Text and pictures © 2008-2020 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it." — George Kimble.
Left: A ring-tailed lemur in Tsaranoro. In the early morning many lemurs scale up the walls to catch the first rays of sunshine.
Right: A zebu skull before Tsaranoro.
After a first half of the trip spent climbing limestone crags in the area of Antsiranana, we head back to Antananarivo and then suffer for a day and a half shaken around in a taxi-brousse to reach the valley of the Tsaranoro. We've made our reservation at a camp found on the internet, but there's a certain amount of confusion:
Above: The Tsaranoro range early in the morning as seen from Camp Tsarasoa.
Left: Jenny on the lower slabby half of Alien (6b).
Right: The steeper upper half of Alien.
So after trying to figure out which camp we actually made a reservation for, we end up at Camp Tsarasoa. The scenery is breathtaking, the staff very nice, but we are feeling rather lonely. We brought our own food and stove to avoid being dependent on the expensive (but excellent) restaurant of Camp Catta, but it would have been cheaper and more convenient to eat at Meva Camp of Camp Tsarasoa. While in the camps we stay in tents but the comfort vary... If you want to sleep late in the morning on your rest day, make sure there's a roof or a solid tree on your east. Remember, Africa is hot, doh!
Left: Jenny on Alien.
Right: Jenny on Alien with the Lemur wall in the back.
So after our first night we head out to climb the easiest route around, Alien II, on the 'school wall'. But with fragmentary information on the approach it takes us two hours to reach the base in scorching heat. We decide that from now on we'll do the approaches before the sun rises. There's already a party of 3 higher up on the route and they are the first climbers we meet. They'll be the only one, apparently all the others we here during the colder months before now.
Left: The Karambony pillar, home of extreme routes, and the school wall on the upper right.
Right: Karambony at night with the lights of Camp Catta.
The rock is the polar opposite of what we found at Nosy Hara: instead of sharp tsingy and overhanging carved limestone, it's all slabby granite with great friction and very few holds. But the end result is the same: it sears the skin off your hands (note, as I write this 3 weeks later, I still have sensitive pink patches on my fingertips).
Left: Tsaranoro seen from its base.
Right: Early morning mist on the Chameleon.
Second day, we head to the other end of the range to the granite dome of Vatovarindry but we don't take the shortest approach: Noah, the guy in charge of the camp, reaches the base soon after us, having started a good hour after us. He's come to pick up some gear that they left while opening new routes.
Left: Looking at Mitsinjoarivo which we confused for Vatovarindry. Are you with me here ?
Right: The profile of Vatovarindry. Not very steep but slabby enough to keep you on your toes.
Left: On the slabs of 'La croix du sud' on Vatovarindry.
Right: Upper part of Vatovarindry.
Left: Jenny next to a black water streak on 'La croix du sud'.
The view from Vatovarindry is quite different from what you see from the other towers as it opens up to the valley behind which looks even more desolate.
Above: Dawn on the Dondy range.
Left: Vatovarindry, the farthest to the left.
Right: Early morning on Mitsinjoarivo.
Above: Very high resolution panorama of the Tsaranoro range. This image is about 150 megapixels, 30 times your run-of-the-mill camera ! From left to right: an unnamed (and unclimbed by us) face, Mitsinjoarivo (La croix du sud...), Vatovarindry (only hard stuff there), Tsaranoro (Out of Africa), Karambony (Cas nullard or lots of hard stuff) and Lemur wall (Pectorine...).
Left: The incredible yellow pillar of Karambony. No easy climb up there.
Right: Kids walking to school under the Tsaranoro.
3rd day and we already need a rest, mostly to let the skin regrow. I start at 3:30 in the morning for the summit of the Chameleon, just above Camp Tsarasoa. All my camera gear is ready for a hyper-resolution shot of the entire range when the sun rises at 5:30. Later I head back down to the valley where all the school kids are gathering in clumps before they head for school.
Above: A few village huts under the Tsaranoro.
Left: Noah showing us Pectorine, a local classic.
Right: Jenny and Noah on the slabs of Pectorine.
One thing we've learned on those east faces is that no matter how early you start, 10 minutes after the sun rises you are already too hot, so for our next climb we hook up with Noah at the camp at 11 and reach the base of the wall at 12-something, just as it gets into the shade. The pictures won't be as good, but we won't use an entire tube of sun screen and 3 liters of water per capita either. Noah is the guy in charge of Camp Tsarasoa, and also of a lot of other things like reforestation. He tells us about the reforestation celebration coming soon, with various events held by and for the villagers, including a marathon, a zebu race, a climbing competition...
Left: Noah and Jenny on the last move of Pectorine.
A couple days before he told us about his desire to climb Pectorine. His experience is rather limited: he's helped open a few routes and he's climbed Alien. That's about all. At the base of the route he struggles for a few minutes on the aid section, but after that he cruises up even the 6b pitches onsight. The problem with starting late in order to climb in the shade is that you must make sure to top out before the sudden arrival of darkness. In that case we make good time and are back to the camp well in time for beer.
Right: Summit of Karambony, with the much higher Tsaranoro in the back.
The Lemur wall has a host of 'easy' route. The average level of climbing on the Tsaranoro is indeed incredible. Most of the routes have grade 7 obligatory. There's only about 10 routes where the obligatory level is in the 6th grade and most are situated on the Lemur wall. Back at the camp we read the guidebook containing the original description of all the routes, including such crazy gems as 'Tough Enough', 8c+, 8a obligatory ! To which some helpful subsequent climbers have amended the grades by removing the '+' off the 8c but adding that they didn't manage to free the whole route because their fingers were just worn off by the incredibly abrasive rock.
Left: Smoke from a forest fire behind the Dondy. It burned for 3 days, worrying us that it might change valley.
Right: Jenny on Tsarakonga, next to Pectorine and a notch harder and more sustained, but mostly very well protected.
Left: Amédée bouldering next to Camp Catta.
So after the lovely Pectorine, we embark on the route next to it, the newish Tsaraconga with even better climbing (more sustained and straightforward). Next day is supposed to be a rest day before our big day, but Amédée nags us till we go bouldering with him. He's a hiking guide but really takes any occasion to go climbing with whatever ruined equipment he's managed to find, which means he's only available to climb after his day of work !
Left: First slabby pitch of Out of Africa, the easiest route up the main face of Tsaranoro.
The good thing about the rock here is that Jenny manages to do a lot more climbing than her broken arm had let her to expect. She can do most everything on her feet only, and if need be I can hold her tight without her having to strain the damaged join. So after all we can head for the one route she'd planned to do from the onset of the trip: the 14-pitch long 'Out of Africa' right on the main cliff.
Right: The sun hitting the upper part of 'Out of Africa' while I'm just getting warmed up on the first pitch. Let's hope we won't get cooked on those 14 pitches.
Unlike the last two days, doing an afternoon climb in the shade won't cut it: we need to be at the base before dawn if we want to digest all 14 pitches in a day. While wandering in the gully near the base before dawn, I see a small dark lake with a tyrolean traverse just 2 meters above it... and looking down in the black water there's a white snake slithering ! Well, I don't think we'll be going this way. And indeed the start of the route is a bit farther down and to the left on a 45° slab. It's only given as grade 5, but already you can feel the distance between the bolts while you struggle to tell the difference between one invisible friction hold and another one.
Left: A less steep but not necessarily easier section of 'Out of Africa', with the northern part of the Karambony in full view (the easy route 'Cas Nullard' runs there).
Right: Delicate end of pitch on tiny crystals up 'Out of Africa'.
One very strange thing about the cliff is that the perspective is skewed: from the base you can see the first two belays and the 2nd one really does look halfway up, and since what we see just above is clearly the summit, we wonder where the rest of the route has gone. This perspective changes quickly if you step away even only one hundred meters: suddenly the upper part expands into an endless series of slabs.
Left: Runout start of pitch in the middle of 'Out of Africa'. The 6b/6c is pretty much obligatory.
The first half of the route is the easiest, not to say that it's easy when you have only 8 bolts in 45 meters of 6b... So my worries accumulate for the first testpiece, the 6c+ 7th pitch, which proves to be well protected and quite enjoyable. After I onsight it I think the rest of the climb will be a breeze, but the next 6c pitch puts me back in my place: struggling and swearing and sweating on multiple moves far above the bolts.
We feared the worst for the heat, but between the forest fires dumping smoke into the atmosphere and the breeze we managed to climb in good thermal conditions.
Right: Jenny on 'Out of Africa', I have no idea which pitch it was as they all look the same !
The 7a pitch above has only a very short boulder move that I don't even try to free (I value my skin as the route is far from over), but the pitch that nearly undid me is the 2nd 6c, featuring a slew of hard moves above pro, potential dead-ends that are a bitch to downclimb and various sweat inducers while precariously balanced on a single foot.
The final 7a pitch is like the first one: the hard section is short and well protected. So before 3 in the afternoon we are standing on the flat summit... before we start the long succession of 14 rappels, many of which going sideways, with plenty of flakes on which the rope gets caught. Each time we pull the rope we tense and hope for the best. A couple days ago another group did the walk down the gully between the Tsaranoro and Karambony and made it back to camp at 23:00, hence the reason for taking the other way down, but I somehow regret the decision. I wish someone would put up a line of 60m rap anchors straight down the face...
Left: Nearing the end of 'Out of Africa', finally the sun moves out of the way and we can cool down after 8 hours of baking.
After 'Out of Africa' and although there are still quite a few potential lines at our level, we need a break, Jenny's arm is hurting, I have no skin left and we have only 3 extra days remaining, so we decide to head back to Fianarantsoa for a little touristic train trip.