Dates of Trip:
Read the related Rock and Ice article Fluid Machine: Life, Death, and Transformation on São Tomé’s Pico Cão Grande.
From the plane over Accra the life of the lights below is strange and somehow comforting. Their shape is organic and distinct from the geometry of other cities I know. Instead of the familiar grids that trace their arteries, a single sweeping sheet of tightly woven flickering covers the city whole like the pulse of an enchanted forest somewhere far from home.
Two hours south of Accra is São Tomé and Príncipe, an island nation some 200 km off the coast of Ghana. Jutting sharply from the jungle on the southern tip of this tiny island is Pico Cão Grande, a mysterious tower shrouded in an unrelenting mist and almost mythological beauty. Before this summer, less people had been to its summit than had been to the moon and not a single one of them had successfully free climbed it. Three years ago, a British team had established a route called Nubivigant, that they thought could go, but they never completed it. Another Spanish team tried and failed. No one made the conditions sound very appealing either, especially the part about all the snakes. Cast in a more optimistic light though, there was still an epic 15-pitch sport climb in a beautiful country waiting for a First Free Ascent. This was enough for some of my close friends to begin to nurture a wild idea about this distant peak that no one seemed to be able to climb; maybe they could.
Slowly that idea grew into a goal and eventually a bone-a-fide plan, validated with google docs and packing lists and even a photographer. Then, sometime after they bought plane tickets but before they secured funding I got invited to tag along. I was obviously honored, but skeptical if I belonged. The crux pitch of Nubivigant was thought to be at least 13d and the remaining 455m of wet, heavily vegetated choss didn’t sound particularly casual either. I hadn’t even sent 13a in optimal conditions, which is to say, I certainly wasn’t going to send this thing.
Still, I felt like I needed to go. Measured against the background hum of well-financed millennial anxiety I thought this might let me believe I had something in the way of convictions. I wanted to do something with the gravity to chase the ghosts away and tether me down as a person of substance. So I signed on and begin to dream that if I lay humbly before this crazy goal I might find some sort of meaning in the margins of hard work and big rocks.
On the phone, a month later, our local liaison in São Tomé warned us,
‘Some of the things you plan for will go wrong. Well, more like half the things. Actually, if we’re being realistic, a lot of the things. Probably most of the things will go wrong’
This was concerning considering the plan as it stood wasn’t all that tenable to begin with. The weather was supposed to be bad, the rock was supposed to be loose, the climbing was supposed to be hard, and worst of all, the trees were supposed to be filled with snakes. Not the ‘fuck up your day’ kind of snakes but the fuck up your whole life kind of snakes; the die in the jungle and don’t even try to get out kind of snakes. Until recently the fiercely venomous Cobra-Petra, known locally as the black snake, had been mistakenly thought to be a Forrest Cobra, introduced from west Africa by early Portuguese farmers to control the rat population. It had always been curious why someone would recruit Africa’s deadliest snake to fix a rat problem until recent genetic research confirmed that this snake was, in fact, a unique species of cobra, endemic to the island; just like the Forrest Cobra, but probably bigger. For a certain subset of herpetologists this minor taxonomic clarification might have been a revelation, but for us, it wasn’t all that comforting.
As we proceeded to semi-seriously research anti-venom, shop for global rescue insurance, and rent satellite phones it began to feel like we were taking on some pretty non-trivial risks. But that was kind of the point. If I wanted to be comfortable while not sending a hard sport climb I could have stayed at home and gone to Rumney. This trip was supposed to be an adventure, maybe even an expedition, and if we were going to conform to the right side of a word with sexy face but checkered past, then adversity felt like the only currency capable of moving the dial. At best an expedition was something serious people did when they made a courageous bet on something they believed in. At worst an expedition was overwrought and overfunded voyeurism contorted until it could be peddled as something extraordinary.
Not to be disappointed, the first several days were adequately unideal. First, Iberia Airlines’ sneakily oppressive baggage policy sparked an eleventh hour gear triage that cost us one of our port-a-ledges and a lot of our food. After making it across the Atlantic we promptly lost our medical kit in the Lisbon airport cuing up a modestly-successful two day scavenger hunt through pharmacies across the city. Once we finally got to Sao Tome it took a feat of minor diplomacy to secure an ambiguous approval from its not exactly clear who to set up camp at the base of the wall. Somewhere in between we met the preternaturally talented Iker and Eneko Pou and confirmed that they had already sent the damn thing. Worse was all the footage of giant snakes and massive rock-fall they showed us. All of a sudden the opportunity for a first free ascent was gone, and instead, the opportunity for an accident was starting to feel much higher.
Trying to make the best of the cards we were dealt, while the stronger members of our team proceeded to fix lines on the hard pitches, me and the rest of the B-team went to investigate a new Swiss route that supposedly summited at 5.10. We didn’t know anything else about it, or if it even had been freed, but it certainly sounded manageable. Only it wasn’t. The first hold I touched was soaked; the next one exploded. If not for half of a cam than remain lodged we would have been jettisoned down a pretty uninviting ravine. Hold three at least stayed on the wall, but the movement sure didn’t feel like 5.10. Over the next two hours I groveled my way up about 50 feet, pulling on almost every draw, before given up altogether. We walked back to camp, beaten down, wondering what the hell we were doing here if we couldn’t even climb the first pitch of the kiddie-route.
We never did figure out what was up with that sandbagged Swiss route, but eventually, our fortunes began to turn. The next day, I tried the first 12b pitch of Nubivigant which went down surprisingly easily. Then for the next week the weather was perfect, camp was great, and we didn’t see a single snake. Every single person we met was kind and helpful. The country was beautiful. The A-team made quick work of the hard pitches and sent them all in just over a week, a resounding success even if the Pou brothers beat them to it. I sent my mini-project, a 12d mixed pitch, probably a third ascent. I was even the first American to ever summit the tower, which, if you dismiss the wreckage left from centuries of post-colonial dick measuring in the name of nationalism, is kind of cool I guess.
All things considered, the trip went exceedingly, shockingly, seamlessly, well, but something didn’t feel right. It’s not that I had a bad time; I had a great time with some of the best people I know. It is just that it was hard to reconcile my reasons for going with what I actually did. Maybe that was because I had romanticized this in a way that was predicated on overcoming adequate adversity or being rendered a tourist. Had I created a trap where actually succeeding precluded feeling successful? Maybe it was because success and safe passage were more subject to stochastic rock fall than care and courage. There was risk, there just wasn’t a whole lot of agency about it. Maybe it was because, I was seduced by the hope I could try my hardest and be transformed, but some objectives are simply out of reach. It is a weird feeling to be part of a thing you know you cannot do.
Or maybe it was something else. Ultimately it’s hard to say why I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for out there in the jungle, but maybe there’s something to be said for the search. Nubivigant loosely translates to Wandering in the Clouds, a gentle reminder that you might not always be able to see where you’re going, but it’s important to keep moving, to keep looking anyway.