“Life. How a dream can be dreamt and forgotten in a blink of an eye. We go on with our days without stopping to revisit or ponder our visions of fantastical places. Days, months, years can go by. However, when a moment is taken and those dreams examined more closely, it may become clear that if given the right conditions to grow those passing thoughts will come to the forefront of our minds and eventually be fostered into reality.”
If you had asked me years ago where Madagascar was, without much thought I would have told you it was very far away. Given a little more thought I might have even told you it was an island off the south east coast of Africa in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In my mind it was a wild, abstract place with unique animated creatures and landscapes alike. The island had been just a blip on my radar; I had heard of this far away island with massive walls of largely undeveloped gorgeous granite but hadn’t bothered to reach past the daydreams. I remember fantasizing about travelling to this land until I realized how incredibly epic (expensive) it was to reach the dreamy destination. With an attention span like a goldfish and a bank account of a raft guiding, climbing obsessed early twenty something year old, without a second thought I hopped in my car and drove south towards the un-exotic but cheap land of burritos and splitters.
That was then and now is now.
Having spent the past year rebuilding a tiny old house in Squamish and navigating my way through a string of: injuries, illness, surgery and subsequent missed ski and climbing seasons, I craved an adventure, a soul shaking bender of one. Brad and I shared the same chunk of time off in years and I was determined capitalize. There were a few destinations on my wish list but Madagascar had once again gained a foothold in my mind and unlike the first time around, this time I couldn’t shake it. The country had all the things I was looking for in a destination: heat, sunshine, amazing varied landscapes and parks to explore, abundant animals to discover, unique cultures and foods to embrace, deserted surf breaks, endless shallow lagoons to kite upon and yes- remote towering granite walls where the only crowds were the friendly and incredibly cute ringtail lemurs. I swallowed any doubts, booked our tickets and wore an inner smile of stoke until we left. When we did leave, my smile only became wider; I felt like I had reached the end of a tunnel and was absolutely ready to soak up the light.
Madagascar is huge, 587 040 km2 to be exact. It has been dubbed the eighth continent and is the fourth largest island in the world. It is also practically as far away from Squamish as one could ever get, approximately 16432 km. As the crow flies it’s like driving to Yosemite nine times in a row, except that giant metal 747 crows don’t fly straight. I apparently like my flights cheap and complicated: en route we touched down in Chicago, Sao Paulo and Johannesburg. We spent five days in South Africa, hanging out with elephants, giraffes and cheetah in Kruger National Park and sampling some fine sandstone sport routes at Waterval Boven. Our time in South Africa felt extremely worthwhile. Not only for its world-class wildlife viewing, close proximity to our final destination but the chance to decompress from life at home and begin to take in the subtle and not so subtle pleasures and challenges of travelling in Africa. If South Africa was the kiddie pool of a world away from B.C, we were about to jump in the deep end.
My face was glued to the airplane window long before the vast stretches of Malagasy coastline came into view. The deep indigo sea finally morphed into crashing waves upon endless white beaches, then in turn to cloud enshrouded emerald mountaintops and rust coloured rivers. As our plane began to descend I was in awe of the human settlements that blended seamlessly into the surrounding hillsides. I did not see any black tarmac, gridlines of traffic, box store parking lots or the expansive shapes of commercial agriculture. I saw tiny clusters of thatched roofs, red brick buildings subtly interconnected by snaking dirt roads- if I blurred my eyes the villages were undistinguishable from the landscape.
Upon landing in the capital, Madagascar’s largest city of Antananarivo I was overwhelmed by the input of sights, sounds, smells and feelings that accompanied travelling in such an intoxicatingly foreign country. Early on, I felt so out of my comfort zone that at times I questioned why had I even chosen to come there? It was usually in the chaotic busyness of the city centers that I felt like this and Brad was quick to remind me of the walls, waves and winds that we were pushing towards.
Madagascar was settled from the west, north and east: peoples from Eastern Africa and the Middle East, India and from South East Asia brought with them religions, traditions and flavors to create what was by far the most culturally and socially diverse country I have visited. The country is also extremely geographically and botanically diverse: supporting lush tropical rainforests, vast highland plateaus and parched deserts that are abruptly interrupted by the sea. Madagascar is economically one of the world’s poorest countries but yet richest in biodiversity; eighty percent of the islands animals and plants are found nowhere else on earth. From the late 1800’s to the 1960’s Madagascar was a French colony and the few urbanized centers on the island quietly tell this tale with their winding cobblestone streets, wrought iron balconies and dusty cafes.
I admit that I had originally sought a travel destination not with a climbing trip in mind but rather warm water surfing as our main focus. I was attracted to the remote un-crowded nature of Madagascar’s off shore reef breaks. The islands infamous shark infested waters gave pause to my research however I was assured by the local surf experts that the intense fishing of the barrier reef (where we planned to go) had essentially pushed the sharks away from that area. While planning our itinerary, I woke up to my old dreams and unbeknownst to Brad began also planning our visit to Andringitra National Park, home of the islands tallest peaks and the Tsaranoro Massif. I assured him it would be only a brief visit for a couple days of climbing on our way to the ocean.
The Tsaranoro Massif has attracted attention from the global climbing community since the early 90’s. Not until coming around the bend on the long bumpy road into the park and finally laying my eyes on the walls, could I comprehend how big they were. Squamish I love you but Tsaranoro is like your tall, handsome older cousin- very tall and very handsome. The area has hosted many of the world’s strongest climbers who came to establish routes on the thin, technical walls. Routes range from 50 to 800 meters with only a handful falling below the 6c range. The majority of the routes are bolted, some sparingly so, as the stone offers little in the way of crack systems unlike Tsaranoro’s monolithic cousins in Squamish and Yosemite. The idyllic Camp Catta is situated a comfortable 45 minute to an hour or so hike from the base of the walls. A variety of accommodation is offered: small tents complete with shade providing palapa, foam mattress and white linens to small brick bungalows to large multi-room bungalows. The service was over the top. There were fresh croissants, eggs and pressed mango juice pour petit dejeuner, a packed lunch and 3-course dinner waiting for us after each day of 5 star climbing. Even at 4 o’clock the morning we attempted 650m Tsaranoro Kely, our breakfast and lunch were ready with (a sleepy) smile. The place was truly a slice of heaven: no crowds (we were the only climbers), a swimming pool to drink $1 big bottles of beer beside, friendly lemurs to watch and be watched by and mangos dropping off the trees practically into my tropical fruit loving hands. The mangos were sweet. Life was sweet. The best part was- our trip was just getting started!
Twelve pitches up “Out of Africa”, it was my third day of climbing in almost a year and I felt great. The movement felt automatic, calming, deeply entrenched in my body. The climbing was like an old friend that you didn’t realize how much you missed until your first conversation in a long while. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and I felt more grateful to be on that wall during those moments then I remember having ever felt on piece of rock or mountain side before. The golden pink granite was perfect, highlighted with lichen streaks in shades of electric yellow, orange and green. As we moved higher, the wall became steeper and the personality of the rock totally unique with every pitch: run out friction like Squamish’s Apron, chicken heads like Leavenworth, plates and crimps like Cochise, waves and caves like Joshua Tree, quartzite crystal pinching like Tuolomne and tufa-like blobs like the Needles. My mind was being blown. The confidence and strength that I had lost in the past year crept back with each bolt clipped. I had begun the climb with no expectations, telling myself that I could rappel or pull through if I needed to however as we moved closer to the top I realized if I kept my composure I had a chance of a clean ascent.
With twelve pitches behind us and four more to go, I was determined to keep it together. Halfway up the first of two crux 7a+ pitches, feeling relaxed and focused I found myself quickly scanning left, right, up, back and forth unable to figure out what the best line would be. I moved to the left and to the right, no dice. While camped out comfortably on a couple small crimps, taking stock of my options,
As I sailed through the air I noticed a small piece of rock what had just been my left handhold, sailing through the air next to me.
Fuck. In the passing moments after the rope caught me, as I realized what had just happened the pain was dull at first. The first thoughts that crossed my mind were of another missed ski season. A couple small tears sprouted from the corners of my eyes not from the pain in my ankle but of the painful reality of what had just happened. Angrily I pulled up the rope to the last clipped bolt and hung silently pondering my situation. I then tuned in to my deeply throbbing ankle.“Maybe I could still finish the route? I’ll just walk it off.”
Gingerly placing my toe onto a hold and applying a small amount of weight, a searing sharp pain shot up my leg and came out of my eyes as more tears.
“O.K, one more try, I really wanted to climb this.”
It only took a moment of applying weight to my foot the second time to submit to my injury.
“Whyyyyyyy? Reallllllly? Like a child I muttered answerless questions to Brad and to the universe as I set up to lower off the bolt on which I had fallen. The first broken hold on all 450 meters of climbed rock that day, a hold the size of a dime, would be the one to take my light and place it at the end of the tunnel once again.
“What am I going to do this winter if I can’t ski?”
My brow furrowed while I played back the frustrations of the previous winter spent working at a backcountry ski lodge with a blown knee and summer on the couch post surgery.
Brad gently reminded me “Step one, get off this rock.”
I then decided from that point on to think as logically as possible and focus only on moving forward: one rappel, one hop, one moment at a time.
The ensuing sequence of events that began near the top Tsaranoro Kely face and eventually brought me to the O.R in Vancouver 10 days later was not wished for; yet it was an unrepeatable, unforgettable journey through the dichotomy of two cultures on opposite sides of the world.
Returning to camp involved: twelve rope length rappels, two stuck ropes, one abandoned rope, Brads first lead to unstuck a rope, attempting not to weight some of the rusty single bolt anchors we used and a few creative ways of descending a big wall without using one foot (bum slides and arm hops). We reached the ground at what seemed to be the exact moment darkness fell, left our packs and for two hours I was piggy backed and crab walked back to camp. During the hour-long ultra bumpy four by four ride out of the park the next morning, more tears sprouted forth as my foot wobbled to and fro. The adrenaline of the previous day was gone and even the T3’s that I had popped, couldn’t drown the discomfort. As we passed a group of men with spears and rifles, our driver explained that in order to secure a bride, a tribesman was required to present a zebu to the bride’s family. The cattle belonging to these men would likely have been stolen and they were looking for the perpetrator, to reclaim the zebu and the thereby the security of a bride. I asked Brad if he was happy he didn’t need a Zebu to secure our future.
“A Zebu might be easier than following you up massive walls in Madagascar.”
We made our way to Toloria, a six hours drive south-west from Andringitra. It was our best chance of finding a doctor as well as the stepping off point for our surf adventures. Unaware of the extent of my injury I was looking forward to sitting beside the sea with my foot up, mango juice in hand while letting the salty air and sun work their magic on my psyche.
Once we found a clinic it was insisted that I be pushed around in a wheelchair that was straight out of ‘Mad Men’. The x-ray film was dipped into an ancient developing tank before being hung to dry in the sunny courtyard. The doctor and I couldn’t understand a word that each other said, but the developed film said it all. Displaced tibial malleolus and a fractured fibula. Right. Of course that’s what’s wrong!
That evening while catching up with some social media over looking the Mozambique Channel and the sticky, humid sunset, a friend asked me,
“What the hell happened?
I described and he asked, “Wouldn’t I be needing surgery?
My plans of reading novels while working on my tan instantly evaporated as I somewhat frantically emailed the picture of my x-ray to three surgeons and an emergency room doctor acquaintance. All four experts replied within twenty four hours that I best be coming home ASAP to surgically fix the ankle.
Holding tightly to our scheduled adventure and vacation I asked them,
“Could I heal it in this sweet plaster cast whilst sitting on an African beach?”
Apparently if I wanted my ankle to work properly and be somewhat pain free then I best get those screws and plates put in. Riggghht. Got it.
Brad and I made the most of our final days in Madagascar. We certainly gave the locals something to talk about while the only blond girl in town, hopped around, plaster cast gleaming in the sun, bargaining with the craft ladies for fresh vanilla beans, peppercorns and hand woven baskets. After I secured my purchases I jumped on Brads back and moved, as a two headed Canadian creature, on to the next stall. The seafood was insanely cheap, fresh and delicious, though I couldn’t help but feel strange, spending on one lunch what many of the locals earned in a month. Eventually we tracked down some crutches at a Center for handicapped children. The nuns wouldn’t accept payment for what seemed to be the only pair of crutches in all of Madagascar but they happily accepted a donation. I’m not sure if the crutch wielding lady or the hopping lady attracted more attention. Booking flights back to B.C proved epic but eventually we were successful and while trying to remain in the moment, my mind began to creep towards thoughts of home.
Our last day on the coast, we met up with Blair, kiwi born surf guide extraordinaire, and set out for sea. With my foot taped into a plastic bag, I caught a zebu cart ride out to a small dugout canoe with an outrigger and 5 horsepower motor. We set out, 5 in total: the Canadians, the Kiwi, his French buddy and the local skipper. The day on the ocean was unreal, a spectrum of sparkling blues and greens, glassy waves and observing Malagasy beach and ocean faring life. I reveled in that day trying to fully soak up the experiences, knowing I would want to go back to that place in my mind. It was like a beautiful dream, so good and yet fleeting- almost unreal, abruptly interrupted by waking up to a life that goes on.
Two and a half months later, its February and I’m sitting on my couch in Squamish. It hasn’t snowed in weeks, the sun is streaming through my window and I’ll be heading out for a mountain bike ride shortly. Working out and rehabbing has just begun and I remember what it feels like to be sore from activity for the first time in months. I’ve flipped flopped through a spectrum of injury coping strategies. From, “I don’t need climbing or skiing to be happy” to “I’ll become a wood furniture and house builder! I don’t need ankles or knees for that.” I’ve searched for meaning in my injuries and tried to pull all the inner growth and learning I can from them. While I’ve convinced myself to feel grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, I’ve also come full circle to realize that I’m right on track. Working with wood, building a house- those things are already happening and giving up on the activities that put me on the sidelines is not my answer. I feel more motivated than ever to heal up, get strong and continue dreaming of fantastical places and pursuing my dreams. The most important thing I’ve learned is that the light doesn’t need to be at the end of the tunnel but it can shine in, no matter where in the tunnel you might be.
Massive thank you to Dr. Boyer, Dr. Staniforth, Dr. Stone and Dr. Wright. You guys are amazing.