Down and Out in Squamish & Whistler

A version of this article was published in the Winter/Spring 2017 edition of Mountain Life.


Illustration: Dave Barnes

Dirtbag (noun): English portmanteau of “dirt” from the Old Norse “drit” meaning “excrement”; and “bag” from the Ancient Greek “bastagma” meaning “load” – lit. therefore: “load of excrement”.

  1. A bag or sack with dirt in it.
  2. An unkempt or slovenly person; an undesirable.


Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course–but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless…” – George Orwell


We spent the first year and a half of our life in the Sea to Sky corridor sleeping in the back of a rusty red work van with the words “Ville de Montréal” tacked on the side. We’d driven the van from Québec across the continental US (where gas was cheaper), arriving finally in Squamish – the outdoor capital of Canada.

Of course, I say “sleeping” in the back of the van because all of our living was being done outside of it – climbing, hiking and skiing. Anyway, on day three in town, after we’d made some mandatory repairs to our ailing vehicle, my girlfriend Eleanor tallied up the finances and discovered that we had eighty-three dollars between us. Eleanor had lined up a cash job at a dog kennel so we figured – with a splash of cautious optimism – that the receipt of a paycheque was feasible within two weeks. This left us, if we divided eighty-three by fourteen, with a per diem of five loons and ninety-two cents. A share-sized pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar’s cost $5.85 which left seven cents a day for whatever our hearts desired.

The point is we were poor. Which didn’t matter because we were happy. Although, to be fair, if we were a little less poor it’s not unreasonable to think that we might have been a little more happy.

In the meantime, we parked out front of the Walmart to access wifi and since we also frequently stayed there for the night, we listed that lot as our address when we switched over to British Columbia driver’s licenses. It was also a good place for the essentials – ramen, oatmeal and energy bars – because even when you live under the breadline you still have to line up for your bread.

We were, in the colourful parlance of the outdoors, a couple of “dirtbags” – living a life divided almost exclusively between Walmart, work, and the walls of the Stawamus Chief – the great totem-like stone around which the climber configures his existence.


The “dirtbag” of course, is less a species of outdoorsman and more a genus of outdoorsman – an umbrella term which describes a variety of different types of people who prioritise experience over possessions and adventure over stability. For example, during the summer, the dirtbag scene in the parking lot of the Stawamus Chief can be subdivided into three different social strata.

At the top of the dirtbag pyramid (and the closest this world gets to an aristocracy) are the Sprinter van dirtbags. Often, a Sprintocrat hails from outside the Sea to Sky Corridor, piloting vehicles with license plates from such far-flung places as California or Colorado. In the sense then that Sprinter dirtbags are usually holidaymakers or professional athletes (and often both) they tend to “eat cake”, so to speak, while the lower-tier dirtbags (les paysans) must use wit and cunning in their search for daily bread.

One tier down, the dirtbag middle class constitutes the only working class amongst the dirtbags. Typically, they are “local” in the sense that Squamish, Whistler or Pemberton are the listed towns of residence on their driver’s licenses. In the eyes of many well-settled, land-owning locals however, the inherent kinesis of the dirtbag sleeping quarters means that the middle class dirtbag can only ever be considered “drifters” or “freeloaders” – terms that both come with a history of social and political baggage.


It’s a misnomer of course, as middle class dirtbags generally occupy all the lowest-paying positions in the modern industrial economy. Operating lifts, selling tickets, pouring drinks, manning checkouts and ferrying cartons of hamburger meat up and down scenic gondolas, the middle class dirtbag is the oxygen-transporting haemoglobin of the Sea to Sky service economy without which there would be no French fries and nobody to hate on.

To make matters worse, a working class dirtbag is also derided as a “granola” by the lower dirtbags stratums for his or her ability to financially access the more bourgeois of the cereal options. So, much like middle classes the world over, the granola dirtbag gets all the loathing that comes with privilege without actually being privileged.

The final class of dirtbag (the dirtbag in its purest form) is the species a naturalist might refer to as “homo dirtbag dirtbagius” but whom others might refer to as “the lowest of the low”. These are dirtbags in their natural state, lifers who typically reside beneath tarps and tents and if a car is even owned at all, it is rarely greater in size than a Honda Civic. Although usually male, they come from many different backgrounds – young, old, Ontarian, Quebecois, often Australian.

This lowest form of dirtbag, it must be said, does not work, but then as Orwell once quipped “what, indeed, is work?” The Sprintocrats work by uploading filtered images to the Instagram accounts of outdoor clothing companies, the granolas work by serving beers to hedge-fund managers with goggle tans and the true dirtbag woks by bin-diving for the curd gristle on a discarded plate of poutine or by hoovering up the remnants of a half-eaten sandwich in a day-lodge cafeteria – to keep away the bears of course.

Insofar as these bin-diving, pow-shredding, rock-scampering dirtbags are usually cognitively-functioning members of society, most are, at the very least, physically competent to commence work. This means that social mobility across the three dirtbag strata is fairly easy. The lowest dirtbag can become a granola simply by getting a job and the granola can become a member of the Sprinter-owning class, provided that he is happy to shoulder a lifetime of debt for an overpriced vehicle.

Thriftiness defines the dirtbag and so does mobility. He knows that twenty dollars of gas will get him from Squamish to Whistler and back in his beat-up gas-guzzler. But he also knows that he must factor in the very real possibility that his van might never restart when he makes for a tactical exit in the wintry pre-dawn from his illegal bivouac in the Lot 4 parking lot. Fringe-dwelling aside, he is a good enough fellow – grateful even of his mountain life.

Indeed, for the dirtbag, the mobility afforded by life in a car is better than paying somebody else’s mortgage. It gives one freedom of movement. Squamish in the summer, winter at Roger’s Pass and perhaps a trip to Indian Creek or Bella Coola in the shoulder seasons if he can skimp to together the gas money.


Certainly, there isn’t much incentive for the dirtbag to sedentarise in today’s housing market. With a detached single bedroom likely to cost the dirtbag one thousand two hundred dollars per month, renting a place in Squamish or Whistler, share house or not, may as well involve speculating in Texan cattle ranches. So, for many, the time spent dreaming about living in a home is better spent cross-checking the calorie content of a can of tuna.

With the reasons for dirt-bagging being wholly rational then, the only question that remains is “why is the dirtbag hated?” Well, no one really hates the dirtbag. “Hate” is a word best saved for that moment when the Vancouverites cruise into Creekside at 7’oclock in the morning on Opening Day and find not a single spot available. The parking lot is full of dirtbags. They’ve taken on the Goretex-clad pelage of the dirtbag in winter form – the “ski-bum”… and they’ve slept there overnight.


A working class dirtbag, on patrol




Fall. Fall now. Fall hard. Fall long. Fall so long and so hard and so far that the force of your falling mass – the dead weight that is you attached to the end of your rope – catapults your belayer and all your fears into the sky. You are the counterpoise of the trebuchet that is your life – only you can cast off the load that is weighing you down. Fear, uncertainty, insecurity – it all weighs heavily on your shoulders. Cast it off. Everything. You don’t need it.

Fall. Fall now. Fall hard. Fall long. Fall so long and so hard and so far that you rip gear from the wall. That tiny, finger-sized piece. Yeah, the one you’d slivered into the crack with shaking legs and shaking arms. The one you’d told yourself was good (or good enough, anyway) and clipped it to the rope. Or maybe it was that big cam. That same piece that you thought could anchor a battleship to a bundok… Fall on it. Rip it from the wall. Make a twenty-foot whipper out of the one you’d hoped would stop at ten. Ready your mind and savour the plunge and slam hard against the wall and feel what it’s like to fail. Feel, so you can remember, what it’s like when the gear fails.

Yeah. The system doesn’t always work the way you were hoping. The tiniest perturbation in the system – an arbitrarily small change – can make a shambles of your plans. Mathematicians call this “sensitivity to initial conditions”. Chaos ensues, inevitably. Maybe the perturbation was one you’d failed to notice – a cam lobe wasn’t seated properly behind a jutting crystal inside the crack. Maybe the perturbation was one you couldn’t have noticed – the biotite minerals inside this particular section of granite are heavily hydrolysed and the feldspar crystals have become powdery and rotten – friable rock. The cam was always going to rip, a chemist would say. After the fact, of course.

Regardless, this is what it feels like to fall. To fail. This is what it feels like to be run out far above that last piece and then to blow it. To not be good enough at the right moment in time. This is what it feels like to be flipped upside down by the rope when it wraps itself behind your leg (your fault, that). This is what it feels like to be re-oriented, eyeballs pointed earthward, and to watch the ground rushing towards you. You, the climber, the one who’s just made the transition to bungee jumper.

After the fall, and after you hit the wall, and flail around at the end of the rope, whooping at your friends about the big whipper you just took, you will realise that the fall was nothing, that the whipper doesn’t even matter, that you were wrong to be afraid in the first place, because even though your gear ripped you are still fine, totally fine, and your fear of falling was totally irrational. Right?


The fall doesn’t matter. It never did.

It doesn’t matter.

You will come to this realisation while you are falling. That it – everything that is – doesn’t actually matter. In end. In the midst of the act of falling though, it’s not the fall itself that doesn’t matter, but the you that doesn’t matter. What happens to you next is out of your control. And in allowing yourself to fall you have come to terms with the meaning of you. The ontology of you. The body that is hurtling through space.

Finally, you have come to the realization that you are not invulnerable – that this climb was just too hard for the you at this particular moment in time. And regardless of whether you are alive or dead at the end of this fall, it simply doesn’t matter. What happens happens. Live. Die. Break your foot. Whatever. What will ensue in the fullness of chaos will ensue. And you don’t matter.

So fall. Fall now. Release yourself from the wall. Take the whipper. Log some air time. Admit to yourself that you have failed. Come to terms with it. Be content with it so that you can throw yourself at the feet of failure again and again in the future. Failure is the only thing that is certain to repeat itself in the future. Success, though gratifying, is only fleeting. If you succeed at something you might never succeed again. Defeat, ultimately, is the only constant. Don’t let the snake-oil salesmen and self-help mystics tell you otherwise. In the gym, you’d “train to failure” wouldn’t you? So accept it. Embrace it.

And fall. Be the guillotine – the one that is crashing down upon your own ego – that same ego that brought you up here in the first place. Maybe then, you will learn something.

bluies 2

The author climbing in the Blue Mountains. (Photo: John Price)

Lo, The Terminus

“Oooh! For Christ’s sake let me alone!” cried the wounded man, but still he was lifted and laid on the stretcher.

Nicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in the mist of their summits… There was peace and happiness… “I should wish for nothing else, nothing, if only I were there,” thought Rostov. “In myself alone and in that sunshine there is so much happiness; but here… groans, suffering, fear, and this uncertainty and hurry… There—they are shouting again, and again are all running back somewhere, and I shall run with them, and it, death, is here above me and around… Another instant and I shall never again see the sun, this water, that gorge!…”

At that instant the sun began to hide behind the clouds, and other stretchers came into view before Rostov. And the fear of death and of the stretchers, and love of the sun and of life, all merged into one feeling of sickening agitation.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book II, Chapter VIII


Navigating the terminus of the hollow, melted-out Sphinx Glacier.

The old man, chained, by time, to his wheelchair, looks up at me with eyes wide. Medical paraphernalia exudes from everywhere all over him. On his wrist, there is a coloured band with a name and a number and a barcode – the international accessory of the admitted infirm.

“Are you going to be around here for awhile?” he asks with open palms. Fingers spread, hands pointing up – like a supplicant.

I come to a halt in front of him, keys jangling at my waist, short-wave radio clasped to my belt. In the evenings I work security at the hospital, doing my two-hourly rounds through palliative care. Checking the locks on doors, alarm systems, fire panels. That kind of thing.
“Jack was a logger” according to the life synopsis that the nurses have sticky-taped to the wall next to the door to his room.
He left his native Ontario at age 15 and worked his way across the country on the trans-Canada railroad. A stint in the boiler rooms of the coal-powered ships crossing the Pacific followed; then time in Papua New Guinea hunting “alligators” [sic]. Later, he would “serve as a mercenary” and then, returning to Canada, with the RCMP as a Mountie above the Arctic Circle. Then, he settled down, in the fjords of British Columbia, with his wife and three children. This is the bio of a man who has lived a very full life – an adventurous life. Jack was a “fun hog” in the sense that Chouinard and Tompkins might have used the term.
“Are you going to be around here for awhile?” he asks me again.
I nod, and point to the “Security” embellishment on my uniform. “I’m always around,” I say.
He doesn’t hear me. Jack is mostly deaf and the deafness does not help with the dementia. He beckons me toward him, asking me to repeat myself – and, leaning in, progressively closer, I eventually give up.
I hold up two fingers. Jack can still see. He gets it. Kind of. “You’re here for two hours?”
I nod. Close enough.
“But I need someone to watch out for me,” he says. “Can’t you stay awhile and watch out for me?”
I nod. “I’m here for you Jack,” I say. He doesn’t hear me.
“I need someone to watch out for me,” he repeats.
A nurse at the nursing station, seeing me detained part-way through my patrol, intervenes. “Come on now Jack,” she says, and she approaches, inserts herself into Jack’s surrounding and then smiles at me as if to say, “it’s OK, I’ve got this now. You’re right to go on.”
I look back at the bio sheet on the door again, reading more about Jack’s life. Here, the choice of tense in the wording stands out. Jack “was a logger”; “he enjoyed fishing”; “he took to deep-sea sailing on the West Coast”. Here is a life history written in the past tense – the same tense we employ for the life histories of Norgay, Napoleon, Nietzsche – as though the man were already dead.
A nurse reports that one of the maintenance guys has left the door to the outside workshop open. It’s my job to go and lock it. Access control. I step out a fire escape. The evening is clear and cold in Squamish. No winter rains today. Just the chill as the last of the day’s light disappears behind the Tantalus Range. I look east towards the Garibaldi range. In the distance, the Crosscut Ridge of Mt Isosceles is seen through the valley-gap between Crumpit Woods and the lower flanks of the Chief, silhouetted in the light of a rising moon. In its current state, caked in ice and snow, the Crosscut Ridge is very much in winter condition. Last summer, we’d tried to get in there to climb it, only to be shut down by weather and distance and ability. Late season conditions. Melting glaciers reaching the end of their lifespans.
crosscut ridge

The saw-toothed Crosscut Ridge, “the obscure object of our desire”, centre-right.

I was preparing for another shot at it in the early spring, hoping to use skis to cut the approach time by traversing the ice floes on Garibaldi Lake. This time before the summer sun had melted everything out and before the glacier became a labyrinth again.
I return inside and patrol through the “Intermediate Secured Unit” – where they put the high-risk patients – and then, with my rounds complete, I step out into the main hallway again. Someone else, Jim, an old miner, is complaining that another resident entered his room and stole all his stuff. He seems upset. Upset people can become aggressive and Jim has a history of aggression. For the most part, I ignore him. I let the nurses know about his problem and tell them to raise me on the radio if they need me.
I walk away. I don’t much want to grow old, I think to myself, although I know that one day I will have to. I don’t want to die either but I know that this is not an option available to me.
In pre-modern Japanese society, the base of Mount Fuji was said to be a site for a practice called ‘ubasute‘ – whereby the elderly and the infirm were left before the mountain’s bosom to die. Similar things have been said of pre-colonial Inuit society where “old Eskimos were set adrift on ice floes” – farewelled into Nature’s arms. The historicity of these past practices is the subject of intense debate. They may indeed just be myths. But the fact that rumours of these other-worldly practices have persisted (even if solely amongst foreigners gossiping about the Other), reminds us that the problem of how Man should spend his last days is a problem we have not yet solved as a species. We are uneasy about and perhaps not yet satisfied with the systems we have designed for dying. How can we be?
I walk on through the corridors, passing by the infirm in their beds – respirators on, holding on, clinging on. Televisions play in all the rooms. Just another half hour of television. Hold on just a little bit longer. I feel very happy for my beloved grandfather (just passed in December) that he did not spend long in permanent care before he died. He escaped that fate – the fate of a man dying while surrounded by others who are also dying. Quick and painlessly, he went.
The next day, the rains return but then it clears for a while around midday. I can see my objective again – the Crosscut Ridge. I imagine myself on top of the highest gendarme – picking my way along its plated back. I am looking across my domain – my mountains – and I am wondering what it will feel like to die. I am wondering what it must have been like for Ari, when he fell from Mount Aspiring. What were those seconds like? Those final seconds of falling, before impact on the Bonar Glacier? Surely, there must have been fear. Anxiety. But still, I have to believe, I must believe that he was at peace with himself – that he’d accepted it, and in accepting it, experienced a sensation of something akin to bliss.
Yes, I think to myself, gazing across at Garibaldi and Phyllis’ Engine and the Sphinx – mountains named for beings past, both real and fictive, with their own life histories attached. Death is a problem.
A host of dark questions gnaw at me. How do I stay alive in these mountains? How do I keep living without growing old? How do I face the inevitable without becoming a nihilist? How much more of this beauty can I enjoy before I am too old to keep seeking it out? And will I be able to find enjoyment, find beauty in other things, when I am too old and too weak and I’ve lost my mobility?
A few days later, I clock on again at the hospital and continue on my rounds through the residential home. Jack, in his wheelchair, is in the hallway again. He looks docile now. The feintest hint of a smile crosses his lips. Like the dying Count Bezukhov, the father of Pierre, the protagonist of War and Peace:
“While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he made a fruitless effort to pull it forward. Whether he noticed the look of terror with which Pierre regarded that lifeless arm, or whether some other thought flitted across his dying brain, at any rate he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and again at the arm, and on his face a feeble, piteous smile appeared, quite out of keeping with his features, that seemed to deride his own helplessness.”
Jack, half-smiling still, is wheeled back into his room by a carer, embracing the infinite jest of it all. And me, the mountaineer just down from my mountains, the summiteer but after the fact, the security guard on my lonely night patrol – I am left, alone, in the hallway. Alone with another pithy quote. Nietzsche. The so-called nihilist, again.
One should part from life as Odysseus parted from Nausicaa,” Nietzsche wrote. “Blessing it, rather than in love with it.”
I poke my head around the corner and see Jack being helped out of the wheelchair and into his bed. He moves, at a glacial pace – the sound of the crepitus in his bones like the crack and grind of crevasses in the fracture zone. The whole mass is moving downstream to its end. Here, at his terminus, Jack is ready to go. Ready to transition from one world into the next.

Every Man is, in fact, “an Island”


I was in the middle of the Utah desert when six co-ordinated terrorist attacks rocked the streets of Paris, expunging the life from the bodies of 129 people. In my desert world, wandering through my Kingdom of Rocks and Sand, I knew nothing of the World Outside. I had disconnected and unplugged – finding solipsism in my solitude.


The Canyonlands of Utah. No jihadists in this desert…

I emerged from the desert to news of the attacks – live updates on the BBC; terrorist profiles on Le Mondegood analysis, bad analysis and everything in between from internet news sources, everywhere. Aside from the initial shock which came with reconnecting with the horrors taking place outside my little bubble, I also couldn’t help but think that my very existence, the life I’d been living for the past three weeks – rock climbing in the Utah desert – was empty, selfish, maybe even abhorrent, given what was happening elsewhere in our burning Global-Village.

But then, when I read the news shorts about what other people were doing in the rest of the world – beheading journalists, dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, stigmatizing minorities based on their religious preferences – I realized that really, what I was doing – living a life of my own selfish choosing in a beautiful place – wasn’t so bad after all. I wasn’t hurting anybody was I?



Arches National Park. No jihadists here either…

One of my desert climbing partners, Dan, was an Infantry Recon soldier in the 10th Mountain Division. Dan had spent 27 months of his four year stint in the US Army deployed to Iraq, fighting a hopeless war in the service of a misguided political philosophy. 19 of the 300 men he deployed with never returned home. His brothers-in-arms were practically decimated.

So, craving a better life, Dan had finished his military service, and like me, had decided to withdraw from the World Outside, retreating to an island of relative isolation (Durango, Colorado) in order to pursue a lifestyle which, though perhaps more selfish than the selfless servitude of military life, would never require him to pick up a weapon and put a bullet between somebody’s eyes.


Dan in his natural habitat.

Indeed, I thought to myself, as I read over what a New York billionaire was suggesting we Westerners do to solve the problems of the Middle East, maybe our outlook going into the future ought to be a little bit more isolationist. Maybe, instead of focusing our attentions outward – by busying ourselves with projecting force and influence into places where we’re not wanted (under the guise of selfless humanitarianism or “spreading democracy”) – we ought to become a little bit more inwardly-focussed, a little bit more selfish. We need to change the way we engage with the rest of the world, I would argue.


We should have listened to this guy…

The Global-Village in which we now live affords us great opportunities for economic interdependence, expanded networks of trade, innovation through the sharing of information, and diplomatic engagement to tackle tough issues like climate change. But the Global-Village also presents a series of complex and dangerous threats to our way of life. It shortens distances between Us and Others, bringing us closer into contact with those who would do us harm. It creates electronic pathways for dangerous ideas to flood our idea-scapes, radicalizing our youth with info-bites from foreign wars.

In an era where the UN, NATO and R2P blend into practically-synonymous acronyms representing the same ideas, we have told ourselves that our liberal humanitarianism bequeaths us with a responsibility to protect the downtrodden in other parts of the world – invading and occupying countries in order to free them, destroying villages in order to save them. Our paternalistic obsession with effecting “positive change” in linguistically- and culturally-distinct parts of the world, I would argue, is doing little to secure the safety and dignity of oppressed peoples in the Third World and even less to secure our own safety.

Now, it may just be that what is needed to destroy ISIS once and for all is a good bombing campaign targeting Al-Baghdadi’s stronghold in Raqqa, but for the most part what I can take away from this foreign and domestic crisis that is all things ISIS, is that the Western world should return to a position of political isolationism.

Here we might learn from the mountain republic of Switzerland, whose greatest military humiliation (unlike our repeated humiliations in Vietnam Afghanistan and Iraq) in recent years has been the fashion choices of its soldiers in the Vatican. Or here too, we might learn from the North Sentinelese, an island-people adrift in the Andaman Sea who, rather than worrying about where ISIS is going to strike next haven’t even heard of ISIS because they live in hermetically-sealed isolation, having had almost no contact with the outside world. The Swiss and the Sentinelese share two things in common – they are largely insulated against negative developments in the World Outside (ie: they are isolated) and they profit economically from their neutrality (ie: they are selfish) – the Swiss through their banks and the Sentinelese through their safe and secure hordes of coconuts.

Therefore, I advocate, rather than continuing on a tangent of selflessness and interventionism (as has been the trend during the last twenty years), we the people of the West might profer from a new outlook of selfishness and isolationism.


This Sentinelese guy knows how to deal with intruders. Source: survival

With all these case studies in mind I propose a substantive retreat from the Global-Village in order to create a hypothetical island-village on a new Island – the Island formerly known as the West. This hypothetical Island would be our Island and ours only – a new polity whose primary political ideals are isolationism and selfishness.

Social harmony is created and sustained on the Island by agreeing on a series of basic principles on which everybody can and must agree if they are to live on the Island. These principles should not be religious or cultural, since there are already many different religions and cultures which make up our Island’s demography. Naturally however, since the Island in question is being created in “the West”, these basic principles should be “Western principles”. Some of these principles might include the assumption that democracy is the best way to govern the Island; or that, fundamentally, people have a series of basic liberties which enable them to lead the life of their own choosing, in the manner which they deem fit and in a way which does no harm to others. “We on the Island like freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of worship” – et cetera, et cetera.

In addition to these agreed-upon principles there are barriers which will inhibit and even prevent entry to Others who would come to the Island from the World Outside. An island, by definition, is not easily accessible to outsiders. There is an ocean which separates the Island from the World Outside. Island-dwellers, therefore, live (at risk of being seen to inappropriately quote from A Few Good Men) in a world with barriers. And these barriers are good for those who dwell on the Island.

There are naturally-occurring, geographic barriers (the oceans) which provide an immediate barricade against external aggression. And there are human barriers – sea mines and battlefield blockades and walls with soldiers on them – which provide another layer of defence in-depth. On some level, the Islanders must be prepared to defend their Island and to defend their way of life. And they should do so. When the crazies board their little jihad-boats and cross the seas to do harm to our little Island, the Islanders must stand ready to blow their boats out of the water.


The author surveilling shipping lanes on a reconnaissance patrol with one of the Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units. Intruders not welcome.

Creating this Island is not the same as creating Utopia. Utopia is Fantasy and the Island will be Real (at least, hypothetically real anyway). The Island will still have its problems. Christian Islanders will have to get along with Muslim Islanders. Brown people will have to get along with white. For the good of the Island.

In addition to the isolation we will make for ourselves, we Islanders will be a selfish people. We will cease to concern ourselves with liberating the un-liberated. De oppresso liber be damned – I’ve got some barramundi fishing to doWe will cease dropping cluster-bombs so that others may revel in the virtues of democracy. We will be selfish.


Kill eels, not Arabs.

In retreating from the woes of what is happening beyond our Island, the West will have achieved two great successes – 1.) dodge culpability for negative developments in the World Outside (eg: the rise of ISIS in post-Saddam Iraq); and 2.) be better prepared to defend ourselves against external aggression due to the reductions in cost (both in blood and treasure) from not engaging in foreign wars.

All islands have limited real estate and fixed finite resources. This means that everybody cannot come to the Island. As any Sentinelese will probably tell you – there are only enough coconuts for so many. This unfortunate (perhaps even “inconvenient”) truth means that not everybody can come to the Island. Australia’s national anthem: “for those who come across the sea, we’ve boundless plains to share”, may need to be revised.

But here of course, we arrive at the difficult question regarding what to do about refugees who come to the Island. What do we do about those miserly  refugees from Syria?

Refugees from the World Outside will want to come to our Island. This is natural. Inevitable. Who wouldn’t want to drink coconut water and dance with our beauties on our white, sandy beaches? Should we help these asylum-seekers? And if we did wouldn’t this go against our lofty principles of Islander selfishness?

Here, I would argue, Islanders can both take in refugees and still remain true to our selfish ideals.

Firstly, altruism, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily the antithesis of selfishness. People give money to feel-good charities so they can post the pictures of their sponsor-child on Facebook and accumulate “likes” from their friends. Priests give blessings to the elderly so they can get into Heaven. We can still do good things for our own selfish reasons. And we should. Because it helps everybody and hurts no one. And this is one of the Island’s chief principles.

In addition to this, there are other benefits to accepting a few people from the outside. Accepting some outsiders onto the Island will prevent us from suffering the ills of what anthropologists call “endogamy” – marrying within (and only within) the tribe. A society without immigrants just like a gene pool without new genes, will stagnate. Societies need new ideas, new inventions and new foods if they are to survive – Japanese robotics, Ethiopian intuitive road safety, Middle Eastern cuisine – the Island will benefit from all these fresh and new things. And we will need migrants to bring all these ideas, inventions and new foods to our doorstep.

So yes, inhabitants of the Island should accept refugees provided that these refugees can agree to abide by the principles of Island living. Let those who would do harm to our Island, leave the Island and let us still vet everybody who would come to the Island… For the good of the Island.

Thus, we arrive at the chief point of this piece. Retreating politically from developments in the World Outside is not the same as not having a foreign policy. Just as the Swiss gladly take foreign rich people’s money and the North Sentinelese stripped an Indian anthropologist naked and took his glasses, we can still have a give-and-take relationship with the World Outside – but we can do so from the isolation of our Island.

Perhaps the most pleasant consequence of dispensing with our old “selflessness” in favour of selfish isolationism will be the end of the liberal interventionism for which the current crisis in Iraq and the ISIS-pocalypse in Syria can partly be traced.

John Bolton may be right that a new state for Arab Sunnis is exactly what the Middle-East needs (although his designation of “Sunni-Stan” proves that he can’t differentiate between the languages of Central Asia and the Arabic-speaking Middle East), but it is not for us to say.

Others (including myself), have perhaps made similar blunders in their policy suggestions – confusing things which are happening overseas with things which might effect us. In a recent Washington Post article, Liz Sly has made a valiant effort to determine whether or not “it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East?” The answer is of course “yes” it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East. That place went down the toilet a long time ago. Ultimately however, Sly’s question is the wrong one to ask. The real question is: “should the West try to solve the problems of the Middle East?” or “was the West ever capable of solving the problems of the Middle East in the first place?” The answers to both of these questions is “no”. Since we can’t do anything for the Middle East I would argue that we shouldn’t bother trying in future. Thus, the Island.

It may indeed be that ISIS has become too big to ignore. Intensified military action may be required to destroy, finally, the little jihad-island ISIS has created for itself in Raqqa. We might need to drone Baghdadi’s death cult into oblivion before retreating into our little shell. You can call it pre-emptive isolationism. But after this war is over, after ISIS is defeated – it may be an Island mentality which will prevent us from inadvertently creating another ISIS – the ISIS of the future.


Russian tanks line the beaches of Soqotra – an isolated island adrift in the ocean between Yemen and Somalia


The island of Soqotra is home to an Arabic-speaking Bedouin people, hundreds of endemic species and a peace which is endemic in the region.


A Stroll through Squamish (#MyMeru)

One must imagine Sisyphus happy – Albert Camus

Everest climbing and anthropology are united to the extent that they are both pretty useless – Mike Thompson, mountaineer/anthropologist

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

Climbing (n.): “A ritualised performative act, driven by individual free will and centred around the ascent of mountains and/or rocks and rock faces, which serves no immediately apparent function other than self-validation and the Sisyphean pursuit of ‘fun’ (and/or suffering).”

That’s about as good a definition of climbing as my anthropological training can produce. Depending on who you ask, climbing might also be a ritualised example of “deep play” where the only immediate benefit to the climber is the visceral proof of his or her consciousness (this, according to Steve House who had Mishima’s “cut the apple and reveal the core” metaphor in mind here).

“It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”.  Some rotten day in wintry New Zealand a few years ago.

The key point to note here, is that yes, climbing is a meaningless pursuit (and yes, this is true even despite the best efforts of these American-Filipino auxiliaries who thought that climbing the city walls of Manila could be militarily useful). Climbing has neither function nor currency and thus resists any true anthropological explanation (at least within a structural-functionalist mode of attention). But on one fine September morning, the apparent uselessness of it all had done nothing to prevent us from wanting to play the game anyway.

Of course, climbing is not merely a single homogeneous game but a multiplicity of thematically linked games taking place in different kinds of terrain (boulders, crags, frozen waterfalls, granite big walls, snowy mountains) and using different rulebooks (boltless? O2-less? sleeping-bag-less? ropeless? trouserless?). Today, the game we had chosen to play was a game involving not just a single ascent of a single peak but rather an “enchaînement” of multiple peaks conducted according to the rules and parameters of what Lito Tejada Flores called “the super-alpine game”, albeit in a significantly more people-friendly environment than that of “the real mountains”.

The goal we had set ourselves was meaningless. The timeframe, arbitrary. We wanted to climb all of Squamish’s great rock faces in a single day. Shannon Falls, The Papoose, The Malamute, The Chief and The Squaw – all in one push, linking them together on foot. (Actually we had wanted to include the Smoke Bluffs as well but 19 hours in we got lazy). I like link-ups and traverses. Scaling granite big-walls seems like it might even be useful when you use climbing as a means of travel – as a way of getting from point A to point B… A par cours (à la David Belle and the French urban free-running crowd).

Of course, in hindsight, the funnest part of our day was scoffing fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries from Maggs 99 (the best Mexican cantina in North America) at midnight in the Apron parking lot, but we’d told ourselves at the start of the day that such an endeavour might be fun.

As more than one mountaineer has put it (and generally this comes from the kind of mountaineer who refers to himself as an “alpinist”… à les alpinistes de l’Haute-Savoie qui grimpent “léger expresse”) – it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.

So with this essay by Jon Krakauer about futility and entropy in the back of my mind and this essay by Mark Twight about drive and energy goading me on, I went climbing with my friend Andrew, even if it was all just a bit of useless fun. And we climbed all the great rock faces of Squamish over the course of a single day and afterwards, with our egos temporarily slaked, we retired to our vans.

So here’s a photo-essay of our 19 hour stroll around town.

1. Shannon Falls (Coastal Salish: “Kookx-um”)

The day began in the van. It was dark outside. 4am dark.

Ellie was still asleep so I fired up the jet-engine stove and russelled around noisily in the dark. I ate some oatmeal. Apple and cinnamon flavoured. When I opened the door and rolled out of bed, Andrew was there with his head torch (North Americans call these objects “headlamps”) on his head and his harness around his hips. We ran to the base of Shannon Falls. The running wouldn’t last.

We looked up at the route. It was soaking. Glistening wet in the light thrown out by the shipyard across the Sound. Who’d have thought that Shannon Falls was a big seep?

Shannon Falls is sacred in Native cosmology as the place where Xwechtaal, the hero-founder of the Squamish nation, slayed the two-headed creator serpent, Sinulhkay. Legend has it that in order to acquire the powers required to defeat Sinulhkay, he first had to bathe in the sacred waters of the falls. A couple of lessons to take away from that one, the most obvious being that if we were going to do our little link-up it seemed logical that we’d have to do some waterfall-bathing. The route goes at 5.7. Pretty cutting edge – more so in the wet. Skyward bound, we slip-slid and grovelled into the dark.


Andrew’s head torch was out of battery by pitch three. I pontificated about preparation. We ran back to the car to get new lithiums and jogged onto the next cliff-face.

2. The Papoose (The Baby)

We hit the base of the Papoose and started up the first pitches, ascending into a racing dawn. The early morning sky was pale and grey. The cliff was pleasantly dry.

A quality iPhone panorama, courtesy of Steve Jobs.

A quality iPhone panorama, courtesy of Steve Jobs.

Just as the five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif are imagined by the Fulani as the five members of a man’s family, the granitic monoliths looming above Howe Sound are personified accordingly. “Papoose” means “baby”; the Malamute, the trusty dog; the Stawamus Chief, the head of the family and the “Squaw” (now known as Slhanay), his wife, sits cracked and cackling on his left side, looming over the meth-dens and trailer-parks (and rather nice, cookie-cut estates) of Valleycliffe.

The Papoose is a round batholith of glacier-polished granite – baby bum smooth. There is some quote-unquote “real” climbing on the Papoose. I climbed a crack. It was fun.

Some nice glacier polish on the Papoose

Some nice glacier polish on the Papoose

Andrew takes it to the top.

Andrew takes it to the top.

3. The Malamute (The Doggy)

We topped out, went back to sea level, ran along the highway and filled our water bottles up at the Chief carpark. Then we sauntered across the bridge and down the side of the Malamute, hungry for the next leg of our skyline stroll. We hit the railway.

Running along the base of the Malamute via the logging yard.

Running along the base of the Malamute via the logging yard.


Andrew led the first pitch on our way to the top. Lay-backing on wet rock. Mint conditions.



I got the second half of the Malamute.

I got the second half of the Malamute.

4. The Chief (“Siam Smanit”)… Big Daddy

We continued onwards and up the Chief – Big Daddy – the second biggest granite monolith in North America. Second comes right after first. Squamish legend says that the Chief was once a longhouse which, at a time of great flooding was transformed by two magical brothers into a refuge for the Squamish people. The Chief is Canada’s very own Ark. Pretty cool, really. Wondering where the Transformer Brothers had been two weeks ago when my van had been leaking like a sieve in a rainstorm, I climbed on.

The lower half of the Apron took us twenty minutes. We’d both climbed the route before. We started up the second half on a route that neither of us knew. It took us two hours. Easy slabs. Much wondering. Mostly run-out. Forgettable. We got lost a few times.


Yellow cam in a hollow flake. No more protection on the pitch. Bomb-squad.

We carried on up the Squamish Buttress. I snaked the sharp end for the crux pitch. I huffed and puffed. I sent. The Buttress was the first big route I’d done in Squamish so what better way to herald in the end of the climbing season than with a re-send of my first route up the Chief?

Top of the Squamish Buttress

Top of the Squamish Buttress

From the top of the First Peak, I gazed over the Coastal Range, spying out the jet black knife-point of the Black Tusk off in the distance. It’s a nice little peak. I’d hiked it with my girlfriend earlier in the season. The Black Tusk is known as “T’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7eh” in Coastal Salish (but really, who can pronounce that?) meaning “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. Finding itself in plum position in the heart of the Garibaldi wilderness, it remains one of the more inspiring pieces of choss I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Artful contemplation...

Artful contemplation overlooking Squamish… #MYMERU


Ellie getting to know the meaning of the word “scree” on the Black Tusk, earlier in the summer.


Another panorama from the Black Tusk

5. The Squaw (Slhanay). 

We descended from the First Peak and looped round the back toward the Squaw. We weren’t running anymore. We traced along the base of the Second and Third Peak and around the Cirque of the Uncrackables Wall.

We decided against including the Cobra Crack into our link-up

We decided against including the Cobra Crack (5.14b) into our link-up

We arrived at the col between the Chief and the Squaw just as the sun was setting behind the Tantalus Range. The view was decent.

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

The Squaw was given its name by the first Western settlers – beer-swilling types who came to town with lumber on their minds and the displacement of others in their hearts. I guess they thought that the big granitic dome next to the Chief, rather resembled a devious wench chained to her master’s left-hand side. “Bit sexist,” the council later decided, so with the McKinley/Denali debate in mind, they picked a new First Nations name – “Slhanay”… which still ended up meaning the same thing – “woman”. Regardless, everyone still calls the Squaw, the Squaw.

Anyway, the final pitches up the Squaw were horrific – and not because the climbing was hard but because our bodies were wasted. She proved to be a bitch indeed. By the end, we were cruxing out on 5.7 lay-backing. Alex Honnold eat your heart out.

Tonight there was a lunar eclipse but the red moon was shielded from view by the looming walls to which we had chained ourselves. We still had a bit to go at around 10 o’clock. I was starting to feel less like Sisyphus and more like Tityos – the Greek giant who was chained to a rock to have his liver feasted on by a pair of vultures – big-wall climbers can probably relate. Down in town, our friends were watching us from Mag’s – two little pin-pricks of light, doddling up a rock in the dark.

We topped out, cheered some, wondered why we had just done what we had done and headed back down to the road, running the last few kilometres along the Mamquam FSR to the car. Ellie was waiting there with fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries and a large Coke to wash it all down. Then I went to bed.

Happy is a climber back on flat ground after 19hours of verticality.

Happy is a climber back on flat ground after 19hours of verticality.

The next day I posted a short excerpt about our climb on social media and then I wrote this blog post about it. And as the comments flowed in, I saw that #Meru and #TheNorthFace was still trending on “InstaTweetMyFaceGram” and people were hashtagging their adventures everywhere, all the time. As per usual. Which leads me to wonder if perhaps – despite all the theories about “deep play” and “Type III fun” – if perhaps climbing does have a “function” after all.

Cultural capital” (see Pierre Bourdieu). But that’s another blog post.


Mother of the Wind

We are homo sapiens – the tool users. We earn the name by developing tools to increase our leverage on the world around us, and with this increased technological leverage comes a growing sense of power. This position of advantage which protects us from wild nature we call Civilization. Our security increases as we apply more leverage, but along with it we notice a growing isolation from the earth. We crowd into cities which shut out the rhythms of the planet – daybreak, high tide, wispy cirrus high overhead yelling storm tomorrow, moonrise, Orion going south for the winter. Perceptions dull and we come to accept a blunting of feeling in the shadow of security. Drunk with power, I find that I am out of my senses. I, tool man, long for the immediacy of contact to brighten my senses again, to bring me nearer the world once more; in security I have forgotten how to dance.” – Yvon Chouinard, “Climbing Ice

Everything is quiet in my little glass box as it rises through the clouds. The rain has subsided. Only the mist – thick and grey – remains, clinging to the green hillsides. The leaves of the Douglas firs shiver, renewed and alive. I know the air outside is cold and wet but inside the gondola cart, the air is warm and dry. I am comfortable as I ferry a cartload of French fries from the base to the summit lodge.


The day grows older and the clouds begin to part, the first rays of sunlight piercing through the white. I return to the base again with a new shopping list. When I arrive back at the summit later in the afternoon there is a horde of tourists lined up in the cafeteria hall. They file along the bain-marie with the relentlessness of a factory assembly line. The cooks in their black uniforms pile mac and cheese, burgers, pork ribs and poutine onto freshly-wiped plastic trays. The horde moves on. They reach the till, they swipe their cards and with their trays overflowing, they move out onto the observation deck – a grazing ground with a view.

After eating, the iPhones and SLRs come out. Buttons are pressed, shutters flicker, high-powered lenses click into place. Here, as anywhere, it is not the view itself but the photo of the view which is important. It is not what the eyes have seen but what the wide-angle lens has captured. The panoramas, the selfies.  The view is what you pay for. The scene becomes pixels, memories reduced to data. Instagram snaps, Facebook profile pics – they’re all here waiting for you. Ride the gondola. Eat some food. Take some photos. Make some garbage.

Another busload arrives at the base and a conga-line of packed glass carts arrives at the summit. The daily cultural tour begins – a representative of the local First Nations arrives. With a crowd thronging around her, she gesticulates wildly at various points of interest. She’s wearing a feather in her hair. Designer sunglasses – made in Italy. North Face jacket – made in Vietnam.

“Natural medicines were sourced from plants in the woods around us,” she says. “The Squamish people never had need of a drug store.”

She points up at Skypilot, the rocky peak watching over the Shannan valley. She begins talking about it. Bare of snow and ice to keep it glued it together, Skypilot is crumbling beneath itself. The glacier which feeds Shannan creek is almost gone. Last winter was the driest on record. The falls have become a trickle. At the height of summer, the gondola was taking water from Shannan creek. An emergency agreement with First Nations and BC Parks. The toilets must keep flushing. The kitchen faucets must keep running. The customer does not like to go without.


Now the cultural tour is over. There are no more pictures left to take. What reason is there to linger? The horde begins to thin. No one takes the walking trail back to the base. That’s what the gondola is for.

Remaining at the summit, on the back end of the assembly line, I pile garbage onto a cart, prepping the detritus for downloading.

I board a glass cabin of my own. The doors close behind me. Everything is quiet again on the way back down. Below, the contours and colours of the landscape – the forested hills, the bulges of granitic mountaintops, the wide flat expanse of the Sound and the distant glaciers of the Coastal Range – meld one into the other: shades of green, of grey, of blue, of whitest white. To me, on the other side of the glass, the view may as well be a postcard – a messy watercolour of jumbled hues and shades. There is no texture, no depth of field, no ignition of the senses – just a scene.


I look to my right. It is the white of the mountains that arrests my attention more than any of the other colours. the far-off, the cold, the uninhabited. Inside my box, I feel a disconnect between me and the world outside. I am aware that a seaborne breeze is blowing hard against the cabin but I do not feel it cold and fresh and salty on my skin. I see the colours but I do not feel myself amongst them. I observe but I am not apart of.

High on the Chief, a day later, I slide my hand into a crack in the granite and flex my palm and thumb. My hand jams into place and I climb higher, hanging off skin and bone. I reach a small ledge. Two ring bolts and two hangers await me, affixed to the wall. I did not place these anchor bolts but I clip myself to them, trusting them implicitly, and belay my friends towards me. As I pull in the slack, I take in the granite walls around me, rising up on either side. I hear the rumbling of a truck in the distance and look over at the mine site across the way. The sound of exploding rock in the quarry. A copper mine. Sometimes I’ve wondered if the green deposits in the Sound are glacial or man-made.

Rowdy car horns are sounding on the highway below. A traffic jam has built up on the road back to Vancouver. A tugboat chugs down the fjord, dragging a bundle of wooden logs, bobbing side-by-side, through the water. Kitesurfers wallow about in the shallow water either side of the spit. A busy scene.

Squamish. An old logging town. An old mining town. An outdoors town. I hear the shouts of climbers elsewhere on the walls of the Chief. I pull in more slack and my friends climb higher towards me. Here I am, hanging from a pair of bolts that I did not place, climbing a granite big-wall with just four abseils between me and a supermarket. Somewhere below, a long-line helicopter waits dormant on a helipad – a search and rescue team always on standby. I am insured against calamity.

My friends arrive at the belay and we climb on, navigating the complex ridgeline of the Angel’s Crest – climbing toward the second summit. A gust of wind rustles through my hair as I traverse the razor-backed knife’s edge of the Acrophobes tower. I feel comfortable in my sticky rubber shoes and I remove one hand from the rock. I look down at the town again.

The Acrophobes, The Angel's Crest.

The Acrophobes, The Angel’s Crest.

Squamish. Skwxwú7mesh, in the Native tongue. When said aloud, it seems more a whisper than word. Whispered with the sighing of the wind through the spruce trees. Whispered by the last glimmer of the sun as it sets behind the Tantalus Range. Whispered by the waters of the Sound as they change from green to blue and from blue to ultramarine in the evening. It sounds old – primordial. Squamish. “The Mother of the wind”.

There was not always bolts on the Chief. There was not always the hustle and bustle of the town below. In earlier times, Squamish warriors would scale the low-angle faces of the Chief in barefeet and full battle garb to harden their minds and bodies. What must the fjord have looked like in those days? Before the copper mine? Before the pulp mill? before the golden arches next to Highway 99? Before the gondola? Before Man? What must this place have looked like?

The author high on the Chief (Photo: Pete Harris)

(Photo: Pete Harris)

Standing at the base of the Chief, in the climber’s campground, I look up at a prominent line of basalt – the Black Dyke – which snakes its way from sea level to summit. Squamish legend tells of a mythical serpent – Say-Noth-Ka – who, fleeing the might of a Native hero, slithered up the walls of the Chief, leaving this glistening path of geologic slime in its wake. Say-Noth-Ka fled across the landscape, carving out mountains and valleys and runnels for rivers and waterfalls. After hiding in the pools at the base of Shannan Falls, the warrior finally tracked Say-Noth-Ka down and slew the beast. Shannan Falls thus became a sacred site for the Squamish people. Today, with the glaciers bare and the rivers dry, the falls are reduced to a trickle. A line of bolts goes the whole way up the Black Dyke.

Down from the wall and back at work, I sit in my little glass cabin, moving French fries, once again, up through the mist. Working in logistics means keeping the summit fridge stocked. I arrive at the top. The crowds are thronging as usual – a camera lens between iris and panorama. There is the sound of French fries in the deep fryer, the chink of glasses at the bar, the rachet and jingle of the cash register as another North Face jacket goes into a shopping bag. The customer, his pockets a little lighter, his stomach a little fuller, steps outside into the mist. He rips the jacket from the shopping bag and pulls the new jacket around his shoulders. He struggles with the sleeves but then zips it up tight to the neck. The shopping bag and receipt goes straight into the garbage…

Eager are we to armour ourselves against Nature. So eager, in fact, that our armour has become inescapable. It has smothered us. It is only by breaking free from this armour, by leaving Civilisation behind us on the trail of the known and the comfortable, and by exposing ourselves, our whole selves, to Nature and her rawness, that the worth of Man can truly be found.

On the gondola ride back down, I gaze up at the mountains – Garibaldi and Atwell and the Coastal Range beyond – hanging white and wild and mighty. The Mother is calling me to be with her children amongst the tops.

At the Rubble Creek trailhead, I slide an ice axe into the straps of my backpack. I watch the sun rise over the Douglas Firs, and with my gear stripped down to the bare essentials – the minimum I need to survive – I shoulder my pack and walk into the wild.


The New West

Words by C August Elliott

Photos by John Price (check out more of his amazing photos here and here)

cave route

It is spring which means that winter is over and the ice is all gone. So you leave your settled life on the East Coast of Canada because even though you are comfortable and well-fed and happy enough I suppose (all things considered), you head west on the Great American Road Trip to live out of a van and go climbing and not eat as much as you did before, because travel is good for you and travel is about pushing beyond the frontiers with which you are familiar.

You don’t really know much about “the American West” other than what you know from people’s general soliloquizing and from the idea that America was born on its western frontier. So, because of its unknownness, you want to go discover what the West is all about. And someone told you that “the Wild West was only a construct anyway” which may be true but isn’t the same true of all ideas – including the names we give to the clusters of houses we call “cities” and the labels we give to the ultra-high points on the orogenic zones called “mountain ranges”. So you pay no attention to this “it’s only a construct” argument and you start driving – off in search of the Old West.

The big motorways running along the underside of the Great Lakes are four-lanes wide and pockmarked with the fast-food restaurants with which everybody is familiar and you stop for gas and then walk over to Dunkin’ Donuts™ because a two-donut and hot chocolate combo is only three dollars ninety-nine and because “America runs on Dunkin’™”.

You reach the end of New York state and look at Niagara Falls and look at the town surrounding Niagara Falls which is also called Niagara Falls and you look at the last of the remaining snow from winter, banked next to the footpath covered in the dirt kicked up from the wheels of a passing car. It is a grey, windy day and you stand on the footpath behind two barriers – because they erect a second barrier for the winter to keep people away from the dangers of Nature, because Nature is too dangerous to get too close to. And you look at the water falling off the edge of the cliff and you wonder what this place must have looked like when Jack London saw it and stared at it all night. And inside it makes you feel a little sad to be imagining what the thing used to looked like when you have the real thing in front of you.

So, with your hour-long visit complete, you walk away from the falls and walk back to your car and you can’t help but notice that the photos on the billboards next to the visitor’s center don’t show the buildings around the falls because nature photographers sometimes use deception when selecting the photo’s angle.

Then you drive through Ohio and Pennsylvania. And then you drive through Indiana where you learn from the billboards over the motorway that “Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior”. And then you pass through lower Illinois and it is still early spring so there is not much to look at as you drive down the motorway next to the stubbly wheatfields. And finally you reach St Louis and you cross the Mississippi and even though you marvel at the amazing bridge-like sculpture that they’ve constructed on the west side of the river, you wonder where are the steam boats that you think of when you think of Mark Twain and the Mississippi and the state of Missouri.

But then when you turn off towards Jefferson City, you are in Mark Twain country because there are rolling green hills and trees with pink flowers and there are towns with “Population 409” on the signposts which even though you know comes from the town’s last census, you can’t help but think that with a number so small and so specific someone must have gone and changed the sign from “Population 408” when such-and-such’s daughter had a baby. And there is the sound of a light drizzle on the tin roofs of the houses when you stop to sleep.

And the next day, you drive through Kansas and it is springtime so there is no corn to look at and you don’t see any tornadoes either which makes it seem like there is no such thing as Dorothy. But there is a Wendy’s. And as you drive between corn towns, the road is dead straight and on the left side in the distance you see a curtain – an actual curtain of falling rain – fluttering and shimmering and behind that there are darker clouds riven by intermittent lightning and on the right side of the road the sun is setting and rays of yellow-white light are piercing through a layer of clouds and resting on the roofs of the red farm houses. And you are driving between the storm on one side and the sunset on the other, toward the water tower in the distance.

And soon you will not be in Kansas anymore because you’ll be in Colorado. And then you cross the Colorado stateline and you’re in what you always thought was the “real” American West. But there is still McDonald’s and Steak ‘n’ Shake and Dunkin’ Donuts like in the other places. But you’re driving away from all that because you’re in search of the Old West and you’re quite sure that such a place still exists, just as the Old Elsewhere probably exists too if you’d bothered to stop and have a look, which you hadn’t because you were in a hurry like everybody else.

And the best thing about driving west is that at the end of every day you’re driving into the setting sun and you’ve seen the sun set over the Great Lakes, and the sun set over the Mississippi, and the sun set over Kansas, and the sun set over the Rockies and then finally when you arrive in the deserts of the New West, the sun setting over Utah. 11159996_10153278300206974_4280406062366980568_n

A lonely see-saw in the American West

A lonely see-saw in the American West (Elliott collection)

And you head straight for the Canyonlands and you pass through country that looks like it’s been transposed from a John Wayne movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel and your destination is Indian Creek where thousands of crack climbs split sandstone mesas for miles and miles either side of a lush belt of desert grasses and cottonwood trees where an old rancher herds cattle sometimes on horseback and sometimes in her four wheel drive.

And you climb there for weeks and weeks, jamming your hands into the cracks and placing cams above your head and taking big lunging whippers on the ropes you’ve bought with you. And at the end of every day you watch the sun setting over the North Six Shooter and the South Six Shooter and you can’t help but think how lucky you are that you – you of all people – are finally in the American West, climbing in the desert as one of the desert crack climbers which has been your dream for so long.

Moab - Red stone and Rednecks

Moab – Red stone and Rednecks.  (Photo) John Price Photography

The Cave Route (5.11)

The Cave Route (5.11).  (Photo) John Price Photography

Generic Crack (5.10-)

Generic Crack (5.10-). (Photo) John Price Photography

Supercrack (5.10), the first route climbed at Indian Creek

Supercrack (5.10), the first route climbed at Indian Creek. (Photo) John Price Photography

And last of all, you head into the Castle Valley to climb one of the classic desert towers and you follow a cracked, dry creekbed for many hours passing by wild desert flowers still blooming pink in the last few weeks of spring. And you ascend a steep moraine wall and reach the base of the tower you have come to climb and you begin climbing it. And you struggle up it – grunting, groaning, falling, resting, but climbing nonetheless. And then you reach the top and you can see all the other desert towers all around you – an impossible number of future objectives. And the Colorado River, winds its way, cold and brown and fast in the valley below. And you descend back to your car by the river and head back to town for an ice cream and a beer.

The Castle Valley

The Castle Valley. (Photo) John Price Photography

Larry Shiu and the author high on Sister Superior

Larry Shiu and the author high on Sister Superior (Photo) John Price Photography

Jah Man (5.10+), Sister Superior, Castle Valley

Jah Man (5.10+), Sister Superior, Castle Valley (Photo) John Price Photography

Larry Shiu descending from Jah Man

Larry Shiu descending from Jah Man. (Photo) John Price Photography

And you arrive back in Moab and you step out of your van and smell the desert air and you feel it hot against your skin and you feel like a cowboy getting off his horse next to the saloon and pulling his neckerchief from his mouth even though you’re not really a cowboy and you know it.

And you see across the street from you a police officer who is looking at you and your van. And you feel a little bit like an outlaw – because you’re a climber and he’s the Law and you’ve heard that the Law don’t much like the climbers because the climbers are a bit like Jack London’s “hoboes” or Jack Kerouac’s “beatniks” – poor and unemployed and free. But there’s nothing wrong with being an “outlaw” because being an outlaw is a bit different to being a criminal because criminals are nasty crime-doers and outlaws are just “outside of the law” and whose to say that the Law is always right? And the police officer (or the sheriff as you might call him) – he’s got a bag of food in his hand which says Dunkin’ Donuts™ on it.

And then you open the back doors of your van and look inside at your cams and karabiners and they are gleaming like stolen gold in the dying sunlight. And if the Utah desert was a veritable goldmine for a climber then you’ve cleaned the place out. And then you realize that the Old West still exists for anybody who might want it to. 11205109_759555617491119_2808043510074725849_n

Hajj Al-Sahara – A Ride on The Iron Ore Train of Zouerat

Some train journeys take place in rolling green countryside. Some trains have air-conditioning and some trains have snack carts. Some trains have seats and benches and bathrooms with toilets that flush. Some trains are smooth and fast and sterile, like space shuttles moving between orbital stations. The train I was on was nothing like that. I was in the middle of Mauritania on top of a freight train bucket cart piled high with iron ore.

Supine and covered in fine black dust, I gaze up at the night sky. Like every night I’d spent in the Sahara it is black and it is forever and it is filled with uncountable stars. My glimpse of purity is unimpeded by the contours of a landscape. The desert is dark and flat and silent and the train is long and noisy and dusty.

Encased, mummy-like, in my thin, discount-bin sleeping bag, I close my eyes. A gust of wind blows along the train, whipping spindrift off the iron mounds and I am blanketed in dust. I can taste the faintly ferrous texture of mineral grit between my teeth. No, I wasn’t travelling first class across the French countryside. But I was travelling for free. There are a lot of superlatives that can be said about the iron ore train of Zouerat. The longest train in the world on the longest railway in West Africa. The least clean train in the world. The cheapest train ride in the world. But with dust blowing in my face and the endless night above me and the empty desert all around me and the wheels of the carriage rattling and sparking beneath me, only one superlative comes to mind – this has to be the most adventurous train ride in the world.


I arrive in Choum, a railroad outpost at the heart of the Mauritanian desert, in the tray of a pickup truck. I’ve been travelling through the desert for almost a month now and a deep fatigue, a primal exhaustion the likes of which I’ve never experienced has begun to set in. In the last few weeks I’d slowly made my way across the Sahara by foot, by hoof and by wheel. On the horrendous bus rides between African capitals, I had been privy to more ear-splittingly loud African gangsta rap than I cared to remember. I haven’t showered in two weeks and I haven’t seen a Western toilet in six. My clothes are torn and filthy – the sleeves of my once-blue shirt are brown and the legs of my hiking pants are little more than an array of threads without patches.

The driver, a wiry Berber man in a tan-brown turban unloads my baggage and shakes my hand. He knows very little French and the Arabic (called “Hassaniya” here) he speaks is different to any of the Arabic I recognise. I look around at the tiny town – little more than an unpaved, sandy plaza girded by a few cuboid middens. I spy a railway track and the carapace of a decommissioned train carriage. Beyond that, there is only desert. Interesting spot. I look back at the driver and point at the ground.


He nods. “Choum.”

I shake his hand again and watch as he sidles back into the truck, revs the engine and speeds off across the sand. He’s in fifth gear by the time he’s spanned the railway track, and that is the last I see of him.

I return to my surroundings. Bienvenue à Choum. I’d read somewhere that Choum was the stepping off point for “the most adventurous train ride on Earth” and since riding in one of the iron-ore carriages was supposed to be free, it seemed like a logical way to cross the Western Sahara on a shoestring budget.

I walk across the dusty square to a small mudbrick building where everybody seems to be congregating. The word “restaurant” is written in Arabic on a placard out the front. A bowl of rice with a sloshing of brown sauce awaits me within. I hazard an attempt at speaking in my high-register Arabic to see if anybody knows what time the train will be coming. Just as English is the result of a tryst between the Germanic tongues and The Romance, Hassaniya is not so much a dialect of Arabic as it is a conglomerate of many Saharan languages with some loan words thrown in by the descendants of Mohammed. Being a linguistic universe away from the formal Arabic I learned in the classroom, I wonder if I’m the equivalent of a new arrival to a Western country trying out Shakespearean prose in the queue for a bus ticket.

Everybody seems to have a different opinion about the arrival time of the train. I take an average. If I’m at the train station before five o’clock I should be on time. But where do I board? Everybody seems to have a different answer for that too. I’d read somewhere that the train, depending on how much iron ore it is carrying can be up to three kilometres long, so I don’t want to ruin my chance at getting a free ride to Nouadhibou by waiting in the wrong place.

Presently, after a short game of mimes where I’m playing the part of a failed Arabic linguist, an old man comes along and speaks to me in what seems like perfect Parisian French. I learn that the tiny shelter-like structure which serves as the train station is three kilometres east of town and up-track, just “au-delà des arbres”… “beyond the trees”.

I shoulder my bags and begin walking down the railway tracks to the little building in the distance. I pass a small hut where a gendarme sits with his Kalashnikov in his lap, smoking reds. Behind him, his friend is asleep on a small cot. He asks for my passport and I hand him a photocopy. He nods and I continue on my way. I can’t help but notice there are no radio antennae exuding from their little outpost, unlike the others I’d seen. I suppose their commanders in Nouakchott weren’t very interested in what was happening in Choum.

As a country built by the descendants of Bedouin who had wandered in from as far as Arabia, Mauritania today resembles not so much a “state” but a “confederacy” – a group of tribes who got together for the sole purpose of agreeing on a name for the desert in which they dwelt. On paper there is a small country called Mauritania in Northwest Africa. But in the real world, though the government had recently made the notable decision to become the last on earth to abolish slavery, Mauritania is anything but a centrally-governed country.

Ruling from Nouakchott, a city which in itself has been described as an exercise in “capital-building nomad style”, the government seems to have very little actual interest in what is happening in the desert. The police, the military and the gendarmerie had all formed their own little mini-tribes out here. They formed just another clan in the confederacy – the Ouled Militaire.

Despite this, in piecing together just the bare essentials of a state, Mauritania had succeeded in its search for peace – an island of security compared to the Nietzchean tragedy playing out elsewhere in the Sahara.

A Typical Gendarmerie Outpost in Mauritania

A Typical Gendarmerie Outpost in Mauritania

I arrive at the little shelter where I meet Saidou, Alioune and Moustapha – three Reguibat fellows from the Adrar on their way to Nouadhibou by the Atlantic. In the late-afternoon shade, they sit around brewing sweet yellow tea (the traditional way, over coals) as they hum to Phil Collins swooning from the speakers of an MP3 player. The coals are glowing red as the song reaches its crescendo.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” Monsieur Collins is singing. Drumbeat. The pot boils. Tea’s ready.

I am invited to sit with them and they pour me a glass and we chat in French about our favourite music. It seems that the lads are fans of the classic sounds of Francis Cabrel and Rod Stewart. And Phil Collins is their favourite.

The Railway

The Railway “Station”

Everywhere across the Sahara, I am met by these fusions of two worlds – the Western with the Islamic; the Old with the New; traditional society with encroaching modernity. I’ve met goatherds with smartphones; tribesmen who’ve visited Paris; imams in Real Madrid jerseys. The anthropologist Ines Kohl writes that the Tuareg often refer to their Toyota pickup trucks as “alam n japon” – “Japanese camel”. This 80s-pop-rock-themed nomadic tea party is just another snapshot of the truly global village that is the Sahara.

Indeed, it is in the very existence of tea here, that we can see globalisation at work throughout Mauritania’s history. In the 15th century, tea came from China in the cargo holds of the Portuguese fleet. The mint came from Morocco and the sugar from Senegal. The objects of the tea-making ritual – the tiny glasses, the teapot, the pyx in which the sugar is kept are all venerated and are all foreign. Everything about mint tea, a centrepiece of Mauritanian society, is imported. But all the same it has been indigenized, such that the Mauritanians have made tea and its cultural meaning their own.

A cloud of dust appears on the horizon, followed by the serpentine form of a diesel-powered train. It approaches quickly and the lads reach for their smartphones to snap a few pictures. The conductor is hanging half out the window as he rolls past, heralded by the hiss of pistons and the screech of scrap-iron. The bucket carts trail behind, slag-heap upon slag-heap. The train shows no sign of slowing. I shoulder my bags as the carriages roll by. Hundreds of them. In the time it takes to see the back of the train I could have savoured another glass of tea.

Finally, with the sun dropping lower in the sky, the train comes to a stop, all three kilometres of it. People start running, frantically shouldering big sacs of food aid and scrabbling for prime position in the passenger carriage. The passenger carriage – where the luxury traveller can scrabble for a bench – costs about $9 but we’re travelling for free.

The train arrives in Choum

The train arrives in Choum

Arrival in Choum-3 Arrival in Choum-2

I’d read of travelling in the ore cars that they were dusty “on the way into the interior” and “impossibly dusty on top of the ore heading to the coast”. As we sprinted along the tracks looking for a vacant cart, the shapes of soot-clad riders were profiled against the sky, kings of their castles, staking claim to their own little black mound.

We find a free cart and clamber aboard. The train begins to move and we carve out foxholes for ourselves amongst the ore. We pass a chain of sun-baked mountains on our left. Shrouded by dust coughed up from the parched earth, the sun appears not as an orb but as an expanse of brilliant light. Sunset happens in hues of orange and white, hovering over the mountains for a moment, before sliding below the horizon, leaving behind the purple night. Moustapha, headphones-on-turban, lights up a cigarette.

Bound for the Atlantic!

Bound for the Atlantic!

Mustapha smoking reds

Mustapha smoking reds

Sunset from a bucket cart

Sunset from a bucket cart

With the going down of the sun, Saidou and Alioune unroll a little prayer rug, and, sharing half each, they inch in close to conduct their maghrib (evening) prayers. I look to my left towards the mountains where the sun disappeared. Soused now in the cool darkness, the earth and its inhabitants, have finally found reprieve from the burning heat of day. I give thanks for this as I reach for my water bottle. The intonations in Saidou and Alioune’s prayer give thanks for this too.

Of course, Islam cannot be thought of in isolation to the stark and inhospitable desert from which it sprang. Indeed, as the geographer William Norton reminds us Mecca itself was once but a lone, alkaline well amongst barren mountains. Even in the pages of the Qur’an we see not only an image of Mohammed the Prophet but also of Mohammed the Bedouin – the mirage as the faith of the unbelievers; the rain as a reward for Submission to His Will and thirst as His Reckoning. And finally, there is Allah himself, seated on the throne of the universe as the cameleer at the head of his caravan. The essence of the desert is travel because to linger in one place for too long is to die. Thus, the essence of Islam is also that of travel – a religion for the eternal pilgrim, ever on the road, ever on his hajj to Mecca.

At some point near midnight, we pass by the lights of a rail-side resthouse. A pair of bleary-eyed Mauritanians board the bucket cart behind us and dig out their sleeping spaces beneath the light of a lantern. The A-carriage is changed, and the train, with a new engine and driver ploughs on. Wearing all my clothes and with my face tightly wrapped in an indigo turban, I roll over and shiver in the nighttime chill. Beneath a layer of black silt, I sleep very little.

Dawn breaks in colours of pink and I emerge from my foxhole. I take a #selfie, and, after reviewing it, realise that I am covered head to toe in black soot.

#Selfie #Mauritania

#Selfie #Mauritania

Saidou and Mustapha after a dusty night

Saidou and Mustapha after a dusty night

The train veers left and passes between two tall sand dunes and then, with neither pomp nor warning, the ocean reveals itself before us – my first view of the Atlantic. I feel like Xenophon emerging from the deserts of Persia, gazing upon salvation in the blue beyond.

Thalassa, thalassa. The sea, the sea. It was Xenophon who said that right? I’m sure it wasn’t Phil Collins.

Later, on the shores of the Cap de Beguin, I gaze out at a graveyard for abandoned ships, hundreds of them dragged up on the beach. From the different makes and sizes, the ships had been sailed from all around the world to be disposed of in the nautical grey area that is Mauritania. Their rusty hulls are illuminated by the early morning light, shades of russet brown against the white sand. I wonder what this beach would have looked like in an age before fraudulent insurance claims. I look across the bay as the sandcastle wall of a crumbling cliff falls into the sea. This was the end point of my desert journey. My own little hajj. My hajj al-Sahara.

The train turns south towards Nouadhibou

The train turns south towards Nouadhibou

The essence of the desert is travel

The essence of the desert is travel

For your own Hajj Al-Sahara on the iron ore train:

Train Information: The iron ore train runs from the mines at Zouerat to Nouadhibou on Mauritania’s Atlantic coast and stops in Choum where all desert travellers should get on and off.

Getting There: From Atar, after you’ve been on your camel ride through the Adrar desert, reserve a spot in a vehicle travelling to Choum (minibuses and 4WDs are available. From experience, don’t travel in the tray).

Departure Times: For west-bound travellers heading to the coast, the train leaves Zouerat at noon and stops in Choum at about 5pm. For those on their way into the desert, the train leaves Nouadhibou at around 2pm for a journey of around 12 hours.

Onward Travel: Onward connections to Atar and Chinguetti are available in Choum’s main plaza. From any of the local garages in Nouadhibou you can take a bush taxi across the Moroccan border to Dakhla.

Seating Arrangements: A bench in the passenger carriage is UM2500 (about US$9). “Berths” are also available for UM3000. Or, you can ride in the ore carriage for free!  

Hajj Al-Sahara – Prison

The door was a rectangle of solid ironwork and it bore a big, heavy lock. I suppose alot of doors to prison cells look like this. The lock itself was a rusty crossbar. Most locks are designed to keep people out. This one was designed to keep me in.

The peephole at headheight was covered by another bar of metal, bolted in place. It didn’t seem like it was designed to open, so I figured no one would be checking in to see how I was doing. By the time I got to the point of madly shouting out for attention the guards would be long past the point of ignoring me.

On the wall adjacent, stretching roof-to-floor, “MNLA” had been graffitied in big, black, block letters. The passing braggadocio of a since-vanquished victor.

As he unlatched the lock and motioned me through the open doorway, the guard, thin and hungry-looking, said nothing. I asked him how long I’d be confined for. No response. How long would it be before I was able to see someone from the embassy. Nothing.

I stepped past him.The room on the other side of the threshold was colder than the room behind me. Bare. There was nothing in there. No basin, no mattress, no prison library brimming with the well-thumbed pages of Penguin classics. I mean, I wasn’t expecting a copy of a Dostoyevsky novel, but I figured they might have a Qur’an or something in there.

The room was a four-walled cell with a thin film of red dust coating the once-white tiled floor. An adjoining “douche” sported not a shower but a squat toilet, the shit-hole sealed over by a plank of wood. I had nothing with me. No belt, no shoes, no book to read – not even a filthy mattress to sleep on. At once the freedom of the traveller on the road had been replaced by the inertia of the prisoner, my liberty reduced to the circular pacings of my three-by-three room. A choice between sulking in the corner of my bare-floored cell and looking out on the world from the ledge of the iron-barred window.

I was suddenly aware of an inherent falsehood in the old cliché “when one door closes another one opens”. There were no magically-opening doors awaiting me in here. No biblical Paradise. The man ushering me through the doorway was too ugly to be an angel. And even if he was some kind of desert mala’ikah then where was the garden full of houris?

Armstrong-like, with just a few short steps I had made the transition into a new and alien world. With it my horizons had been infinitely broadened, delimited only by the boundaries of these four corners. I had made the transition from the World of the Free Man to the World of the Prisoner. And, in making the transition finite, it was less in the clanging shut of the door behind me but in the act of walking (of my own volition) into the cell that this realisation really hit me. The self-propulsion of my own legs had carried me into captivity. That’s irony I suppose.


In the days following my solo on the North Pillar I chat, natter and relax with the locals in Garmi. All of them have become close friends. There is Amadou, my trekking guide and water-boy. There is Sooleiman, my cook. There is Idrissa, Mohammed and Ibrahim. Then there are the endless hordes of children – boys and girls alike – begging for me to take their picture (see video).  They waft in and out of my small mud hut, rifling through my belongings. I count the hours in the shade with Sooleiman and Amadou, and at the base of the bed we brew sweet yellow tea.


Enjoying my first reprieve of shade and water. Noon after returning from my climb

Children in the village of Garmi

Children in the village of Garmi

I’ve spent a week in the massif now and though I wish I could stay longer I know that it will soon be time to go. I have two countries, a disputed region and the world’s largest desert to cross. I’m supposed to be in Casablanca in three weeks. It is late afternoon on New Year’s Day (my birthday) and by the time I return with Amadou from Kaga Tondo I know for sure that I am going to miss my deadline.

Sooleiman is ecstatic to have me. His meals are simple – “riz avec des condiments” – but he cooks with passion, sitting on his haunches in the corner of the room, fastidiously tending a fire lit from animal dung. Today, my birthday and the day of my return from the mountain, he has killed a chicken to go with the rice. With wide eyes, he watches me take a spoonful and place it in my mouth. He doesn’t hold his breath but his eagerness to please is uncomfortable. It has been three years since the last group of foreigners passed through Garmi.

“Before la crise,” he says. “Many climbers came here. But you are the first to climb for many years.” He pauses for a moment. “And we would like to erect something in your honour.”

I ponder this a moment, disturbed. Garmi is a fascinating place, but Sooleiman’s words show a darker truth of modern life in rural Africa. The growing embryo of “liberal development” mean Garmi now has a well, a school and hither-scattered signs listing all the things that USAID has given to the village.

The flocks of nomads from elsewhere graze what little grass grows near Garmi because development has given the villagers books and the French language and what need is there for tending to the flock when there is a whole “national economy” awaiting? Sooleiman’s dream is to run an “auberge” – a guesthouse for passing Western travellers treading lightly across West Africa. There are no Western travellers passing by Garmi anymore.

On the other side of the mountain, Daari (the start point of my village-to-village traverse of the massif), in the shadow of Kaga Tondo, lies in the shadow of inexorable development. There is no school. There is no French language. There is only the village. And life in the village. They do not prosper in the harsh Sahelian desert but they do not go hungry either.

The village of Garmi from the Kaga Pomori col

The village of Garmi from the Kaga Pomori col

As the urban core grows, like an “embryo of good”, the periphery is transformed. We are told that the meaning of “education” is “emancipation”. But with education, conversations of “daily subsistence” fall by the wayside and cash not goat’s milk becomes the currency of the day. After the djihadiste advance in 2012, Mali’s tourist economy collapsed. Sooleiman and Amadou left their village and sought out the fabulous wealth of mythical Bamako. They found nothing there but abject poverty. And now, back in Garmi with neither the promised riches nor the know-how to tend the flock they had waited for a white man to come along with fistfuls of tourist dollars and change things.

Plastic slippers donated by various aid group make for soccer boots in Garmi

Plastic slippers donated by various aid group make for soccer boots in Garmi

In orange - Gourou Abu Amadou (Amadou's father), chief of the village of Garmi

In orange – Gourou Abu Amadou (Amadou’s father), chief of the village of Garmi

In the way that he spoke to me, it seemed that Sooleiman saw me as a person who could drastically change his circumstances. I knew he was serious when he talked about erecting a statue – and it concerned me. It seemed that in some way or another, European colonialism’s parting gift to Africa was to leave behind a discourse that despite the ruinous civil war that would engulf the continent, personal contact with someone like me was the same as a ticket out.

Or as Amadou had put it: “quand nous voyons un blanc, c’est comme l’or.” “When we see a white, it’s like gold.”

To Amadou and Sooleiman, our relationship represented an opportunity for wealth, an opportunity for a visa maybe. In many ways, the reality of the global economy and the emancipatory discourse of development had created this relationship. “Development” engulfs, like a red dwarf, all bodies that orbit it, and once it implodes, those same bodies, transformed, are sucked down, down into the black hole that remains. The black hole at the core.

A week in the massif had left with me an overwhelming sense of the grim. But with only two days left, I set off with Amadou to scout out some more climbing possibilities. In the late afternoon, we sit on the rooftop of the encampement détruit in Daari, scoping lines, plotting a skyline traverse of the massif.

A trail of dust appears on the horizon. A black ute, printed with white letters bounces down the highway. It veers right off the road, trundles through the village and pulls up at the moraine wall below the base of Kaga Tondo. A man in a black, collared shirt and a woman step out, followed by a young boy and an older man in a white boubou.

Curious, we observe these newcomers, and then, identifying the man in the white boubou, Amadou tells me that he is the mayor of Hombori. The boubou belongs to Amadou and the mayor had stolen it from him. He recounts this tale as if it was normal to have your possessions taken from you by local officials.

The man in the black-collared shirt was the commander of the local gendarmerie, Amadou explained. No one seemed to know much about him except that he was a Bembera bus-in from Bamako.

The mayor approaches Amadou smiling. “I did not know you had a white here,” he says. He offers a hand and Amadou takes it. They begin speaking in rapid Fulani. The mayor scrutinises me as they speak. I wonder if there is a “guichet automatique” sign above my head and sit in silence on the rooftop.

The man in the black-collared shirt approaches Amadou. “C’est qui?” he demands, pointing a me.

“Un canadien.”

“Est-ce qu’il parle français?”

“Yes I speak French,” I intervene with a broad smile.

“Come here.” His tone is severe, officious.

I descend the creaky, mud-steps from the rooftop terrace and stand before him.

“Comment allez-vous monsieur?” he says to me. He emphasises the “vous”. Formal French.

“I’m alright thank you.”

“Je suis la commandante de la gendermarie nationale à Hombori,” he says to me. He introduces himself with the frank self-adulation of words on a business card.

Enchanté.” I smile. I offer my hand. He doesn’t shake it. I want this conversation to be over quickly.

“Do you have authorisation to be here?” he asks me.

I nod. I reach into my pocket for my passport and hand it to him with the visa page already open.

Like Wangel Debridu behind him, the commandant stands embossed by the setting sun, rays of light making fine particles of dust dance across his epaulets. Bureaucracy in silhouette, he flicks through the passport pages.

Wangel Debridu, encircled by light from the setting sun

Wangel Debridu

He looks at me. “You must come with me. You are here illegally,” he says simply.

I point him to the page with the Malian visa affixed, stamped by the border police at BKO-Sénou International Airport.

He shakes his head. “Je suis le chef de la poste à Hombori,” he reiterates in case I missed it the first time. All pfiefs demand obsequiences from time to time. He pulls a government-issued ID card from a tatty old wallet to underscore his point. “You will come with me to the post now. Where you will be charged and prosecuted.”

We are herded into the utility tray of his vehicle. Disturbed, I cast a look at Amadou. On the surface he seems unphased.

He shrugs. “Aller-retour,” he assures me. “We will go and then we will come back.”

A cowboy sunset hangs in the west behind the Hand of Fatima as we speed towards Hombori. Aggressive behind the wheel, the gendarme with the mayor, his wife, child and us in tow, hits every speed bump and pothole along the road.

Hombori is a nothing town in the middle of nowhere. At last light, as we approach the brigade post, a draft of wind blows red dust across the road. A duststorm gathers in the distance and the Wild West colours splashed across the sky are choked by a Martian smog.

The gendarmerie often show up to spoil people's day

The gendarmerie often show up to spoil people’s day

The Hand of Fatima massif backlit by the setting sun as we sped toward Hombori

The Hand of Fatima massif backlit by the setting sun as we sped toward Hombori

The commandant pulls up in front of the building, a small desert fort backing onto a plain of dessicated grasses and thorn trees. He leads me and Amadou inside and we follow him down a darkened corridor into an office marked “CB” (chef de la brigade).

He switches a light on in the office and we are sat down. He is God in Hombori, he explains to me. It is illegal for me to be here without him knowing. I humour him for a time, trying the age-old ego-stroking method of escape. He explains to me that the threat of kidnapping is so high that only he can guarantee my safety and that if I had come here on the first day in the area and paid for an armed military escort (the gendarmerie doubled as freelancers it seemed) than my presence would have been legally permissible. None of the soldiers manning dozens of road blocks on the way into Hombori had explained this to me as they checked my passport, of course.

“How much would the escort have cost me?” I asked the commandant.

“Six hundred Euros,” he said matter-of-factly.

“And since I didn’t request one you say I didn’t have your permission to be here?”


“And this is a crime?”

Presque un crime,” he said, emphasising the “almost” part. He was an important guy – the commandant of an African police force at a remote desert outpost. Holding an office like that, it would be too much to grapple with the ins and outs of silly things like “what did and didn’t constitute a crime”.

I asked him how I would be punished. Lady Justice had offered me two options. I could pay a sum he referred to as “la defence” or I would be put in prison.

“How much for la defence?”

“Six hundred Euros.” There was a certain congruity in the figures he was quoting me. I wondered what his kid wanted for Eid.

I didn’t have that kind of cash and the closest ATM was in Bamako where I certainly couldn’t go (lest I be able to fact-check the offence he alleged I had committed) so he told me I would be put in prison instead. But first, I would have to “confess”.

I am sat down in a four-walled room with a tiny square window looking out on the red beyond. A gendarme is seated opposite me. He is junior to the commandant, but older than him. My interrogator.

“Vous êtes un tourist?”


“Service militaire?”

“Non.” Not necessarily true but my response was a reflex and the question wasn’t relevant.

“Why are you here?”

“To climb the hand of Fatima.”

“Why are you in Mali without authorisation?”

“I have authorisation… I have a visa.”

“A visa does not give you permission to be in the country of Mali.”

I was confused now. A second man entered the room. He was to be my English translator for the confession statement I was about to make. I read French fine and of course, the English translator explained who he was in French. He said a few broken phrases in English to me about how I had committed a crime until we both silently acknowledged that his English was terrible and we switched back to French.

The first gendarme continued. “So you admit that you have done something wrong then?”

“I don’t think I understand,” I told him. “I have a visa. This is enough to be here in Mali. If you want to go to my country, Canada, all you need to do is apply for a visa from the embassy then you can visit Canada.”
“No,” the gendarme shook his head. “This is not how it works in Canada.”

“Have you been to Canada?”


“So then how would you know?”

He pondered on this for a moment considering how and if he might know the details of Canadian immigration procedures. Then, still impervious to my bullets of logic he deflected and began firing back his own hollow-points.

“You are a spy aren’t you?” he said. Deadpan. Frankly, you had to admire him for his bluntness.

“No. I am a student and a climber.”

“How can you prove to us that you are not a spy?” intervened the “English translator” in French.

In the Gun-Toting Gendarme’s Court of Hombori, it seemed, the onus of proof was on the suspect. More to the point, there was a bona fide miscarriage of logic going on around here. How could I prove that I wasn’t something which I was not? It was like disproving the existence of God. Logically, you can’t do it – because in order to prove that something isn’t (as in “God isn’t real”) you have to know everything that is.

I could show them my student ID cards or the remnants of my climbing equipment post-Kaga to show that I was both an anthropology post-grad and an expedition big-wall climber but would that be enough to prove that I wasn’t a spy? Even I couldn’t possibly know everything about myself. Who knows… I could be a whole number of things of which I was not aware – a doomed man hiding an insidious brain tumour; a child of adoption who was actually half-Mohawk; a deluded egotist masquerading as a traveller of the world.  To my knowledge however, I wasn’t in Mali spying for anybody.

It felt like a very philosophical question, one which I doubted they were capable of grappling with. So I showed them my student ID card and my membership card to the ANU Mountaineering Club and left it at that. The questions didn’t end there.

“You are a djihadiste aren’t you?” Was the next of the gendarme’s Sherlock Holmesian questions.


“Are you are here because you have been invited to fight in the djihad?”


I signed some statement, after correcting a few of the words he had written down as if they had come from my mouth.

The commandant burst into the room. “Maintenant,” he said. “Je vais te boucler.” He pulled a set of keys from the table. Being told that you are to be “bouclé” literally means you’re about to be “buckled and chained” which in a medieval or Alexandre Dumas novel kind-of-way seems a lot more severe then simply being “put in jail”.

“When will I be able to face la justice?” I ask, wondering if there was such thing as a magistrate around here.

Bientôt,” is his cryptic, creepy reply. They take my belt, my shoes and my wallet from me. I am led to my cell.

Now, bewildered and alone in my new-found accommodation, I pondered my predicament. I had come here driven by some soteriological fascination with the sandstone fingers of a rock massif called the Hand of Fatima. I had come here in search of the sanctity of space, desert sunsets and stark and empty skies. The freedom of the open air. I looked around at the irony I had found instead.

A pair of finches flitted in and out of the window grate. Just as I had been imprisoned below the crux pitch of the North Pillar looking up at the birds surfing the gusts of wind, I now watched these finches, moving between my depressing wold within and the free world without. For a bird, I mused, a prison is but a perch, and a cliff but a cradle. I empathised with the birdman of Alcatraz.

With my bare toes I swept a little sleeping space in the red dust and lay down on my back, hands behind my head. The ground was cold and hard against my shoulder-blades. Time passed and with it, the sure knowledge of Amadou’s promise that we would be let go today.

I turned onto my side, my spine curving awkwardly as I jostled at once with my head on my hands and then with my bony hip on the hard floor. I felt something pinch into my right side. I reach down and felt a coin, tucked into the small watch pocket that sits zipped and stitched into the main pocket of my trekking pants. A twenty riyal coin, minted in Sana’a. A circle of gold-coloured metal girded by a ring of silver. The tails side is the number twenty in Arabic numerals and the heads side is a Soqotri dragon’s blood tree. Just two weeks after leaving Soqotra, I suddenly felt an overwhelming nostalgia for it. The “why” was self-evident.

I had nothing to do so I flipped it, asking the coin questions as a child does of those magic 8 balls. Heads was “yes”. Tails was “no”.

“Will I get out of here tomorrow?” Tails.

Fuck. Alright let’s try that again but word it differently. “Here” must have been “Mali”? And I wouldn’t be leaving Mali for another week.

“Will I get out of prison tomorrow?” Tails.


“Will I get out of this cell by next week?” Tails.

I sighed. Alright let’s change things up a bit. Tails was “yes”. Heads was “no”.

“Will I ever get out of here?” Heads.

I’d had enough of flip-the-coin for now and I put it back in my pocket. The light went out and I was swathed in darkness. I rolled over and went to sleep.

I awoke, stomach down on the floor of my cell, and gazed out the window again. Dust filled the air – a thick and total cloud replacing the clear blue skies of yesterweeks with a drab and pale brown. The morning sun was a dull lightbulb, a sullen white circle suspended amidst the haze. With the dregs of some far-off harmattan choking the air, today would not have been a climbing day anyway but with no means to escape my earthly prison and no rays of warmth and light to brighten the morning, a sunless sense of the grim hung in the air.

I stood up again and moved over to the sill. I looked out. A nomad passed with his flock of goats, texting on his phone. Often, I had found something wholly frustrating in observing someone owning and using a mobile phone while one’s children wafted around fallow grazing grounds with swollen bellies (a tragic phenomenon worthy of a structure-versus-agency debate). But now this young nineteen year-old goatherd was my best friend.

I waved him over. Curious, at the pair of hands reaching through the metal grate he placed his cell phone in the pocket of his boubou and approached the window. “I will give you ten-thousand francs if you can call the Canadian embassy and tell them I am in here,” I said. He nodded and asked a few more questions. I gave him my details and he left.

A short time later, the commandant returns to my cell, berates me about “having spoken to Bamako” and then orders me to return with an armed escort to Garmi where I will pick up all my belongings and return to prison.

They place a pair of leg chains on me and I am led out to the ute. We return to Garmi, me, in my chains, giving the road directions to the driver. We collect my belongings and while the commandant spends a bit of time berating some of the villagers that were “harbouring me”, I snap a few photos, hide my camera and I am back in my cell and without any shoes or belt within the hour. Alone again. Alone and afraid.

In the back of the ute after collecting my bags

In the back of the ute after collecting my bags



The hours pass with no sign of clearing skies. The sun had gone. Dust blew across the yard. Wind scoured the dead earth. The ground under-gust seemed not to care. Submission. Giving up seemed inevitable here. Man is a social animal and alone in my cage I was neither social nor animal. I was a solitary life form without company. With every metre gained on Kaga Tondo I had felt myself leaving the world of Man but fingering the gossamer hem of a new state of consciousness. But here, in solitary confinement, though aware that I was still alive, beyond the confines of my mind I was aware only of a world outside of which I was no longer apart. I was a vegetable in suspended animation. Loneliness is a dark place to exist. Solitary confinement is torture.

By late afternoon, without any contact since our little ballad around the village, I hear the latch unlock. I stood up, walked over to the door and waited next to it, like a dog excited to see its owner. The door opened and I saw the hungry guard again, his head poking through the doorway. I tried to say something to him but he simply placed a bottle of water beside me and some food and then shut it again, saying nothing. I heard the latch lock again.

Alone once more, I looked down at my supper. There was nothing to go with the rice – just plain white grains, cooked into a mushy conglomerate with no sauce.

The sky darkened. The sun did not set because today the sun had never come. There were no lights in my cell tonight. I didn’t bother shouting out for an answer why – an answer would not be given. I roll over in the dust, and make another attempt at sleep. The desert night is a cold one and I shiver on the hard floor.

At ten p.m, the cell door swings open and the light from my headtorch shines through. I place my hand over my eyes as I adjust to the bright light shining in my face. The commandant has been going through my possessions it seems.

“What are you doing?” he says to me. “Don’t you want to leave?”

I stand up and follow him out the door, still shivering.

He sits me down in his office and explains to me what has happened. “The chief of the djihadiste rebels has called me,” he says. “I don’t know how he got my number but he has called me and asked about you.”

It was all becoming a bit surreal and farcical, like the first draft of a divine comedy that’s missing a few key pages. But then again… I’m sure that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, currently on the run from French special forces in the Algerian desert, had every reason to be on a mobile phone talking to a low-level police commander in Hombori.

“He asked if you were here,” he tells me.

I play along. “You didn’t tell him where I was did you?”

“No of course not,” he says. “But I called my superior and they informed me that we must get you out of here tonight, away from la zone d’urgence.”

I nod, feigning gratitude.

“You are to leave now, clandestinement,” he continues.

Another man enters the room – the same thin and hungry-looking guard that had led me to my cell the day previous. He is standing there in a big trench-coat, sunglasses-at-night, like some starved, schlock, Third World rendering of Morpheus from The Matrix.

The commandant introduces us. “This man will escort you back to Mopti. He will travel undercover with you and shoot anyone who tries to kidnap you.” He reaches for his desk drawer again and procures a pistol holster – the leather concealable kind worn by the protagonist of a detective show.

He hands it to Morpheus. An hour and a hundred Euros later (“for your food and lodgings”) the guard and I sit together on a bus headed back to Mopti. The commandant’s attempt at saving face in the midst of obvious pressure from above had been pathetic. But I had humoured him as a serf does his pfief and it had worked. I was out. The bus ride back to Bamako would be a long one, as it had been on the way out.

Half an hour later, as the bus passed by the massif, I peer out the window at Fatima and her hand for what I know will be the last time, the five fingers of rock a perfectly dark silhouette – blacker than the black sky. An alpenglow des ombres – what Herzog, gazing up at the nighttime skyline of the Gasherbrum range, called “der leuchtende berg” – the dark glow of the mountains.

Living up to the khamsa‘s reputation as protection against the evil eye, the Hand of Fatima had let me in, showed me her world, and then spared me from it. I’d survived the climb and a stint in prison and now I was off across the Sahara. When I left Mali, I heard that Amadou had been put in prison for not paying some bribe to the commandant to work as a tourist guide in the area. I have no way to contact him and so I have no idea if he is still in there. Voila, l’Afrique.

Amadou, above the access gully to the Hand of Fatima plateau

* Amadou, above the access gully to the Hand of Fatima plateau

The Hand of Fatima, throwing a protective blank of shadow over Daari

The Hand of Fatima, throwing a protective blank of shadow over Daari

The Hand of Fatima massif

The Hand of Fatima massif

Hajj Al-Sahara (Video)

Check this video I put together of a recent trip to Africa. Featuring my solo climb of the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo in the Hand of Fatima massif and my subsequent crossing of the Sahara by foot, camel, back of a 4WD ute and in the mineral carriage of an iron-ore train. More about the rest of the trip incoming. Stay tuned.