Wednesday, March 3, 2010

24 hours, 24 years

After 10 hours on a poorly ventilated, dusty bus, Sonef transport drops me, Cassie, Joe & Ashley off in  Hombori in an unlit gas station parking lot.  The village, between Mopti and Gao, is surrounded by sheer cliffs and staggering plateaus.  The moon is close to full at 1 am and we scan the horizon trying to pick out which rock formation is Hombori Tondo - the highest point in Mali at 1,155 meters - and the mountain we have come to climb.

Lelele, the owner of his eponymous campement, graciously wakes up and shows us to a terrace where, for 2,000 CFA/night (about $4), we sleep on lumpy mattresses and, after unloading our dusty daypacks, take showers from used oil drums with shower heads welded to the bottom.  Accommodations are sparse but for $4 a night we are not really in a position to complain.
Setting out with 6 liters of water each and treats for the trek 
By 6:15 the next morning I wake up to donkeys braying outside the compound (hoping for elephants - one of the last wild herds of them roams from Mauritania to Niger via Mali passing through Hombori) and a trickle of sweat down my cheek.  We lay out a spread of hard boiled eggs, laughing cow cheese and stale bread from San for breakfast and then head downstairs to haggle for a guide to the base of the mountain and gear to cable climb.  The bargaining is exhausting but in the end we settle on 2,000 CFA/person for a guide to the cables (and base of the mountain) and 2,000 CFA/helmet.  After a quick lunch of rice and sauce and double checking I have enough water we set out at 2 in the afternoon for our adventure.
All smiles before we clip in!

The hike to the base takes about 2 1/2 hours and I drink 2 of my 6 liters of water.  After a break to catch our breaths and secure our harnesses Joe clips into the first section of the cable and I follow.  Joe retraces his steps to help Ashley through a particularly tricky crevice and I continue on since it's too scary to stay still.  I move steadily but slowly until I come to an area I cannot pass (there is nowhere to put my feet!).  I check to make sure I am securely clipped to the cable and take a look around me.  A flock of birds swoops down and the collective rush of their wings makes me catch my breath.  I look down and hear Joe (a former Yellowstone National Park employee) coach Ashley through another tough spot and then let my eyes wander over the incredible landscape around me.  Silhouettes of imposing rock formations dot the horizon and dried river beds that will fill when the rains come in July snake below.  I have never been so isolated and the beauty of it all is overwhelming (the heights may have something to do with that, too!).  I hear Joe's voice and then he appears from the rocks below and clips in ahead of me to figure out the climb.  After spanning the rock Mission Impossible style I take a deep breath and follow, trusting my harness, carabeeners and the cable with my climbing companions' encouragement.
Mission Possible with Joe, Ashley and Cassie! 
After 2 1/2 hours of cable climbing (5 hours total) the sun has set, darkness gently falling around us and we have reached the summit.  After 'bathing' with wet wipes we prepare dinner - stale(r) loaves of bread, laughing cow cheese and a stick of gourmet, pinot grigio summer sausage (thanks Cassie!) with stars above and a handful of solar powered lights in Hombori below.

The night brings winds so gusty I find myself gripping the sloping rock on which I sleep and tucking myself tighter into my sleeping bag.  I wake up after the moon has set and catch my breath at the closeness of the stars weighing heavily above me, crowding one another as they fight to be someone's favorite.  A shooting star flashes by and I close my eyes to wish for more trips like this with these friends sleeping beside me.  In less than 2 years I have been to places I never thought I would go and places I will likely never go again (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Gao) with the Wollersheims and Cassie.  Risking my life on Hombori Tondo is another thing I will add to the list!
Joe was a great guide - and he didn't even sing annoying songs!
Soon after dawn, thighs aching from the climb up, we begin the descent.  Since I cannot rely on my (albeit minimal) upper body strength to move from one bolt to the next, as I could for the ascent, the climb down is scarier and I depend more on my faith in the cable and harness.  A group of boisterous Swiss climbers bound up the mountain and, after an animated rendition of a Malian song, continue to scramble up barely having broken a sweat.  It seems Hombori Tondo doesn't hold a candle to the Alps.
the summit of Hombori Tondo 
We reach Hombori-ville, dehydrated and delirious from the heat, and I guzzle a warm bottle of water in the gas station parking lot while looking back at Hombori Tondo where I pushed myself harder physically, and perhaps mentally, than ever before.  I make a wish on my bottle of mineral water that my next 24 years will include moments like the ones from the past 24 hours - adventures with dear friends, moments that take my breath away, meals savored to the last bite and water (or other delicious drinks) that quench my thirst.

Safely back in San after another exhausting bus ride, Cassie makes carrot cupcakes for my birthday and I have the chance to make another wish - that I won't have to take Malian public transport anytime soon!

See more pictures from our trip here


Martha said...

Beautiful writing. I felt like I was living your experience with you!

Anonymous said...

Brought tears to my eyes, sweet Jennifer! Golly. Took my breath away, too!!

Anonymous said...

"anonymous" is me! forgot to put "mom"...

JSuar said...

Incredible climb and experience though I'm sure you could say that about your entire time in Mali. I agree with Martha as well.

New reader here. Looking forward to future posts.

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