Team: Mark Synnott, Andy DeKlerk, Ed February, Greg Child
When: December 1999
Where: Mandara Mountains, Cameroon, Africa
Other Media: Television program entitled “An African Ascent” aired on National Geographic Explorer February 2000 on CNBC
Sponsor: National Geographic Society
I guess I’m supposed to ask the Crab Sorcerer about the climb, will it be a success and all that, but I don’t want to waste this prophecy on something so mundane. If this wizened, wrinkly old black man has really lived for 96 years in this village on the fringe of the Sahara, I figure he must have at least some magic. “Will I live to be an old man, like you?” I ask, and my heart begins to race. The crab man blinks his cataract clouded eyes and reaches under his chair for an old dilapitated gourd filled with swamp muck. With his long bony fingers, he slots little bits of kalabash, embedded with red beads, into the mud. Next he produces a scraggly-looking crab, still alive but missing a few legs, and ceremoniously places it into the gourd. Waiting for the crab to do its thing, my attention is drawn to the crab man’s feet. Obviously, he’s never worn a pair of shoes in his life. His feet are callused and riddled with cracks like the dried out watering hole outside this shack. The nail on his big toe is a sickly sulfurous yellow color, and half an inch thick. I want to look away, but for some reason, I can’t.
Finally, the crab man removes the lid and we all peer into the gourd. The crab is burrowed into the mire and the bits of wood are scattered about randomly. The sorcerer studies the pattern for a minute or two, and then begins speaking in Kapsiki, the local dialect. Our cook Koji translates and informs me that I’ll live to be an old, old man, with a white beard, a cane and many children to look after me. Andy Deklerk and Ed February, my South African climbing partners, also receive answers to their questions. Andy will soon have two blonde daughters with his new wife, and Ed learns that our climb on Rhumsiki Tower, which looms above us just outside the hut, will be a success. There’s a hitch, though. The prophecies will only come true if we agree to sacrifice a chicken. I’ve never been big on animal sacrifice, but Koji assures us it’s really just a way for us to buy a chicken for the crab man’s dinner. After the head is chopped off, the crab man fills a bowl with the blood and insists on rubbing some of it onto our feet. I was hoping to avoid direct contact with blood while in Africa, but it’s only a chicken…right?
Many African countries (Chad, Mali, Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland) have the potential for excellent rock climbing, but this remote and beautiful landscape is stricken with desperate poverty, an AIDS epidemic, and a brutal legacy of civil unrest. For obvious reasons, Americans have long felt uneasy about exploring in this part of the world. I caught my first glimpse of the untapped climbing potential in Cameroon while watching a French film called Chocolat. One of the scenes was set against a background of stunning rock towers. The first thing I did was call Ed February, a renowned South African climber who has pioneered new routes throughout Africa. As it turned out, he and his partner Andy Deklerk had also seen the film, and they were excited to explore the area.
On December 3rd, we met in Douala, the capital of Cameroon. In addition to Ed, Andy and myself, our team included Simon Boyce, Greg Child, and Robin Freeman. Their job would be to document the adventure on video for National Geographic Explorer. Our climbing objective – Rhumsiki Tower (a.k.a. Zivi Tower) – was located in the Mandara Mountains, an obscure range of volcanic peaks that define the northern border of Cameroon and Nigeria. We were eager to leave behind the squalor of Douala as soon as possible, but Cameroon lacks reliable means for traveling by air or road. At this time of year, just after the rainy season, most of the roads are nothing more than impenetrable mud bogs. Our only option was to catch a flight on Cameroonian Air to Maroua, the northern capital, but the sign above the ticket counter was literally a roulette wheel that they’d spin each day to see where they’d fly, if at all.
We passed the time by touring the city and marveling at the sights, sounds and smells of a sweltering third world African city: garbage heaps swarming with huge, vicious lizards (Trash Dragons) that hissed at us when we stopped to gape; men working waist deep in a festering sewage canal; the unruly mob that nearly overwhelmed us when Ed decided to get a haircut in the local market; lepers holding out their fingerless hands for coins; or the monkey on the sidewalk that peed into his hand and drank it down as if it was cool mountain spring water.
On December 7th, we finally caught a flight to Garoua (one of the larger cities in the north) and the next day we took a bus to Maroua. On the ride into town we traveled through a surreal landscape dotted with granite eggs that reminded me of J-Tree and Vedauwoo. The orange colored granite boulders stood in stark relief to the dusty fields where women in multi-colored-day-glow outfits tended their crops of peanuts, sorghum, millet, and corn. In Maroua we headed immediately to the market to pick up our last minute supplies for the expedition. You can find almost anything in this chaotic bazaar, but I was particularly impressed by the vast assortment of rotting fish. Both attracted and repelled by the smell, I approached a block of tables piled in various assortments of dried fish that had obviously been out of the water for a very, very long time. I had to wonder where they came from: the river running though town was dry as a bone. When I stopped for a moment to contemplate whether you could eat one of these fish and live, the vendor mistook my interest. For the next half hour he followed me through the market waving a crusty black fish in his hand, telling me over and over: “Bon poisson, vous mangez (good fish, you eat!)”
That night, as we sat down to dinner at the only restaurant in Maroua, it dawned on me that the food must have come from the market. There’s just nowhere else they could have got it. This really scared me because at some of the stands you couldn’t even see the meat because the flies were so thick. Robin, who worked for the Peace Corps for two years in Cameroon, tried to tell me that it’s actually a good sign for there to be lots of flies: it means that the meat is somewhat fresh. “The flies don’t like the rotted meat,” she told me.
“Yeah, sure thing Robin,” I replied. “Like I really believe that.”
I ordered a mystery dish, and it turned out to be soup with fish, shrimp, and clams. I was pretty hungry, so without thinking about how unbelievably far we were from the ocean, I just ate it all. I guess this was a major screw up because the rest of the group, especially Ed, freaked out: “You just ate clams?” He asked in amazement. “In northern Cameroon? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
The jeep ride from Maroua to the tiny village of Rhumsiki was only four hours, and when we crested the final rise below the Mandara Mountains, the entire group let out a collective sigh of relief. Stretching across the horizon were dozens of rock spires poking into a hazy African sky. We had traveled across the world on nothing more than a hunch, and more than once I had convinced myself that we’d get all the way out here and the rocks would be crumbling one-pitch mud stacks. Now we could see that not only did the Mandara Mountains really exist, but the range included some overhanging towers that appeared to be upwards of 1000 feet tall. After a quick reconnaisance we determined that Rhumiski Tower, the one we had seen in the French film, was indeed the best, so we established our basecamp in a dusty field of dirt a quarter mile from its base.
The first evening our crew gathered below the only tree in camp and passed around a bottle of whiskey. I was set up off to the side with a desk made of piled up crates. In an effort to make a little bit of money out of the trip, I had signed up to send dispatches to a joint National Geographic/Quokka web site. I was punching away at the computer, trying to finish up my duties before the whiskey was gone, when suddenly the battery died. I had planned to recharge off the vehicle, but the driver had taken off somewhere for the night. I was cursing away, when suddenly I heard Ed say something like, “Bah, I’m glad that piece of shit isn’t working.” At first I couldn’t believe what I heard. “What did you say?” I asked Ed, with a clear edge in my voice. He mumbled something about “fucking Internet bullshit” and took another big swig of whiskey. I was about ready for a scrap when Andy pulled me aside and gave me a quick run down on Ed’s personality. “He’s really not a bad guy,” he told me. “It’s just that he can be kind of thorny, especially when he’s in one of his moods.” I guess he was right, especially about the moody thing, because an hour later Ed and I were sitting arm in arm, finishing off the bottle. I was glad we had patched things up and I’d also learned a valuable lesson about Ed. When he pushes your buttons — which he does often — you have to get right in his face and give it back. At least once a day Ed would tell me to fuck off, and I’d shoot right back: “No Ed, fuck YOU. A huge grin would break across his face and he’d start cackling and clapping his hands together, happy to see that I’d figured out his game.
Unfortunately, Ed developed this bad habit of trying to give me at least one big hug each day. We’d be sitting around camp in the evening, and Ed would look over at me with this mischievous smile on his face: “Marky, have you had your hug yet today?”
“Uh, that’s OK Ed,” I’d tell him, backing away. “I’m all set.” But here’s the thing about Ed: once he’s made up his mind to do something, nothing can stop him. He’d run over and wrap his arms around me and start rubbing his scruffy afro against my shoulder like one of those Mon Chi Chi stuffed animals. It was a little weird, but at least I knew that Ed liked me…for the moment.
Although Ed would often talk about his unworthiness and lack of climbing experience, this 45 year old is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished black climbers in the world. Short, rippled with muscles and without a microgram of fat on his body, Ed can crank one arm pull-ups and destroy guys twice his size in arm wrestling. He started climbing in South Africa in the early 70s during the height of Apartheid, and initially his ambitions were thwarted by an all white climbing community which banned him from the South African Mountain Club. As a youth, Ed spent a lot of time by himself, often wandering through the hills surrounding Cape Town. February and Deklerk met in 1980 through a mutual climbing friend, but initially, February felt little inclination to become friends with the lad 11 years his junior. But over time the pair found in each other a kindred spirit that was far stronger than the racial and political tensions that surrounded them. To this day, February credits Deklerk’s mother for allowing the partnership to blossom. “During this time,” he explained in a dispatch on the web site, “any mother having some black kid – an older black guy actually – taking their 16 year old out climbing would get seriously worried. Andy’s mom was just amazing….when your average white person in South Africa would’ve thrown a complete tantrum.”
But not everyone in the South African climbing community was as open minded as Deklerk’s mother. “I got all this shit, mostly from the older establishment figures,” says February. “People were really unhappy about the situation. This partnership is a one-in-a-million thing.”
Today Ed is a world renowned doctor of botany with the South African Museum, and he travels throughout the world conducting research and squeezing in climbs when he can. Though he claims to find little time for climbing, February has established more than 200 high end rock climbs throughout the African continent. Ironically, the South African Mountain Club, of which he is currently a committee member, now wants him to be their chairman. But despite a happy long term marriage and everything else that he has accomplished in his life, Ed is still a troubled man, torn between his career as a professional scientist and his true passion in life, exploratory rock climbing. During Apartheid, Ed was discriminated against because of the color of his skin. Now that Apartheid is over, Ed is one of the most accomplished black professionals in South Africa, but a part of him still has a hard time accepting and appreciating his success. My guess is that he beats himself up wondering how much of it still has to do with his race. Many times over the course of the trip he would simply walk out of camp and be gone for hours, wandering the dusty trails of Rhumsiki in search of answers to life’s toughest questions.
Andy Deklerk, 33, is the perfect, albeit unlikely partner for Ed because he doesn’t take himself at all seriously and is constantly reminding Ed to do the same. With a crazy mane of scraggly blonde hair, and sparkling blue eyes, Andy looks exactly like the hard man he is. During the 1980’s he was the driving force behind pushing standards in South Africa, single handedly taking the country from 5.10 to 5.13. He has more than 600 first ascents to his credit, including 5.13 trad climbs (put up in the 80s) and 5.14 sport routes. Deklerk is also an accomplished alpinist who has attempted Latok I and Gasherbrum IV in Pakistan, as well as soloing many classics in the Alps like the North Face of the Eiger and the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru. But despite his accomplishments, which put him in league with the world’s best all around climbers, Deklerk has consistently shunned any and all publicity, preferring instead to make a quiet living as a custom furniture maker outside of the limelight.
Like February, who was one of the only black people in South Africa to receive a Ph.D. under Apartheid, Deklerk was an exceptionally gifted student at the University of Cape Town, where he received straight A’s. He was offered a coveted Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, but declined the honor, choosing instead to pour all of his energy into climbing. He moved to the states in 19tk and used his earnings from his cabinetry business in Seattle to fund expeditions and climbing trips all over the world. Two years ago, Deklerk moved back to Cape Town where he lives with his second wife. Although climbing is still a central focus in his life, his newest passion is BASE jumping. These days, you can usually find him early in the morning on top of Table Mountain, preparing for a quick BASE before heading to his woodworking shop.
We knew from our research, most of which had come from old back issues of French climbing magazines, that Rhumsiki Tower had seen its first recorded ascent in 1961 by a group of French volunteers who were stationed in a nearby village. That route followed the line of least resistance on the north face. Since then, three or four other routes had been established by European teams, but to our knowledge, no one had attempted to tackle the central overhanging section of the south face. On our second day in Rhumsiki we strolled down to the base of the formation with an entourage including most of the village children. I’m not sure why, but Andy and Greg had nicknamed them “the technicals.” Most of the kids had homemade ukuleles that they plucked on constantly, filling the air with a random, tuneless racket that jarred the nerves. The wall had inspired us from a distance, but upon close inspection we found that the volcanic rock (which was probably syenite) was smooth as glass. What few holds we could find were polished with a soapy veneer that appeared to defy any possibility of rock climbing.
We decided to climb the tower by the standard route and then examine the south face on rappel, to determine if it would even be possible to climb. Rappel bolting would be a first for me, but Ed and Andy, who had established countless routes across Africa in this manner (including a 5.13 with Todd Skinner on the Hand of Fatima in Mali) believed it was the only logical choice. I had to agree. Climbing this blank, holdless wall from the ground-up would be little more than a giant bolt ladder.
We found what we presumed was the first ascent route on the north face. Actually, one of the village children guided us up it. It was true jungle mountaineering, scaling vines and stemming up wild chimney systems that went straight through the formation, forming tunnels and caves that beckoned for exploration. As we ascended the 5.7 route, I couldn’t help but notice that all the holds were exceptionally well polished, apparently from heavy traffic. I was reminded of a chapter I had read in a book about Cameroon history. Centuries ago, Muslim slave traders from Sudan routinely raided the villages of the Kapsiki people. These raids eventually drove the Kapsikis from the fertile farmland of the plains into the Mandara Mountains, because the range’s inaccessible rock towers offered one of the only possible sanctuaries. According to legend, the frightened villagers would hide on the top of Rhumiski tower when the raids took place. It was obvious that this tower had been first climbed long before 1961. For all I knew, the Kapsikis had stood on top of this formation hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
We spent the next few days cleaning up a line on rappel and it looked like we might just barely be able to free climb it. The task of cleaning the route was greatly complicated by the abundant population of vultures that made their home on the tower. Vultures don’t have the best reputation in the animal kingdom, but they are actually majestic birds with wingspans up to tk feet. Ed was particularly unhappy about the vultures because on a previous climb one of these birds had barfed up a stomach full of carrion onto his head while he was climbing up to its roost.
We bought hand forged sickles from a local farmer and used these to scrape off as much guano and dirt as we could. This was a never ending, hateful task because of the heat and the airborne clouds of filth that we’d inevitably end up sucking into our lungs. I was sure that any day I was going to develop lung worm or some other heinous respiratory disease.
We worked on our route the first couple afternoons but quickly realized that it just wasn’t worth torturing ourselves in the 100+ degree heat. Instead we got into a routine of getting up at first light and working on the wall until it went into the sun around 1pm. Then we’d rap off and take care of other chores in camp or visit various folks in the village, like the chief or the Crab Sorcerer.
After we had the route cleaned and equipped with bolts where natural protection was not available, we began the difficult task of trying to free climb the 10 pitch line from the ground up. We were also working closely with Simon and Greg on the film. On the first attempt, Ed volunteered to lead the pitch that we’d all been dreading: an overhanging 6-9″ 5.11c off-width coated with vulture guano and bat piss. The night before, Ed had sat up with a good bottle of scotch, going on and on about what a piece of shit that off-width was. Then in the morning, obviously a bit hung over, he asks: “Would you guys mind if I lead the off-width?” Ed is not an easy guy to figure out. After a couple 5.10 pitches, Ed got into it in proud fashion, working a knee lock, arm bar combo that literally shredded him down to the bone. He bitched, moaned and cursed like nothing I’d ever seen or heard before…but he sent it.
Above the off-width, our free attempt got shut down when Andy and I took repeated whippers on the overhanging 5.12 crux pitches. The rock was slick, the climbing technical, sequential and pumpy, and when the sun came around onto the face we had to bail. We only had a couple days left, so we decided to take the next day off, and then on the final day of the trip, we’d make one last all out attempt to free the route from bottom to top in a day. No one was optimistic.
Mark climbing the tower
Two days later, we set out at first light in two teams of two. The South Africans would climb first, and Greg and I would climb up behind them. Until this point Greg had only been filming, but now that these duties were finished, he was psyched to give the route a try. After five or six hours of continuous climbing, the four of us met on top. Andy and Ed, who had climbed a bit faster than us, were still looking pretty fresh, but Greg and I were frazzled and burnt to a crisp from catching the last two pitches in the sun. I had come up with a new nickname for Greg — the “old leather handbag” — in reference to the skin on the back of his neck which had seen a little too much of the relentless African sun. Andy and I had definitely put the most effort into working the line, and at last it had paid off. That day we both climbed the entire route with no falls, finally redpointing both the crux pitches. We called our climb “The Great Technical Adventure.” Everyone agreed it was an honest 5.12d, and probably the hardest rock climb in Cameroon.
But the trip was not quite over… yet. Ever since we started talking about this trip, Andy had been wanting to climb and BASE Rhumsiki Tower. Although the tower was steep, there was a big ledge sticking out about 200 feet from the top. Andy sat on a small ledge just below the top, smoking cigarettes and obviously trying to decide if it was worth it. He tested the launch by dropping potatoes because they are supposed to have the same density as a human body, but it was hard to see whether they cleared the ledge or not. When he finally went for it, Ed chose not to watch, and Greg and I tried to capture the event on film and video. Andy only had room for one step, but he launched like a ring tail monkey and cleared the ledge by a wide margin. He pulled his chute a few seconds later and we watched his fluorescent wing glide into the village below, where the locals had gathered, clearly bewildered by the bizarre events unfolding on their local crag.
After Andy’s jump, the three of us sat around in the long grass on top and took a few minutes to savor the unique perspective of the world offered from the summit of Rhumsiki Tower. Dozens of vultures circled overhead, aloft on thermals rising up the walls of the tower from the scorching desert below. In the distance, other volcanic towers pierced the cloudy, heat soaked sky, beckoning for further exploration. 1000 feet below, I could see the village, with its valuable cover of Baobob trees surrounding the mud shacks which still have no running water, electricity, or telephones. Intuitively, I knew that centuries ago, a villager, or perhaps a group of them, made the first ascent of this tower, perhaps to save their lives. On the summit, the view must have appeared to them more or less exactly as it does now, and I almost felt as if I was seeing it through their eyes: what a wild, intense experience that must have been for them. What a privilege for us, to follow in their footsteps and thus form a kindred spirit, however ethereal, with people whose bones lay somewhere under the desert below.