Big Wall Climbing in Madagascar | Harriet Ridley
North Wales based Harriet Ridley is a passionate rock climber whose already impressive skills have only increased after a year spent living in the US. Ticking everything from classic sport routes and desert cracks to big, adventurous trad lines in Zion and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison she’s expanding her horizons to bigger and more remote trips.
Words by Harriet Ridley
Photography by : Jacques Van Zyl, Harriet Ridley, Ruan Kotze
At sunrise we watched the valley transform from grey to gold. The opaque light of pre-dawn gave way as the band of sunlight advanced down the sheer granite faces of the Tsaranoro Massif. Below, rolling savannah extended north and south. The hillsides, dotted with granite boulders, led down to the terraced rice fields and red-mud brick houses of the traditional rural village of Andonaka. We could hear the bells of the Zebu cattle and very little else. Here in the Tsaranoro Valley, on the fringes of the Andringitra National Park in southern Madagascar, the modern world hasn’t yet taken hold.
My partner Alice Hafer and I had spent the night in an alcove halfway up the 800-metre Tsaranoro Atsimo, one of the four main faces of the massif. The previous afternoon we had climbed the eight pitches to the alcove, hauling two nights’ worth of food, water and kit. We were attempting Soava Dia, a new 17-pitch 7c+ route established earlier in the year by Arnaud Petit and the French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing team. We hoped to complete the remaining nine pitches that afternoon, once the face came into shade. Until then all we could do was wait out the African heat in our secluded alcove bivy.
Composed of four main walls and several smaller peripheral walls, the Tsaranoro Massif offers well over 50 bolted routes from grade 3 to 8b+ and varying in length from single pitch beginner routes to 800-metre multi-pitch offerings and some of the best and hardest big walling in the southern hemisphere. But despite on occasion being referred to as “Africa’s Yosemite”, the Tsaranoro Massif is, both literally and figuratively, a world away from California’s home of big wall climbing.
Set against a vivid backdrop of rural Africa the lightly trafficked region hosts technically demanding, world-class climbing in an adventurous and remote setting. It takes several days to reach the sparsely populated Tsaranoro Valley from the country’s main airport in Antananarivo. A basic hospital is over three hours drive away along dirt roads. English is not spoken. There is no mountain rescue and more often than not you will be the only team on the wall. Climbing here is not undertaken lightly.
It is the combination of adventure, challenging climbing and cultural immersion that has continued to draw some of the world’s best climbers here since Kurt Albert and Bernd Arnold established the first route, the 10-pitch 7b+ Rain Boto, in 1995. Since then well over 50 lines have been developed and, more recently, a considerable number of boulder problems.
Deceiving slabs, sheer vertical faces and the occasional powerful bulge characterise the majority of the climbs. It takes a few days to become accustomed to the style of climbing; the technical movement, the tiny foot smears, the barely-there indentations and the microcrimps and crystals all feel unstable and nerve wracking at first but confidence quickly grows as you realise just how much friction the rock provides. The area does also boast some rather sparse bolting and most climbers can expect to do a fair bit of squinty bolt searching and deal with generous run outs, up to 10 meters at the most extreme. Keeping your cool will be another skill you hone out in Tsaranoro.
That said you don’t have to be a bold slab aficionado to climb here, as the area is surprisingly well developed for all abilities. The Ecole Sector and Lemur Wall have a number of highly starred mid-grade routes no more than six pitches in length. These routes can be tackled in a day and some of the best are Lemurs Ripped My Flesh (6b+, 5 pitches) and the more sustained six-pitch Ebola (6c+).
Out of Africa (7a+, 14 pitches) and the 20-pitch epic Gondwanaland (7c) are two of the most highly rated higher-grade routes, while for the big guns routes in the eigth grade abound, including test pieces like Mora Mora (8a+/b, 12 pitches), Brava Les Files (8b, 13 pitches) and Tough Enough (8b+, 10 pitches). The most comprehensive guide to climbing on the massif, for which there is no guidebook, can be found in the bar at Tsarasoa Lodge. The majority of topos are hand drawn by the first ascentionists but the compilation includes all the routes and many of the boulder problems in the area.
The climbing in the Tsaranoro Valley is only a tiny part of the experience available there. Just walking around camp you’ll encounter all manner of exotic wildlife, including countless species endemic to the island. There are 15 species of lemur in the valley and you can expect to share the base of any route with a conspiracy of curious ring-tailed lemurs in the late afternoon or early morning. Likewise, chameleons and lizards are ever present—just look to the trees— along with rare orchids and the native plants.
Down in the valley the locals are welcoming in a way that surpasses language and culture, willing to share and demonstrate their way of life. The children are the most forthcoming and inquisitive, fascinated by westerners and eager to interact as you trek through the paddy fields on the hour-long walk to the base of the wall.
Malagasy traditions and cultures are strongly upheld in this remote region, including veneration of ancestors and the original Malagasy god Zan͂ahary, although Christianity is also widespread. Many Malagasy practise a mixture of traditional beliefs and Christianity. The Tsaranoro Massif itself commands reverence for the native Betsileo and Bara peoples and is intimately tied with funeral practices and spirit sanctuary in a culture where considerable emphasis is placed on death and the spirit afterlife. The deceased are buried in natural caves high on the massif or in tombs across the mountainside and the lives of the deceased are celebrated with long-lived parties. Birthdays and weddings are also times of celebration when locals will dance and play music throughout the night.
As the tenth poorest country in the world it is impossible to overlook the poverty of this raw and humbling nation, but it is easy to see beyond it and to admire and respect the warmth and joie de vivre embodied by the Malagasy people.
When the afternoon shade arrived Alice and I left the secluded splendour of the alcove and continued up the nine remaining pitches of Soava Dia, travelling light and leaving our bags in the alcove. The meandering line provided some of the most diverse and engaging climbing of our trip and demanded everything from delicate face climbing, to awkward chimneys and powerful boulder-style moves. The crux pitch involved sequential climbing around an exposed arête, beneath which the rock dropped away 300 metres to the entry slabs below.
We topped out in the dark, under a swathe of southern hemisphere stars. With feet aching and fingertips rubbed raw we lay on the ancient granite and breathed in the night. Distant drumbeats echoed up from the village below; a celebration of life in full swing.
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