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Africa, Mali, Hand of Fatima, First Complete Link-up (In a Day)

Hand of Fatima, first complete link-up (in a day). From mid November to mid December, I had the extreme pleasure of being part of a North Face–sponsored expedition during which we explored the surreal sub-Saharan dream-world of Mali as we ventured towards the legendary five fingers of the Hand of Fatima. We landed in the apocalypticaly industrialized capital city of Bamako and left as quickly as possible via three Land Cruisers. Along for the ride were videographer Kevin Kau, sound man Andrew, and the legendary still photographer Jimmy Chin, with his assistant and rigger Evan Howe. Due to some last minute changes because of an injured partner, Kevin Thaw enthusiastically stood in and was to meet us in a week when we arrived at the Hand of Fatima.

Because there was no hurry to get to the Hand, we enjoyed a three-day detour into Dogon Country. The Dogons are amazing people who live in caves and mud-walled huts. The Dogon Country has the most impressive bouldering and cragging potential I have ever seen, on some of the highest quality quartzite boulders and walls on the planet. Above the Dogon habitations are walled-in caves from the Tellum Era. No one knows for sure how these people got to their caves hundreds of feet off the floor, but it is theorized that thousands of years ago there used to be thick jungle vegetation to climb. The Dogons are amazing wood carvers and craftsmen, and still practice their Animist (Voodoo) belief systems. Certainly the highlight of the trip was watching the people perform their mask dance, which includes some 20 men dressed in full regalia with beautifully constructed masks representing the different aspects of their culture. The mask representing their dwellings is nearly 20 feet tall, and some of the men dance on 10- foot stilts. Amazing.

We tore ourselves away from Dogon Country and headed further north to the Hand of Fatima. Along the way we saw the occasional Tuareg, a nomadic band of people who wear blue turbans, ride camels, and trade across the Sahara.

The largest face of the largest finger of the Hand of Fatima is 2,400 feet tall, and when Kevin Thaw arrived, we climbed the beautiful 5.10 regular route up the face as part of the film project. The Hand is home to thousands of birds of every shape and size, and Kevin and I theorized that the towers might actually be ancient petrified dung. After completing our film and photography obligations we were free to climb, and on a cool day for the Hand (about 90°F) we climbed and summited all five fingers via their shortest routes in about 11 hours, completing my vision of a desert push. On the final tower of the link-up hundreds of bats began to pour out of the crack we were climbing, and one of the 5.11 cruxes involved manteling a pile of bat dung with a bat carcass embedded in it. At one point a frantic bat slammed into my chest, nearly knocking me off my stance. While the climbing was amazing, by far the most enjoyable and memorable part of the journey was encountering all of the friendly, colorful people from a culture so vastly different from the Western with whom I live.

Statistics: This was the first time the five fingers of the Hand of Fatima have been climbed in one day. The link up involved about 30 pitches, or approximately 3,500 feet of technical climbing, plus much hateful hiking in the sticker-infested, chest-high, “Black Mamba Grass Fields.” The technical crux came on the final tower of the link-up Suri Tondo, which went at 5.11d and involved hand jamming and finger locking in a crack soaked with bird and bat urine, but the bat-dung mantle—complete with half decomposed bat carcass—was DEFINITELY the most memorable 5.11 moment. The first route of the link up was a new route first ascended two days earlier by Jimmy Chin and Evan Howe. This was the most logical and least dung-infested way up the beautiful and slender Kaga Pamari, and yielded three 60m pitches up to 5.10dR, i.e., big runouts on solid 5.10 face.

Cedar Wright, AAC