By moonlight and headlamp, I sprinted through a strange jungle on Réunion Island, a postage-stamp-sized island out in the Indian Ocean, 400 miles west of Madagascar. I was angry with my absentmindedness. I’d left our car keys in my climbing pack, which was stashed all the way back by one of the most amazing climbing features I’d ever seen: a perfect, sculpted arete situated right next to a stunning, tropical waterfall. My climbing partners and I had made it all the way back to the car, over an hour’s hike away, before I’d realized my error. They weren’t impressed with me.
Now I was running back down the trail toward the waterfall. I felt like I was flying through the tube of light created by my headlamp. The tropical air was heavy and wet, but cool in the evening. I was lost in my own inner turmoil and thoughts. I’d just learned that this waterfall was recently the site of an enormous tragedy. About a couple of weeks ago, a 4-year-old local boy named Theo fell from the top and died.
This trail was popular during the day with hikers who went to the waterfall for family picnics. You could walk right up to the edge and look down into the pit below. I pictured an innocent little boy bounding around with excitement. — A moment of inattention. A slight misstep. — And a family’s life was forever changed. Having recently learned all this, part of me felt uneasy to be climbing here. Yet, the route was already bolted. I wondered if I should continue, or if I should have started in the first place. These thoughts ran through my head as I ran deeper and deeper into the dark jungle.
Just as I settled into a rhythm with my breath and movement, the coldest, most intense chill I’ve ever experienced ran up my back, from my waist to the crown of my head. I tripped a step and stopped, frozen by the distinct and powerful sense that I was very much not alone.
I gasped, then continued running. Was something with me? Watching me? Following me? And what? I have never been able to help myself from thinking that there are things outside the realm of our perception and understanding. After all, no one likes to be out in the woods after dark. There must be a reason for that.
Even since I was a kid, I’ve always been at odds with the question of how one was supposed to spend a lifetime best. I grew up in a religious household and attended religious schools. Not only was I incessantly reminded of things outside the realm of our perception—God and the Devil, angels and spirits, heaven and hell—but also the notion that service was the noblest path: service to others, service for the betterment of society, service for causes and reasoning beyond the self.
These uneasy questions came to a head after I graduated from college. What should I do? Where should I go? Never mind those …Who was I!?
I felt it was important to gain a slightly better sense of myself because if I didn’t care for myself and attend to the things that inspired me, I’d never be able to effectively help others. The tricky part was wondering just how long I got to be self-absorbed and self-serving before I feeling free, if even able, to give back to others?
Over the last few years of living as a self-centered climber, this monster of a question has grown to an unruly beast in need of taming. I sometimes think it’s easier to send 5.14 than be happy. The happiness derived from sending a hard route, climbing well in a competition, or traveling to a new place can also feel empty. Personal accomplishments, like redpointing a route, are fleeting, only lasting as long as it takes to think about the Next Best Thing. This drive has maybe led to dedication and accomplishment, yet I’ve also become increasingly aware that I need to balance my desire to pursue selfish endeavors with a way to find more lasting peace and contentment.
The sound of my stride on the trail gave way to the sound of waterfall, and knew I was getting close. Finally, I arrived. I found my pack, got the keys, and turned around and ran. For another 45 minutes, I ran through the dark, mysterious jungle back to the group.
Caroline Ciavaldini of France, James Pearson of England, Jacopo Larcher of Italy, Yuji Hirayama of Japan, and I, originally from Detroit, had come to Réunion Island on a climbing expedition sponsored by The North Face. The main objective was to focus our efforts to go ground up on a big-wall located right in the heart of the island with as much traditional gear as possible. Within the first week, we found an obvious line and quickly freed six out of seven pitches, leaving only the hard fifth pitch left. As a group we decided to continue our efforts at freeing this fifth pitch by accessing it from the top via rappel.
It was while we were searching for an access trail to the top of the wall that we came across the waterfall. Upon seeing the beautiful sculpted rock beside the waterfall, I knew that I was no longer psyched to continue working the fifth pitch with the rest of the team. There was a powerful energy to this place, and I knew I wanted to establish a route in this setting.
The whole island felt magic. Only 39 miles long and 28 miles wide, Réunion Island is basically little more than a volcanic belch that bubbled to the ocean surface roughly 3 million years ago. Today Réunion is comprised of two volcanoes: The extinct Piton des Neiges (Snow Peak), and the still active Piton de la Fournaise (Furnace Peak). The Piton des Neiges is the island apex at just barely over 10,000 feet. This amount of relief, all packed into such a tiny island, is incredible. The mountains have been heavily carved up by the erosive forces of heavy tropical precipitation. The whole island is wrinkled with gorges and valleys, some very deep and narrow, all choked with lush vegetation and rock.
As the landscape is unique, so too are the people. It is unclear when or who was the first to discover the island, but colonization began in the mid 1600s after the French staked claim. Since then immigration has come not only by way of France, but also Austronesia, China, India, the Middle East, and Africa. Through 400 years of cultural fusion, the island is its own unique and piquant cultural stew. You can pick out certain distinct flavors, but taken all together this society has transfigured beautifully into something else. This mixture of ancient thoughts and beliefs and traditions all set amongst the volcanoes had me convinced that there were greater forces at work beyond any of our understandings or control.
When I returned to the waterfall and looked at the walls for a line, there was one obvious arete that needed to be climbed. From a distance, the route looked easy. I thought I’d be able to rappel down, place bolts, clean holds, check out the moves and send it all in one day.
The first time I rapped down the most logical line, I spent over an hour just trying to figure out how I could climb the last 10 feet of the route. Still stymied, I continued down to see what the rest of the route offered. I did some moves, cleaned a little, and fondled the most amazing sculptures of rock. I went as low as I could before the wall was completely soaked from the splashing of the waterfall in the bottom of the canyon.
While down in the pit, my honest thought was that, although this route might be possible to free climb, I might need more time than what was left of our trip. Here, beneath the waterfall, the setting was incredible. It was so loud and powerful. This wasn’t a typical waterfall in the sense that the water trickled over a precipice like spilt coffee off a kitchen counter. Rather, it seemed to shoot directly out of the earth like a fire hydrant.
I spent entire days going up and down the wall, deciphering the moves, cleaning holds and finding places to add bolts. I established a hanging belay at the bottom, just above the wet rock. I progressed incrementally by making one or two movements at a time, but they were all extremely delicate and precise. The rock was incredibly smooth, devoid of texture. The feet and body positions needed to be perfect in the hardest sections.
I eventually unlocked the last 10 feet as well, and it proved to be a different animal. It was a brute boulder problem that required power and snap, and ended with a dynamic move to grab the lip, and a committing mantel to stand on top. After doing this boulder problem, I realized that the line was possible.
From the belay, there are two bolts of easy climbing on big holds. Then there is an awkward and difficult slab sequence to gain an easy section. After that is a three-bolt-long boulder problem on small handholds and bad feet. It ended with a strange, slippery rock-over move on the right foot around a blunt arête. Two bolts of easy climbing lead to a no-hands stance on a pedestal beneath the final boulder problem. It was a welcomed rest before that tough and incredible exit.
I felt as though I could fall in any of three places: the weird slab moves in the beginning, the long hard middle boulder problem, or the final crux. It was intense to spend so much time climbing next to a waterfall. It was deafening, inescapable. I could feel it vibrating the space. Sometimes I would slip off one of the tenuous moves and wonder if the rock shook me off.
Eventually, I decided to try to lead it, even though I had not climbed it clean in one attempt on top rope. With only a couple of days left, I needed to start giving this route honest attempts if I wanted a chance to send it before leaving.
On the day I planned to give my first lead attempt, Hervé, our friend and host for this trip, accompanied us. Hervé is a climber, canyoneer and amateur photographer. He set up a rope on the opposite side of the narrow gorge to rappel in and shoot photos. My belayer for the day, Caroline, lowered me in on top rope so I could warm up and brush the holds.
After climbing out, I rested a little. Caro and I talked about life. She is happy and fun to be around. She was born on the island, and it was apparent that she felt at home there. I was simultaneously involved in a lighthearted conversation with her, and a deep internal dialogue with myself. What is all this for? Was my decision to climb here just? Was I angering God, or disrespecting the spirit of Theo, by pursuing such selfish whims as climbing here? Will I send this route, and if so, what does it matter?
Having only questions and no answers, I focused instead on my original intention when I first laid eyes on this on this magnificent feature. I only wanted to have the opportunity to climb next to the waterfall, and climbing is something that is sacred to me. We went there to establish new climbing. Yes for ourselves, but only for a couple weeks time. Our work would remain there for long after we departed. So, in the sense of time, our work was for the local climbers, it was for the island, and the other climbers that might visit in the future.
Caro and I rappelled down to the start of the route. We hung at the belay for a few minutes. The waterfall was so loud and unsettling. It felt like the whole universe was coming apart, and crashing down on top of us. It was cold, too, from the splashing mist.
I started climbing. I felt nervous and not warmed up well enough. I climbed through the easy bit, made the strange moves leftward across the slab, and gained a rest position. I tried to compose myself for the next long, tenuous sequence in which each hand and foot movement must be absolutely perfect. My breath felt short, and my movements were rigid. A few moves into the boulder problem, I needed to utilize a very bad smear with my right foot, and stand up really tall from it. It required perfect placement, concentration and confidence—enough pressure to make the shoe rubber stick, but not too much so that I pushed it off. On this first attempt, I placed it well, but then forgot about it. As I stood up, it popped off. I felt my weight as the rope caught tight, and I hung there thinking that could happen 1,000 times before the one time it didn’t.
I briefly considered just hang-dogging up to the top, pulling the draws and heading home. Maybe this wasn’t meant to be.
Then I thought about Theo. He had fallen, too, but he didn’t get a second chance. There was nothing I could do for him, of course. It was an unlucky tragedy that could never be undone. I thought about how any of us could be taken away in that same split second. I felt lucky to be there, lucky to be alive, and lucky to be able to try again. It would be disrespectful to not continue trying, not just on this one route but in everything I do so long as I’m here.
I lowered back down the belay. I untied, pulled the rope, and tied back in. Now I felt more warmed up, but also more at peace. I took off my shirt, and set off again. Calm and confident, I climbed smoothly through the first couple bolts. I transitioned left across the slab. It was never graceful, but I arrived to the rest stance below the middle boulder problem.
After a few breaths, I continued. I executed the technical moves precisely, and quickly found myself scraping around the arete on slippery footholds. After a few strange moves, the difficulty diminished and I was soon standing at the no-hands pedestal beneath the final boulder problem. I let my guard down for a moment and just stood there to take it all in. The pedestal was just large enough to turn around and face outward from the wall, so I did.
I noticed Herve hanging on a rope across the canyon. I stretched my arms out wide and took a few deep breaths. I absorbed the landscape, and was happy that I got to visit this island. I turned back around. While looking at the final few handholds I had the distinct thought, “I’ll just do this now.”
I put chalk on my hands and floated through the solution to this last section of rock. I grabbed the lip and manteled with confidence. That chill that had run up my spine that night I ran alone through the jungle and been replaced with a warm and airy tingle. A burden had been lifted, and in the process, I was happy to have completed a new route, too.
That evening, back at Herve’s home, he told me a story.
“Sam, I watched you climbing all day,” he said. “When you turned around on the route and faced me, a bird flew up the valley and landed on a tree no more than a hundred feet away from you. That was no ordinary bird, Sam. That bird was a Papangue, Sam.” His struggle to communicate in English created mystery and suspense, left room for my imagination to interpret.
The Papangue is an extremely rare, highly endangered bird that is only found on Reunion Island, no where else in the world. It is also the island’s only bird of prey. Herve said it was a male because it had white markings on its belly. As I stood at the rest, the Papangue apparently watched me. The Papangue watched intently as I left the rest, climbed the last section, and manteled on top. After I had clipped the anchor, Herve said the Papangue gently left its perch and flew back out of the valley.
After hearing the story, I was amazed. I don’t know if I’ll ever find the answer about whether there are higher benevolent forces in this world, or what sends chills up our spines in the darkest jungles.
But I do know that this climbing experience was one that I’ve realized I’ve been searching for. It had nothing to do with grades. It had nothing to do with performance. In a way, it had nothing to with me. I felt the benevolent presence of a higher spirit with me that day. Was that sensation one of being visited Theo taking the form of a Papangue and cheering me on? I dont’ know. But I’d like to think so. The events just seem too rare not to be connected, and I am beginning to realize that life is to short not to believe.
I named the route Innocence, the essence of a 4-year-old child. It is a tribute to Theo. The route and the experience will forever be one of my most memorable and important achievements.
About the Author
Sam Elias is a natural. An accomplished ski racer in his youth and through college, Sam began climbing after graduation and quickly jumped through the grades—climbing 5.13c after two years of climbing, and 5.14 in his third—while spending time at the Red River Gorge. Seeking a way to remain active in the cold winter months of Colorado, Sam picked up mixed climbing and quickly established himself as one of the strongest mixed climbers/competitors in America. In 2012, Sam turned to high-altitude mountaineering and ticked an ascent of Mount Everest. Sam is sponsored by The North Face, Black Diamond, and Scarpa.