Snow On The Equator: Exploring Uganda’s Disappearing Glaciers

On the morning of June 18, 1906, Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of Abruzzi, having spent much of the previous month navigating miles of virgin wilderness, traversed the upper rim of a long, undulating glacier and ascended a 200-foot-tall dome of ice and snow. At 16,800 feet above sea level, the Duke discovered that there was, in fact, nothing left to climb. A lingering band of mist soon parted, revealing “an impenetrable layer of light ashy-white cloud-drifts, stretching as far as the eye could reach.” Before departing, the Duke christened the mountain’s twin summits Margherita and Alexandra, “in order that, under the auspices of these two royal ladies, the memory of the two nations may be handed down to posterity – of Italy, whose name was the first to resound on these snows in a shout of victory, and of England, which in its marvelous colonial expansion carries civilization to the slopes of these remote mountains.”

The mountains in question comprised a fortress of high, jagged peaks straddling the border of the Congo Free State (the present Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the British Protectorate of Uganda. Long considered a possible source of the Nile, the Rwenzori (“rainmaker” or “hill of rains” in the local Konjo language) had been the site of more than a dozen expeditions since 1889. Though the Konjo had inhabited the Rwenzori foothills for centuries, the region’s mountainous interior had been one of the last places in Africa to be explored. It was also among its least accessible. “To effect a complete and successful ascent of the highest points of Ruwenzori,” a 1902 report observes, “requires as elaborate a preparation as the exploration of the Andes or Himalayas.” The weather alone was, according to one visitor, “so capricious … as not to appear subject to any law.” Now, the fortress had been breached.

Despite presenting the airs of a dilettante, the Duke had accumulated a respectable résumé of athletic and scientific achievement. He completed the first ascent of Mount Saint Elias, the fourth-highest mountain in North America, in 1897. After a pioneering expedition to K2, in 1909, he set a world altitude record on Chogolisa, in Pakistan, that went unchallenged for a decade. Having claimed the highest point in the Rwenzori, the Duke spent the following weeks reconnoitering the neighboring peaks, naming them in honor of his illustrious relatives (an aunt, uncle, cousin, cousin-in-law, and niece among them), and cataloguing the local plant and animal life. The expedition succeeded in pinpointing the source of the Nile to an area west of the Semliki Valley, in the Congo, and produced the first reliable topographic map of the Rwenzori.

These feats notwithstanding, the images of Vittorio Stella, a photographer and mountaineer who had accompanied the Duke on his previous expedition to Canada, remain the expedition’s singular achievement. Stella’s photographs document an improbable juxtaposition of landscapes – jungle and high-altitude bog, alpine meadow and bamboo forest – that evoke the grandeur and dread that Henry Adams encountered in the shadow of Mont Blanc: “a chaos of anarchic and purposeless forces . . . [with] charms real as terrors.” Most improbable of all were the glaciers that graced the Rwenzori’s highest peaks. In the expedition’s official history, the Rwenzori glaciers suffered in comparison to their counterparts in the Alps: “There are no glaciers of the first degree in the principal valleys,” the account reads, “but only secondary glaciers in the upper part of the mountains and in the main gorges.” Still, the glaciers’ incongruousness amid the African tropics, make them – and Stella’s photographs – all the more striking. The images also underscore the astonishing transformation of the Rwenzori since 1906. The consequences of deforestation, poaching, overgrazing, and mining exert new pressure on vulnerable wildlife, while a warming climate has obliterated most of the Rwenzori’s forty-three named glaciers. In the coming decades, all the remaining tropical glaciers outside South America, including those of the Rwenzori, will disappear.

In the summer of 2016, I traveled to Rwenzori Mountains National Park to retrace much of the route charted by the Duke of Abruzzi and his companions more than a century earlier. These photographs attempt to capture the landscapes and wildlife that distinguish this beautiful and haunting place, and to document the decline of the region’s glaciers since 1906.


Author: Kyle Wehner

Kyle Wehner writes about politics, history, and foreign affairs. A graduate of Colby College and Oxford University, he is currently based in New York.

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