Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Places

Climbing Has Meaning, Until You Confront Death

If you squint hard enough, climbing can feel spiritual, but it's an illusion when you come face to face with reality.

The most fucked-up part about brain cancer is that you keep hearing how much it changes people: It makes them mean. Nurses tell you which medicine is for your dad’s agitation, but deflect on what that actually means. “You’ll know,” they say.

You freeze up inside when you realize the only thing scarier than the person you love living long enough to lose themselves is if they don’t. As desirable outcomes begin to collapse in on themselves, you’re eventually only left with the haunted hope that the person will either wake up new or not at all.

But morning after morning you wake up the same, waiting to learn which awful way this ends, until finally you realize you’ve been bunkered down, blood in your teeth, witness to the waning hours of the wrong war. Live or die, no one really fights cancer. My father certainly didn’t. That’s a bumper sticker, not an actual thing. Cancer takes what it wants. The real fight, the one I’ll always remember, is not if you live, but how you live once you know you won’t.

The author nearing the end of the second pitch of Nubivagant (5.13c/d, 15 pitches). The corner feature in the background is the first pitch of Leve Leve (5.14a, 13 pitches), established by Iker and Eneko Pou, Manu Ponce and Jordi Canyi in 2018. On the same trip the Pou brothers also freed Nubivagant, to the chagrin of the author’s team, which arrived to attempt the first free ascent only to learn the route had been freed just days earlier. Photo: Jacob Kupferman

“The jungle must be indifferent to our preferred level of risk tolerance,” I said to my friend Mike Swartz as we trudged through the canopy’s hot underbelly, scanning for snakes. Mike, Sam Daulton, Remy Franklin, Jacob Kupferman, and I were hiking toward basecamp through São Tomé’s moist broadleaf forest. It was August on the Equator, and we were all drenched in either sweat or rain. 

São Tomé is the larger of two islands in the Gulf of Guinea, and together form Africa’s second-smallest, and possibly least-visited country: São Tomé and Príncipe. A single winding road—EN n° 2—traces the perimeter of the island, but doesn’t quite connect. From its southern flank, if you look north, past the tessellated palm plantations into the Parque National Obo, you can see Pico Cão Grande, a 1,200-foot volcanic plug exploding into the cloud-soaked sky. At the base of the primeval black fang is a massive cavity, bleached-white above a leafy sea. In 2016, Gareth “Gaz” Leah and Sergio “Tiny” Almada established a stunning climb through this 15-story cave and up the southern face of the tower, but they never sent the crux. Two years later, we were there to try.

To read this article in its entirety, sign up today with an Outside+ membership, which gives you unlimited access to thousands of stories and articles on climbing.com and rockandice.com, plus you’ll enjoy a print subscription to Climbing and receive our annual coffee-table edition of Ascent. Outside+ members also receive a Gaia GPS Premium membership, and more. Please join the Climbing team today.