On the first day of 2017, Chelsea and I penned (nerdily) “bucket lists”, outlining goals and hopes to accomplish within the year. This is a favorite practice of mine, as setting forth possibilities simultaneously allows us to appreciate our experiences and relationships held in the past.
In this list, I included trips I wanted to take (visiting the East Coast, for example, to reunite with my girlfriends from college), writing projects I wanted to do (beginning a book!), and commitments I wanted to engage with (joining Denver Community Church).
I also jotted down highlights of the past year, grateful for so much that had happened – even in a turbulent year of change and uncertainty.
I believe in holding loosely to plans, of course, but I do think there is something intentional and progressive about jotting down the pieces of life you are consistently striving and working towards.
This includes climbing insane mountains.
I knew the first couple of months of my year would be in Rwanda since I was scheduled to be with The Women’s Bakery team at our headquarters in Kigali.
Knowing I would have weekends to gallivant the country or do things I’ve left undone in previous visits, Mount Muhabura topped the list of activities I wanted to do. It’s been on the back of my mind for literally, years. When I was in the Peace Corps I often thought about tackling this brute of a mountain, but frankly, didn’t want to fork over the money for it. This actually makes a lot of sense since I was living on a stipend of around $250 monthly and the costs for a permit to hike Muhabura is $100, at least for a non-resident. Regardless, I let Muhabura slip away from me and decided at the start of this year that I would finally, finally attempt this trek.
A dormant volcano, Mt. Muhabura is the second highest point in Rwanda at 4,127 meters (over 13,500 feet). It is also a part of the Virungas, a series of peaks across three countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. The Virungas are made famous for a few reasons, namely, Diane Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist. The Virungas have a more controversial history too, as the epicenter and convergence for military and international conflict between countries in this part of the world.
Muhabura can be approached via Rwanda or Uganda – with the easier side known to be Uganda. With a small crater lake at the summit, the total hike involves over 5,000 feet in elevation gain. Muhabura translates as “the guide” so naturally, when I arrived back in Rwanda this winter, I knew it was time to go and finally find my place. To be guided, if you will.
My colleagues and friends, Meg, Julie, and I initially planned to arrange our permits for two Virunga hikes. Ambitious and perhaps slightly naïve, we originally intended to complete the Muhabura climb on a Saturday, followed by a hike to the top of Mt. Gahinga the following day. When we arrived at the Rwandan Development Board in Kigali, though, we decided to focus on one hike. After all, upon purchase of our permits, every official seemed to repeat the same thing: “you must be fit.” To be honest, I approached comments like that with loads of laissez-faire, confident that my daily walks and occasional weight-lifting would be enough to get me up (and down) the mountain.
We bought our tickets, packed our car, and left for our short trip away.
Only a 2 ½ hour drive, our launch town was Musanze, in the Northwest corner of the country and a popular outdoorsy stop for tourists. For locals, the North is characterized by the thinner, more brisk air, potatoes, and green rolling hills of tea. The beauty in this part of the country is stunning; in fact, while driving, it’s hard to even absorb the fact that the views are real and you come to the stark realization that no matter how many photographs you take, you will not capture the essence of the terrain.
Our guesthouse at Kinigi (just outside of Musanze town) was quaint, welcoming, and perfectly simple. Adorned with black and white cow-colored stones and red brick, I appreciated the homey-ness of the place after a trip out of the city in a 4×4. I was ready to relax and mentally prepare for our formidable task ahead. We were welcomed by Faustin, a young gentleman with exceptional customer service. Sometimes, finding accommodating and helpful service in Rwanda can be difficult, however, he not only had our rooms ready, but customized our orders for dinner and was beyond friendly for the extent of our stay. It was refreshing, honestly.
As we settled into our room and ordered brochettes and stews for the evening, the girls and I put our feet up (literally), read our books, and sipped hot ginger tea. I began reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (lovingly given to me by my dear friend Jordana) and I was hooked immediately. We read for nearly an hour until dinner arrived. As the evening slipped away, we were in bed by 8:30pm, anxious for the adventurous day to come.
Sporting my beige Columbia boots and black fleece (acquired 2 years ago at a gorilla naming ceremony, naturally), I was hiking-ready. We packed nearly six liters of water and a healthy load of snacks (Whole30 compliant as Julie and I started the natural cleanse this month) in our daypacks for our day on the mountain.
From snooping on other blogs and doing extensive web searches, we had heard that the predicted time to summit would be around 6 hours. Because of the time-intensive nature of the trail, we wanted to get as early of a start as possible. So, we ate breakfast right around 6:15am. After coffee, eggs, and bananas, we met with our guide, Patrick, and drove to the presumed “base” of the mountain.
“Base” was an overt exaggeration; Patrick claimed that the size of our car (think mid-90’s jeep, Pajero) would be unable to pass some of the steeper, rockier parts of the path. Normally, this would hardly be an inconvenience, however, this created an additional 40 minutes of walking time (one way) from where we parked the car to where the entrance of the trail was marked. Nonetheless, we begun. Stubborn at first, we weren’t entirely sure about hiring a “porter” to help carry our bags. Meg was quick to agree with Patrick that it would be helpful and so for the equivalent of $18 we paid Damascene to join our crew on our journey. In my opinion, it was the best investment of the day – without question.
Along with Patrick and Damascene our motley crew continued to grow. We were also accompanied by 5 military officials, tasked with the job to “watch out for buffalo.” They hiked the entire way with us, usually veering off the path. Even now, I’m a bit aghast that they could hike the mountain with guns (think huge rifles) dangling over their shoulders while wearing heavy camouflage. When in Rwanda, I guess?
At right around 9:00am, we crossed a creaky wooden bridge and Patrick announced, “this is it.” And so, we started the official climb, just past tremendous fields of wheat and the extensive, green forest before us. Reminiscent of Fern Gully, I was slightly full of trepidation as we started. I mean, the first 40 minutes of walking was hard, so what in the hell was I going to be like for the remaining day? I wondered these things as I had a “short call” off to the side in the bush.
Here goes nothing.
The forest instantly captured my imagination. It was like a dream; green forestry surrounded us entirely and though we were already climbing at what felt to be a 45-degree grade, it was beautiful. It was hellish, though, after we acclimatized, because my body was not quite ready for the steep incline. Julie and I had done a relatively intense gym workout just two days prior and so my muscles were already sore.
I focused on my step, my muscles, my mind, and my surroundings. It was kind of a spiritual experience during the first part of trek, actually, because I was absorbing everything around me. The first two hours was brutal. I tried to leverage my body with existing roots of trees and pre-planted steps, but my small legs had to take big leaps at times. We took breaks every 45 minutes or so, ready to catch our breath. I loved having Julie and Meg with me, knowing that we were doing this together helped me stay focused and motivated even in the most difficult parts.
At around 11:30am we reached a point by which we would be taking lunch. We sat on the cusp of the upcoming rocky terrain and looked at the horizon upon us. It was the closest I had ever felt to seeing all of Rwanda – at once. It was a relief – to be sitting, but also to feel like Rwanda wasn’t so daunting, hard, and complicated. It reminded me, again, that Rwanda is also beautiful and expansive and I loved being able to take it all in at once.
Patrick asked us a lot of interesting questions while we were eating our carrot sticks and previously roasted sweet potatoes.
“What can Rwanda learn from other places?”
“Why is customer service lacking?”
“What do you see in other countries in the region that is unlike what you experience in Rwanda?”
I mused over our answers and tried to breathe as much as I could, as if I knew I would be in short supply as we went up in altitude. At this point, he remarked that we were about 45% complete with the climb to the summit. When I looked up, I didn’t feel assured by this – the next part was completely vertical.
The terrain switched fast; out of the forest, we were now climbing on grey, volcanic rock. Forget your standard switchback, we ventured straight up the mountain. Meg, Julie, and I alternated carrying our two packs and I was glad for this. We also each had sticks to help us, though one of them was hardly useful. Considering these things, we attacked the incline like beasts. We hit another “false peak” but we were not dismayed – the summit was in sight. Together, we finished the last part of the summit together. I had to take a few moments to motivate myself and to do so, I remembered what I always repeated in my head during field hockey games:
Leave no doubt. The words came from Remember the Titans, and they always inspired me to give my best in everything. I might not BE the best (which is totally, completely fine) but I will give my best efforts. I had a few more rocks to overcome and I was going to do it. I summited, along with the girls, at around 1:15pm.
Julie, Meg, and I took pictures together at the top. Turns out, per Patrick, in his 6 years of guiding hikes on this mountain, we are the first team to finish together. Usually he leads groups of one or two and in the case of two, someone either takes more time, or turns back. Needless to say, our adventure was a strong team-building activity.
At 2:00pm, we began our descent. For the lack of a better term, it was hell.
It would take us over 4 hours to get off the mountain, and to be honest, there were moments I wasn’t even sure I could get off. My muscles were so tired that with each step, I wasn’t sure if it would hold up. Several times, my legs completely gave out and I fell on my ass. Tears came fast when this happened. Not out of pain, but out of frustration. I pride myself on being strong and this mountain was making me feel so very weak.
For probably 30% of my descent, I had to hold the hand of our porter, Damsascene. He was kind and gentle, assuring me that we would get down, we just needed to go slowly. I am convinced I wouldn’t have gotten down the mountain without him. I prayed multiple times – mostly that I would be able to find enough strength to finish – and tried to engage in light chatter to distract myself from the pain. We talked about food, Donald Trump, and cultural norms in Rwanda.
The military men behind us snickered at times, baffled by how slow I was going, but I had to ignore them and keep on going. Meg and Julie were ahead with Patrick, so I simply did my best to move quickly, but also move within the pace I had set for myself. I fell at least 6 times and cried at least 7. Turns out, adventures on a mountain does feel like a life journey, full of ups and downs (literally). Julie got altitude sickness on the way down and so she had to deal with an excruciating headache. Clearly, at least for us, the first two hours of the hike were the most difficult, and the entire descent was incredibly challenging – physically and mentally.
When we entered the clearing, after the forest, I was so happy and relieved.
We made it.
I was accompanied through a small village center by Damascene and the soldiers. For a small, remote mountain village, you can imagine the kind of spectacle this created. I encountered plenty of drunk people (apparently, since Sunday is a day off from the fields, many people rest by drinking plentiful amounts of home brew) and was even asked jokingly if I was a gorilla. Sometimes, these things just don’t seem real.
As we got closer to refuge (the car), I shook the hands of an older woman with a stick. We exchanged pleasantries and she asked where I had been coming from. I simply commented, “Navuye hejeru. Nasuye Imana.”
Translation: I am coming from heaven. I visited God.
It didn’t feel like a smart-ass remark. It seemed appropriate given the fact that we had hiked straight into the clouds and sky. She laughed and raised her hands in humor. In these kinds of situations, if you can simply make people laugh, you’ll be good to go.
When I did reach the car, reunited again with Meg and Julie, I just wanted to sleep. I was so glad we had done the journey, but it was one that I’m not sure I would do again. Scratch that. I don’t think I’ll ever want to do Muhabura again. However, I’m incredibly glad I did it.
It feels empowering to accomplish things that you set your mind to. I didn’t realize how much of my body, mind, and emotions I would have needed for this climb, but luckily, I came ready.
Muhabura, like life, isn’t for the weak. It’s a formidable mountain, one that should be taken seriously. But with grit, perseverance, and strong legs, you can climb it. You might have to crawl up at times, or perhaps slide through mud and rocks on your way down, but it can be done.
Cross that item off the bucket list. Huzzah.