Tuesday, 27 July 2021

The Finger of God


Photo- Carlos Perez Couto (CCL)

THERE ARE A FEW great cities in the world that live with mountains and quite a number of these lie in South America—C a r a ca s, Quito, Lima, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro. But in none does the mountains enter the city, sit astride its traffic arteries, and chop up its suburbs as in Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, the urban dweller has a choice of "umpteen" grade 5 and 6 routes a short sweaty stride from the nearest bus stop. One or two are a thousand feet high, others are two-pitch problems. The city counts at least one three thousand foot peak in its parish, and more virgin faces, smooth and unsullied by holds or cracks, than any other accessible spot on earth. Climbing in Rio has one great disadvantage: the heat. But every now and then, even in the hottest weather, a clear day will afford that distant visibility that brings the 7,000 foot Organ mountains into clear focus from the streets of the city. And there, climbing skywards, a gigantic replica of the pinnacle ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, is the multi-pinnacled ridge that culminates in Pedro do Sino, the Bell peak, at 7,400 feet. And the second of these pinnacles is enough to make the visiting, sweat-sodden, heat drugged climber straighten his curving spine.

Vertically sided, this pinnacle is a finger of rock pointing to the sky; a tropical dream that has no place in a real world. But it is real. Fifty miles of driving and a fine climbing road up the jungle clad flanks of the Organ mountains takes on to a favourite belvedere of Rio citizens, and there, right above, no less incredible at close quarters is the peak they have chosen aptly, to call the Finger of God. It was Harvey, my American friend and colleague, who had never climbed before, who introduced me to Carlos Costa Ribeiro, one of the best climbers in that part of Brazil, and who as a result arranged my visit. We fled the phantom city of 4.00 a.m. and arrived at the parking place as the granite finger turned red, and a tomato orb climbed out of a sea of white mist. "The normal way is round the other side?" I suggested to Ribeiro, from my casual reading. "Yes, but we shall do the east face." I thought of all the cheap gin I had drunk, and of Harvey, and looked at the sparse system of chimneys that held the seemingly overhanging blocks apart. But my immediate worry was the jungle, which holds for me terrors unimaginable to normal people. The vestigial trail led through dense forest, with little light. I watched for snakes. I listened for Oncas, I waited to be stung by insects. There was a slightly rotting smell, and I avoided Ribeiro's enthusiastic noises about the beauty of the forest.

We clambered up moss covered grooves, and edged an overhang by the virtue of a tree whose roots seemed to have finally died. Eventually the route is doomed. More hen-like scratching at slippery red mud and rotting vegetation brought us to clearing. Light, and a moment's dalliance on .a slab drenched in sunlight, and then back into the gloom, and a delicate traverse of some avalanched trees. "Here we leave the sacks," announced Ribeiro, adding, "And you do not need those things." I was lifting out some pegs and karabiners. He did not know I had heard about Brazilian safety techniques. At least I should remain attached to the face if the worst happened! We crossed another avalanche channel of trees and red mud, and leapt like apes from branch to branch along the foot of the steep south wall. Harvey never faltered. Using immense energy, and climbing wholly on his arms, he fearlessly followed where Ribeiro led. No ropes were used, and to one accustomed to the old fashioned handhold, the joys of couch grass, red mud, and greasy holdless chimneys, all too womb-like, offered me little joy. Their voices, chattering like monkeys, vanished into the vertical forest ahead of me. Only a deep red orchid growing wild and parasitically on a tree brought me any reward. Suddenly the forest was gone. Dense bushes had replaced them and a step further I was looking down the vertical north face. 

A little pinnacle was free of vegetation and we sat surveying our route, a steep serpentine crack occupied by the occasional tree. It looked impossible. Harvey talked of descending, and we talked him upwards. It was about grade 4, but grade 6 if the negligible belaying techniques were taken into account. Desperately I tied the party to all holds I could find—a meagre branch here, a piton driven in there; there was nothing more. Ribeiro climbed fast and well, Harvey fast and badly, his whole weight on his arms, legs flailing, calling out and getting continual uplift. I found the rock superb, almost holdless,and hand jams the only security between trees. After 200 feet we came to a cave, and on the floor of which Harvey lay heaving like a stranded fish. I joined him, prostrate from heat. In Rio that day it was almost 100°F. Ribeiro contemplated the way ahead—a steep wall leading out under an overhang which was circumvented by traversing. Where all vestige of adhesion by counter-pressure was gone, there was, Carlos assured me, a series of expansion bolts. A word here. Expansion bolts in Brazil are meant to last. They are inch in diameter, and often set in a full inch. Entire cordees will dangle from one of them without batting an eyelid. I lent Carlos two tape etriers, and he set forth. Just then Harvey decided to return. But he had waited a moment too long, and he was told how the mountain code forbade his solo descent, and now called for his heroic pursuance of the object of the day—Up! Carlos disappeared round the overhang, and the only thing that linked him to us was falling globules of sweat that he flicked from his fingers. I coaxed Harvey to the point of no return, and then withdrew so that his only moral support came from above—a support that remorselessly enjoined him to climb and seemed deaf to the words "I can't". Since I had no absolute confidence in Ribeiro's belay I tied us to a huge jammed block, and waited in the back of the cave just beyond reach of the sunlight. The rope tugged me up. It was awkward. Once clear of the overhang a crack slanted rightwards on a vertical wall. 

Malcolm Slesser
One could get a partial hand jam and one leg in. I landed tired and gave one baleful look at Ribeiro's belay—a loop of rope round a cactus whose roots could be lifted with my toe! Harvey was all in. But the worst was over. From there on we were in the mountain, not on it. Deep cracks led us upwards in perfect safety, and a final slab to stance twenty feet below the summit Harvey was agog with delight. We munched pineapples, and we revelled in the vista of peaks too innumerable to count. Many of them with fin walls. Three thousand feet below, the little town of Terespololis went about its business, and we thought of bee and sauerkraut and pork in the Restaurant Alpina at the end of the day. The final point of this peak is not possible without recourse to unmanly ladders. A huge crevasse separates it from the lunching place, dire and overhanging. But a thoughtful tourist agency had propped a ladder of metal against the upper lip of the crevasse and one by one we gingerly ascended acutely aware that the natural span allotted to untreated iron has elapsed and the moment of collapse was a hand. Appropriately, some rotted electric flex held the thing on to the upper lip. The top is flat and could hold a battalion and enough trees grow there to keep it comfortably in firewood for weeks.

A plaque recorded the first ascent by the easier west face in 1912. I quickly had reason to admire that first ascent. It is one steep hold less chimney after another and with the equipment of those days it was a very fine feat. In the first rappel Harvey lost his glasses. We heard the tinkle of their broken glass working down some great internal cleft. In the third, Harvey took one look over the edge, perceived a small ledge and then a continuing massive drop to a flourish of yellow blossomed Ipe trees a good thousand feet lower. He sensibly asked for a top rope. I went first and sat on my ledge contemplating in my foreground, a foreground of bearded lichen dripping from gnarled old trees. Behind, shiny black precipices appeared through windows in the mist. Harvey was on his way down ; myopically scanning the rock at his feet for purchase. About twenty feet from the ledge his safety rope jammed and the strain was taken from his abseil rope to that roundt his waist which promptly slipped to his chest. "Slack!" he bawled, and Ribeiro as he told me later, tried to de-kink the safety rope which was locked round a karabiner. He cried to Harvey to lift himself up on the abseil rope so that he could work on the safety rope, but poor Harvey had spent his strength. "Cut the rope" he ordered. The words shot through me like an injection. Cut the rope! My rope here in Brazil, seven thousand miles from another, and the whole panoply of Brazilian customs arraigned against me before it even got into the country; and then the parcels service, whose reputation was sufficient to deter most comers.

I was appalled. "Wait!" I cried. "We haven't tried all possibilities." I exhorted Harvey to climb. Suggested footholds, offered chimneys, even climbed up to almost his level and tried to swing him into a little ledge. But his strength was failing. He took no weight now on his hands, and was dangling full on the jammed rope. Eventually he would suffocate, and he had sensed this. "Cut the rope!" he howled. "I'll buy you another, I'll buy you as many ropes as you like. Cut the rope!" Ribeiro and I exchanged glances and the knife did its work and down I slid Harvey. He was beat. But Harvey was American, and tough. A long traverse brought us to a broad ledge, with a view over a remarkable smooth rock pinnacle towards the flatlands and Rio. Dusk etched the rock profiles, and laid the lowlands in an obliterating haze, and then with no more than thirty s minutes half-light left to us, we hurried down to our abandoned sacks, where there was one torch. One torch in the night, the black night of the jungle interior, is insufficient for three tired climbers handling greasy rock, greasy mud, twisting almost untraceable trails. I forgot snakes and scorpions, oncas and mosquitos. I merely memorised , the point a few feet in front of me where Ribeiro put his feet, and where Harvey followed. We tripped over lianas that hung from the trees like ropes. We got caught in snares of roots that looped out of the ground. We fell, and crawled, and swore, and pressed on, refusing all pleas for rest. 

I knew that to stop was to be there for .the night. Though the road was a few hundred feet below, the forest swallowed all sound and light. We didn't see the road, we tripped over it. As we walked up the road, ragged and mud spattered, to bathe in the river pool, I realised with pleasureable surprise that I was neither scratched, nor bitten, nor bruised. In fact I was very happy. Next day at work Harvey was showing on his bruises and scratches. He looked the luckier survivor of a bad automobile accident. An hour later as the smoke from his cigar wafted over our partition he said--"I'll buy you a rope. Abercromby and Fitch have the best mail order service in the world. You specify it, and I'll get it here in a few days." "Not at all, Ernie, it's just one of those things." An hour passed unspoken. "Malcolm, you got whisky?" I had not. It cost £10 a bottle in Rio. "I get it cheap," he said, -"Would a case be any good?" Every man, I reflected with a guilty sigh, has his price. As a Scotsman I had mine. From then on our climbing partnership was secure, and the hospitality of my household assured. 

 Highline Traverse to The finger of God: Ryan Robinson 2018.


Malcolm Slesser:  First published in 'The Climber'-February 1968