São Tomé big wall climb

15 June, 2016
Pico Cão Grande on São Tomé © Matthew Parent / Adidas Outdoor

Gareth 'Gaz' Leah and Mexican big wall veteran Sergio 'Tiny' Almada have recently returned from a big wall adventure on the remote African island of São Tomé and Príncipe.

You may well ask: "Where on earth is that?" We did, and after Googling it when Gaz approached us about supporting the trip, we learnt it's Africa's second smallest country (by area), lying off the coast of Gabon, close to the equator.

The pair spent four weeks there establishing a new route on the remarkable pillar, Pico Cão Grande, that rises out of the island's rainforest. We asked Gaz Leah a few questions about the trip and there's a route description at the foot of the page.

So how did it go?

The expedition was amazing. We established a new 15 pitch 455 metre line, we called Nubivagant, up the Cão Grande which goes at F8b (5.13d). I did climb every pitch but due to time constraints I wasn't able to climb every pitch clean. The 14 hour shifts climbing every day for four weeks completely drained us and we only had one attempt on each pitch to make it happen before we had to leave the island.

Describe Pico Cão Grande for us?

It's a dark tower of volcanic rock, mostly shrouded in clouds, that dominates the unearthly landscape below. Formed millennia ago when high pressure magma solidified inside the vent of an active volcano, its presence is foreboding. The peak itself had been summited just once before, in 1972, via ferrata style using a ladder and grappling hooks. Our goal was to try and establish a free route up this incredible peak.

Climbing on Pico Cão Grande, São Tomé © Matthew Parent / Adidas Outdoor

What was it like arriving on this far flung outpost in the Gulf of Guinea?

Arriving on the island was a cultural eye opener. We were greeted by stray dogs running wild through the busy streets and a seven person family riding a single 125cc motorbike like a balancing act in a circus performance. Navigating the narrow roads that wound south from the capital we arrived at an Agri palm oil plantation, the closest point we could reach before being forced to continue on foot through the jungle.

A three kilometre hike through thick jungle and we emerged at the base of the wall to discover a huge roof that jutted out some 30 metres. There was no information on the peak's rock formation prior to arrival and standing at the base we gained a very real sense of the task at hand.

How did you go about establishing the route?

To begin with we shuttled all our gear through the thickest jungle any of us have ever seen and established a camp below the wall. Then we spent two weeks cleaning and bolting to get to the summit. The peak was way bigger than we expected as we used well over 400 metres of rope. Then we had to start trying to free climb the route with the pressure of a rapidly approaching departure date.

How did you find out about São Tomé?

I found the peak funnily enough by Googling 'Tower of Mordor' one day while searching for my next wall. I had never heard of São Tomé before, though it is an independent country. Prior to the expedition, I'd spent a year planning (mainly dreaming) of the day I would be able to visit this island whose landscapes resembled a scene from a Jurassic Park movie.

It was a project I knew was ambitious on so many levels. Everything had to be carefully planned and arranged as the island offers almost nothing in the way of purchasable goods or medical help. If something was to go wrong, we would be on our own.

Vertical life on Pico Cão Grande, São Tomé  © Matthew Parent / Adidas Outdoor

You wrote on Instagram that: "If something can go wrong here, it will and problem solving is the name of the game." What happened?

A lot! Reaching the summit was wrought with difficulties that threatened to end the project from the start, many of them not climbing related. Luggage problems, blown battery chargers, generator issues, snake bites, tropical thunder storms, jungle logistics, currency exchange, sickness and stuck vehicles all looked they would stop us in achieving our goal. However, with each new obstacle that stood in our path, we would find a solution, though non were what you would describe as 'traditional'.

Where does the route name Nubivagant come from? The name comes from Latin Nubes' (clouds) and Vagant (to wander) hence, Nubivagant. The name is also correct in Portuguese, the language of the island and English, though it's rarely used

In retrospect how do you now feel about the trip?

Having had time to reflect upon the island, the peak and the people we have encountered along the way, I am thankful in all that I have gained from the trip, which amounts to a lot more than just a new route. It's also about new friends, skills and an understanding of a life where the people are masters of their environment.

Nubivagant (Wandering in the Clouds) 455m, 5.13d/A0 (F8b)

1. 9 bolts, 20m 5.12b (F7b) - Slab to a roof with thin edges. Pumpy. 2. 10 bolts, 15m 5.13d (F8b)/A0 - Steep corner with two dynos off the belay (V8) to steady 5.13b (8a) with no rests. 3. 11 bolts, 25m 5.13c (F8a+)/A0 - Wet corner with barely any holds and run outs. 4. 12 bolts, 30m 5.13b (F8a)/A0 - Dyno off the belay; pull the roof to a difficult iron cross move that gains ledge. Move across the ledge to a desperate move into the dihedral where the climbing eases up. Tends to be green and wet. 5. 8 bolts, 15m 5.10b(F6a+) - Take the blocky face to the slab. 6. 9 bolts, 35m 5.6 (F4c) - A long scramble pitch with some vertical climbing at the mid-point. Run out. 7. 10 bolts, 35m 5.9 (F5) - Another scramble with a tricky exit onto the ledge. 8. 9 bolts, 25m 5.10c (F6b) - Hard start up steep rock to easy finish. 9. 8 bolts, 20m 5.9 (F5) - Traverse the foot ledge with good hands to a tricky exit. 10. 9 bolts, 35m 5.10c (F6b) - Hand jam the blocks to a ledge. Walk across and climb the technical face to the chains in the overhanging roof. 11. 13 bolts, 35m 5.11d (F7a) - Traverse right and up the gully to a hard finish on the ledge. 12. 11 bolts, 35m 5.12a (F7a+) - Traverse right past a loose flake to a overhanging wall and fire up to the gully. 13. 8 bolts, 30m 5.10c (F6b) - Scramble the corner to a ledge (unprotected) and cross the ledge to a loose wall above. 14. 9 bolts, 30m 5.11d (F7a) - Epic finish up the leaning arete with the chains being the crux. 15. 1 bolt, 70m 5.6(F4c)/Class IV - Mount the rock and mantle into the jungle above. Bushwhack to the summit.

Gaz Leah on the crux second pitch of Nubivagant. © Matthew Parent / Adidas Outdoor