Andre Hedger has been off on his adventures again.
This time heading to Madagascar for some big wall action.
Andre is no stranger to epic routes – he sent The Nose a few years ago, to add another tick to his impressive logbook. But Madagascar was different, as it was the first proper adventure since a misdemeanour in Spain resulting in a snapped fibula in three places, an emergency rescue from the crag and major surgery including metalwork.
Fast forward seven months, and Andre was back on the seemingly impossible. Pitch after pitch of smooth granite, sketchy bolt placements, exposed conditions. It’s enough to make even the grizzled, seasoned climber take half a step back and quietly gulp in trepidation.
That feeling of walking up to a big wall can’t be replicated. From the first glimpse of endless rock, climbing upwards to the heavens to getting closer and realising the full magnitude of the task ahead. Awe-inspiring and intimidating in equal measure, it is the stuff of dreams to anyone who climbs.
From the early days of big wall climbing, of weeks and weeks on the rock, being battered by wind and snow and storms through to rope solos and speed ascents, it doesn’t get any less magical to anyone who approaches a big wall with the intention of pulling on their boots and stepping on.
Madagascar had been in the calendar for some time. The climbing there isn’t as well-known as some, only becoming popular in the 1990’s but that removes some of the issues associated with big walls such as overcrowding and litter. The grand prize was at Tsaranoro, a route called ‘Out of Africa’. Fourteen pitches of sustained F6b+ climbing with two crux F7a run outs, a full day’s worth of grind, and a team of four. Like the start of all good jokes, an Englishman, an American, and Argentinian and an Irishman set off from camp at 4am…
That proved to be the easy bit. A few kilometres hike from base camp, with a steady incline and a few stumbles, the weary-eyed foursome made it to the rock and got their gear ready, smiles and back pats in abundance, anticipation building.
Getting to the rock before dawn broke, they took it in turns as the sun started to glint on the horizon, with Andre taking the lead of many early pitches. The rock itself was slabby and technical to start, with 95% of the emphasis on footwork. Which sounds fun until you remember Andre’s severe – and barely healed - leg injury. He might have taken rehab very seriously, working until the wee hours in his garage gym, but time is the great healer and time wasn’t something he was willing to expend. The trip had been in the pipework for two years and wasn’t being derailed by the small matter of a shattered bone.
On the wall itself, the four men worked well together. Andre had the most big wall experience, and led the majority of the route, managing to compartmentalise the pain in his leg and compensate by pulling harder than he should. Using a hanging Black Diamond chair to belay, he alleviated the strain on his leg as much as possible. Fortunately spirits were high, he was in exposed conditions which for Andre, qualifies as his comfort zone, with two good friends and one stranger who had been adopted into the gang as is the way with climbers.
The Argentinian and the Irishman were Alpine specialists so they had grit and determination in abundance and could tough out most things. But there is courage, and there is ability and the two sometimes cross over but not always. Leading the 10th pitch, the crux which happened to have a tasty 15m run out to boot, one ended up down climbing. He accepted the risk of a whipper which would likely break both ankles was too high, leaving Andre as the big wall specialist to take his turn again.
Having suffered through 30 Degree heat, with the sun burning the backs of their necks and sun cream a double-edged sword - applying it risked greasing up crucial skin on their finger tips - the foursome eventually topped out at around 8pm.
Mission accomplished, as the sun set and the dusk set in, there was no time for much chat as the weary comrades had to abseil down into the jungle below and start the walk back to camp. Unfortunately, with hindsight a brilliant tormentor, it turned out there were two rappelling rings set up on the summit. Not knowing this, Andre set up and abseiling off the first ring they came to, despite it having obviously seen better days. An easy mistake to make in the dark, when the highs and lows of the day have taken their toll and autopilot has kicked in…
They realised their mistake when they set foot on solid ground at 9pm. On the wrong side of the mountain. Too late to do anything about it, the four set off, head torches emitting just enough light to make the scramble down towards the valley floor achievable. Andre’s leg had clearly been in a better state, and he was at the rear, limping heavily, with barely concealed groans when he missed a step. And so they continued, having long since run out of water and food, only the promise of camp and a bed keeping them putting one foot in front of the other.
Wildlife wasn’t an issue, with this particular area barren of life bar the incessant insects that crawled up exposed legs, biting and scratching. After five hours of trudging, the final flickering beam from the lead head torch went out. With a few hours to go until dawn, the four climbers huddled together. One had fortunately bought an emergency foil blanket, given to the American who hadn’t been on one of Andre’s ‘adventures’ before and thus wasn’t quite as sanguine at the prospect of a night out under the stars as the others.
The temperature had dropped from the scorching 30 Degrees down to around 5 Degrees and muscles were soon involuntarily shivering as the men tried to hunker down as best they could in the rocky valley. Dehydrated, having gone without food for eight hours at this point and having expended all available energy, the night was about survival. When the first glimmer of dawn showed on the horizon, the climbers staggered back to their feet, groaning and trying to uncurl stiff joints and massage some warmth back into tired muscles.
Andre was suffering more than most, his ankle and calf heavily swollen and sharp pain his companion every time he weighted the broken leg. Nonetheless, there was nothing to be done than continue the hike back to camp. Within an hour they had made it back to the forest that smothered the base of the mountain, and finally had some relief from the exposed chill of dawn. The ensuing walk back was quiet, each man lost in his own thoughts. Another hour passed and camp was sighted across the plane, which made the final kilometre that bit easier to stagger.
Into camp at last, over 24 hours after they set off for a day’s adventure, and the four were greeted with cries of surprise, questions fired their way and everyone talking over each over in excitement at hearing the gory tale. All the questions were parried away with a waved hand and a weary word, as water was downed first, followed by energy bars and then the obligatory cold beers. They were back, and they had survived.
The best big wall experience of Andre’s life? Nowhere near. But he has called it unforgettable, character building and given the circumstances, the big wall he is most proud of. Injuries are an inevitable part of an athlete’s life, but to have the mental resilience to push through, to continue the chase of goals and to adapt accordingly is certainly every bit as impressive as the send itself.