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