The Mountains of the Moon – The Spectator, January 2002

The Mountains of the Moon:
Septuagenarian Tom Stacey pits himself
against the glaciers of the Equator

THE SPECTATOR — January 2002

The other day, when it was still summer in Kensington, I was gripped by a compulsion to climb to the snows of the Mountains of the Moon. Such a compulsion was unusual and, I sensed immediately, a little sinister in someone over 70. It was a compulsion to engage in eternity-challenge: i.e., to sidle up to God and mutter, ‘This is me. You’ll take me now?’

The snows I refer to lie almost exactly on the Equator. That places them in the middle of Africa, astride the inaccessible border of the Congo and Uganda. The Mountains of the Moon is the name classical antiquity gave to what modern geography calls the Ruwenzori mountains. How on earth classical antiquity knew of the existence of the mountains, let alone that they had permanent snow above the clouds and that on the way up to the snows you climb through a landscape that anyone (besides Buzz Aldrin) would call lunar, is an enduring mystery. But classical antiquity did know and, moreover, the Alexandrian Greek geographer Ptolemy placed them, on his famous 1st-century AD map, almost exactly where they are, 2,000 miles south of the delta of the river Nile.

Their highest peaks, at a little over 16,500 feet, determine the line by which the servants of the King of Belgium and the Queen Empress of England (Leopold and Victoria) divided the mid-African territories they had come to possess a century and a decade ago. This jagged frontier bisects a world mostly lost in cloud or above it, a still largely mysterious range running some 80 miles north-south and 30 miles across. Its inner highlands are clamped into deeper secrecy by growth so dense that — I promise you — any man not knowing the secret way could move through no faster than 900 or 300 yards a day. Ruwenzori is as near to the lost world of Conan Doyle’s imagination as our planet has to offer. It is home to 15 unique species of mammals — including quite big ones like the Ruwenzori leopard and colobus monkey — 25 unique reptiles and 18 unique birds. Its highland fastnesses below the snowline are also the locus of fantastically giant vegetation: obelisked lobelias 30 feet high compete with groundsels of the same improbable hugeness, jungles of ‘everlasting’ helichrysums and St John’s wort. Just below all that is a belt of heathers round the range, more or less identical to Scotland’s except that their average height is 50 feet and they trail with bearded lichen. All of this is due to a climate comprising summer by day and winter by night, vast rainfall and a diurnal dose of infrared and ultraviolet from a sun immediately overhead.

The lower slopes of the range are inhabited, up to about 7,000 feet, by the Bakonzo tribe. I have known these sterling and sturdy little people, who average not much more than five feet in height and are full of pluck and laughter, for 47 years. I lived with them when I was 24, inadvertently godfathered the rebellion they raised against colonial neglect, and attempted — at Uganda’s request — to be a mediator for the independent mountain kingdom they illegally established and ran for 20 years. I returned with their exiled king three years ago as his aide and warm-up speaker, addressing tribal barazas of seldom fewer than 30,000 people per gathering. In return, I have become a somewhat mythic character for them, halfway to the spirits who reside in their personal Olympus.

The Bakonzo are the gatekeepers of the inner mountains, guardians of the esoteric routes and tunnels by which they must be reached. Yet for these past five years highland Ruwenzori has been out of bounds to humankind because of the savage threat of guerrillas in the foothills. (I have known the most feared of the guerrilla leaders since I was 24 and he was 17, but that is by the way.)

My compulsion to climb the mountains was sparked by the idea that I should be the first to reach these glaciered heights when, this past July, the Ugandan government deemed them safe to re-enter. I had never reached the snows before, having been halted in 1954 by malaria at 12,000 feet. But I began to suspect that this compulsion was more than just crude egotism when I found myself, in the two or three weeks before flying to Entebbe, rewriting my will and touching base on this or that insouciant pretext with those few I seriously love. The driven depth of it was apparent as soon as I touched the mountains’ base. The three days down below, provisioning myself and my Bakonzo team, were unforgivingly Ruwenzorian: each night a wild thunderstorm and one pre-dawn earthquake. I steeled my frail defiance.

The Bakonzo equivalent of Thor is a certain Kitasamba, who has a slim pinnacle at close on 16,000 feet, among the highest of the five great clusters of peaks which dominate that lost world’s heartland. This cluster, Mount Stanley, was what my ambition was fixed upon, but Kitasamba (who knew it) was warning me against it. For old flesh and bone to try penetrating his sanctum smacked of hubris, not to say chutzpah. These mountains were his and his Bakonzos’.

The physical challenge of the sortie was swift to tell on me. Yet on that first day’s ascent, from 5,000 feet to 8,OOO, I would not lag. I had 13 tribesmen with me — one a dear Mukonzo friend, one a guide, two necessary porters, the rest self-chosen as escorts. All were less than half my age, most under a third of it. By night we shared huts, rock shelters and campfires for nine days, yacking about the heroic past and probing a murky future, in common fealty to this race and place.

By the end of the second day’s ascent, over an evil passage of vast, chaotically heaped boulders, taking us out of sub-alpine forest into the bamboos, I was already at the dangerous margin of my physical resources. I made it to that night’s shelter by counting my steps in hundreds and refusing to raise my eyes to the precipitous demands of the immediate route. I fixed them instead on the feet of the fellow in front. I had already become aware of three of me on this ascent: the will, the body and the observing eye. This eye (or I) was peculiarly dispassionate, watching for which of the other two was liable to crack first. The will showed no cracking symptoms. That in itself was interesting. But the body had its own laws. The limbs, notably the thigh joints, knees and ankles, were admirably efficient. I awarded them daily stars. The more arcane mechanisms — heart, lungs and circulating blood — were beyond prediction. Which of them would ‘go’ — and how? Surely something bodily would halt me in the end: heart failure, stroke, unconsciousness. The observing eye took note. My appetite had gone, as had the will to sleep. Hands and feet were swelling oddly. I didn’t know whether to interpret this as age or altitude. I know now, of course, that it was classic mountain sickness, and that what a sane man does is to stop ascent at once and with his remnant strength go down. But I was not quite sane and, for a man of my antiquity, inexcusably ignorant. Moreover, by now, day five, I was all but there, at the highest hutment, level with the first glacier’s snout. Kitasamba gazed directly down from his citadel on my triple self and the two high-level icemen left of my original 13 tribesmen.

Young friends, do not underrate your grandfathers. In Kitasamba’s swirling fog I cramponned and roped on the glacier. In heavy snow, tilted at 45 degrees, I began to mount, taking ten puny paces and stopping for 20 breaths. Eventually, I reached Stanley’s glaciered plateau. Out of the fog surging up from the encircling voids, the highest peaks of Margherita and Alexandra teased me from a nugatory 500 or 600 feet higher.

Yet if the gates of Paradise had opened there to welcome me in person — St Peter and the full Valhalla — I could not have made it further. My curdled blood had all but ceased to recognise the thin gruel of oxygen as its only food. This was the moment of truth; not in the end oblivion but running absolutely out of gas. Kitasamba had drawn the line. But for John Mudenge and Augustine Syayipuma I would not have got down, not only off that crowning glacierland but, four days later, on another route by Arthurian lakes and snow-flurried passes to the world of other men. From one lost world to another, you may say. And I am no longer tripled but (with eternity thus dared) unified, and saddled with a fresh bag of instructions — if I read them right — to live and work to the praise and glory of the Maker of mountains and the moon.

©Tom Stacey 2002