountains of the Moon.

It was our last night in the Rwenzori and everybody was amped. The porters had managed to cruise through the mud and rocks, leaping over gaps in the boulders with heavy packs tied to their foreheads. They practically ran across the slippery talus, where a fall would mean disfigurement or worse. They were obviously happy to be out of the proverbial woods. Our guides, Fred and Philemon, were bummed that the weather had not cleared enough for us to tag the summit, but we assured them that the summit was not important to us. Ironically, the cutting-edge climbing in the range was on the boulders, and in the future, mountaineers looking to push the envelope in the Rwenzori will focus on subsidiary peaks like Savoia, Kitsamba and Great Tooth and largely ignore Mount Stanley’s highest point.

As if confirming that the gods had cursed me, my belly complaint had eased as soon as we retreated from the Elena hut. The clouds had shredded like tissues blown ragged and the full moon was rising over the heather forest. We were camped in a clearing, at the Guy Yeoman hut, and the light from the moon was strong enough to throw the shadows of the trees across the lush grass.

Dezi and Wilson had prepared another feast of curry and chapatti and we all sat with our backs against the wall, watching the moon rise.

“Now we will sing to you a traditional song of the Rwenzori, please,” Dezi said.

The 14 porters gathered in the center of the clearing. Bonefesi Babughaghe grabbed a Jerry can and Monday Nzwenge turned over the washbasin. They started up a lively, rumbling beat. The other porters hiked up their britches and, without a shade of embarrassment, plumped their genitals and started thrusting and rocking, twirling, wriggling and bobbing. Dezi’s hand shot up in the air and he commenced to warbling in a high, perfectly pitched timbre that sounded like a cross between Mick Jagger and the King of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

I was completely entranced. Dezi would sing a verse and the rest of the porters would answer in their lower range. Soon, Cliffy and Hannah were shaking their booties as well. Something about the call and response pulled us deeply into the music.

“This is the Mountain Song,” Fred said. “It is called Olhwimbo Lwe Rwenzori.”

Fred had been a lot friendlier since the weather had improved. He was standing at my side translating.

“This song is concerning the bounty of the Rwenzori,” he said. “They are proud of the lakes and the beautiful animals. They are proud that the outside people come to see them. They say that the Rwenzori is their shamba, their beautiful garden where they come to gather food for their families. Because the outside people come with their shillings, the Rwenzori is where they go to harvest and to eat.”

I looked around at these people: Adonia Kighoma, Andrew Tembo, Kule Jowasi, Johnson Mbusa, Girisoni Katwanga and the others. They had soulfulness and honor.

And if the weather had been atrocious, well, so what. We had come to Africa like so many before, simply to experience. The trip had not been an easy one, but that night under the moon, listening to Dezi and the porters singing their prayers, I realized that Africa had taken hold and changed us, as subtly as the mist coalescing into rain.

“Now I can tell you about the King of the Mountain,” Philemon said.

We were walking down the smooth dirt road through the outskirts of Nyakalengija toward the RMS offices. Groups of women and children were returning from the shamba, balancing firewood, pots of milk and stalks of bananas on their heads. They welcomed us with smiles and allowed Cliffy to snap a few photos in exchange for a couple of shillings.

“The king is called Kitsamba,” Philemon said. “He lives on Mount Baker and his soldiers stay on Mount Stanley. He has his own peak where he also likes to stay. It is just above the Elena hut and is called Kitsamba.

“Kitsamba has a wife. Her name is Nyabibuya. She also has her own peak and the women call on her when they struggle in delivery. Nyabibuya and Kitsamba have a son named Kalisya. He watches over the wild creatures. We don’t name the Kings when we go to their mountains. They do not like to be called upon. It is not respectful. So don’t call them by their names, please, and don’t eat the blackberries until you are safely home.”

I dutifully scribbled notes and put an asterisk by the
last sentence.

Jeff Jackson Climbing’s Editor at Large. For more of his writing, check out this great story.