Beta or no beta, Mason Earle has never shied away from an adventure. The big wall free climber has put up first ascents in off-the-grid locations from Venezuela to the Northwest Territories, but his journey to the Marquesas Islands ranks as one of his biggest foreign missions of all time. Packing a machete, board shorts, and a substantial rack of big wall gear, Mason and his two climbing partners—Bronson Hovnanian and George Ullrich—journeyed 5,000 miles by international flight, puddle jumper, and fishing boat to reach the giant basalt pillars on the island of Ua Pou. This is his second report on the adventure climbing experience.—LYA Editor
Words by Mason Earle, Images by Andrew Burr
We arrived late in Papeete, Tahiti, the capital city of French Polynesia. As we stepped out of the plane, we were greeted by a blast of warm tropical air and exotic foreign scents. Thundering waves crashed somewhere in the distance. Stepping into the terminal, a ukulele band with hula dancers serenaded us as we waited in the customs line. Not exactly the kind of welcome you get at LAX, I thought. That night, Bronson, George, Andy (our photographer), and I packed into a small hotel room near the airport. It was really hot; even with the small AC unit maxed out, it was like trying to sleep in a sauna…
The next morning we got up pre-dawn and hiked our gear back to the airport. Ua Pou and the rest of the Marquesas were still a three-and-a-half-hour flight away. We checked in, and as we stepped onto the tarmac, our jaws dropped. The lofty clouds burned a stunning red and orange in the early sun’s rays. Ten miles to the west, the neighboring island of Moorea towered above the warm sea. During the flight, the blue ocean stretched out in every direction; we were truly in the middle of the Pacific. It is believed that Tahiti was first settled by Polynesians around 300 BCE. Families in big outrigger canoes paddled and sailed the several thousand miles of open ocean from Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia –a feat that would be somewhat like finding a needle in a haystack. We passed over an archipelago of immense atolls, like a brood of 10-mile-wide jellyfish. After another hour of blank ocean, we caught our first glimpse of Ua Pou. Through the clouds a small, mountainous island was visible. We knew it was Ua Pou because it appeared to have big thorns growing out of it. The basalt towers…
We landed on the island of Nuku Hiva, an island rich in history and culture. Herman Melville at one point called this island home. Beautiful wood carvings filled small shops, and fruit markets lined the streets of the port town of Taioha’e. Our taxi driver insisted that while we wait for the boat to take us to Ua Pou, we get lunch at Henri’s. In my abysmal capacity to speak French, I ordered lunch for the four of us. Henri did not disappoint. Four plates arrived, each with a heaping mound of sashimi tuna tossed in coconut milk, with a side of banana and breadfruit. While we enjoyed our mid-day island feast, we gazed south over the water at Ua Pou, rising above the ocean like a ghost, some 30 miles to the south. This. Is. Awesome.
Henri sat down with us, curious as to what three clueless Americans and a Brit were doing this far off the map. I told him we wanted to climb the towers on Ua Pou. Henri nodded his head, but I could tell he was thinking, Why the hell would you come all the way out here to climb some rocks? We asked Henri what the rock was like over there. As climbers, our main concern is rock quality. Henri thought for a moment. *“Le roche, c’est … friable.”* I deciphered his French: The rock, it’s… free ab luh? Oh no. My heart sank. “I think he said the rock is friable, as in it breaks easily,” I told the lads. We decided we needed to see for ourselves before we got too worried about it. After a stressful 20 minutes passing our gear onto the small boat, we hopped on and headed towards Ua Pou.
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