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, one thousand metres of rope-soloing and jumaring in the burning heat of the Malian desert.
In the shade, the temperature is still thirty-five degrees and the sun, like a furnace, blasts the rock spires around me like sculptures in the kiln. From behind, the sun roasts my already roasted nape, changing the once-pink flesh from a medium-rare to a dark and well-done.
The climbing has been long and constant, from steep 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 a six hundred metre rock spire, Kaga Tondo, the index finger of the Hand of Fatima massif, the tallest standalone sandstone rock tower on the planet.
I sit in a place known as “La Brèche“, a five-metre by two-metre platform between a free-standing gendarme and the summit headwall of Kaga Tondo. 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 my car – but now, severely dehydrated with spasming muscles, it looks impossible.
The rock looks sleek and sculpted, nigh-on impossible to protect a fall save for a few tiny breaks and a single rusty piton, hammered in-situ. The pitch will bring me up six 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, with nothing below me but a sickening drop of five-hundred metres uninterrupted to the ground.
After two days of climbing in the heat with the bare minimum amount of water, I am approaching the limit of dehydration and fatigue. 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. I dream of the descent. But now, at pitch eleven on the six hundred metre route, I am fully-committed. My descent route is down the West Face, accessible only by the summit. A summit which is only accessible by traversing across and up this blank headwall above me. It is do or die.
The traverse pitch above is known as “La Voie Pujos”, named for one of the massif’s early explorers – a French mountain guide, Alain Pujos. Pujos was a talented climber, one of the best of his day, and on a sunny February day, after setting out from a tiny town in the Sahelian wasteland to free-solo the shady North Face of Mt Hombori, Pujos reached the summit, sat down next to a rock and died of dehydration. I had carried this thought with me the entire time as I climbed – reminded of this every time I took a sip from one of my water bottles, watching my precious supplies dwindle.
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 primordial symbol known across North Africa as “La Main de Fatima”.
The Hand of Fatima with the setting sun behind
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 to come here, in less than two years, packing a heavy bag full of ropes and climbing equipment and muling it solo halfway across the world in order to take it all 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 a can of sardines and the strange spam-like canned chicken Suleiman had packed me the night before. Saving the bread for my breakfast this morning had been a bad move because Suleiman had bought it three days ago from the twice-a-week fresh produce market in Hombori and it had gone stale (either overnight or sometime before). Dry and floury, it had given me cottonmouth and I’d barely been able to take a few bites. But I wasn’t that hungry yet.
What I really needed was water. Water, water, precious water. But 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 nothing. Suddenly a black swallow, wings tipped with orange like fire, 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 in Australia.
I’ve spent the morning in the shade on Dunes Buttress, methodically working my way up the main route. I have traced a path over a slab, beyond a little ledge and up towards the summit – seizing this beautiful line in my fingertips. Either side of me other proud routes wend their own way across the sandstone face. There is a recurrent theme in the routes’ names on this buttress. “Arab”, “Saracen”, “Lawrence”, “Dunes” – all of them whispering of sandy somethings in faraway desert-scapes. A year ago, my friend and I had done a little girdle traverse link-up of all four routes, savouring the best pitches of each. Now, back here by myself, I have chosen the eponymous route on Dunes Buttress.
On the third pitch I hang there from a spider’s web of metal contraptions, a gentle breeze blowing across my nape. About to pull over the lip of a little rooflet, I scan the rock above for a good handhold. What my eyes miss, I feel with my hands, searching for something positive to lock my fingers around, searching for a solution to this overhanging section. I find nothing for the moment, and I take the time to pause and reassess, reminding myself to enjoy the view. A robin whizzes by next to me, round and scarlet, bobbing up and down with each flutter of its little wings, like a breast-stroking fat man trying to stay afloat.
Below me, the shapes of a few climbers on neighbouring buttresses – the familiar sounds of “on belay!” and “safe!” filling my ears. There is no calling out on a solo climb… No yelling out commands for more or less rope. No laughter. No sound. There is only the climber, his rope, rack, the rock and an inner monologue – a monologue dithering between the fear of loneliness and the exhilaration of silent solitude. There is no miscommunication, only an error of judgement. There is no waiting for the other climber, there is only idling. And there is no other to allay blame for a mistake – only the self. Everything is in the soloist’s hands. Now, alone on Dunes Buttress, I pause for a second, feed a handful of slack through my belay device and reach out, grasping, over the lip, finding a hold and choosing it with tenuous approval. I pause, re-assess and re-adjust my right foot, stepping high with my heel onto a tiny horizontal ledge. I climb. A few more metres and I emerge into the sunlight at a place called “the Oasis” – a heavily vegetated plateau two thirds of the way up. It hides a little cave amongst the debris of fallen spires and it seems 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 entire route is soused in shade. Jumaring back up to my belay, I pause for a muesli bar on the ledge, drinking in the Middle-Eastern vibe surrounding this place. It could be an oasis in the Sinai or the desert town of Tedmoor in Syria, I muse, a host of old memories from an Arabic study trip years ago flooding back. 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, over which lies the summit. My hand feels for a positive edge on the other side. I grip a hold and place a cam to protect a fall in a neighbouring crack. The top is no place to die. I pause again, one hand and one foot, attached to the cliff. I crane my head, left and right – complete exposure, nothing but air all around me. For a moment, the fear broiling inside me is disguised by a smile, and I realise that I am truly happy. Alone on the wall, I feel alive as never before.
I emerge into the sunlight and look up into the cloudless sky, just as two peregrine falcons flying wing-to-wing are silhouetted black against the burning orb. Everything about this moment is perfect – the summit, the sun, the birds, the final move. I stand on the top and hoot a victory hoot, drinking in the entire experience. I’ve just rope-soloed Dunes Buttress. For a split second I am content with nothing else but with who I am…
But that is a tale from yesteryear. Dunes Buttress is an old and tired song. Today’s song is the song of Kaga Tondo – a song of desert heat and desert thirst and the Pujos traverse above me. This journey – the journey to the Hand of Fatima massif had been a long time coming. A long time, and a great many trips across the deserts of Mali…
I drag my bags to the front gate of The Sleeping Camel in Bamako. The lobby is bustling, full of the kinds of foreigners one expects to find in a country in the midst of a civil war. A Swedish free-lance 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 organisations. A loud-mouthed black American with mining interests in the Congo (like a caricature, he walks around in a scarlet velvet jacket). The lobby is literally a rogue’s gallery of expats-in-Africa stereotypes.
Then there is the slightly-insane German quintegenarian camped out beneath an army-issue groundsheet under a mango tree in the front courtyard. He ports a long grey beard and a karakul and had ridden here by motorcycle from Munich on a journey “to find the kingdom of Heaven”.
The presence of the mysterious German, if nothing else, proves the old adage that no matter where you are in the world – from Kandahar to Raqqa to the summit of Nanga Parbat – there is always… always… a German there. Read about Reinhold Messner
or Jürgen Todenhofer
for more evidence.
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 to be “the dangerous north”.
I’d first visited Mali the previous June, six months after Islamist extremists based in the dunescapes of the deep Sahara had taken over half the country and were moving quickly to take the rest. 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 across the desert riding the wake of a nationalist uprising amongst disaffected Tuareg nomads. They hit Timbuktu, that 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. The ancient mausoleums and manuscripts were idolatrous and against Islam, they said. Nothing the world hadn’t seen already before from the denizens of jihad.
Gao, Hombori and Douentza, three key towns on the road to the capital were the next to fall. The ill-equipped Malian army was driven out. Tourists were kidnapped and 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 shit-hole was sudden, thorough, total. With Al-Qaeda and its affiliates having instituted a particularly vicious form of governance in Timbuktu – that faraway desert town at the limit of the Occidental imagining – Northern Mali had become another sunburnt sore upon the cancerous belt of the Africa Sahel.
This sign perfectly 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
But a few months before my first trip to Mali the French had arrived to take the north back from the “djihadistes“, rolling toward Timbuktu with a rapid mechanical fury. One-by-one the towns were taken back and the occupying Islamists driven out. The offensive continued across the desert, and the French, airborne assets in full operation brought the fight hard and fast against the enemy, right to their desert sanctuary in the mountains of the Adrar des Ifoghas. Then, like djinns at dusk, the jihadists had disappeared, packing up and shipping out almost as quickly as they had arrived, fleeing into the deserts of Libya and Algeria. With the Islamists scattered, and the nationalist fury of the Tuareg temporarily reduced to a grumble, the French had done what they had come to do – to prevent Mali from becoming the Somalia of North-West Africa.
Despite all this, suicide bombings and IEDs had since become the mode du jour in plenty of former tourist hotspots, gunfire was still being heard at night in townships across the North – Mali was anything but a safe country. Indeed, even after a cursory glance at the news, one might conclude that Mali’s main two exports at the time of even my latest visit seemed to be bad news and Islamist insurgencies.
At the house of one or other of the European explorers who “discovered” Timbuktu.
But something was drawing me there. Something big. The Hand of Fatima. Five mighty rock towers, arranged like the fingers of a mighty hand, rising out of the desert wasteland of northern Mali. Two hundred kilometres from Timbuktu and a long way from anywhere else you would have heard of climbing the sandstone spires of Northern Mali is the equivalent of climbing on a different planet. I’d heard about this region (at the time, part of “the Islamic emirate of Azawad”) a few years ago and since I was both a climber and an anthropology student looking at conflict in contemporary Islamic societies it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
My first trip to Mali had been an epic in itself. A summer visit to the Dogon villages at the base of the 200km cliffline of the Bandiagara Escarpment had seen me suffering heatstroke in the 50+ degree heat. It is the only time I have ever vomited due to climactic conditions. Later, a visit to Timbuktu had culminated in a breakdown on the return journey, a waterless walk back to the next town, and sips of water-tasting-of-battery-acid siphoned from the engine.
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) is very syncretic in West Africa.
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.
A typical mud mosque in Dogon Country at the base of the Bandiagara Escarpment.
All packed and ready for a failed expedition
A vehicle breakdown on my return from Tktu after some ethnographic fieldwork culminated in…
… a long, long walk
“There is nothing in the desert. And no one needs nothing” – Peter O’Toole
This time, having left Bamako the afternoon before and travelled through the night, I was Hombori bound – on the road to my final destination, the Hand of Fatima massif. The sun rises slowly, a new dawn hailed first with the light-pulp of a bursting mandarin then with a cocktail of pale blue and gold.
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 followed promptly by two brown-robed Fulani men, dressed in bone-white turbans. In conducting wudu, the ablution of washing, he touches the red earth with his bare hands. He is pensive, methodical and thorough as he does this, as if the dust with which he cleanses were from the cleanest of glacial streams. 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 into 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, and the way between them is teeming with desert life. A trio of camels, drifting across the road. A goatherd and his servres, moving between the thorntrees of a sparse and 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 mountain of my dreams reaches up and outwards, backlit by a blazing morning sun.
As the Hand winds closer, the contours of its rugged cliffs become clearer – palisades of rock formed from the compaction of millions of years of shifting sand. Against the roasting 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, as if fashioned by some geologic Lah as if to say “stop… you shall not pass”.
Wangel Debridu, flanked by Kaga and Wanderdu, encircled by an angelic halo of light
The Hand of Fatima is a massif comprised of four rock towers, with a fifth subsidiary rocktower Suri Tondo (Suri being a man’s name and tondo meaning “rock”), often included as the fifth finger in the literature – a polydactylous pinkie finger on the far end of the plateau. There is Wanderdu (meaning “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 thumb of escarpment, which, as seen from the east forms a subsidiary peak of the greater Kaga, a standalone pillar on a far broader fin of weathered, metamorphosed sandstone.
In Fulani, the etymology of the names of each tower summons the image of an ancient Sahelian family – Suri the farmer, the wheat field, Suri’s pregnant wife, his father, the wisened Kaga and the grandmother, Pomori, wife of Kaga
Throughout much of the Islamic World there is a great deal of iconography and cultural significance in the “the open hand”, 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 – the hand itself being 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 “khamsa” or Hand of Fatima
Indeed, for the inhabitants of Garmi and Daari, the two tiny villages spilling out from its rock base, the mountain seems indeed to have been a protector. Far be it from a sentinel unto itself – it seems now that it has protected the villagers from the djihadistes.
As the bus takes off down the well-holed road, I am left standing alone with two packs full of climbing gear and a shoulder bag with one change of clothes. Two children emerge from a small shelter in the distance – a dome tent-like structure made from sticks – a 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 in giggly Fulani. I understand nothing they say. A woman emerges from the stick shelter, shouting after the children. Then she notices me, the strange white man with more bags then he can carry. I’ve often heard people say that learning a foreign language is hard work. But as I stand there with three bags full of climbing gear, a French-speaker with no knowledge of the local African language, I am suddenly wholly aware of the fact that there are few things harder than overcoming the language barrier in a foreign country. Compared to the charade one plays when one doesn’t speak the same language, learning a foreign tongue in the first place is effortless.
Locals in the village of Daari chatter in Fulani, gathered outstide my stick-built tent
Unable to communicate any of my needs to the people, I wonder what all travellers in foreign lands have wondered… how am I to find lodging? To find food… to find water. After much toing and froing, miming sleep and hand-to-mouth-for-sustenance, an old man deposits me in a traditional Fulani shelter – a dome of sticks about half the size of a man, with a straw mat for bedding inside. A few francs later and he boils me water for tea and cooks an egg in front of me. A small bird’s egg for lunch… I’m going to need more than this if I’m going to have a chance at soloing a big route here.
Children from across Garmi begin to gather and in the distance I hear the sound of a moto, fanging it down the highway. A thin man in an FC Barcelona jersey arrives. A Messi jersey of course.
“Bon matin,” he says. “Ça va?”
Finally… 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 just a kilometre from this very traditional pastoralist village, it doesn’t take much for Sooleiman to sell the idea that I should stay with him.
Sooleiman, le grand cuisinier
Curious kids in the village of Garmi
Children in Garmi pose for the camera
I spend the following two days scouting out the area, recceing the various climbing 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.
Amadou had been taught the basics of tying-in and belaying by Salvadore Campillo, a Spanish mountain guide who had lived in Daari until the conquest of Hombori by the djihadistes. In the thirty odd years he had spent at the base of the Hand of Fatima, apart from learning Fulani and marrying locally, Salvadore had also taught the locals to climb.
At the belay ledge of P2 Mariage Traditionel (6a+), Wanderdu
Amadou stems his way to glory on the final crux pitch of MT
Amadou on the Deuxieme Terrasse of Mariage Traditionel
After lunch and a long guzzle of water during the hottest part of the day we scouted out the other possibilities. At the foremost in my mind is the route that has become a two year obssession for me – the “obscure object of my desire”, in Greg Child’s words – the region’s most striking line… the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo. Towering 650m above the Sahelian desert, the North Pillar is a crown jewel of perfectly-featured grès following a series of gendarmes up what is probably the world’s largest 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 knew it only as “La Grande Voie”.
The famous French climbing pair Stephanie Bodet and Arnaud Petit say of the route in their guide to the greatest big wall climbs of the world – “une voie incontournable sur un sommet unique, sans contestation parmi les plus belles grandes voies longues et adventureuses de la planète” – which basically means it’s pretty fucking rad.
A climb of the North Pillar would bring me to the highest point of the massif and the descent will require a traverse across the summit and a series of abseils down the west face. As we pass beneath Kaga, Amadou points out the line of descent. Even though he himself has never climbed all the way to the top, he effortlessly recalls the specifics of each ledge and rap-station.
I’ve learned from what little climbing I’ve done on the big-walls of the world that the reconnaissance is just as important, if not more important, than the execution of the climb itself. As in war, where the information transmitted from a forward observation post is critical for what Western militaries call “intelligence preparation of the battlespace”, scoping the lines and descents of a big wall with eye, binoculars and spotting scope were what gave the great wall-climbers of yesteryear – Robbins, Bridwell, Ewbank – the chance to succeed on the first of “the impossibles”.
Now with a recce under my belt I knew that it was wholly possible for me to do a point-to-point traverse of the Hand of Fatima, starting in Daari, following the North Pillar to the summit of Kaga Tondo and descending to Garmi… all in a single push.
My idea of a village-to-village traverse of the massif came from a general interest in horizontal movement in the vertical wold – moving from point A to point B via a beautiful mountain summit. One of my research interests as an anthropologist is in nomadism and human migration, and so I’ve always been intrigued by the erudite idea of linking population centres via an aesthetic route and summit. Kilian Jornet’s “run”
from the Italian village of Courmayeur to the French town of Chamonix via the Innominata Ridge (a technical and precipitous mountaineering route) and the summit of Mt Blanc (in 8 hours!) could be held up as an immortal standard for a point-to-point traverse of this kind.
My planned village-to-village traverse of the Hand of Fatima massif
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
My grand traverse project would bring me from the encampement détruit in the village of Daari to my cosy abode in Garmi, where shade, sleep, food and most importantly, water, would await me.
Content with the outcomes of my reconnaissance, I put my camera away and trot off down the trail, ghosting Amadou on a circuitous track which winds its way through the boulder-fields next to Fatima’s shoulder.
In the dying sunlight as we walk back to Garmi, Amadou recounts to me the myths of the massif. Unlike the stories surrounding other mountain ranges of the world where I had 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, its syncretic brand of Islam and the legacy that the French left behind with independence, the story of the massif was an assembly of scattered tales – a tapestry woven from many threads.
One tale followed that the Hand of Fatima was in fact the hand of some primordial woman, who, as she lay dying in the desert, reached her hand towards the sky while the rest of her was consumed by shifting sands. Another tale (in very African fashion) told of an ex-cannonical pilgrimage made by the Prophet Mohammed (a historian might smirk at this) who named the massif after the dainty hand of his favourite daughter. Another tale followed that the massif had simply been named as such by French explorers, who, reminiscing on the khamsa amulets they had seen in Moroccan marketplaces, accorded the obviously hand-shaped falaises a very un-Fulani name: “la Main de Fatima”.
And finally there is the myth of Suri and Fatima, the tale which seems the closest to an original local legend.
“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.”
That night, as I fall asleep, I wonder what the marabout might have thought of me – a strange white man, preparing to do battle with this great immovable object, solo on the morrow.
Inquisitive kids in the village of Garmi
Sooleiman’s sister, Fatima
At five a.m, I hear the rumble of Amadou’s moto in the distance beyond the safe confines of my mudbrick walls. Supine but with eyes open, I peek up at the metal shutters to see the beams of headlights refracted across the room.
Like a méhariste waking to the sound of approaching camels, I know that this, my transport, has come to take me away from this place of safety – to take me away to a place of toil and hardship and thirst.
My bag already packed, I down half a litre of water, stuff an orange in my pocket and mount the moto behind Amadou. Taking the pot-holed, bombed-out highway to the other side of the massif we reach my starting point at the destroyed camp in the pre-dawn darkness. Kaga Tondo, profiled in darkest black, towers above us. We pick our way up the boulders to the base of the éperon nord. We arrive in the pre-dawn glow, the horizon line a scheme in grisaille.
Having charged Amadou with the carrying of the water, I relinquish three bottles from him, the sum total containing 5.5 litres of water. 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. I reach the first terrace at daybreak and I fleet a glance at my watch. If I am to be up and off this thing in two days, I need to do every pitch in about an hour. The first two pitches – written up on the topo as an easy dawdle, have taken me three.
“I’m just flattening out the speed bumps,” I say to myself, trying to pinpoint the last time I went rope-soloing. “Just getting the system dialled again.”.
I climb another pitch, return to my bag and guzzle some water. The early morning sun burns hot and bright on the east side of the pillar and I retire to a pocket of shade for a time to devour an orange. The cooling pulp is like a refridgerated ice block to my already parched mouth. 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 – amounting to a total of 1.7L per day – the very edge of what is necessary to survive. I do the math again, hoping that I’d been too harsh on myself with the first set of calculations. But my math is good, my figures were right. This climb is going to bring me to the edge of thirst.
I look at my watch again.
“But looking at your watch is going to make you climb faster.”
Sunrise on Kaga Tondo
Racing up the opening pitches
Lovely view of the Sahelian plains from the first terrace
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. Looking up at the pitch above, I couldn’t really comprehend why anyone would do something like that. Any one (no, most)
of these holds looked like they might rip at any minute, the conveyerbelts of loose shale wedged in the chute reminiscent of the vertical sand dune I had encountered on a failed solo foray
up a big-wall in the Blue Mountains.
In my opinion, while free-soloing is not necessarily an activity for the criminally-insane, it also represents a dangerous evolution in the sport of climbing. Climbing big routes by one’s self is a beautiful thing, but climbing ropeless is just silly, what Bill Tilman would mordantly have described as “uninsurable”.
While the historical Kaga Tondo free-soloing phantom of yesteryear must have felt something akin to total freedom by himself on this route, I couldn’t help but think that my trial of ropes and jumars and packs, would bring me closer to the mountain. A man without a rope has but a few short hours to climb a route before his muscles give out. A man with
a rope can stop, rest, observe, bivy and suffer. And suffering is what it is all about isn’t it.
I pull a few metres of slack and commit to the loose horror. Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. I conquer the choss crevasse soon enough. I’m through. I stem now on two good ledges, suspended like a gymnast above the sickening void. I snap a photo and continue up to the belay.
Looking down at the horror chimney
A pitch or two later and I reach the base of the premiere gendarme. In a manner typical of multi-pitch climbing on sandstone, the way up the North Pillar does not take any logical path up a series of corners and cracks, but wanders hither and thither across the wall of red rock, winding around the gendarmes en route like a snake coiled around a caduceus. Route finding and not the climbing, is the crux of this voie according to Bodet and Petit.
This next pitch takes the form of an airy traverse wandering beneath a horrifying series of rooves before pulling through them – one, two, three – to reach the ledge above. Les Françaises, on the topo, label this pitch the “traversée aérienne” which in elite French alpiniste speak means “terrifying shit for mere mortals”.
The Petit-Bodet topo I had with me.
Departing my perch with pack and water, I quest out onto the pillar’s exposed face, finding that indeed, this pitch involves some sketchy, terrifying shit with some 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 is an easier option than the one I am looking at… it’s difficult to tell because unlike an obvious splitter crack or a nicely-bolted sport climb, I can only really guess which way the route goes.
Finally, I decide to commit to a “deadpoint”
, a dynamic climbing move in which the hold is grabbed at the apex of upward motion. I throw for it, stick it, cut loose with both feet and continue climbing. That felt pretty heroic, I think to myself as 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 like a force-field over Daari, protecting the village from whatever might come down the highway.
Climbers often find themselves in a race against time, inexorability forcing them to constantly review their speed and efficiency. With speed comes safety – safety from the elements, from inclement weather, safety from inertia. But here in the desert, unlike in the high mountains, my race is not against the weather and an unstable snowpack but a race against my water supplies. For when there is no water left in my bottles I will have only what remains in my body, and once that is gone, I too will be gone. As I said to Soolemain on the evening before departing: “One can live a little without food… mais s’il n y a pas d’eau, il n’ya pas de la vie”.
I charge up some dark black slabs in the dying light, fixing two pitches, before returning to my bivouac on a broad and comfortable ledge. The ledge is encircled by a small stone corral, constructed by some unknown climber-by who must have had a few hours to kill before sunset.
The pitch before the bivouac ledge
Bivouac ledge selfie.
Night falls. I procure a nut-tool from my harness for use as a spoon. 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 would be. 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 received by a howling wind.
I look at my watch again, feeling a rising sense of urgency rising. The sun is high now and it will soon be the on descent, the route now totally swathed in shade. Below on the plains, the mighty shadow of Kaga Tondo lengthens over Daari.
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.
With my moment of despair and nostalgia behind me I am left with nothing but 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.
I reach a horizontal break in the rock, plug it with a wobbly cam, and continue questing out left.
A howling easterly blows across a smooth face and the heat of a sun en tombant nips on my red-raw neck. I reach the anchor, and after carrying out some “unorthodox” back cleaning for expediencies sake, I lower out into the void.
The crux pitch traversing left and up and away from La brèche
Getting high on the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo
The next pitch is a mighty crasse splitting the rock, and with shadowy fingers lengthening in the plain beneath me I throw myself at it. My brain goes into autopilot, the whinging and despairing below me now. Handjam over handjam, like Matthew Webb in the English Channel, I am swimming towards the summit, swimming towards victory. I think therefore I climb. I swim, therefore I’m not… a fish out of water. I am going to make it. I know it. The hardest pitches are below me. The only question that remains is will I make it before dark.
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 shoot a few seconds of video footage and scope the descent before the dying of the light.
The shadow of the massif over Daari. The wall of the destroyed camp seen below.
Summit of Kaga Tondo
Summit. The wind howls. The sleeping bag comes out. I feel the cold of a stark desert night. I thirst. Below me, in the darkness of the plains, I see the diesel-powered fairy lights of the French military base and a glowing red dot of a solitary campfire far below – 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. The clock is at 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 know that I will descend safely.
Later, on my journey across the Sahara, I would emerge from the desert to news of the Charlie Hebdo attacks… I would think of that tricouleur sunrise, and the headlight I had seen from the summit – the shining light, wending its way along the highway. To me that light represented freedom – freedom from my summit prison, freedom from my harness and from my ropes – proof that the world of the horizontal would be mine before the day was out. That light and that flag was freedom for me and so too, there would be hope for the freedom to offend.
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 – it seems like days since my last drink.
“Keep going. Get down. Think about what you’re doing.”
As I rappel down I remark upon a Todd Skinner route that carves its way up the arête of Kaga Pomori. It looks like a wild climb for the since-dead American cowboy. It’s aptly named… “Harmattan Rodeo” (8a). Another time another trip perhaps.
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.
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 water. Desperately.
Fuck it. I pull the rope and look down at 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, scouring the web for ideas of 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 land 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 of height and my physical capability is almost 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.
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 posies itself from cracked and swollen lips and a red-gummed cottonmouth.
I mutter a few words about my epic descent between gulping spasms of dehydration and begin unwrapping the bag’s contents with the glee of a child unwrapping a birthday present.
And indeed, January the first is my birthday. Unlike Mark Twight however, who once celebrated his date de naissance by soloing a hard and dangerous ice route in the Alps, I am finished with the solo climbing for the moment.
As I look up at the headwall and the summit above, I am thankful for this gift.
The water, that is.