Or alternately titled: “That one time I was easily convinced to do a self supported ultra marathon run/hike up and down a mountain in East Africa”
Only an ultra runner can be propositioned in the following way: a fellow runner that you meet before a trail race in Uganda mentions that she is thinking of trying to hike Mt. Elgon- on the Ugandan/Kenyan border- in one day, and asks whether you would be interested.
Well, I followed up that I was definitely interested and she sent me an article written by one of two siblings who hiked/ran the mountain in one day back in 2015. I told her I was all in- let the adventure unfold!
Sunday, the day of our one day summit/descent attempt, started with a boda boda (motorcycle) crashing in front of us and my pack losing a liter of water while strapped down on the back of a different boda, and ended with the craziest mutatu (mini-bus taxi) ride of my life which involved paying men to pull the mini-bus through the mud with ropes. In between? Pure epic-ness.
But let me back track to how I got to the town of Budadiri and to the Mt. Elgon hike- run.
Jenn, (the running friend who wrote her own account of the run/hike on her blog,) tried many times to contact officials at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) office and each time she was told that a one day ascent and descent of Mt. Elgon was not possible. Their exact words? – “It cannot be done.” Finally she talked with Fred, who miraculously said yes. Finally, we settled on a date, Sunday the 29th of January, two days before I was scheduled to leave Uganda and head back to the states. I decided it was going to be my last Ugandan adventure!
“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t” – Rikki Rogers
The Mt. Elgon hike usually takes between 3 and 4 days for most trekkers to cover the 44 kilometer round trip and ascends from 2,500 meters (over 8,000 ft.) to 4,321 meters (14,177 ft.) at the tallest peak. While this is serious hiking, it isn’t technical or absurdly high altitude and by fast hiking up and running part of the way down we figured we would have enough day light without trying to break any speed records. What did I have to lose? If we thought we couldn’t make it to Wagagai Peak and back before dark we could just turn around, not a big deal.
The day before the hike, I got to the UWA office in Budadiri first, having spent the morning and previous day hiking to the three different waterfalls in the nearby town of Sipi.
Talking to the park ranger in the office, I got the same response as Jenn – “It cannot be done!” I assured him that it could be done, has been done, and that we had in fact already been cleared to undertake the one day program by Fred. I also may have name dropped Rickey and Merritt, the brother and sister from the Trail Runner Magazine article… but it led me to meet the Park Ranger Guide that accompanied them, Rogers, who confirmed that it can be done.
Once Jenn arrived, we were finally able to call and talk to some of the “higher ups” in the chain of command and work out the details for the hike. We would have two guides go up with us from the base to the patrol hut about halfway up. At the patrol hut we would take two new guides to Wagagai Summit and back down to the patrol hut where we would pick up our original guides and go back to the base with them. With plans “finalized” and money exchanged, we went next door to Rose’s Last Chance where we were planning to stay that night (Rose’s being pretty much the only accommodation in Budadiri.) Rose took great care of us as we ate some pineapple and drank tea in the shadow of Mt. Elgon while waiting for dinner. (She also very kindly acquiesced to our 5:30am breakfast request.)
Our small room was overflowing with gear as we prepared our packs with food, water, and layers for the hike. It felt like the evening before any endurance race I’ve done. The pre-race feeling persisted throughout the night as I slept pretty poorly before my alarm went off at 5:15am. It was now time to prove that a one day ascent and descent could in fact be done. Let the adventure commence.
In front of the UWA office, we joined our rangers, Kareem and Immaculate, and waited for our bodas to the base of the trail. That was when the aforementioned boda crash occurred right in front of us. The driver was so ashamed that he got up and sped off before we could even ask if he was okay. The other driver went back to the boda station to grab a different driver. Jenn and I hopped on the back of the original driver’s bike while our rangers hopped on the other. About halfway up the road, our driver stopped and asked for one of our packs to tie down on the back of the bike to cushion the metal cargo rack. He tied mine down and about 5 minutes later Immaculate told our driver to stop- my water bladder was leaking. Turns out I had lost about a liter of water, out of the two liters that were in it, when the sliding top of the bladder slid out a bit. Not the ideal start to the day…
We reached the base just after the sun had risen and started hiking up through village farms, cows loudly urging us along. Forty five minutes later we reached the national park border and started on the official Mt. Elgon trail.
Kareem was leading us at a decent pace, unfortunately we dropped Immaculate soon into our journey. Already several hundred meters higher, we reached the “ladders of death” which were actually metal stairs that had been installed where once there had been rickety ladders. Climbing those 3 or 4 sets of ladders put us up another 100 meters. After some more steady hiking up through high altitude rainforest, we reached Sasa River Camp. We were there 2 hours into our hike – at the camp where many hikers spend their first night. I guess we were moving pretty steadily.
We hiked on up through the high altitude forest, listening to the monkeys in the trees and seeing branches sway with the occasional glimpse of a long tail.
The landscape started to change a bit with less dense forest and a more gradual incline that allowed for a bit of running. Our next stop was the patrol hut to switch guides, or rather pick up two new guides and leave Kareem since Immaculate wasn’t with us. Kareem gave a holler up the hill toward the patrol hut and a ranger came down with the visitor’s log for us to sign. The ranger told us that the other rangers were out on patrol and he wasn’t sure when they’d be back. We told him we were summiting that day and then going back. For this first time, someone did not tell us it could not be done. Instead, he looked at his watch, confirmed with us that we had started that morning, and told us that we could definitely do it in one day!
Kareem agreed to go with us to the summit since we didn’t have time to wait on the other rangers. Kareem was about to learn that he is a badass.
If you couldn’t tell by any of the above pictures, Kareem was carrying a gun the whole time (to scare away any bush meat poachers,) and wearing green rubber boots. We kept checking on him, and his feet, because while Jenn and I kind of knew what we were getting into, he did not know this was part of his job description. The pace stayed steady and the we were on track to make the summit by our turnaround time!
Weather was messing with us a bit, with some rain and hail as we ascended and the sun moving in and out of the clouds. The landscape was incredible looking, dotted with white and yellow flowers and cactus looking trees in the high altitude heather. Before we knew it we were able to see Jackson’s peak in front of us, Kareem telling us that Wagagai Peak is not far beyond it.
The weather and temperature continued to fluctuate (hence the various layers of clothes we’re wearing in the pictures,) when we made it to Jackson’s Pool on the edge of the caldera. A tiny antelope jumped through the brush allowing us glimpses of it’s tan and white coat.
For those who need a quick earth science lesson, a caldera usually occurs when a volcano collapses and forms a massive indentation. Mount Elgon was at one point in time a solitary volcano taller than Mt. Kilimanjaro but an eruption occurred so forcefully and quickly that the chamber of magma collapsed inward and caused a giant cavity in the middle. What remains along the rim are now the tallest peaks. Mt Elgon is one of the largest intact calderas on earth and is split between Uganda and Kenya.
The edge of the caldera forms a rocky ridge-line from near Jackson’s Peak to Wagagai Peak. That ridge was exposed, cold, and windy. But it made for some pretty running.
Well before our turnaround time, we got to the peak! It was snowing, and cold enough for me to put on a jacket. The best part– Kareem was all smiles.
Sadly, someone had taken the sign at the summit, but we knew where we were and felt on top of East Africa. After hiking (with a bit of running thrown in) up the mountain, it was time to run down. As Jenn put it, it was almost like we were ski mountaineering, hiking up just so that we could take advantage of the run down the trail.
For miles at a time it was some of the best running I’ve encountered anywhere in the world.
We started running down that ridgeline of the caldera.
The kilometers and the minutes ticked by as we made it back down towards the high altitude rain forest. We waited for Kareem at the camps we passed on the way down and checked on his feet and to make sure he had enough food and water. At the patrol station we hollered for the ranger we had met before because we had forgotten to give him our UWA paperwork. To our pleasant surprise, Immaculate came down with him. She was planning to run the rest of the way down with us!
It was raining more as we got further down the trail, making for a slightly slick running surface. I was setting the pace with Jenn and Immaculate, followed a little ways by Kareem, in line behind me. At points we were kind of amazed that we hiked up as easily as we did – it was steep! I ended up falling once but on very soft soil so I only got one tiny nick on my shin (and a more than a little mud on me.) A little ways later I had a bit more serious of an injury by stubbing my big toe, hard, on a root. That took some walking off. (Seriously, it has been almost a month and my toe is still stiff and sore.)
At an eerie/foggy Sasa River Camp we all regrouped and took a bathroom break. Right after we headed down and away from the river I realized that I was out of water… I thought I would be okay since we were only an hour or so from the base, (considering that it took us 2 hours to hike up to that point.) That estimate was a little off. Due to tired legs from over 10 hours of running/hiking and the slick rocks and steps (remember the ladder of death steps?) on the trail, it took us an hour and 40 minutes to cover that section. We stopped for photos at the official trail sign before continuing to descend through the farming communities.
Tired, dehydrated, and losing energy as quickly as the day was waning, the last 40 minutes were by far the hardest of the day for me. Jenn took over setting the pace as I tried to keep up as best as I could. She kept a better attitude than me and pointed out the rays of sun shining down on Budadiri (or what we assumed was Budadiri) and the Nile Special beer we would soon be enjoying.
Finally, we were back where we started, boda drivers waiting for us! After waiting a few more minutes for Kareem, we gave him huge congratulations for being the only ranger we knew of to do the entire trail in one day!
Whether it was a good idea or not, we ended up showering and eating at Rose’s and then taking another epic journey into the town of Mbale to catch a late night bus to Kampala. (That journey to Mbale was where our mutatu driver had to pay some guys to literally drag the vehicle through the mud!) The day started at 5:15am and I got to my compound in Kampala at 3:30am- officially making it one of the longest days of my life.
In the briefest of summaries, I ended my 4 month long fellowship in Uganda with one last epic weekend. Maybe it was kind of crazy but I felt confident enough in my ability to at least try to do it. In the end we proved that “it can be done!”
“Most obstacles melt away when we make up our minds to walk boldly through them.” – Orison Swett Marden