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We hike in silence in the pre-dawn blackness – each in our own little space illuminated by the low-beam headlamps. I’m thinking of my parents, dog-sitting for us back in Oregon; the smells of a warm house at Christmas. A quick mental calculation – they’re wrapping up their Christmas Eve supper. We reach the pass and switch to red LEDs on our headlamps although we doubt that we would be visible to the soldiers down in their base some 3 km away. We hug the base of the formations. Their shadowy outlines reaching two thousand feet into the star-filled sky untainted by manmade lights or even contrails of airplanes. I know that Shirley too is once again wondering why we do this to ourselves? Why can’t we be normal tourists who get to sleep in? There’s a tinge of nervousness in the air. Part of it is the usual pre-climb jitters; part of it is the place itself: post-war Mali where the only certainty is provided by our enabler Salvador back in basecamp. The persistent Harmattan winds of the past few days have subsided but there’s still an eerie howl high above us. We both know that things will be routine once we start climbing. For now, the tension persists. We overshoot the base of the route and double back losing a half hour in the process. And then we’re off – the outside world vanishes as the pitch count steadily increases.
Our History With Mali:
The idea of a climbing trip to Mali came about after a conversation with befriended Italian climbers back in Madagascar about six years ago. After some quick research, we bought airline tickets, made transport arrangements and two months prior to departure the leading edge of what would turn out to be a 3 year civil war reached the Hombori area near Main De Fatma. The trip was scrapped and Mali left our minds.
Then in the summer of 2013, we saw a small ad in the South African Airways inflight magazine for the music festival in Mali (which actually has not taken place since the start of the war). We knew that the French military intervention had pushed the fundamentalist Islamist forces out of Malian towns but up until then it had not occurred to us that Mali might once again be doable. Bad news reports kept coming in periodically and at an unnervingly high frequency. We contacted Salvador Campillo – the godfather and authority on climbing in Mali who at that point was residing in Burkina Faso – and he indeed confirmed that things have been calming down.
We kept exchanging emails with Salvador and once again found ourselves with a pair of airline tickets, two sets of visas in our passports, and Mali climbing plans for late 2014. Three weeks prior to departure, the Ebola plague which had been ravaging the neighboring countries jumped the porous border into Mali. Though the handful of cases were confined to near Bamako, a thousand kilometers away from any climbing, the US CDC had put Mali on their list of countries that would require a quarantine for those who had visited (observation period at a minimum). With regrets, we once again cancelled.
Early 2015 saw a repeat of the routine. An email to Salvador; a tentative “go”; more airline tickets. The idea of Mali climbing once again looming in our lives. Four months prior – still a green light. Month prior? Salvador had gone climbing on Main De Fatma with his son – still a “go.” We were beginning to think that things might actually happen though outwardly kept playing down the idea. Three days prior to departure – in the midst of stuffy, work-related holiday parties – we were waiting for another coup d’état to strike Burkina Faso or some other calamity that would shut down the airports. But then nothing happened and soon enough we were on our way to Ouagadougou.
The Current Mali How-To:
I want to start by acknowledging that this trip – in the way that it unfolded – would have been absolutely impossible to do without Salvador. Yes, a Canadian climber had reached Hombori by public transport and climbed two routes, including an impressive rope solo of the North Ridge of Kaga Tondo, in early 2014. However, he then spent 30 hours locked up in a cell and was forcibly expelled from the region by the Malian gendarmerie (second best outcome in this parameter space).
Our trip involved flying into and out of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and then being driven by Salvador into, around, and back out of Mali. He remained with us for the duration. Salvador has been traveling throughout north and west Africa and establishing routes in Mali for four decades, speaks multiple languages including the local Fulfulde and has a network of acquaintances throughout the region – a proverbial finger on the pulse. Salvador was our driver, first-hand source of climbing beta, cook (an excellent one at that!), arranger of porters and a general enabler. Most importantly, he kept us out of harm’s way. All we had to do was climb. As a bonus, he has been living a life of adventure (many dozens of Sahara crossings, Antarctic expedition and others) and has a knack for good story telling. The books we brought along went largely unread. It was a pleasure to spend those 2.5 weeks with him.
Is Mali safe? Our subjective impressions. There are regions that felt absolutely safe; for example, Dogon country around Bandiagara – both the high plateau and the plain below. It was therefore painful to see a total lack of tourists: empty auberges and restaurants. There are other regions (like Main De Fatma) that felt safe enough but only thanks to Salvador’s know-how. And then there were regions that were off-limits. My best answer is this: if we wanted to go back (and we do), we’d absolutely do it if Salvador green-lighted the idea.
Note that Burkina Faso and Mali require advance visas. Both have embassies in DC and the process is painless but you’ll need proof of yellow fever vaccination (it may be possible to get Malian visas in Ouagadougou which we did not do in the interest of time). Lastly, all the pitches on the trip were led by one of us though Salvador came along on a few, shorter climbs as a second. He also shot some great photos of us on various climbs. I’ve indicated which photos are his and I’m using those with permission – all copyrights below to him (thank you Salvador!).