Sasha Digiulian, Savannah Cummins and I embarked on a wild adventure this past July. The trip became a series of intense memories that none of us could have ever expected...
- - -
Over a year ago Sasha and I had teamed up to explore the wild ice climbing that extends itself to Northern Michigan. We developed a deep friendship in less time than I could ever imagine. I strongly believe because the ice climbing was real, and at times very serious, we bonded quickly. It is with the people I share these moments with that I am connected to for life.
At the end of the trip, we wanted to plan more. We were Itching for the next adventure. Sasha called me a year later and asked if I wanted to go to Africa to climb the world’s largest volcanic plug. How could I resist? It sounded totally obscure and like a real adventure. The next few months were spent hustling to make end meets, training and packing for the total unexpected.
Before the trip we did our best to look into life on the island and what it would be like in Sao Tome. We gathered limited information from the few teams that had made previous ascents. From everything, we gathered it would be raining a lot and if we were lucky wed get some dry days of climbing in.
When we stepped off the plane on the island we were immediately hit with overwhelming humidity. We began to question how the rock would feel. If we could hang onto open hand slopers in the humid, muggy rainforest.
We packed up our bags and soon were off into the rainforest with our crew and a group of local porters. The whole hike in it was pouring rain. We couldn’t see the wall until we were literally touching it. We were antsy to get climbing and by the afternoon we had started up the first pitch of our desired route “Leve Leve”. Established by the Pou brothers. Because the first 3 pitches on the route were protected by the rain in a giant cave, we were able to climb the almost dry rock. We battled spider webs, nests, and loose rock. It became instantly clear this trip was going to be trying. We were taking on an objective that had a mind of its own. It was like nothing we had ever climbed before and likely will ever climb again.
A handful of days passed, and we worked the hard pitches in the cave and wondered if it was ever going to stop raining. We wondered what the climbing was like beyond the cave and if the upper pitches would be possible in the nonstop rain.
The next day we climbed the first 3 pitches and then decided to venture out beyond the cave, and into the rain. I had never climbed in a full-on torrential downpour for obvious reasons, but on trips like this, it seems like it’s now or never. The upper pitches were trad and early on we saw that in the rain, the gear wasn’t adequate. The cams upon pull testing would pull out due to slimy moss and mud within the cracks. We did a combination of free climbing and aid climbing until we decided the coming units could not create proper surface contact with the rock itself. We decided not to continue further up on “Leve Leve”.
If we were going to have to ascend this tower in the rain, we wanted to make sure we were being as safe as possible. So, we decided to switch routes and climb the bolted route “Nubivagant” established by Gaz Leah and Tiny Almada.
We started up the route and quickly passed the dry roof and were into full-on rainfall climbing again. On our first push past the cave in the rain, we experienced a very scary bout with rockfall. It left us questioning everything on that trip. Why had we come? Why was this so important, was the summit really worth it? We could have been injured. We could have died. Luckily the rocks skimmed Savannah’s helmet, and everyone walked unscathed. We were so lucky.
We descended the mountain that night and had to re-evaluate the trip altogether. Were we going to continue up? Was it worth it? After many long and hard conversations, we came to the conclusion that nobody’s life was worth the summit, and we would go home. We only had 4 days left of time in the jungle on the expedition, and we were yet to have a day without rain.
The next day we were packing our bags and removing fixed lines from the wall when it stopped raining. We couldn’t believe our eyes. A day without rain. The wall was still running so bad there were constant waterfalls coming over the roof. But the sky itself was not raining. We thought we were going to lose our minds. After making such a hard call to go home and play it safe, How could this be happening?!?! The camp became very quiet.
Throughout the trip, Sasha had been the one willing to go hard. I was definitely more hung up on the what-ifs. I didn’t ever want to let her down, but I so badly felt that if anything happened I couldn’t live with the repercussions. And now here I was, without rain in the jungle with my bags packed.
I walked over to Sasha’s tent as said, “I hope you’re getting packed because we're headed back on the wall.” She looked stunned and replied “Are you sure?” because she wanted to respect my boundaries and my concerns. But now this was a different ball game. She looked so happy to be heading back up the wall. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. The three of us made a pact. If it wasn’t raining at 2 am we would launch. So we packed our bags and went to bed. None of us could sleep. We layed horizontal until the alarm went off.
At 2 am it wasn’t raining. The rock was seeping plenty, creating small cascades of water around us, but it wasn’t raining from the sky. So Sasha, Savannah, and I started our Journey. We ascended Nubivagant over the course of two days using both free climbing techniques as well as aid tactics. It was the wettest route I’ve ever been on, and I feel confident in saying it was an accomplishment in itself to have reached the summit by any means possible. It was loose, dangerous, slippery, and oh it definitely rained on us. I was with two other women I respected so much, and as a team, I knew we had something special. We had each other’s back, pitch after pitch, and only we were going to get ourselves to the top.
But in the end, the most beautiful thing was that we all left better friends than when we arrived. We had been to hell and back. We had given up and started over time after time. In the final hours, we came together and made an ascent. Was it what we hoped for? Hell no. But it was our revised goal, and it was nothing short of a grand adventure. And that’s why we go on trips like these. To test ourselves. To push hard. To use all the skills we have acquired over the years towards something greater than ourselves. And I can say full-heartedly, we did just that. Would I do it all over again? Yes.
Photos by ©Savannah Cummins
- - -
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angela VanWiemeersch is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.
- - -