How’d you spend your summer vacation? Probably not like Brody Leven, Mary McIntyre, Robin Hill, and Kasha Rigby. At the beginning of this summer, they flew around the world in an attempt to ski mountains that have been scarcely written about since the early 1900s, let alone skied. But they were rewarded for their efforts with the best and longest powder skiing of their lives. Just kidding. They walked for a week and skied on frozen rocks for an hour. Because they were in Africa. And skiing in Africa is very, very hard to do.
The four skier-mountaineer-pro doers of weird adventures traveled to Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains to ski glacial snow, or rather, hoped to find something resembling snow on a pitch steep enough to link some turns. That task would turn out to be one of the easier parts of the trip. After landing in the Kampala, Uganda airport, explaining to the custom agents what they were doing with skis in Africa was an interesting issue. “They asked me what was in my ski bag, and I said ‘skis, for snow,’ and they look confused,” Leven explains. “I did what I thought was the universal skiing motion of moguls skiers from the 1970s and they looked more confused. I started to open my bag to show them, and they waved me off before walking away.”
Legally, the group had to use a guiding company to access the mountain, which was a sight to see for locals. Three skiers, a snowboarder, two guides, and 15 porters don’t typically march through the villages on the way to the Rwenzori. Days began with tea and instant coffee served by the guides. Before porridge was served for breakfast the team packed for the day, sometimes in the pounding rain, under the cover of tin-roofed huts. Then, they walked. And then they walked some more. Most days they trudged for eight hours, climbing ladders, slogging through mud bogs, and scrambling through bamboo forests. Lunch consisted of sandwiches served somewhere along the way toward their evening camp. However, this schedule changed on day three when the group arrived to find arsonists had burned their camp.
“The whole crew worked together to cut bushes for makeshift mattresses and twenty of us slept in the least-burned structure,” recalls McIntyre. “We stayed put for a day while our guides checked if the huts further along the trail had also been burned. We were also waiting for the armed rangers to come and escort us the rest of the way. Our guides didn’t feel safe proceeding without guards.”
Along with the uneasy feeling that accompanies such an experience, the sleeping and cooking tents had been burned, cookware stolen, and solar power system disconnected and stolen. “Our guides suggested we return to the previous hut immediately,” says McIntyre. “But because of cultural and language barriers, it was difficult to know whether the guides and porters didn’t think we, as their clients, would want to sleep on the ground for a night, or eat a less than exciting dinner out of mugs rather than off plates, or if we were actually going to be in imminent danger if we continued on.” They almost gave up their attempt but pressed toward the goal after lead guide Enock told the group, “If we’re going to suffer, we will all suffer together.”
They walked for seven days straight, summited Uganda’s tallest mountain, and skied for an hour. According to Leven, who has made a career out of skiing things most skiers grimace at, the skiing was pleasantly surprising. “I was so prepared for, and scared of, the possibility of barely making a single turn,” explains Leven. “We skied 1,100 to 1,500 vertical feet. The bottom 300 feet or so was glacial black ice, warm, porous, melted out, and kind of generally pathetic. It was edgeable only on the occasional spots of snow sticking to it. The upper 1,000-feet or so was real skiing, low angle, but steep enough to link turns and hop over micro crevasses and hop off little ice features. We even hiked up some side features for some steeper turns. We stretched what could have been one minute of skiing into over an hour.”
Their guides had seen skiers before, but no one had skied the steeper parts of the glacier, only the flats. According to Leven and McIntyre, they were blown away, both in awe of the skiers and terrified for them. A few guides remarked that they were prepared to watch the four fall to their deaths as they down climbed from the summit and wiggled on ice, rocks, corn snow, and more rocks.
It’s no surprise that Uganda will never be a ski destination. Aside from the obvious inaccessibility and cost for such a trip, the scant snow of the Rwenzori Mountains is quickly disappearing. Leven, McIntyre, Hill, and Rigby could be among the final groups to successfully ski there. The glaciers in the Rwenzori will likely disappear in this lifetime. Scientists speculate that the Alps of Africa will no longer hold snow or ice by as early as 2030. Lead guide Enock pointed out this extreme glacial recession to the group when they came upon a ladder hanging 50 feet above ground and a quarter mile from the nearest snow. Nine years earlier the same ladder had been used to climb onto the glacier.
“It was the most tangible, disgusting, and real visual I’ve seen of climate change,” says Leven. “This wasn’t an abstract idea. This wasn’t a ‘here’s a picture of this glacier 100 years ago and here it is today.’ This was nine years of glacial retreat, with maybe twice that many remaining. I have a hard time even talking about it. It struck all of us really deeply.”
Why do something so inherently risky and with seemingly lackluster ski payoff? Just because. Skiers do silly things to ski, even when the skiing might not happen. Mostly, it’s about the pursuit of the thing and going to find out if it is possible. Skiers, we’re not always the most intelligent, but we’re pretty damn smart. And for these skiers, highlighting climate change in an extremely out-of-the-box ski locale was entirely the point. “Yes, it is outrageous to travel to Africa to see a glacier before it melts,” Leven says. “But it’s more outrageous to let it melt. It feels ridiculous to travel so far and work so hard for such few turns just to share a story of climate change’s destruction. But it feels way more ridiculous to know we’re causing climate change and ignoring it.”