The morning after our return from Mashanig, Ben emerges from his tent with a swollen red foot, open sores soused in iodine solution – a garish scene. We spent most of the previous two days, adding nicks and cuts to our limbs and ankles, and with the granite flanks of the mountain’s north face a shady breeding ground for an array of plantlife, dirt and greenery had clogged our wounds.
Coming down off the mountain, I had made a point to wash vigorously in the stream by the campsite, thorough in my efforts to scour the dirt from the open wounds on my hands and feet. Ben it seems, despite the best efforts of his travel medical kit had missed a spot”.
After lunch and a few rounds of fire-boiled shai, Abu Maryam and I slip off into the thick foliage on a mission to explore the western approaches of Girhimitin – the shining wall of granite looming to the left over the campsite. A proud face of vertical rock, it is big, intimidating, awesome, embroidered by dragon blood trees at its shoulders with a circlet of cloud, a coronnade for the summit.
Ahmed Abu Maryam is a goat herd. He has ten daughters and a wife in a tiny village on the other side of the range … honorific “Abu Maryam”(eldest daughter is Maryam) after the mother of the prophet Issa – “Mary” in English… he wears a blue furtah and a red-and-white keffiyeh – the pattern distinctly Jordanian. He is nimble and lean with a strong weathered face – dark and bearded in a repose which belies years of enduringh the harsh elements of the Hajhir mountains. We communicate in classical Arabic but where my linguistic ability reaches the limits of its complexity, his thick jabali Soqotri begins and so often communication becomes jumbled, riddled with aphorisms and punctuated by befuddled smiles.
The day previous after sampling the leg shanks of one of his goats, I had asked if he knew of a way to get to the base of Girhimitin from camp. Descending from Mashanig I had looked west to see if the grassy meadows at the base of the west face could be reached on foot. Like some inviolable altoplain – Soqotra‘s answer to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (of Tilman and Shipton fame) – the way looked difficult and treacherous – a thickly forested base surrounded on all sides by steep fluting peaks. The wadi flowing away from the mountains base also looked like it would be difficult to access. A negotiable boulder-stream up high, it was flanked by thick vegetation (the kind you might want to bring a machete for) and at its terminus, where it met with the main approach wadi for the Hajhir it dropped into a steep limestone cliff; riven by a small waterfall.
From the summit of Mashanig, the west face of Girhimitin looked like it would have to be a rappel-in, climb-out affair – abseil on a fixed rope from the col to the north which can then be used as a bail option if the granite folds of the mountain proved too much for a single push. But as I discussed my thoughts on how to reach the mountain’s base, Abu Maryam is insistent.
“Fi tareeq! Fi tareeq! Bess neruh ala al-tareeq lil-hawanat wel-genem.” There is a road, he tells me. But it is an animal track, and we will be following in the footsteps of the herd. Indeed, the steep limestone cliffs, hide a narrow route, a thin goat track moving between the trees, which weaves its way up and onto a plinth of rock to follow the river-boulder moraine to the mountain’s base.
I don my sandals, wincing as my infected toe rubs against the footstraps. He goes barefoot, as he Always goes, the soles of his feet a tough leather, gleaming grey and impenetrable as he boulder-hops the stream – the underfoot like the hide of a musk ox at the turnstile. He moves swiftly and surely through the trees, adamant that he knows the way, ducking beneath the low-hanging branches, weaving between the vines of coiled, impenetrable scrub. O
n the moraine he is light and fast, hopping delicately from rock to rock like a ballet dancer bouncing across a stage. As I lumber clumsily behind, ham-footedly picking my way through the loose scree I observe him, marvelling at his speed in this kind of terrain. Every mountaineer could learn a valuable lesson of moraine navigation from him – I turn rocks, he doesn‘t… and in watching, learning and mimicking, my body learns why. He stops from time to time spotting a root he knows well. He rips it from the ground, excitement writ across his face.
“Al-ud hina,” he says, pointing at with a long-nailed finger. “Good for cleaning the teeth.”
We continue on. Within a few minutes however, he has spotted something else – a root he knows well. He reaches for a stick and begins to dig. Within a minute he has uncovered a brown-white bulb.
“Seefid! Seefid!” he shouts. Soqotri potato. He rips it from the ground, splits it in half, swallowing his part whole and offering the rest. I chew thoughtfully. It is indeed a potato. The thought suddenly occurs to me that if Ben and I were lost up here for a month we would probably starve. It also occurs to me that he most certainly wouldn’t.
In Ahmed Mohammed Abu Maryam I see all the traits of a traditional mountain culture that has survived the sweeping changes of the modern world. He walks barefoot – always – and moves faster over the stream-scattered boulders than I do even after years of moving over this sort of terrain as a climber and a soldier. He is a goatherd and lives a simple life, almost totally moneyless.
He asks for nothing as he guides me to the base of the mountain, and I know he will not accept it, perhaps be insulted, if I offer him something at the end. He drinks his tea, he does his salat, he sings his mountain songs, he tracks his goats across the granite hinterlands and thinks little (though not nothing) of what goes on in the world of below. But we would would be wrong think him a man from a lost past – a Noble Savage – a primitive in-portrait.
Indeed far from cut off completely, far from a man without a stake or an interest in modernity, Abu Maryam is an example of globalisation personified, a reminder that as the core of urban culture expands into the periphery, the mountains, the deserts and their peoples respond in kind. He wears a red keffiyeh in a style known from Jordan; he owns a mobile phone and he is deft with the camera when I ask him to take photos tourist snaps of me; he wears a cotton shirt, a gold watch made in China and talks of the Houthi iin Sana‘a as if he tunes into Al-Jazeera 24. Indeed, as we flow up the wadi towards the base of Girhimitin I muse that just as this Soqotri goatherd moves from mountain pass to mountain pass, so moves culture – for culture is fluid not static.
When the cliché emerges of “untouched culture” (indeed, I’ve read this cliché in the context of Soqotra) I am reminded that in Abu Maryam we see not only the survival of the past in the present but proof of the dynamism of human behaviour – to adapt, to shift, to respond to changes in the environment, in the world beyond – a true being of ecology. Culture is a behaviour and like all animal behaviours it coheres to the rules of biology. Man exchanges what does not fulfil a vital function and ingests what will fulfil the function best. Why send a messenger when a mobile phone will do? Why wear rags of olive-tree twine when the workings of an Indian sweat shop are cheaper and stronger? But then a mobile phone will not feed Maryam and his other nine daughters…. and cheap knock-off shoes from China will not grip and smear to a sloping granite slab the way a toughened leathery bare foot will do.
He drinks his goats milk and eats his seefid because a change in diet, even a turn to reliance on footwear would mean a requirement for money – sacrificing one’s autonomy, one’s autarky and a reliance of provisions from outside. It would mean dependence on a system which may not be so accomodating to a drift-in from the mountains. (I would later see this difference starkly illustrated in the Malian villages of Garmi and Daari some weeks later).And so life persists – as i it always has – with only the amount of change that makes living the same life the much easier.
We arrive on top of a wide granite plinth overlooking the boulder stream. Abu Maryam stops and turns and like a pair of wanderers from a Caspar Friedrich painting we gaze out over the hills and plains below, a view of Hadibo and the Indian Ocean in the distance. A stream of water spruces from a crevice above us forming a little pool in a bowl-like indent in the rock before the trickling to the edge and dropping off into the void.
Abu Maryam, taking note of this little trickle-eddy dammed into a little wash basin, looks at his watch, stops and turns to me. “Salat,” he says. It is time to pray. He conduts wudu, washing his hands, his mouth, his feet, his faxe, purifying his soul before the sacred rite. A muezzin unto himself atop his minaret of rock, he sings out the call to prayer, nasal, loud with the same vice that shouts to his goats and sings round the campfire. Then he performs his rakaát p- the sacred movements the standing, the heeding to his lah Lah, the bowinng, the kneeling and ultimately sajadeh – the culminion of hjis prayers – his forehead touches the bare granite – submission to God.
We continue up the wadi and he asks me about my ascent a day previous of Mashanig – the highest point in Soqotra. He is curious about what we found up there, about the mysterious cairn and stories that the skull of a cow is still up there, wondering if we have seen sign of the mythical Nazouzeh.
He tells me a story of how Ali, one of the goatherds down in camp, had found himself halfway up the smaller Mashanig and unable to climb down. Ali had been chasing a goat, near the col beneath Mishifo, the bridge, and when they had fled up the sides of the smaller Mashanig he had given chase. He scrambled up the steep sides until the goats, realising they were being hunted, continued always to the summit, leaving him precariously hanging from the cliffside.
Here, he descended, leaving the goats for another day. I imagined Ali returning to Hadibo for his supper, before hiking back up the next day with an expedition-worth of supplies wrapped up in the folds of his amameh like a haversack. No goat, no food and no food would bring the goatherd back to town.
I ask Abu Maryam if he visited Hadibo, the main coastal town, very often. He shook his head citing problems between the goatherds of the mountains and the black piscatorial groups (technically of Somali descent) inhabiting the fish-rich seaside. “Fi qariyatee, ma shee – al-aswad,” he says. There were no black people in his village. “Until today, if I go to Hadibo there will be problems and I must return to the mountains”. This conflicting dynamic between peoples of the mountains and peoples of the plains (elsewhere I have described this as the dialectic between the core and periphery) is common across the Islamic world and I don’t doubt that some of his concerns are valid.
I ask him about his family. His wife, his ten daughters, and his eldest daughter, Maryam, from which he gets the honorific Abu Maryam (Arabic: أبو مريم) – “the father of Maryam”. She is a rather naughty child it seems. Remembering having read somewhere that fathers who are physically powerful or extra-macho like mountaineers or Special Forces soldiers often tend to have lots of daughters (perhaps for some hormonal reason), I tell him that perhaps he is very manly for only having daughters.
He responds that in Soqotri culture he is viewed as weak for having borne no sons, that others in his village think him far from strong. But I can tell he loves his children, and he tells me about his happiness when Maryam (Mary in English) was born.
“My mother‘s name is Mary,” I tell him. “The odds!”
“Mashallah,” he says. “How old is she?”
“Tabarak allah,” I intone. “Still young,” I say.
“And may she live many more years,” he says. “The secret to a long life is in the tea and the meat of a goat. And walking… lots of walking.”
Then he tells me about the special properties in the sap of the dragon’s blood tree – the mystical remedy which brought centuries of traders, merchants and medicine men to these fabled shores. The drqgon’s blood sap stops bleeding, he tells me. And is a wonderful remedy against female bleeding. With mortar and pestle he mixed up a solution for his wife to stop the post-natal bleeding after Maryam’s birth. He casts a hand towards the summit, at a pair of goats moving up the gentle north ridge. Goats eat the young saplings of the dragon’s blood trees, he tells me. But they stop once the umbrellaing of the tree begins.
“Maybe you will find the sapling of a dragon’s blood tree growing on the summit.”
With our thoughts turned skyward, we crouch together on a rock beneath the mighty face. Girhimitin (Soqotri: جرهمتين, “the sure throw”). In a previous age, so goes the story that Ali and Abu Maryam had told me in camp a few nights before, two warring tribes* waged battle in the plain between Hawari and what is now Hadibo. The story goes that a Bedouin shepherd scaled Girhimitin and launched a spear at an oncoming host of marauders from the south. The height of the mountain and the observation it provided made the volley from the summit a sure thing – a ”sure throw”.
The West Face, unlike the gentler summit approaches on the back side, was anything but a sure thing. Immediately, as I gazed up at it, I knew I would need three days and a portaledge to complete this route, even if Ben was in good health. Chatting with Abu Maryam, I point out a potential line up the face – not a direttissima – but a mind blowing line up the face no less. An offwidth crack and a foliage-clogged chimney on the left side of the mountain leading into a series of rooves then into the west face proper.
“Shoof al-kitab al-muftuh,” I say, pointing out the next section. I trace my finger up a proud granite corner, a dihedral, the shape of an open book – a Quran with a path writ to Jennat. “This is where we will do our climb,” I say to him… This is where we will write our words. “Bess hada al-tereeq khetr,” he replies. But this way is dangerous.
“La,” I shake my head. “Hatha al-tareeq mitl hadiyet min Allah.” This route – it‘s like a gift from God. I know he will appreciate the religious undertones. He nods knowingly.
We are not ready for the West Face of Girhimitin. This big wall will not be going down on this trip. We have no portaledge, no time and Ben‘s foot resembles something I might‘ve read about in my grandfather‘s war diaries (he was a surgeon). But this is what the reconnaissance is for. For looking and for pondering. For dreaming and deliberating… Is it possible?
Finding the goat trails to the base of the approach wadi was the first step. Then, with Abu Maryam, I had penetrated the limestone cliff blocking access to it. Then, together, we had scoped the line, pondered the descent, considered the bail options, an itinerary and a time frame. This is the history of how mountains are climbed.
When Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman penetrated the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (being arguably the pair‘s finest exploratory achievement, summit or not) they laid the path for future climbs, future success on Nanda Devi. Tilman‘s return and lightweight first ascent. Will Unsoeld‘s ascent of the difficult north buttress. And finally the return to a pristine state with the Sanctuary declared an inviolable reserve by the Indian Government.
And so too with the West Face of Girhimitin. All that remained now was a strong team and a portaledge. Then it would be climbed. Then one day the same route would be free-climbed. Then, after that, some long-haired, loping Californian would come along and climb the thing without a rope…
On the way down we stop at a small shepherd‘s shelter and he asks me when I will climb the big wall we have just recced.
“Not on this trip,” I tell him. “My friend is sick and we need more supplies. When I return to Soqotra”.
He nods, getting up to move. “When you return I will show you the way again.”
One the way back, as he bounces down the moraine, he pauses, turns and looks back up the stream of boulders, piles of littered granite leading to the base of the West Face of Girhimitin. He mutters something to himself in Quranic Arabic and, curious, I ask him to repeat it slowly, word-for-word so I can translate.
He is quoting from hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet. “Inn al-jebal min al-hasa.” (Arabic: ان الجبال من الحصى)*
“And from rock upon rock, a mountain is made.”
I ponder this for a moment, thinking about the meaning of this reconnaissance and of exploration – to build knowledge, to bring Man forward to new frontiers. This expedition was my first true expedition abroad and I had learnt a great many things – about logistics, about airline baggage policies, about the importance of time in the mountains, about weather, about bivies, about suffering and about the people of this remarkable island. I was growing, bit-by-bit as a climber.
“And from rock upon rock, a mountain is made.”
So too like the climber, I muse. So too like the Man.
* = perhaps the two tribes were the Somali fishermen and the Arab goatherds, but this is conjecture
** = the whole quote in hadith reads: “Do not belittle the small things (e.g. small sins, little things in life) for is not a mountain made from small stones?” (Arabic: لا تحقرن صغيرا ان الجبال من الحصى )