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Blood and a Blood Moon: An Epic and New Routing in Madagascar

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Three pitches up a new route on Madagascar’s Tsaranoro Massif, the black rock radiating heat and the lime-colored lichen like so many tiny glowing beetles, the British climber Alan Carne somersaulted off the wall just above the belay and let out a blood-curdling scream. His partners Robbie Phillips and Calum Cunningham looked at Carne dangling beneath them in momentary disbelief: a bone was sticking out of his leg.

Tsaranoro had been on Phillips’ bucket list since he was a kid. He had read tales of Arnaud Petit’s exploits in Madagascar and had always dreamed of an adventure in its remote jungle and establishing  ground-up firsts ascent on the smooth domes. He had finally made it happen with this expedition. But now the first ascent that he, Cunningham and Carne were attempting was the furthest thing from his mind— getting Carne down to safety was going to be an adventure all its own.

***

A couple of weeks earlier, Phillips, 28, from Scotland; Cunningham, 21, also from Scotland; and Carne, 59, a British expat living in the Verdon, France, arrived in Tsaranoro and set to work scoping out lines.

Phillips big-wall resume has grown fast over the past several years. To his name he has free routes on El Capitan, including El Niño (VI 5.13c A0) and Pre-Muir (VI 5.13d) in 2016, and free routes across Europe, from Bellavista (8b+) in the Dolomites in 2014 to Paciencia (8b) on the Eiger in 2015 to End of Silence in the Berchtesgaden Alps in 2017. Cunningham is a frequent partner of Phillips and came close to sending End of Silence himself. Carne, nearly 40 years older than Cunningham, is a journeyman rock climber of the UK generation that lived on the dole to support the climbing lifestyle, has a lengthy resume of big walls across Europe and the States, and is now a Verdon guru.

As Phillips began scanning the cliffs, he was surprised by how much of the Massif was already developed. He knew of Petit’s lines, but when routes from all the other climbers who had visited over the years—legends like Lynn Hill, Beth Rodden, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll and Adam Ondra—were factored in, suddenly the empty parts of the wall seemed fewer. Many of the best lines had already been climbed.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1154.JPG

Phillips wasn’t psyched on “doing a shit route,” as he says, so kept scanning the walls. He saw two possible lines: the first seemed potentially too close to the route that Villanueva O’Driscoll and Siebe Vanhee had established in TK, while the second looked great, but potentially impassable at a blank section a third of the way up the wall. Despite the greater chance of failure on the latter, Phillips “convinced the guys to go for it.”

After three days of ground-up climbing, the trio came to the question-mark section. “And guess what,” Phillips says, “It’s bloody impossible. Completely blank. Maybe the lemurs could free climb it, but definitely not a human.” Phillips, Cunningham and Carne returned to the ground disappointed, but pleased that they had given it a shot.

Photo: Courtesy of Robbie Phillips.

Scouring the wall through binoculars after that first failed foray up the wall, Phillips realized that the line he had thought too close to Villanueva O’Driscoll’s was in fact “miles away.” The size of the wall and it’s irregular undulations distorted distances when viewed from afar.

A series of bulges three-quarters of the way up the potential route would no doubt be cruxy, but the question was how cruxy: On similar terrain, Villanueva O’Driscoll’s route was a reasonable 8a+ (5.13c), whereas Ondra’s Mora Mora, further left on similar bulges, was a much stouter 8c (5.14b). What would this new route serve up?

***

Over six days, the team slowly worked their way upward. When they came to those inevitable crux bulges, Phillips saw three potential paths through them and, out of instinct, chose the leftmost.

“The next five hours on that lead were probably the best of my climbing life,” he says. Bolting from tenuous stances, hanging of teetering skyhooks, and pulling on crystal crimps, Phillips slowly weaved his way up the only-just-climbable  terrain.

The last ten meters were suddenly blank as a blacktop—just as that shield of rock on the first lackluster outing had been—but this time the angle eased off, just enough to make the tiny micro-holds viable. Four meters above his last piece of protection, he placed a skyhook on a small edge, eased on to it while still holding the crimps above it, and—ping!—it popped off and hit him in the mouth, chipping his tooth as it did. Somehow Phillips hung on.

Unperturbed by the experience, he made it to the belay, brought up the others, and was ready for more. The trio continued installing bolts all the way to the top of the wall and returned to the ground for some rest days for a free push.

***

Phillips had just led the first two pitches—totaling about 100 meters—of what they hoped would be a free push to the top via the newly bolted line. The plan was for him, Cunningham and Carne to swing leads all the way up. He was belaying Carne, already thinking about how—nay, if—the bulges up above would go free.

Without any forewarning, the hold Carne was gripping snapped off. Carne’s feet had been above the first bolt, so Phillips had a front-row seat to the subsequent action: “Alan did this flip over my head. He hit the wall below, his leg crunched and suddenly he was screaming.” Carne knew instantly that both his tibia and fibula  had snapped like twigs.

Phillips hauled Carne up—whose screaming continued unabated—and began rigging a tandem rappel. He sent Cunningham down to fetch help from the village nearby. Tsaranoro is not like Yosemite or Rifle or even Chamonix in terms of access: it’s out there, and the guys knew they were going to need to get as much of a head start as they could.

As Phillips started the rappels, Carne kept howling from the pain. To keep the older Brit from continuously banging into the wall, Phillips turned his own back to the wall, and half-slid-half-rappelled down with Carne in front of him, shredding the seat of his pants on the rough rock in the process.

Once down, Phillips and Alastair Lee—a photographer-climber friend who had recently arrived to document the possible new ascent—splinted and bandaged Carne’s leg and loaded him into a stretcher brought by Cunningham and several villagers. Four hours of jostling and screaming later, they arrived at the village. Phillips, Carne and Carne’s wife piled into a car and began the choppy ride to the nearest hospital five hours away. “Every bump Alan was screaming,” Phillips says. “It was the most horrendous experience for him. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

Carne getting evac-ed via stretcher after the accident. Photo: Courtesy of Robbie Phillips.

If Carne thought his ordeal would end at the hospital, he was ever so wrong. The facility they arrived at, still in rural Madagascar, looked like something out of a “horror movie,” according to Phillips. Mosquitos pinged off the lightbulbs and cracks spread across the walls. Cockroaches skittered across the floor. Carne was looking paler by the minute.

Carne’s wife went in search of the pharmacy to pick up medicine prescribed by the doctors, and Phillips was left to chaperone the worst moment yet. Doctors needed to clean Alan’s open fracture. “They had a bucket of water, a scrubbing brush that looked more like something you’d use in the shower than a medical instrument, and a bottle of iodine,” Phillips recalls grimly. “With no local anesthetic they started scrubbing the wound. It went on for 20 minutes. I don’t know how Alan didn’t faint. The whole time I was telling him, ‘It’s almost over, it’s almost over.’”

***

Phillips returned to Tsaranoro dazed. Before finally being evacuated to La Reunion, a French island territory west of Madagascar, Carne had insisted that the younger Brits continue on with the route.

Starting up Blood Moon. Photo: Courtesy of Robbie Phillips.

After four days resting at the base of the mountain, Phillips and Cunningham, accompanied by Lee, restarted their free attempt from the bottom. They rock-paper-scissored for who would have to lead the third pitch—the site of the carnage just days before. Even though technically easy, both were spooked. Phillips ended up taking the sharp end on it, and found it to be cruiser 7a+ (5.12a) climbing. “We bolted the route really friendly,” he says, “Alan’s accident was just really unlucky. The same thing could have happened at a single pitch sport crag anywhere in the world.”

On day two, Phillips came to the bulges high up on the wall and climbed the pitch first try.  He says, “That was our crux pitch of the route. An 8a+. I found swinging around later on that the way I went that first time up the wall”—when the skyhook chipped his tooth—”was amazingly the only possible way through. It was the only line of weakness that would have worked.”

It took three days for both Phillips and Cunningham to free the new climb. “We both got the tick,” Phillips says, “so it was a real teamwork thing.”

They named their creation Blood Moon (8a+, 700 meters). Phillips says it was for a blood moon they had witnessed earlier in the trip, and not for the gory trauma that unfolded during the first free attempt, but either way, the name fits.

Photo Courtesy of Robbie Phillips.
Photo: Courtesy of Robbie Phillips.

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