One of the most terrifying and exhausting days of my life, summiting the 5,109m Margarita Peak, the highest point of Mt Stanley, Africa’s third highest mountain. Although Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya are higher, their standard routes are relatively straightforward compared to the entry level mountaineering required on Mt Stanley. There were extensive roped sections (some fixed, some put in on route), two glaciers to cross, overhanging ice, and numerous slippery sections, particularly when it started to snow…
It’s a long slog up to the summit from Margherita Camp (4,460m), and the best weather tends to be first thing in the morning so the alarm went off at 1.20am. After forcing down porridge and scrambled eggs on toast, four of us set out in the dark for the summit, two guides, myself and a lady on the same trip with Rwenzori Trekking Services, organised through World Expeditions.
It was steep from the outset with the first ropes half an hour in, a little beyond Elena Camp. An ascender was useful for ascending the smooth, sloping rocks, which were a theme of the day. It was much better climbing in the darkness, as you couldn’t see the implications if you slipped. The rocks were dry but I remember thinking at the time that when wet they would be lethal, which unfortunately was the case on the way back down…
Stanley Glacier at 4,765m was relatively easy to traverse with crampons, with the group roped together in case of crevices. Walking on the glacier under the light of a full moon at 5am was one of the highlights of the day.
I took a number of photos with long exposures which look like daytime, but with stars in the sky. In reality it was as dark as you’d expect before the dawn, even with a full moon, but these give an idea of the landscape we walked through.
Our first glimpse of Margarita Glacier was this impressive face, surrounded by icicles.
Walking up it was one of the hardest parts of the day though, with a slope between 30% and 60%, tough going at altitude, even with crampons and an ice axe. The sun was up by then though and it was quite glorious.
There were some unusual ice formations part way up.
And even more incredible ones near the top where we turned off to head toward the summit.
I sat underneath them while ice screws were attached further along the ledge. Quite surreal shapes have been formed by the wind, like nothing else I’ve seen.
Once the screws were fixed we walked carefully along the narrow ledge attached to a rope. The weather started to pack in at this point, frustratingly close.
After which it was a relatively straightforward rocky ascent for ten minutes to reach the summit. Unfortunately while waiting by the ice formations the cloud came in so there were no views from the summit. On a clear day (of which there is a 20% chance according to one of our guides) you can see across into the Democratic Republic of Congo. They share the Rwenzori Mountains, with the border about five metres past the summit signs.
We came back the way we came up, getting another close look at the ice formations.
Margarita Glacier was much easier to walk down though there was little visibility.
It’s face looked even more atmospheric in the dull light of a cloudy day, and as cold as it felt, with the wind picking up over the course of the day.
We crossed Stanley Glacier in a near whiteout.
The falling snow made for a treacherous descent down wet, extremely slippery rocks, probably my least favourite form of terrain when walking.
After the final rope section I got to see Elena Camp in daylight.
Before returning to Margarita Camp about eleven hours after leaving it, in time for a late lunch, a quiet afternoon and an early night.