Rwenzori’s Vanishing Ice

Retracing the steps of The Snows of the Nile to document the effects of climate change in the "Mountains of the Moon"
Rwenzori © Day's Edge Productions
Our team crosses the Stanley Glacier to make a pre-dawn attempt at Alexandra Peak. After a rare night without fresh snow, they can follow the footsteps of another climbing party that traversed the glacier the previous day.

Surrounded by five beautiful women, “The Most Interesting Man in the World” reached out to shake my hand. With his free hand, he grabbed my forearm, pulled me close and yelled over the noisy New York restaurant, “Congratulations. You just won the first ever Dos Equis Stay Thirsty Grant!” I shook my head in disbelief. A beer company was going to support our photo expedition! A month later, my buddy Neil Losin and I were squinting through a freezing whiteout on Africa’s third-tallest peak.

A few months earlier, Neil had an idea about using photography to document climate change. We wouldn’t be the first to do it. The best-known example is James Balog, who captured the remarkable multi-year timelapses of glaciers featured in the acclaimed documentary “Chasing Ice.” But Neil’s idea was different.

Neil and I specialize in telling stories about science, nature and conservation through photography and film. When Neil called me in July of 2012, he insisted that, “Instead of telling another story about melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels,” we needed to “show people a place they’d never expect to see the effects of climate change—the tropics.”

When you think of the tropics, rainforests and coral reefs probably come to mind. But there are a few special places where equatorial mountains are tall enough to sustain permanent ice. These icy landscapes are among the most imperiled ecosystems on the planet and are disappearing globally at an astonishing rate. According to scientists, the world’s tropical glaciers may vanish completely before the end of this century.

Neil’s idea was simple: identify equatorial mountains with permanent ice, retrace the steps of past expeditions, and recapture historical photos of glaciers from those expeditions to reveal how they have changed. As we considered our options, one place stood out to me: Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains. When Neil mentioned the name, it stirred memories from my youth.

I spent my childhood in Kenya, where my mom worked as an agricultural economist. During that time, my father stopped practicing medicine to take care of my brother and me and—I’ve always suspected—to go on adventures. A few times a year, he would sign on to be the doctor on expeditions throughout east Africa, caving, climbing and mountaineering. One year, he accompanied Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard to a mountain range in Uganda that, at the time, I couldn’t pronounce. My father returned home with astonishing photos of bizarre ecosystems, snow-capped peaks and muddy adventures. This was my introduction to the Rwenzori Mountains.

Lunae Montes

The geographer Ptolemy first wrote about the Rwenzori Mountains around 150 CE after hearing rumors from Arab traders of snow-capped peaks in the heart of tropical Africa. Ptolemy called these mountains “Lunae Montes,” or in English, the Mountains of the Moon. He speculated that these mountains must be the source of the Nile River, but for almost 2000 years, their existence remained legend.

English explorers revisited the area in the late 19th century and confirmed that there were indeed large mountains there, although no one was able to summit them or explore them fully. Then, in 1906, Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, launched one of the most famous mountaineering expeditions of the early 20th century. His goal: to explore, summit and document all the peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains. He brought an Italian photographer, Vittorio Sella, to document every aspect of the expedition. While never as famous as Ansel Adams, Sella earned the respect of his American counterpart; according to Adams, Sella’s mountain images inspired “a definitely religious awe.”

Rwenzori © Day's Edge Productions
Mount Speke (background) and Mount Baker (foreground), Rwenzori Mountains National Park, Uganda. This image is a repeat of a famous 1906 image captured by photographer Vittorio Sella on the Duke of Abruzzi's expedition, during which all the major peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains were summited for the first time.

The Duke’s expedition was a great success. When he returned to Europe, he published a remarkable report of their journey, entitled The Snows of the Nile, illustrated with Sella’s photographs. The Duke’s observations confirmed that rain and snow falling in the Rwenzoris fueled the Nile River to the east and the Congo River to the west. The Snows of the Nile caused a sensation in Europe, and news of the Duke’s exploits quickly spread around the world.

When Neil and I saw the images that Sella had captured during their 1906 expedition, we knew that this was our best opportunity to document a century of climate change in photographs. We arrived in Uganda in January 2013 with a simple mission, to retrace the steps of the Duke’s 1906 expedition and recapture Vittorio Sella’s images of the Rwenzori glaciers in the exact same locations.

On our drive to Ibanda, the mountain town where we would start our ascent, we saw hills on the horizon blanketed in clouds. Our driver told us that if it were clear, we would see the ice-capped peaks beneath the clouds. “How often is it clear?” Neil asked. “Almost never,” he responded, as Neil and I shot each other worried looks.

Rwenzori Expedition, Day 1

When we arrived in Ibanda, we met our team of local guides, all members of the Bakonjo Tribe. The Bakonjo have lived in and around the Rwenzoris for centuries. They were instrumental in the Duke of the Abruzzi’s 1906 expedition. Ever since, the Bakonjo have been the gatekeepers of these mountains. Today, everyone exploring Rwenzori National Park must have a local guide, and every climbing guide is Bakonjo. In the local Konjo language, the word Rwenzori literally means “rainmaker.” Joseph and Nason, our Bakonjo climbing guides, joked that the mountains were “shy”—they almost never showed themselves. I started to have second thoughts about our plan.

Our scientific knowledge of the Rwenzori Mountains is incredibly limited. The range is so remote and its terrain so rugged that few scientists have studied the flora and fauna living there. Chimpanzees and forest elephants inhabit the dense foothill forests, and an enigmatic population of black leopards is reputed to stalk the mossy woodlands and bogs of the highest elevations.

Our journey into Rwenzori National Park began in light rain at 5,300 feet. As we moved between dense forest and patches of bracken, dominated by scattered trees and grassy glades, we heard the faint echoes of screaming chimpanzees on the wind. Joseph found a patch of wild blackberries, and we stopped to taste them. As if on cue, Nason pointed into the dense vegetation. There, walking with a leaf-like sway, a Johnston’s chameleon, endemic to the Rwenzoris, moved cryptically along a thorny vine, its three-horned face an homage to a bygone era.

Rwenzori © Day's Edge Productions
The Scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird is found above 3,000 meters elevation in Africa’s highest mountains, where it feeds on insects and nectar. This female is perched on a Dendrosenecio, a giant member of the sunflower family.

As we climbed deeper into the mountains, the drizzle turned into a downpour. I wanted to photograph everything, but the rain forced me to keep my camera beneath a poncho. When the rain eased up long enough to take a photo, I pulled out my camera to find the lens completely fogged. As the rain continued, the climb steepened and I focused on my footsteps.

Days 2–4

Ascending tropical mountains means traversing different communities of plants and animals in rapid succession. We soon left the rainforests and chameleons behind to enter the Bamboo Zone. The trail ahead was like a tunnel through impossibly dense bamboo, and sunlight reflected off the stems to illuminate us in an emerald glow.

A few hours later, precipitation returned in the form of thick mist. Through the fog, I strained my eyes to see the silhouettes of twisted trees, dripping with epiphytes. We had reached the Heather Zone, a fairytale forest of giant lobelias and heather trees, where everything is covered in mosses and epiphytic Usnea, or Old Man’s Beard lichen.

The next morning, we awoke to clear skies, and the optimism of our entire team was palatable. As I ate breakfast I let the rays of sun get to my head and imagined that today would be the day we glimpsed the high peaks as we climbed into the Bujuku Valley.

The sunshine quickly surrendered to the Rainmaker. Ominous clouds descended and enveloped us in a heavy mist, just as we entered the first of the Rwenzori’s famous high-elevation bogs.

My father had told me about this place, a labyrinth of tussock grasses growing in a sea of mud. He said it was the strangest—and muddiest—place he had ever visited. The bogs are truly a world from a Dr. Seuss book. Here, giant lobelia can grow 30 feet tall and Dendrosenecio trees, the world’s largest members of the sunflower family, dwarf the few lucky travelers who have experienced this rare habitat. Swedish botanist Karl Olov Hedberg called these plants Africa’s “botanical big game,” and they are, in their own way, just as impressive as the “Big Five” mammals of the savannah.

Rwenzor © Day's Edge Productions
In the Heather Zone of the Rwenzori Mountains, above the Bamboo Zone but below the Afroalpine bogs, the trees are blanketed in dense moss.

To navigate through the bogs, travelers must jump from tussock to tussock. Slip or take wrong step, and you could sink chest-deep in frigid mud. Just as I told myself that my father’s stories were exaggeration, I jumped, slipped and splashed down into the mud. Black muck poured over the edges of my rubber boots as I sunk thigh-deep into the bog.

Neil’s laugh brought me out of my panic. “Need a hand, buddy?” He carefully hopped over and, with some effort, helped me back onto dry grass. “What a weird place. Right?” It was weird, alright; weird and beautiful.

The next bog was crossed via a sturdy wooden boardwalk to save the fragile bog from destructive foot traffic. Emerging from the bog, Joseph insisted that on a clear day, there would be superb views of Mt. Stanley from this glacier-carved valley. But, as we ascended over glacial moraine, crisscrossing the river that flowed from Lake Bujuku, clouds obscured our view of the mountains and water poured from the sky. The last four hours of our hike to Bujuku hut were the muddiest of the expedition.

In the now-famous report of his 1906 expedition, the Duke of the Abruzzi wrote, “The one point on which all explorers agreed was the abominable weather encountered in the higher regions; rain almost perpetual, mist in the intervals between the downpours, rare clearances, and those only about dawn.”

Sella and the Duke were in the mountains for 50 days. Neil and I were here for just 12. We only had time to climb each peak once. And, unlike Sella, we were not just looking for clear views. We needed to find the exact locations where Sella captured his images in order to recreate the perspectives in his photographs. With this weather, we worried that we may never have that opportunity.

Days 5–9

The highest peaks are accessible as one-day climbs from rustic huts above 4,000 meters elevation. For the next four days, we ascended peaks in challenging weather, with no opportunities to recapture any of Sella’s images photos. From Bujuku Hut, we climbed Vittorio Emanuele, the high point on Mt. Speke at 16,042 feet, but summited the peak in clouds and rain. Moving on to Elena Hut, we positioned ourselves on Mt. Stanley to climb some of highest peaks in the range. Through a cloak of impenetrable fog and unrelenting wind, we summited Margherita Peak at 16,763 feet, the highest peak in the range.

Rwenzori © Day's Edge Productions
From left to right: Bakonjo guides Lazaro Bwambale and Nason Buraru, photographer Neil Losin, and Kenyan mountaineer James “KG” Kagambe stop to rest while climbing Mt. Speke in Rwenzori National Park, Uganda. In the background is Mt. Stanley, the highest point in the Rwenzoris at 5,109 meters.

On our second day at Elena Hut, we awoke to stars that seemed artificial, a sparkling mist in night sky. In the dark, we quickly geared up and began to climb. As our boots found their way onto ice, the sky grew brighter without a cloud in sight.

Crouching on the glacier in pre-dawn light, Neil pulled out a folder with prints of Sella’s 1906 images. We sifted through them, selecting a few images that we knew Sella had captured on the Stanley glacier. One iconic image of Margherita Peak looked easy to recreate. As the sun rose, we wandered around the glacier, holding up the photograph and comparing it to the image on our camera’s viewfinder.

Neil thought we had to move higher; I thought we needed to go lower. We tried my way, and couldn’t get the perspective. We tried his way, and it didn’t look right. We could see clouds in the distance coming toward the mountain range, and we started to argue. Our guides were looking at the images, making their own suggestions, and no one seemed to agree. Eventually, we realized that everyone was wrong.

One hundred years ago, when Sella put his tripod onto the Stanley Glacier, it was tens of meters thicker than it is today. He would have been capturing his image from a perspective that was impossible for us to achieve without a helicopter.

Day 10 & Descent

Some of Sella’s best images of the glaciers were captured from Mt. Baker (15,892 feet). We had one more shot. We left Kitandara Hut at 4 a.m. and quickly ascended past treeline. After a few tricky maneuvers, we reached the peak an hour after sunrise. For the first time on the trip, we had a clear view, but huge clouds were approaching from the east. We had just enough time to consult our now-tattered prints of Sella’s images and re-capture two of his most iconic images before the clouds rolled into the valley below us. I breathed a sigh of relief. We were in the right place at the right time.

Rwenzori © Day's Edge Productions
Above 4000 meters, giant Lobelia and Dendrosenecio give way to low-growing grasses, forbs, mosses and lichens. In this image, a rare clear sky reveals Mt. Baker (left) and the east face of Mt. Stanley (right). Glaciers once extended hundreds of meters down Mt. Stanley’s flanks but are now confined to elevations near the summit.

As we descended over the next three days, my emotions were mixed. I expected to feel triumphant; we had worked hard to recapture Sella’s 1906 glacier images, and we had succeeded. But as we compared the images on our LCD screens with the Sella prints, the before-and-after photographs told a depressing story. In just 100 years, 80 percent of the glaciers had disappeared. Scientists predict that these glaciers may be gone in 20 years.

And it’s not just the glaciers that are changing. Joseph and Nason pointed out vegetation and animals that were now found living hundreds of meters higher than their historic range, forced upward by the shifting climate. Malaria, once absent from Ibanda, was getting more common as the climate warmed. Flash floods and irregular weather were severely impacting agriculture in the foothills.

As guides, Joseph and Nason worried that when the glaciers disappeared, tourists would no longer want to visit their mountains. Back at Nyabitaba Hut, on the last night of our trip, Joseph asked us, “What can we do? What can we do to restore our glaciers?”

Neil and I looked at each other in silence, afraid to tell him the truth he probably already knew. Nothing the Bakonjo can do will restore their glaciers. They are victims of a problem created by the industrial world to which Neil and I belong. The National Park and the Bakonjo can protect the park from poaching and logging, but they are powerless to stop the effects of climate change. The interconnectedness of our world came into focus; whether intentionally or not, our actions affect others, even those living on the other side of the planet.

I thought back to how our adventure had started, with an award from Dos Equis and “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” It was an unlikely way to start this endeavor, but no more unexpected than the profound impact this whole experience had on me.

I don’t always take photographs to make people think, but when I do, I prefer that they make me think, too.


Nate Dappen and Neil Losin are biologists, filmmakers and photographers. After finishing their Ph.D.s in biology, they left academia to start Day’s Edge Productions (daysedge.com), an award-winning multimedia production company that specializes in telling stories about science, nature, conservation and adventure.

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