One at a time, the worshippers disappear into a 30-foot-deep chimney on the east face of a 130-foot granite spire in the Ugandan jungle, an hour north of the country’s capital, Kampala. Just inside, they kneel and pray to the rock god Kkungu, as have others over hundreds of years, part of the traditional religion of the Buganda people of central Uganda.
The worshippers offer coffee beans, cowrie shells, and what’s known locally as “tonto,” a brew made partly from bananas. They believe the spirit can help them find husbands or wives, jobs or money, or heal them from sickness. “People who come want to get blessings,” says Sadiq Sebyala, who instructs worshippers at the spire. “They want to [have a] happy life.”
But recently, Kkungu Spire has lured a different type of pilgrim: climbers. In August 2017, Umalu Lubega, a security manager at the site, granted the Mountain Club of Uganda permission to develop Kkungu for climbing.
So far, climbers have established 12 new routes on the spire, and 4 more on a boulder nearby. The 30- to 115-foot routes range from 5.7 to 5.12b, from technical slabs to featured overhangs. To summit, you walk into the prayer chimney (waiting for any worshippers to finish their prayers), wiggle up it to a ledge, and climb a bolted pitch to the top.
Recorded climbing here dates back to the early 1960s. According to Guide to the Rwenzori: Mountains of the Moon, the British diplomat and then mountain-club president Andrew Stuart was called upon “to do a difficult solo rock-climb to capture an armed and mad, rabble rousing … witch-doctor on the summit.” He was awarded a Colonial Police Medal for the arrest.
The worshippers have their own ties to climbing. As the story goes, the god Kkungu chose their current leader, Fred Kagwa, by bestowing on him the power to free solo to the summit. “I saw him,” says Lubega. “He just climbed it like a monkey.”
Climbers ascended the spire in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. “We tried climbing the other faces, but the [holds] were too small,” recalls Deo Lubega, a mountain-club member. After that, the rock saw little action until 2016 when the American Matt Battani, living in Uganda, read about the crag in a guidebook. He and other climbers, as part of the mountain club, soon began bolting.
Some worshippers have been wary of the climbers, questioning whether the visitors are trying to get power from Kkungu or steal the rock. “When they see climbing … some people fear. [They say], ‘They come with machines, they are measuring it … they want to buy it,’” Sebyala says. “We just say, ‘They are climbers, like tourists, mountain climbers. They just want to climb and [have] fun, and they enjoy it.’”
Climbers have respected worshippers’ request that they not climb on ceremonial days. But this isn’t always the case at sacred sites, like Wyoming’s Devils Tower where climbers have been criticized for disregarding Native American wishes by climbing in June during a voluntary religious closure. In Uganda, climbers seek a better balance.
The mountain club has pledged to give back by buying food and drink from vendors in the local village, cleaning the area around the rock, and teaching locals to climb. Climbers also pay about $1.40 to park. “We’ve had good relations [over time], and they know our intentions,” Deo Lubega says.
Magic surrounds Kkungu. A buffalo horn may sound as a worshipper calls upon the spirits of ancestors, or the canopy may rustle with monkeys. Then there are the worshippers, local kids, and teenagers who giggle and gasp as you fight through a crux. In this special place, two cultures converge to celebrate the stone.