An extract from ‘Mission Possible’, the new book by Ash Dykes.
Photography by Suzanna Tierie
It was tradition that we had to take a white cockerel with us to the highest peak in Madagascar (Maromokotro), in order to keep away the bad spirits of the forest. Although we had two mountains to summit before the highest, there would be nowhere else to collect a white chicken, so Gertrude (the female name that I gave him!) had to be with us for two to three weeks. Which meant he was now part of the team, I would feed him, give him water, look after him until eventually later on in the trip he became fully domesticated and actually enjoyed being around us.
We pushed on and from there I took the lead again, machete in hand, hacking a path through the bush. It was steep and densely covered in jungle, the most difficult climb I’d had so far by a long way, but the rufus lemurs were howling away and leaping about above us in the trees. It took an age to get anywhere at all. We slowed down even more when surrounded by dead bamboo, where it took half a dozen thwacks with the machete to get through each stem. We didn’t look at the compass for a while, and realised we’d done a complete loop on ourselves.
We covered just over five miles in the whole day. It was draining, to say the least. It was dark and we couldn’t find water, so we’d have to hack down enough bamboo to set up camp, and risk using up the water from the bottles we’d brought. “Tomorrow is another day,” I said, joking, to Max and he laughed. It was becoming almost a catchphrase. We kept Gertrude safe on a length of string tied to a tree. Suzanna (a photographer who’d joined me for this part of the expedition) and I decided to sit outside and eat, until we saw a dozen leeches crawling towards us. We looked down at ourselves and we had half a dozen already on us. Suzanna screamed and we retreated to our tents. Gertrude ended up taking shelter on top of my tent.
The next day, we tried everything to get to the peak of the mountain, but it seemed unreachable. We hacked through all sorts of bush, from the wiry type that trips you up, gets caught around your ankles and holds you down, to trees with big leaves that stick in your face and sharp new bamboo spearing up through the ground. It was battering the hell out of us. We had to keep our distance so we weren’t hit in the face by branches as the person in front passed through. We had to watch out for the leeches which dropped onto us from the trees above, and take our packs off to tunnel through the bamboo. We pulled our bodies up cliff faces, using trees as hand holds. I’d hit at the jungle with my machete as I marched, shouting at the flies… Damn you, Madagascar – you won’t beat me! It was stupid, but the anger helped to keep me going. Sometimes I’d film myself taking my anger out this way, and I’d look at the footage that night and consider deleting it. But I always kept it. We tried so many options, to go up and over the mountain, to follow it round, or to go down to the river. We just didn’t know what to do or which way to go any more. We were losing hope.
We stopped and put the packs down to figure out what next. We’d been battling for hours but were only a few hundred metres from where we’d woken up that morning. We decided to try one last time, going around the ridge rather than directly up. After hacking through the bush and covering a grand total of a mile and a half in six hours, we eventually reached what looked as though it might be the summit. The lads wanted me to believe it was the summit. I think deep down they knew it wasn’t, but they wanted to get off that mountain. But I knew although it had been a difficult day, we had to keep going or I’d feel like I’d cheated myself. I pointed to where the true summit was. “‘Don’t give up now. Let’s just push on and get it done.” So we continued and found a small track, which we followed slowly. It was getting dark when we came across a water source – the water had to be boiled and filtered as there were leeches in it – and decided to set up camp again in the eerie dead bamboo. Three of us would continue while one of us, Liva, stayed behind to boil water and cook. We headed straight up to the summit, and it was amazing to finally hit Ambohimirahavavy at 2,301 metres. There was nothing to see except mist and thick jungle, with creepers and moss hanging from the branches. I was pretty sure barely anyone climbed to this place, and certainly no Westerner. We went back down and celebrated around the camp fire. But in my tent later, I wondered nervously about the next mountain, Andohanisambirano (otherwise known as just Sambirano), the fourth highest mountain that the locals believe has never been climbed. Tomorrow was another day.
At the age of 23, Ash Dykes became the first person to walk, solo and unsupported, across Mongolia. His journey took 78 days and saw him trek over the Altai Mountains, the Gobi Desert and the Mongolian Steppe. He almost didn’t make it. A year later, Ash spent more than five months traversing the length of Madagascar via its eight highest peaks and through the civil unrest that was brewing in the south. It was another world first.
In Mission: Possible, Ash reveals the spirit, planning, training and sheer determination that went into these two record-breaking feats. Find out more via this video.