Hajj Al-Sahara – The Hand of Fatima

Sunburnt, thirsty and four pitches from the summit of Kaga Tondo, I look up at the blank wall above me and despair. I have been climbing for the better part of two days now, a cumulative total of one thousand metres of rope-soloing and jumaring in the burning heat of the Malian desert.
Even in the shade, the temperature is thirty-five degrees. Beyond on either side, the sun blasts the rock like sculptures in the kiln. My roasted nape is hot and blistered, the once-pink flesh transformed from medium-rare to a dark and well-done.
Without let, the climbing has been sustained and constant – dead vertical to overhanging – and now, just shy of the top, I wonder if I can really do this. I am four-hundred and fifty-metres up the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo, the index finger of the Hand of Fatima massif, the tallest standalone sandstone rock tower on the planet.
Perched upon “La Brèche“, a five-metre by two-metre platform between a free-standing gendarme and Kaga’s summit headwall, I am utterly spent and all alone. Maybe out of my depth.
The next pitch is the hardest pitch of the entire route. At 6a+ in the jargon of the French rating system it is not particularly difficult for me when climbing out of the car – but now, severely dehydrated with spasming muscles, it seems impossible.
The rock is sleek and mostly featureless – the good holds separated by sections of run-out traversing blankness. Nigh-on impossible to protect a fall save for a few tiny horizontal breaks and a single rusty piton, hammered in-situ. The crux of the pitch, the most difficult section, will bring me up eight metres above the ledge without a single piece of protection (enough to break my legs in a fall) and then left and out above the void. Nothing below me but a sickening drop – half a kilometre, uninterrupted to the ground.
After two days in the heat with the bare minimum in water, I am approaching the margins of control. My arms are spent. My brain is fried. Of the six litres I had started with, I’ve now only eight sips left. Eight sips. That’s it. Two sips per pitch to get me to the summit and the thirsty bivy that awaits. Nothing for the descent.
The descent… the descent.
Fully-committed now, I dream of that fucking descent. Down the West Face, accessible only by the summit. A summit that is reached by traversing across and up the blank headwall above me. Do or die.
 They call this pitch “La Voie Pujos“. Named for French mountain guide Alain Pujos – one of the massif’s early explorers. According to the history books, Pujos was a talented climber – among the best of his day. And yet. And yet, one sunny February day, after setting out to free-solo the shady North Face of Mt Hombori, Pujos reached the summit, sat down next to a rock and died. It was the dehydration that got him. He’d simply climbed himself dry.
I’d been stewing on this the past two days – the historical fact of Pujos’ untimely end filtering through the bottleneck every time I took a sip.
I look to my right at the other digits of Fatima’s hand – Wanderdu and Wangel Debridu, the stumpy middle fingers; and Suri Tondo, away and across the plateau, the broadest of the summits. Together with Kaga Tondo and Kaga Pomori (the slender thumb, out of view) they form a rock massif, which when silhouetted dark and brooding against the setting sun resembles the venerated icon known across North Africa as “La Main de Fatima”.
The Hand of Fatima with the setting sun behind

The Hand of Fatima with the setting sun behind

Looking up at the final headwall from La Breche

Looking up at the smooth final headwall of Kaga Tondo from La Breche

“You wanted this,” I mutter to myself, tongue dry, throat parched. It was true. I had wanted this. I’d wanted to be here so badly that I’d made two attempts in less than two years, packing a heavy bag full of ropes and climbing equipment and muling it solo halfway across the world. All that, just to get myself up a giant rock in the middle of Mali.

“You wanted this,” I mutter again.
I go through a quick inventory in my head. I’d finished my bag of dried mango yesterday afternoon and feasted on the can of sardines that Suleiman had packed me the night before. Saving the bread for my breakfast this morning had been a bad move. It was already stale – at least three days gone – at the time of purchase. Dry and floury, it had given me cottonmouth. A few bites were all I’d managed.
What I really needed though was water. Water, water, precious water. After these eight sips, there’d be nothing left. I look up again at the summit headwall. A trio of birds surf the air currents, suspended in nothingness. Suddenly a black swallow, wings tipped with flashes of fire-like orange dive-bombs through the breach above my head, skirting along the side of the cliff before disappearing around the corner. I think back to my first solo climbing experience, in a similar precarious position, halfway up one of the cliffs of Mount Arapiles.
The day is at full bloom and the yellow wheat fields of Wimmera shimmer on the horizon. I’ve spent the morning in the shade on Dunes Buttress, methodically working my way up the direct route. Tracing a path over a slab, beyond a little ledge and up towards the summit – seizing this beautiful line in my fingertips. There’s a recurrent theme in the route-log here – “Arab”, “Saracen”, “Lawrence”, “Dunes” – all the names whispering of sandy somethings in faraway desert-scapes. A fine place to be lost in geologic time.
On the third pitch, hanging from a web of metal contraptions, a breeze blows across my nape. I move away from the belay and, pulling over the lip of a little rooflet, I scan the rock above for a good hold. Where the eyes see little, I feel around with hand and fingers, leveraging my tactile sensors in the search for something positive. Still, I clutch at nothing so, pausing, I reassess and remind myself to enjoy the view.
A robin whizzes by. A rotund, little scarlet thing – bobbing up and down with each flutter of its wings. Like a breast-stroking fat man trying to stay afloat.
Below, the shapes of a few climbers on neighbouring buttresses. The familiar sounds of “on belay!” and “safe!”.
Here though, on this patch of rock, there is quiet. There’s no call-outs on a solo climb. No commands for more or less rope. No laughter. No sound. Only the climber, his rope, rack, the rock and an inner monologue – a monologue dithering between the fear of loneliness and the bliss of silent solitude. No miscommunication, only an error of judgement. No waiting for your second, only idling. No one else to blame – only the self. Everything is in my hands.
Thus, alone on Dunes Buttress, I pause for a second longer, feed a handful of slack through my belay device and reach out higher, higher, higher – piano-fingering at a distant hold. With tenuous approval, it accepts my grasp.
I ee-adjust my right foot now, swinging my heel high onto a tiny horizontal ledge. The rubber finds purchase and I rock my weight over. I climb. A few more metres and I emerge into the sunlight at a place called “the Oasis” – a heavily vegetated ledge two thirds of the way up. It hides a little cave amongst the debris of fallen spires, lush by comparison to the rest of the buttress. I set my belay and rappel down to retrieve my pack and gear.
As the sun reaches its zenith, it disappears behind the summit and my route is soused in shade. Jumaring back up to my belay, I pause for a muesli bar on the ledge, drinking in the near-eastern vibe up here. Luscious life hidden amongst red, sun-roasted rock. It could be an oasis in the Sinai, Palmyra, Azraq. I miss that part of the world.
I continue on, moving quickly now that the sun is gone, recharged by a muesli bar and a sip of water. I clamber over a roof and traverse right over a finicky corner crack.
A few moves later and I am standing beneath a bulge of smooth rock. The summit lies just beyond. My hand feels for a positive edge. I seize the hold and place a cam. A fall here would be long and unpleasant. The top is no place to die. I pause again, counterbalanced on one foot, one hand in the chalk bag, the other attached to the cliff. I crane my head, left and right – complete exposure, nothing but air all around me. For a moment, I smile. I realise that I am happy. Alive as never before.
Emerging into the sunlight, I look up into the cloudless sky. I’ve company. Two peregrine falcons flying wing-to-wing, silhouetted black against the burning orb. Everything seems perfect –  the summit, the sun, the birds, the final move. I stand on top and hoot a victory hoot, drinking in the experience. A rope-solo of Dunes Buttress. Nothing noteworthy at all, really. People go ropeless on this thing all the time. Still content, I pick my way down towards camp.
Two years of marking time. Calendars filled with study, work then travel. I find myself in Mali. Once again. This trip has been a long time coming – an allotted few weeks carved out in the gap between postgraduate research and moving to the other side of the world.
I drag my bags to the front gate of The Sleeping Camel in Bamako. The lobby is bustling. The usual kinds of foreigners one expects to find in a country in the midst of a civil war. A Swedish freelance journalist tapping away on her laptop. A pair of Dutch police officers seconded to the UN. A crew of British military de-mining contractors with not a word of French between them. Hordes of aid workers belonging to a whole menagerie of development agencies. A loud-mouthed African-American with mining interests in the Congo. Like a caricature, he walks around in a scarlet velvet jacket. A rogue’s gallery of expats-in-Africa stereotypes, this lobby.
Then, of course, in the corner courtyard of the compound, the slightly-insane German quintegenarian camped out beneath an army-issue groundsheet under a mango tree. He ports a long grey beard and a karakul. He’s ridden here by motorcycle from Munich, he says. On a journey “to find the kingdom of Heaven”
Next morning I check out, board my afternoon bus to Hombori and settle in for what is sure to be a long and bumpy ride through the night. We pass Douentza at first light and the distant shape of the Bandigara escarpment glows black against the changing sky. We have entered “la zone d’urgence” – what the Malian defense ministry has deemed “the dangerous north”.
I’d first visited Mali the previous June, six months after Islamist extremists in the dunescapes of the Sahara had taken half the country. They came from the north – black turbans, indigo veils, severe expressions, touting freshly-oiled Kalashnikovs looted from vaults of Gaddafi’s sprang-open armouries. From their refuge on the Algerian-Malian border they struck out across the desert, riding the wake of a nationalist uprising amongst disaffected Tuareg nomads. They hit Timbuktu, the age-old desert oasis once the centre of Islamic teaching, with rifle and whip. There, they set to the task of destroying the tombs of Sufi saints and thousands of medieval tomes.  Idolatry, they called it. Nothing the world hadn’t seen already from the denizens of jihad.
Gao, Hombori and Douentza. Three key towns on the road south were the next to fall. The ill-equipped Malian army was driven out. Tourists kidnapped, murdered. Adulterers stoned. The standard narrative when jihadists come to town. Needless to say, the foreign tourism industry was wiped out. In the towns they captured, the jihadists instituted a juridical order based on the strictest interpretation of sharia. The reduction of the north of Mali into a war-torn hellscape was instantaneous and total. Northern Mali had become yet another sunburnt Sahelian sore.
This sign captures the Timbuktu experience of recent. A sign warning travelling cameleers of the dangers of AIDs, the faces of the camel and rider were spray-painted over by the djihadistes during their reign over the town

This sign perfectly captured Timbuktu, 2013. A sign warning travelling cameleers of the dangers of AIDs, the faces of the camel and rider spray-painted over by the djihadistes during their reign over the town

A few months before my first tour of the country, the French had arrived to take the north back. Operation Serval had moved quickly, rolling toward Timbuktu with a rapid mechanical fury. One-by-one the towns at the edge of the desert were reclaimed. The occupying djihadistes fled and the Gallic offensive continued. Airborne assets in full swing, the French brought the fight hard and fast against the enemy, right to their desert sanctuary in the Adrar des Ifoghas – a complex natural labyrinth of canyons and sandstone bitter from which they had launched their war.
Then, like djinns at dusk, the jihadists had disappeared into the sands, packing up and shipping out almost as quickly as they had arrived. Onwards to Libya. To regroup. With the Islamists scattered, and the nationalist fury of the Tuareg temporarily restrained to a grumble, the French had done a decent job. Now, the harder task – winning the Long Peace – lay ahead.
 This was the hard part.
Since Serval, suicide bombings and roadside ambushes had become the mode du jour in all the former tourist hotspots. All across the north, gunfire could still be heard at night. Mali was anything but a safe country.
At the house of one or other of the European explorers who "discovered" Timbuktu.

2013 found me at the house of one or other of the European explorers who “discovered” Timbuktu.

But something was drawing me. Something big. The Hand of Fatima. Five sandstone rock towers, arranged like the fingers of a mighty hand, rising out of the desert. Two hundred kilometres from Timbuktu and a long way from anywhere else. It was like climbing in a different galaxy – extra-planetary wall climbing.
Since 2013, following my first trip to Mali, I could think of nothing else.
That trip had been an adventure in itself. A summer hike through the Dogon villages at the base of the Bandiagara Escarpment had seen me go down with heatstroke in fifty-five degree heat.
Later, a visit to Timbuktu had culminated in a breakdown on the return journey. A waterless walk back to the next town. Sips of water-tasting-of-battery-acid siphoned from the engine.
A carte-carte on a border crossing from Burkina Faso into Mali.

A carte-carte on the border crossing from Burkina Faso into Mali.

A Fulani woman, clad in a hijab, publicly breastfeeds in the back of a carte-carte. Islam (and its rules of modesty) are very syncretic in West Africa.

A Fulani woman, clad in hijab, publicly breastfeeds in the back of a carte-carte. Islam (and its rules of modesty) is very syncretic in West Africa.

A typical hellish day during the Sahelian summer. The harmattan blowing from the south.

A typical hellish day during the Sahelian summer. The harmattan blowing from the south.

The view of the Dogon villages from high on the Bandiagara Escarpment. The previous inhabitants of the area - the Tellem Pygmy - built their domiciles high up in the cliffs crafting tiny doors and miniature windows as portholes looking over the rest of the world.

The view of the Dogon villages from high on the Bandiagara Escarpment. The previous inhabitants of the area – the Tellem Pygmy – built their quarters high up in the cliffs crafting tiny doors and miniature windows as portholes looking over the world.

A typical mud mosque at the base of the Bandiagara Escarpment.

A typical mud mosque in Dogon Country at the base of the Bandiagara Escarpment.

All packed and ready for a failed expedition

All packed and ready for a failed expedition

A vehicle breakdown on my return from Tktu after some ethnographic fieldwork culminated in...

A vehicle breakdown on my return from Tktu after some ethnographic fieldwork. The breakdown culminated in…

... a long, long walk

… a long, long walk

This time though, leaving Bamako in the late afternoon to travel through the night, I was Hombori bound – on the road to my final destination, the Hand of Fatima massif. The sun rises slowly, a shy new dawn.
The bus stops in a small village near Boni and with the sun poking its nose above the horizon it is time for fejr prayers. Ahmed, the Malian soldier in the seat next to me shoulders his rifle and steps outside. Behind him, two brown-robed Fulani men, dressed in bone-white turbans. Conducting wudu, the ablution of washing, he touches the red earth with bare hands. Pensive, methodical, thorough – he cleanses his body with the dust. One of the enturbanned men leads the prayer and they line up, performing their raka’at, facing the rising sun.
The bus carries on into a clear desert morning – onwards through a scene ripped from a pictogram of the Old West. A clear day, a blue sky, citadels of red rock in contrast with the starkness of the plains. With every passing castle of rock, a dozen more appear on the horizon, the scrubland between each buttress teeming with desert life. A trio of camels, drifting across the road. A goatherd and his servres, moving between the thorntrees of a sparse, dry brousse.
And finally, growing out from a horizon of nothing – les Aiguilles de Garmi – the famed Hand of Fatima – a five-fingered escarpment of vertical sandstone. The summits reaching skywards, backlit by a blazing morning sun.
As the Hand comes closer, the contours of its rugged cliffs become clearer – palisades of rock formed from the compaction of millions of years of shifting sand. In the summer heat, the blasting harmattan, the waves of conquering armies and the ravages of recent war, the massif has remained aloft, uncaring, indifferent, a sentinel unto itself. A rocky hand raised, open-palmed. Fashioned by some geologic Lah.
Dost thou not then believe? he’s saying.
Wangel Debridu, flanked by Kaga and Wanderdu, encircled by an angelic halo of light

Wangel Debridu, flanked by Kaga and Wanderdu, encircled by an angelic halo of light

In all, the Hand of Fatima comprises four rock towers, with a fifth subsidiary rocktower Suri Tondo (Suri being a man’s name and tondo meaning “rock”), sometimes included as a fifth finger – a polydactylous pinkie on the far end of the plateau. After Suri, there is Wanderdu (“wheat” in Fulani), the ring-finger; Wangel Debridu (“the pregnant woman”) the middle finger; Kaga Tondo (“the grandfather rock”), the mighty index finger; and Kaga Pomori (“the grandmother rock”), the escarpment’s thumb.
In Fulani, the etymology summons the home and hearth of an ancient metamorphosed family – Suri the farmer, his wheat field, Suri’s pregnant wife, his father, the wisened Kaga and the grandmother, Pomori, wife of Kaga.
Throughout much of the Islamic World, the “open hand” is palpably culturally significant – sometimes referred to in Arabic as “the khamsa” (Arabic:  خمسة, literally meaning “five”, as in, “five fingers of the hand”). In North Africa in particular, especially Morocco, the “khamsa” has been co-opted into a popular palm-shaped amulet – an open hand inset with an eye – worn by pregnant women as protection against the evil eye.
The five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif. From left to right Kaga Pomori, Kaga Tondo, Wangel Debridu, Wanderdu and Suri Tondo

The five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif. From left to right Kaga Pomori, Kaga Tondo, Wangel Debridu, Wanderdu and Suri Tondo

The "khamsa" or Hand of Fatima

The “khamsa” or Hand of Fatima

Certainly, it seems, for the inhabitants of Garmi and Daari, the two villages spilling out from the base of the massif, the mountain has played the role of protector. The djihadistes never stopped there, I’m told as I leave the bus. The rocks were too intimidating and they never lingered long in the area.
As the bus takes off down the well-holed road, I am left alone with two and a half packs of gear. Two children emerge from a small shelter in the distance – a dome tent-like structure made from sticks. Fulani hut.
Children are always the first to notice changes in their environment, always the first to notice a newcomer, the first to greet an outsider.
They dance around me with happy smiles, laughing and nattering. I understand nothing. A woman emerges from the stick shelter, shouting after the children. Then, noticing me, the strange white man with more bags then he can carry, she pauses.
Even though she spies my ropes and knows me a climber, she looks confused. Why am I here? Now? With things the way they are in the rest of the country?
I’m extrapolating here of course, because without a common tongue, I understand nothing she says. Maybe she’s just wondering why I’m stood on her front porch.
Locals in the village of Daari chatter in Fulani, gathered outstide my stick-built tent

Locals in the village of Daari chatter in Fulani, gathered outstide my stick-built tent

Children are gathering in greater numbers now and in the distance I hear the sound of a moto, fanging down the highway. A thin man in an FC Barcelona jersey arrives. Messi jersey of course.
“Bon matin,” he says. “Ça va?”
At last! Someone who speaks French.
“Ça va bien maintenant,” I say, emphasis on the going-well-now part. “Tu parles français et ça me fait plaisir.”
He nods. “Oui, the people here in Daari,” he says. “They do not study at the school. But over there in Garmi-” he points to the shoulder of the massif, and a narrow rocky path leading off to the left of Kaga Tondo, the index finger. “-we all speak French.”
With meals and a village of French speakers less than a kilometre away, it doesn’t take much for Sooleiman to sell the idea. I should stay with him.
Sooleiman, le grand cuisinier

Sooleiman, le grand cuisinier

Curious kids in the village of Garmi

Curious kids in the village of Garmi

Children in Garmi pose for the camera

Children in Garmi pose for the camera

The next two days are used to scout the area, recceing the possibilities, stringing along Amadou, the son of the village chief of Garmi, as a walking guide around the massif.
On the second day, Amadou and I team up for an ascent of Mariage Traditionel (6a+), the classic line on Wanderdu, the stumpy ring finger of the massif.
As a boy, Amadou was taught the basics by Salvadore Campillo, a Spanish mountain guide who lived twenty years in Daari. The climbing with Amadou goes along well.
At the belay ledge of P2 Mariage Traditional (6a+), Wanderdu

At the belay ledge of P2 Mariage Traditionel (6a+), Wanderdu

Amadou stems his way to glory on the final crux pitch of MT

Amadou stems his way to glory on the final crux pitch of MT

Amadou on the Deuxieme Terrasse of Mariage Traditionel

Amadou on the Deuxieme Terrasse of Mariage Traditionel

After lunch and a long guzzle of water during the hottest part of the day we scout out the other possibilities. Foremost in my mind is the route that has become a two year obssession for me – the “obscure object of my desire”. The region’s most striking line.
Towering six-hundred-fifty metres above the Sahelian desert, the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo. A red sabre of perfect grès. A well-ledged yet flawless line following a series of gendarmes up the world’s tallest stand-alone sandstone rock tower. In the literature, both oral and written, it is known by many different names – “l’eperon nord”, “l’arête nord”, “la voie Pujos”, but the locals know it only as “La Grande Voie”.
In their guide to the greatest big wall climbs on Earth, well-known French climbing pair Stephanie Bodet and Arnaud Petit say of the route – “une voie incontournable sur un sommet unique, sans contestation parmi les plus belles grandes voies longues et adventureuses de la planète”. Basically, it’s pretty fucking rad.
A climb of the North Pillar would bring me to the highest point of the massif, the descent requiring a traverse across the summit and a long chain of abseils down the west face. As we pass beneath Kaga, Amadou points out the fall-line. He’s never climbed the peak himself, but verbatim, he describes the specifics of each ledge and rap-station.
I walk away content with what I’ve learned. The reconnaissance, I’ve come to realise, is just as important as the climb’s execution.
As in war, where information transmitted from a forward observation post is critical for an army’s “intelligence preparation of the battlespace”, the penchant for scoping the lines and descents of a big wall with eye and spotting scope are what gave the great wall-climbers of yesteryear – Robbins, Bridwell, Ewbank, Chouinard – the chance to succeed on their own “impossibles”. The Salathé, the Sea of Dreams, the Muir, even the Totem Pole. All scaled from afar for their first time.
Now with a recce of the all the approaches under my belt, I know that a point-to-point traverse of the Hand of Fatima is also possible. Starting in Daari, following the North Pillar to the summit of Kaga Tondo and descending to Garmi. All as part of one great knowledge-seeking expression of movement.
The village-to-village traverse idea came from a common interest in both horizontal and vertical movement – moving from A to B via a beautiful mountain summit. Ever intrigued by human migration, the idea of linking population centres via an aesthetic mountain summit had always appealed. Kilian Jornet’s “run” from the Italian village of Courmayeur to the French town of Chamonix via Mt Blanc’s Innominata Ridge could be held up as the immortal standard for a point-to-point traverse of this kind.
My planned village-to-village traverse of the Hand of Fatima massif

My planned village-to-village traverse of the Hand of Fatima massif

Splitting the wheat grains in the village of Daari. "La Breche" can be seen between the final gendarme and the summit of Kaga Tondo.

Crushing the wheat grains in the village of Daari. The fine powder is sometimes mixed with sugar, water and goat’s milk to make a delicious thick health drink. In the distance, “La Breche” can be seen between the final gendarme and the summit of Kaga Tondo.

Kaga Tondo from Garmi

Kaga Tondo from Garmi

My grand traverse project would bring me from the old climbers’ camp in the village of Daari to my cosy abode in Garmi. There, shade, sleep, food and most importantly, water, would await.
Content with my reconnaissance, I put my camera away and trot off down the trail, ghosting Amadou on a circuitous track through the boulder-fields at the base of the mountain.
Walking back to Garmi in the dying sunlight, Amadou recounts to me the myths of the area. Unlike the stories told in other mountain ranges where I’d climbed, the Hand of Fatima seemed to have a rather confused mythological history.
Indeed, much like the history of the region itself, with its mixing of cultures and its syncretic brand of Islam, the story of the massif is an assembly of scattered tales – a tapestry woven from many threads.
One tale figures the massif as the hand of some primordial woman – an outcast who, as she lay dying in the desert, reached her hand towards the sky. The rest, they say, was consumed by shifting sands.
Another tale tells of an ex-cannonical pilgrimage by the Prophet Mohammed – who, in no short order, named the massif after the dainty hand of his favourite daughter.
Where the imagery of the hand is concerned, others contend, it was the French explorers, reminiscing on the khamsa amulets they had seen in Moroccan marketplaces, who were the progenitors of the name.
And finally, there is the myth of Suri and Fatima – the tale which seems closest to the original local story.
“Fatima was a young girl,” Amadou tells me. “She would hunt the animals of the escarpment with her father. When all the animals were hunted, Fatima and her sister began climbing the cliffs to take the eggs from birds’ nests. One day, she fell but catching her hand on a crasse in the rock, had it severed. When a wandering marabout asked where her hand was, her father, Suri replied, rather that it was there – the five fingers of rock dominating the skyline above the village.”
The glove fits, I muse, reflecting on that final story as I fall asleep that night.
Inquisitive kids in the village of Garmi

Inquisitive kids in the village of Garmi

Sooleiman's sister, Fatima

Sooleiman’s sister, Fatima

 At five a.m, I hear the rumble of Amadou’s moto. In the distance, beyond the mudbrick walls. Supine but with eyes open, I peek up at the gaps between the metal shutters. Beams of approaching headlights refracted across the room.
As a méhariste waking to the sound of approaching camels, I know that this, my transport away from safety, has arrived.
My bag already packed, I down half a litre of water, stuff an orange in my pocket and mount the moto behind Amadou. Together in the pre-dawn darkness, we take the pot-holed, bombed-out highway to the other side of the massif. Reach my starting point. The old climbers camp.
Kaga Tondo, profiled darkest black and in grisaille, towers above us. We pick our way up the boulders to the base of the éperon nord.
From Amadou, I relinquish three bottles of water – five-point-five litres sum total. I shake his hand and bid him farewell. The last person I will see for the next two days.
I charge up the opening pitches, leading, fixing, cleaning, jumaring, reaching the first terrace at daybreak. Check the watch. If I want to be off this thing in two days, I need to do every pitch in about an hour. I’m slower than that.
“Just flattening out the speed bumps. Just getting the system dialled again.”.

Climb another pitch, return to my bag and guzzle some water. The early morning sun burns hot and bright and I retire to a pocket of shade. Devour an orange. My mouth is already dry. Another long pitch leads me to the base of a chimney and I look at my watch again. I check the topo and confirm my position.

I’m moving too slow. This route is going to take me two and half, maybe three days, at least. I have five litres of water left in my pack – one-point-seven per day. A survivable ration. But barely.
I do the math again, hoping I’d been too pessimistic with my first set of calculations. The math is good, my figures right. Continuing the push is going to bring me to the edge of thirst.
I look at my watch again.
Looking at your watch isn’t going to make you climb faster!
Sunrise on Kaga Tondo

Sunrise on Kaga Tondo

Racing up the opening pitches

Racing up the opening pitches

Lovely view of the Sahelian plains from the first terrace

Lovely view of the Sahelian plains from the first terrace

Jumaring, Icarus-like, towards the burning sun

Jumaring, Icarus-like, into the burning sun

Back to the awaiting pitch. A loose, blocky, flaring, squeezy horror chimney. The kind of pitch that makes you happy you remembered your helmet. The kind of pitch you send your mate up on the sharp end to suss out the death-potential.
I’d heard the faintest whisperings from the villagers in Garmi that “la Grand Voie” had once been free-soloed. I couldn’t comprehend it. Most of these holds looked like they would rip at any minute. A vertical sand dune. Not unlike the choss you’d find on the  Dog Wall in the Blue Mountains. Pure misery. Though misery, I suppose, is what it’s all about. In the end.
I pull a few metres of slack and commit to the looseness.
Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. I’m through.
On two good ledges now, I spread my legs into a stem, suspended like a gymnast above the sickening void. Snap a photo, continue up to the belay.
Looking down at the horror chimney

Looking down at the horror chimney

A pitch or two later and I reach the base of the first gendarme. Typical for multi-pitch sandstone, the way up the North Pillar does not take a clear path up a series of corners and cracks, but wanders hither and thither across an arête of red rock, winding a way skyward like a snake coiled around a caduceus. Route finding and not the climbing, is the crux of this voie. Per Bodet and Petit.
The next pitch is a traverse. Then a series of roofs – one, two, three – to the ledge above. The French, on their topo, call the pitch the “traversée aérienne“. In elite French alpiniste speak: “terrifying shit for mere mortals”.
The Petit-Bodet topo I had with me.

The Petit-Bodet topo I had with me.

Departing my perch, I quest out onto the pillar’s exposed face, finding that indeed, this pitch involves some sketchy, terrifying shit. Uncomfortably long run-outs above questionable protection.
At the crux, on the lip of the third and final roof, I pause for a time, dilly-dallying to see if there’s an easier option. Difficult to tell.
Fuck it, there’s a good handhold higher up.
I commit to a “deadpoint”, throw for it, stick it, cut loose with both feet and continue climbing.
That felt pretty heroic.
I fix the rope and get ready to clean.
The sun lowers in the sky. It drops behind the massif, sousing the North Pillar in shade. The shadows of Fatima’s fingers creep across the desert plain below, the dark, nebulous digits slithering over Daari. Protection from the evil eye, watching over the village.
IMG_2173 IMG_2165
In the dying light I charge up some blank, black slabs. Making the most of the cooler hours. And my dwindling water supply.
Fixing two pitches, I return to bivouac on a broad and comfortable ledge. The ledge is encircled by a small stone corral. The work of unknown climbers-by.
The pitch before the bivouac ledge

The pitch before the bivouac ledge

Bivouac ledge selfie.

Bivouac ledge selfie.



Night falls. I procure a nut-tool from my harness. My spoon tonight. A tin of canned chicken is consumed. Then a can of sardines à l’huile argan. I learn that olive oil is not nearly as refreshing as a bottle of chilled water. A bivy ensues. I toss and turn, thirsting some.

The following morning I pack my bag, sip some water, and jumar into a racing dawn.
I run it out in the interests of speed. I reach a sloping ledge – la terrasse inclinée in Bodet and Petit’s topo – turn an exposed columne aérienne and am welcomed to the pillar’s upper third by a howling wind.
I look at my watch again, feeling a rising sense of urgency. The sun is high now and it will soon be on the descent, the route now totally swathed in shade. Below on the plains, the mighty shadow of Kaga Tondo lengthens over Daari. Same as yesterday, with its crescive forcefield.

I move. I thirst. I climb. Then, finally, from my perch in La brèche, I look up at the crux pitch and the final one hundred and fifty metres of the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo.



la brêche

La brèche

I despair, yes, but all too soon I am left with only my rope, my rack and a ticking clock. I commit to the traverse. Up the blank wall, crimp, crimp, smearing with my feet, the rubber on my shoes scraping desperately to find purchase on the smooth rock. My footwork is rubbish, like a stumbling drunk. I’m still attached though – somehow – and I reach a horizontal break, plug it with a wobbly cam, and continue questing out left.

A howling easterly blows across a smooth face and the heat of a setting sun nips on my red-raw neck. I reach the anchor. Carry out some “unorthodox” back cleaning for expediency’s sake and lower out into the void.
The crux pitch traversing left and up away from La Brêche

The crux pitch traversing left and up and away from La brèche

Getting high on the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo

Getting high on the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo

The next pitch is a hand-crack splitting the headwall, shadowy fingers lengthening across the plain beneath me. On autopilot now, the despairing gone, committed to the shadows. Handjam over handjam, feeling like Webb in the English Channel, swimming towards the summit, swimming towards victory. I am going to make it. I know it. The crux is way down below, a mere memory beneath my shoe rubber.

Darkness approaching. Swiftly.
I reach a large broad ledge, traverse right, stem up the final corner and fix the final pitch. I scramble up a pile of boulders, ripping the metal accoutrement from my harness and sprint to the summit bloc, eager to scope the sunset and descent before the dying of the light.
The shadow of the massif over Daari. The wall of the destroyed camp seen below.

The shadow of the massif over Daari. The wall of the destroyed camp seen below.

Summit snap

Summit of Kaga Tondo

Summit. And broadside, first rappel spotted.
I love the smell of aluminum in the evening. Smells like, survival.
The wind howls. The sleeping bag comes out. I feel the cold of a stark desert night. I thirst. Away and in the darkness of the plains, I see the diesel-powered fairy lights of the French military base. Directly below, the glowing red dot of a solitary campfire. Some nomad, who, like me, is up for another night out. Another waterless summit bivy – the second waterless bivy in as many weeks.
 It is New Year’s Eve.  11:59am. The clock strikes midnight. January 1st is my birthday. Somewhere on the other side of the world my girlfriend is probably cosied up in front of a movie and my mates are downing cold ones on the beach. My parents are having an early one. Not me.
“Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me… Fucking idiot”.
I roll over, miming sleep.
Sunrise. A tricolour sunrise. Red, white, and blue. The French flag to greet me this morning. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Away and down on the goudron, a truck rambles along, its gleaming headlights shining like a beacon of hope through the darkness. With this, the harbinger of the new day, I feel good – like I’m going to live. Even in my dehydrated state.
Papery skin and dry retinas. A thirsty bivouac.

Papery skin and dry retinas. A thirsty bivouac.


A tricolour sunrise. Red, white and blue. The headlight of a camion on the left.


Descending from the summit of Kaga Tondo

 I begin my descent, thirsting hard. It seems like days since my last drink.
“Keep going. Get down. Think about what you’re doing.”
I reach a notorious abseil station, a nasty crack littered with the rap tat from one of Salvadore Campillo’s abseil disasters. I clean up his mess but then encounter the same problem on the same pitch.
Stuck rope.
I can’t re-climb it so I cut my rope, using Salvadore’s rope in conjunction with what remains of my own. The next abseil doesn’t quite reach the next abseil station – I only have enough rope to get to a small stance above it. There aren’t many spots for another abseil anchor here – it’s a blank face. I could jumar back up but I need to get down. I need water. Desperately.
Fuck it.
I pull the rope and eyeball the ledge below me. It’s wide and broad with good run-outs either side even if I missed my mark.
“You’re not thinking about that are you.”
“You can make it…All those parkour videos you watched as a teenager, looking for things to do in your urban jungle…”
“No way. If this was a guide’s exam you’d have definitely failed.”
“It doesn’t matter… get down.”
I jump. I stick it. There was never really any doubt. But it was a stupid thing to do.
“This is some crazy shit..”
In my dehydrated state, my judgement is definitely skewed.
“Don’t do that again!”
  I need to keep moving. To keep making decisions. To keep doing. Water. All I want is water.
Looking towards Suri Tondo soused in the early morning light.

Looking towards Suri Tondo soused in the early morning light.

The first abseil to descend down the West Face

The first abseil on the descent down the West Face

Enter Amadou. He is waiting for me at the base of Kaga Tondo with a backpack full of water. The first person I’ve seen in two and a half days.
“La grande voie,” he says to me as he shakes my hand. I manage a smile, a gaunt and desiccated grin that pries itself from cracked, swollen lips and a red-gummed cottonmouth.

I mutter a few words about my epic descent. The stuck rope. The sketchy half-length abseils on marginal gear. The jump. Then, between spasms of dehydration, I unwrap the bag’s contents. The glee of a child unwrapping a birthday present.

Perchance, January the first is my birthday. As I look up at the headwall and the summit above, I am thankful for the gift.
The water, that is.

Soqotra – A Reconnaissance of Girhimitin

The morning after our return from Mashanig, Ben emerges from his tent with a swollen red foot, open sores soused in iodine solution – a garish scene. We spent most of the previous two days, adding nicks and cuts to our limbs and ankles, and with the granite flanks of the mountain’s north face a shady breeding ground for an array of plantlife, dirt and greenery had clogged our wounds.

Coming down off the mountain, I had made a point to wash vigorously in the stream by the campsite, thorough in my efforts to scour the dirt from the open wounds on my hands and feet. Ben it seems, despite the best efforts of his travel medical kit had missed a spot”.

After lunch and a few rounds of fire-boiled shai, Abu Maryam and I slip off into the thick foliage on a mission to explore the western approaches of Girhimitin – the shining wall of granite looming to the left over the campsite. A proud face of vertical rock, it is big, intimidating, awesome, embroidered by dragon blood trees at its shoulders with a circlet of cloud, a coronnade for the summit.

Girhimitin rises in the distance from a rest stop on the way into the Hajhir Mountains

Girhimitin rises in the distance from a rest stop on the way into the Hajhir Mountains

Abu Maryam boils tea and goat in camp

Abu Maryam boils tea and goat in camp


Abu Maryam in his mountain domain

Ahmed Abu Maryam is a goat herd. He has ten daughters and a wife in a tiny village on the other side of the range … honorific “Abu Maryam”(eldest daughter is Maryam) after the mother of the prophet Issa – “Mary” in English… he wears a blue furtah and a red-and-white keffiyeh – the pattern distinctly Jordanian. He is nimble and lean with a strong weathered face – dark and bearded in a repose which belies years of enduringh the harsh elements of the Hajhir mountains. We communicate in classical Arabic but where my linguistic ability reaches the limits of its complexity, his thick jabali  Soqotri begins and so often communication becomes jumbled, riddled with aphorisms and punctuated by befuddled smiles.

The day previous after sampling the leg shanks of one of his goats, I had asked if he knew of a way to get to the base of Girhimitin from camp. Descending from Mashanig I had looked west to see if the grassy meadows at the base of the west face could be reached on foot. Like some inviolable altoplain – Soqotras answer to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (of Tilman and Shipton fame) – the way looked difficult and treacherous – a thickly forested base surrounded on all sides by steep fluting peaks. The wadi flowing away from the mountains base also looked like it would be difficult to access. A negotiable boulder-stream up high, it was flanked by thick vegetation (the kind you might want to bring a machete for) and at its terminus, where it met with the main approach wadi for the Hajhir it dropped into a steep limestone cliff; riven by a small waterfall.

From the summit of Mashanig, the west face of Girhimitin looked like it would have to be a rappel-in, climb-out affair – abseil on a fixed rope from the col to the north which can then be used as a bail option if the granite folds of the mountain proved too much for a single push.  But as I discussed my thoughts on how to reach the mountain’s base, Abu Maryam is insistent.

“Fi tareeq! Fi tareeq! Bess neruh ala al-tareeq lil-hawanat wel-genem.” There is a road, he tells me. But it is an animal track, and we will be following in the footsteps of the herd. Indeed, the steep limestone cliffs, hide a narrow route, a thin goat track moving between the trees, which weaves its way up and onto a plinth of rock to follow the river-boulder moraine to the mountain’s base.

I don my sandals, wincing as my infected toe rubs against the  footstraps. He goes barefoot, as he Always goes, the soles of his feet a tough leather, gleaming grey and impenetrable as he boulder-hops the stream – the underfoot like the hide of a musk ox at the turnstile. He moves swiftly and surely through the trees, adamant that he knows the way, ducking beneath the low-hanging branches, weaving between the vines of coiled, impenetrable scrub. O

n the moraine he is light and fast, hopping delicately from rock to rock like a ballet dancer bouncing across a stage. As I lumber clumsily behind, ham-footedly picking my way through the loose scree I observe him, marvelling at his speed in this kind of terrain. Every mountaineer could learn a valuable lesson of moraine navigation from him – I turn rocks, he doesn‘t… and in watching, learning and mimicking, my body learns why. He stops from time to time spotting a root he knows well. He rips it from the ground, excitement writ across his face.

“Al-ud hina,” he says, pointing at with a long-nailed finger. “Good for cleaning the teeth.”

We continue on. Within a few minutes however, he has spotted something else – a root he knows well. He reaches for a stick and begins to dig. Within a minute he has uncovered a brown-white bulb.

“Seefid! Seefid!” he shouts. Soqotri potato. He rips it from the ground, splits it in half, swallowing his part whole and offering the rest. I chew thoughtfully. It is indeed a potato. The thought suddenly occurs to me that if Ben and I were lost up here for a month we would probably starve. It also occurs to me that he most certainly wouldn’t.

Abu Maryam locates a familiar root.

Abu Maryam locates a familiar root.

A sign to begin digging

A sign to begin digging


Seefid (Arabic:  سيفد). Soqotri potato

Seefid (Arabic: سيفد). Soqotri potato

In Ahmed Mohammed Abu Maryam I see all the traits of a traditional mountain culture that has survived the sweeping changes of the modern world. He walks barefoot – always – and moves faster over the stream-scattered boulders than I do even after years of moving over this sort of terrain as a climber and a soldier. He is a goatherd and lives a simple life, almost totally moneyless.

He asks for nothing as he guides me to the base of the mountain, and I know he will not accept it, perhaps be insulted, if I offer him something at the end. He drinks his tea, he does his salat, he sings his mountain songs, he tracks his goats across the granite hinterlands and thinks little (though not nothing) of what goes on in the world of below. But we would would be wrong think him a man from a lost past – a Noble Savage – a primitive in-portrait.

Indeed far from cut off completely, far from a man without a stake or an interest in modernity, Abu Maryam is an example of globalisation personified, a reminder that as the core of urban culture expands into the periphery, the mountains, the deserts and their peoples respond in kind. He wears a red keffiyeh in a style known from Jordan; he owns a mobile phone and he is deft with the camera when I ask him to take photos tourist snaps of me; he wears a cotton shirt, a gold watch made in China and talks of the Houthi iin Sanaa as if he tunes into Al-Jazeera 24. Indeed, as we flow up the wadi towards the base of Girhimitin I muse that just as this Soqotri goatherd moves from mountain pass to mountain pass, so moves culture – for culture is fluid not static.

Abu Maryam holds a root traditionally used by Soqotri Bedu for cleaning the teeth. He wears a cotton shirt, blue furtah, Jordanian keffiyeh, Chinese counterfeit watch

Abu Maryam holds a root traditionally used by Soqotri Bedu for cleaning the teeth. He wears a cotton shirt, blue furtah, Jordanian keffiyeh, Chinese counterfeit watch

Abu Maryam models Black Diamond's latest 200 lumen head torch.

Abu Maryam models Black Diamond’s latest 200 lumen head torch.

When the cliché emerges of “untouched culture” (indeed, I’ve read this cliché in the context of Soqotra) I am reminded that in Abu Maryam we see not only the survival of the past in the present but proof of the dynamism of human behaviour – to adapt, to shift, to respond to changes in the environment, in the world beyond – a true being of ecology. Culture is a behaviour and like all animal behaviours it coheres to the rules of biology. Man exchanges what does not fulfil a vital function and ingests what will fulfil the function best. Why send a messenger when a mobile phone will do? Why wear rags of olive-tree twine when the workings of an Indian sweat shop are cheaper and stronger? But then a mobile phone will not feed Maryam and his other nine daughters…. and cheap knock-off shoes from China will not grip and smear to a sloping granite slab the way a toughened leathery bare foot will do.

He drinks his goats milk and eats his seefid because a change in diet, even a turn to reliance on footwear would mean a requirement for money – sacrificing one’s autonomy, one’s autarky and a reliance of provisions from outside. It would mean dependence on a system which may not be so accomodating to a drift-in from the mountains. (I would later see this difference starkly illustrated in the Malian villages of Garmi and Daari some weeks later).And so life persists – as i it always has – with only the amount of change that makes living the same life the much easier.

We arrive on top of a wide granite plinth overlooking the boulder stream. Abu Maryam stops and turns and like a pair of wanderers from a Caspar Friedrich painting we gaze out over the hills and plains below, a view of Hadibo and the Indian Ocean in the distance. A stream of water spruces from a crevice above us forming a little pool in a bowl-like indent in the rock before the trickling to the edge and dropping off into the void.

Abu Maryam, taking note of this little trickle-eddy dammed into a little wash basin, looks at his watch, stops and turns to me. “Salat,” he says. It is time to pray. He conduts wudu, washing his hands, his mouth, his feet, his faxe, purifying his soul before the sacred rite. A muezzin unto himself atop his minaret of rock, he sings out the call to prayer, nasal, loud with the same vice that shouts to his goats and sings round the campfire. Then he performs his rakaát p- the sacred movements the standing, the heeding to his lah Lah, the bowinng, the kneeling and ultimately sajadeh – the culminion of hjis prayers – his forehead touches the bare granite – submission to God.

Sans titre

Ruku “Bowing” (Arabic: رُكوع‎). The second major position of Islamic prayer

Sujud "Prostration" (Arabic: سُجود‎). The culminating act of Islamic prepare in touching the forehead to the ground and submitting to God.

Sujud “Prostration” (Arabic: سُجود‎). The culminating act of Islamic prepare in touching the forehead to the ground and submitting to God.

Tashahhud (Arabic: تشهد‎). After submitting, the worshipper kneels, facing Mecca, and bears witness to his Creator

Tashahhud (Arabic: تشهد‎). After submitting, the worshipper kneels, facing Mecca, and bears witness to his Creator

We continue up the wadi and he asks me about my ascent a day previous of Mashanig – the highest point in Soqotra. He is curious about what we found up there, about the mysterious cairn and stories that the skull of a cow is still up there, wondering if we have seen sign of the mythical Nazouzeh.

He tells me a story of how Ali, one of the goatherds down in camp, had found himself halfway up the smaller Mashanig and unable to climb down. Ali had been chasing a goat, near the col beneath Mishifo, the bridge, and when they had fled up the sides of the smaller Mashanig he had given chase. He scrambled up the steep sides until the goats, realising they were being hunted, continued always to the summit, leaving him precariously hanging from the cliffside.

Here, he descended, leaving the goats for another day. I imagined Ali returning to Hadibo for his supper, before hiking back up the next day with an expedition-worth of supplies wrapped up in the folds of his amameh like a haversack. No goat, no food and no food would bring the goatherd back to town.

I ask Abu Maryam if he visited Hadibo, the main coastal town, very often. He shook his head citing problems between the goatherds of the mountains and the black piscatorial groups (technically of Somali descent) inhabiting the fish-rich seaside. “Fi qariyatee, ma shee – al-aswad,” he says. There were no black people in his village. “Until today, if I go to Hadibo there will be problems and I must return to the mountains”. This conflicting dynamic between peoples of the mountains and peoples of the plains (elsewhere I have described this as the dialectic between the core and periphery) is common across the Islamic world and I don’t doubt that some of his concerns are valid.

I ask him about his family. His wife, his ten daughters, and his eldest daughter, Maryam, from which he gets the honorific Abu Maryam (Arabic: أبو مريم) – “the father of Maryam”. She is a rather naughty child it seems. Remembering having read somewhere that fathers who are physically powerful or extra-macho like mountaineers or Special Forces soldiers often tend to have lots of daughters (perhaps for some hormonal reason), I tell him that perhaps he is very manly for only having daughters.

He responds that in Soqotri culture he is viewed as weak for having borne no sons, that others in his village think him far from strong. But I can tell he loves his children, and he tells me about his happiness when Maryam (Mary in English) was born.

“My mother‘s name is Mary,” I tell him. “The odds!”

“Mashallah,” he says. “How old is she?”

“Tabarak allah,” I intone. “Still young,” I say.

“And may she live many more years,” he says. “The secret to a long life is in the tea and the meat of a goat. And walking… lots of walking.”

Then he tells me about the special properties in the sap of the dragon’s blood tree – the mystical remedy which brought centuries of traders, merchants and medicine men to these fabled shores. The drqgon’s blood sap stops bleeding, he tells me. And is a wonderful remedy against female bleeding. With mortar and pestle he mixed up a solution for his wife to stop the post-natal bleeding after Maryam’s birth. He casts a hand towards the summit, at a pair of goats moving up the gentle north ridge. Goats eat the young saplings of the dragon’s blood trees, he tells me. But they stop once the umbrellaing of the tree begins.

“Maybe you will find the sapling of a dragon’s blood tree growing on the summit.”

Dragon's blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Aharia. Dragon’s blood tree.

With our thoughts turned skyward, we crouch together on a rock beneath the mighty face. Girhimitin (Soqotri: جرهمتين, “the sure throw”). In a previous age, so goes the story that Ali and Abu Maryam had told me in camp a few nights before, two warring tribes* waged battle in the plain between Hawari and what is now Hadibo. The story goes that a Bedouin shepherd scaled Girhimitin and launched a spear at an oncoming host of marauders from the south. The height of the mountain and the observation it provided made the volley from the summit a sure thing – a ”sure throw”.

The plain beneath Girhimitin with Hadibo, the town, and Hawari, the mountain we had earlier climbed, in the distance.

The plain beneath Girhimitin with Hadibo, the town, and Hawari, the mountain we had earlier climbed, in the distance.

The West Face, unlike the gentler summit approaches on the back side, was anything but a sure thing. Immediately, as I gazed up at it, I knew I would need three days and a portaledge to complete this route, even if Ben was in good health. Chatting with Abu Maryam, I point out a potential line up the face – not a direttissima – but a mind blowing line up the face no less. An offwidth crack and a foliage-clogged chimney on the left side of the mountain leading into a series of rooves then into the west face proper.

“Shoof al-kitab al-muftuh,” I say, pointing out the next section. I trace my finger up a proud granite corner, a dihedral, the shape of an open book – a Quran with a path writ to Jennat. “This is where we will do our climb,” I say to him… This is where we will write our words. “Bess hada al-tereeq khetr,” he replies. But this way is dangerous.

“La,” I shake my head. “Hatha al-tareeq mitl hadiyet min Allah.”  This route – its like a gift from God. I know he will appreciate the religious undertones. He nods knowingly.

Abu Maryam looks up at the West Face of Girhimitin

Abu Maryam looks up at the West Face of Girhimitin

The descent gully off to the right

The descent gully off to the right

The opening chimney and offwith at the base of the wall

The opening chimney and offwith at the base of the wall

A set of rooves and complex slabs bar access to the Quranic corner

A set of rooves and complex slabs bar access to the Quranic corner

The splitting corner topping out near the top of the South Ridge

The splitting corner topping out near the top of the South Ridge

The West Face of Girhimitin (~400m)

The West Face of Girhimitin (~400m)

We are not ready for the West Face of Girhimitin. This big wall will not be going down on this trip. We have no portaledge, no time and Bens foot resembles something I mightve read about in my grandfathers war diaries (he was a surgeon). But this is what the reconnaissance is for. For looking and for pondering. For dreaming and deliberating… Is it possible?

Finding the goat trails to the base of the approach wadi was the first step. Then, with Abu Maryam, I had penetrated the limestone cliff blocking access to it. Then, together, we had scoped the line, pondered the descent, considered the bail options, an itinerary and a time frame. This is the history of how mountains are climbed.

When Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman penetrated the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (being arguably the pairs finest exploratory achievement, summit or not) they laid the path for future climbs, future success on Nanda Devi. Tilman‘s return and lightweight first ascent. Will Unsoeld‘s ascent of the difficult north buttress. And finally the return to a pristine state with the Sanctuary declared an inviolable reserve by the Indian Government.

And so too with the West Face of Girhimitin. All that remained now was a strong team and a portaledge. Then it would be climbed. Then one day the same route would be free-climbed. Then, after that, some long-haired, loping Californian would come along and climb the thing without a rope…

On the way down we stop at a small shepherd‘s shelter and he asks me when I will climb the big wall we have just recced.

“Not on this trip,” I tell him. “My friend is sick and we need more supplies. When I return to Soqotra”.

He nods, getting up to move. “When you return I will show you the way again.”

Abu Maryam at a goatherd shelter near the entrance of the wadi

Abu Maryam at a goatherd shelter near the entrance of the wadi

One the way back, as he bounces down the moraine, he pauses, turns and looks back up the stream of boulders, piles of littered granite leading to the base of the West Face of Girhimitin. He mutters something to himself in Quranic Arabic and, curious, I ask him to repeat it slowly, word-for-word so I can translate.

He is quoting from hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet. “Inn al-jebal min al-hasa.” (Arabic: ان الجبال من الحصى)*

“And from rock upon rock, a mountain is made.”

I ponder this for a moment, thinking about the meaning of this reconnaissance and of exploration – to build knowledge, to bring Man forward to new frontiers. This expedition was my first true expedition abroad and I had learnt a great many things – about logistics, about airline baggage policies, about the importance of time in the mountains, about weather, about bivies, about suffering and about the people of this remarkable island. I was growing, bit-by-bit as a climber.

“And from rock upon rock, a mountain is made.”

So too like the climber, I muse. So too like the Man.

Abu Maryam spinning his stick

Abu Maryam spinning his stick


* = perhaps the two tribes were the Somali fishermen and the Arab goatherds, but this is conjecture

** = the whole quote in hadith reads: “Do not belittle the small things (e.g. small sins, little things in life) for is not a mountain made from small stones?” (Arabic: لا تحقرن صغيرا ان الجبال من الحصى )

Soqotra – Mountains, Myths and Heroes

(Warning: Images of halal slaughter)

“One day we reached a strange desert island… many of the passengers decided to go ashore and I sat down on the bank of a river and fell fast asleep. When I awoke there was not a soul in sight. The ship had sailed, for the captain had forgot about me… The sun had not yet set and the sky was a fiery pink. Suddenly, everything went dark as though night had fallen. I looked up and saw an enormous bird with outstretched wings, shutting out the sunlight. I remembered then of hearing about a bird so huge it fed its nestlings elephants. The bird’s name was Rukh” – The Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, 1001 Nights

Bad weather on my last night in Canberra. Thongs of lightning lashing the tops of Mt Ainslie as a rose sunset mixes with the gunmetal greys of a storm cell. The storm follows us north to Sydney. Isolated showers. Patches of clear. Then heavy thick globules of water, orbs of wet hammering against the windshield.

All the standard tourist traps on my last day in Australia. Darling Harbour. Circular Quay. Another sunset over the Harbour Bridge. Seats for the ballet at Sydny Opera House. The Nutcracker. Christmas theme. I hold Ellie’s hand as Drosselmeyer, the dark magician, presents the children with their gifts. No Christmas for me this year. No birthday either. Then, the airport. The rain persists. I hold Ellie close. She cries. Rain runs down the windows of the terminal building like tears on a cheek, a thousand trails of racing water framed against the grey darkness of a gathering evening. I check in. Clear customs. Wait. Board. Fly.

I meet Ben in Kuala Lumpur. He’s in loose clothes, light threads. His hair is long and he ties it in a top knot. Not quite hippy – not quite clean either. He looks like he’s about to go on a holiday to Thailand. Which he is. In a few weeks time. For now though the sullied paradise of South East Asia – the dirty beaches crowded with backpackers; the seaside karsts bustling with climbers-on-holiday; the busy, polluted streets full of leering touts – that can wait.

Today we’re in search of an escape from that. An island of unclimbed summits lost in the clouds and coral reefs girt by azure water. A distant paradise perched between the heel of the Arabian peninsula and the horn of Africa. We’d heard tales of teetering granite towers and remote wadis brimming with bizarre flora and fauna. Endemic species of snakes and “dragon’s blood trees”. An evolutionary isolate. A lost piece of old Gondwanaland, left adrift, like an oceanic breadcrumb, in the wake of the last split of the continents. A geologic and biologic anomaly.


The name itself hinted at wonders. Like that of some fictional kingdom ripped from a Schezerzadian sura. “Suq al-qutra” – “the frankinscence market”.

A bare-faced Orientalist had been awakened in me, shamelessly beckoned by the allure of the exotic. In my mind, I had already made myth of the place, positioned it “lovingly on stage”. A colonialist fantasy, perhaps. The dispassionate anthropologist in me would have been unimpressed.

But there we were. Off to partake in the drama of our own imagining. Myths, after all, will keep being written, with or without our participation in them.

Where the island’s past theatrics were concerned, the cast of the “History of Soqotra” was long and storied. Sinbad, the fabled sailor of Sindh came here on his fifth voyage; Thomas the Apostle; Abu Muhammad al-Hamdani, the astronomer for the Abbasids. Throughout time the island has changed hands over and over. A fleet of Portuguese venture capitalists captured the island’s “soq” in the early sixteenth century. Then came the Mahra sultans. Then the British. With independence the Russians arrived, lining the beaches with dug-in tanks – specimens of realpolitik to be left to rust in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Alone in the rolling waters of the Indian Ocean, the Soqotra of today lies in the eye of a regional political conflagration of veritably cyclonic proportions. Marauding fisherman-turned-pirates scour the nearby Somali coasts at the helm of skiffs full of Kalashnikovs and on mainland Yemen a failing government lies at the centre of an ethnic maelstrom of competing insurgencies – a Shi’a uprising borne out of the dry and rocky hills of Sada’ah and an Islamist insurgency cresting a wave of Sunni discontent away and beyond in the Hadramawt. Yemen’s history is one of turmoil – a constant to and fro between a shakey peace, isolated gunbattles and brutal violence capped by terrorism, suicide bombings and drone strikes.

Despite the rough neighbourhood, however, Soqotra has found solace in its geographic isolation. A lost paradise in a rough neighbourhood. Misty mountains. Unclimbed big walls. A distant island culture waiting to be apprehended.  The choice was ready-made for us – me, an Arabist with an interest in remote places and remote people, and Ben a geologist with a penchant for rocks more generally.

We board our Yemen Airways flight to Sana’a. Trudging into the metal tube, the hostess double checks our boarding passes.

Ben, in tropical-patterned boardshorts, sweeps a lock of hair behind his ear.

“Sana’a?” she asks him.

He nods.

She gives him back his ticket and laughs. Take-off happens without event but later, as the plane passes through a thick bank of cumulus it jumps and rattles – long drops through air pockets punctuated by violent lurches through turbulence.

Sana’a International Airport lies in a varying state of disrepair – torn down walls, roof panels missing, stolen or broken, exposing the raw cabling within. An eerie late night quiet lies over the terminal building. A tense calm, punctuated by the omnipresent assault rifle. Had we been wrong to exoticise our destination? A flatscreen television hangs from a beam in the centre of the room. Behind a pall of cigarette smoke, the screen broadcasts images of a Yemen fit for a luxury travel magazine. Sandy beaches, palatial hotels, ancient medinas.

“Hodeydah – the Cinderella of the Red Sea,” reads the ticker tape on one television set. No mention of how she fares after midnight.

“Your first impressions are false,” it all seems to say.


Arrivals lounge at Sana'a International Airport

Arrivals lounge at Sana’a International Airport


A mixture of uniformed military and leather awaits us at the immigration desks – vague jacketed types with stern, sullen faces. A month ago, the capital had been seized by the Houthi and now it all seemed very unclear just who at the airport was an agent of the ancien regime and who was an out-of-towner taking up a new post behind the immigration desk.

We have our visas stamped, and pass through to the baggage claim. One bag, two bags… they float down a decrepit conveyerbelt unloaded from an open-backed ute on the other side of a broken wall – the luggage handlers like fish-mongers tossing crates of frozen mackerel around a soq. One of the bags – Ben’s bag – never comes. It contains ropes, borrowed climbing hardware, a harness and Ben’s rubber shoes. It also contains all of his spare clothes.

I begin hounding the airport staff in white guy Arabic, stumbling on my “ayns” and stuttering with my “alifs” as my brain does its best to re-enter third language mode again. The bag is in transit in Jakarta, I am told.

“Is it really in Jakarta?” I ask.


“You’re sure?”


I’ve learnt from other travels in the Arab world to treat any declaration of certainty with healthy suspicion, so I probe further. “Wal shunta, ana beheselha bukara?” “So the bag, it’ll be here tomorrow?”

Inshallah”. If God will’s it.

In the Middle East, nothing happens unless He has willed it – luggage reaching its intended destination included.

Later, of course, I learn that the bag was never lost in transit in Jakarta… it never left Kuala Lumpur.

Finding a corner in a nearby mushollah, I wriggle into my sleeping bag, hand Ben a prayer rug and my other pair of trousers, an overnight transit between us and our flight from the Mainland. We board our flight with promises the bag will reach us in Soqotra. I hold no high hopes, so my brain begins troubleshooting. The plane is full of stern-looking Arab men in business suits on the way to a half-way stop in Mukalla. When they are gone the plane is suddenly flooded with laughing chattering dark-faced men sporting a colourful array of gowns, headdress and the traditional dress worn by Soqotri men, the “furtah“.


Flying over the canyon-riven “badlands” of the Hadramawt

The plane taxis along the desert runway takes off and an hour later we are soaring over Soqotra. An unknown granite scylla during the wet season, the high peaks of the Hajhir massif lie hidden amidst a swath of burgeoning rainclouds, a mystery mapped by NASA but unseen as our plane circles. Below, a fierce northerly blows powerful waves against the island’s sandy shores. On a quiet day the azure water is a tourist trap for snorkelling – today the island is like a weather-beaten lost world – something out of a Michael Crichton novel.

We land and meet our guide Issa. Issa is short and wiry with dark curly hair and a cheery smile. He carries himself nimbly through the crowd in the arrivals lounge, plucks one of my bags from the carousel and leads the way to the car. Our driver Ahmed, always in blue, is warm and portly, his hair ever-encircled by a tribal amameh – the headcloth known elsewhere as “keffiyeh“, “shemagh” or “dish-dash“. “Ahlan we sahlan ila Soqotra,” he says. He speaks only Arabic and Soqotri and it is in the former tongue that I will piece his story. The road from the airport to Hadibo runs abreast the cliffs of a rocky shore. Ahmed, deft behind the wheel of the rickety vehicle, navigates the turns with precision. There are no number plates here, no road rules. The only people in uniforms we see are a pair of soldiers, one of them stripped down to his undershirt, the other, on Kalashnikov duty. Both of them seem to be soaking up the warmth of the island sun. Everything here feels beyond the reach of the mainland – beyond the reach of the State. We are in the Periphery, and it feels free.

Hadibo is dirty, squalid, Third World. Mud roads choked with piles of rotting rubbish crawling with skinny bleating goats chewing cardboard. We will return intermittently to the island’s population centre but for the most part we stay away from the hub of Soqotri life. We move to an “eco-campsite” on the outskirts of town. I dump my bags and Ben dumps what he has left in our reed huts, then we move to a larger reed hut, a sitting area, for tea.

Food comes and as we nibble of the thin, many-layered Soqotri khobz we gaze up at the dramatic west face of Hawari, a prominent limestone peak to our east, looming over the coast. I turn to Issa who notes me marvelling at it. “Bukara nehnu netsleq hada al-jebel,” I say. We want to climb that mountain.

The afternoon, we assess the lot we’ve been cast. Without Ben’s bag we are down a harness and Ben’s climbing shoes. But we still have my harness, a rope and a rack (hardware to keep us attached to the cliff). With about 20 metres of tubular webbing at the bottom of my backpack, I start fashioning a diaper sling rig, a makeshift harness designed to be used in an emergency – say if a hiker without climbing equipment falls from a height and needs to be extracted by rope and pulley.

Reared in the sterile environment of the indoor gym, we are initially skeptical of the integrity of our system. Freedom of the Hills (the mountaineering textbook) recommends 2 inch webbing for a diaper sling harness. We’ve used 1.5. Our variant has all the hallmarks of a Tillman-Shipton tie-a-bowline-around-your-waist adventure, which puts us in a category where a fall isn’t really an option. But with Ben lacking shoes to climb in we know we won’t be climbing anything particularly difficult. With one actual harness between us we decide that the person climbing in “the good harness” will lead all the pitches and the diaper sling-wearer will follow along, trying not to fall.

We set off the next morning on an exploratory climb, a cruisey foray up a set of cliffs below Hawari to test the system. Ben gets first dibbs on the diaper sling. The climbing is easy enough so on the second pitch, I swing the lead over to Ben, who, with his sandals clipped to his belt and the rack hanging from his chest leads away on a pleasant barefoot traverse. Another wandering pitch and a half follows and topping out we realise that we might have pioneered a unique climbing style, albeit one definitely not worth emulating. Climbing barefoot, in a home-made harness with sandals for approach shoes. We call it Bedouin-style and name our fun little climb “Sandals and Scimitars”.

Ben leading away barefoot on Sandals and Scimitars (5.7, 70m) with a diaper sling harness fashioned from 1.5 inch tubular webbing.

Ben leading away barefoot on Sandals and Scimitars (5.7, 70m) with a diaper sling harness fashioned from 1.5 inch tubular webbing.


A lonely jetroufah tree (used as a medicinal coagulant) arcs over the Indian Ocean

Our system adequately tested, we set our sights on the longer routes up Hawari

Our system adequately tested, we set our sights on the longer routes up Hawari

An early lunch of spiced fish, bread and rice follows and with the hours of the day running away from us we retrain our sights on our main objective – Hawari (~400m). Slinging Issa along as a guide and rope-carrying sidekick, we trudge off through a thick of forest of jetroufah trees to the base of the technical climbing.

It is my turn to wear the dodgy harness and peering up at the overhanging “choss” (loose, horrid-looking rock) above, a part of me is kind of thankful Ben gets to be the lead climbing guinea pig for this one. Indubitably, three metres off the ground on the first pitch, Ben takes a groundfall when he plucks out a handhold like a kid pulling smarties off a cupcake. Unphased however, he continues up, moving industriously.

A short time later, I hear a garbled shout from Ben some way up the wall and it is my turn to climb. I stem up a corner, pulling over a small overhang and gain a steep slab of smooth rock, riven here and there with small pockets for handholds.

When I reach Ben on the belay ledge I assess the anchor he has built for us. Nearing the stretch-limit of the rope, the ledge was the logical place to stop. But Ben’s anchor is less than ideal. A thin sapling girth-hitched by a sling, a camming device plugging the gap between two wobbly boulders and a tricam (a horned chock of metal shaped like a rhino skull) lodged in a small flaking pocket of rock. Three negatives don’t make a positive, even in mathematics. So I guess falling wasn’t really an option anyway, with or without the makeshift harness.

The next section leads Ben left on a sparsely-protected traverse into a wide chossy chimney. I hold my breath as Ben climbs on. Above us, a rookery of vultures, yellow-necked and sharp-beaked, circle our perch, wondering if the strange hominids passing through their vertical world will soon be but carrion. An endemic sub-species of Egyptian vulture, they are large and cruel-looking, probing us hungrily with low swoops. Their wings whoosh loudly as they dive past. As Ben disappears out of view, I study the birds, paying out rope slack as he climbs.

In the story of Sinbad the Sailor, the eponymous hero tells of having sailed to Soqotra and being abducted by a huge and monstrous bird, who, depositing him in its nest on top of a high mountain, set off in search of snakes to garnish its supper. Forced to fashion a rope from his turban, Sinbad descended into the valley only to discover that it was full of posionous snakes. With the huge vultures circling us on our mountain perch, I felt a strange affinity with Sinbad’s lot, although, climbing “Bedouin-style” or not, I was thankful that we were as yet some way off using a turban for a rope. With another garbled shout from Ben above, I traversed off the ledge and into the gully, picking my way through the conglomerate ruin. We pitch on.

Hawari in the distance rising out of a forest of jetroufah

Hawari in the distance rising out of a forest of jetroufah


Our perch on the first ascent of A’sh Al-Rukh (The Rukh’s Nest)

Ben contemplates a factor two fall off a poor belay as he commits to the choss gully from the belay ledge. A'sh Al-Rokh (The Rokh's Nest), 5.8X, 110m

Ben contemplates a factor two fall off a poor belay as he commits to the choss gully from the belay ledge. A’sh Al-Rokh (The Rokh’s Nest), 5.8X, 110m

Cresting the summit ridge, we are blasted by the cool ocean wind, surrounded on all sides by the strange Soqotri bottle trees and a troop of Egyptian vultures gazing over their domain. Met with a three-sixty view on top, we take in the horizonless Indian Ocean on one side and the mysterious cloud-covered hinterland of the Hajhir range on the other. With the loose limestone climbing behind us we descend on foot down the other side, naming our route “A’sh Al-Rukh” (Arabic: عش الروخ), meaning “The Rukh’s Nest”.

The peculiar bottle tree (Soqotri: triymu). One of many endemic arboreal species on the island

The peculiar bottle tree (Soqotri: triymu). One of many endemic arboreal species on the island)

The next day is a reconnaissance day as we still await the rest of our gear. We speed east along the coastal road to the wind-blown limestone cliffs of Homlil. We spy kilometres of limestone cliff faces, capping impossibly white sand dunes topped with the mysterious, umbrella-shaped dragon’s blood trees. The faces look amazing – featured, looming but utterly unprotectable except with artifical bolts. We loop around the escarpment and onwards into the green hinterland. We spy a prominent mountain in the distance, below the cloudline in the lower Hajhir. A spindly old man from a nearby village spits out a name… “Tjouf” (Arabic: تجوف )… A limestone fin on the horizon. Unclimbed. Endless potential on this island.

We lunch in a hidden oasis called Wadi Boraq, a wide canyon of blocky red limestone terminating in a swimming hole. It sits beneath a tall waterfall running fast and swift down a wall of lichen and we sample the rail-featured limestone, climbing barefoot for a few metres before leeping back into the deep, cool water. The secrets of this Lost World are slowly but certainly coming into view.

We head off in search of dinner, passing by a qariyat to barter for a goat. The right price and right kid materialises and we take it back to Hamri to be devoured. With Issa holding the goat’s head back at an an angle, Mohammed, a local fisherman runs a long sharp knife along its neck.

“Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem” I hear Issa utter as a torrent of dark red blood gushes from the goat’s neck. As the kid struggles for air in its final throes, it coughs its gizzard from the gash in its throat. The act of slaughter can be brutal, unsettling, to watch sometimes. But in taking the life of the kid, life will be renewed and the goats haunches will be seved with a sauce of onion and persimmon.

As Mohammed peels back the kid’s hide, exposing the pink hanging corpse one knows well from a Queensland pig hunt or the back room of a butcher’s shop, I muse that alot can be learned of a cultural group from the way it kills an animal – from the process of converting life into food. “Bismillah ar-rahman, ar-raheem,” Issa had uttered. In the name of God, the beloved, the merciful. “Into his hands you will go”. What seems unsettling to the outsider is only so because one sees not where the meat which sustains daily life come from. In my world, the act of converting life into food is simply a process, an industry… a conveyerbelt where an assembly line turns a calf into a Big Mac. Here, it is a spiritual act. An act of committing the kid into the hands of a deity so that other life may be sustained. There is no hierarchy in the diversity of culture – one custom is neither better nor worse – it is only context that matters and for a small-scale society living a life between pastoralism and the sea, everything about this practice makes sense. For us in the cities perhaps our way works best, but I don’t really know.

"Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem". Words uttered as the knife slides across the goat's neck

“Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem”. Words uttered as the knife slides across the goat’s neck

Mohammed prepares the knees for skinning

Mohammed prepares the knees for skinning

Alhamdu lillah lil'tai'm

Alhamdu lillah lil’tai’m

Over our meal, I talk culture with the Soqotri. I raise the topic of the veil. In the West, the subject of female dress in Islam is contentious – a heated debate infused with stereotypes about female subjugation and assumptions that modes of fashion are indicators of gender equality in human societies. In talking with Issa about his marriage, we learn that it is customary in Soqotri society to only see the face of one’s wife after one is married. While traditionally, daughters were effectively trade goods, Issa sees a certain equanimity in the veiling practice since the relative attractiveness of one’s potential spouse would remain a mystery until after the wedding. The argument here is that all Soqotri daughters are of equal value – since hidden behind the veil, all women look the same.

Alien as this logic might seem to a Westerner, I had never before considered that the veil, rather than hiding a woman’s “shame” could actually enable her to be desired, loved and respected in a way which goes beyond the physical. While in the West a hierarchical conception of beauty is used as a calculus of a woman’s reproductive fitness, Soqotra’s veil may in fact decouple “beauty” (the trait) from the female (the object). Here, a suitor falls for a woman’s personality and not her appearance.

On Thursday, we return to Hawari to climb another route on the seaside cliffs (an aesthetic crack we call “The Whip of Issa” [5.9]) but, hesitant to take our Bedouin-style system to the high peaks of the Hajhir, we hold out for hope that the bags will come on the Saturday flight.

We head west to Qlansiyet, a coastal fishing village and a similar size to Hadibo but devoid of the rubbish-choked streets. A boat ride to a remote beach on a gharab (Arabic: كارب ), brings us through rolling swell and violent lurching from the wind. A sheltered bay. A pod of dolphins. A scramble along the limestone cliffs and tea in a shepherd’s cave.

All rather idyllic really. Ben deep-water soloing near Shu'ab

All rather idyllic really. Ben deep-water soloing near Shu’ab

Then, the bags arrive. Finally. We crane our necks towards the Hajir mountains – the mysterious granite massif always in the back of our minds. We stop at a small village at the base of the mountains. Three men sift around in a narrow thoroughfare between the mosque and a small house. Issa yells out something in thick Soqotri and the three approach the car, attach themselves to the passenger step, skitching off the roof rack. We trundle on up the rocky road. This is how you get work in Soqotra.

We reach the end of the road and look upon the Hajhir mountains in all their grandeur, an incisor skyline, clear and cloudless. The walk in has all the hallmarks of high adventure – a pilgrimage to the sky. With every new peak that winds into view I ask it’s name, drawing a map in my mind… Girhimitin (Soqotri: جرهمتين, “the sure throw”), Herem Hajhir (Arabic: هرم هاجهر, “the Hajhir Pyramid”), Hazrah Muqadriyoun (Soqotri: هزرة مقادريون, “the false tooth”) and finally, Mashanig (Soqotri: مشنيغ, “the split one”) – two perfectly formed towers of perfectly vertical granite, the higher of the two being the highest summit on the island, rising some 1500+m above sea level. A new route on Mashanig is the ultimate objective for this expedition. If we can climb nothing else, we would climb this peak.

We follow Abdullah, his two sons and Fahad, a Bedouin shepherd who guides us up a precipitous boulder-strewn path. Abdullah, shirtless and lean, is the senior the group – a Bedouin born of the mountains who truly speaks his second language when I communicate with him in Arabic.

Ben, at the end of the road, racking up for a foray into the Hajhir

Ben, at the end of the road, racking up for a foray into the Hajhir

Ben and the porters walking into the Hajhir Mountains

Ben and the porters walking into the Hajhir Mountains

Lost in the Hajhir with Hazrat Muqadriyoun on my left and Mashanig on my right. Note the prominent fallen pillar, Mishifo, acting as a bridge between Mashanig's twin peaks

Lost in the Hajhir with Hazrat Muqadriyoun on my left and Mashanig on my right. Note the prominent fallen pillar, Mishifo, acting as a bridge between Mashanig’s twin peaks

We sit around the campfire long into the night and Abdullah is chatty, curious about these foreigners in his mountains. He asks many of the same questions one comes to expect in the Islamic world, lyrical in his jabali Arabic. “Are you religious? Do you have a wife? Children?” He is kind, curious and I am just as curious as he. I want to learn from him.

Between cups of sweet, red tea and fistfuls of potato and khobz, he tells us stories of the mountains. Our objective on the morrow is the north face of Mashanig, so Mashanig is foremost on our minds. In his rich Soqotri Arabic, Abdullah tells the story of the mountain’s origins, a single peak struck in two by a bolt of lightning.

Many years ago, he recounts, an old Bedouin woman named Naziyeh carried her baby to the base of the mountain and suspended a cradle between the two peaks. The child, Nazouzeh, grew to become a fearless man, unphased by the dangers of the mountain. When as a shepherd, his herd of cattle ceased to eat the grasses beneath the mountain, Nazouzeh carried his cows, climbing one-handed to the summit of Mashanig in order that they could feast on the fresh grasses there. After this, the story goes, with superhuman strength, Nazouzeh toppled a pillar of rock from the mountainside to make a bridge between the twin peaks, known as Mishifo (Soqotri: مشفو, literally “bridge”) so that his mother, Naziyeh, could milk the cattle from the col between the two peaks. Every few days thereafter Nazouzeh would return to the summit and take a cow down to be milked by his mother.

In 2011, when Mashanig was first summited by Mike Libecki, an accomplished American climber known for his exploratory ascents of remote big walls, he and his partner discovered a mysterious rock cairn. After the lichen between each stone was dated to be hundreds of years old Libecki concluded that either the cairn was placed by a real historical Sinbad (after being abducted by the Rokh) or a pre-modern shepherd must have scaled the peak. The rock pile as one shepherd, Abu Maryam, would later surmise, may have been the remnants of an old retaining wall, constructed to keep the cattle from wandering off the precipitous mountainside. With the tale of Nazouzeh and Naziyeh now coming from the mouths of the shepherds, the mystery of Mashanig became all the more captivating.

We leave with Fahad, the local guide, early the next morning and Abdullah, awaking to eat the small green fruits dropped from a sheger during the night shouts out to us. “Yallah!” he says. “Be safe! Dangerous there!”

We ply our way amongst the boulders upstream and before long we stare up at our objective – the unclimbed north face of Mashanig – an ever-steepening wall intercut with networks of cracks and tree-choked ledges. We waste no time with roping up.

A light daypack for the leader, filled with sachets of energy gel and an alpine climbing pack for the follower, replete with all the luxuries – water, rain jackets and an emergency space blanket (just in case). Ben leads away. He charges up a bushy chimney to gain the sleek stone above. We move efficiently for the first three pitches or so, route-finding quickly, following the path of least resistance up the north face. We swing leads one-for-one, and while Ben seems to get the crux pitches, I always seem to end up with the strange wandering traverses, zig-zagging and balancing my way between ledgelets.

The opening pitches of our new route. The Young-Elliott Route, Nth Face of Mashanig. 350m, 5.11 (or 5.10+ A1)

The opening pitches of our new route. The Young-Elliott Route, Nth Face of Mashanig. 350m, 5.11 (or 5.10+ A1)

Some way up the face, I pause at the base of a long line of rooves, pulling Ben up as I spy a line through. A crack is visible to gain a little ledge and after that the climbing appears to relent. The clouds swill around us. The weather is turning against us. Time is running out. We need to get through the difficult climbing as soon as we can. Ben storms up to the roof. At the crux he plants a left foot high, commits for a reachy handhold, misses, and takes a fall, a long arching plunge back to a ledge at half height. He pulls on a cam to save time, unholstering his aid ladders to mount the ledge above.

Ben unlocking the crux pitch with alpine aiders. I freed the pitch on second at 5.11.

Ben unlocking the crux pitch with alpine aiders. I freed the pitch on second at 5.11.

A few hours later we exit the face and move up the last pitches of the east ridge towards the summit. We are running out of daylight. Time gnaws at the hems of our cotton t-shirts. I route-find into a south-facing corner and mind’s eye a route to the top. A squeeze chimney, a few tricky mantles and we begin simul-climbing, chewing up terrain by climbing together, roped but not on belay. But as the rock tower goes on, the hours melange together and we know that tonight will not be a night spent sharing stories with shepherds back at camp.

We have been simul-climbing for many pitches now, chewing up terrain in a desperate bid to summit before dark.

I reach the top of another pitch and fiddle a tiny sliver of wire aluminum into a crack, cobbling together a hasty belay. The wind howls. The clouds hang heavy with rain. The rock becomes slick. Ben seems not to have moved very far and I am taking in only very little amounts of rope. I begin shouting into the wind, hoping he will hear something, urging him to climb faster. I hear a response – a few syllables, garbled amidst the roar.

Finally, he reaches me at the belay and we have just two short pitches to go. I cruise my pitch and he burns through, charging up a corner, slab and the last few metres to the summit. We’ve arrived. My watch says it’s sunset, but with the clouds all-surrounding, we won’t see anything. The howling wind is heightened by the folds in the granite. Acoustics in our alpine opera house.

Uponed by cloud after gaining the East Ridge

Uponed by cloud after gaining the East Ridge

When he finally reaches me at the belay we have just two short pitches to go. I cruise my pitch and he burns through, charging up a corner, slab and the last few metres to the summit. We are there… We are finally there. From lookng at the time I know it is sunset, but with the clouds completely over us, we would never know it. The clouds swirl darkly with the gathering night and the wind howls around us – the roar heightened by the folds of the granite like the acoustics in an opera house.

We contemplate the descent. The rappels. The boulder-hopping back to camp. Somehow, Ben has forgotten his head torch. “Without light, progress stops”. We aren’t going anywhere. We settle in for a cold one. It is often said that there is no sleep in an open bivy – only suffering. Indeed, when your perch is the summit of a granite spire in a mountain range in the middle of the Indian ocean and all you have to sleep in is a rain jacket, the skin of an ultra-lite backpack pulled over your legs, a space blanket between two and rocks and a wet rope for pillows, sleep seems an anathema – a diametric opposite to the cold, discomfort, fear and doubt that only a bivouacee can know. But sleep, like the wind and clouds circling round the tops comes and it goes.

Sometimes I awake to a cloudless sky filled with stars and the glimmering lights of Hadibo and Qlansiyet, far away and below. Other times I awake to a grey darkness and a bitter chill – the wind making a crackling sail out of our moonlessly-silver space blanket, threatening to blow everything away. We to and fro against the cold, spooning where no man has spooned before. A part of me hates the bivouac. But a part of me knows that the bivouac is crucial to the experience – the cold, long hours of a red-eyed night marking the difference between leisure and adventure. Ivano Ghirardini, the great soloist, called it “the essential ingredient”.

Summit of Mashanig and the highest point of Soqotra. The mysterious cairn behind (first documented by Mike Libecki on the FA of the peak up the W Ridge) may have been placed by the mythical Naziyeh, a super-strong Bedouin shepherd who it is said carried his cows to the summit (a vertical rock tower) with one hand.

Summit of Mashanig and the highest point of Soqotra. The mysterious cairn behind (first documented by Mike Libecki on the FA of the peak up the W Ridge) may have been placed by the mythical Naziyeh, a super-strong Bedouin shepherd who it is said carried his cows to the summit (a vertical rock tower) with one hand.

As Ben uncoils the rope to wrap around his legs, I settle in for a cool night on the summit of Mashanig

As Ben uncoils the rope to wrap around his legs, I settle in for a cool night on the summit of Mashanig

The night winds on and then, verily, it is over – first light uponing us. We take off in the early morning, locating some old rappel anchors. Back at the col on the east ridge we run a rope between us and down-climb an exposed gully into the gray depression. We wade through bushes, encircle a boulder and traverse across a slab for a clean run to the ground. On our way downwards. Ever downwards. The time has come to return to the World of Man. Down. Down. Down. Finally earth.

The harness come off, the ropes go away and a bag of fruit emerges from our cache. A pair of oranges are swallowed almost whole, plastic bag and all.

Going down

Going down.





And down

And down

And finally down

And finally down

Issa has picked his way upstream to see what had happened to us when we didn’t return last night. He worried through the night and expecting this when the skies were clear this morning I made a point to shine my headtorch towards what looked like the red glow of a campfire far and away below. He says he saw the glimmer of light amongst the swirling clouds and this makes me happy. Issa guides us down the river boulders back to camp, the clock striking midday.

When we arrive at the little glen by a tiny stream, an old Soqotri shepherd, black bearded, donning a red keffiye and blue furtah looks at me and begins speaking in fast, colloqiual Arabic as if no one else in the world could possibly speak something different.

Rohteh ila al’jebel?” he asks. “Mashanig?”

“Ah,” I nod.

Nazalna ala al-qemet khalal al-leel,” I say, miming the half-sleep of the night before and the wind-blasted cold. “You climbed the mountain? From bottom to top? Khatr. Dangerous. Keyf? How?”

Bil-aqdam min tehet we bil-hebel min fewq,” I say. By hands and feet on the way up and by rope on the way down.

His lips purse thoughtfully between sips of hot cinnammon tea, taken fresh from a boiling kettle. “Leysh?” He asks. “Why?”

I shrug, knowing not the answer and begin shovelling handfuls of rice, meat and olives into my mouth, happy at last to be back at camp.


Apres-climb meal. Freshly-slaughtered goat for dinner!

Testing the strength of an aharia branch

Testing the strength of an aharia branch

Dragon's blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Dragon’s blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Have you ever abseiled off a dragon's blood tree?

Have you ever abseiled off a dragon’s blood tree?

The North Face of Mashanig (the higher of the twin peaks on the right) at sunset. A storied peak in the oral traditions of the Soqotri Bedouin. Our line begins on the bottom right of the face, moving up and left to finish up the East Ridge just above the shoulder.

The North Face of Mashanig (the higher of the twin peaks on the right) at sunset. A storied peak in the oral traditions of the Soqotri Bedouin.
Our line begins on the bottom right of the face, moving up and left to finish up the East Ridge just above the shoulder.

Obituary: Ari Kingan

My friend Ari Kingan, a Kiwi from Golden Bay, died on Mount Aspiring today. Usually, I’m quite good at finding the right words to say what needs to be said. Today I’ve none. The mountains giveth and the mountains taketh away. Today they took away one of New Zealand’s strongest, most talented young alpinists. RIP Ari and thanks for the belay on your first ascent “Ari-An Supremacy” (M4) on the West Face of the Remarkables. It was the best mixed climb I’ve ever done.

Ari belays me on a route he FA'd in 2013. "Ari-an Supremacy" (M4).

Ari belays me on a route he FA’d in 2013. “Ari-an Supremacy” (M4).

Ari onsights an M8 traverse in the Pink Palace.

Ari onsights an M8 traverse in the Pink Palace.

Ari at home.

Ari at home.

Ari rope-guns me up The Clearances (M5) on the West Face of the Remarkables

Ari rope-guns me up The Clearances (M5) on the West Face of the Remarkables

Natural Selection

Climbing Route

The route we climbed on Mt Darwin’s south side


Lee near Darwin Corner

I meet Lee in the Old Mountaineer’s Café. He has his back turned to me, sipping a cup of tea, flicking through a copy of Alpinist magazine. Issue #45. He looks strong, lean, fast. He wears a buff over nape-length hair, sports a wiry beard and wears all the right branded clothing. Nottingham accent. A look in his eye like he’s ready for anything.

I’d been down in Queenstown, ice and mixed climbing on the West Face of the Remarkables – cragging, hiking, traversing dodgy loaded gullies on the Queen’s Drive. Breaking trail through waist-deep snow. The usual, low-commitment stuff. The weather in Cook village was wanting and the right partner had been hard to find.

Three weeks in New Zealand had turned into a training trip. By the end of week two, four-pitch alpine cragging and dry-tooling on drilled, spray-painted holds just wasn’t cutting it. The big mountains were lonely and I was in the market for new company.

Lee was in Cook village looking for a partner. I had three days to burn before my flight home. A textbook high pressure system was coming in from the west. Objectives aplenty. Discuss.

We toss up a few options. The MacInnes Ridge of Nazomi. The Hilary Ridge of Mt Cook. Stunning lines lying six to eight hours up the Hooker Glacier. Lee tells me he’s climbed hard ice in Norway and I realise what we should be trying. Ridge climbs are fun, but it is winter and the ice on south-facing aspects is where the real fun is to be had.

My thoughts flit to a photo snapped by some heli-skiers near the head of the Tasman Glacier. Mount Darwin and its broad south face. Five hundred metres height gain. Technical climbing. In my mind, I see runnels and gullies of ice flowing from a summit. Unclimbed lines. Darwin in winter. It seems like the perfect choice. The natural selection.

We’ve decided on the mountain, the aspect. Walk-in, walk-out. Just like Fyfe and his mates. What did Marty Schmidt used to say about the Mt Cook gravy train flying in to start climbing at the Grand Plateau?… It’s cheating.

We go light, taking bivy equipment but leaving most of the food behind. Seventy-two hours in the hills…. At a stretch. A dehydrated main meal each, six sachets of energy gel and two muffin bars. If we are gone for three days we will go without food on one of them. Light. Fast, supposedly.

“Light and fast means cold and hungry”. Steve House speaking.

Hang up the phone, it’s better if you don’t answer.

Who needs food when you’ve packed a sleeping bag? Walter Bonatti and Amir Mahdi survived an open bivy at eight thousand six hundred metres on K2. I’m sure we’d survive a night or two without dinner.

We kit up and leave the carpark. Skipoles out, I let Lee set the pace. He’s fast, fit and he has the speed to prove the eighty kilometres he jogs per week. I match his pace, comfortable, and we are away into the fading light. We move like we’ve been training partners for years. Round the terminal moraine.

The Caroline Face of Mount Cook looming over us. Nice aspect. Pretty enough to make the New Zealand $5 dollar note. Alot of history on that face. The much-lauded first ascent by Gough and Glasgow. Bill Denz’s ridiculous solo. And the lesser known enchainment of a new route on the right hand side bya visiting Slovenian. Sveticic.

The snow hangs heavy on the slopes. The seracs make the Caroline look like a place you wouldn’t want to be. Big, white and dangerous. Not for me. What’s the point? It’s all been done before hasn’t it? Not worth dying on a repeat from the 70s, even if it was within my capabilities. It’s not.

I’ll tell you what. You keep the Caroline Face and your $5 dollar note and I’ll go find something new. Even if I have to moraine-bash for the next twelve hours.

Mount Darwin, situated near the head of the Tasman glacier is a long way upstream. Climate change-induced glacial recession means the moraine walls have risen higher. The easy-to-crampon white ice diminished to half size. A wake of regurgitated detritus left behind by geologic time. The moraine, the moraine. Those goddamn piles of loose rock, clumped together into mountains themselves. A barely-navigable hellscape. Mordor minus the flames.

Below the walking track, we pick our way down the death trap known as Garbage Gully.

From there, a mere eighteen thousand metres, fifteen hundred in elevation and it’s the base of the route. Thirty-six kilometre round trip. No heavy parcels of food weighing us down. I can’t see why we can’t do it in thirty-six hours. Even untrained, I can run forty ks in less than four.

Lee is an arborist and a die-hard climber. Strong on rock, strong on ice and he runs. Alot. Good. We’ll move fast. Speed is good in a weather window like this. Maybe as important as the experience I don’t have. What use is experience if it takes you twice as long to plod up the low-angle snow slope?

We descend Garbage Gully. I slip and slide down it, Lee practically glissades. I never get better at moraine walls.

“How far do you reckon we’ll get tonight?” Lee, while we look across at Mordor in the evening’s dimming light.

“The white ice,” I state, categorically. That’s where we’ll be tonight.

We trudge and moraine-bash. Nothing eventful. Just walking, thinking about the climbing, calculating timings, taking in the hulking shape of De La Beche ridge dominating the skyline. We bivy before the white ice begins. Safe to say we don’t feel like navigating the minefield in the dark. Sleeping bags out. Shuteye. I’m beginning to feel comfortable in this environment. Not safe. It’s the mountains isn’t it? Just comfortable. Confident.

We wake. Boil snow. Same old routine. Camping’s fun isn’t it? We share half a muffin bar for breakfast. Caramel flavoured filling. Still better than a sachet of energy gel. Save the mush for later.

We move. Good cramponing for a time, turning to a plod in the mid-morning melt. We stop on the hour for a sip or two of water. We’ll get there. Pass the foot of De La Beche, the unlikely bivy rock perched precariously on the edge of a moraine wall. Pass the Ranfurly glacier, grinding and groaning on our left, teetering off the side of the Western Minaret.

Darwin and Darwin’s corner in view now. Feels like we’ve been specially-invited. Selected. A kind of fatalistic Darwinism. Not that we’re elite or anything. The old chestnut, “survival of the fittest” wasn’t Darwin’s anyway. That was Spencer and he was wrong.

Evolution is more subtle than that. The ecology in which animals thrive sifts and sorts rather than culls and cuts. “Better”, fitter forms have never lived. Only animals trying to survive. There’s no match for Tom Fyfe in Lee and I. Just the DNA of men, of mountaineers. We, the latest mutation.

The environment today? An unclimbed face. Biologists would call it our ecological niche. We’ve selected it and it, us. Natural selection.

We plod on. I break trail. Lee follows. We switch. I plod along behind. Then, my turn again. Our workload is pretty equal. The angle of the slope steepens as we start up the face. We begin daggering. Lee is breaking trail at a quicker pace than me. But we’re switching still. Fair’s fair. Every fifty metres or so, one of us to the other: “want a go at breaking?”

“Sure,” says that other. “Fuck no,” he’s thinking.

We solo up through a snowpack that a skier would call “perfect”. Waist-deep. Fucked. Plod. Plod. Hard work. All good fun. You play the game, you trash your body. The angle steepens. Turns to hard snow. Then snice. Now we’re climbing. The energy returns. At last we’re going up. Not just at the mountain face.

Lee strikes real ice now. A fresh blue sheet. Both tools. Never touched by Man. Still not gnarly enough to warrant a rope. A fall here wouldn’t be fatal anyway. A bunny hill beneath us. No schrunds. Ever the good partner, Lee looks down at me as he climbs away: “are you happy to do this bit unroped?”

It looks okay. “Yeah I guess so,” I reply. “We’ll find out soon enough won’t we?” I grin.

He climbs twenty more metres to a stance. Time to rope up now. Lee places some screws and I flake the rope. The first pitch is eighty metres of solid ice climbing. Steep with some vertical steps. Lee, guns away, moving like the talented ice climber he is.

Crunch, crunch, crack, crack. Methodical. It’s nice to watch. Not a mis-swung tool. I follow. Touch the ice with a gloved hand. Old ice. Blue, plastic. The tools sink deep. In and out, in and out. Like herons snatching for fish. My footwork is good, my arms feel fine. Body is at balance. Good good.

Right tool high. Move feet. Left tool high. Move feet. Keep those heels low. Swing swing kick kick. Swing swing kick kick. Ha! Ice climbing is easy. 

Ice. The ephemeral medium. Rock climbing’s a collection of sequences. A series of movies fixed in place. A granite crack, the lock. A hand jam, the key. Ice though, it’s a blank canvas. A stage awaiting a dancer. Leave the ballet for the sport climbers, though. This is the Dance of the Neanderthals.

With the vertical crux of the route below us, I take the lead on a pitch of seventy-five degree ice. I feel good. Comfortable. I belong here. The mountain has done its sifting and it hasn’t tossed me off. I’ve been selected. I climb away, one tool at a time, my head in the game. Exactly where I want to be right now – halfway up a new route on a remote mountain at the heart of the Mount Cook National Park. Place some screws in some less-than-great ice and back the anchor up with my hunkered-in tools. I pull Lee up. It’s a pretty crap anchor but I don’t feel scared. We’re solid. No one is going to fall.

We simul-climb a snicy couloir leading to a snowy ridge, moving faster now as the light starts to go. It would be nice to get off before dark. Tools sunk into hard névé I dig deep. Burning calves. A twelve hour walk-in and a two hour bash up snow slopes will do that.

Lee, on the sharp end again, crests the ridge, buries a useless snow stake in powder for a belay and brings me up. I drop a screw… damn… and down-climb to retrieve it. Annoyed at the lost momentum. I want perfection. The electrical energy flowing through the rope. The stuff that Twight was on about as as he flowed with House and Backes up the Slovak Direct in sixty or so hours.

We’re flowing though. One piece of dropped gear doesn’t stop a stream of climbing consciousness like this. Just an obstruction. A boulder over which the glacier folds. Moving quickly now, chewing up terrain. Happy. Having fun, even if the sky is going a little pink. I meet Lee at the snowstake and we size up the eighty or so metres remaining. The headwall beyond the ridge yawning before us. Sixty degree ice. Cruiser. Perfectly formed. Blue, plastic, the lot. We simul-climb. Partly because we know we can and partly out of necessity. Who wants to get benighted when there’s an option to not be?

My crampons crunch happily. I have trouble getting one of the ice screws out. Its thread doesn’t seem to catch. It’s old. Obviously well used. Lee doesn’t seem to mind. The Englishman bashes out a stance. Takes in the view. A panorama of all the great peaks of the Tasman. Aoraki and his ilk in the distance, Malte Brun at our backs. The generously-icinged slice of wedding cake that comprises De La Beche and the Minarets. The burn is real now, and the angle isn’t easing.

Simul-climbing on sixty degree ice. Great ice. Really, it’s hard to fall when your frontpoints are sunk that deep. If I’m being honest. But I’m starting to get a bit scared. I’m kind of beat. Worked. Lee is over the summit cornice now, disappeared from view. No doubt, there’ll be a body belay awaiting me at the top. My legs are shot. Lots of vert beneath my heels. My arms though – they’re fine. A good thing. Flashpump in the wrist would be bad news here. Come on stay with it. I pause for a moment – stab myself a stance with a side-turned boot and rest for a moment. You’re not on the West Face of the Remarkables anymore. This is the mountains, in August. Suddenly, the biting fear. There you are Terror, my old friend.

I top out. Lee is there to greet me, a grin on his face. We shake hands. Fuck yeah, first ascent. Sort of. No summit but a new path, anyway.

We head down the glacier with the orange sky split by the flames of a dying sun, branching off to our left. In an hour, we’re back at the rock where we cached some gear. At the edge of the white ice in three. Another bivy and then another horrid moraine bash the next morning.

I complain about repacking. My pack is undersized when stuffed with all the gear we’ve taken. Lee calls me a whiner. Fair comment. Sometimes, the desire to return to Civilisation after time in Nature can be as strong as the yearning that drives us to leave. Kicking steps in snow-glued scree up Garbage Gully, I think about the end. Food, shelter, a bed, Ellie. All the comforts.

And then, as we crest the moraine wall and take the first steps toward Ball Shelter I turn back up towards the Tasman Glacier. De La Beche ridge gleaming in the mid-morning sun. Thinking about it now, you don’t have to be Ueli Steck to head into the mountains and put up a great, untrodden climb.

Just “vision, commitment, trust”. Jack Tackle, that. The mountains have always been a place for normal people. Seekers of an aesthetic. A purity. Freedom. Just you and a piece of rock. Some ice. And snow. Exploration.

The Caroline Face now at our backs, I think about the other proud lines in Mount Cook National Park. Come to think of it, why would anyone go up the Caroline Face at all anymore? Bill Denz soloed it forty years ago with straight-shafted tools and a jam jar full of water. Move on! Trail blaze elsewhere. There’s still potential in the park. A repeat on the Caroline isn’t worth the $5 it’s printed on. But I’d pay $5 dollars for the route we just climbed. It was the right choice for Lee and I. The natural selection.

First Ascent of “Natural Selection” (IV), Mt Darwin, Upper Tasman Glacier. 19 August, Lee Mackintosh, Chris Elliott


The walk-in with the Caroline Face coming into view on the left

The (once) Great Tasman glacier

The (once) Great Tasman glacier


Easy travel on the white ice

Easy travel on the white ice

De La Beche ridge doused in light

De La Beche ridge doused in light



A steeper section on the route.

A steeper section on the route.


On top

Sunset after topping out

Sunset after descending to the glacier

Lost in the Classics: Or, Why John Ewbank was a Hardass

“Of these two rocks one of them reaches heaven and its peak is lost in a dark cloud. This never leaves it, so that the top is never clear not even in summer and early autumn. No man though he had twenty hands and twenty feet could get a foothold on it and climb it, for it runs sheer up, as smooth as though it had been polished. In the middle of it there is a large cavern, looking West and turned towards Erebus; you must take your ship this way, but the cave is so high up that not even the stoutest archer could send an arrow into it. Inside it Scylla sits and yelps with a voice that you might take to be that of a young hound, but in truth she is a dreadful monster and no one- not even a god- could face her without being terror-struck.” – Homer, The Odyssey

My entire existence hung from a piece of brass smaller than the nail of a pinky finger. The tiny piece of metal, connected to a thin sliver of aluminium wire, connected to a carabiner, connected to the rope was all that stood between me and the down-pointed nothingness of air. If the stopper wire ripped from the sliver of sandstone in which it was embedded, the force of my fall would rip out the tiny (the tiniest, in fact) of camming devices two metres below that. And when that pulled I would hit the ledge, bounce off and hit the ground twenty metres below. It seemed a paradox that in this moment more than anything in the world I wanted to be firm on the horizontal but right now I was thinking of every possible solution to keeping myself attached (somehow and with something) to the flaking cliff from which I hung.
With one hand, I began brushing litter from a band of shale at eye-level, burrowing through the choss in search of something solid wherewith to place another piece of useless, expensive metal. With each excavating motion of the hand, fragments off diaphanous stone disappeared into the night. My headlight shining through the darkness, I looked down at my bivy site below, rock particles showering downwards as though sucked down by some unseen vortex. With every rock I heard striking my haul bag, I wondered how my rope was faring beneath a shower of sharp conglomerate.
More and more I excavated. Digging, delving. Nothing solid. Just more choss. I turned my headlamp to the left and the right. The band of brittle rock extended the whole way along the cliff, a darker band of taupe beset against a tapestry of reddish-brown. Like some primordial line of same-coloured Tetris bricks, it constituted an entire sediment layer in the most fragile, flaking cliff in the Blue Mountains… the Dog Face. Unlike a completed line of same-colour Tetris bricks however, the shale band had not disappeared after completion.
I looked up at the rest of the route, a mighty, loose corner cruelly carved into a beautiful stone monument by ancient seas and centuries of wind and now a proud feature on one of the mightiest cliffs in the Australia. The route had been first climbed by John Ewbank, the father of Australian rock climbing in the 60s, towing along Mick Davis as his belayer. And now, fifty plus years later I was trying to solo this vertical sand dune with a second-hand eighty metre rope and a chestful of expensive metal. Ewbank had named the route Scylla, after the monster from Homer’s Odyssey.
I’d rope-soloed before… Bunny Buckets Buttress at Pearce’s Pass, Dunes Buttress and the Tiger Wall at Mount Arapiles. And I’d been spending a bit of time in the Bluies lately as well. John Price and I had done a pretty cool link up of Bunny Buckets (270m, 18/5.10b) and the West Face of Mirrorball (120m, 19/5.10c) in about eight hours in May and the Monday previous I had taken a monster lob after ripping a hold on the second-last pitch of an everything-but-free ascent of Hotel California (350m, 22/5.11b). All of these routes were sandstone too. But the Dog Face was a whole ‘nother level of sandy. It was literally a pile of choss – the remnant scar of a landslide a couple of decades ago – a playground for only the strangest of climbers… aid climbers.

Aid climbing goes hand in hand with the first rock climbing outings – bearded explorer types wearing hobnailed boots, hammering pitons into thin seams and threading home-made carabiners with hemp ropes doubled back around a scavanged car seat belt wrapped around the waist. You get the idea – these guys weren’t meditative, vegetarian types wandering around Fontainebleau with a bouldering mat. They were into getting up shit. In this golden age of climbing there was no such thing as a “crimp”. Sinking a good hand jam was as good as (you get the idea), scrounging about on your knees and belly was a valid form of mantling a ledge and shed-carved wood chocks were a legitimate prevention method against the leader falling to his death. In short, these guys had no technique but a lot of heart, they loved to grovel, hated the idea of falling (and who wouldn’t when you’re talking about wooden chocks as protection) and used any means to ascend. I could relate to these men. I enjoyed grovelling (because I did a lot of it), I hated falling and I often just gleaned satisfaction from topping out. John Ewbank was one of these golden era climbing men. His name was literally on the first ascent of every route on the Dog Face – constituting a grand total of more than a kilometre of choss climbed. Scylla, the crumbling corner on the far left of the Dog Face was almost an afterthought for a man like Ewbank. Sure, it had required five metre run-outs on knifeblade pitons, dubiously hammered into rock the texture of pizza crust, but this was nothing for Ewbank and whichever partner he had tricked into coming along for the day. His era of rock climbing wasn’t about chalked-up hands and fancy redpoint shoes. In the man’s own words: “it doesn’t really matter what you’re wearing on your feet when you’re shitting in your pants.”
And now here I was. Trying to repeat “Scylla”, one of Ewbanks’s Blue Mountains “classics” – here understood as proud lines which should never have been repeated. And I was trying to do it both solo and hammerless. Asking an aid climber to climb sandstone without a hammer was like asking a lumberjack to cut down a tree with a rasp. In Ewbank’s day a hammer was standard issue for a climber – along with the mullet and the moustache. Using the hammer, they would bury pitons into fused rock seams, nailing their way to the skyline and glory. In my day, with the thousands of dollars of equipment the aid climber had been duped into buying, climbing “hammerless” was the ethic. It didn’t leave ugly scars in the rock and ensured the cliff remained in pristine condition for the next ascensionist. I was also too cheap to buy a specialty hammer and too lazy to steal one of Dad’s and drill a hole in it.
As a vertical sand-dune, Scylla was the definition of poor-quality rock – the kind of poor quality rock that did not require “saving” from piton scars. Looking at the route from the ground it would be easy to surmise that I was the first climber on the route since Ewbank had put up the route since 1968. According to the guidebook however, the route had enjoyed a free ascent (that is, climbing with just hands and feet and a rope to catch your fall) which meant someone was even crazier than I was. I figured this would be the route’s first solo dalliance – not that this was particularly noteworthy… at all. Scylla was an ugly bitch and not something a normal person would want to climb… that much was certain.
The original Scylla, from Homer’s Odyssey was a six-headed, twelve-legged chthonic monster with three rows of sharp teeth in each head. Passing betwixt two cliffs within arrow’s range of each other, the sailors of passing ships would have to make a decision to hug alongside the cliff inhabited by Scylla or brave the whirling maelstrom of water, Charybdis, lying next to the cliff.
“Hug Scylla’s crag—sail on past her—top speed! Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship than lose your entire crew.” That had been the sorceress Circe’s advice to brave Odysseus on his way home. Needless to say, Odysseus had lost some of his sailors to Scylla’s maw.

I was making no progress with the choss band. There were too many geological eras to get through and I only had eighty years left of life. I would have to reach higher… higher than I could reach. I gulped. I would have to free climb this section… because I didn’t have a hammer. Thinking light thoughts I stemmed with my legs across the void, reached up and then back-stepped onto a higher hold. Wheedling my way into another stance from which I could place another piece… Another micro-wire. And the smallest of cams – a #0.1. In hindsight it seems ridiculous but I let out a sigh. A micro-wire was better than a shale band.
Above the crack became thinner again. A fused corner. Damn Ewbank and his pitons. I reached for a unique instrument of torture known as a cam hook. A cam hook is a type of aid hook which is inserted perpendicular to a vertical crack. When weight is applied to the other end, it torques downward and becomes cammed into the crack as long as body weight remains evenly applied to the piece. All this occurs while the aid climber prays to the Greek gods for mercy. Hera wasn’t listening to Odysseus’ prayers again, because I was still locked in Scylla’s grasp.
Standing on the cam hook I reached for the carabiner of microwires, fiddling another one into the crack. I was thinking about hammers again. Hammers and pitons. With the rope tat borne by every soloist and rack full of metal accoutrement dangling about my chest and waist, I felt like one of Odysseus’ sailors trapped in the folds of Scylla’s necks.
Too much crap to carry, I thought.
I eyed the micro-wire in the crack, wondering how and why it was supporting my body weight. I stepped higher on my aider and higher again. The wire wriggled. I held my breath, awaiting the plunge. Small granules of sand fluttered out of the seam as though from some unseen half-broken hourglass. It was letting me know time was running out. Time was running out. I’d been stuck on this pitch for two god-damned hours.
Two pieces later and I had mantled a small ledglet, facing up against another impossibly thin seam. I hooked three times off the ledge, aware with every metre gained that if one piece blew I would hit the ledge. It was an awful situation really.
Finally, as I turned left, better cracks appeared in the rock to fill with precious metal. I climbed methodically for the next half an hour. Place, test, mount, climb, repeat. I reached a small rooflet and set a belay. “Small wires,” according to the guidebook. It was correct. Above and left however… I looked on in horror. Another shale band. And above that… another.
I looked down and to my right at a multi-tonned flake of rock, suspended in mid-air waiting to drop onto my rope and sever it in two. It seemed unfair that gravity had spent most of the evening doing its best to rip me, a mere seventy-five kilo man from my perch, when a giant rock ten times my weight was allowed to remain impossibly suspended.
Who climbs this kind of rubble? I thought to myself. Oh right, me.
I’d had enough for the evening. I wanted to be on flat ground again. That was all I could think about. Flat ground… and bed. I had packed light though (to make pack hauling easier), so bed tonight was a jumper, a silk sleeping bag liner and the vinyl outer of my haul bag (just big enough to encase a toddler and/or my legs). But hey, suffering in a bivy was what it was all about.
I flicked off my headlamp and gingerly slipped into my silk liner. Winter in the Blue Mountains bit deep and cold, a gelid wind blowing from the east and across the wall. I wondered a few times if maybe I should wear a helmet while I slept too.
I woke again and returned to my highpoint. Time to proceed, I suppose, I said to myself.
A few moves later I was at a fixed wire and roof looking left at dubious looking flake. If I couldn’t onsight rope-solo a grade 24/5.12a move (which I definitely couldn’t) then I would be aiding this section. It was the free-climbing crux of the route. I tested the flake with a skyhook. It expanded, like a flag blowing in the wind. Then creaked. I actually heard it creak.
A song started playing in my head. The Victorian train safety ad… Dumb ways to die… so many dumb ways to die. (If you haven’t heard it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJNR2EpS0jw).
I thought about committing. But then, I also thought about how sad Ellie would be if the flake pulled. Or how disappointed Brendan would be when he didn’t have a partner for alpine climbing in New Zealand this winter. Or what the Army would say if one of their soldiers died in a “freak” (read as self-inflicted) cliff climbing accident. Or how angry Dad would be when he found out I had borrowed his car. Then I thought about all the money that I would have wasted on climbing gear if I died on some ridiculous choss pile like this.
I did what I knew was always inevitable. What I should have done five hook moves ago. I bailed. Fifty-five metres. That was all I had done. Like a broken Odysseus, I threw off my harness and sighed. I hadn’t been resoundingly flogged in a while. But this was a resounding flogging.
As I shouldered my bag and prepared myself for the long trudge up the Furber Steps to the top of the cliffline I looked back at the crumbly shape of Scylla.
How on earth did Ewbank climb that? I wondered.
Well… with a hammer and pitons, I remembered.

The line of Scylla (120m, 15/5.7 A2/C3+) on the Lower Dog Face marked in red. My highpoint was the roof section just before halfway.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davebateman/5679865132/



Tasmania: The End of the World

Tasmania probably has more remote, untouched rock than anywhere on the Australian mainland. Granite sea cliffs bearded by ragged manes of seaweed; dolerite columns riven by perfect cracks; quartzite mountain faces rising six hundred metres from brook-laced meadow to windswept summit; entire peninsulas of unclimbed pinnacles battered by Antarctic swell.

There is near-on unlimited potential for traditional climbing. First ascents, wild experiences. All there, for the taking. Courage (at least a dollop of it) is mandatory, suffering inevitable, adventure guaranteed.

The kayaking too, isn’t terrible. In 2010, my friend Andrew and I took the ferry from Melbourne to Devonport before paddling back across Bass Strait in a double sea kayak.

Bass Strait on a calm day during a crossing of it 2010

Bass Strait on a calm day during a crossing of it 2010

The mighty Frew's Flutes at Ben Lomond

The mighty Frew’s Flutes at Ben Lomond

Taking in the view of Frew's Flutes after a happy send of Sam's Route (20/5.10d)

Taking in the view of Frew’s Flutes after a happy send of Sam’s Route

Ben and Johannes soloing a cruxy bit on the Sea Level Traverse (16). We roped up on two short steep sections but soloing is a much easier (and safe) way to do this climb.

Ben and Johannes soloing a cruxy bit on the Sea Level Traverse. We roped up on two short steep sections but soloing is a much easier (and safe) way to do this climb.

On a steeper section of the Sea Level Traverse

On a steeper section of the Sea Level Traverse

Wondering why I forgot my pants on the FA of Ijtihad (21, a new hideous offwidth

Wondering why I forgot my pants on the FA of Ijtihad (5.10+), a new hideous offwidth

I named Ijtihad (5.10+), for the Arabic word meaning “diligence” which, in Islamic jurisprudence, pertains to “the utmost effort an individual can put forth in an activity”. The Arabic root of the word “j-h-d” (the triliteral is جهد for those of you playing at home) is the same root as the word “jihad” which means “struggle”, “purification of the self” or “blow myself up in a cafe” – depending on who you ask. I was proud of my “utmost effort”. After all, I had grovelled up it and – over-estimating my offwidth abilities – hadn’t nearly taken enough big cams. I felt the name “ijtihad” justified.

The sun setting between two dolerite columns at Cape Raoul isn't too shabby

The sun setting between two dolerite columns at Cape Raoul isn’t too shabby

Ben and Johannes on top of the Moiai pinnacle on the Tasman Peninsula

Ben and Johannes on top of the Moiai pinnacle on the Tasman Peninsula

From the top of the Moiai, encircled by a vortex of sea wind, the exposure is total. The cracks wind on – effortless handjams. Below, the ocean rages, the swell sidewinding into the rocks – crashing, frothing, broiling.

Tasmania. All in all, it’s worth a look.

Cape Raoul in all her glory. Southern Ocean beyond.

Cape Raoul in all her glory. The Southern Ocean beyond.