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On the highest peaks of the Rwenzori

After several days of incessant rain, while Cagni is ascending the Mobuku Valley at forced stages, Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, Erminio Botta, the four guides from the Aosta Valley and a small group of Bakonjo porters leave to climb the highest peaks of Rwenzori on June 15th. From Bujungolo, having turned into a small valley which opens off the right side of Mobuku Valley, they ascend to Freshfield Pass (4326m) on the crest of the watershed. From here they descend to the west of Baker and make camp II at 4045 metres, in the neighbourhood of the first small lake. The following morning while Brocherel, Laurent Petigax and three native porters turn back to retrieve some discarded loads, the others continue northwards to the bottom of the walls of Baker, opening a trial between groundsel and helichrysum. Camp III is set up at altitude 4219 at the foot of the westerly slope of Baker, under the vertical cliffs of the two peaks climbed by the Duke six days before.
On June 17th the party ascend to Scott Elliot Pass (4347m), continue along the ridge towards the west until they near the ice flow which falls below the southern peaks of Stanley and set up camp IV at altitude 4516m. A rapid check of the provisions results in rations being sufficient only for a few days. Part of the group must therefore return, so Laurent Petigax and Erminio Botta undertake to accompany the team of Bakonjo to Bujungolo. In the meanwhile Joseph Petigax, Ollier and Brocherel push on in reconnaissance towards the central group.
The next morning divided into two roped couples (the Duke of the Abruzzi with Brocherel and Joseph Petigax with Ollier) the mountaineers reach a great icy plateau in an hour. The weather is cloudy and promises no good, but they go ahead anyway. Petigax and Ollier lead; the Duke heads the second roped party. The two highest peaks of the group are silhouetted there in front of them, covered with snow and ice. The southernmost one displays a wall of vertical rock towards the east and is surmounted by a large cornice of snow.

Mount Stanley from Freshfield Pass. Photo by Vittorio Sella.

The other shows “a peak and ridges edged with the most majestic cornice imaginable, sustained by countless stalactites and ice needles which, from a distance, seemed a gala of snow – white lace”.

Petigax marks out the piste without pausing and in fog and mist the party reach the foot of the large south –eastern ridge of the southern peak. Climbing on compact snow, which only needs to have steps cut in it every now and then, the two roped couples reach the first summit at half past seven. It is Alexandra Peak whose height is estimated as being 5105 metres. Visibility is poor, and the vague outlines of the highest peaks appear to the north out of the fog only for a few moments. 

At nine in the morning the group decide to continue. They will attempt the shortest and most direct path. With faces to the mountain, using the steps dug out on the spot by Petigax, the Duke and his guides descend to the pass between the two peaks, a “ribbon of ice suspended between two wide crevasses”. Here, abandoning all excess material, they attack the steep wall. Petigax is always in the lead and is continually cutting steps with great blows of his ice-axe, making “a hail of snow and ice” rain down on his companions below. The gradient makes itself felt, to the point that “from below, the wall immediately disappeared from sight into the mist and seemed to be suspended above an abyss with no bottom”.
Having arrived below the cornice, between stalactites and stalagmites, the explorers circle around the ice colonnade looking for a passage through at a point where the ice architecture is anchored to the wall. They discover a cleft – really a vertical canal a couple of metres high. Ollier positions himself as a firm support. Petigax climbs onto his shoulders with his spiked boots, then onto his head; he wedges his ice axe above the cornice and pulls himself up onto the crest. It’s done. A few minutes climb more along the ridge and there it is; the top: Margherita Peak, 5125 metres, the highest peak in the Rwenzori. A sea of fog stretches out to infinity a few metres below but up here the sun is shining. The Duke of the Abruzzi unfurls to the wind the small Italian flag given to him by Queen Margherita before his departure.
In the early hours of the afternoon the group is once more at the small tent of camp IV. The first symptoms of ophthalmia are not long in making themselves felt. Because of the poor visibility nobody had worn dark glasses and now the climbers were struck by temporarily blindness.
They wait in the tent for a day, and as soon as this troublesome snow-blindness passes a little, the team returns to Alexandra Peak to measure “the angles of the peaks and the salient points of the range”.
Back again on the icy plateau, Luigi Amedeo and his guides now aim southwards towards the other two peaks of Stanley. They attack the nearest one from the eastern gorge; higher up they move onto the rocks on the left, and then again re-enter the couloir. From a cleft in the ridge they then move towards the Congolese side and finally after climbing up rock faults, come out on the summit of Elena Peak at 4995 metres.
An hour later it is again time to redescend. The roped parties lower themselves along the southern crest up to the narrow cleft between the two peaks where there is a sharp rocky gendarme. They go round the obstacle keeping to the Congolese side; they climb a snow – covered rise and then on rocks until they emerge on the top of Savoia Peak at altitude 4980. The exploration of Mount Stanley can be said to be concluded.
During their descent the mountaineers inaugurate a new path: they proceed to the south of the glacier which covers the summit; descend the rocky east wall and in the end slip into a gorge which takes them back to the glacier.

The evening and the next day there are celebrations at camp IV. The other mountaineers of the expedition have arrived up here from Bujungolo and they all talk over the events of the past days. Everybody has contributed something especially Sella with his camera, but also Roccati and Cavalli. The first two in particular who on June 19th climbed up to the western ridge of Stairs Peak (4950m), in the southernmost group of the Rwenzori, departing from Freshfield Pass. With the passing of the days the expeditions begins to gather the fruits of its laborious explorative work, but other ascents are still waiting for Luigi Amedeo of Savoy and his companions. On June 22nd taking leave from his friends, the Duke of the Abruzzi sets off again with the guide Joseph and Laurent Petigax and five Bakonjo porters. Their objective: the peaks of Mount Speke.
From camp IV the group descends towards Lake Bujuku and then, at altitude 3933, makes for the north, towards the southern wall of the group to explore. Having cross over the crest of the watershed, the explorers circle round the foot of the south western ridge of Speke and then horizontally cross the west wall, keeping a short distance from the glacier. At altitude 4475m, right under Vittorio Emanuele Peak, camp V is set up.
The next day the weather does not look at all promising but the climbers decide to continue all the same. They climb unroped along the big western ridge and in one hour first over rock and then snow, they reach Vittorio Emanuele Peak (4901m). They patiently wait many hours for the weather to lift, but the fog shows no sign of lessening up.
The next two days bring more bad weather. A reconnaissance attempt towards the Emin group is abandoned due to rain, snow and hail. It only clears on the evening of June 25th. At down the next day, after a freezing night, the group starts off again and in a short time reascends to Vittorio Emanuele Peak for topographical observations. Everything proceeds very quickly and by seven o’clock in the morning the Duke and guides are again back at their tent. It is a beautiful, hot day. In the evening some Bakonjo join the camp bringing food and supplies.

Margherita peak , 5109m photo by Vittorio Sella.

The next day at dawn they start out again. It is to be a long day, first towards the North and then eastwards, to the base of Mount Emin. That evening the guides set up the camp VI at altitude 4244, a few hundred metres below the Umberto Glacier.
On June 28th the sky is again covered but they try nevertheless. The ascent path follows the spur which falls from the highest peak of the group, between the Emin and Umberto glaciers. At 4485 metres a tent is pitched (it will be camp VII); Luigi Amedeo Ollier and the two Petigax continue climbing immediately.
First they proceed on snow, then they turn west towards a large ridge of rock. They follow the veining of the rock and shortly reach Umberto Peak, estimated at 4815 metres, where they erect a great “pyramid” of stones. Visibility is practically nil, and nothing changes with waiting.
On the morning of June 29th the Duke would like to repeat the climb but the weather is increasingly worse. What is more, they only have food for one more day and the road to Bujungolo is very long. They go back.
On the evening of June 30th after a long stretch under the rain, the group sleeps at camp II. Next day having crossed Freshfield Pass where Sella and Botta have camped for their photographic work, the Duke and his guides set foot again in the Bujungolo base camp. They have been at an altitude of more than 4000 metres for a good seventeen days.


Frenetic activity

During Luigi Amedeo’s absence the other members of the expedition have not remained inactive by any means. On June 22nd Cagni, Cavalli and Brocherel scaled Alexandra Peak. Three days later after leaving camp IV above Scott Elliot Pass, Sella, Botta, Brocherel and Roccati reached Moebius Peak on Mount Stanley; its first ascent. And then the next morning the first three succeeded in concluding the fourth ascent to Alexandra Peak. Even more: for photographic reasons Sella again returned to the Alexandra Peak, this time with Roccati, on the morning of June 27th. A proper tour de force. And it’s not finished because after the return of the Duke to Bujungolo, Sella, Botta and Brocherel climb to Edward Peak on Mount Baker a new way, the south crest, on July 2nd (this climb will be repeated by the head of the expedition for photographic reasons on July 5th and 7th); and still more, on the 4th the same roped party reach the central peak of the Luigi di Savoia group (4659m, later to be named Sella Peak).
Lastly it is necessary to mention another two ascents, done on July 8th and 12th, along the west ridge of Stairs Peak (luigi di Savoia group), by the Duke of the Abruzzi and Victorio Sella respectively.
Also on July 8th Cagni Peak (4519m) was scaled to the North of Bujungolo, by Brocherel, Joseph Petigax and Cagni (this last is to return to the peak the next day for photographical surveys).
By now exploration of the range is virtually concluded. But on July 9th Luigi Amedeo, Ollier and Joseph Petigax once more reach the summit of Wollaston Peak (4659m), up till then inviolate, having climbed along the eastern gorge and the southern ridge; and straight afterwards they conclude the crossing of Moore Peak descending to the Grauer Pass.
To mention finally another two climbs by Sella on July 11th and 12th both for photographic reasons, to Edward Peak on Baker and to Stairs Peak in the Luigi di Savoia group.
At this point there remains only Mount Gessi to explore, the most remote. While part of the expedition gets ready for the descent towards Fort Portal, Luigi Amedeo, Joseph Petigax, Ollier and some porters climb to Freshfield Pass and reach camp III under the western slopes of Bakeron July 13th. Then the next day they cross over Scott Elliot Pass and descend to the banks of Lake Bujuku (3918m), from where they proceed downwards along the torrent. In the end they set up camp IX at 3506 metres that evening.
The following day the group ascends a small valley and descends into the upper Migusi Valley. Camp X is set up at altitude 4166, at some hundred metres from the terminal face of the Iolanda glacier, in the face of wonderful scenery.
On the morning of July 16th before dawn the Duke and his guides climb unroped up a gorge and then, still unroped continue on the rocks of the south east ridge to the 4769 metres of Iolanda Peak. To finish with after a break the explorers proceed along the snow covered ridge towards the north and reach the summit of Bottego Peak (4719m). This time their climbing campaign is really finished.
Next day the group descend along Bujuku Valley and pitch their XI camp below the narrow passage of the Portals, at altitude 2910; finally on July 18th they join the rest of the expedition at Ibanda camp, now on the road for Fort Portal.

Mount Stanley. Photo by Vittorio Sella


The results of the expeditions

The results of their mountaineering explorative campaign are outstanding: from June 10th to July 16th seventeen peaks have been climbed and a good twenty eight ascents, including repetitions, have been brought to conclusion. The scientific results of the expedition are remarkable tooand are to be illustrated in two volumes, Il Rwenzori: relazioni scientifiche, published in 1909 by Hoepli of Milan. The first is about zoology and botany; it is edited by a rich equipe of scientists and illustrates the results of the studies and observations carried out on the specimens collected on the expedition. The second, coordinated mainly by Professor Roccati, is about geology, petrography and mineralogy.

The geographical, astronomical, geodetical and meteorological observations are instead contained in two bulky appendices in the official volume of the expedition, Il Rwenzori: viaggio di esplorazione e prime ascensioni (Hoepli, Milan, 1908), edited by Filippo de Filippi and illustrated by Vittorio Sella, author of the splendid, rich photographic documentation still unsurpassed today for its beauty, of the great African mountain.

Finally the map in scale 1:40.000 of the Rwenzori must be remembered; the “most important result of the expedition” drawn up with the data from the numerous angular measurements made by the Duke of Abruzzi from the various peaks climbed, and completed by the measuring of 300 metres prepared by Comander Cagni near Bujungolo. From study of the map, whose toponymy is due to a study meeting between Luigi Amedeo, Sir Harry Johnson and Dr. Stuhlmann, it results that the watershed with the main peaks (that is the entire snow covered range) is nineteen kilometres long and that the area covered by glaciers is little wider than 11.5 km from north to south, and 6.5 km from west to east. Quite an area especially if one considers its location in the heart of the African continent.
Ptolemy and the ancient geographers really were right: the mysterious Mountains of the Moon are worthy of so much attention and devotion.

From “The Rwenzori Discovery- Luigi Amedeo di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi”, by Roberto Mantovani, Museo Della Montagna 1996.

The itenerary of the expedition of the Duke.

See also
A great, new mountaineering expedition
The first Ascents.
On the highest peaks of the Rwenzori


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