When Mason Earle returned from the island of Ua Pou in the Marquesas Islands, not only did we have no idea there was big wall climbing there—we couldn’t even pronounce the place. Turns out it is pronounced uwah poe and the center of the island is characterized by four massive basalt pillars that rise directly from the South Pacific to heights of more than 4,000 feet. So yeah, there is climbing there. But leave it to Eddie Bauer climber Mason Earle—who has put up first free ascents in remote locations from the Venezuelan jungle to the Northwest Territories—to fly halfway around the world to French Polynesia with little beta and no climbing guide in search of towering unclimbed walls. This is his first of three adventure climbing reports on what motivated him to seek out somewhere very remote in the South Pacific.—LYA Editor
Words and Captions by Mason Earle, Images by Andrew Burr and Mason Earle
Late-morning snowflakes fell from the gray New England sky. It was calm outside, not a breath of air, but it was bitterly cold. The giant old sugar maple stood leafless, like a skeleton, new snow covering its towering branches. Rock climbing was a distant memory. I sat close to the wood stove’s radiant heat while searching the Internet for inspiration. It was holiday season, and the two fingers of ten-year scotch next to my computer seemed strangely appropriate this early in the day. A photo of Bora Bora pops up on my image search. Wow, I think, there could be climbing there. I bet it’s nice and warm… Further research reveals the rock on Bora Bora to be garbage, or as climbers call bad rock, “choss.”
Not ready to give up on the idea of a climbing trip to the South Pacific, I type “French Polynesia cliffs” into Google Images search. Time freezes when the fifth result is a photo of incredible rock spires towering above a jungle island. Be still, my heart… Some more digging around and I find the island’s name: Ua Pou, pronounced uwah poe, is located in the Marquesas Islands group, a remote archipelago about 800 miles northeast of Tahiti. Ua Pou covers roughly 41 square miles, and has several giant basalt pillars rising out of its jungle. I became even more interested when I could not find a scrap of information about the climbing there. This meant the area could still be ripe with first ascent potential.
The most exciting part of climbing for me is exploration. I am always in search of true adventure, where the outcome is uncertain and failure is highly probable. I have been extremely lucky to travel to some wild places over the past few years in search of rock- climbing adventures–Venezuela, Patagonia, the Yukon, to name a few. Ua Pou seemed to have all the necessary criteria for a good adventure, so I called up two of my best climbing buddies, George Ullrich and Bronson Hovnanian.
Bronson spent most of his earlier years surfing, so it seemed obvious to have a water man with us. George, from northern England, is a modern-day explorer, who proved himself a master at jungle climbing when we were in Venezuela. As long as he didn’t get deep vein thrombosis on the 11,000-mile flight from the UK, George’s skill and psyche would be an asset to the team.
A couple days into April, and it was time to pack. I put the usual climbing necessities in a roller bag, and then threw in the machete and some board shorts. Visions of ripe mangoes and sunny rock climbing above the warm ocean filled my thoughts as I boarded the plane. I can’t believe I’m flying to Tahiti right now–to go rock climbing…
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