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Africa, Mali, The Hand of Fatima, Harmattan Rodeo

The Hand of Fatima, Harmattan Rodeo. For many years, my regular gang of climbing partners—Todd Skinner, Bobby Model, Andy deKlerk, Ed February, Scott Milton, Bill Hatcher and Peter Mallamo—and I were intrigued by photos we had seen in Spanish magazines of Le Main de Fatima (“The Hand of Fatima”), a lovely grouping of giant pinnacles resembling the hand of the prophet Mohammed’s favorite daughter that rises from a parched landscape of massive quartzite towers and walls in Mali. From mid-December to mid-January, 1997-’98, we found ourselves living below and on these beautiful towers. To ensure we were choosing the finest climbing objective, we spent two days hiking around many of the area rock formations. The team unanimously agreed upon the region’s most outstanding challenge: a new route up a severely overhanging outside comer of a 1,400-foot spire called Kaga Pamari, the little finger of Fatima’s hand.

Day after day was spent climbing a little higher. Each night, we would rappel fixed ropes to try to converse with local tribesmen visiting our Base Camp. Sobered by the need to redpoint numerous formidable pitches in a limited time, we held council while dangling from anchors halfway up the spire. Scott, Todd and I thought we might have bitten off more than we could chew, but the quartzite-wise South Africans, Ed and Andy, just smiled. Taking South African confidence as counsel, we decided to risk glorious failure trying to accomplish a resplendent goal rather than settle for success on a lesser objective. We continued to work our way up the spire and our quartzite savvy strengthened. After ten days, we began our final push, a free climb from bottom to top.

Ed led the first pitch. Climbing all day, we arrived beneath a giant roof 750 feet above the base. We suspended our portaledge camp under this roof, which conspired with a weather front and the natural venturi effect caused by the chimney between the two towers to nearly blow us off the planet. The Harmattan is a winter wind which, like the broom of Allah, sweeps southward from Algeria across the Sahara. While sculpting dunes, it chokes the air with a settling rouge. All night long, the Harmattan tattered us like torn sails. Our two-man ledges were repeatedly lifted and dropped, while suspended haulbags, heavy with water, were blown upward and dropped, smashing against us as we lay. In the morning, almost all of the maillon screw links securing the webbing to the portaledges had come unscrewed. When Ed’s ashen face gazed out of his sleeping bag, he said, “Last night was absolutely bloody amazing… a Harmattan Rodeo!” He had just named our route.

The day’s climbing progressed well. Toward evening, Scott danced up another crux pitch that ended on a boulder-strewn, guano-cushioned ledge on the lee side—a perfect wind-shadowed bivouac. Two days prior, Andy had punched a pencil-lead-sized hole in his shin. On the big ledge, his leg began to swell and throb. The next morning, he had chills and a titanic headache. A surly red streak took a poisoned path from his calf into his groin, but Andy insisted he was fit and keen to go higher.

The final two leads moved back onto the windy side of the tower. We climbed onto a windless summit, a dramatic and tiny island floating in an atmospheric sea of ocher dust. Feeling worse, Andy started down immediately, beginning the 1,400-foot rappel and the long slide down talus to Base Camp. Soon after, the rest of us began stripping the route of ropes and equipment. Then Peter, who was in the talus field, called us on the radio. While descending the talus, Andy passed out numerous times and Peter had carried him to camp. Andy was now unconscious.

We hired a Land Rover for the 1,000-mile, 20-hour drive to the nearest medical help in Mali’s capital city, Bamako. Once in Bamako, Andy was treated at a French hospital with a massive regimen of antibiotic injections. His shin had developed a staph infection, causing phlebitis. The doctors told us that another day’s delay would have cost Andy his leg and perhaps even his life.

While Ed and Andy recuperated in Bamako, we spent several days bouldering on Hueco Tanks-quality quartzite boulders in the Dogon country. There, we visited with a Dogon elder who told us to “climb with care; with the serene spirit of birds; and with an appreciation of the fellowship that climbing strengthens.” The old man solemnly tapped his heart and said: “Understanding and brotherhood among all people is important above all other things.”

Later, as we prepared to fly home, we reminisced about our magnificent new climb. Andy and Ed proclaimed our 14-pitch route one of the finest and most difficult quartzite climbs in the world. We had been lucky to visit the African Sahel (the drought-beset region below the Sahara that includes Mali, Chad, Niger, Senegal, et al.; the exact line of Sahel/Sahara is constantly moving south) and to live for a time among the unique cultures of the region. We were going home safely and as stronger friends. We vowed always to climb with the serene spirit of birds.

Paul Piana, unaffiliated