snow and ice may not be features you normally associate with Africa, but high in the Rwenzori Mountains, year-round subzero temperatures keep the top of the continent permanently capped in white. as the highest source of the Nile, the upper reaches of the range are home to about twenty glaciers – a precious treasure located less than a degree north of the equator. we recently caught up with Project Pressure, a not-for-profit which set out to photograph the continent’s hidden icecaps...
“The idea behind Project Pressure is to create a visual time capsule of the world’s glaciers,” explains director John Wyatt-Clarke, head of photographic agency Wyatt Clarke & Jones and also – intriguingly – a trained geologist. “Working with glaciologists, we’ve drawn up a list of sites to document, concentrating on some of the less well-known glacial regions around the world – places people might not expect to find glaciers.”
The icy regions of the Rwenzoris certainly fit this description. Straddling the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the glaciers there remain largely unmapped and under-studied by scientists due in part to their remoteness and the long conflict on the Congolese side. To get there, Thymann – whose photographic work normally graces magazines like i-D and Wired – traveled eight hours overland from Kampala, where the foothills first begin to emerge from the hot, humid rainforests. There, he joined rangers from the Rwenzori Mountain Service for a nine-day expedition to the summits of Mt Speke, Mt Stanley and Mt Baker: fabled highlands which were labelled on early maps as the ‘Mountains of the Moon’ by cartographers like Ptolemy. As Thymann points out, the ancient name fits perfectly given the stark contrast to the rest of Africa.
“Climbing up through the jungle was surreal and beautiful,” he recalls. “In about a day’s walk you can go from seeing chameleons to seeing glaciers.”
After photographing the glaciers on the Ugandan side (and carefully noting their GPS co-ordinates and a bearing, as he does for each image), Thymann and the team set out to cross the border. Using the trail from an outdated topographical map from the 1980s overlaid onto a modern GPS, they forged a path into the Congo. After hours of often laborious trekking and hacking through foliage, the team finally emerged to a view of the range’s Western slopes.
“Seeing these glaciers, as possibly the first people to see them in decades, was a special moment,” says Thymann. “Instead of just documentation, the expedition became one of exploration and discovery. We started Project Pressure as an art and public awareness project, but the more we talk to scientists the more we’re realising that these images can provide a valuable source of data for researchers, especially in places where such data is scarce.”
Having already visited Montana and Alaska in the US, plus Argentina, Ecuador, Switzerland, Spain, Greenland and Nepal, the project’s expedition phase is now well on its way to completion. Once Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, Kamchatka and a handful of other sites have been documented, the photographs will form a touring exhibition and, alongside images from NASA, a global glacier atlas. Perhaps most exciting for those inspired to follow in Thymann’s footsteps will an interactive online tool, where members of the public will be able to upload and compare their images, building a valuable timeline of these fragile white spaces.