As a lifelong snowboarder and keen mountaineer now living in East Africa, the idea of snowboarding the Mountains of the Moon was simply too much for Martyn Pollock to resist.
Darkness falls instantly under the mountain mist. We sit under a boulder as big as a bus perched atop a steep-sided ridge line. One side has been eroded creating a huge overhang. I and seven members of the Bakonjo tribe – my two guides, five porters and one chef – are huddled together, trying in vain to find a smoke-free spot as the temperature drops rapidly. Elisha the chef fries heart, lungs and intestines in a huge open fire pot. Both Bakonjo and Swahili are Bantu origin languages so I can make out the odd word, but the conversation is largely a mystery.
The Rwenzori Mountains, or the Mountains of the Moon as they are sometimes known, are home to the third highest peak in Africa and some of the most extensive ice sheets on the continent. They straddle Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, acting as a formidable punctuation mark in Africa’s Great Lakes. As a lifelong snowboarder and keen mountaineer now living in East Africa the idea of snowboarding in this remote place is too much to resist.
A day earlier I meet my guides Jockos and John at the huge wooden park entrance gate – very Jurassic Park. John, a man in his mid-fifties, of slight build with a few days stubble is dressed in a v-neck golf sweater with slacks to match. His Swahili is good, which is rare in this part of Uganda. Jockos is younger, by maybe 15 years. In a North Face jacket, modern rucksack and climbing trousers, he looks the part and he speaks the better English, but age dictates that John is the boss. As we sign the park register I note that the last entry was more than 60 days before, probably because it is the rainy season but nonetheless a stark reminder of how remote this place is.
Onward we amble, forming and storming through the foothills of the range. Steep jungle gives way to low hanging ceilings of bamboo, afro-alpine heather lobelias that resemble giant pineapples and finally snowy alpines. Step follows step in the toughest climbing of my life. All the time a five-foot snowboard strapped to my back catches on every vine and bush as we go. My caravan worthy of a 19th-century explorer charges up the hillside in their Ksh 500 wellies and ripped t-shirts at a speed I’ll never comprehend, overladen with gas bottles, climbing gear and seven days of food all contained in rice sacks held to their backs by a thin layer of cloth pulled over the forehead. I feel silly in my brand-new climbing kit, but I’m sure it’s a sight they are used to. These Bakonjo men are native to the Rwenzori Mountains and their ancestors have been climbing them for centuries.
Sleeping at altitude is generally an unpleasant experience. Dreams are vivid and intense; you tend to wake every couple of hours babbling some rubbish while trying to box your way of out of your sleeping bag. Night terrors aside, on day five we get up at 4:15 am and prep our kit for the final push. The night is clear and the moon supplements my borrowed head torch. Around sunrise we reach the Stanley Plateau and step onto the ice for the first time. I eye up some potential runs for later in the day as we traverse the glacier towards the two peaks of Alexandra and Margherita.
For the final ascent we climb the Margherita glacier from the peak of its moraine. It is a near vertical first 30m. John and Jockos provide helpful climbing tips such as ‘run the rope round your right hand’ and ‘don’t put your feet down if you fall’ on an ad hoc basis. No safety brief here. Each step is exhausting but I can see the top. I need to keep pushing; crunch, crunch, crunch and slowly we inch towards the peak. A short crawl through an icicle tunnel and we appear on a hanging ice ledge looking over the main glacier below. We climb up the sheer rock face holding the safety rope. The summit is a short scramble and to my surprise there isn’t a flake of snow on the top. The clear sky gives incredible views of Lake Edward, the Virunga National Park and the entire Rwenzori Range.
With the summit complete, it is time for some snowboarding. We return to the Stanley Glacier and Jockos and I climb to the top of a small snowy gulley which I’ve calculated will give me the longest run. Jockos has been calling my snowboard ‘the skiing machine’ all week; now he’s eager to see it in action. Here the solid ice is covered in a thin crust of snow which has been softened by the mid-morning sun. The snow is fast and it’s fun to be on a board again – the last time having been the previous year on Mount Kenya. I manage two runs at just under 5,000m above sea level. Gasping for air and feeling the headaches of altitude I decide I have pushed my luck enough. It is time to start the long descent home.