In the age of social media, climbs are reported as fast as they’re completed. Scroll through a climber’s Instagram feed and you’re likely looking at a photo catalogue of his or her recent sends, complete with commentary and analysis from the climber, often written from the base of the wall. The passage of information from crag to couch, even in remote locales, is lightning fast. With climbing entering the Olympics, and gyms and competition climbing quickly becoming a booming enterprise, the desire to quantify climbs is on the rise as well. Route difficulties are conveyed via letters and numbers, and are compared against other letters and numbers to measure achievement.
All climbs are graded, but there are climbs where a grade alone doesn’t tell the full story—climbs accomplished before the all-seeing eye of the social-media age brought live coverage to the farthest reaches of the earth. In “Forgotten First Ascents,” I’m digging up cool climbs from the past and talking to the climbers who made them happen.
This week: Malaria, Rhumsiki Tower, Cameroon, 2007
Massimo Faletti was battling up the third pitch of Malaria (7b+/5.12c A2) a 340-meter (1,115 foot) line on Rhumsiki Tower, a spire in the high desert of far northern Cameroon, Africa. His two teammates, Mario Cavagnini and David Rigotti, were on the belay ledge below. Suddenly, he heard yelling. “Hey Mass! We have to leave the belay!” Cavagnini called. “We have to leave, now!” Confused, Faletti looked down, trying to figure out what was going on, but the belay was out of sight.
Unbeknownst to Faletti, a massive black mamba, one of the most venomous snakes in the world, was slithering out onto the belay ledge from a crack. In a panic, his partners tied him off and bailed over the side of the ledge. Black mambas can move at 12 miles per hour in short bursts. Their bite, which releases a powerful neurotoxin, can kill in 20 minutes without an antivenin, and as little as two drops will kill an adult human. Luckily, the pair was able to give the snake a wide berth until it left. Fifteen minutes later they returned to the ledge, put Faletti back on belay, and he continued up Rhumsiki.
Rhumsiki Tower sits on Cameroon’s border with Nigeria, in the volcanic Mandara Mountains. There were two other routes on the tower when Faletti and his team arrived: a French route to the right of Malaria, and a South African-American one (a 5.12d put up in 1999 by Mark Synnott, Greg Child, Ed February, and Andy Deklerk) on the left. Unlike the two other lines which were fully bolted, Malaria was established ground up on traditional gear, save for some bolts backing up the belays and a single aid move over a crux roof. Faletti first heard about Rhumsiki from a filmmaker friend, Marco Prati, who was interested in shooting a documentary in Cameroon. When Prati showed Faletti pictures of the tower, he was hooked. If Prati would help him document an ascent of the tower, he said, he would come to Cameroon and help him with the rest of his documentary.
But access to Rhumsiki wasn’t that simple. The team traveled by local bus and train to reach the far north, and were stopped on four separate occasions by “policemen” wielding Kalashnikov rifles. “It was a dodgy, dodgy trip,” said Faletti, laughing. “They had no identification. It was just a man with a rifle, he told you to get on the ground with your face in the dirt. You had to pay to get out.” Each of these “arrests” cost them €30, but Faletti felt no ill will. “They only want money because they need it,” he said. “We, the white people, were the worst problem for Africa. We stole lots of things in the African land for years, so the people are pissed off. I can understand this anger.”
Literal highway robbery was far from the only hazard the team encountered in Cameroon. Faletti was allergic to the antimalarial medicine he was taking, and at one stage in the trip his legs began to blister swelled up like balloons. “We go to this local priest,” Faletti told me, “for some medicine and help. This priest says we must be careful to travel, because last week a van disappeared on the road here. He says every year a few vans disappear. He says there is a cannibal tribe. This tribe… they catch the van and take the people back to their village, then they eat the people in this village.”
Upon safely reaching Rhumsiki, the first thing the Italians did was visit the nearby village to ask the leader for his blessing. This went smoothly. “We offered him something to drink, we asked him, and he said it was no problem,” said Faletti. Next, they went to consult the local crab sorcerers. These medicine men, who live outside the village, predict the future using a combination of crabs, bones, and stones. “I don’t have much religion myself, but it’s important to respect the local religion wherever you go,” said Faletti. “You can’t walk with shorts into a mosque, stuff like that. You respect the culture of where you are, so we asked the crab sorcerers about what would happen on the tower.” The sorcerers placed the crabs in a pot with bones and stones, and the crabs moved the them. After a minute or so, the sorcerer took the crabs out and read the prediction based on the placement of the bones and stones. “They looked at this preview and told us we could climb the tower,” Faletti said. “So we did.”
The team hauled their gear to the base of the climb, set up camp and began working their way up. Conditions were “a real tragedy,” as Faletti put it. The sun was so brutal on Rhumsiki that the team could only climb between 4:00 am and 10:00 am. By 11:00 am each day, the temperatures on the wall reached a blistering 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
Along with the black mamba, the team encountered vultures. At one point, a large owl flew out of the crack and into Faletti’s face as he was 10 meters run out above his last piece of protection. He held on, but was angry with himself. “I get pissed off at myself when this happens, because it means I disturbed the nature,” Faletti said.
Faletti described the crux pitch as a 7a (5.11d) crack leading into a 7b+ (5.12c) roof. “From there you have an undercling, and you must jump out and up to a small edge outside the roof,” he said. He attempted a wild all-points off dyno to the edge—two feet above the lip of the roof— several times, but when he couldn’t stick it he put in a piton and aided through it. He believes the pitch could go free at 7c (5.12d) or harder,
All told, Malaria went down in three days. David Rigotti only climbed with the team for the first three pitches, then left with Marco Prati to work on the documentary. Faletti led every pitch on Rhumsiki, as his other partner, Mario Cavagnini, was mostly a sport climber.
Even after they climbed the tower, the team wasn’t out of the woods. Shortly after finishing the climb, Cavagnini fell ill with malaria, battling a 105-degree fever. He recovered, and his experience became the inspiration for the route’s name.
“If you are an alpinist like me… when I go on these trips it is my vacation. I don’t have sponsors giving me money,” said Faletti. “Maybe some boots or clothes sometimes, but that is it,” he said. “It is not a job, it is my vacation. So I think it is even more important to bring knowledge of the natural world when we come, and bring a positive impact. So we study the local culture before we come, the customs. We stay out of the village and camp, we keep everything clean, bury our shit, pack out our trash. This is most important,” he said. “You must respect the local people. It is their country.”
Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer based in Alabama. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fresh fish tacos. He is afraid of heights. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.