Ascent of three Virunga mountains, Volcanoes NP

Rupert Roschnik writes: .

The party:  Natan and Neil Cointet, David Leishman, Rupert Roschnik.

October 2012

Bisoke We had strolled along to the Park HQ in Kinigi the previous afternoon but it was deserted.  Imagine our surprise the next day at 7.30 a.m. to find the car park full of 4x4s and the whole garden area a seething mass of people.  Most as it turned out were hoping to see gorillas.  We found our guide, showed our vouchers and were soon on our way, after a short briefing.  We reached the trailhead in a little under an hour, first on the main tarred road, then on steadily worsening side roads, more like river beds or, better, lava flows than roads for long stretches.  This was supposed to be an easy day, “only” up Bisoke, 3000 ft up, quite steep but still muddy from the previous rains.  Before entering the Park, we were joined by the compulsory patrol of local askaris (soldiers).  They were very smart in perfectly ironed uniforms, all carried guns, but they were very discreet, walking in front or behind and vanishing in the undergrowth whenever we stopped.  We reached the crater lake at the summit in 2 ½ hours.  It was only partially visible due to fog and mist, and we had no real view. So we descended again after a picnic lunch.  That evening, we got our first clear view of Karisimbi, our main objective, above the clouds in the west.  In fact, the weather was slowly improving.

Muhabura Sunday 12th we were standing by the Landcruiser at 7.20 a.m., ready to set off when a guide appeared to tell us we were already late and might not be able to do Muhabura, 4127 m (13’540 ft) that day.  It seems we were given the wrong starting time by the office in Kigali.  It was a good hour to the trailhead and the side roads were quite pleasant after yesterday’s awful roads.  We finally set off just before 9 a.m. to attack the 1800 m (5850 ft) separating us from the summit of Muhabura.  Again, the narrow trail went up steeply in the rain forest, but the path was mercifully quite dry.  We used one porter that day and he was certainly necessary.  We left the forest behind us after about 2 hours and had a short break a little later.  It was now quite sunny, offering good views down to the densely inhabited plain below us, but still cloudy on the Uganda side.  The rest of the climb became progressively more tiring as we began to feel the altitude and stops with gasping and panting for breath became more and more frequent, until we finally reached the summit – with a small tarn at the top – by 1.30 p.m.  Once again, there was mist at the summit, it was cold and windy and there were no good views.  The descent was of course much easier but I found the part in the forest long and tedious, the loose black earth that hadn’t bothered us on the way up turned out slippery and treacherous on the way down.  It was already 6 p.m. by the time we were all back at the vehicle and the drive back in the dark was quite tricky, given the large numbers of pedestrians and cyclists all along the edges of the road, almost invisible until one was right on top of them.  In all, our longest and most tiring day.

Karisimbi: Tuesday 14th, we were finally able to go for the highest volcano in the Virungas, Karisimbi, 4507 m.  This is a two-day trip, with a camp about half way up at 3600 m.  Nothing is provided except guides and porters (who are optional and must be paid separately – USD 20 or RWF 10’000), so climbers must bring tents and bedding, also all food and cooking equipment.  We took a calculated risk and decided not to take any camping stoves with us but live on sandwiches, biscuits, fruit, breakfast cereal and milk, etc for the one night.  So we met at the Park HQ at the appointed time and drove to the same trailhead as on the first day.  We were joined by a single Frenchman who had his permit but no transport (in return, he gave us hot water in the camp, so we got our hot drinks after all!)  Presumably he had been informed that there was a party going up that day, since to turn up with a paid permit when there are only about 100 ascents each year would be risky.

The first day’s walk was very pleasant, not too steep, through some beautiful Hagenia-Hypericum forest and we reached the camp shortly after lunch, having climbed some 1000 m.  Here we organised our tents and sleeping arrangements.  The 4-5 porters made a large log fire in whose ashes they cooked potatoes and corn cobs, the soldiers – there were 12 of them – made their own camps and camp fires some way above and below ours.  It had been a beautiful day and now we had a fantastic clear and starry night, with no haze or light pollution, but it was cold, around freezing.

Wednesday 15th was the big day.  The guide had persuaded us to get up at 5 a.m. and leave 30 minutes later.  But all was still pitch dark at 5 and getting up was a slow process.  By 5.30 we were shivering and eating our breakfast of Weetabix and in the end left at 6 a.m., by which time it was daylight.  The sun came over the horizon at 6.30 and we were soon stripping off our outer layers of clothing.  The path continued up steeply through giant groundsel, then over grass when these ran out and finally over stones and sandy volcanic ash.  We each went at our own pace and reached the summit between 8.30 and 9.  It was worth the effort!  A beautifully sunny day with good views to the neighbouring mountains, notably the whole Virunga volcano chain to the north, Mikeno (4437 m, 14557 ft) in the Congo (DRC) only about 5 km away to the west and, further away, the two active volcanoes in the Congo – Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, both with steam/white smoke coming out of their summit craters.  The view down onto the plain was limited by haze;  it was just possible to make out where Goma was situated but Lake Kivu remained invisible.  On the downside, there is a huge TV mast close to the summit, a few aluminium sheds and a shocking amount of building rubbish – cables, wire, metal girders, broken glass, wood, etc – not a pretty sight for a National Park!

We started down at about 9.30, rested at the camp and packed up all our gear, then continued down to the Landcruiser, where we paid off the porters and the (compulsory) guardian of our vehicle.  Back to Kinigi for beer and showers.

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