Year of the Ram Expeditions – Ua Pou Island – Immaculate Vertical Jungle Mayhem, told from the perspective of professional climber, explorer and MHW athlete Angie Payne. Special thanks to Dell Rugged laptops for making this trip happen.
Approximately 3,230 feet above the far reaches of the South Pacific Ocean there is a cave. Technically, it’s a mud-filled notch no larger than a phone booth, but definitions get slightly skewed after 12 straight hours of battling the jungle. On February 27th, 2015, I found myself in that spot, folded into a near-fetal position, with tear-streaked cheeks and one question: How the hell did I end up here?
Ten hours prior, I was a relatively bubbly, positive person. The trip was coming to a close, the summit was within sight, and I had managed to maintain an appreciation of the experience for the majority of the fifteen days that had passed. Now I couldn’t seem to utter anything but expletives. I expected that the defining moments of the trip would happen atop the tower, under a blue sky, with an unobstructed view of the entire island and the surrounding ocean. I had belayed for upwards of 30 hours, large chunks of which were spent daydreaming about that view. But I had kissed that idea goodbye many hours prior, and now I was watching the few fragments of composure I had somehow maintained for the past two weeks slip from my grasp.
But I couldn’t say I wasn’t warned. In fact, that was one of the first things Mike Libecki told me when he invited me to Ua Pou – this trip might be a little “suffery.” That is a statement that should not be taken lightly, especially when it comes from someone with 50 expeditions’ worth of suffering under his belt. Despite Mike’s warnings, I knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. From previous experience, I know that a Libecki trip is guaranteed to be a departure from the ordinary, a step (or ten) outside of one’s comfort zone, an exploration of the unexplored, and a surefire way to challenge my perceived emotional and physical limits. And so, with little knowledge of where, exactly, we were headed, I accepted the invitation.
My stomach dropped when we first saw the towers as our boat approached the island. The thought that I was in over my head had been swirling around during the weeks leading up to the trip, but it was easy to ignore in the midst of packing and preparation. But as I stared at the towers peeking through the clouds, the reality smacked me in the face – I wasn’t qualified to be here, but here I was. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was going to learn quickly.
I had never been tied into the same rope as Mike prior to this trip. Within ten minutes of climbing together, he was lying on his back on the ground. I was belaying, and he had decked. Is he moving? Expletive. What did I do wrong? Expletive. Is he broken because of me? Mike was completely intact, and perhaps even more miraculously, so was his trust in me. The vegetation had peeled away under his weight, a piece had popped, there was little I could do to stop it, we must keep moving forward. And so we did, ever so slowly, with Mike fighting through the vegetation and mud one inch at a time, placing beaks and pitons precariously in the wet, unreliable weaknesses of the tower. I followed behind, armed with a hammer, three days of previous jumaring experience, and no prior knowledge of what a beak was, let alone how to remove it from the rock.
Belaying and cleaning were lonely tasks. After Mike’s fall on the first pitch, followed by another on the second, I was on high alert at all times. The belays were long, sometimes stretching six or seven hours, leaving me plenty of time to contemplate all the things that could go wrong up above. When my thoughts would temporarily meander to a happier place, a falling chunk of moss would whiz by, jolting me back to reality. Cleaning aid gear out of jungle terrain was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever done. At first, the exposure and my lack of experience made it hard to even begin the process of moving upward. Each piece I encountered was a new challenge; wail on it with the hammer, jiggle it with the funkness device, hammer some more, wipe the mud from my…everything. Repeat.
It was painfully slow, but eventually I fell into a rhythm. Each pitch was like a puzzle, and talking aloud to myself kept me focused on the task in front of me instead of the exposure below me or the filth all over and around me. When I got scared or angry, I would stop to look at the terrain Mike had covered and think to myself, at least you don’t have to lead this madness. The relief and sense of accomplishment I would feel upon reaching the anchors began to be a motivating factor when things got particularly frustrating or difficult. “Just think how you’ll feel when you finish this one,” I’d tell myself. And soon, I began to feel a sense of pride creeping in around the fear and frustration. I’m doing it. I’m surviving. I’m contributing to the goal.
Camp was always within sight, and I’d frequently look down from the tower and remind myself that soon, I’d be back there. And sure enough, each day I’d return to our cluster of tents on the little jungle island in the sky, sometimes feeling proud of my efforts, sometimes feeling angry that I’d cried, but always covered in mud. The mud was everywhere. It’s invasive presence and overwhelming quantity can’t be exaggerated. A brown hue and the smell of decay quickly consumed everything.
It’s amazing how quickly one can adapt to discomfort and establish a routine, even in the midst of relative chaos. I yearned for a shower and my bed every single day, but returning to camp meant that I had made it through another day safely. One mud-covered set of clothing would be swapped for another, just in time for the rain to arrive. It came in most evenings like a freight train, preceded by a characteristic sound. It was unrelenting, and fell in forceful, pulsating waves, making sleep nearly impossible at times. While cleaning pitches was frustrating, the rain might have been even more infuriating. I took to dosing myself with Benadryl most nights to salvage what sleep I could in my nylon drum.
And then the morning would come, the rain would leave, and the cycle of life in the jungle would repeat.
Each day began with the “daily commute” up the fixed lines. By the last few days of the trip, the frustration of dealing with wet ropes, dripping water, and a generally high level of discomfort was wearing me down. I resorted to using embarrassingly cheesy motivational mantras. When jumaring got hard (which was immediately), I moved the ascenders to the rhythm of my forced positivity. Right jumar up, “You are stronger than you think.” Left jumar up, “You are braver than you think.” Then there was the counting game with the self-imposed rule of having to move the ascenders in sets of five. “One, two, three, four, five, one,” exhaustion coursed through my veins. “Dammit, Ange, you started a new sequence. Must. Keep. Going. Two, three, four, five.” It was silly, but it worked.
And so, bit by bit, we climbed and jugged our way within striking distance of the summit.
The final push fell on the last day in the jungle. It wasn’t the bluebird day we all hoped for, but I put on my neon pink socks to brighten the mood. Their normally obnoxious color was a welcome contrast to the dreary shade of brown that had consumed everything.
The day began well. The knowledge that I would never have to ascend the ropes again made the 5-pitch commute feel easier. There was no rain (yet), my feet were dry for the first time in nearly 2 weeks, and I had Andy and Keith to keep me company at the belays. The camera captured me giving an upbeat recap of the trip thus far: I’ve kept my chin up, I’m lucky to be here, I’ve learned a lot, Mike has been a fearless and skilled leader on insanely challenging terrain, and now we’re going to the top!
The shift in momentum came with Mike’s voice on the radio: “That pitch was fucked.” None of us knew exactly what that meant. This was the first time Mike had said that, even after five pitches to which I would have certainly assigned that label, so that in itself was very telling.
It’s hard to even explain the terrain we went through, because it is like nothing I have ever seen or imagined. To think about leading it makes me sick to my stomach, and I still can’t comprehend what Mike must have gone through as the first person up there. When I pulled around the corner on pitch six, I didn’t fully comprehend what I was looking at. “It’s like the jungle exhibit in a museum,” I shouted back to Keith and Andy. All I could liken it to was a fake scene I had viewed as a child, in a building, behind glass, because it didn’t seem real. The next thirty minutes were spent crawling through a chimney full of jungle vines, focusing all my energy on suppressing my claustrophobia. There were more expletives spoken in that half hour than I normally speak in a year. I was full of pride when I emerged from the mess, only to find that my rope was buried under many hundreds of pounds of earth. I was deflated…
And then, many hours later, after yet another pitch of absolute mayhem, we reached what we now affectionately refer to as the Cave of Woes. Sitting in that cave was the low point of the trip for me. It was the moment that Mike had warned me about five weeks earlier, the “suffery” time when I would wish I was somewhere else. Well, he was right. Every fiber of my being longed to be anywhere but there. I had mostly held it together for fourteen days, through rain and mud and barf and rats and heavy packs and new challenges of all sorts. But now I was done. The thirty feet between me and the summit might as well have been 3000 feet; it felt absolutely insurmountable. I was paralyzed by emotional exhaustion and fear. The howling wind outside the “cave”, the strength of which was sporadically highlighted by Mike’s radio reports from the summit, scared the shit out of me. I could picture only two possible conclusions: I would be blown away by the wind in my attempt to clean the final pitch, or, I would survive the final pitch but get stuck in the jungle when I attempted to rappel back down. That was my biggest fear, getting stuck in the jungle, in the dark, alone.
I didn’t want to go to the summit. I sat there, in that muddy nook, posing questions aloud to no one in particular – “This is insane, right? This is not normal. Normal people don’t do this.” I didn’t want to be at the mercy of someone else’s desire to continue upward any longer. I was tired, scared, and angry that the blue sky summit vision hadn’t played out. But at the same time, under it all, I wanted someone to make a decision for me that would make me move, whether that be up or down didn’t much matter. The fragile, vulnerable girl inside of me sat in that cave, waiting for someone to take action for me. The nudge to move came from Mike. “Somebody’s gotta clean this pitch.” In reality, that was only half true; Mike could have cleaned it himself. But, contrary to my belief at the time, he was apparently thinking more clearly than I was, and he must have known that standing on that summit would be good for me. Then, from somewhere under that melting puddle of tears and mud that I had become, a confidence emerged. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to take charge. No, this is not normal. Yes, this is probably a little insane. But I don’t want to be normal, anyhow. And I don’t want to be HERE anymore. The only way down is up. So, go, already. MOVE.
If I’m totally honest, I guess that I felt like I had something to prove to myself. Subconsciously, this is what I wanted – to be tested, stripped down to a state of raw emotion, with no other choice than to take charge of the situation and be independent. I’ve lived a life in which independence is a choice, but not usually a necessity. To be forced to rely on myself, and only myself, even if just for a few moments, is a situation that can’t easily be created in my everyday life. But on the side of Poumaka, that situation was reality. Sure, I had people to fall back on if things went horribly wrong. But the pitches wouldn’t clean themselves. Nobody would immediately come running to my aid when I was tangled in ropes at the start of pitch two or stuck in jungle vines somewhere in the middle of the hellacious pitch seven. The earth and mud wouldn’t miraculously lift themselves from atop my rope. I had to take charge, move forward, do something, anything, to keep moving forward. And the only way back down from the summit was to rappel back through the madness, through the dark, into the looming, inhospitable jungle. Alone.
So that’s what I did. And I felt proud.
Reflecting on this trip is hard to do without at first sounding negative. There was mud, rain, rats, heinous jungle hiking, claustrophobic chimneys, sleepless nights, falling moss, wet ropes, the list goes on and on. I sent messages back home that told of inescapable “death mud” and my desire to be done. There were plenty of moments when I didn’t want to be where I was. But there were also plenty of moments when I actually stopped to take it all in. I felt pride and accomplishment in learning to navigate in a challenging environment. There were amazing sunsets over the pacific, and clouds racing by hundreds of feet below me, and incredible light on the sea of green vegetation around us. There were personal victories in problems solved all on my own, and a certain camaraderie among the team, knowing that we were battling the jungle together.
And so, after the biggest, muddiest, hardest, and most rewarding trip of my life, I have walked away with just enough knowledge to make one tiny addition to Mike’s famous advice: Don’t ration passion…ration dry socks.”