Brilliance from the Dark Continent
Walking to school in the frigid December Minnesota air, bundled from head to toe in various layers of insulation, I was mulling over an email conversation I had the previous night with my new friend Dave. Dave lives in Mali, West Africa. I was wishing that I could transport myself three weeks forward in time when I would be there for a visit. One night, among other things, we were talking rock. I was reminiscing about sunshine and Lake States sandstone and he was bragging that, in Mali, it was too hot that day for him and his buddies to climb. Knowing that I would soon be visiting him, I held my tongue from complaining too much about the cold.
Mali is an historically rich country, home to many empires and cultures. Ever heard anyone refer to something as remote as Timbuktu? Well, the city lies in central Mali near the Niger River and was once a wealthy and learned metropolis supported by the caravan trade of gold, spices, and other goods. Today, Timbuktu is mostly a dusty outpost and portal to the incredible "Festival of the Desert." The northern two-thirds of the country is desert, so most of the ten million people live in the south and southwest where crops can be grown.
This would be my first visit to the country. Our main goal was to visit my brother, but climbing this exotic landscape, near the Village of Siby, with the local expat community, was a close second. My brother, Pieter, was a Water Sanitation Engineer serving through the Peace Corps in a small village south of Bamako. It was a good time of the year to visit, as our winter is their cool and dry season. Daytime temperatures reach the mid-90s but the nights can drop into the low 60s. Humidity lounges around the single digits. Summers are seriously hot and humid.
The Hand of Fatima is the better known rock climbing area in Mali, and some climbers regard the awesome 3,000-foot spires among the best in the world. Todd Skinner accomplished a number of ascents on the unusual formation, including the first free ascent on a new route on Kaga Pamari. However, all of our rock time was spent in the Siby region that has emerged as a climber’s mecca only within the last few years.
I suspect that the African sub-Saharan savannah rarely evokes thoughts of rock climbing. Rather, I’ll bet that most North Americans visualize lions, elephants, and mud-built villages. Nevertheless, a crucible of climbing lies not far from Bamako, on the road to Guinea.
Like any climber with an insatiable sense of adventure, the anticipation of climbing a new area adds an exciting dimension to a vacation. So, we packed harnesses and shoes. I am a young climber with several years experience. I help lead my college climbing club and manage our climbing wall. However, my dad had not been climbing for 30 years. This would be fun.
Less than 24 hours after landing in Africa, five of us headed southwest of the capital to the village of Siby. Our expat hosts were two amazing climbers. Joost Guttinger, from the The Netherlands, taught at the American School in Bamako. He selects schools based on many factors, but the rock climbing or surfing opportunities are on top of his priority list. He’ll soon be moving to Muscat, Oman. Dave Wong carries a Malaysian passport, is ethnically Chinese, has American citizen parents in the Carolinas, and has lived more than 20 years in Niger and Mali. He flies small aircraft throughout West Africa. During our stay, we would meet other expat climbers through association with Joost and Dave.
Siby lies on the hot, flat plains of the African savannah and was once the center of the Mandé kingdom. Today, it’s a farm village of mud-brick houses, free-ranging stock, and a few rustic restaurants. The Calabas restaurant, the usual stop for Joost, had no food the first day we were there, but they had beverages. To the northwest of town, ancient rock formations erupt from the plains; part of an escarpment that runs east from Bamako and then into Guinea. The most striking, perhaps, is the Arch of Kamandjan. The hard, sedimentary rock has been sculpted by millennia of rainfall and Saharan Harmattan winds. The topography is reminiscent of southern Utah, or parts of Colorado. I was getting psyched.
During our two weeks in the country, we visited the Siby sites three times. Siby sports four climbing areas in close proximity: Tiny, the Arch, the Block, and the Cirque. Sport climbing abounds, and I was more than ready to get my hands on real rock again. Minnesota has excellent climbing on some of the oldest rock in the world, but during the winter, we tend to climb ice more than rock, and with my graduate school loads, the campus wall sees me more than either ice or rock.
After hearing descriptions and seeing pictures, then finally arriving at Siby, the excitement was barely containable. We drove through the school yard filled with kids and dust, and then across the boney soccer field, and then parked the vehicle and walked the last 200 yards to the Block. This gargantuan chunk of cliff rolled off the nearby escarpment ages ago and now provides a variety of climbing grades.
Establishment of the bolted routes in Siby and the surrounding area was began with the French Champ des Cimes in Chamonix starting in 2001 and is supported by the French CALAO association. A local group, An Ka Yelen, works with the Chamonix company to provide guides and maintain routes. Climbers and visitors can base from the Hotel Kamandjan in the village of Siby.
The Block has seven routes, rated from 4b to 7b. With the help of a drop-knee, 2+ ape index (I’m 4.5 feet tall) and a seriously small right-handed two finger pocket, I made it past the crux of my first-ever 6c, fingers shredded but only bleeding a little.
We camped overnight on a ledge perched 200 feet up the side of a cliff, after clambering through the parched Cirque and needling our way through a dark tunnel with bats. Laid out on the rock slab overlooking the unseen savannah below, we drifted asleep under a blanket of stars undimmed by the lights of civilization. A perfect end to a perfect day.
We awoke to an African sunrise and another hot day, ready for the next adventure. At camp, there were several marked climbs, most of them rated 7a or harder that tickled the underside of gentle overhangs. A climber far more skilled than we left a biner hanging from a bolt high on a route that simply taunted us. While waiting for the sun to move, a French couple retrieved their cache of gear at the far end of the ledge. It was a good learning experience to watch one of them tackle a clean crack and then the other ascend a muscle-numbing chimney.
The day was blistering before we got a chance to jump on the rock, so we explored the Cirque and ran across the various formations, pulling stunts atop small mesas and large outcrops that would have made my mother scream. The Cirque boasts of more than 20 bolted routes, all rated 6a or harder.
Not so far from where we parked was the fantastic Arch of Kamandjan, an amazing geological structure atop which one can camp and soak in a view that ranks climbing and bouldering at a close second place. A 360-degree view of the African landscape extended far beyond what the eye could see. Between the shea and mango trees trudged a few cows and donkeys on aimless wanderings from village to village. The south face of the Arch is bolted with a two-pitch line that you would not want to tackle on a windy day. The north side offers a less than technical face that remains vertical and solitary enough to leave its free-climber psyched out by the exposure and sheer thrill of climbing in such an exotic location.
The view from the highest point on the Arch revealed gadzooks of trad and sport potential that were not seen from below. Being the casual climbers that we were, our amazement outweighed our skill. The Arch area also boasts a couple of towers and a number of cliffs, cracks, and overhangs. The possibilities seemed endless, and we could have easily spent two days there. Unfortunately,our hosts had to get back to Bamako before the sun went down, although we would return to Siby twice more.
It had been too long since I found this much enjoyment in climbing. It was not just the fact that I was far distanced from the Minnesota cold, or that I was removed from my usual responsibilities. It was the transcontinental connection between people with the love of a sport that knows no bounds. Though Mali offers few western amenities and a shortage of guides, my brother introduced us to people who knew the area and were enthusiastic enough to take us along. It proved to be an excellent trip, and it reminded me that the world in all its size and diversity stands no chance when challenged with passion and the sheer love of a sport.For more info, please contact the local climbing organization:
Association Karamba Touré
BP 2566 Bamako
Tel. 00 223 20 24 19 60