Year of the Ram Expeditions – Ua Pou Island – Immaculate Vertical Jungle Mayhem, told from the perspective of professional climber, explorer and MHW athlete Mike Libecki. Special thanks to Dell Rugged Laptops for making this trip happen.
Suffering is an interesting term. The definition of suffering from my point of view might not really be suffering at all, how could it be if said suffering is hoped for, chosen, and obsessed about, self-induced if you will. Well, that age-old saying often rings true on a lot of the expeditions I go on, “Be careful what you ask for, you may just get it.” Maybe this is a better one that seems to fit nicely on these expeditions, a lyric from one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs, “When life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.” And how about one more, “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” It is thoughts such as these that arise from exploring immaculate vertical jungle mayhem!
Though, to be completely honest, the only real suffering endured on an expedition is missing my daughter and loved ones back home. I suppose anything worth doing is going to have compromise and sacrifice. That does not mean it makes it any easier. And so expedition number 60 has come and gone, and the next dozen are already being laid on paper and charted on maps in hopes that one day, it will be expedition number 100 that I am writing about and all those moments of ‘now’ will be living in my memories.
It was in 2007 while researching some exotic rock formations in the eastern islands of Papua New Guinea that I came across interesting folk tales about ancient glowing orbs on pointy rock summits in the South Pacific. In the midst of pure fascination trying to find out more about these rumors, I came across images of the Marquesas Islands north of Tahiti. That is when I first saw the island of Ua Pou. It was one of those moments of pure clarity: that the world is wonderful and perfect: I knew I would go there, without any doubt. The rock towers that stab into the clouds and sky from that island look like they are out of some fantasy book about Hobbits and Goblins and Dragons. I was almost in disbelief that such rock formations existed (It would not be the first time I felt that, and doubtfully the last). Of course, that is coming from an adventurer addicted to climbing strange, remote towers. Why did the Universe implant this passion? Oh the mysteries of life, the beginning, the end, the unknown to all man kind!
I finally decided to go and have a look in spring of 2012, alone. I arrived via plane into Nuka Hiva, an island north of Ua Pou, ready for the next flight to the fantasy island. Due to rain that occupied all open space, I could not fly on the small dual propeller plane to Ua Pou. Fortunately, a very nice local Marquesian offered to help me arrange a boat. She also arranged for me to stay at her house that was on Ua Pou, with her brother and father, even though she did not live there. I was greeted by friendly locals when I arrived, all the towers were encased in the clouds, rain drenched everything around me.
The first three days on the island were consumed with constant rain. From the house I stayed at, some of the towers played hide-n-seek behind the clouds, teasing and tormenting me. Finally, I met KauKau, one of the locals that agreed to go into the jungle with me. Long story short, we spent many days trekking through thick jungle in the rain with huge haul bags full of climbing and bivy gear, and made it to the base of a couple of the towers. We camped in the rain, had a lot of laughs, then retreated. I was not prepared for the insane rain coupled with the jungle madness. No solo ascents this time. Though, the people I met and the acclimation I was able to experience prepared me to come back. Sometimes, it takes two expeditions to complete the final goal, the final product of the expedition equation (of course, it would not be the first time this has happened, and doubtfully the last).
Finally, in 2015 I returned. But this time, with wonderful friends and with absolutely full preparedness for any amount of rain that attacked. I was ready to mock the rain, but little did I know about the vertical-jungle-madness ahead. The rain was not going to be the biggest problem as I had imagined, and eventually hoped. Once I finally got to start leading pitches up the tower of Poumaka, I had wished rain was the crux. Here we go again…Be careful what you ask for, you just may get it…When life looks like easy street there is danger at your door. It was going to take everything I had mentally, physically as well as all the experience I have gained to this day to figure out a way to the top of this magical tower.
I invited Angie Payne to go to Ua Pou. Angie is one of the world’s top women boulderers. We first met in 2012 in Reykjavik on the way to Greenland (together with Ethan Pringle and Keith Ladzinski) on an expedition for Mountain Hardwear. Fortunately, everyone got along really well as none of us really even knew each other before we finally met on the way to Greenland. It was a successful expedition, and I remember Angie really had to push through some mental challenges on her first remote trip, I also remember her crushing new boulder problems and her great sense of humor and laughter. She is one of the toughest women I know.
In late 2014, I was discussing with Angie a potential opportunity to go back to Greenland the following year. She told me then, “This next year is great timing for me, I quit my job and going to just commit to the climbing life for as long as I can.” Her voice was bursting with enthusiasm and firey-psyche. So, when I started planning one of my next expeditions to the island of Ua Pou, I remembered that intensity and energy from our last conversation. So I called Angie back. The conversation went something like this, “Hey Angie, so I have another trip coming up, you mentioned that you are 100% committed to climbing this year. I might have something super intense and different for you. There are these cool spires in the middle of an island in the South Pacific. Its going to be absolute mayhem, suffering, rain, mud, you name it. And, if you went, you would probably wish you were not there at times, seriously. Like you might be pissed off that you went on the trip. I would lead all the pitches, you would need to train to jug and clean pitches. And also be prepared to climb in the rain, a lot.”
Angie’s response, “Whoa, Mike, that sounds intense! I am very interested, let me think about this.”
For some reason, I was pretty sure she was going to go…
Angie called me back, “Mike, I am in! I am going to start training now, let me know what I need to do. I have US Bouldering Nationals coming up and can leave right after that. Lets do this!”
I also invited Keith Ladzinski and Andy Mann, two of my best friends and best photographer/film makers on the planet that wanted to come along and capture the mysterious adventure with photos and video.
After three planes and a two-hour boat ride, we finally made it to Ua Pou.
Fortunately, my first expedition here paid off. I had all logistics arranged with my friends before we arrived, including my friend KauKau and crew that went into the jungle with me on my previous solo trip. We wasted no time and headed into the jungle, a dozen of us carrying waterproof loads of gear. First though, KauKau and the locals said a prayer to their God, then we pulled on the 60-pound loads, sweat soaked my hat before a minute went by. The goal was to head into the middle of the island where we would be surrounded by several huge towers. Though, Poumaka tower lured me in immediately. It is the master tower of Ua Pou and surrounding islands, according to legend…
“In ancient times, there were large towers in Ua Pou. One day, a tower arrived from Hiva Oa named Matafenua. This latter had fought against the towers of Ua Pou and had beaten all of them. They had all fallen, their dead-bodies became the mountains separating the valleys.
One day a new column – named Poumaka was born in Ua Pou. While going all around the island, he realized that the dead columns were lying everywhere. Poumaka asked: “Who killed these columns?”, and someone answered him: “It is Matafenua”.
When Poumaka had grown up and had become a warrior, he joined Hiva Oa to get his revenge. Informed of his arrival, Matafenua was frightened and took refuge in the East of Hiva Oa. Poumaka went to war and initially pursued and killed the Kiukiu tower. His body fell and laid down in the West of Hiva Oa.
Then Poumaka went after Matafenua and found him in the East of Hiva Oa. He knocked him down and cut off his head which he attached to his loincloth to bring it back to Ua Pou. Thus, you will be able to see a hill near the Poumaka tower which is the head of Matafenua. As for his body, it still lies in the East of Hiva Oa.”
We finally made a nice base camp deep in the jungle. Poumaka towered above inviting us to its summit, or wait, was it a dare? Soon I would find out it was definitely a dare. We had been on the island for three days, and so far, it rained every day, but mostly at night. It rained everyday for the next three weeks until we left.
With KauKau leading the way, we started up the steep jungle in hopes to find the base of the master tower. Four pitches of jungle mayhem brought us to the top of a knoll near the tower. We moved up to our high camp via fixed lines the next couple days. One more ridge into a flora pitch and we were ready to climb.
The plan was that I would lead all the pitches, Angie would belay and clean. No easy task, especially that she had never done anything like this before. Ever.
Her energy is so positive, her focus so intense, her attitude so genuine, that I knew she would crush this. Let the vertical jungle mayhem begin!
Climbing all over the world on all kinds of Dr. Suess rock, I have learned that it can sometimes take time to get to know the rock, the climate, and have some days for acclimation. Its important to create a kind of relationship with the rock, to get to know it intimately. I started on lead in crampons (on my free climbing shoes) to get through the initial jungle stuck to vertical stone. I took them off after 20-feet once I could touch rock. Wet rock. Muddy rock. The wall was soaked from constant dripping above. Lichen and moss covered every inch of the rock so far. I continued free climbing and tried to place a couple cams. No way they were going to hold in the muddy-soaked thin crack. A couple pins hammered in nicely. I finally got in a decent cam, or so I thought. Then I had to go for a little runout on vegetation and muddy stone. After desperation, I yelled to Angie as I fell, I am on youuu!” WHIP! SLAM! The cam ripped out and before the rope could catch me I slammed onto the ground. Fortunately, the vegetation worked as a nice crash pad. I could tell Angie was a bit freaked out. “No worries, I am ok.” I reassured Angie. Keith and Andy yelled over that they got it all on video.
I got back on lead, led past the crux, and by the time I made my way up the first pitch, I was 100% soaked from the dripping hundreds of feet above me. The rope, webbing, harness, me, everything was soaked. I could literally wring out the rope and webbing. It would be this way the entire climb for the next 8 days. It was going to be a soaked, muddy, vertical aid-climbing fest from what I could tell. Angie got to clean her first pitch on jumars, she caught on super fast of course. Her training before she left paid off. When she got to the first anchor, she was soaked too. Fortunately the anchor was in a cove-like overhang and was dry.
The next day we started up pitch 2. I started into overhanging, coral-like rock. Then, on my second piece of protection, a small nut levered in the coral, WHAM-SLAM! It popped and I fell hard beneath Angie and my knee smacked directly into the teeth-like surface of the rock. My pant material was ground into my flesh. Bright red blood flowed down my leg. I pulled up my hand after rubbing my knee, fully covered in blood. I could feel blood running down my leg into my socks, into my shoes. Andy and Keith captured it on video of course. Angie was pretty freaked out this time. I was soaked, muddy, bloody and there was fire and psyche in my eyes and running through my veins. I said, “Don’t worry, I am fine, really.” I got back on lead and made my way through the delicate rock. Wet, muddy, jungly, digging into cracks for every single placement. Bird beak after bird beak after bird beak. Soaked. Everything on me dripping wet. Chinese water torture the entire way. Rain. Mud. Mayhem. And so were the next three pitches after that. Fortunately, I only took one more fall! Had I not brought a couple dozen beaks, this route would not have been possible.
So far I had lead five pitches of some of the most challenging aid climbing of my life. One of the pitches even got an A4 rating, though I pulled it down to A3+, I think the rain, mud, and being soaked completely added to the difficulty. Remember, EVERYTHING was soaked. The rock, the cracks, the gear, us, everything.
It took all of my mental and physical power to continue. These were some of the most difficult pitches to clean as well. Full nail up. Angie had a funkness device, the beaks and pins seemed to come out pretty easy, at least most of them. Good God, the mud, the sludge, the soakage, it started to wear on us, not just on the climb, everything at our high camp and in between. It had rained everyday and night off and on since we arrived on the island. A few of the nights the rain and wind attached so furiously I became concerned our tents were going to fail.
It was time for a summit push. We got an early start and all jugged up the fixed lines. The fifth pitched ended at a decent ledge above steep rock to the ground.
I had to traverse around a corner and head into vertical rock covered in vines and thick flora of many different kinds. It was 5.11 vine/rock climbing. I felt like a spider as I hoped that my limbs equalized on vines would somehow hold me and the vines would not rip from the wall or break. I was pretty sure I was going to whip again, and had to just keep going up. I was out of sight of the team. Finally, I made an anchor. Everyone came up, all saying it was pretty much the worse thing they had ever done. I headed up into the steep, uknown, jungle above me. Back to equalizing all my limbs on vines and strange flora hoping to not whip again. It took everything I had physically to continue up. I fed on the fuel of the team relying on me to find a way to the summit. An hour later, I had an anchor in a small, wet cave, water dripping through cracks in the ceiling. I was maybe 50 feet below the summit. I could not tell because of the overhang above the cave, I would have to find a way over. Rain. Mud. Everything soaked!
Angie arrived at the anchor. She was covered in mud and soaked. Her eyes spoke of terror or something not happy. As Andy and Keith jugged up behind her, I headed up over the cave and out of sight. It was close to dark, rain and wind started to attack as the sun disappeared. 20 minutes later I was on the summit, the wind and rain threatening to blow me off the top. I radioed down to the team, “Someone’s gotta come up and clean. Then lets get outta here. Its fucking mayhemish up here!”
Not for the first time, but maybe the most intense I had witnessed, Angie experienced what I had told her about on the phone way before leaving for this trip, that there would probably be times she wished she was not there, for real, with intense emotion. That moment for her at the last belay before the summit, I believe, was very real for her. But then Angie turned her psyche meter to ‘fucking-crush-it-level’ and next thing I knew she was on the summit with me in the wind and rain. She let out a loud howl of joy, and her award winning smile glowed in my headlamp beam. We put on the Year of the Ram masks and celebrated. This is a special bond, one that is only gained through the sisterhood/brotherhood of the rope, those that know this bond know something special, they know why we continue to find our way to summits together.
Everything was still soaked. We were all completely soaked. All the gear. Wet, muddy, did I mention wet? We rappelled the route, and finished up a 20-hour day.
We celebrated with KauKau back at our high camp. A few days later we found ourselves on a plane headed home. No, its not really suffering if it is hoped for, chosen, obsessed about and self-induced. Its better described as pre-joy, because then, its always some kind of joy, whether pre-joy or joy, its always some form of joy.
New Route on Poumaka (Tower).
Ua Pou, Marquesas Islands
‘Te Va Anui O Kau Kau’ aka ‘In Honor of Kaukau’
(5.11, A3+, JM [JungleMayhem] Gr. V, 1,500 ft. (4 jungle pitches to start 8 rock pitches on the tower) 3264 feet elevation.
Mike Libecki, Angie Payne, Keith Ladzinski, Andy Mann.
Feb. 10-March 3 (door to door) 2015.
Author: MHW athlete Mike Libecki