THE 1906 SCIENTIFIC CLIMBING

Here you read the adventure of the Rwenzori climbing in 1906 as it really happended, written by Roberto Mantovani on elements and findings gathered from the original report from the Duke.
The historical photos of this section are from the original photograghs taken by Vittorio Sella, now preserved at the Museum of the Mountain in Turin and Sella Foundation in Biella. We thank the above institutions for giving us the consession of using these important photographic materials.

A great, new mountaineering expedition
The first Ascents.
On the highest peaks of the Rwenzori
Frenetic activity
The results of the Expeditions

The Duke and his two guides, Cesar Ollier and Joseph Petigax.

The Duke and his two guides, Cesar Ollier and Joseph Petigax.

A great, new mountaineering expedition

In April 1905, Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Abruzzi, returns from an extremely long sea voyage. Seven years before he climbed St Elias. In 1899, he explored the arctic pole with dogs and sledges, the beginning of frost bite in his hands obliged him to give up the last part of the expedition. Not content with the venturing remotest corners of the world, the Duke continues to plan new explorations. It was with this state of mind that the Duke chose to climb the mountainous massive of the Rwenzori.
Luigi Amedeo gathers all necessary available information, chooses his companions, prepares materials and equipment with the help also of cameras and topographic instruments in order to measure the heights of the various peaks. Geophysical, meteorological and magnetic studies were also to be carried out. The scientist of the expedition would further the geological and glacial knowledge of the region, without forgetting the flora and fauna of the mountain zone.

In the end, Luigi Amedeo of Savoy’s team was made up Captain Umberto Cagni who, with Lieutenant Edoardo Winspeare, is to assist the Duke with geographical observations; the photographer Vittorio Sella and his assistant Erminio Botta; Dr Alessandro Roccati, director of the geomineralogical laboratory of Turin Polytechnic, entrusted with geological and mineralogical research; Major Achille Cavalli Molinelli, naval doctor, who, among other things, has the task of collaborating with Roccati in the collection of zoological and botanical specimens.
Then there is the group of Alpine guides who are fundamental for the mountaineering part of the expedition: Josef Petigax, a tried climbing companion of the Duke’s (he took part in the expeditions to the pole and St Elias); Cesar Ollier and then the porters Josef Brocherel and Laurent Petigax, all from Courmayer. Lastly there is Igino Igini, Luigi Amedeo’s cook. On April 16th 1906, the Duke and the members of the expedition left the port of Naples aboard the German made boat Bergemeisteir and reached Mombasa on the 3rd of may. On the 4th, they boarded a train of the recently newly built railway and after 940 kilometres, they reached Port Florence in Kisumu, on Lake Victoria. The Winifred, one of the three steam boats on regular service between the ports of the Lake.

People along the railwayline. Photo taken by Vittoria Sella

People along the railwayline. Photo taken by Vittoria Sella


On May 7th, the Winifred docks in the bay of Entebbe, The expedition is received by the governor of Uganda but on the 15th, the expedition is ready to depart to Fort Portal a locality 290 kilometres away. During the march, the line of men, formed of porters of the Buganda race and groups of Swahili, stretches out for half a kilometre.

The Caravan of Baganda Porters from Entebbe to Fort Portal (V.Sella)

The Caravan of Baganda Porters from Entebbe to Fort Portal (V.Sella)


On May 25th the expedition crosses the boundary of the Western province and three days later is on the hills north of Kaibo, which make a watershed between Lakes Albert and Edward. There the icy peaks of the Rwenzori appear for the first time. They are seventy kilometres away and seem suspended in the air above a layer of fog and mist. An unforgettable sight.
At last on May 29th, the expedition reaches Fort Portal, at an altitude 1535 metres; the last British outpost before the great mountains. It is a barracks for the native soldiers and in all fifteen Europeans among officers officials with their families and missionaries.
During a brief stop, Luigi Amedeo meets Reverend Fisher, pioneer of the Rwenzori, and the English Mountaineer Wollaston, who has briefly separated from the British Museum team to greet the head of the Italian expedition. It is not difficult to imagine that both men gave the Duke precious information about Mobuku valley.
Having dismissed a large number of porters, the expedition starts walking again on June 1st towards the slopes of Rwenzori. In seven days the group expects to get to the 3798 metres of Bujungolo, their future base camp.

Two days later the caravan enters Mobuku Valley. Slowly the vegetation and countryside begin to change. Here and there the first lobelias appear with lots of dracaena palms; in the background great sparkling snow fields, crests and high peaks tower over everything.
At Bihunga camp at altitude 1920, their equipment is changed: their light clothes are substituted by jackets and trousers more suitable for the mountain. Part of the baggage is left in a hut built by the British Museum’s expedition and many porters descend to Butanka, a village half way between Mobuku Valley and Fort Portal, where they will wait to be called for the return trip.
The last part of the approach stage of the march is through forest; not a very hospitable environment but one that is rich in fantastic back-drops. On June 5th on the left side of the great valley gulley of Mobuku and right in front of Nakitawa camp, at 2652 metres, the group discover Kichuchu Valley, never noted by preceding explorers, which seems to lead into the heart of the range.

The next day the porters are changed. The Buganda, men of the lowlands, are half substituted by a local group of Bakonjo, more used to move in the impervious and slippery terrain. The upper part of Mobuku Valley reveals itself as being “one of the most extraordinary sights of the whole journey”. It is formed by three great terraces one above the other, separated by cliffs two to three hundred metres high. Each terrace is saturated with stagnant water and the scenery is incredible. “Trunks and branches are entirely covered with a thick layer of mosses which hang down in long beards from all the branches; they enlarge and fill out the knots in the wood making the plants appear strangely distorted; swollen; laden with tumours; struck by an enormous greenish or yellow-red leprosy. There are no leaves except on the highest branches, but the forest is dark due to the dense intertwining of trunks and boughs. The ground has disappeared under the countless trunks of dead trees, heaped one on top of the other: those exposed to the air are covered in slippery and slimy mosses; those having lain for years and years in the deep holes are blackened and nude, not mouldy or rotten at all. No forest is as horrid or as strange as this one […]”.

On June 7th fifty four days after departing, the Duke and his companions arrive at Bujungolo, “a real eagle’s nest, 3798 metres high and 800 above Kichuchu”. A wild, harsh place reached by the cold, biting breath from the glaciers, which make one think “of anything rather than the Equator or the centre of Africa”. The next morning after a night spent in a bivouac, preparations for building the base camp in the lee of a great, damp, overhanging cliff begin. A long, demanding and difficult job due to the limited amount of level ground and also because a few metres from the great rock, the mountain falls to the valley with a slope covered in mud, moss and tree heathers. The only solution is to fell trees and construct a platform capable of holding the tents. Meanwhile Cagni, still convalescent left Entebbe two days ago on a forced march to join his companions.

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Lobelias groundsel and heathers in Bujuku valley. Photo by Vittorio Sella

Lobelias groundsel and heathers in Bujuku valley. Photo by Vittorio Sella


The first Ascents

On the morning of June 9th while work on the construction of the base camp is proceeding fast and furiously, Luigi Amedeo, the guides from Aosta Valley, Erminio Botta and five Bakonjo porters go up to the head of Mobuku Valley. They touch the point where Grauer had camped a few months previously, at altitude 4.032, then proceed along the edges of the Mobuku glacier. In the afternoon at 4.349 metres, in dense fog the only tent available is pitched: it will be camp 1. Only the Duke, Joseph Petigax, Ollier and Brocherel remain to sleep up there. Before dawn the group descends onto the glacier and immediately climbs up towards the most low-lying point on the crest, near the rocky crag which Grauer had named Edward Peak in January. Fortunately visibility is good and from the first glance the topography of the group begins to reveal its secrets. To the south the eastern portion of Kiyanja (Mount Baker) appears; to the west the central group (Mount Stanley) shows four distinct peaks joined in pairs; to the north Speke (Johnson’s Duwoni) peeps through. And further away another two snow capped peaks stand out to the right of Speke. All at once old queries are answered and aquired certainties are dashed. It is obvious that the terminal crest of Mobuku Valley does not form the watershed of the range. Besides, neither the main group, which includes the highest peaks nor Speke have anything to do with the valley gulley of Mobuku, which was thought to contain the most extensive glaciers in the Rwenzori.
At half past six in the morning Luigi Amedeo and his guides start walking again in a westerly direction, towards the highest peak of Kiyanja (Mount Baker). The group climbs on hard snow, keeping to the right hand side of the ridge. At 8 o’clock they reach the 4829 metre summit which will be called Semper peak. Then they continue along the ridge toward the south, aiming at the highest summit of the group. At quarter past nine, in the thickest fog, the Duke of Abruzzi, Joseph Petigax, Ollier and Brocherel arrive at Edward Peak, 4873 metres, “formed of rocks entirely covered with glittering crystals, in the shape of vitreous efflorescences”.
Hoping for the fog to lift, the group wait on the summit for four hours. And not in vain because the mountaineers are given a wonderful view to the south and the discovery of another mountain group with several small glaciers (later it will be called Luigi di Savoia).
At one o’clock the party return back along the same path and are at camp 1 again by mid afternoon where Sella, Botta, Brocherel and six African porters have just finished erecting a second tent and got the cameras ready.
On June 11th while the Duke’s team returns to Bujungolo camp, Sella and his companions climb first to the pass and then to King Edward Peak with the idea of taking some beautiful landscape photographs. The weather is terrible but finally, in the early afternoon, it clears. Next morning Sella, Botta and Brocherel are again on the pass and climb to Moore Peak (4654m); an easy climb but made treacherous by the ice. It is snowing on the peak and unfortunately the camera cannot be used. On returning to the pass the roped party meet Dr Roccati and a guide. By now it is snowing heavily everywhere, and only Botta and Sella have the courage to pass the night in the tent, insisting on remaining at high altitude in the hope of good weather. However next day they too are obliged to return to Bujungolo.


Semper peak on Mount Baker. Photo by Vittorio Sella

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Frenetic activity
The results of the Expeditions

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