For 30 years, Canmore resident Beryl Park dreamed of visiting Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains.
Never in her dreams however, did she imagine she’d make news by doing so, nor earn a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.
But when she finally visited in November 2010, Parks not only viewed gorillas in Bwindi National Park and the famed Murchison Falls, she also climbed Margherita Peak. At 5,901 metres, Margherita is the tallest peak in the Rwenzori Mountains and the third-highest on the African continent.At the fit and energetic age of 78, Park is the oldest woman to reach that summit.
“I never gave it a thought,” Park said of disclosing her age when she inquired about participating in a guided ascent. “The only thing I thought about was that, in fairness, they ought to know that I’m older, slower and not as agile as a younger person.”
An avid hiker and skier who takes to the trails an average of five days a week, Park has twice climbed Africa’s highest peak, 5,895-metre Kilimanjaro; the first time at 36, and again at 72 in the company of her then 13-year-old granddaughter. She discovered climbing in Wales as a “young woman” and has trekked in Nepal. Her interest in the Rwenzori was piqued when she read British mountaineer Bill Tilman’s 1937 account of his journey to the Mountains of the Moon, Snow on the Equator.
“It’s a very unique landscape, with senecios and giant lobelias,” Park said. “It’s like a Tolkien landscape. It really is an unusual place, and quite beautiful. I wanted to see something quite unique.”
After being met at Entebbe Airport by Rwenzori Trekking Services owner John Hunwick, Park spent a night in Kampala before embarking on the two-day drive to the trailhead for the 10-day trek. Sleeping in tents at night, Park followed the Kilembe trail circuit through rainforest filled with chattering monkeys and birds and tall bamboo forest before reaching the higher mountain zone of snow-pasted black rock.
With three local guides, Enock Bwabale, Benard Enaga and Sandra Ampaire, Park hiked 11 kilometres with 5,000 feet elevation gain on the first day. While the distance and elevation didn’t faze Park much, the terrain did.
“I was glad I’d done the West Coast Trail,” she said. “This was worse. The West Coast Trail is not really flat, but this was up and down, up and down. That’s what I think made the days so hard.”
That, she said, and the boot-sucking mud.
“You’d get your foot stuck in the mud, and you’re yanking away at it with the guide holding you, trying to get a foot up,” she recalled. “That was happening all day long. It did rain a lot, then higher up it became snow. Day one and day 10, I was in boots and again on summit day, which was day six. The rest of the time I was in rubber boots, in deep mud all the time.”
On summit day, Park set out at 5 a.m. with Bwabale and Enaga. Unlike non-technical Kilimanjaro, reaching Margherita peak involves ascending ladders, as well as roped glacier travel and hands-on rock climbing. Despite breathing difficulties brought on by exercise-induced asthma, Park summitted then descended to complete a 17-hour day.
“It’s the highest mountain in the Rwenzoris and I thought I could do it, easily,” Park said. “That was a bit of a mistake. Kilimanjaro is straight up, fairly straightforward. The deep, deep mud, and the weather made Margherita more difficult. On summit day it snowed quite heavily. On the way down, after we got off the second glacier we were going over rocks in the dark. We had to watch every step.”
She felt safe however, in the care of Bwabale and Enaga, and pleased with her accomplishment. Exhausted and recuperating from swelling in her face and extremities, cuts on her fingers and blisters on her feet from the rubber boots, Park’s relaxation on the hostel veranda was suddenly interrupted by a well-dressed party representing the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
“I had to sit up and talk brightly about how much I had enjoyed the trip,” Park recalled. “That was the first I realized somebody was making a fuss about it.”
Before leaving Uganda, Park was feted as the guest of honour at a reception in Kampala where she was presented with gifts and a cake in the shape of Margherita Peak as she fielded questions from print and TV reporters.
“Ms. Beryl has now officially become our Tourism Ambassador in Canada,” said Uganda Ministry of Tourism and Trade representative Justus Tinigarukayo. “We hope that she will tell of the beauty of the Mountains of the Moon and encourage other people to come and visit.”
Overall, Park’s adventure was “stimulating, satisfying.”
“I’d wanted to go to the Rwenzori for 30 years. I would never be happy if I hadn’t gone. Enock and Benard were fantastic, I was really well looked after. It took a fair bit out of me, but I feel 100 per cent now.”
To view more photos of Park on her climb, visit www.rwenzoritrekking.com/berylpark.html