After 28 years…

The story of climbing the unclimbable Mt Mikeno

Mt. Mikeno – one of the Virunga Massif volcanoes that had not been climbed in 28 years…until August 2011.

Shivering from cold, exhaustion, adrenaline and fear I climbed the last meters to summit the toughest of the Virunga volcanoes:  Mikeno Mountain.  Panting on hands and knees I looked next to me to see my two adventurous companions, Lewis and Pierre, coming over the edge on either side of me, both looking a little scared, but mostly hopeful that after 5 fake summits this was the real deal. Pierre was breathing heavily with yellow moss hanging from his chin as a result of Lewis’ mountaineering tip: “when the climbing gets steep kiss the moss and don’t look down.” Pierre had clearly taken this quite literally.

Mikeno’s steep mossy slope with Nyiragongo Volcano in the distance.

Two days earlier we had started our trek filled with the courage of young men, and expectations (and preparations) of 5-years-old boys. The fact that the mountain had not been summitted for almost 30 years did nothing to diminish our fierce conviction that we would pretty much walk up that thing and plant the figurative flag. One hour later when I felt the cold rain creeping down my back I started to get the sinking feeling that perhaps this venture would not be the jog in the park that I had envisioned it to be.

The team: Pierre, Frederick, Lewis, Saymyhoney, Cai

It took us about 4 hours to get to the first campsite: Kabara, the burial site of Carl Akeley (18 Nov 1926). We searched for the actual grave and found it in pieces, apparently Congolese and/or Rwandese rebels had pillaged the grave for the enormous amounts of gold that were never buried with Mr. Akeley.  As it continued to rain we decided not to try and make it to the second camp site in one day, but set up camp and scout the area a little (read: set up tent and having a little snooze). That night we enjoyed Lewis’ recipe for mountaineering success: instant noodles with sardines (which is remarkably good) and went to bed early to get up fresh for the first summit attempt. It rained the entire night and when we woke up it still rained. However we were men of steel, not of sugar, so after cowering in our tent for 30 minutes waiting for the rain to stop we decided that it was time to leave.

African alpine vegetation on the higher slopes of Mt. Mikeno.

The trek up from Kabara is tough, a 60-degree hill completely covered in ankle (sometimes knee) deep mud, obviously carrying massive backpacks did not help to improve the situation. Unfortunately this was still the easy part of the mountain, so we decided not to complain about it and just get on with it. Or at least that was Lewis’ attitude. Pierre and I were near throwing up and complaining loudly to the trees around us. However we got through, and at the top of that stretch the world slowly started to evolve into the fairy-land of African alpine vegetation. Another 2 hours later (and still it rained), we made it to campsite two. Nameless as this location was, it must be one of the most amazing campsites in the world. Pitched on a little ridge just wide enough to put your tent, the panorama was astounding: In the west the smoking Nyiragongo volcano could be seen, in the south the majestic Karisimbi, in the west the smaller but very attractive Visoke and  to the north very close to us a wall, a massive wall of stone…. Our accompanying rangers looked at it, laughed in our faces and said, “you will never make it to the top. It’s impossible!” And I must say, I believed them.

The campsite with the spectacular view.

The next morning we rang Pierre’s lovely girlfriend who we desperately needed to look into a 50-year-old book describing the route to the summit. The book said something along the lines of, “Go up the first steep part, continue right along the ridge until you can go no further, turn back for a bit and then go up.” As far as useless advise goes, this was a winner. Since at this point I had absolutely no faith in us making it all the way to the top, I decided just to enjoy the trek and stop if it got too dangerous.

Yes, it was very steep. Too steep. Stupidly steep.

Clearly adrenaline screws with your mind because two hours later when I was balancing on a small ridge with a 100m drop on either side of me and the only thing stopping me from falling was my grip on some loose, wet, yellow moss…it didn’t seem like I stopped when it became dangerous at all. Since we were half way up, it obviously was no longer an option to turn back (I think they call it “summit fever”), so with fear in our eyes we continued to scramble up the mossy slopes. I vaguely remembered that during our preparations Pierre had suggested we bring a rope. For reasons unknown to me, our fearless lead climber Lewis had been of the opinion it wouldn’t be necessary; I decided I would make him eat those words (as well as the rope) if we made it down alive.

Two feet of moss.

After a harrowing 4-hour climb we made it to the top, and without being very emotional about it…it was very emotional. I felt a mix of elation, pride to be one of the very few ever to get up there (apparently less than 20 people), gratitude that I was still alive, anger that the bloody mountain top was completely covered in mist so I could hardly see my own feet let alone the incredible view, and lastly fear, fear for the way down…

Semi-delirious after reaching the summit.

A couple of quick summit snaps later, which were pretty crappy due to the mist, and a 2-minute search for Pierre’s lost lens cap, we decided that it was time to head on down. It was already past 11:00 am and we needed to get all the way down to Goma the same day. Strangely enough the way down went relatively smoothly and quicker than expected. It was sort of a very long, vertical, slippery-slide of moss mixed in with the infrequent but extremely unpleasant protruding rock that would abruptly eliminate any such pleasant thoughts (just imagine a rock being glued to the middle of a slippery-slide).

The rocky slippery slide down the mountain.

After making it down to the easier section of the mountain, we had a little party, many hugs, tears and jumping for joy.  Unfortunately we still had about 5 hours of descent to go. Anyway, to get to the end of the story: we made it all the way back safely, exhausted and in severe pain, but an experience and one achievement richer.

So for historic purposes I would just like to claim the following:

On August the 14th, 2011 Mikeno Mountain was summitted for the first time in 28 years by:
Lewis Mudge
Pierre Peron
Cai Tjeenk Willink

The historic team at the summit of Mt. Mikeno:

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