Jamming my body as deep as possible into the chimney, I furiously scrabbled to get the slightest push through my feet. I was five ‘long’ metres above my last bolt placement and my muscles were slowly fatiguing. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t blank out the 400 metres of featureless granite below, sweeping precipitously down to the valley floor. With my left arm chicken winging inside the chimney I was able to slowly release my right hand and cautiously unclip the drill from my harness. “What have I gotten myself into?”

A few weeks earlier—my brother Eadan, the Scottish climber Robbie Phillips, the Verdon-based climbing guide Alan Carne, Alan’s wife and myself—met up in the capital of Madagascar. In August 2018, we had travelled to this southern hemisphere island for a six-week trip, with plans to free climb a new route on the towering 800-metre big walls of the Tsaranoro Valley. An area famous for its technically demanding granite, strong ground-up bolting ethics and plethora of hard routes. We were keen to see what we could contribute to Tsaranoro’s notorious big walls.

From the gritty bustle of Antananarivo we caught a bus south. For 15 hours the bus jostled through small rural settlements, past houses built of handmade clay bricks, women carrying baskets of chickens on their heads, men bent double in the paddy fields and Zebu pulling carted loads down the main roads.

As we rounded the final bend to enter the Tsaranoro Valley, the walls shone yellow and grey in the morning alpenglow and all tiredness from our four days of travel was forgotten.

We received a warm welcome from the local community. Gilles Gautier, a French climber who had moved to Tsaranoro after falling in love with the valley and its people, had, over many years, established Tsarasoa Camp, a small number of houses to accommodate tourists and climbers. Situated one hour’s walk from the base of the wall and with a bar full of local rum and beer, it was the perfect base camp.

After two weeks of scouting and sampling some of the climbing in the valley, Robbie, Alan, and I identified a potential line on the Tsaranoro Atsimo wall. Nestled between two obvious dark water streaks on the main face we only hoped that the route didn’t run too close to existing lines and that the series of bulges and blank faces were, in fact, climbable.

Locals helping evacuate Alan Carne. © Calum Cunningham

We bolted the route over six days: climbing as far as our nerves would let us, sitting on sky hooks, drilling, hammering and tightening with one arm and then breathing intense sighs of relief upon clipping the newly established expansion bolts. This was my first time bolting and it wasn't easy; there’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end.

Everything was falling into place. We completed the bolting just as Alastair Lee (Posing Productions) joined the team to film the free ascent and we decided to test out his drone as we warmed into the climb with the first four pitches.

Robbie and I led the first two 6a/+ slab pitches, respectively, and Alan tied into the sharp end for pitch three, where the angle changed from slab to vertical. He was only a few metres above the third bolt when the unthinkable happened.

Without warning the hold in Alan’s hand broke and he fell straight onto the slab below, just underneath the belay. His scream was terrifying. On impact Alan’s leg twisted and both his tibia and fibula snapped just above the ankle in an open fracture.

Seconds later, the shock was transformed into action. Robbie attended to Alan, rigging an abseil to get him down, while I headed down to the village to get help. The severity of the situation weighed heavily as I ran the 40-minute trail to the village in 15 minutes. Every second spent running was one Alan could be bleeding out.

A team from Tsarsoa Camp returned with me to retrieve Alan from the base of the wall. It was then an uncomfortable four-hour journey along dirt roads to the nearest medical centre in Fianarantsoa. In total, it was over eight hours before Alan received medical attention—although not anaesthetic—and he was later flown to La Reunion island for surgery.

Calum Cunningham above the initial pitches of Blood Moon. © Robbie Phillips

It took us a few days to absorb what had happened and we were uncertain what to do next. It was a positive message from Alan letting us know he was fine that rekindled our motivation to finish off what we had started. Robbie and I decided to go for it the following day.

We started early, before the sun got too hot, swinging leads on the lower slab pitches, hauling our water, food and gear after us. We were both uneasy as Robbie set off up pitch three, memories of Alan’s accident being all too fresh. However, once through the section where Alan fell, Robbie raced to the top, just as the full heat of the sun became an issue. We set up the portaledge and waited until the sun disappeared in the early afternoon, then climbed the next five pitches (7a, 7b, 7a+, 7a+, 6c) first go before the darkness started to descend. We had made good progress, but the crux pitch, a fiercely technical 8a+, still remained, as well as several pitches of hard seventh-grade climbing.

When we awoke the next morning the wall was already basked in sun while the valley below was still cold and dark. We readied ourselves to try the crux: 40-metres long, 300 metres above the ground and pure vertical, this is one of the finest pitches of rock I have ever climbed. The crux at the top involves a mono index finger on a pebble crimp leading to a tiny crozzle, from which a step up and a massive ‘stab’ to a two-finger crimp leads to easier ground. Robbie climbed first and sent the pitch with just a few grunts at the top. On my attempt, despite feeling confident, I fell at the last crux move.

Robbie climbed a further three pitches, 7c, 7b and 7c+, leaving one 7b+ pitch to reach the summit. From here we went back down so I could have another attempt on the crux before dark. I fell at the same point, letting the pressure get to me.

We decided that I would support Robbie on his push to the summit in the morning. We would then abseil back down and I would have one more attempt at the crux pitch in the evening.

Portaledge life on Tsaranoro Atsimo, Madagascar. © Calum Cunningham

The following day we jumared 200 metres from our portaledges in the full sun to reach Robbie’s highpoint and he then easily climbed the final 7b+ pitch. Alastair and I followed him to the summit, where we stood elated, admiring the amazing 360-degree views. My mind wandered to my personal challenge.

Back at the portaledges, Alastair headed down: there wasn’t enough food and water left for all three of us. Later, desperation would force us to eat dry powered food, but we weren’t there just yet. After three hours resting on the portaledge, contemplating how to get the 8a+ pitch done, I tied in.

Strangely, despite the pressure to complete the pitch, I felt light. I accepted that success wasn’t likely and therefore just gave it my all without fearing the failure. It therefore felt all the sweeter when, thirty minutes after setting off, I pulled through the crux and clipped the chains. Darkness was upon us and we were out of water. But going down now simply wasn’t an option.

The next pitch was the 7c ‘chicken wing’ chimney I had bolted but never tried to free climb. I fell when a hold broke on my first attempt but succeeded second go. Then, during the final three pitches, I have never been so close to falling off, yet somehow I managed to hold on and flashed all of them. I cannot describe the feeling of achievement I felt when, at 11 p.m., in the dark, it was my turn to summit. I had worked so hard and been challenged continuously by this route. It is no doubt my proudest achievement to date.

BLOOD MOON (8a+, 700m), 13 pitches, F.A. Robbie Phillips, Calum Cunningham, Alan Carne.

Watch Posing Production’s trailer for Blood Moon and buy the full-length film.

Eadan Cunningham who accompanied the team to the Tsaranoro Valley has made a travelogue/bouldering film about developing the blocs beneath the big walls—Big Blocing in Madagascar - Tsaranoro Bouldering. Expect some good looking highballs and lemur action.

A big thank you to all the locals who made our trip so memorable and who facilitated Alan’s rescue, particularly Toavna, Faly, Michelin and Gilles; to DMM for providing support and essential equipment and to the Neil Mackenzie Trust, who generously granted funding for Eadan and myself. Finally, thanks to Alastair Lee for producing the film, ‘Blood Moon’.