Team: Mark Synnott, Kevin Thaw, Jimmy Chin, Greg Child
When: July 2005
Where: Pitcairn Island, British Polynesia, South Pacific
Sponsor: National Geographic Society/The North Face
When I stumbled up into the Picasso’s cockpit at first light, the wind was ripping at the South Pacific and shrieking through the ship’s rigging. The ocean was black and covered in tendrils of white froth, and the 66-foot Ron Holland cutter was continuously launching off the head-on 4-meter swell and smacking down so hard I seriously wondered if it might snap in half. “It’s blowing a gale,” yelled the boat’s captain Mike Griffith, as another huge wave broke over the deck. “We just hit 46 knots.” Mike was outfitted in full storm gear and tethered to the boat with a body harness. He was soaked and had dark bags under his eyes. While I had been whimpering and puking in my berth all night, he had been at the helm, making sure our vessel stayed afloat. Looking at my green visage, Mike smiled, probably for the first time all night. “Toughen up dawg,” he said.
It’s fair to say that this trip would never have happened if I hadn’t come across a book entitled The Bounty, by Caroline Alexander, in late 2002. Halfway through, I flipped to a stunning painting of a wooden longboat attempting to land on Pitcairn Island. It was dated 1825, thirty-five years after the famous Bounty mutineers first landed on the rock. The painting’s background was dominated by majestic spires rising directly from the South Pacific. I was hooked. As a freelance journalist and member of The North Face Climbing Team, I’m constantly on the lookout for exotic places with untapped climbing potential. ‘Pitcairn island,’ a voice inside me said. ‘I wonder if anyone has ever climbed there?’
Some 3,000 miles from the nearest major landmass (Australia), Pitcairn is perhaps the most remote inhabited place on Earth. There are no airstrips on the 1 ½ square mile island, no harbors where a boat can be safely anchored. The only way to get there is aboard supply ships that pass by three or four times a year. And even then it’s not guaranteed that you can get on or off, or unload any goods, because the sea is often too rough for the Pitcairners to launch their long boats to bring you to shore. That’s why I enlisted captain Mike, a 43-year-old Aussie, to take my team—climbers Kevin Thaw, Greg Child, and Jimmy Chin—on the 300-mile trip from the tiny island of Mangareva. I was lucky to have found him and the Picasso through a US based charter company called Ocean Voyages. The other outfits I’d queried in French Polynesia, New Zealand, and Australia wanted nothing to do with Pitcairn Island.
Before we even set sail, I first had to apply for visitation with the Pitcairn Island Council. As it happened, at the time I made contact with the Pitcairners (most of whom are 7th and 8th generation descendants of the Bounty mutineers) their little island was embroiled in a serious sex scandal. Seven of Pitcairn’s men were charged with sexual abuse against some of the island’s young girls. Paradise was in trouble. In October 2004, six of the seven were convicted and given sentences ranging from community service to six years. Jay Warren, the island’s present mayor, was the only one acquitted.
Since the trials began, the Council has been routinely denying journalists’ requests (and there have been many) to visit the island. This might have been my undoing as well, except that they liked my idea of bringing in a group of climbers to assess Pitcairn’s potential as a rock climbing destination. And even if the climbing turned out to be complete choss, I’d at least get to see how life is lived on the world’s most remote and bizarre outpost of civilization.
Pitcairn Island would likely have remained forever as a lonely uninhabited rock sticking out of the middle of nowhere if it hadn’t been for a man named Joseph Banks. As president of Great Britain’s Royal Geographic Society, Banks served as Captain James Cook’s botanist on his historic first voyage to the Pacific aboard Endeavor (1768-1771), one of the first ships to visit Tahiti. It was during his long stay in this earthly paradise that Banks first sampled breadfruit, and concluded the Polynesian staple would make an ideal food for the slaves working on British plantations in the West Indies. Upon his return to Britain he immediately set about organizing an expedition to transplant the species. Cook’s navigator William Bligh was named the expedition’s leader and captain.
Her Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty arrived in Matavai Bay, Tahiti on October 26, 1788, after a 27,086 mile journey around the world. After months of living in cramped quarters aboard the rat-infested ship, Tahiti was salvation for Bligh’s men— no less because their captain had turned out to be harsh and hated. The crew spent the next five months collecting breadfruit plants, during which time they lived ashore with the island’s beautiful and free-spirited women. When Bligh finally announced five months later that it was time cast off, several of his men were expecting children.
On April 28, 1789, three weeks after raising the mainsail in Tahiti, first mate Fletcher Christian and nine fellow sailors rebelled against their captain and took control of the Bounty by force. Bligh and 18 loyal crewmen were cast adrift in a 23-foot long boat, left to find their way 4,000 miles to Dutch East Timor, a 62-day epic. In Tahiti Christian picked up six Polynesian men, 12 Polynesian women and one baby while leaving 16 men behind in paradise. In the end, eight of the original mutineers decided to stay with Christian and the Bounty.
The Bounty’s new crew of 28 spent the next nine months searching the South Pacific for an uninhabited island on which to settle and establish a utopian society. In January 1790, when Fletcher Christian first set eyes on the rockbound Pitcairn, he knew they’d found it. The British Royal Navy would never think to look for them on a tiny rock with no harbor, sticking out of the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The decision was unanimous. Shortly after running the Bounty aground on Pitcairn, one of the mutineers set it ablaze, thus sealing their fate on the island.
The newly settled mutineers and Polynesians wasted no time before constructing a village on a small plateau above Bounty Bay. It wasn’t long, though, before tensions over the island’s limited supply of women began to flare. No one knows exactly what happened on Pitcairn Island in those early days, but the story goes that four years after landing, Fletcher Christian, and all the other men on the island except one, had suffered violent deaths. When the American sealing ship Topaz landed on Pitcairn in 1809, they found John Adams, the last surviving mutineer and sole adult male on the island, presiding over a community of 27 women and children.
At daybreak on July 1st I scampered up on deck to find Mike alone at the helm again. This time, though, the sea was calm and he pointed to a tiny green emerald poking out of the ocean. “Well mate, there’s your effing island,” he drawled. The island was essentially a giant rock sticking out of the ocean, ringed with soaring grey and orange sea cliffs and topped with a cap of vibrant green jungle. It was the same viewpoint Fletcher Christian and his crew would have had 215 years earlier. But in 2005, I could make out the brightly colored houses of Adamstown perched at the edge of a cliff 500 feet above Bounty Bay.
Half an hour later, a scrappy aluminum long boat pulled up alongside our fender and pandemonium erupted aboard the Picasso. Duffels and backpacks began flying through the air to the two scruffy-looking men as their little vessel grinded against the side of the Picasso. Captain Mike was anxious to get us onto the little boat as quickly as possible, so when it rose up on the swell and stood next to us, he looked right at me and yelled: “GO!” But for some reason I hesitated, and when I did step forward, the little boat was no longer there. The next thing I knew I was eating the bottom of its hull.
My three teammates made the transfer more smoothly, and after scooping up a stray pelican case that was bobbing in the water, Hermie, the little boat’s skipper, motored us out into the 3-meter swell. As we dipped into the trough of a huge wave, our destination disappeared from view, and all I could see was a wall of dark blue water. Off the stern, black smoke bubbled out of our wake, and through the haze, I caught sight of Captain Mike waving from the Picasso. The engine whined as the little boat climbed up the face of the wave, and then suddenly, we were airborne. The boat landed with a crunch that surely popped a few of its rivets, not to mention some of my own. “This guy is a friggin maniac,” I muttered, picking myself off the floor for the second time in as many minutes, and getting a good look at the blood-soaked bandage around Hermie’s hand on my way up.
Rocks stuck out of the water in every direction, and I could see clearly why one of captain Mike’s logs suggested that no sailor should ever try to land their own dinghy on this island—only the locals know the exact route through the maze of rocks that guard the shore. Nearing the boat house, Hermie eased off the throttle, let a couple waves pass under us, then gunned it, cresting a wave over a rock outcropping and cutting a quick turn into a small eddy behind the jetty.
The half-dozen-member welcome committee pulled us out of the longboat like the day’s catch. For the most part, they looked almost exactly as you’d expect: a cross between Polynesians and Brits. They had dark skin and dark hair, but their facial features were decidedly Anglo-Saxon. One of them I recognized instantly as Brenda Christian. Dark-skinned, lean, with long brown hair, Brenda, 52, was barefoot and wearing cut off jeans and an old ratty t-shirt. I had first seen her picture on her website and then later in Time magazine next to a blurb about her being the first female mayor of Pitcairn Island. “Welcome to Pitcairn Island,” she said, with a bizarre accent that sounded like a Cockney sailor with a lilting island drawl. I’d never heard anything remotely like it.
There are no hotels on the island, so Bren had arranged for each of us to stay with different families. Greg was paired with Charlene and Wayne Warren. Charlene is the mayor’s daughter, and Wayne actually emigrated to Pitcairn from the Solomon islands in 19tk. Kevin’s hosts were Jay and Carol Warren, Charlene’s parents. Jimmy Chin was temporarily adopted by Simon and Shirley Young. Although they have a mutineers surname, the British/American 30-something year old couple are not descendants of the mutineers. They are Pitcairn’s newest full time residents. They first visited the island in the late 90s and loved it so much they never left.
After a round of introductions and hand shakes, we all jumped on the back of ATVs and set off up a super steep, muddy trail named the “Hill of Difficulty.” At the top we passed Adamstown, Pitcairn’s only village with its Seventh Day Adventist church, library, post office, museum and general store, all packed around a paved courtyard. It looked like a well kept Caribbean village. Most of the white-washed wooden public buildings appeared in good repair, although plants were growing up the sides of them and the jungle seemed to be crowding in everywhere I looked. The island was so beautiful it didn’t seem real. Something about the way the light filtered through the dense canopy above made everything shimmer and dance as if infused with electricity. There was nobody around.
Further down the road we passed a few private residences, which were significantly scrappier than the public buildings. They appeared to have been thrown together with odd pieces of plywood and tin, and most were completely open to the outside, without doors or window screens. It was as if the locals wanted as few barriers as possible between themselves and nature. Bren cranked a sharp left turn and we headed up an ever steeper trail. The rest of the team buzzed off down various other paths that tunneled mysteriously into the bush.
My first full day on Pitcairn was spent exploring the island on the back of an ATV with Mike Lupton, Brenda’s husband. The island is riddled with little roads and trails, but there are also vast areas that are essentially inaccessible and never visited. Mike pointed into densely vegetated valleys, ringed with cliffs, that probably haven’t been explored in decades. Every panorama seemed to include three things: lush jungle, sea cliffs, and the biggest, deepest, bluest ocean in the world. I’d been on the island less than day and the shocking beauty of the place was already resonating within my soul. Our first stop was a place called Ship’s Landing Point, the summit of a 500-foot wall of grey rock that rises directly above Bounty Bay. From the Picasso it had appeared to be the island’s best cliff, but when I leaned over the edge and grabbed a hold, the rock crumbled in my hand like over-baked clay. ‘Uh oh,’ that voice said. ‘Had I traveled halfway across the world to climb this?’
When we arrived back at Mike and Bren’s after a full day’s recon, the table was piled high with fresh grilled fish called Nanwe that Bren had caught that afternoon. There was also a pot roast, breadfruit chips (which taste just like French fries, only better,) and Cole slaw. Bren and Mike’s house is one of the nicest on the island, a sprawling single story cement block ranch that looks directly out over the Pacific. The most amazing thing about it, though, was the vast array of electrical appliances it contained: refrigerators, freezers, televisions, DVD players, computers, blenders, toasters, coffee makers, you name it. Perhaps more impressively, the entire island is set up for wireless internet, something I don’t even have at my home. Several of the families, like Mike and Bren, have websites on which they sell Pitcairn trinkets like carvings, t-shirts and their famously pure honey. It’s no surprise then that electricity is the most valuable commodity on the island. The generator feeds the community with power from 8am to 1pm, and then from 5pm to 10pm.
At the table sat a barefoot, 80-year-old Len Brown, one of the island’s oldest residents. Years ago, he was best known as the island’s most adventurous soul—a note of distinction in a place where everyone, by default, is adventurous. He once, for example, swam all the way around the island – about seven shark infested miles. According to Bren, he’s still the only person who has ever explored every inch of the island. He’s also, I learned, very hard of hearing
“Len,” I yelled while leaning over the table. “Any ideas where we should look to find some good rock climbing?”
Len nodded and turned to Bren. They began to speak in Pitkern, the island’s unique “pidgin” language, a strange amalgamation of 18th century English and Polynesian, which many of the old timers use to speak amongst themselves. Pitkern hasn’t changed much since it developed as a way for the English sailors and the Tahitians to communicate, and it features some words you can figure out, like musket (gun), and others you probably wouldn’t, like Tin-tola (girlfriend) or Wettles (food). Later, Bren translated:
“Nava bin doun Gudgeon fer lorg time” said Bren. No one has been down to Gudgeons in a long time.
“Mebe gut sum good side fer clime Down Rope” replied Len. Maybe there is some good climbing at Down Rope.
If nothing else, the name sounded promising.
The next morning, Andrew Christian, Brenda’s 19 year old son, pulled his ATV over on a rugged trail that skirted the edge of a steep precipice. “Over here,” he said, dropping down a near vertical slot that had been hacked into the vegetation. The trail eventually led us to a staircase chopped into the side of a 500-foot cliff of compressed mud and black ash.
At the bottom we took off our shoes and strolled along Pitcairn’s only sand beach. The spot was idyllic and would have made a great boat landing if the bay wasn’t encircled with jagged rocks. At the back of the beach, Andrew showed us some Polynesian hieroglyphs carved into the base of a 200-foot cliff. Archaeologists believe that Pitcairn was home to a thriving Polynesian community from approximately 1200 to 1500 A.D. Because Pitcairn Island is volcanic, and not a coral atoll like most of the other islands in this part of Polynesia, its rocks were prized and widely traded by the Polynesians. Looking down between my feet, I could see many of these water-smoothed stones rolling in the surf. After the huge journey we had undertaken to get to this island, it was humbling to imagine a band of Polynesians, in a hollowed out tree trunk, pushing off from Mangareva and paddling into the sunset.
To my surprise, the cliff at Down Rope was actually solid and would have made for some decent rock climbing. We quickly decided, however, that due to the sensitive nature of the site we would leave it untouched. After traveling thousands of miles to do some climbing, it was difficult to stay off the rock, but at least we now knew that not all the rock on the island was complete garbage.
That night, as I scoured maps looking for our next location, Brenda invited me to a town meeting. It was a marvelous opportunity: I would be the first foreigner to witness how the scandal was playing out behind closed doors. En route, about 200 yards from the meeting hall, we strolled past Steve Christian’s house. Steve is Brenda’s brother, one of the convicted, and the island’s former mayor (he was sacked after his conviction). I was shocked to see a small car in his garage, the only one I’d seen on the island. I was even more shocked a few minutes later when I saw him pull up in this vehicle outside the meeting hall, which was a two minute walk from his house.
The hall was packed, and for the first time I had a chance to lay eyes on the majority of the Pitcairn community. Sitting up front was Jay Warren, the new mayor. It was a boisterous group, and almost as soon as Jay called the meeting to order, Steve Christian began ranting from the back of the room. I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying, as Pitkern sounds a lot like mumbling. But I think the gist of his comments were something along the lines of ‘hey, what the hell am I doing at this meeting. No one that drives a car should have to stand for this.’
During the trials, there were Pitcairners testifying both for and against the defendants, so it’s no surprise that the community has experienced a bit of a rift. As Greg Child said to me early on in the trip, “I’ve never been anywhere where they use the term insiders and outsiders as much as they do on Pitcairn.” The insiders are generally the Pitcairn born, long time residents. All of the convicted sex offenders are insiders, and Steve Christian is their leader. The outsiders include basically everyone else on the island, including the government workers, and anyone (like Bren) who left the island for any extended period.
The real story about what’s happening on Pitcairn today is the power shift going on between these two groups. The insiders have long controlled the island, but since the trials, they have lost some of their power. As it was explained to me, the insiders are protective of their unique way of life and culture and wary of new people moving to the island. More people means more competition for the few government jobs. Insiders feel that since they have lived on Pitcairn the longest, they should have first dibs on these jobs. It’s easy to see where they’re coming from. There isn’t enough work to go around, and most of the lifelong Pitcairners have never had much opportunity to make money. And they badly need money to pay their electric bills, which are not insignificant. The only other way they can get their hands on hard cash is to trade trinkets and crafts with visiting cruise ships, which are few and far between.
The meeting had been called to discuss when the next supply ship should be scheduled, and as far as I could tell, it ended without anything being settled. Little was done to bridge the gap between the insiders and the outsiders, and the meeting ended with the same uneasy calm that existed beforehand.
There’s no doubt that some bad stuff happened on this island. The charges against the seven men included 21 counts of rape, 41 counts of indecent assault, and two counts of gross indecency with a child under 14. The uncomfortable truth here is that for generations, Pitcairn Island has had a culture of sexual promiscuity and abuse. And up until the late 90s, it was a closely held secret. At the turn of millenium an Australian Seventh-day Adventiust pastor named Neville Tosen spent two years on the island and he reported that the girls were conditioned to accept that it was man’s world. “Once they turned 12,” he said, “they were eligible,” whether they wanted to be or not. He tried to bring the matter before the Pitcairn Isdland Council, but was told by one of the members, “Look, the age of consent has always been 12 and it doesn’t hurt them.” Older women seemingly accepted the situation and regarded it as simply part of life on Pitcairn.
But eventually, Pitcairn’s dirty little secret got out and the heavy hand of justice came down on the island. The defendants initially tried to claim that British sovereignty over the island was unconstitutional, arguing that the original mutineers had renounced their British citizenship when they torched the Bounty. Three New Zealkand judges who constituted the Pitcairn Island Supreme court rejected this claim and the trial went ahead. Not long after it started, Olive Christian, (wife of Steve Christian, daughter of Len Brown, mother of Randy Christian) called a meeting of the island’s women to defend the accused men. In this meeting she claimed that underage sex was a long accpeted polynesian tradition and that it had been part of life on the island since it was first settled by the mutineers. “We all thought sex was like food on the table.” She was reported as saying. She and some of the other women also stated that the alleged rape victims had been willing participants and her daughter stated that at the age of 12 she had been “hot for it.” Several of these women ended up withdrawing their charges.
Tosen saidAs Captain mike said But the very next night the community came together again. This time, to celebrate Hermie’s birthday. Hermie, it turned out, was one of several Kiwi construction hired to rebuild Pitcairn’s crumbling jetty.
We had been told before the trip that most Pitcairners are strict Seventh Day Adventists who avoid alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, but we found that a fair number of the islanders enjoy an occasional beer or glass of wine. To join them, we had to buy $25 liquor licenses from Bren, the island’s police chief. The party was held at the Remand Center, a row of motel like rooms opening onto a grassy courtyard hemmed in by massive Banyan and Palm trees. Hermie and his crew had been living here for the past several months. And it appeared, unlike the islanders, they lived on beer. One of the rooms was piled from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with cases, and they were quite proud of the fact that they needed a crane and a special barge to get their beer supply onto the island. The Remand Center was clean and comfortable, even cozy. It wasn’t until about an hour into the party that I realized we were celebrating in Pitcairn’s freshly built jail.
Today, four of the six men who were convicted (two, including Len, for showing remorse, were sentenced to community service) are incarcerated in the Remand Center, for anywhere from two to six years. The men, most of whom were at this party, were given a choice between serving their sentences in New Zealand (in a real jail) or on Pitcairn, and everyone—to no one’s surprise—chose Pitcairn. They must have found it a bit odd to be partying where they would soon be jailed. I know I did. With good behavior, they would eventually be let out during the day to work around the island, since their manpower is indispensable for certain jobs like launching the long boats. Having assumed that no one else will need to be locked up after these guys, the Remand Center was built to one day become a hotel. Mike told me that at a town meeting some leading Pitcairners had lobbied for the jail’s official name to be Bob’s Holiday House. The governor’s rep vetoed that one.
Not since Len Brown’s heyday has anyone made as extensive a survey of Pitcairn as we did over the course of our week on the island. I knew that elusive cliff of solid rock had to be somewhere, and sure enough, we finally found the spot on the very eastern extremity of the island. St. Paul’s Pool is a jaw dropping aqua-blue, 20-foot deep tide pool ringed within an enclosure of three rock pinnacles that rise straight from the open ocean. The Pitcairners have installed a metal gangway leading down from a crumbling shoreline cliff to the edge of the pool. It’s the only spot on the island where you can safely swim and snorkel in the ocean.
To get to the towers, we scrambled across a knife-edge ridge leading to the tallest and skinniest of the three. One look at it and we knew that no Pitcairner had ever climbed it, not even Len. It poked out of the water for about 100 feet and was vertical and smooth faced on all four sides. Every few minutes the ocean swell would crash against the base, sending huge clouds of spray into the air. Kevin, the strongest and craziest free climber of our group, took the lead, starting with a down climb into a notch, where he timed his step across to the tower and just missed getting doused by a huge wave. But in less than 30 seconds he was off the slime and onto dry rock. He tested the integrity of the handholds by knocking on them with the heel of his hand. Amazingly, the tower was bullet hard, no doubt picked clean by eons of relentless pounding from the South Pacific.
As he climbed up the vertical sea stack, Kevin stopped every ten feet or so to engineer a piece of protection. He worked hard to make it happen with passive protection devices, called cams and nuts, and in this way he avoided the need for bolts. Near the top was a small overhang where Kevin had no choice but to put all of his weight on some questionable holds. Luckily, they held fast and he was soon standing on the tiny summit.
Bren had been sitting next to me the whole time while I belayed, and I could tell she wanted to climb.
“Have a go? I asked.
“You betcha” she replied.
I gave her my harness, but she refused the rock shoes, preferring instead to climb the razor-sharp rock barefoot. With Kevin belaying her from above, and me shouting encouragement from below, Bren carefully climbed into the notch and made the stem across to the tower. She moved smoothly, even on the wet part, and you would have guessed she’d been climbing her whole life. Hanging from her fingertips, with her toes slotted into pockets in the rock, Bren was briefly stymied by the crux move. Then suddenly, using technique she shouldn’t have known, she threw a foot over her head, hooked her heel behind a small protrusion, and levered herself, ninja-like, right past the overhang. As she scampered up onto the summit, a huge wave exploded against the tower, spewing up a cloud of sea water that nearly licked her feet. Bren let loose with a wild cry that echoed off the surrounding sea cliffs.
On the day before we were scheduled to leave, I took a hike by myself up to Pitcairn’s summit. Over the course of a week we had criss-crossed the tiny island, yet for some reason none of us had yet been to the actual summit, about 1100 feet above sea level. From Mike and Bren’s house, a trail led me along the southern coast past the radio station, where a massive antenna poked into the sky. On Pitcairn’s summit a few scraggly wind stunted pines surrounded a picnic table and a benchmark embedded in a block of concrete.
Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, I rotated my body 360°, and the immensity of Pitcairn’s isolation and remoteness washed over me like a wave. In every direction, there was nothing but shimmering ocean stretching to the distant horizon. Way down below, offshore a spot called Tedside, I could see the Picasso, bobbing in that huge ocean like a little toy. In 24 hours, that boat would take me away from this place, possibly forever. But what would it feel like, I wondered, if that boat wasn’t there, and I couldn’t leave?
To the east I looked out over the brightly colored roofs of Adamstown. While the trial may have divided this community in some ways, it’s brought them together in others, making it all the more clear exactly how reliant they are on each other for their very survival. After all, the one thing a Pitcairner cherishes more than anything, is their identity and heritage as descendants of the world’s most famous mutineers. This is the glue that has held this community together for the past 215 years. Recent events may have splintered them into insiders and outsiders, but when it comes time to launch the long boats, every one of them is a Pitcairner and proud of it.