CLIMBING HISTORY BEFORE 1906

It was necessary to wait until 1888 before having certain information about the existence of the Mountains of the Moon. On May 24th of that year, the famous English journalist-explorer, Henry Stanley, finally succeeds in glimpsing the snow-capped peaks of the Rwenzori, as he travels along the coastal plain southwest of Lake Albert.

As a matter of fact Stanley is not the first person to sight the great snow-covered mountains, which are shortly to be known as the Rwenzori. During the preceding years, in different circumstances and periods, Samuel Baker and Romolo Gessi had succeeded in catching a glimpse of great mountainous masses away in the distance, to the south of Lake Albert.
However the fogs and mists from the low lands obscured and confused their form and profiles to the point of transforming them into a vision of something unreal, similar to a hallucination or mirage. As far as he is concerned, Stanley is absolutely certain that the great mountains on the horizon are Ptolemy’s Lunae Montes. Indeed, of all the peaks scattered round the middle of equatorial Africa, only the ice-capped summits of the Rwenzori correspond to the ancient’s descriptions.

Lake Kitandara by Vittorio Sella

Lake Kitandara by Vittorio Sella


In any case, his discovery throws new light on the geography of the region. Not only: it also confirms, quite remarkably, the tenacious tradition which sees the Nile rising from the Great Lakes fed by snow-covered mountains. In a word the image dear to Aeschylus of an “Egypt nourished by snows”, returns to being an extraordinary relevance to the present day. Henry Stanley is once again in the Rwenzori area the following year, 1899, and travels along the Western flank of the mountainous group.
Between spring and summer he remains for a long time in the vicinity the range, and from time to time succeeds in catching sight of some the higher snow-capped peaks. Eager to get on closer terms with the mountains of the moon, he instructs is deputy W.G. Stairs to carry out a short explorative trip to the heart of the imposing relief. From Bakokoro camp Stairs ascends one of the valley to the North-West of the range for two days, aiming towards two characteristic rocky peaks.
He advances to altitudes 3254, about 500 meters below the two peaks and from up there he manages to observe a snow-capped summit which he believes to be higher than 5000 meters and which, however, does not seem to be the highest of the group. Ill-equipped for a long stay at high altitude, Stanley’s deputy quickly retraces his steeps, returning with the idea that the Rwenzori group is of volcanic origin. He is wrong. In the following years other attempts at exploration are registered.

Baganda Musicians photo by Vittorio Sella

Baganda Musicians photo by Vittorio Sella


In June 1891 F. Stuhlmann, following on Emin Pasha’s expedition, ventures for five days into the upper Butagu valley, one of the most important on the western side of the range. He reaches 4036 meters, in the sight of two snow-capped peaks, and is then obliged to turn back. On his return he relates the succession of the various phases of vegetation with an abundance of details, but above all he describes the Rwenzori as a real mountain range, composed of four principal groups, and certainly not of volcanic origin.
A new explorative impetus in the area takes place in the years 1894 to 1895, carried out by the naturalist G.F. Elliot who makes five reconnaissance trips in the five different valleys (the first four- Yeria, Wimi, Mobuku and Nyamwamba-on the eastern slope, and the last – Butagu- on the western one). He reaches a maximum of 3962 meters in the Butagu valley but he is able to gather any data about the high altitude regions. Instead, his geological observations on the signs of old glaciations in the area are very useful. Then, for five long years the Rwenzori continues to drowse undisturbed.
Social tensions and problems within the British Colony in Uganda steer interest for the mountains elsewhere. Exploration of the great African relief starts up again in the spring of 1900 with C.S. Moore, head of a scientific expedition working in the area of the Great Lakes. With a few Swahili explorers and some indigenous people Moore ascends the whole Mobuku valley reaching right up to the terminal crest, at altitude 4541.
During his visit to the Rwenzori, the British explorer succeeds in demonstrating the presence of true glaciers (and not the simple snowy accumulations as had been thought up to that moment). Few weeks later another two excursions at high altitude are registered: the first by Ferguson, a member of Moore’s expedition; the other by a certain Bagge, a civil servant from the mining district of Toro.
Finally, in September, Sir Harry Johnston, a high commissioner of the English colony in Uganda, with two companions ascends the Mobuku Valley right up to altitude 4520, without however managing to reach the crest.
The high commissioner also succeeds in taking some good photographs of the valley and in compiling an accurate description of the mountain vegetation and fauna. An important detail: Sir Johnston, just like his predecessors, cannot but mention the constant appalling weather, which scourges the area.
A continual stream of visitors, all convinced of being able to throw light on the topography of Rwenzori, appear during the immediately successive years. In August 1901, W. H Wylde and Ward climb to the same altitude reached previously by Moore. Two years later, Reverend A. B. Fisher and his wife go as far as the point that Sir Johnston reached. Then, in 1904, the newspaper Globus carries news of another climb. A short report states that J. J David had reached an altitude of 5000.
The first, real, mountaineering attempt of the Rwenzori belongs to a year later, November 1905. William Douglas Freshfield and Arnold Louis Mumm arrived at the Mobuku Valley together with the Alpine guide Moritz Inderbinnen from Zermatt.
Ferment around the Rwenzori continues to increase. Only a month earlier, in October, a scientific expedition from the British Museum left London, led by A.B. Woosnam. G. Legge, R.E. Dent, M. Carruthers and the mountaineer A.F.R. Wollaston make up part of the group.
And that is not all. In January 1906 Reverend Fisher and his wife return for a second time to the Mobuku glacier. And an Austrian mountaineer, R. Grauer, together with two British missionaries, H.E Maddox and H.W. Tegart, who had already been on the glacier the preceding yera, reach the crest which closes the valley, not climbed since 1901, and scale a rocky pinnacle, the King Edward Peak.
Meanwhile the English expedition reaches Mobuku Valley. First Woosnam, and then a small group of explorers made up of Wollaston, Dent and fhe same Woosnam, climb to the point already reached by Grauer. Afterwards, Woosnam and Wollaston attempt to climb Kiyanja [Stuhlmann's Seper,today Mount Baker]. Because of the fog they have to stop below the summit at an altitude estimated at 4915 metres.
Then, on April 1st, Woosnam, Wollaston and Carruthers reach a peak 4844 metres high which dominates the valley to the north-east; they think it is Johnston’s Duwoni. At the end, three days later, the roped party returns to the rocky pinnacle of Kiyanja, which, on a second measuring results higher: 4992 metres.
After Stuhlmann’s observations, it is common belief that the Ruwenzori are made up of four main mountain groups; nevertheless it is not known if these are if these are connected to each other or separated by valleys or valley systems. Besides, the altitude of the main peaks is subject to divese hypotheses, which go from 5000 to over 6000 metres; but, who knows, there could be even higher peaks still to be discovered.

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

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