4/9/15 – Angie Payne, a multi-time national bouldering champion and the first woman to climb V13, had never cleaned a pitch with jumars, let alone done a big wall. But in February she joined expedition legend Mike Libecki for an attempt on one of the world’s gnarliest towers: a 1,500-foot volcanic spire called Poumaka, rising out of the dense, wet jungle of Ua Pou, an island in French Polynesia.
Libecki had visited Ua Pou in 2012 but never left the ground, too intimidated by the constant rain and ferocious jungle for a solo ascent. In February, he returned to the island with Payne and the photo/film crew of Keith Ladzinski and Andy Mann.
“This time I was fully prepared for any amount of rain,” Libecki said. “I was ready to mock the rain, but little did I know about the vertical-jungle madness ahead. Once I finally started leading pitches up the tower of Poumaka, I wished rain were the crux.”
Four pitches of jungle thrashing led to a knoll beside Poumaka, where the main tower reared up. Libecki would lead every pitch, with Payne belaying and cleaning. The rock was soaked, muddy, and covered in flora—so slick that Libecki started the first pitch with crampons strapped to his rock shoes. Soon Libecki took the first of several crunching whippers when a piece pulled.
“By the time I made my way up the first pitch, I could literally wring water out of the rope and webbing,” Libecki said.
It took the team eight days to complete the 5.11 A3+ JM (Jungle Mayhem) route, which they named for their friend and guide Kau Kau: Te Va Anui O Kau Kau’aka (“In Honor of Kau Kau”). Libecki relied heavily on thin aid, including a couple of dozen beaks (tiny hook-like pitons). “One of the pitches got an A4 rating, though I later pulled it down to A3+,” Libecki said. “I think the rain, mud, and being constantly soaked added to the sense of difficulty.”
On the summit push, Libecki led several pitches of jungle-covered rock. “I felt like a spider, hoping that equalizing my limbs on vines would somehow hold me,” he said. There was no party on top: As soon as Payne joined Libecki on the summit, amid fierce wind and rain, the team rappelled the route to their high camp for a celebration.
The American line lies to the left of a route climbed by a German team in 1996 for the tower’s first ascent. In all, German climber Siegfried Weippert made three trips to the island in the 1980s and ’90s and ascended most of the prominent towers, including Motutakae, an 800-foot tower rising from the sea. In April 2013, Mason Earle, Bronson Hovnanian, George Ullrich, and photographer Andrew Burr climbed a new eight-pitch route on the west face of Motutakae, an adventure featured in the November 2014 issue of Climbing.