We are back safe if not sound from a week in the wilderness. On our last evening Scott collected one-word associations as we sat shivering in our wooden hut, candles burning, full moon rising: gruelling, beautiful, treacherous, exhausting, freezing cold, majestic, snow, summits, snuggling, wild, unspoiled, mud, more mud, glaciers, gum boots. It will be impossible in one post to capture the week's trek, so I will merely hit some highlights and let Scott's pictures fill out the story (to be posted later this week after we return to Bundibugyo).
The Facts: Our entire family, along with Ashley and Nathan, completed the full seven-day circuit, climbing from base camp at 4680 feet to Elena Hut at 15,000 feet. According to our guides, Jack and Julia are the youngest hikers to ever do this on their own (I guess some early intrepid explorers had their kids carried). Six of us (everyone but Jack and Julia) reached the summit, Margherita Peak on Mt. Stanley, 16,763 feet, the third highest point on the continent, where Uganda and Congo meet. According to our guides, Caleb at age 13 was the youngest climber to ever reach the peak. We hiked (read: scrambled, strained, pulled up, slipped down, jumped, stepped, sloshed) about 5 strenuous hours most days, but 12 hours on the day we summited. The last day we combined two stages to shorten the trip from 8 days to 7. It snowed on us, twice. We were a real expedition: we were assigned four guides, two of whom were mountain-tough men in their early 50's who had climbed these mountains untold times over 30 years, and took great care of us. And each hiker gets two porters (dividing 25 kg per hiker plus their own stuff), so the 8 of us qualified for 16, to carry gear and food around the week's trail, as well as their own things.
The Beauty: Seven days in an other-worldly setting, a land untouched by human imprint except for the half-dozen simple huts constructed to shelter porters and hikers. We did not encounter any other people besides our group, and even animals were limited to a brief path-crossing with a blue monkey, the raucous calls of chimps in the valley near our first hut, a glimpse of a red duiker in the heather and moss of the alpine zone, and voles peeking out of their burrows (well there was the nasty moment when Nathan discovered that ice axes make great rat-killers in one hut, but that does not fit well in the beauty category). We marveled our way through forest, bamboo, bogs, giant ferns, tangled mimulopsis, improbable lobelia flower spikes, eerie hanging mosses, tree-sized heathers, groundsell, and beyond to the heights of bare rock and glacial snow. Dozens of wild-flowers, from tiny violet-like ground cover to orchids to something called a snake's head that looked like an over-sized jack-in-the-pulpit. And higher, the everlastings, white papery flowers on slivery green shrubs, like edelweiss. Countless streams, many without names, cascaded off the rocks, waterfalls, rivers, crags, peaks. The horizon would constantly change, suddenly we would see clearly the ridges and peaks above us, then they would disappear in cloud. We passed by the Portal Peaks, Mt. Baker, Mt. Speke, and Mt. Luigi de Savoia, in order to ascend and descend Mt. Stanley. We stood on Freshfield Pass in full sun, looking down into Congo and almost eye-level with glaciers on the surrounding peaks. We bathed in painfully cold rivers and lakes, drank from pure springs, watched the rare Rwenzori Turaco explode into red as it spread its wings, and marveled at the twittering scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird found only a few places on earth. Every stage, every zone, had its own flavor of pristine and wild beauty, lavishly expended for no human pleasure, seen only by God.
The Danger: This was, by far, the most physically draining week of our lives. In seven days of walking, there were not more than 30 minutes of level steady path where one could talk or look around. If we were not balancing on slippery submerged logs laid through deep sucking-mud bogs, we were inching along cracks in rocks that dropped away below us, or finding secure footing on wet stones, or pulling ourselves up by branches and roots and hand-holds. Every day the air thinned, the gasping for breath increased. Every night the temperature dropped--it was 30 degrees INSIDE our highest hut. No fires, no heat, just sleeping bags, close bodies, and hot tea. The two times it snowed I really feared for a child slipping over an edge, irretrievable. On the glacier we saw crevices, the danger-spots in the ice. I fell once on a very steep incline of snow and my descent was only arrested by Scott's quick anchoring on our safety rope. We took medicine (diamox) to prevent or at least mitigate altitude sickness, but were soberly aware of the risks, especially for the younger kids. The huts were pretty bare-bunks and foam mattresses. But most had tacked to a wall or window a dire warning that two hikers had died of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema in the last two years. Both Jack and Scott struggled with a cough, a cold-stimulated wheeze that was difficult to feel confident was NOT life-threatening. If I had known how hard it would be, I probably would not have allowed our kids to go. So it was stressful, to constantly second-guess, wonder if we had made a BIG mistake, wonder if we would really make it.
The Glory: In spite of doubts and dangers, we DID make it, and Jack's heels did not bother him at all, and we came down with a sense of confidence and accomplishment that will give us courage for many years to come I hope. Each morning we read different scriptures together on the theme of mountains, studying how God often chooses to reveal Himself on the mountain top, and asking Him to do the same for us. Personally this was very meaningful for me, tracing the theme through the Bible while living it ourselves. Perhaps God drew Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jesus and his disciples, all to the loneliness and austerity of the alpine zone to get their attention, to free from distraction, to reveal His other-ness, His unfathomable ways. But we also saw that He redeemed the harshness of the mountains, because the ultimate reason He drew these men to the mountaintop was LOVE. On the day we hiked to the final peak, we arose at 4:30 am, and left Jack and Julia in the frigid hut with one of the guides. It was dark and freezing, and we could hardly breathe as we climbed over rocks using head lamps. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we put spiky crampons on our boots for gripping the ice, and roped together in two lines. It was hard, slow going, and the final climb involved ropes over vertical rock face. As frightening as it was, my overwhelming sense was that God brought us here because HE LOVES US.
Thanks to our parents, whose Christmas gifts helped pay our fees for the trip. Thanks to Ashley and Nathan, who put up with our family in VERY CLOSE QUARTERS and under very stressful conditions, who listened to nightly reading of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, who encouraged and joked and even brought Christmas Carols on an iPod with portable speakers to keep the cheer alive on our long cold nights. Thanks to Luke and Nathan who bore extra weight, and kindly waited. Thanks to those who prayed for our safety, I dreamed of our supporters at Grace Church the night before we made the ascent of the peak, and it encouraged me. This was an unforgettable and unrepeatable week, reaching a pocket of Uganda which is about as inaccessible as any on earth.
Closing words from Jack and Julia, who have patiently waited for me to write all this: It was awesome. It was hard. It was cold.