Peaks & Passes International Climbing Guide - Mountaineering Instruction

The Tsaranoro Massif, Madagascar's Granite Paradise

By Duncan Lee and Dave Kenyon.

A loud bang against the side of the battered taxi was quickly followed by another against the window that jolted me out of a fitful doze. A face was pressed against the window, grotesquely distorted by the pressure but shouting loudly. A dozen other people where running alongside yelling and gesticulating wildly at the taxi driver and ourselves. Dave decided this was a good time to relate a friends (Twid's) warning to me about just how gnarly Antananarivo can be but as it turned out this was merely business as usual at Anisobe taxi-brousse Station. The mob were all touting for custom for a variety of bus operators. Just to be on the safe side however our driver had locked all the doors and windows and told us to stay in the vehicle whilst he set forth into the melee to arrange a ride south for us to Fianarantsoa.

Dave and I (otherwise know as the Karabiner M.C./Welsh Tsaranoro Massif big wall expedition) had arrived in Antananarivo (Madagascar's capital city) the previous evening at the highly convenient time of 10.30 pm. We then had to do battle with a small army of paper shuffling officials before finally getting into the airports main lobby that was thronged with money changers and taxi drivers vying for our business. Weighed down by a mountain of gear we were an easy target as we lumbered forth into the chaos. One expensive (by local standards) taxi ride later and we were in the sanctuary of a leaking hotel room where we snatched a few hours sleep before setting off to the aforementioned bus station to begin our southward journey towards the massive granite walls of the Tsaranoro Massif.

The taxi driver quickly procured us space in a taxi-brousse (a minibus bursting at the seams with a roof rack piled high) and the bags were soon on the roof, but that was as far as things went for the next 6 hours. Plenty of time to begin getting accustomed to the mid September heat and the dust whilst questioning the logic of carting 80kg of kit half way down the world's fourth largest island in order to attempt a new route. Finally at 5pm the minibus sped off southwards overtaking wildly and occasionally even driving on the correct side of the road. Eight nerve jangling hours later we arrived in Fianarantsoa to endure the frantic ritual of finding onwards transportation towards Ambalavao. The solution was a taxi-be. A nine-seat estate car with no windows, except the windscreen, thirteen occupants and a mountain of kit piled precariously on the roof. Progress from Ambalavao to Vohitsaoka was by bache. Otherwise known as a decrepit pick up truck with a canvas cover, 14 dust covered passengers and the obligatory mountain of assorted belongings including sacks of flour, bunches of bananas, wicker chicken baskets complete with chickens and one enormous bright yellow haul bag. The final bumpy 10km to Camp Catta (a fixed trekking camp below the crags) was completed courtesy of the camp's truck and we finally got our first view of the spectacular rock walls soaring above.

The following three days were spent recovering from the journey whilst getting a feel for the place, the blazing sun, the rock (extremely rough granite with very few cracks) and the nature of the climbing. In order to do this we repeated three of the areas existing routes on a variety of crags. Day one saw us repeat the highly enjoyable Alien II, a ten pitch 6B (maximum and obligatory) on Karambony which we concluded was a good well protected introduction to the area. Le Croix du Sud on the distant Vatovarindry (the furthest dome from the camp) was recommended to us as a classic for day two and the approach provided us with a good opportunity to view the rest of the crags in the main group. The views from the top of this excellent climb also gave us a good indication of the vast potential in the surrounding area. Granite ridges and domes as far as the eye could see. What the eye could not see however soon became more of a problem as Dave can explain.

"On the walk out we managed to loose the path and whilst wandering around through deep long grass I came across a large round deep hole big enough to fall down. At the same instant I heard a scream from Duncan who had managed to find and fall down a crevasse (otherwise known as a 4 metre deep erosion runnel) only to be saved by his rucksack.

The final route of our introductory trio was the fantastic Pectorine on the impressive 250metre high Lemur Wall, seven superb pitches (6B max./A0) on perfect rock with a scarcity of bolts that focussed ones attention. Pitch five started with an amazing traverse that looked highly improbable from the belay and was the scene of one of Duncan's dyno clips!"

Suitably initiated we treated ourselves to a rest day whilst we pondered the numerous possibilities for new routing that the area has to offer whilst contemplating the logistics of placing bolts on the lead. Eventually after much debate we decided to return to the excellent water streaked dome of Vatovarindry, a boulder by local standards, being only 330metres high and 600metres wide. With only two existing routes upon its flanks there was plenty of untouched rock to go at. With a decision made we tucked into a couple of bottles of Madagascar's finest (and possibly only) brew, Three Horses Beer, whilst trying to forget the worrying prospect of having to weight a skyhook in order to drill a bolt. Thoughts like that can give you nightmares.

Day one on the project started with a long hot slog up to the crag burdened with heavy packs. The drill and batteries alone weigh 10kg, never mind the bolts, drill bits, an optimistically large rack, lead ropes and a 100metres of static line. Having reached the crag the next task was to find a feasible looking line for our initiation into the delights of ground up new routing whilst bolting on the lead. A quick inspection revealed that the two existing routes on the face had stolen the most amenable looking ways through the dome's initial steep section. We could see why the locals assured us that Vatovarindry translated as "closed crag." Finally after an hour of studying the face through binoculars we settled on a possible line that weaved its way around a small bulge that blocked the way to a fine looking black water streak on the slabs above. With a plan made straws were drawn and despite winning I decided to take the first lead on the basis that it is better the devil you know (or have at least inspected through binoculars) that the unknown above.

The pitch thankfully proved to be much easier than it looked (F6a+) but trying to accustom my mind to the idea of launching off blindly up a 1000ft wall of granite, that contained no visible cracks, was another matter. Teething problems with the drill hauling system, the necessity to hand drill, fear of the unknown entity above and trepidation all combined to guarantee a long wait in the sun for Dave as I slowly gibbered my way upwards. Constantly studying the rock, enthralled, trying to distinguish holds and features that would facilitate progress or enable one to place a bolt. Hook placements and natural protection were nonexistent so you had to find places to stand in balance and drill. Due to a dearth of such places only 5 bolts were placed on the first pitch. We latter added another having agreed that the first bolt was miles too high off the ground.

Pitch two was over to Dave for the beginning of a hand-drilling marathon that spanned 6 hours, thankfully split over two days. Apart from the first of the eight bolts the rest were rock pecked due to the highly tentative nature of the climbing and a complete lack of hook placements. Standing on smears with your calves burning. Painful: and painfully slow. The end of day one saw us with one and a half pitches equipped and the fixed ropes in place ready for the morning.

Day two saw rapid progress compared to the previous days efforts. Dave steadily progressed up the runnel to a suitable stance at an easing in the angle. The next pitch was initially amenable enough to try a new technique. Climbing with the drill on your back to save on hauling. This system worked well until an awkward bulge blocked progress up the water streak. A spot of grunting and thrutching landed me on a couple of sloping footholds above the bulge from which to hand drill. The relief of finally being able to clip into the bolt and stop my calves screaming was almost worth the effort. We were averaging 20 minutes a bolt in the tough course granite when hand drilling. Ten metres of easy angled runnel then led to a good ledge for a belay.

Dave then quickly polished off a 6A pitch using the new technique of climbing with the drill on your back, a technique that speeded up progress but was distinctly unnerving. According to Dave " Climbing with the drill on a sling around your neck was a pain as it constantly swings around to the front of you and gets in the way. The hot drill bit can also be a considerable pain as Duncan can vouch for and the thought of falling off with that beast strapped to your back does not bear thinking about." Despite these discomforts this technique speeded him up too much for two reasons on this occasion. One, I had to lead again that day and two, we spotted a better line whilst abseiling off. Beautiful flutings that were so appealing that we subsequently altered the line disturbing a colony of huge Carole beetles in the process.

Above Dave's comfortable stance the angle of the crag steepened and the runnel we had been following had deepened to form an evil looking undercut chimney that offered no possible protection because drilling in such a confined space would have been impossible. Instead we decided to break out onto a clean honey coloured buttress between two runnels. A steep section saw the end of the day's progress and the first bolt placed on aid, top runging from the bolt below. This act produced much tutting from Dave but being a confirmed wimp I did not care.

Day three started with a long jumar back to our high point for a short day on the wall finishing off the bolting and stripping the fixed ropes off the climb in preparation for the red point. The early finish allowed for a late afternoon siesta that proved so relaxing that we abandoned our plan for a rest day in order to quickly polish off the red point ascent the following day. If only thinking of a name for our creation had been that easy. It took us a week to settle on Malagasy Maroto (Madagascan hammer) as a name and "mild E4" as a grade.

Our next forage on to rock followed a much needed rest day but started antisocially early to maximize our use of the twelve hours of daylight. Our objective was the classic of the area, Out of Africa, a stunning 14 pitch (600metre) route on the sweeping walls of Tsaranoro Kely established in 1998 by M. Motto, E. Pellizzari, M. Piola and B. Robert. This route is an absolute "must do" that saves its crux (7a+) until the last pitch, but Dave also had ulterior motives, he had been eying up a plumb line straight water streak on the wall to the right. The early warm up pitches facilitated us with excellent views of this line but as the quality and difficulty of the climbing intensified our attention became firmly focussed on the job in hand. The customary wide spacing of the bolts caused a few wobbles from me but Dave was his usual calm self so progress was steady and 3pm saw us on the summit just as the face went into the shade. A failure to find the correct walk off descent resulted in numerous scratches from bushwhacking and two hours of abseiling back down the line before walking back to the camp in the dark for a well-earned beer.

The next few days were spent resting and contemplating our next venture into the unknown. Logic was beginning to tell us that the compelling water streak we had been studying on Tsaranoro was probably too big a task, and far too much like hard work, for a team of two in the intense pre-rainy season heat. Instead we decided to look at the right hand side of Lemur wall where we were both secretly hoping to find a route of the same outstanding quality as Pectorine. Unfortunately after repeating the first three pitches of Ebola (6b+) we developed a severe dislike for thin downward pointing creaking flakes and as a result were back to square one on the search for a new project.

Mitsin Joarivo was the next crag to receive a good dose of looking at but look was all we did. The one superb looking existing climb, Le Crabe aux pinces d'or (7b+), took the one obvious line of weakness through the severely undercut base of the formation. Disillusioned we contoured round the hillside to our old friend Vatovarindry to look at more eye catching jet-black water streaks. The untouched central shield of the cliff begged for a way to be found through the initial bulges but none were obvious. Finally after what seemed like an eternity of surveying the face from every angle, Dave was descending into despondency, thus drastic action was called for. Having worked up some enthusiasm about a possible line I convinced a reluctant Dave to belay me and it was game on.

Dave's reticence was soon forgotten as he looked on with enthusiasm (to laugh and take photos) and glee as I was forced to fully weight a skyhook to place the first bolt. To say that this caused me a vast amount of trepidation is a distinct understatement but considerably politer than any other description of that moment than I have been able to think of. One thing is for sure; it is a few minutes that will take a few years to forget. Desperately trying not to cause any movement of the hook whilst drilling was difficult enough but trying to hammer the bolt in whilst staring intently at the hook was even harder .In the end the first 5 bolts were placed off hooks but once the possibility of a ground fall had been alleviated the fear factor reduced considerably. Dave suggested a tentative free grade of 7a+ when he followed the pitch before starting work on pitch two.

"Soon it was my turn again and by now I had grown in confidence about where I could stand in balance and drill. Four bolts later after some quality slab climbing it was time to call it a day. Top roping back up to my high point the next day, fully in the sun with a battery stuffed down my T-shirt, I was not so certain that the climbing was as easy as I had thought; 6C with 8 metre run outs.

Next came a steady away pitch, with a few tricky moves towards the top, which led to the bottom of an alarmingly steep runnel that looked extremely improbable from below. But, after Duncan's sterling effort on the first pitch I felt I had to at least give it a go and get a few bolts in. After a token first bolt I climbed a pillar where I managed to clean out a flake making a few spiders homeless in the process. This was the scene of much debate as to whether I hung on to place the bolt using the skyhook as a runner or sat on the skyhook, as Duncan was convinced I had. I never did admit to it! Once established in the runnel the climbing was amazing. Every move looked most unlikely but the holds kept appearing and a suitable stance was soon reached to complete a fantastic pitch.

Back at the high point the next day I settled in for a long belaying session with the lizards for company. The next pitch looked hard, a sort diagonal groove with an awkward move around a bulge to start, but two bolts were placed from aid and easier terrain soon followed leading to a spacious ledge.

Placing the first bolt on the next pitch involved a few manoeuvres that would not have been out of place in a game of Twister. Trying to drill with one hand, one foot on Duncan's belay plate, the other foot on a pebble whilst the other hand was doing God knows what. Mean while Duncan was holding me in place with one hand whilst trying to lock off the belay plate and take a photo with the other. Moving off the bolt committing myself to the climbing I found I could not stop to place the next bolt so taking a big gulp I pressed on to thankfully easier terrain. Taking a ground fall onto the ledge was not an option, an injury here would be very serious. Seven pitches up, an hour and a quarter from the camp, a couple of hours rough drive back to the road head, a long drive and maybe even having to fly to another island (Reunion) for medical treatment. This for me was one of the best pitches of the trip, not being able to see anything but the next move and the elation of doing that move and seeing another one. The thought of climbing into a position where you could not drill was always in the back of your mind and attempting to reverse some of the steep rounded friction moves was not a pleasant thought."

Despite, or maybe because of, such antics our enthusiasm for our line was growing with the completion of each pitch. We were starting to look forward to being able to climb the route unencumbered by the bolting paraphernalia and thankfully day four saw the equipping completed and the fixed ropes removed ready for the red point. Rest however was much needed after four back to back days working on the climb during which we equipped 8 pitches (330 metres) placing a total of 47 protection bolts and 16 belay bolts.

Suitably rested we returned to Vatovarindry for the final time to attempt to free the climb. Having spent the entire walk in fretting about the two pitches I had to free pitch one proved to be my nemesis despite being more worried about pitch six. A thin rock over move by the third bolt stopped me in my tracks so Dave had to do the honours and finish off the pitch. My inability to free my own pitch did have a silver lining however; it presented me with an opportunity to lead the superb slab pitch. Once up to Dave's runnel we reverted back to leading our own pitches, thus Dave quickly freed the runnel and it was my turn on pitch six. Thankfully the moves into the hanging groove were far easier than either of us had anticipated and the redpoint was nearly in the bag. Once again it was Dave's turn.

"I still had to the start of pitch seven to free, two or three steep moves on small chicken heads. Being psyched and determined to get it first go I didn't realise that I had taken a big flapper off one finger, but that would not stop us one pitch from the top. It was Duncan's lead anyway."

We romped up the last pitch loving every second and confident that the climb has the potential to become a classic despite being christened Karma Chameleon. Named in honour of the numerous chameleons that lurked around the campsite entertaining us on rest days and not because of Dave's tendency to plaster on the makeup. Honest!

The remainder of the trip, with the exception of a failure trying to repeat Norspace, was spent gradually winding down. A repeat of the excellent, and amenable, Le Cas Nullard (450 metre 6a) on Karambony followed by a traverse of the mountain's ridge proved to be a great outing, as did our final two new routes. The user friendly Lemur's Ripped my Flesh (220 metre 6b+ or 5+ with two points of aid) and Le Mur Lemur (120 metres 6b+) were our final contributions to the areas new route book as the afternoon storms started to roll in on a regular basis.

The final day in the area was devoted to exploring the bouldering potential around the camp now that we could afford to trash our fingers.

We had walked past a large number of impressive boulders every day, clean walls and overhanging arêtes, some of which had the odd chalk mark on them. Some of these problems turned out to be small routes and after a few worrying moments on a couple of them we decided that a top rope would be a good idea. The thought of falling twenty feet into the long grass and god knows what else was not appealing. Finally not being able to take any more pain on the fingertips we retired back to camp for some welcome shade and more THB.

With the full on set of the rainy season imminent and our return flight dates approaching we headed back to civilisation for the long slow journey home. At least the haul bag was considerably lighter this time around.