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BECOMING A MOUNTAINEER – Where Silver meets Gold

Welcome to my first mountaineering blog. You may be excused for thinking that I am an experienced mountaineer and therefore, this blog is about my top tips for other enthusiasts, and you will be excused for nearly being right! Having completed my fourth mountain, yes FOUR, I feel justified to associate with mountaineers even if the thought of even attempting the likes of Everest often ends in coughing fits of laughter! The movie Everest was painful enough to watch, I did my part and watched to the end . In any case, a fitting introduction to this blog would read like; welcome to my first blog about pain, endurance, sport, spirituality and sheer- ignorance-otherwise- wouldn’t-have-done-that! My name is Bea and I am an apiarist, phone farmer, educator, goat and herb whisperer, small hills conqueror, runner (ish), swimmer (only just), tree planter and now mountaineer (oh yeah!)! This is an account of how I became an accidental mountaineer! 

The Lure 

Before we jump into how I was misled into this whole mountaineering thing, this blog is written in a style to muse and entertain my fantastic supporters. Cheerleaders are the most important and best-est thing for athletes. They encourage, enthuse, enable and bring home the trophy for the athlete. YOU all summitted with me at the Virunga mountains, and THANK YOU so much for all the wonderful support !

During the worldwide pandemic in 2020, I was struck by how difficult it was to keep healthy habits. I run 25k a week, tried to avoid the cake bomb traps, shopped lean and clean and ate seven pieces of fruit and vegetables a day but still managed to destroy the incredible health gains amassed over the last two years. I piled on weight every single week, went back to my old wardrobe and pulled out my old cloths as I increased in weight day after day ! I heard about a trip from colleagues who were going to climb the mountains of the moon in Uganda. “How could anyone, out of choice, deliberately expose themselves to cold temperatures, and climb just to say they summitted?” I mused! 

Intrigued by the sheer audacity of conquering the beast called the Rwenzori in five days, I listened to the stories about the beautiful plants which survive at high altitude and the landscape so serene, beautiful and majestic. This reminded me of the time when the bible was the only book I read as a child. The beautiful imaginations from the stories in the most popular book, stories of a garden called Eden, the promised land, the red sea, the burning bush and of mountains! I thought about Moses descending from the mountain with the ten commandments, surely, they must have been made on a mountain like Rwenzori! I wanted in! So, I thought, ‘how about, if I trained to climb the Virunga ranges in six months and in the process, promote education and magic of reading especially?’ The seed was planted and henceforth, the idea became action!

The Training

Initially, the training included increasing my weekly running mileage to 30k a week and sprinkling additional squats to improve my leg endurance. I am a fitness enthusiast, or so I thought, before the hike. In any case, before the pandemic, I did three spin classes a week, enjoyed the gym too much and walked on average about two hours a day. I am as fit as a fiddle and do not need to do so much training” so I thought! Five weeks to the climb, I increased my mileage to 50k a week and included some hill runs. This is Olympian style preparation! this is good and I felt strong. “We are so going to do this” I kept telling myself. Suitcase packed with everything I could think of in pairs, new pair of hiking boots, cushioned socks, I was ready for the Virungas!

The Virunga Ranges

The Virunga mountain ranges span three countries, Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. They sit at a distance and draw you in as you approach, in one of the most beautiful parts of Uganda. Crater lakes dot the landscape, patterned slopes litter the roadside and the air is filled with the smell of fresh onions, as the key crop grown in the region. Like a beauty oblivious of her magnetism, the landscape in Kabale and Kisoro districts is captivating. There are three mountains on the Ugandan side of the ranges: Muhabura which means the landmark, standing tallest of the ranges, majestically stretching out its depth and height above the clouds, sitting back into the ranges as a natural boundary at the end of Uganda. I think I could hear it laughing, a long deep belly laugh, that shook the foundations of the volcano. Gahinga, the second mountain, which means a pile of rocks, follows close behind Muhabura, gentle to the hiker and yet deceptively high, storms through three distinct ecological changes; swamp, bamboo and high altitude tropical jungle with gigantic cacti and alien-looking plants. Gahinga is home to the golden monkeys and flows with elephant beer, an intoxicating wild pumpkin which is loved by the mighty elephant and is so potent that it makes elephants drunk! The three-peaked Sabinyo, smiling like its name, an old man’s teeth, steep like an arrow shooting out into the sky, cold like an Eskimo’s breath, dense like an equatorial jungle. It is not for the faint-hearted. Did you know that mountains had nostrils?

Summitting

Climbing Muhaburra, Gahinga and Sabinyo in three days was not only the hardest thing, I had ever done, it was the most gratifying thing. The Muhaburra mountain guides told us it was impossible to climb three mountains consecutively. Even they had to take a days rest in between. I was terrified. Logic and reason screamed all sorts of rational objections to what we were about to embark on. My colleague athletes were determined. They called themselves mountain (s)he goats, and they were doing this. We are doing this, I whispered! Plastered toes, throbbing, deep-heat laced hamstrings and deflecting the aches in my legs, we set off on day two and three like a lamb to slaughter. The answer to the question posed by the journalist in the Everest movie, “But why?” was right there in front of me when I summitted all three mountains. Beyond the physical achievement, was a deeper fulfilment of being in a space where few humans have walked. The howling wind, watching the clouds move below, the thin crisp air, the strange-looking vegetation, the unspoilt landscape, up there on the summit, is a glimpse of Eden. A world before, we humans started to plunder, exploit and devour it. It is sacred. It was a place where humans were strangers and the land was king and queen rolled into one.  This is how I became an accidental mountaineer.

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Written by Bea Simpson

PhD Scholar at Cambridge University | Co-Founder Tusome Africa

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