Ascent of Mount Stanley on 2010-01-04

Climber: Rob Woodall

Others in Party:Petter Bjorstad
Paal Bjorstad
Tor Bjorstad
Date:Monday, January 4, 2010
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Stanley
    Location:Congo DRC/Uganda
    Elevation:16762 ft / 5109 m

Ascent Trip Report

I climbed this peak on an expedition organised by Petter Bjorstad, with his sons Tor and Paal. We did the "standard" Bujuka circuit but included Mt Speke and Mt Baker, thus including the highpoints of the 3 main Rwenzori massifs. We were there at the start of the dry season and had good weather for all ascents.

Monday 28 December: we fly into Entebbe and meet at Boma Lodge guesthouse.
Tue 29th we are picked up by minibus, travel to the RMS (Rwenzori Mountaineering Services) HQ at Kampala to complete payment and formalities, then via Fort Portal to Kesese: Margherita Hotel overnight.

Wed 30 Dec: our minibus collects us after breakfast and takes us to to the trailhead. From the main road E of Kasese, a dirt road turns N, rough in parts but OK for 2WD, climbs through Ibanda village, finally reaching the RMS compound which is on the R, near the end of the road (the village is Nyakalengija). Our porter luggage is weighed (the basic allowance is 25kg per client), we were given an introductory talk and introduced to our guides Sebestian (sic) and George. Looking N up the valley, peaks can be seen - the Portal Peaks.

Trek to Nyabitaba hut, 2672m, trailhead 1600m, ascent 1072m net + 100m, 7km; 3h20 including several stops. For this day only, the trail is just about dry enough for trail shoes or light boots. For the remainder of the trail, rubber boots (wellingtons / gumboots) are a must! Start hiking 10:45, initially through a village then fields. Call at RMS checkpoint to sign in, stop briefly at Mihunga Park entrance (info boards covering rules, no. of species etc). Then the trail narrows and follows the L (W) side of the Bujuku river, with several ups and downs, through jungle/forest including tree ferns, wild banana, a large bracken species and many more interesting plants, many birds heard, few seen. There are a couple of wooden bridges crossing side streams. We halted for about 30 mins for lunch. Final long ascent leads up onto a ridge which is a lateral moraine, rising approx 100m above the river. Nyabitaba hut (2672m GPSr) is reached at 14:09 (approx 2h40 hiking). The hut is quite comfortable: bunks mostly with mattresses and pillows - we have it to ourselves. A larger hut is being built beside it: apparently it is used for 2-day trekkers who stay here then return to base the next day. The porters (who arrive a while after us) and guides have their own "house" 100m further on, there's a piped (from stream) water supply nearby.

We filter all water as a precaution. RMS provide a cook but we have brought freeze dried meals, breakfast and trail food hence his only duty is to provide hot water.

Thursday 31 Dec: trek to John Matte hut: 3415m, ascent 740m net + 300m, 7km; 3h50. Rain briefly overnight; fine morning: views initially of the Portal Peaks soaring above us across the Bujuka valley. Depart 08:30. Trail continues along ridge for a while; we fork R at a signboard, steeply downhill to cross a suspension bridge. The trail climbs along the R (E) bank of the river, initially bamboo forest, crossing some clearings (caused by a landslide), later giving way to giant tree heather Philippia which grows to 30m tall. Near the hut we have our first taste of the notorious Rwenzori bogs - too deep for walking boots to be a serious option. Often there are bamboo or wooden poles laid along the wettest section which are helpful to a point but often slippery and requiring good balance - especially if hiking without walking poles. John Matte hut is in a pleasant location with a fine view down the valley to the Portal Peaks but more interestingly, out target peaks can now be seen: Speke to the R, Baker across the valley, and the Stanley peaks Margherita, Alexandra and Savoia jutting on the skyline at the head of the valley. The guides and porters stay up until midnight to see in the new year "for good luck". We feel no such compulsion, but take time to appreciate the full moon over the Portal Peaks before turning in.

Fri 1 January 2010: to Bujuka hut, 3965m, ascent 550m net + 30m; 5.2km; 3h20. We start the new year by descending to the R Bujuka, crossing to its L bank (rickety 3m bridge of neatly woven branches). On the far side, the Lower Bigo Bog is crossed by a fairly new boardwalk, giving a good vantage point for the giant lobelia and other interesting bog plants, with Iolanda and Speke towering above us across the valley floor. The trail crosses a steep shoulder, then the Bujuka is crossed again to the Upper Bigo Bog, with traces of a long-decayed boardwalk, but progress consists mainly of jumping between sedge tussocks or wading through foot-deep (or worse) bog. A steep ascent through tree heather and giant groundsel leads to the upper corrie: initially flat but soon leading to the Bujuka Lake - an attractive spot but the up-and-down boggy trail following its SE shore is fairly fearsome. Once past this an easy, fairly dry trail leads at last to Bujuka hut. The hut nestles at the foot of Mt Speke, surrounded by giant groundsel and other plants, the air full of the chatter of pipits and sunbirds. Across the corrie is Mt Baker's serrated ridge; straight across, the slopes of the Stanley massif soar upwards, its summits out of sight.

Now at nearly 4000m, I'm feeling the altitude and needing rest. Petter, Tor and Paal however go to check out the Congo border and the start of the Speke route, and are caught by fairly heavy rain which starts at about 2pm - a typical daily pattern as we discover. Also caught by the rain are an Austrian group of 8: they went up Speke yesterday and have been to visit a lake today; they pack up and move on to the next hut - Elena. Overnight we share the hut with a party of 8 (7 Norwegians and a Swede - I am the only non-Scandinavian!).

Sat 2 Jan: ascent of Mt Speke - see separate report.

Sun 3 Jan: to Elena hut, 4556m (GPSr), ascent 590m; 3km; 2h30. The first half of the route is boggy, skirting round the head of the corrie. It then climbs steeply, at last leaving the bog behind, cutting back R up a steep gully (excellent dry trail) before cutting back L, levelling off and crossing a ridge. Clean dry slabby rock is then crossed to the hut which is in a superb situation, with two of Stanley's Savoia peaks towering directly above, and Baker directly opposite, in and out of cloud, looking like a much larger version of Skye's Bla-bheinn. We arrive at 11:30. The Austrian party are still on Margherita: in a while we watch them descend and are pleased to learn that all 8 of them summitted successfully and the conditions up there are good. They have lunch, pack up and depart just in time for us to move in before the rain starts (2pm, same as yesterday). Later in the afternoon the rain ceases and the views of the surrounding mountains is most impressive.

Mon 4 Jan: ascent of Margherita Peak (Mt Stanley and Uganda-Congo national highpoint); 5109m; ascent 550m net + 30m; 4km round trip. To maximise our chances of a summit view we start at 06:05, doing the initial rocky section by head-torch. This involves some scrambling, the harder parts protected by a fixed rope. By the time we reach the ridge it is fully light. A short cairned route leads to the start of the glacier (Stanley East Glacier - the lower Elena glacier has long since melted). We put on crampons and make the steepish 5m snow climb up onto the glacier (no rope used although we have one with us). A gradual ascent leads upwards along the glacier, with the classic view of the Alexandra-Margherita twins dead ahead. The trail levels off just before the Savoia col then descends half-R, down a short gully then across steep slabs (fixed rope for protection) to reach a 3m ladder which leads to the foot of the main Margherita glacier. A fairly steep climb on excellent firm early-morning snow leads to the Alexandra col (superb ice formations on both peaks) from where the final part of the well-worn trail curves up to the foot of the final obstacle - a 10m rock wall. The initial vertical part is due to the glacier having receded and a fixed ladder leads up this. The upper part is protected by a fixed rope - nearly vertical initially then traversing R on a ledge at an easy gradient to reach the ridge 30m below the summit. At 09:25 we have our desired summit view, enjoy some food; wander a few m into Congo. At the summit my GPSr recorded N0-23-08 E29-52-22, 5111m. After 20 mins we head back down, with views most of the way down. The snow is softer in descent (I am glad of my new crampons' anti-balling plates). We are back at Elena at 11:40.

Descent to Kitandara hut, 3980m, 576m descent + 50m ascent. The route from Bujuka hut is reversed for a few m then fork R, fairly steeply downhill, bouldery in places but mostly dry underfoot and the rock always good. We pause at the Baker col (Scott Elliott Pass) to check the col elevation (4370m on old map; 4334m GPSr suggests Mt Baker prominence is approx 510m). A good trail descends, with views across to Stanley and down beyond the Kitandara Lakes into Congo. The vegetation thickens - back into the giant groundsel zone. We pass a deepish dry depression on our L - like a shake hole although doesn't seem to be limestone. Some very impressive vertical cliffs above on our L side. Descend steeply with a view of the upper lake, then the trail passes L of it, becoming boggy. A bit of a reascent, then descend to cross the river, then the huts ahead. Turns out these are just the guide/porter facilities(rather poor): the "clients house" is a few minutes further on, pleasantly situated by the lake.

Tue 5 Jan: ascent of Mt Baker and trek to Guy Yeoman hut, 3478m, ascent 266m to pass, Baker 598m net + 50m; descent 1366m + 150m ascent, 10km. Our original plan was to return to Kitandara after Baker, but our guide advised there would be some large groups here tonight, resulting in a lack of space - especially for guides and porters. By making the longish walk-out to Guy Yeoman we have a hut to ourselves, and also avoid having to make the steep Freshfield Pass ascent twice.

The ascent starts almost immediately upon leaving the hut, through fairly dense forest with the usual stretches of bog, slippery tree routes, rock and the odd ladder. Fine views open up, across to the Mt Stanley peaks (including Margherita and Alexandra) and down into Congo. In 50mins we are at Freshfield Pass (4246m GPSr, 4280m on sign) which separates Baker from Mt Luigi di Savoia. From here we ascend Mt Baker (see Mt Baker ascent report), returning to the Pass at 13:00. Our porters are waiting for us and take our climbing gear and boots: we resume the trek with the usual rubber boots. The trek is simple for a while: a couple of ups and downs, good underfoot. Then the descent starts: down steep slabs, slippery in places, never really technical but always demanding care: in places a slip could be very serious. Scenery is very fine: we follow a steep ravine, down into the tree heather zone, eventually bottoming out at a bog. This we cross - the usual bits of slippery wood to (sort of) aid progress. In places the trail simply follows a stream bed - it's easier that way. Eventually we cross the easy stony bed of the main river Mubuku, criss-crossing it a few times, until the collection of huts finally appears. For the last 20 mins or so it rains - we wear our waterproofs for the first and only time.

Wed 6 Jan: trek to Nyabitaba hut, 2672m, descent 796m + 100m ascent, 7.5km. We have an easy morning: I do a little bird- and plant-watching; we have a "tipping" ceremony for the guides, cook and porters, and set off at 11 a.m. to give ourselves a good chance of arrival before the 2pm rain (probably) arrives. A fairly typical (fairly tough) short trek: steep slabby descent (used to be quite dangerous before they added a staircase, and accidents aren't unknown even now). Then a bog section, bamboo forest, a nice suspension bridge over the Mubuku river, then we climb up onto the lateral moraine ridge which leads in a km or two to Nyabitaba hut - our Day 1 hut - we've come full circle. On arrival we have the hut to ourselves for a while. A little later a Swiss couple arrive from the trailhead, then a single Aussie who's made the long trek from Kitandara today - an accomplished mountaineer who's collecting national highpoints. Later in the afternoon it rains - very hard.

Thur 7 Jan: return to trailhead. An easy morning hike: reversing our Day 1 route: mostly dry underfoot. Nice sunny morning - good views of the Portal Peaks from the hut. At a steady pace we trek out in about 2h - I spend a fair bit of time photographing plants. After signing out with RMS we wait for our transport, arriving at Mweya Lodge (Queen Elizabeth National Park) in time for a late lunch and some relaxation, before our brief (but very productive) safari begins.

Friday 8 Jan: Queen Elizabeth National Park. Game Drive at 06:30. Having no transport we book one of the Lodge vehicles: the driver (Vincent) is excellent. We enjoy several lion sightings, 8 individuals in all, and even a brief but quite close view of a leopard - the only group to see one. Other highlights are numerous Uganda Kob (the national antelope) and Waterbuck. In the afternoon we take a cruise on the Mizunga Channel (overlooked by the Lodge, it connects Lakes Edward and George). This is excellent, providing good views of elephant, croc, hippo and a wide range of shorebirds.

Saturday 9 Jan: QENP and drive to Kampala. We've booked Vincent for another game drive. A quiet morning with lions infrequent and distant, but he finds another leopard - a good clear distant view; it hides when we try to get a little closer. A nice Nile Monitor Lizard on the road home rounds things off nicely. After a late breakfast our driver collects us and takes us to Kampala (8-9 hours): Cassia Lodge Hotel - a nice comfortable place.

Sunday 10 January 2010: flight home. The hotel has a nice view down across Kampala to Lake Victoria - nice sunrise. My flight is mid afternoon. The hotel driver takes me to Entebbe airport after lunch; the Bjorstads are flying late evening. There is a long queue at the airport; the flight is an hour late; however the connections all work (Emirates, via Addis and Dubai) and I'm back at Heathrow at 7 a.m.

Photos: approach; summits; safari, wildlife, plants
Tor Bjorstad's photos.

key info
Visa/entry requirements A visa can be obtained on entry on payment of 50 USD. This consisted purely of a rubber stamp in the passport. Info obtained prior to the trip indicated that a passport photo and a Yellow fever international certificate were required. We took these but they weren't asked for. An immigration form also has to be completed - available on arrival.
Cash Uganda shillings are easily obtained via ATMs. We also took USD which are commonly accepted; GBP and EUR can also be changed e.g. at hotels.
Tips We each paid 80 USD into the pot (there is 1 guide and 2(ish) porters per 2 clients, also a cook). Tips were distributed at the penultimate hut.
Food The normal arrangement is for the cook provided by RMS to cater for the party as well as the guides and porters. Apparently the quality may be variable; anyway we took freeze-dried meals; the cost was probably about the same.
Water We filter all water as a precaution. Our cook provided hot water. There is no running water at Elena hut so we ensured we took sufficient water up from the previous hut (Bujuka) to last until after the Margherita climb
Weather early January: usually clear overnight, clouding over usually soon after 09:00; often raining at about 14:00 for a while. Rain can be very heavy: we took ponchos which covered our rucksacks (but only used them once, briefly).
Trails Notoriously boggy - rubber boots (wellies) essential after Day 1. Rigid boots (plastic not needed) are required for Margherita and Speke and advised for Baker.
Huts Basic but comfortable; most bunks have mattresses and pillows. Sleeping bag is required and a down jacket advisable for hut life. Space is fairly limited, especially at Elena (room for 10 at a squeeze); porter/guide space is very limited at Kintandara (we avoided a crush there by pushing on to Guy Yeoman as recounted above). The RMS made no attempt to regulate numbers and it does not appear at all certain that a bed can be guaranteed. Hut expansions are planned.
Guides Our RMS guides (the format Surname - Forename seems customary) were Kule Sebestian, and George Kurt, Jbanda Parish Catholic Church, PO Box 75, Kasese (U). The Cook was Limbali Ambrose,

For further details see Petter Bjorstad's report at Petter's mountain pages

species seen (roughly in order of appearence)
Entebbe-Kampala greater blue-eared glossy-starling, common bulbul, black kite, woollynecked stork, longcrested eagle, african mourning dove, klaas cuckoo, pied crow, greybacked camaroptera, marabou stork
Mammals: red duiker
Birds: blackheaded weaver, african pied wagtail, redchested cuckoo, yellow white-eye, bluemanted crested flycatcher, scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird, streaky seedeater, rwenzori turaco
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Mammals: uganda kob, waterbuck, savannah buffalo, warthog, elephant, lion (9), leopard (2), hippo, bushbuck, banded mongoose
Other: nile crocodile, nile monitor lizard
Birds: speckled mousebird, blackheaded weaver, african dusky flycatcher, african fish eagle, whitebacked vulture, lappetfaced vulture, gullbilled tern, great white egret, pied kingfisher, little egret, squacco heron, spurwinged plover, african jacana, grey heron, yellowbilled stork, african black crake, cattle egret, common sandpiper, egyptian goose, blackwinged stilt, little ringed plover, blacktailed godwit, greenshank, marsh sandpiper, african skimmer, african spoonbill, bluecheeked bee-eater, yellowbilled oxpecker, water thick-knee, barn swallow, yellowbacked weaver, hadeda ibis, hamerkop, spectacled weaver, goliath heron, yellow wagtail, rupells longtailed starling, malachite kingfisher, blackheaded bush-shrike, wattled lapwing, longtailed cormorant, redchested sunbird, bushchat, greyheaded gull, lesser blackbacked gull, great cormorant, sacred ibis, great white pelican, pinkbacked pelican, saddlebilled stork, ?redwinged francolin ("black francolin"), longtailed shrike, blackheaded heron, blackbellied bustard, pallid harrier, blackcrowned tchagra, flappet lark, rufousnaped lark, redbilled firefinch
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2240 ft / 681 m
    Total Elevation Loss:4130 ft / 1257 m
    Round-Trip Distance:5 mi / 8 km
    Grade/Class:YDS 4
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Guide, Porters, Hut Camp
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:1912 ft / 582 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 1814 ft / 553 m; Extra: 98 ft / 29m
    Loss on way in:98 ft / 29 m
    Distance:1.2 mi / 2 km
    Route:Normal route (SW ridge)
    Start Trailhead:Elena hut  14948 ft / 4556 m
    Time:6 Days 
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:4032 ft / 1228 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 3704 ft / 1129 m; Extra: 328 ft / 99m
    Gain on way out:328 ft / 99 m
    Distance:3.7 mi / 6 km
    Route:Normal route (SW ridge)
    End Trailhead:Kitandara hut  13058 ft / 3980 m
    Time:3 Days 

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