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The Broom of Allah:
Climbing a sandstone tower of the Southern Sahara Desert.


We were climbing above a vast, potato colored landscape. Arid conditions and searing sun conspired against crops, trees and even desert grasses. Twiggy bushes outlined furrows where seasonal rains formed mud puddle ponds. In the shade of boulders, dried grass bunched like abandoned arsenals of spears. Acres of sun burnt stones ranged in size from French roast colored ankle breakers, to fifty-foot high boulders adorned with sport routes.  Lording over all stood lion-colored towers and walls

For thousands of years, camels have tracked across lonesome Saharan sands to an oasis with the magic name of Timbuktu.  Timbuktu is in Mali, and today the country is plagued by drought, political turmoil and social unrest. Less than a hundred miles south of Timbuktu, along the Bandiagara escarpment, old ways survive. Here, bare hands and feet of Dogon tribesman climb cliffs to bury their dead in funerary caves perched hundreds of feet above their villages.

For many years, my regular gang of climbing partners-- Todd Skinner, Bobby Model, Andy deKlerk, Ed February, Scott Milton, Bill Hatcher and Peter Mallamo and I, were intrigued by photos we had seen in Spanish magazines that depicted the cliffs rising above the Dogon villages as well as The Hand of Fatima. Rising from this landscape was our climbing goal... the regions most outstanding challenge was a 1400-foot new route up the severely overhanging outside corner of the little finger on Fatima's Hand.

After selecting our climb, the hard work began. Day after day was spent climbing a little higher.  At the end of each day, we would rappel down ropes which we left in place.  For ten days, we continued to work our way up the spire and to learn the nuances of climbing this type of stone. Eventually we had climbed to within one rope length of the summit and although we had fallen and rested on the rope numerous times, we had performed every movement of our 1400-foot dance. Now was the time to return to the base of the tower and begin our free climb from bottom to top.

The next day began at five AM., as our camp cook and guardian, Djunnuré (pronounced: Din-ah'-ree), cooked a huge cauldron of rice, to which he added gobbets of goat meat and several cans of vegetables. The crack in which Ed started our route veered around the arête toward a long fissure in the shade. Ed ascended skillfully up 5.10a rock that was a smorgasbord of climbing techniques: everything from small hold crimping (grabbing fingertip holds thinner than the spine of this magazine) to strenuous cross-throughs with meager foot holds.

We followed suit and eventually arrived at one of the landmarks on the climb; the Fissure Milton. This great crack extended from a small ledge, up the shady side of the arête, almost to the giant roof halfway up the spire where pitch five began.  The day had been gusty, but we had no idea what sundown would bring for our first night suspended from the face. We  anchored our porta-ledge tents into the rock directly under the giant roof 750-feet above the ground.

Then we began our evening meal, passing the large aluminum pot from one dangling person to the next.  In the blustery darkness, we took turns spooning and chewing congealed globs of rice. Then we packed into our three portaledges and arranged ourselves head-to-toe. We went to bed, but not to sleep.  With each movement inside the tents, the aluminum frames grated ominously against the cliff. Only a thin sheet of nylon separated us from the cutting wind and a great and dark void that surrounded us.

The night was unreal. The Harmattan is a winter wind which, like the broom of Allah, sweeps across the Sahara.  While sculpting dunes, it chokes the air with ochre dust.  All night long, the Harmattan tattered us like torn sails.  Our aluminum ledges grated and ponged against the cliff, while the gear from which our ledges hung, danced with static electric sparks. The wind was so strong, our two man ledges were repeatedly lifted and dropped, then lifted and dropped again. Like the moaning of prehistoric songs, our ropes and riggings became instruments in a violent, cacophonous ritual summoning our primeval fear of the dark.

In the morning, all of us wore thousand-yard stares. Almost all of the maillon screw links securing the webbing to the portaledges had come unscrewed. When Ed's ashen face gazed out of his sleeping bag, Todd greeted him. "Last night's wind gave us one hell of a rodeo, didn't it?"

Ed laughed..." It was absolutely bloody amazing. A Harmattan Rodeo!" We realized Ed had just named our route.

Later that day, Todd challenged one of the most difficult leads of our climb. Pitch seven, the Mutant Tapeworm pitch, named after intestinal concerns, swerved briefly away from the elegant arête, then climbed a swarthy, beer-belly-bulge in the rock. Todd fired the moves - bang, bang, bang, from crimp, to sloping crimp. He then teetered with his feet just below the bulge and his hands committed above. He couldn't look down to fix the trap he set for himself. Balanced like Jesus hugging a cross, he tried unsuccessfully for thirty eternal seconds then toppled over backwards, a crouching shadow, cursing at himself for the mistake. But Todd is a master of "try again." One more attempt was all he needed.

By day's end we found ourselves on a living room-sized, guano cushioned ledge at the base of the eleventh pitch, the perfect place to set camp for the night.  It was only the next morning that we realized Andy was in pain.

Two days earlier, before we began our free climb, the wind had snatched up one of our sleeping bags. While chasing it down, Andy had crashed into a boulder and emerged with a pencil-lead-sized hole in his shin. Now his leg was swollen tight like a cured ham. On the inside of his thigh, a surly red streak led from his calf into his groin. Although he had chills and a headache, Andy insisted he was fit to continue the climb.

The wind bowed our ropes like suspension bridge cables. We climbed through the noisy blast and pulled onto a windless summit, where we built a cairn at the highest point.

Andy was holding his head in his hands. We agreed to descend immediately. He and Peter grabbed two haul bags and began the 1,400-foot rappel and the long talus-slide down to base camp. Ed and Bill followed with more haul bags and portaledges. Stripping the route of ropes and equipment, Scott, Todd and I slowly leap-frogged downward.

When we were about halfway down, Peter radioed us from the ground. Andy had passed out numerous times on the talus and Peter had carried him to camp.  Andy was now unconscious.  Peter piled Andy into the Land Rover for the twenty-hour drive to the nearest hospital back in Bamako.

Once there, Andy was treated with a massive regimen of antibiotics. The puncture in his shin had developed a staph infection causing phlebitis in his leg.  The doctors told us that another day's delay would have cost Andy his leg and perhaps even his life.

Ironically, without Andy's emergency, we would have missed one of the most enlightening experiences of our trip. In the heart of Mali, we met the Dogon who, for hundreds of years, have climbed for reasons other than sport.

While Ed kept Andy company in Bamako, the rest of us drove to the center of Dogon country where we spent a couple of days bouldering and meeting the people there. We wandered down stream beds and watched the women working in onion fields or pounding millet with long heavy poles. Everywhere we went, little kids encircled us like schooling minnows.

We admired the Dogon villages and beautifully carved masks. One evening, after offering cola nuts to several Dogon village elders, they told us about their cliff climbing history.  Through an interpreter, an elder explained that the now-vanished Tellem people taught them to climb.  "Long ago when the Dogon moved to this place, the jungle still touched the cliffs.  Both peoples lived in the cliffs to be safe from animals."  The old man went on to say that the Tellem thought the Dogon "were too noisy; so the Tellem went away from here."  Now that the great forests are gone, and the Sahara is creeping south, the Dogon climb only to bury their dead.  We were told that in the highest parts of the cliffs are Tellem funerary caves, still inaccessible to the Dogon.  We watched the Dogon free climb difficult rock we would rate 5.8. To overcome overhanging terrain, we watched them pull themselves up on baobab fiber ropes after lassoing a 600 year-old wooden spike left by the Tellem. In reply to our questions as to how the spikes came to be there, and how the Tellem could climb where the Dogon could not, the village elder replied: "Because Tellem magic was strong."

The elder advised that we climb barefooted. His wizened face cracked into a thousand smiling lines as he hoisted a gnarled foot and mimed how we might utilize the tiniest holds by using our toes like fingers. In a more serious tone, he related that since he was possessed with climbing talent, he was obliged to climb in order to bury the dead.  The venerable climber said he understood why the young climbed for fun, but we must never forget to climb: "with care; with the serene spirit of birds; and with an appreciation of the fellowship that climbing strengthens." The old man looked each of us in the eye, solemnly tapped his heart and said: "Understanding and brotherhood among all people is important above all other things."

Shortly after being taken to see the funerary caves strewn with bleached bones and skulls, we thanked the Dogon and prepared for our trips home.  As we sorted our gear we thought about our trip. The Harmattan Rodeo was a magnificent new climb, and we also realized how lucky we had been to visit the African desert and to live, for a time, among the people of Mali.  We vowed always to climb with the serene spirit of birds.

 

© 2000 Paul Piana

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