Italian Expedition Scales Ruwenzoris

1906 The Italian adventurer, Luigi Amedeo di Savoy, Duke of Abruzzi, spearheaded an expedition to explore, map and photograph the mysterious Ruwenzori Mountains in the heart of Africa. No stranger to harsh conditions, Luigi Amedeo began his life in a palace. At Luigi’s birth in 1873, his father, Amedeo, was the first Duke of Aosta and had reigned as the King of Spain since 1870. But a few weeks after Luigi’s birth in 1873, Amedeo abdicated his throne and returned to his native Italy. At six years of age, Luigi was assigned to the Italian Navy. He received his education in military schools. At the age of 24 Luigi organised and led the first ascent of Mount St. Elias (5,484 metres tall) in Alaska in 1897. Two years later in 1899 he led an Arctic expedition with dogs and sledges in an attempt to reach the North Pole. The beginnings of frostbite in Luigi’s hands forced him to turn back, but he reached a latitude of 86 degrees 34 minutes north, a new record at the time.

In April 1905 Luigi, often referred to as the Duke because of his title – the Duke of Abruzzi – returned to Italy after a long sea voyage keen to conquer the Ruwenzori Mountains on the western edge of Uganda. The Duke gathered what information he could from previous expeditions to the area (see accompanying article about the exploration of the Ruwenzoris,) chose his companions, prepared materials and stockpiled equipment.  He hoped to use cameras and topographic instruments to measure the heights of the various peaks. Luigi also wanted to carry out geophysical, meteorological and magnetic studies of the mountains. He chose top level scientists so the expedition would not just be an adventurer’s jaunt, but it would add to the geological and glacial knowledge of the region. He also planned to carry out studies of the plants and animals that lived in that alpine area of Africa. 

The Duke’s expedition team included Captain Umberto Cagni and Lieutenant Edoardo Winspeare to assist the Duke with geographical observations. The well known photographer Vittorio Sella and his assistant Erminio Botta were charged with making a complete photographic record of the expedition and the peaks. The Duke gave the job of geological and mineralogical research to Dr. Alessandro Roccati, director of the geomineralogical laboratory of Turin Polytechnic. Major Achille Cavalli Molinelli, a naval doctor, not only had to care for the health of the party, but had to collaborate with Roccati in the collection of zoological and botanical specimens.

The Duke chose a group of Alpine guides for the mountaineering part of the expedition: Josef Petigax, one of the Duke’s partners in the expeditions to scale St. Elias and hike to the North Pole; Cesar Ollier, another experienced climber; Laurence Petigax and Josef Brocherel from Courmayer came along as porters. The Duke also brought Igino Igini, his personal cook.

On April 16, 1906, the Duke and the members of the Ruwenzori expedition boarded the German boat Bergemeisteir in the port of Naples and sailed for Africa. They arrived in Mombasa on May 3. The next day they traveled on the train to Port Florence, now Kisumu, on Lake Victoria. The stowed their gear on the Winifred, one of the three steam boats then serving the ports of Lake Victoria, and crossed the water to Entebbe where they docked on May 7. The governor of Uganda welcomed the expedition.

Now the expedition had to walk. By May 15, the Duke had hired enough Baganda and Swahili porters to head out for Fort Portal, 290 kilometres away. The Duke had to leave Captain Cagni, ill with fever, behind in Entebbe. The line of Italians and porters formed a line stretching out for half a kilometre. The expedition reached the boundary of Uganda’s Western province on May 25.  Three days later they stood on the hills north of Kaibo, which forms a watershed between Lakes Albert and Edward. From the Kaibo hills they could see the snow covered Ruwenzori  mountains – 70 kilometres in the distance – for the first time..

The expedition arrived at Fort Portal at an altitude of 1535 metres on May 29, where King Kasagama of Toro welcomed them. Fort Portal was the last British outpost before the Ruwenzoris. It contained a barracks for the African soldiers and their European officers.  At the time Fort Portal had a European population of fifteen including army officers, their families and missionaries.

Reverend Fisher, a pioneer missionary to the Ruwenzori area, met with the Duke as did the English mountaineer Wollaston who had gotten separated from his team sent out by the British Museum. The Duke only stayed a few days at the Fort. He dismissed a large number of porters and on June 1 the expedition hiked up the slopes of the Ruwenzoris.

The expedition entered the Mobuku Valley two days later. They began to see lobelia plants and dracaena palms. The brilliant snowfields of the Ruwenzori peaks towered over them. They made camp at Bihunga at an altitude of 1920 metres. They exchanged their light tropical clothing for warm jackets and trousers. They left unnecessary  baggage in a hut built by the British Museum expedition and sent many porters down to Butanka, a village half way between the Mobuku Valley and Fort Portal, to await the return trip.

The expedition now marched through thick forest.  On June 5 discovered the Kichuchu Valley, which seemed to lead into the heart of the mountains. The Kichuchu Valley, which opened up on the left side of the Mobuku Valley just before Nakitawa camp, at 2652 metres, had apparently not been noticed by previous explorers.

The next day the Duke substituted half of his remaining Baganda porters with a local group of Bakonjo me who were used to the colder weather and slippery trails. They continued to climb the upper part of Mobuku Valley.  The Valley at this level is formed by three great terraces one above the other, which are separated by cliffs two to three hundred metres high. Each terrace is saturated with stagnant water.

A journal from the expedition describes the incredible scenery: “Trunks and branches are entirely covered with a thick layer of mosses which hang down in long beards from all the branches; they enlarge and fill out the knots in the wood making the plants appear strangely distorted; swollen; laden with tumours; struck by an enormous greenish or yellow-red leprosy. There are no leaves except on the highest branches, but the forest is dark due to the dense intertwining of trunks and boughs. The ground has disappeared under the countless trunks of dead trees, heaped one on top of the other: those exposed to the air are covered in slippery and slimy mosses; those having lain for years and years in the deep holes are blackened and nude, not mouldy or rotten at all. No forest is as horrid or as strange as this one […]”.

On June 7 the Italian expedition arrived at Bujungolo, where they hoped to make their base camp. The Duke called it “a real eagle’s nest, 3798 metres high and 800 above Kichuchu”. The Duke could feel the cold creeping down from the glaciers and said the wild place reminded him “of anything rather than the Equator or the centre of Africa”. They bivouacked for the night, then began building a base camp the next morning in the lee of a damp, overhanging cliff. The steep slope below the cliff consisted of mud, moss and tree heathers. With little level ground, the expedition chopped trees and built a platform where they could pitch their tents. 

On the morning of June 9, as work continued on the base camp, the Duke took Joseph Petigax, Cesar Ollier, Erminio Botta, Laurence Petigax, Josef Brocherel and five Bakonjo porters to hike up to the head of Mobuku Valley. They passed the point where Grauer had camped a few months earlier and continued on up the edge of the Mobuku glacier. In the afternoon at 4,349 metres in a dense fog they pitched the only tent they had with them and called it Camp One. Erminio Botta and Laurence Petigax went back to the base camp with the Bakonjo porters. The Duke, Joseph Petigax, Cesar Ollier and Brocherel slept in the tent next to the glacier.

Before dawn the group of four stepped onto the glacier and climbed up towards  the crest, near the rocky crag which Grauer had named Edward Peak in January. They had a clear view from the crest. To the south they saw the eastern portion of Kiyanja (Mount Baker); Mount Stanley to the west revealed four distinct peaks joined in pairs; to the north they glimpsed Mount Speke (called Duwoni by Johnston). To the right of Mount Speke they saw two other snow-capped peaks.

From this vantage point, the Duke and his team concluded that the top crest of the Mobuku Valley did not form the watershed for the Ruwenzori range. None of the highest peaks seemed to be connected to the Mobuku Valley at all.

At 6:30 a.m. the Duke and his guides hiked west towards the highest peak of Kiyanja (Mount Baker). By staying on the right side of the ridge, they crunched through hard snow. By 8 a.m. the group reached the 4829 metre summit, which would later be called Semper Peak. They continued along the ridge toward the south, aiming at the Edward Peak, the highest summit of the group. At 9:15 a.m. in thick fog the Duke of Abruzzi, Joseph Petigax, Cesar Ollier and Josef Brocherel arrived at Edward Peak, 4873 metres.

The group waited on the summit for four hours until the fog lifted. When it finally cleared the Duke and his team had a view to the south and discovered another group of mountain peaks with several small glaciers. Later these peaks would be called Luigi di Savoia in honour of the Duke.

The climbing party headed back at 1 p.m. arriving at Camp One by mid afternoon. They found Sella and Botta with six African porters had just finished erecting a second tent and prepared their cameras.

The next day, June 11, the Duke’s team returned to the base camp at Bujungolo camp, while Sella and his companions climbed to Edward Peak to take landscape photographs. Terrible weather socked in the peak, but in the early afternoon, it cleared enough for them to take some pictures. They spent the night at Camp One, awakening the next morning to scale Moore Peak  at 4654 metres, usually an easy climb but  treacherous that day because of ice. It was snowing when they reached the peak and they couldn’t use their camera. On their way back to Camp One Sella’s group, roped together because of the ice, met Dr. Roccati and a guide. By now snow fell heavily everywhere. Sella and Botta insisted on spending the night at Camp One hoping for better weather the next day. The others returned to base camp. Heavy snowfall the next day ruined Sella’s chances of more photographs and they, too, returned to Bujongolo.

In their 45 day stay in the Ruwenzori region, the Duke and his group of scientists  drew up a geography of the mountains and determined the heights of all the peaks. Vittorio Sella, whose brother was the Prime Minister of Italy, chronicled the expedition in photographs, which later allowed people all around the world to see the beauty of snow on the equator in Africa. 

Luigi Amedeo di Savoy, Duke of Abruzzi, the driving force behind the Italian expedition, had succeeded in unlocking some of the mysteries of the legendary Ruwenzoris, known from Ptolemy’s writings as Lunae Montes, the Mountains of the Moon.

This article was adapted from information posted on the website rwenzoriabruzzi.com prepared by the Italian Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, for the centenary celebration of the Duke’s expedition.  Text on the website comes from The Rwenzori Discovery- Luigi Amedeo di Savoia Duca degli Abruzziby Roberto Mantovani, Museo Della Montagna, 1996. Photos from the Sella Foundation came from the same website. Used by permission of the Italian Embassy in Kampala