Jenn calling the UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) office:
Jenn: “Hi! So, I’d like to talk to someone about organizing a trip to run Mt. Elgon in one day?”
UWA: “One Day. It cannot be done. You must take three to four days at least.”
Jenn: “No, it can be done. I read about it in a magazine about some people who have done it before.”
UWA: “No, this is too much. It is not possible to do Mt. Elgon in one day.”
Jenn: (trying to sound much more confident than I actually felt about taking on the mountain) “I am an ultra-marathoner and hiker and I am in very good shape to do this. Is there someone I can speak to about doing this because I know it has been done before and I know I can do it.”
UWA: “Let me find a phone number…”
And thus began the epic 1-day run up and down Mt. Elgon (4,321m), with approximately 22km and 2,600m vertical ascent to get to the summit, followed by 22km and 2,600m descent. I got the idea for doing this from a magazine article I had read last summer in a trail running magazine, about a brother-sister team that ran to the summit and down in 1 day. It was a daunting, but not impossible challenge, and when I found myself living just 300km from the mountain, I decided that this would be a good chance to give it a go. I was lucky enough to have met another ultra runner, Lizzie Sager, an American runner living in Kampala during some races last year, and she agreed to join me for the day. You can read her blog about the day here.
We met the day before the run at the ‘basecamp’ town on Budadiri and organized the required guides, payment, and logistics for the next day with the local UWA office. I must admit, headed in I was quite nervous about trying it – it is one thing to attempt a challenge on your own where it isn’t a big deal if you don’t succeed, but in this case there was a lot more pressure to make it after convincing the UWA what great shape I am in, even though I really don’t know what I am headed into. But, we had talked-up, signed-up, and paid-up, so it was time to put fears and nervousness aside and give it our best shot.
We woke at 5:20am for a 5:45 breakfast, and after 1 boda boda crash and run in the dark, me, Liz, and our two guides, Kareem and Emaculate (with AK-47s, army fatigues, and rubber boots in tow), took off up the road to the trailhead. It was just becoming light as we set off at approximately 6:50am, going steeply up straight from the get-go through the village houses and crops at the base of the mountain. About 1 hour in we had made it to the Mt. Elgon park boundary and “ladders of death”, which were sadly just steep, though quite sturdy and safe, steps up the side of a rock cliff. After another hour of brisk climbing, we found ourselves at Sasa Camp, where some hikers spend the first night (a place we reached in 2 hours of hiking).
Up and up, though a lot less steep for the rest of the day, we continued – hiking at a good pace, but not forcing running as we realized we were making good time on the way up and didn’t need to rush the day. One of our guides, Emaculate, fell behind after just a few minutes into the day, so we hiked up to the halfway/guide switch point with Kareem. Then, when the next two ‘fresh’ guides that we had organized and paid for the day before were not there, he decided to continue with us all of the way up (and he was tired, but I think was also happy to take on and successfully complete the challenge despite the UWA doubting the guides ability to do it).
After the first three hours, the trail leveled off into a steady and gradual incline. The lack of oxygen due to altitude was noticeable, but definitely not a problem. Four hours in, we were at the second camp (Maude), and after seven hours of steady paced hiking we were at the Wagagai summit! What a great feeling! It was snowing, cold, and definitely felt like we were in a completely different ecosystem, over 2.5 vertical Kilometers from where we started that morning. After a couple quick photos at the top (someone had recently stolen the sign designating the summit – who does that?) we headed down on account of the cold wind, snow, and hands. The first half down the mountain was pure magic – a steady, gently decline, soft volcanic soil, single-track, high-altitude, easy-breezy sailing down the mountain. Such an amazing feeling – one that I know will always make me smile when I think about.
I thought we would be back down in no time, but as we continued to descend and the grade got steeper and steeper, we slowed down a lot, and I think the final ~600m vertical descent was the hardest part of the entire day, with super sore quads and knees. All I could think as we continued downward for hours was, “Did we really climb all this just this morning? Crazy!”
We made it back to the road almost exactly 12 hours after we started, and were happy to accept the boda rides (that we were debating earlier when our knees weren’t quite so sore from all of the descent) back down to Budadiri. And just like that, the challenge was successfully complete! Another “it cannot be done”/”you can’t do it” challenge defied – no problem!
Planning to Summit Mt. Elgon in 1 Day? Here’s Some Basics to get you Started:
- Starting elevation: ~1,700m (with the option to start at 1,200m)
- Final elevation: 4,321m
- Trail Distance: Sasa Trail (shortest route) ~44km round-trip
- Terrain: very steep and technical for the first ~7km up and the last 7km down, then becomes more gradual and runnable for the remainder of the trail
- Time: we took almost exactly 12 hours up and down, hiking quickly on the way up and running on the way down
Why 1-Day? Why Mt. Elgon?
- Avoid the crowds. Elgon is often (and almost literally) overshadowed by the many other mountains in East Africa (Mt. Kenya, Mt. Kilimanjaro, The Rwenzoris), which means that there are far less people climbing the mountain each day. In fact, we were lucky enough to have the mountain entirely to ourselves for the day, something you definitely won’t get on Kilimanjaro.
- Cost. For National Parks in Uganda, you are required to have a guide and pay a UWA fee of $35USD per day. So, climbing the mountain in one day meant we saved over $200USD in guide and permit fees by cramming all 44km of the mountain into a single day/fee
- Scenery. Beautiful scenery that changes (daily or hourly depending on your pace) from lush jungles to equatorial mountain Dr. Seuss landscapes, and finally to a huge volcanic crater with lakes at the top.
- The Challenge. There is something about someone telling you that “it cannot be done” to spur you on to give it your best shot. It definitely isn’t a walk in the park, but it is definitely possible
How hard it is?
- I don’t want to downplay the difficulty of doing the mountain in one day. It definitely was a challenge. The average person does the climb in 3-4 days for a reason. The mileage itself is pretty straightforward. The harder parts would have to be the ascent for 2,600m followed by a steady descent of 2,600m as well as the altitude above 3,000m. That being said, it is definitely possible for the average ultra trail runner that has some 50+km racing experience under his or her belt to do.
How to Plan a 1-Day Summit of Mt Elgon:
- Plan Ahead (as best as you can in Uganda): Basically call the UWA office for Mt. Elgon and make sure they are notified about your intent to climb in one day.
- Guides: One of the trickiest parts about organizing this trek was sorting out the required guides, who are used to the usual 3-4 day mountain trip at a leisurely pace. After debating back and forth with the UWA a little bit, we finally agreed to have 2 pairs of guides for our run: 2 guides to go from the start to the halfway point/ranger station at 3,000m, and 2 ‘fresh’ guides to meet us there and continue with us to the summit. So, we had a plan… but this isn’t exactly what ended up happening, as is usual in Africa. We started with two guides, Kareem and Emaculate. Emaculate quickly fell behind us within 5 minutes of starting and we did not see her again until we returned to the ranger station on our way back down and she ran with us back down the mountain. Kareem ended up doing the entire mountain with us even though we so carefully planned it so that the guides would not have to do this, as no rangers showed up when we got to the halfway point. So, that’s planning a hike with guides in Africa for you!
- Gear: Basically all the things you would take with you on a solid day of hiking/running. You’ll also want to bring enough layers so you are good to go for the heat at the lower elevations (~30°), all the way to the cold at the higher elevations (~5°). The one thing that I didn’t bring that would have been nice for a couple hours at the top would be gloves.
- Staying in Budadiri: I would highly recommend a small, cheap, and cosy place called Roses Last Chance Guesthouse. There is the option to have a private room, dorm, or camping, and breakfast (even if you request it for 5:30am) is included. Better yet, it is located right next to the UWA office in Budadiri and makes a great place to crash the night before and after the run. We ended up sharing a double room as all the dorms were booked for 50,000ugx altoghether.
- Getting to Budadiri: You will probably be leaving from Kampala, where you can catch buses to get to Mbale (~5 hours) from the main bus parks (15,000ugx). Then, in Mbale, at the Kumi Road Taxi Park (near the central clocktower) you can catch a shared taxi to Budadiri for ~4,000ugx.
That’s about it! If you are in Uganda and in good enough shape to give it a go, I would highly recommend this one. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about it!