AUTHOR: Ben Rueck
Sunrise and Lemur's cries echoed off the wall waking Mayan Smith-Gobat and me — our alarm clock for the past three days. Warmth washed over us as the sun crested the mountain tops.
Mayan shifted in her sleeping bag in a futile attempt to escape the overbearing heat which hit moments later. Giving up, she draped her head over the edge of the portaledge and watched the clouds drift lazily across the valley 300 meters below. After 3 days on the ground fixing line, being rained out by massive thunderstorms, hiking equipment to haul, and two nights sleeping on the wall, Mayan and I made significant progress to the base of the crux pitch. We were on track to claim the first free ascent on an open project going up Madagascar's Tsaranoro Massif.
In the last few moments of sunlight the day before, we unlocked the sequence of the crux pitch and fixed a rope to its base. Over a breakfast of soaked oats, stale bread, and cold coffee Mayan and I made plans for the day.
"How're you feeling?" Mayan asked.
I checked my fingers — torn and bruised from the 300 meters of small crystalline granite below.
"We'll see what happens," I sighed.
Finger tip cracks and small razor blade holds greeted my sore stiff fingers. Small black and tan crystals bit my flesh and gouged my toes with every move.
I grimaced in pain from the rough texture of the granite, but fought to push the sensation from my mind. Gradually, the pitch steepened and the entire route dropped below in a giant swooping arc. The exposure was worse than the previous walls I had been on; but I felt good. I glanced down 500 meters to the ground — confident (for once) and thought, 'Ah yeah... I got this.'
To reach a familiar credit card width hold with my left hand I swung high onto a small foothold. Three meters above the last bolt, I moved quickly to another barely non-existent hold. As my hand touched the rock, my foot kicked violently into space, the entire weight of my body shock-loaded my arms. Letting out a shout of surprise I miraculously held on and brought my foot to a higher piece of rock.
"Did a hold break?" I asked.
"Yeah it did! Keep going!" Mayan encouraged.
Shaken I questioned every hold as I became more and more fatigued. I fought the pump and reached the crux move tired, but determined. I gave it everything and stuck the delicate finger tip holds and gained my stance to clip the chains. Excited and off to a good start I brought Mayan up.
"We can do this today," Mayan said joining me.
She cast off into the unknown. The wind had barely began to scrape across the wall as she moved delicately up the pitch. I was impressed as Mayan navigated the thin holds. Her feet gripped on impossibly small divots of rock and pushed as if she were on the biggest ledge in the world so she could reach the next hold. I cringed because I knew that her foot could blow at any point and send her skipping down the wall— any error and there would be no recovery. She really didn't want to have to repeat a pitch.
"This is ridiculous!" Mayan shouted.
"What?" I yelled.
"I'm holding onto something that I can barely get my finger nails on!"
For over an hour Mayan pushed for the chains. Patience was key to her success, and she moved with precision. Loose bits of rock trickled down the wall making her foot slip slightly; but she recovered regaining her composure. I lost sight of her of at small bulge in the wall and had no idea what to expect at this point. After another ten minutes a victorious, "Ye-ha!" flowed down the wall. She'd made it to the chains and I followed on top rope.
The next pitch was the last of the route — to our surprise. I on-sighted, but as Mayan seconded the pitch I wondered, "How?"
Grey granite waves rolled down the wall as Mayan navigated the textured bulges. Often there were no holds as she pressed her hands flat against the rock slightly off balance by its angle and used friction to inch her way toward the chains. It looked like she was climbing a glass wall as she searched for any indentation on the rock for a hand or foot. But she somehow held on and climbed the pitch clean.
Mayan joined me and we watched the setting sun paint the valley vibrant orange and red. Flames of color ignited the ground below giving the peaks around us a kaleidoscope of color, but it also let us know that darkness was coming. Exhausted and exhilarated we enjoyed our few precious moments watching the light fade before we rappelled.
"We need to go," I said as the sky darkened.
We touched ground just as the stars began to shine and hiked back to camp. Over the course of six days, Mayan and I accomplished our goal. We claimed the first free ascent of the 14 pitch route we named Solar Fusion (8a).