In November, 2011 The Lost Mountain Reconnaissance team was able to complete a successful expedition to Mt Namuli. Our blog contains our from-the-field reports of this expedition including: stories, video sketches, and photos. Please scroll below for all of the entries.
The 2011 Lost Mountain Reconnaissance Expedition was fully supported by Osprey Packs, The Petzl Foundation, and Outdoor Research. We are grateful for the support of the outdoor industry for helping launch The Lost Mountain.
A month ago we left Mozambique and Malawi. Less than a year from now we will be back. How much time does it take to gain perspective? Our goal for this initial trip was simple: to learn if an expedition pairing science, climbing, adventure, and conservation would be possible on Mozambique’s Mt. Namuli. Here is what we found:
Mt. Namuli is an extraordinary mountain of rock in northern Mozambique I’d been looking at for over a year from afar, and this November finally got to see up close. My expectations were realistically low. My hope was unrealistically high. What transpired had nothing to do with either emotion. What transpired had everything to do with the unique combination of granite, climbable grass, a strong partner, a scientist, a gecko, and a queen. Are these the necessary ingredients for adventure? Maybe in this case, yes.
Two months ago, before I’d been to Mozambique, if you’d asked me if I were going on a climbing expedition in Mozambique I would have told you I was going on an expedition that involved climbing… and science, and culture, and conservation. What I would not have told you was that the climbing part was the glue. I would not have wanted to admit this. Fast forward to standing beneath Namuli’s 2,000-foot southeast face. Sarah and I had promised each other that the climbing was not important in the grand scheme of it all. We were there on a recon mission: our goal was exploration, pure and simple. But then, in the visual space it took to see the towering, sloping rock, the singular passion driving us forward was undeniable. We were there to climb.
Exploring the cliff-side habitat of Mt. Namuli, Mozambique. Photo courtesy of the Lost Mountain Film team.
I went first. I won the rock-paper-scissors to do so. I shoved myself into the only crack we could find on the whole face, the one with a tree ten feet up, and proceeded to spend sixty-three minutes fighting branches that turned to powder from the dryness, wrestling soot-covered limbs left over from out-of-control crop fires, avoiding torso-sized loose granite spears, and wallowing in dirt, dirt, and more dirt.
Climbing—whether you are watching it or doing it—often seems to happen in slow motion. It was even slower for me that day. I had enough time to think about every one of my decisions that led to this point. I thought of the people living in the surrounding villages and what we’d tried to tell them about our plan. To climb or hike on Mt. Namuli you need permission from the local queen. We’d visited the queen two days before and she’d blessed our journey. Was this the blessing?, I wondered, as I fought to keep myself on the face. Then again, we hadn’t told the queen we needed a blessing for vertical grass, and she likely didn’t know that was what we’d be relying upon for our ascent. Namuli makes her own weather. On 360 degrees of her flanks people live and farm and watch the mountain hourly for a signal of what was to come. What we were doing was no different, really. I tried to tell myself the queen and I were in it together. That worked… until it didn’t anymore.
I went up until I could no longer fight the growing feeling that this was not possible, not worth it, not going to happen. And then I went down.
Majka climbing through the first crux: a tree. Photo by P. Yoo
Non-climbers ask me all the time if I climb by myself, without ropes, without a safety system, without anything connecting me to the rock or ice. I usually explain to them that I’m afraid of bees and want a rope to catch me if I get stung. But in November, when I returned to the ground after doing vertical battle on Namuli and handed the gear to Sarah under our newly earned arc of shade from a 95-degree day, I realized that the real reason I don’t solo is that I need another attachment to the rock: my partner.
Sarah took a different approach to the face. She delicately moved across clumps of grass attached only to micro-pores in the unseen granite. She avoided the tree and the crack at the bottom, and earned a new crack, new tree, and more soot up top. She moved through the place I stopped, and she kept moving. And just like that, we, as a team, were climbing. Of course, it wasn’t just like that, really. Sarah’s lead took over an hour, and my next one would as well. It was not pretty. It was battle. But there were moments of finesse, and moreover, the moment of satisfaction—shared—that what we were doing was possible. It was happening.
On every expedition, at least for me, there comes a point when I ask myself, What in the world am I doing here? In a way, I’ve come to love that moment. It’s the signal that things are happening, that wheels are in motion, for better or worse. In Mozambique, the moment arrived within the first 48 hours of the trip.
Sarah hiking... before it got dark.
It was dark, I was jet-lagged, and I was struggling to keep our team of porters, guides, translators, climbers, and scientists—14 of us in all—at least reasonably together along a discontinuous trail. We’d reached a river crossing and the porters had stopped, waiting for someone to make the first move. To literally test the waters and find out how deep, and how swift. It took about a split second to realize it was going to be up to me to scout the river. Majka was ten minutes behind with Paul, our filmmaker, and the two scientists. So I grabbed Cotxane, our translator, as my spotter and I stepped into the river’s current: shoes, pants, backpack, and all. Cotxane and I were halfway across, the water swirling around the tops of our thighs, our headlamps providing zero visibility for what might be obstructing the bottom or lurking along the banks, and—wham!—the moment: What the #*!% am I doing in the middle of a river, at night, in Mozambique?
If you’re lucky, there comes a counterpoint to that moment: the stage at which the various pieces and players align, when the expedition hits a perfect sweet spot and you find yourself thinking, Yes…this is why we do what we do. Sometimes it’s an obvious climax, like the summit of a peak or the first cold beer after many days in the field. In Mozambique, we were blessed with many of these moments: the night we hunted chameleons in the rainforest, stalking the little alien-like reptiles for our scientists to observe and record; and the evening of the moonrise, when the moon glowed a shocking red through the smoke of crop fires from the mountain’s surrounding villages. But one of the best was the moment we spotted the gecko.
We’d put this whole journey together on a biologist’s hypothesis that the granite cliff face of Mt. Namuli was the perfect habitat for a certain gecko, and given Namuli’s isolation, if we found this gecko, it’d likely be a new species. Majka and I had spent hours scouting the face, establishing a fixed rope along the most probable habitat: a four-hundred-foot arcing corner system choked with grass, bushes, and dirt. The problem was, we didn’t see signs of any critters. No bugs, no creepy-crawlies, no gecko.
Werner on the gecko hunt. Photo by P. Yoo
I was at the base of the wall with Werner, the South African biologist on the expedition, and I was teaching him how to ascend a fixed line. I felt like I was just going through the motions. We’d hauled all this equipment halfway around the world and battled sketchy vertical vegetation to establish the safety systems, we might as well get Werner up there like we set out to do. Just as I clipped Werner’s top jumar onto the line, his eyes caught a flash of motion near the base of the corner system—his powers of observation clearly more attuned than ours. He said he knew it was the gecko in an instant, the flick of its movement gave it away. In a frenzy we unclipped and detangled him from the rope so he could try to catch the specimen as it scurried toward the tree Majka’d grappled with during our ascent. And then, like the story had been scripted from the beginning, the dark-bodied reptile sprinted up the smooth granite face out of sight. Werner turned back to me, his eyes wild, yelling Get me on that rope!
Successful exploration of southeast face of Mt. Namuli, Mozambique’s second-highest mountain (7,936 ft) and surrounding rainforest
Climbed ~650 ft of granite slab and corner systems, accessing previously unexplored cliff-face habitat
Expedition resulted in the discovery of at least three candidate new species, awaiting confirmation: a frog, a skink, and a gecko
Identified numerous important species of reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants
Anticipated results, beyond the description of new life, include new biogeographical links among the northern Mozambican and southern Malawian inselbergs, and extended ranges for East African species
MB: I say goodbye to Ethiopia (intentionally), and to my new ultralight Thermarest (unintentionally). My first-ever spotting of the Congo appears initially out of a plane window, and soon through a propped-open plane door during a re-supply. Malawi and Mozambique bound.
SG: It’s 5:30 a.m. at Boston’s Logan Airport. I have a bad reaction to my anti-malaria meds and vomit into a trashcan at the airline check-in desk. I can feel the stares of the hundred or so early morning passengers in line behind me. Please let this not be a sign for what’s to come.
Werner and Frog. Photo by Majka Burhardt
MB: We hike the wide side of a long arcing bend in the trail to see Mt. Namuli on its other side. I requisition a flask of whiskey from an already drunk porter. Herpetologist Werner Conradie confirms the presence of crocodiles in the Malema River while we are hip deep, midstream.
SG: It’s dark. We’ve been hiking for 6 hours already and there’s nowhere to stop until we get to the Queen’s hut at the base of the mountain. Our guide Cotxane (pronounced co-chan-ee) says it’s only 30 more minutes, but I don’t believe him. We are a group of thirteen—climbers, scientists, guides, and porters—hiking single-file through the bush, illuminated by the narrow light of four headlamps. I can’t help but think about lions and spitting cobras, the former apparently hunted out from this area, the latter we’ve already seen, but with any luck not active at night?
Porters on the flanks of Mt Namuli. Photo by Majka Burhardt
SG: My skin, thinned by the malarial meds (the bane of my existence), feels like fire under the equatorial sun. I hike behind a young woman named Katarine who we’ve hired, with a few other locals, to help carry our equipment from the Queen’s village up to a grassy plain near the base of the mountain’s southeast wall. She is slender and strong, balancing the 40-pound duffel seemingly without effort on her head as she hikes barefoot along the dusty red path.
Majka mid-pitch 1. Photo by Sarah Garlick
DAY 7 (See Video Above)
MB: Today I finally meet Namuli’s granite face, face-to-face. It turns out that a 50-degree granite slab is the threshold for reasonable “hiking.” 53-degrees means we start climbing. I watch Sarah levitate up vertical grass. We swing leads leads. The high point of my lead? Feeling like I was one with the vertical grass. Low point? Slinging clump of said grass for protection. Gave up any semblance of cleanliness under my fingernails.
SG: Paul has dubbed this our “Chia Mountain” and it’s an apt description. Who knew grass could grow on vertical rock? But it’s surprisingly solid to climb. Meter by meter, move by move, I make my way up the first pitch. It feels good to open this face, despite the absurdity of the vegetated terrain. A difficult move around a non-solid bush gets me into a squeeze chimney. I realize the black coating on the rock is not dirt here, but soot, which instantly coats my face, my arms, everything. I keep going until I run low on gear, then build an anchor. The thought of wildfire reaching this high up Namuli’s rock face occupies the back of my mind.
MB: Watched from 100-feet up the face as Werner, Sarah, and Paul celebrate spotting a gecko running up the granite face. I convince Werner to trust a rope and let go. We eat dinner as a blood moon—dark orange from the smoke from dozens of burning fields—rises over Namuli’s eastern hills.
SG: I am so dirty. I’ve tried to wash the soot and dirt away down at the river in the rainforest, but I can’t seem to get clean. My fingernails are rimmed with black grime and I’ve seen Majka’s sidelong glances. How does she stay so clean? Will she ever want to travel with me again?
Majka and Sarah. Photo by Werner Conradie
MB: I don my gaiters at dawn. Eight hours later I learn that one of the most deadly snakes in the world is as skinny as my thumb. Today we leave Namuli; memories full of what we need to know to come back in 2012.
When non-climbers ask why I climb, I often give them what I think of as my Zen answer, essentially that climbing is way to experience perfect alignment of body, mind, and nature. It sounds totally flakey, I know. But it’s also true.
But another truth about why I climb has less to do with actual climbing and more to do with adventure. For me, climbing is a tool—a mechanism—for exploring the wild corners of the planet. Last year it brought me to an unpronounceable island on the southern tip of Greenland. We only climbed four days in four weeks, but we still managed to establish a new free route on a beautiful wall. Now I’m heading out once again to Boston’s Logan Airport with a van full of enormous expedition duffels. Next stop: Mozambique.
Chameleons! These guys live in the rainforest along Mt. Namuli’s base. Credit: Branch and Tolley, 2010
My friend Majka Burhardt and I are setting out on a reconnaissance expedition to Mount Namuli, a 900-meter granite dome in the wildlands of northern Mozambique. Joining us is our friend Paul Yoo, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles, and Werner Conradie, a biologist from South Africa. Our mission is twofold: to scout the wall for climbing potential and to help
This is exactly why all my other climbing expeditions have been in the alpine. But at least we have our very own snake scientist on this trip! Credit: Branch and Bayliss, 2009
scientists survey the cracks and recesses of Namuli’s massive granite face for new species of life.
The months of research and planning are over. Now it’s time to put the wheels in motion and see where this adventure leads. Will we find the new species of Forest Viper that is believed to be lurking in the rainforest along Namuli’s base? If we do, I sure hope it’s on Werner’s watch and not mine. Will we find a free-climbable route up the steep expanse of granite? Here’s hoping…
Tomorrow I head to Mozambique. Actually, that is a lie. Tomorrow I fly from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia via the Congo to Lilongwe Malawi and then to Blantyre Malawi. It’s Tuesday I head overland in Mozambique itself. I’m ready.
Mozambique. We're going to Zambezia-- in the middle
Over two years ago I came across photos of granite faces in Mozambique. I had no idea that those photos would lead me to today, November 6th 2011, packing for one of them in room 108 in the Jupiter Hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It is fitting that Ethiopia—the place that has given me so much unexpected adventure and even more of life from adventure—is my staging ground for this next journey.
I’m lucky on this trip to be joined by Sarah Garlick and Paul Yoo. Sarah and I have been climbing partners and friends for years but this will be our first big trip together. Paul is a filmmaker base in LA and this is the first project for the three of us as a team. We really have no idea what we’re in for. None of us would want it differently. We have the basics—an unclimbed granite face, a landscape in Mozambique that is a hotbed of biodiversity, a group of local stakeholders who care about that landscape and need it to live off of to survive and flourish. And we have the intent to find all that we can in ourselves and in the journey.
Photo of Mt Namuli Courtesy of Renata Jagustovic
When I was a kid what I wanted most was to be an adventurer. I have just spent the past two weeks in Ethiopia leading a trip with imagine1day where we have been in and out of communities with new schools and schools about to be built. These kids here are no different. Adventure crosses cultural boarders. The anticipation of the unknown is part of it, but I think that adventure also gives us a chance to be our full selves with all of our great traits and flaws jumbled together on one path. That collage of self is intoxicating. It’s further more so when it’s an “additive adventure” — when that adventure goes beyond exploration to cultural and environmental connections that create a larger conversation of singular and collective human meaning. At eight I just wanted to go be outside and explore. Now, at 35, I want to be outside and explore and have it matter. And it is not just want anymore because I know it does matter.
I have to finish packing (see the video). I have to get all of my gear into two 50-lb bags and practice my wink to get the rest of it through the airline weight check. I have a team to meet in Malawi and a ride to catch to Mozambique. I have the unknown to find.