Saturday, June 5, 2021

El Gigante - Standing on the shoulder of a giant

 Standing on the shoulder of a Giant

Hidden deep within the sierra of Chihuahua, Mexico lies a rock wall known locally as “El Gigante”. Emerging almost 1000m from the valley floor, it is the focus of myths and legends. Great fields of marijuana were rumored to grow at its base, and accessing it required days of difficult hiking through cartel controlled lands. It's weather fluctuated at a moment's notice. From 90 degrees and sunny one day, to minus 10 degrees and snowing the next. It both intimidated and captivated me. I called to recruit my friends Will Saunders (a talented photographer) and Sergio Almada (a big wall veteran) to undertake the expedition with me. Equally excited for such an adventure, we immediately booked our flights and a few weeks later, found ourselves in a small mountain town in Chihuahua, Mexico.


My climbing partner Sergio Almada,better known as “Tiny” to his friends, knew the town well. He had frequented this part of the Sierra in the years prior, establishing friendships with the locals who rarely saw visitors, especially gringos. During the early 2000's, this region of Chihuahua had earned a reputation of being dangerous as Cartels and the Police battled for control. After years of bloody clashes in which thousands of people died, normality had gradually returned to the town, but the violent stigma remained.

Entering the small town of Cajurichi, we pass by cattle grazing the shoulder alongside the rough country road, closely followed by children on horseback who usher them along. Shortly after entering the town, we pull over at a small concrete home with a crudely painted blue exterior where Tiny hops out the car and makes his way inside.  

Following him inside, he is greeted with smiles and open arms from the home's occupants. They're overjoyed to see a familiar face from beyond the Sierra and warmly welcome us inside their home which cameo’s as a small store or “Tienda” selling convenience items such as coca-cola, cigarettes and packaged sweet breads.

We're here to seek out the help of a local rancher by the name of Valentine. He is a friend of Tiny and in the past, he has helped shuttle climbers back and forth along the difficult mountain road to the summit of El Gigante, our climbing objective. Under normal circumstances, you would simply call ahead and arrange a time and place to meet, but here, deep within the mountains of copper canyon, there is no cell service and most people do not own a phone. Instead, we deploy the old style way of searching for people which in this case, involves a stop in at each of their family members houses to ask who saw him last. People rarely travel far from home here and it's often just a matter of time until you bump into whoever you're looking for.

The family members inside are eager to hear news from outside the mountains and after a brief catch up of the previous years events, Margarita (Valentines wife) joins our now extra stuffed Toyota Rav4 for a drive through the village to search. We pay a visit to the homes of various family members until finally we arrive at the house of Bertha, Valentine’s mother. A faint voice calls to us from a dim lit doorway, “Buenas tardes muchacho's”. As we exit the car and approach the house, a small lady in her 80's emerges. 

She informs us that Valentine is in the woods close by harvesting lumber. Piling back into the car, now with both Margarita and Bertha, we make our way down the narrow and bumpy 4x4 roads in search. Arriving at a small abandoned house in a clearing, we exit our cramped rav4 and listen for the sound of chainsaws but hear nothing. Margarita has a hunch to his location and takes off on foot into the woods. Not wanting to get seperated (or lost), we hang around the abandoned shack and hear stories from Bertha about life in the Sierra whilst we await for word from Margarita. 

An hour or so passes and we begin to wonder whether to send out a search party for Margarita when suddenly she appears from the dirt road. “Yo eschuchar los moto sierra, pero es un poco lento, vamos a manejar” She informs us that she can hear the sound of chainsaws but we would have to drive down a difficult 4x4 road to get there. Regrouping, we squeeze back into the car and slowly scrape our way down the small forest road until we are forced to stop by a horse in the middle of the road.

Just past the horse, we find Valentine along with a group of men rolling giant logs down a hillside onto a vintage flatbed truck. They don't have any fancy machines for the job, just gravity and ingenuity to save their bodies from the laborious work. After exchanging our customary greeting, Valentine agrees to help us in our endeavor and we arrange to meet at his home later that evening to pack up our equipment and prepare to leave the following day.

With a plan now formed, we head back into town to drop off the family members who had assisted in the search and use our free time to purchase essential items from the local stores. Selections are limited in the sierra, and so our main food source for our planned 6 days on the wall will be a combination of tortillas, frijoles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Completing our underwhelming food shop, we make our way to a small concrete house atop a hill that overlooks the town where we rendezvous with Valentine. Pulling up outside, his warm smile greets us from the doorway. We unload the car and arrange our bags into manageable loads which we plan to leave strategically at ledges along our 1000m descent of El Gigante. In my mind, this is one of the most  critical tasks in climbing a big wall. For anyone who has had to empty the contents of their bag to access something buried in the bottom, you'll understand how difficult that task becomes when you have nowhere to place the contents and thousands of feet of air all around you. My preferred set up for handling this situation is to place three liter bottles filled with water at the bottom, evening and breakfast food on top of them, sleeping equipment on top of that, then snacks and one bottle of water at the very top should we run out of what we have currently out in our climbing backpack. Once happy with our haul bag layer cake, we lift them onto the back porch in preparation for the morning and make our way into the kitchen to talk with Valentine.

Crouched alongside a cast iron stove, Valentine places kindling into it's sooted doorway, the flames licking at his hands. Gesturing for us to come in, we each take a seat around the dining table. Margarita serves us homemade tortillas whilst Tiny and Valentine catch up on life. A native of Chihuahua, Tiny is well known by the locals. Though born and raised in the city some 200km away, he has spent more time in the Sierra than anyone I know from the outside. He is in tune with their way of life, their humble demeanor, and subtle mannerisms which often say more than their words. He has frequented this area for years, establishing new routes on the walls of copper canyon, often with assistance from friendly locals such as valentine to accomplish these feats. Valentine is a farmer of sorts. He has lived in the Sierra his whole life, planting crops (sometimes less than legal ones) and harvesting lumber. He is quietly spoken and humble. Living in a small house perched upon the hill, he lives a modest life for Mexico. Tiny and Valentine talk for hours whilst Will and I welcomely devour the steaming hot tortillas that Margarita keeps conjuring. Tired from our travels, I announce I am going to bed. The others soon follow suit and we settle into the small back room of Valentines house. Climbing into our sleeping bags, we goof around with excitement and anticipation. Tomorrow, the adventure begins.

At 4.00am, the alarm sounds. Peering over the lip of my sleeping bag, I can tell from the slow rustling of the others that the morning came sooner than any of us were ready for. Climbing from the bed, I make my way to the back porch. Looking out over the dimly lit town, the night is still. Roosters can be heard crowing in the distance, welcoming the impending sunrise. As I begin maneuvering our bags onto the old ford truck, the others arrive to help and we load them strategically in the back. Valentine informed us the night prior that the road is rough and the journey will take around 2 hours to drive.  From where we park, we would need to hike a further 2 hours across a ridgeline to reach the summit. Making a final check to ensure we haven't left anything behind, we head out into the dark.

The old ford truck grumbles along the bumpy dirt road. Tiny rides up front with Valentine and his son Octavio whilst Will and I ride in the back with the haul bags. The road seems to wind endlessly through large open fields, sparse pine forests, and up steep rock. After several hours of being tossed around like a salad in the back, we arrive at a small clearing in the woods from where we must continue on foot. Octavio jumps out the cab and assists us with unloading the bags. They’re heavy. Some of the bags weighed more than we did and lifting them onto our backs was a team effort. Though not ideal, this was nothing out of the ordinary. Just about every expedition I've ever embarked upon has involved some level of grimness with overweight packs. It's the adventure initiation.

We scramble down through some pine tree’s and out onto the open ridge that leads to the summit. After around two hours of bushwhacking and load shuttling up steeper sections, we arrive at the summit of El Gigante just in time to witness the sun rise over the canyon walls. The view from the summit was magnificent and the moment surreal. You see, normally you spend days or weeks hanging off the side of the mountain in order to enjoy the summit view. It is in many ways the only reward for your endeavor. But for the first time ever, we were approaching the mountain from the top and rappelling more than 3000ft down to the ground in order to begin. Though not a traditional approach to big walls, the alternative option involved a multi day hike with even more gear which no one seemed keen to do.

Collapsing to the ground under the weight of the 145 litre haul bag which felt as though I'd just carried a small elephant, I removed my equipment and laid it out in front of me for inspection. From this point onwards, we would all live day and night in our harnesses. Once we made our way over the edge of the wall, it was untreatable. The only way out was up and any equipment forgotten could be the difference between returning to the summit or becoming stranded in space. Racking the gear to my harness and uncoiling the ropes, we make a final group check to ensure we’re all ready. I thread the anchor and toss the rope down the face. Clipping the haul bag to my harness, I nod to the others and take one last look over the canyon before making my way over the edge.

There is nothing quite like stepping out into the abyss. Regardless of how many times you do it, tethered by a single strand of rope above 3000ft of air, it is a daunting feeling. We began rappelling down the face, systematically leapfrogging for time efficiency. Arriving at the “Critter Bivvy” at the top pitch 18 some hours later, we strategically stash one of our haul bags which has enough food and water for 2 days. The amount of time we anticipated it would take to go from this ledge to the summit. With gear securely fastened to the ledge, we continue down to the “Tower of Power” where we plan to spend our first night. After several hours and one hairy haul bag traverse, we arrive at the ledge at the top pitch 8 and unfold our portaledge. If you’ve not seen one of these before, it’s a kind of collapsible camping cot that hangs from the wall. It’s barely wide enough for two people to lay down and standing on it feels a little like surfing a giant kite. It takes a plethora of circus tricks and often physical persuasion to unfold whilst hanging in the air but once ready, it’s like living on a magic carpet. Now comfortable on the portaledge and Will sitting directly on the large ledge below, we settle in to make dinner and peer down over the hundreds of feet of wall that we must rappel and climb in the morning. The wall below doesn’t seem so bad in terms of climbing difficulty. Eight pitches no harder than 5.11c (F6c), a goal fairly non-chalant for someone climbing this route. Switching our glance from below to above, the wall leading to the summit was both huge and intimidating. From where we were, we would need to climb a further 2000ft feet of consistently difficult, sparsely protected and strenuous 5.12 and 5.13 began. This was where the true challenge lay. Not wanting to get too far ahead of ourselves, we finish up dinner, climb into our sleeping bags and turn on our customary Bob Marley playlist. His songs have become somewhat of a big wall anthem for Tint and I during our adventures, and there is not a morning or night that goes by without his positive vibrations. Settled into my sleeping bag, I gazed up into the sky. I had never seen so many stars. With the absence of light pollution from nearby towns or cities, the night sparkled in brilliant beauty. 

The familiar ring of my alarm shakes me awake. It’s 10am and a light breeze circulates around the wall. Today, Tiny and I will rappel the 8 pitches to the ground and then climb back up to our portledge. Will is going to stay on the ledge and shoot images from above. Motivation is high. After weeks of planning and travelling, we’re finally going to get a chance to try ourselves against the wall. Fishing the Jetboil from the hualbag, Tiny begins our morning ritual of coffee, a smoke, and of course Bob Marley music whilst I begin breakfast. Options are limited on the side of a mountain and you won’t find any gourmet meals. After availability, taste comes 2nd or possibly even 3rd to calorie value and density. There's also a finite amount of space available for food and on this expedition, breakfast was the school yard favorite peanut butter and jelly accompanied by a handful of sour chilli candies. Not exactly a Michelin restaurant experience, but that’s what we could find. I hand out sandwiches to the boys and we enjoy the sweet, gummy food experience washed down with coffee and candies. Making the last hard swallow, I rack up our gear for the day and prepare to descend to the ground with Tiny.

Arriving at the base of the wall, the smell of Marijuana permeates the air. “The rumours must be true” I think to myself. Not wanting to miss out on uncovering the truth, I take a short walk from the base, following my nose until I can see the fields. They’re small plots, maybe a ¼ acre in size dotted around the valley floor. It was something to behold and gave a strange sense of being inside some kind of hollywood movie. I decided to not stick around too long for fear of drawing any unwanted attention and returned to the base to begin the climb. I uncoiled the rope on the floor and double checked my gear one last time. From this point onwards, our only way out was 3000ft above. We had just 5 days to get there or risk missing our flight, or worse, running out of water. Tieing into the rope, we exchange our customary fist bump and I begin to climb the wall.

The features of the rock are fragile and the protection spaced. I try my best to maneuver purposefully and efficiently up the rock, not wanting to waste energy or take a giant fall. Reaching the first anchor, I fix the belay and Tiny climbs up to join me. “The bolts are really spaced dude!” he tells me. “That was fucking scary” I reply. Though the climbing wasn’t technically difficult in the scale of things, the potential for a big fall was very real should you have any troubles. With the tone of the route firmly scarred into our minds, Tiny sets off on the next pitch. We continue upward and onward, alternating who leads until we arrive back at the portaledge some hours later to find Will preparing dinner.

“How was it?” Will asks. “It’s runout and spicy” I reply with a giant grin. He laughed, he knew I got a kick out of it. Removing our climbing shoes which by this point felt like foot bindings, we spend the remainder of the evening discussing what was ahead. Dinner that night was a little more appealing than breakfast. Whole wheat tortillas with frijoles, chilorio de soya and salsa. Not bad for a kitchen 1000ft in the air. We ate like kings with our burrito feast and sang Bob Marley into the night, finally turning in around 8pm. Earlier in the evening, Tiny confessed to me that he might not be able to free climb the pitches above. Due to having a full time job prior to the expedition, he hadn’t had much time to train adequately and found some of the lower pitches difficult. I appreciated his honesty and reassured him it didn’t matter. We were a team and I didn’t care who did what, just that we did it together. That night, I meditated on how the next few days would unfold before finally drifting off to sleep.

The alarm sounds at 5.30am. Scrambling to find my phone which somehow made its way to the bottom of my sleeping bag in the night, I hit the dismiss button and sit up. The air is cold and although it is still night, a faint glow emanates from over the canyon walls. I begin our morning coffee ritual and try to decode the movement of the rock above us. Today we must climb and haul all our equipment over 1000ft up the wall to our next camp at the “Critter Bivy”. There are 10 pitches of climbing to get there, 7 of which are 5.12b (F7b+) or harder and one which is 5.13a (F7c+). A difficult task for any climber when not on the side of a big wall. I feel tense with doubt but choose not to share my apprehensions with the others. I know that I am the strongest climber in our group, and as I look to them for help with hauling, they look to me to get us through the harder sections. It would serve no good to share and would more likely diminish morale. The nerves accompanied by the coffee fire up my bowels, it’s time for my first poo on the wall. This delicate act involves holding a double lined paper bag as close to your bum hole as possible whilst hanging in your harness and avoiding making a mess on your hands. I call this endearing adventure, “a poo with a view”. First time air squatters often struggle with bag alignment and it is well worth practicing at home with the luxury of hand sanitizer than on the side of a mountain where if you’re lucky, you’ll have wet wipes to clean up any unfortunate mishaps. 

Completing the process, we pack up the portaledge and ready our equipment for the day ahead. The plan is for me to lead the harder pitches and Tiny will lead the remainder. Tying in to the sharp end, I begin to climb.

The wall above is technical and considered the most difficult part of the route. Grasping to the small edges, I maneuver my feet back and forth around the tiny edges. The day begins well, I manage to climb the first two pitches free and Tiny takes the next 2 pitches to the top of the “Lichen Traverse”. Four down, six to go. Taking the duct tape laden nalgene from the haul bag, I take a sip of water and inspect the next pitch. It’s another hard section and I'm feeling spent. The day is growing hotter and the sun's rays beat down on us. My fingers are sore and my muscles ached. Feeling this drained so early in the day was not a good sign when we were less than half way to our goal. I push the thought to the back of my mind and we execute the next 4 pitches. Arriving at the belay at the top of pitch 15, I clip the chains and slump onto the anchor. Between climbing and hauling, I’m destroyed. It’s getting dark by now and i’ve not eaten much since breakfast. When the boys arrive at the belay shortly after, they can tell I'm not doing so well. “How’d you feel about camping on the portledge tonight?” I asked. “I think it would be better to continue to the next rock ledge so that we can all sleep well” Tiny replied. Will agreed. “I need to rest and eat, who wants to take the next pitch?” I asked. No one seemed keen. It was a desperately hard pitch and we were all tired. Movement had become painfully slow in the darkness with the increased difficulty of route finding. After some deliberation, Tiny decides to take the lead while I rest. Deploying an assortment of climbing tricks, he reaches the next anchor in complete dark and we climb up to him. The temperature has dropped greatly and we’re beginning to shake. I pull out my down jacket and finagle it under my harness. I’m still feeling too out of it to lead, and borderline hallucinating with tiredness and fatigue. “I’m sorry boys, but you might need to lead the pitches to the ledge” I tell them. They know I’ve given everything. “We got you mate” Will replies. I smile. We eat some snacks and take a minute to rest. The moon lights up the canyon around us and everything is silent. Not wanting to sit too long for fear of getting cold, Tiny and Will execute the final pitches to the “Critter bivvy”. Progress is difficult by headlamp and we arrive at 2.30am, some 21 hours after beginning our day. Unfolding the portaledge and readying our sleeping equipment, Tiny and I climb onto the bed and Will takes the rock ledge below. We don’t talk much. The day had been a long one and all of us are completely spent. Tomorrow would be here soon, and we needed all the rest we could get.

I wake reluctantly around 1pm. The sun has crested over the horizon and the rising temperatures are cooking me inside my sleeping bag. Climbing from my bag, I dangle my feet over the side of the portaledge and look to see if Will is awake. Shaded from the sun underneath the portaledge, he’s still enjoying the rest. My movement wakes Tiny up and he sits up alongside me. Preparing coffee, we joke about how fucked up yesterday was. We had both surpassed a state of tiredness and fatigue which few people have the pleasure of enjoying in such remote circumstances. And though neither of us said it openly, I secretly knew yesterday was what we came for. We wanted a challenge, and that was what we found. 

Smelling the aroma of coffee, Will emerges from his sleeping bag. Today we’ve decided to stay at the ledge and rest. Thanks to the haul bag we had stashed here on the way down, we now had an abundance of food and could afford to eat a little better than the days before. This meant we now had the luxury of two moisture sucking pb+j sandwiches instead of just one. On the upside, we now had two bags of sour chilli sweets which I later found quite filling if you ate enough. Climbing down off the hanging bed onto the ledge below, I huddle in the shade with Will. Tiny fires up our Bob Marley playlist and we discuss what the plan of attack will be to reach the summit over breakfast. We figured it would take another two days to reach the top. Not wanting to haul any weight further than needed and to give ourselves more time to rest, we decided that tomorrow we would climb just 4 pitches, fix lines back to our ledge and haul half the gear to the high point. The following day we could then climb to the top of our fixed lines and continue up the final 7 pitches to the summit. In doing it this way, we hoped to grow a little skin back on our fingertips and distribute the efforts evenly. With the plan decided, we went about our rest day as we pleased. Confined to a ledge no wider than 2 people and roughly 15ft long, our activities mostly involved sleeping and eating. I took the time to jot notes in my diary and dream up elaborate expedition ideas, a thought experiment I quite often get lost in. As night arrived, we made burritos and set to bed early. Just two days to go, and we would reach the top.

The next two days went by quickly. Feeling replenished from our day lazing on the ledge, we woke early in the morning and executed our plan to fix lines before returning to the portaledge for a fairly mellow evening. Though the day was largely uneventful with the exception of being regularly terrified by the fall potential, it was another day on the wall and for us, another day in paradise. Tomorrow would be the final push to the summit, and I could finally eat something that wasn’t the texture of turf.

On the morning of our summit attempt, we woke before sunrise and packed away our equipment. This would be our final day on the wall if everything went to plan. During packdown we realized we had a surplus of food remaining. Rather than hauling the extra weight out or chucking it down the wall, we decided to pound as much as we could and save a marginal amount should shit hit the fan. Now buzzing from the ¼ pound of strawberry jam and a powdered double latte, I shoot up the fixed lines and haul the equipment up to me. By the time the haul bag arrives, Tiny and Will have reached the belay. Tying in, I execute the pitch above and Tiny and I begin exchanging leads to the summit. Things go smoothly and we’re moving fast. Arriving at the belay for pitch 24, we assemble our gear and take a moment to snack. This is the final hard pitch before the summit. If we can climb this, we will sleep on solid ground tonight. Chalking up using the crumbs left in my chalk bag, I climb what might be one of the best 5.12b (F7b+) pitches anywhere in the world. A hanging arete more than 2000ft off the ground, devoid of texture and with just a handful of pockets that tie it all together. It was perfectly my style and the exposure below made the experience all the more exhilarating. It was as though climbing through a wall of braille. Clipping the chains, I give out a “HEEWWWWDEY HEEEEEEEW!” to the boys so they know we’re out of the thick of it. They cheer!  I fix lines and they join me at the anchor with giant smiles. We all know that from here, we can make it to the top. With our biggest fear now firmly overcome, morale is at an all time high. We climb the final pitches to the summit with ease, arriving at the top as the sun begins to set. 

We scream, we hug, and we scream some more. I want to puke with relief. We had overcome something which we all secretly doubted possible at one point or another. The experience had tested us mentally and physically. It had forced us to expand our limits, problem solve and push through our fears.

As the last rays of light disappear over the horizon, we watch in awe as the sky illuminates with hues of purple, red, and blue. The view was a fitting prize for our struggle, especially from where we were.


Standing on the shoulder of a giant.

Fortitudine Vincimus - Through endurance, we conquer

El Gigante survival kit:

25 quickdraws

2 x Jumars

1 x Lightweight ladder

1 x Petzl Connect Adjust lanyards

1 x Petzl Grigri

80m dynamic rope

200m fixed ropes

3 liters of water a day

Wet wipes

Toilet paper

Toilet bags



Food + Snacks

Wednesday, January 2, 2019


I lie in a pool of blood and excrement on the cold steel floor of an old Omani Royal Air Force Eurocopter. The drone of the rotor blades pounds deep inside my head as I stare at the ceiling. The coppery taste of blood in my mouth sickens me. A large flap of skin hangs down my cheek and there is a hole in my right foot oozing blood onto the dirty steel.

It takes a supreme effort of will to drag myself upright, in one corner beside the open door of the helicopter. The young airman who winched me up stands over me. Pointing at my wounds, he says something in Arabic, but I can’t understand him. I raise my left hand to show a thumbs up. He returns a smile and takes a seat at the back of the helicopter. Peering outside, the Al Hajar Mountains are incandescent as we lift off for Ibri Hospital.


In September 2010, I graduated with a degree in Computer Science and couldn’t wait to never see another computer again. On a whim, I took a job guiding in the Middle Eastern country of Oman. Although I couldn’t then have pointed out Oman on a map, I believed this would be an opportunity for me to live out a long-held dream.

Touching down for the first time in Muscat, Oman’s capital, I experienced a subtle apprehension. The people spoke in languages that I didn’t understand and signs were written in an alphabet with which I was barely familiar – and only from news reports dominated by gunfire and explosions. Despite what the media had led me to believe, Oman is among the wealthiest and most prosperous nations on Earth. The local climbing community, however, consisted of less than 30 people out of a population of around 4.5 million. They were fun and tight-knit, coming from the UK, France, Germany, Slovenia, Canada, USA, Albania, Egypt, and the Netherlands. I became immersed in the group’s outings to local crags and discovered that, when it came to rock climbing, Oman was a diamond in the rough.

During one of these weekly gatherings, I became aware of Oman’s most illustrious wall, Jebel Misht (‘Crested Mountain’). At more than 1,000m, its limestone crown explodes from the desert floor, reaching higher than even Yosemite’s El Capitan. It was first climbed in 1979. French climber Raymond Renaud and his team spent more than 20 days battling Misht’s south-east face using siege tactics, fixing over 1,000m of rope, drilling dozens of bolts, and even using helicopter supply drops along the route. They named this route the French Pillar. It’s said that the Sultan of Oman was so impressed by their achievement that he sent a helicopter to airlift the team from the summit to his palace for a celebration. Renaud’s story kindled my desire to pioneer big walls, and I began planning my first ascent of Jebel Misht.

Word spread and a local climber called Hamza Zidoum approached me and proposed we climb Misht together. Hamza was older and more experienced, and had a calm and positive demeanour.

He was a cornerstone of the Omani climbing community and, having previously climbed many of the classic routes on Misht, I thought he’d be an excellent partner for my first big wall. Hamza pulled a crude topo map from his pocket. A thick line was drawn up Misht’s East Face, which followed a crack feature to a ledge midway up the wall. The crack continued through a large roof at around 800m and finished direct. Hamza had previously attempted the route with another team but they had been forced to retreat. The line inspired me and we planned to return and complete the route a few weeks later.

We arrived at the base of Jebel Misht with gear and supplies, put on our equipment, and began to climb. However, several hundred metres up the wall, I heard a frantic call of ‘Rock!’ and, before I could react, a limestone block came out of nowhere and struck me. Directly in the face. Further rockfall destroyed my anchor, built into the loose, chossy rock, and I plummeted more than 5m, coming to a brutal halt on a ledge below. Struggling to catch my breath, I vividly recall staring up at the blue sky above, vision blurred, and utterly stunned.
"I heard a frantic call of ‘Rock!’ and, before I could react, a limestone block came out of nowhere and struck me.  Directly in the face." 
Hamza shouted down to me from above, panicked. I couldn’t make out the words. Rocks continued to fall and I shuffled closer to the wall. Head and torso protected, my legs were still exposed and my right foot was struck by another rock, which tore a large hole just below the ankle. Hamza continued to shout – somewhat less dazed now, I could make out his words. He was telling me to stop pulling him, but my face had been badly damaged by the impact, and when I tried to shout up I couldn’t form the worlds. He could easily have been completely unaware of what had just happened.

As soon as I twisted the rock from my foot, blood began pouring from the wound. I grabbed my backpack and took out three quick-wrap bandages – the only medical supplies I had brought – and began tightly dressing my ankle. Hamza shouted again, this time to tell me he’d built an anchor and intended to rappel down. He didn’t say much when he joined me on the ledge, but I could tell from the look on his face that I wasn’t in good shape.

I pushed the flap I of skin back across my face and held it there while he wrapped a bandage from his own pack around my head. Despite our efforts, the bleeding from my foot continued. ‘We need to go down,’ I mumbled through my swollen face. Hamza nodded. I sensed a sinking feeling between the two of us. We placed a sling over a horn-shaped rock and began the long journey back to the ground.

Arriving at base camp six hours later, Hamza attempted to carry me using an alpine coil, but with the ground so loose and steep this would have put both of us in danger. The only way down was to shuffle on my backside. Hamza shouldered our equipment and scouted the path ahead, while I began the slow and painful process of scooting myself over sharp rocks for the next seven hours. Pain suffused every moment. Eventually, I became too exhausted from blood loss. After nearly a full day, I was eventually picked up by a military helicopter and dropped off at the nearest hospital where I received surgery to fix my broken face and ankle. It had been a hell of a first attempt at a big wall.

In a hospital room resembling a luxury hotel, TV news was dominated by protests rapidly spreading throughout the Middle East: the Arab Spring. Violent clashes with police in most of the surrounding countries led me to reluctantly decide to return to the UK to finish my recovery. It was the end of my dream to establish a route on Jebel Misht. I spent the next six months learning how to walk and eat again – two things I had previously taken for granted. Eventually, when I was fully recovered, I took a job managing climbing gyms and returned to the nine-to-five existence of the weekend warrior. Time passed, memories faded, and the accident became just an unfinished chapter in the story of my life. It wasn’t until early 2017, some seven years later, that the desire to climb Jebel Misht began to bloom again. I had acquired new skills and experience in the time since the accident, and I felt as though I could now meet its challenge. The time was right to return to Oman.

This time, I would be climbing alongside my long-time partner, Sergio ‘Tiny’ Almada, who had accompanied me on risky yet successful expeditions in Mexico and Africa. On arriving in Muscat after months of preparation, we had just two weeks to reach the summit of Jebel Misht and climb its 1,000m wall. We loaded up our 4x4 and sped south towards the Al Hajar Mountains, but it was deep into night before we established our first camp beneath the 5,000-year-old Al Ayn beehive tombs. Here, we caught our first glimpse of Jebel Misht: its face lit by the moon’s glow, its ship-like prow breaking through a sea of stars. Jet-lagged and exhausted, we pitched our tents and passed out.

The next morning offered a sky strewn with cloud, which helped mitigate the heat, but even then we struggled. With such a small window, we spent the first days hauling gear up to the base of the wall. There, I found myself staring up at the same route that had once left me defeated and humbled. I hesitated. Fear chilled me. After stashing our gear we returned to base camp for one final rest.

We woke well before dawn, prepared coffee, and picked our way to the base of the wall. The night was still and cooled by moonlight as we dispatched eight pitches of incredible climbing to reach the big ledge, the desert’s tranquility broken only by the sound of the morning adhan, the Islamic call to worship, which echoed throughout the valleys below. A short break offered a change to study our line through the roof, but it was hard to tell if the route would actually go. We continued to trade leads for some hours until we arrived at the base of the roof, and the first section of steep climbing. I took the sharp end and tick-tacked out through a segment of small, loose roofs. Stepping up into a giant boulder undercling, I found myself completely gripped. The climbing became substantially harder – somewhere around 5.12 – and my last good gear placement was far below me. I could see the next move ahead, but I became paralysed by the risks I saw everywhere: I might miss the hold, or it might break off in my hands, which happened frequently on this chossy limestone wall. I reached out carefully, and cleared off several small blocks with my hands. There I found slightly more solid rock. I moved onwards, nerves buzzing, pulled over a bulge and arrived to a good stance below the final headwall.

Less than 30m of overhanging limestone separated us from easier ground that would eventually lead to the summit. We studied the wall above for any weakness, but found nothing. The wall blanked out in all directions. We had set out to establish a pure trad line, and we knew that if we wanted to continue we would need to compromise our ethics, something neither of us was willing to do. Our only option was to rappel several hundred metres down to the grand ledge and search for an alternate route around the roof. As night approached, we descended into the unknown. With only a small amount of trad gear left, we constructed only the most rudimentary anchor. Later, to save gear, we decided to down-solo the last 40m. It took eight hours before we reached the ledge and were able to build a small fire out of dead brush and savour a little rest. It was 2am. With no sleeping bags, little water, and no food to spare, we shivered and starved, and waited for morning to arrive. Rising with the sun, we huddled in dawn’s warmer light and discussed our options. We now had very little gear left.

Our rations consisted of under a litre of water and two snack bars. If we bailed to the ground now, we would be able to reach the floor and get supplies, but we’d likely use the last of our rack to get down and the expedition would be over. If we went up, we had a chance to complete the route but, with the cupboard so bare for the climbing ahead, it was a gamble. Most concerning was what would happen if we didn’t find a way to the top. I’d meticulously studied Jebel Misht’s many routes and was aware of an Italian line just 20m left of ours. It went up a steep, chossy off-width to the side of the roof at a grade we knew we could climb. Exhausted from lack of sleep and burned by the sun’s relentless heat, we set off into the relative unknown. Loose and unprotectable, it was as though the space grew wider with each move I made. It was the longest 25m of my life. Finally, weak from effort, I found a good stance above a small roof and built the belay. When Tiny joined me on the ledge, all he could say was: ‘I hope we don’t find much more of that.’ It was now his turn to take the lead into the loose unknown waiting above. Climbing over and behind giant limestone flakes that clung precariously to the wall, each of Tiny’s deft movements took us closer to that final headwall we so desperately sought. Everything was going great, until Tiny fell, a giant block still in his hand. I watched in horror as the block fell away – narrowly missing his head – and crashed into the wall below, exploding into dust and tiny fragments.

At the same time, I was launched upwards from the belay and unceremoniously suspended in mid-air. Tiny too hung in space, but not before first hammering against the wall while upside down. There we swung, like wind chimes in the Arabian sun, swearing and aching. Once I lowered myself back down to the ledge I had belayed from, I realised to my amazement that Tiny had come through the fall relatively unscathed. Although shaken, he was fine. I, on the other hand, had stupidly removed my shoes while Tiny was leading and, during the fall, had sliced my foot on some sharp rock. Blood flowed and I knew the best way to deal with it was to apply pressure using my climbing shoe. Pressure and pain.

Tiny, perversely, took renewed confidence from the fact that his protection had held up so well in such terrible rock. He pulled himself back to the wall and finished an incredible pitch to the final ledge and headwall. I joined him as the sun’s light began to fade. We’d have to move fast if we wanted to avoid another cold night on the wall. Crossing the ledge, we dispatched the remaining wall and summited as the sun set – more than 40 hours from when we had begun, with no food or water left. Trembling from fatigue and overwhelming emotion, I had to kneel. I never imagined, in my dreams about this day, that it would demand so much of me. I didn’t know whether to cry, vomit, or laugh. Tiny smiled at me through burnt lips and we embraced. Exhausted, we spent a cold night sleeping on top and woke early, packed up our gear, and began the steep hike down the backside of the mountain. We decided to name the route Bayan Massir (‘Destiny Manifest’ in Arabic) as homage to lessons learned through defeat, perseverance, and eventual success.

Dare to be Bold.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

GEAR JUNKIE: Mad Rock Lifeguard

Petzl's GriGri line has dominated the assisted braking device market since the 90's, but could that be about to change?


The Mad Rock Lifeguard is the latest rival of the Petzl GriGri which has dominated the market for almost 25 years. It is lighter, smaller and more affordable than other auto block devices on the market and it's holding power unmatched. Having spent some time fiddling with this at the crag and gym, I now find myself leaving the GriGri at home in favor of this.

Cost: $$
As with all products from Mad Rock, the price tag is very reasonable. At $90 each, it's roughly $60 cheaper than its strongest competitor, the Peztl GriGri+ which retails around $150 and still $40 cheaper than the new Wild Country Revo.

Performance: 4/5
I've had this for a month now and I paired it up with Madrocks new Gemini carabiner (looks crazy, check it out here!). It took some getting used to, but once i'd become accustomed to the size and holding of the Lifeguard, it's performance was great. I tried it with a Sterling Fusion Nano IX and it never once got jammed feeding rope. The handle on the device took a second to find that sweet spot where i'm not crawling, but i'm not free falling either, but after a handful of belays, i'd got it down. Though slightly lighter than the other devices on the market at just 156g, it's structure feels incredibly dense and sturdy. Overall a very solid device and performed well. 

Value: 5/5
With an affordable price, great usability and unmatched holding power, the Madrock Lifeguard is a steal for the price. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Nubivagant: Wandering in the clouds

Image: Matthew Parent / adidas Outdoor
A dark tower of volcanic rock shrouded in clouds dominates the landscape. Formed millennia ago when high pressure magma solidified inside the vent of an active volcano, it’s dark and brooding -- like an ancient monolith constructed to appease an angry god... Unmarred by humans, more people have stood on the surface of the moon than atop its forested summit. From the roof of the 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser on which we stood, its shadow reached out to us across thick jungle.. This is Cão Grande.


A little over a year prior, I had been at my apartment in Monterrey, Mexico searching the internet for my next big wall project. The city, sometimes referred to as the “Sultan of the North” had become my winter home since 2014 when I realised the incredible potential for developing new routes in the nearby national park named Parque la Huasteca. I had already established two sport big wall lines in the area on the iconic north faces of Pico Independencia (“The Life You Can Save” 5.12+, 13 pitches, 350m) and El Diente (“El Son del Viento” 5.12+, 15 pitches, 420m) and now as I stared at my computer screen, I had stumbled across what I hoped would be next.

A google search of “The Tower of Mordor” had led me to a dated tourist information page about the small island nation of São Tomé and Principé in sub-saharan Africa. I’d never before heard of the country and, being that it’s one of the smallest in the world, it was hardly surprising. Browsing the pages of the old website, with its design and layout typical of the early 90’s, I caught the first glimpse of the what is still the strangest peak I have ever seen. Rising up out of a sea of green was a 1,250ft. basalt pinnacle whose summit was hidden by clouds. It commanded its surroundings with an authority that would capture the imagination of even the most seasoned coach potato and possessed all the qualities of my dream wall;

Unique, undisturbed and unknown.

Pico Cao Grande. Image: Cut Media / adidas Outdoor

Infatuated with my new discovery, I began researching and planning for this dream climb immediately, obsessing with the idea that one day I would be able to visit this mythical island whose landscapes resembled a scene from a Jurassic Park movie. As fortune had it, my discovery of the wall happened to coincide with the launch of the adidas Outdoor Claim Freedom initiative that was looking to support the realization of projects in the outdoors. Luckily my proposal was selected and the dream climb was set to become a reality.

The project was ambitious on many levels, requiring every detail to be meticulously examined and robust auxiliary plans put in place to prepare for the worst. Logistics were not the only challenge, to take on such a wall I would need a climbing partner with solid big wall skills and a sickening work ethic. Sergio “Tiny” Almada was a friend from Chihuahua, Mexico who had put up a number of routes on the big wall of El Gigante, Mexico and also established the route on El Diente’s North face with me. A calm and practical thinker, we had worked seamlessly together in the past and I knew we made a strong team.

The island itself offered little in the way of purchasable goods or modern medical aid. If something were to go wrong, we would be on our own. Now on the island, I peered through the antique, leather-covered binoculars that I had borrowed from our driver, Armando. We breathed deep as the reality of the task at hand sank in.

Village life in São Tomé. Image: Matthew Parent / adidas Outdoor
The days following our rooftop reconnaissance unfolded in what can only be described as concerning. The carefully laid plans that i’d spent months polishing fell apart faster than a pair of $5 shoes. Firstly, we discovered that there was nowhere in the country you could get camping gas. Not only could you not purchase it but it was also impossible to ship or fly it in. We looked at conversion options using the gas bottles that were available on the island to our jetboil, but the parts were not readily available and, even if we shipped them in, it was an unrealistic solution to the problem. It was clear that, if we wanted to sleep on the wall using our ledges as we progressed, we would simply have to eat dry, packaged food. Which brings us to our second problem: Purchasing dry goods in São Tomé means purchasing imports. These are both hard to find, limited in variety, and expensive. To add to this, the dry goods they did offer still required water to rehydrate them which brings us back to the first problem: no gas.

It seemed we had just two choices; Commit ourselves to a diet of oatmeal, tuna and water for 14 days, likely resulting in complete exhaustion through hunger and malnutrition, or fix lines as we climbed and jumar to the high point each day to continue the climbing, an option which would also result in complete exhaustion, but through physical exertion. Neither option seemed much better than the other, both would ultimately be hard and after some thought we decided that jumaring what would eventually equate to kilometers of rope was the lesser of two evils. With the big decisions made, we packed the remainder of the food we had already purchased and prepared to leave for the wall.
Our first day carrying gear packs to the wall happened to coincide with a huge storm that continued to rock the island. Depending on your outlook, this was either a fortuitous learning experience or a day in hell. Trudging through the dense jungle, we arrived to the shelter of the advanced base camp (ABC) only to discover that the line we had decided upon from afar was a gutter of death. Water cascaded from the corner where we had planned to climb, rocks and plants surfed the torrent that flowed from the wall. After consulting the weather forecast for the island, we agreed that it would be suicide to take the planned line, given that rain showers were expected for most of the trip. Instead, we decided upon a more direct line up the steepest part of the wall, hoping to take advantage of the shelter the roof provided from the elements, even if it did require more difficult climbing.

Fifteen days of pain and exhaustion ensued as we fought for every inch of progress. Slaves to time, we submitted ourselves to an arduous schedule that began with a meager breakfast at 5.30 a.m. and ended after dark when route finding became unjustifiably slow. As pain drowned out hunger, the route became a battle of wills with each day growing increasingly harder while we climbed through fluctuating weather: high humidity, blistering heat and heavy rain.

Tiny Almada holds out the grimness high on the wall. Image: Matthew Parent / adidas Outdoor
June 2nd was the morning of our final push to the summit, an unnerving two weeks later than we had first anticipated. Waking early on a portaledge that hung from the tester bolt we had placed at the base camp, the jungle was unusually quiet. Sitting up slowly as to not pendulum the ledge, I slid on my shoes and walked over to the fire to prepare coffee. The fire smoldered gently and the smell of charred bread fruit from the night before had attached itself firmly to my clothes. Stoking the embers, I brought the pot to a boil and readied the brew for the team as they each emerged from their sleeping bags. Gathering around the fire, we stared down our 8 spoonfuls of concrete esq oatmeal, each mouthful washed down with a gulp of bitter liquid.

The weather was turning for the worse and an undertone of anxiety drifted about the camp. Having not rested in weeks, exhaustion had reached a peak and today would be the toughest so far. In order to complete the last section to the summit, we would need to jumar over 1000ft of rope and then continue to climb the line above, a task easier said, than done.

Leaving shortly after 6am, we ascended the fixed ropes to our high point where we would continue our quest to the top. I racked the 20lbs of gear strategically to my harness for the final push, my hands white and saturated from the rain, the skin peeling where the callus’s once held to my hands. Checking my knot, I confirmed my readiness with our team fist bump and set off into upwards.

My destroyed hands. Image: Matthew Parent / adidas Outdoor
Around 5pm that evening, we arrived at the convergence between rock and jungle, a sign that we had reached the summit ridge. As we pulled over the lip into the thick undergrowth, my heart began to race with excitement as to what would we discover. Having exhausted all of our static rope, we had fixed our dynamic climbing line for the final 2 pitches and now only our 7mm tag line remained to cover the distance to the summit. Tieing in, I began frantically clawing my way through the loose bush, consumed by summit fever. My dirt covered hands bled as the sharp plants cut into the creases of my fingers and ants marched their way up my water logged trousers, their own big wall adventure. Ten meters of the top, the line came tight and I was forced to remove it, tieing it to a nearby tree.

Covering the short distance to the peak’s highest point, we arrived in time to catch the setting sun as it cast its crimson light across the world below us. I could hardly believe it. The idea that we might never reach this point had begun to creep into my mind, that we simply didn’t have enough time or equipment to make it possible. Now, with just four days remaining before we departed the island, we had succeeded in completing the critical stage of establishing the route -- but the challenge was far from complete. We still had the task of cleaning 15 pitches, removing 455m of rope, creating a rappel line, and of the biggest challenge of all: redpointing. With no time to lose, we spent the next day removing the moss, plants and blocks from the route and preparing our equipment for the climb.

The following morning arrived sooner than either of us wanted. Rising groggily from our bed in the dirt, our aching muscles creaked into motion as we maneuvered to make breakfast. With supplies beginning to dwindle, fifteen spoons of concrete esq oatmeal and a cup of coffee would be all we could afford in the way of sustenance for the day ahead. Still exhausted from the weeks of developing, we stood at the base of the route and gathered our thoughts as we prepared to climb a free ascent of the line. The plan was to focus redpointing the first four pitches in the roof which seemed to be the hardest, sleep on the portaledge and then complete the remainder of the route the following day. The climbing went well and we made good progress but the difficulties were far greater than we had anticipated. Pitch 1 we climbed with ease but pitch 2, 3 and 4 proved hard and desperate with grades up to 5.13d (F8b). Unable to climb them clean that day, we decided that we would rappel to the ground and attempt them again the following day, though this would be the absolute last opportunity to achieve an all free ascent. That night, tired and frustrated, we went to bed early with the goal of waking with the sun and giving it everything we had.

Giving it some try hard on the crux pitch. Image: Matthew Parent / adidas Outdoor

Waking early the next day, we ate our breakfast of oatmeal and once again walked to the base of the wall for our final attempt. Tiny went first again, climbing the first 5.12 (F7b) pitch with ease and I followed. Switching over at the second pitch, It was my turn to take the sharp end. Tightening the velcro straps of my shoes, I stared at the wall above, rehearsing the moves in my head. This was the crux pitch of the route, a bouldery roof section that involved two big dynos (V8) on slopey holds followed by a technical 5.13 (F8a) section to the anchors. I had practiced the moves the day before and knew them intimately, all I had to do was stick them. Chalking my hands, I double checked my knot and threw myself into the climbing above. Stepping off the belay, I clipped the bolt that protected the first dyno and set up for the move. Locking my eyes on the catching hold, I launched myself upwards, clenching the edge perfectly as my legs swung out below me. Regaining my composure, I placed my feet back on the wall, clipped another bolt and took a deep breath, it wasn’t over. The following dyno was the hardest, a large throw to a frictionless sloper at the apex of my reach. Positioning my feet on small pebbles, I summoned all my strength and launched again skywards. Time seemed to stand still as the weathered skin of my sore and swollen fingers took hold of the polished rock they so greatly desired. To my amazement, my hand firmly grasped the target hold. Reacting quickly to this moment of surprise success, I raised my heal onto the tooth shaped stone that would allow me to complete the final crux move. As I reached up to grab the small pinch that would grant my freedom from the roof, my hand slipped. I fell through the air in a moment of weightlessness, a sinking feeling came next as the rope stretched tight. I had blown it. Tiny and I stared at each other as I hung there, the unspoken words drifted in the empty space between us ‘we won’t be able to climb this all free’. Pulling back on to my high point, I made my way up to the anchor where Tiny joined me shortly after.

Pain is weakness leaving the body. Image: Cut Media / adidas Outdoor
We fought hard up the two pitches that followed, making solid links but, again, we were unable to send them without falls. With just two days remaining, we were out of time and would have to continue climbing the route in order to establish the line. Reaching the portaledge that evening at the top of pitch 4, we discussed our disappoint over a tinned tuna dinner. We had both worked harder on this route than anything in our lives prior. If we could just complete the remaining 11 pitches to the summit cleanly, we could leave the island content with our route and our efforts.

The next day we rose at 5 a.m. and packed away the ledges. Gearing up, we planned to climb simultaneously through the easier pitches above and stop to belay traditionally only when we guessed the difficulties to be 5.11+ (F7a) or harder. Pulling on my shoes and bumping our fists to signify we were both ready, we charged the 350m wall above with less difficulty than the roof below, arriving once again at the summit almost 13 hours later. Standing atop the lofty peak, our hard work was rewarded with a spectacular sunset and 360 degree views of the entire island.

“All of our doubts and fears seem to evaporate, we had done it!”
Pico Cão Grande. Image: Cut Media / adidas Outdoor

Our celebration and excitement was brief, preferring instead to sit in comfortable silence and reflect upon the journey here and the questions it brought. Why did we do this to ourselves? Why suffer these painful endeavors that push us to the limits of our mental and physical boundaries? What were we hoping to gain from all of this? As I sat there absorbing the glow from the setting sun, the answers seemed to come to me in a epiphany, each hidden in their question.

I realized what this all came down to for me, was an understanding of something intangible. I wanted to know where the line was drawn, where my personal boundary of possible and impossible converged. Had I found my limit? Not this time, I realise now I am capable of much and I am certain that even though I am not rushing onto my next project quite so soon, this won’t be the last time I run the big wall gauntlet, chasing that intangible understanding.


Nubivagant (Wandering in the clouds) 455m, 5.13d/A0 (F8b) ***

A direct line up the steepest part of the giant roof and onto the headwall above. Though equipped as a sport line this is anything but and should be approached with the respect that big wall requires. The majority of the difficulties are located in the first 100m of the route which is a steep overhanging roof, arguably one of the largest in the world with 3 pitches of climbing at grade 5.13b (F8a) or harder. Pulling through the roof, the climbing eases considerably and you just have to hope the tropical storms stay at bay to reach to summit.
(Image: Adrian Samsara / adidas Outdoor)

1. Jump from the block to the wall and climb the thin slab to a roof. Pumpy. 9 bolts, 20m 5.12b (F7b)
2. Steep corner with double dynos off the belay (V8) to steady 5.13b (8a) with no rests. 10 bolts, 15m 5.13d (F8b)/A0
3. Wet corner with complex beta and some committing run outs! 11 bolts, 25m 5.13c (F8a+)/A0
4. Dyno off the belay put the roof to a difficult iron cross move that gains ledge. Move across the ledge to some desperate moves that gain the dihedral were climbing eases up. 12 bolts, 30m 5.13b (F8a)/A0
5. Take the blocky face to the slab. 8 bolts, 15m 5.10b(F6a+)
6. A long scramble pitch with some vertical climbing at the midpoint. Run out. 9 bolts, 35m 5.6 (F4c)
7. Another scramble with a tricky exit onto the ledge. 10 bolts, 35m 5.9 (F5)
8. A hard start up steep rock to easy finish.  9 bolts, 25m 5.10c (F6b)
9. Traverse the foot ledge with good hands to a tricky exit. 8 bolts, 20m 5.9 (F5)
10. Hand jam the blocks to a ledge. Walk across and climb the technical face to the chains in the overhanging roof. 9 bolts, 35m 5.10c (F6b)
11. Traverse right and up the gulley to a hard finish on the ledge. 13 bolts, 35m 5.11d (F7a)
12. 11 bolts, 35m 5.12a (F7a+) Traverse right past a loose flake to a overhanging wall and fire up to the gulley.
13. Scramble the corner to a ledge (unprotected) and cross the ledge to a loose wall above. 8 bolts, 30m 5.10c (F6b)
14. Epic finish up the leaning arete with the chains being the crux. 9 bolts, 30m 5.11d (F7a)
15. Mount the rock and mantle into the jungle above. Bushwhack to the summit. 1 bolt, 70m 5.6(F4c) Class IV
R: Make eight, 35m rappels directly down from the anchors at the top of pitch 12.
Equipped/FA: Gareth “Gaz” Leah (UK) and Sergio “Tiny” Almada (Mexico) June 2016

The project was realised thanks to the help of the adidas Outdoor #claimfreedom campaign. You can follow the story as it unfolded by viewing the hashtag #bigwallintotheclouds