Words by Maury Birdwell | Photos by Ted Hesser
Angola is a stark, harsh country in many ways. Like much of the developing world it lacks the infrastructure – both technologically and democratically – to provide equal opportunity across its vast social and physical geography. The capital of Luanda grants a striking visual metaphor: gazing from the rooftops at night one sees mud-brick hovels next door to discoteques and five star hotels. The countryside is ravaged of any wildlife, and everywhere we drove it was ablaze with field clearance burning. At first blush its easy to greet this with despondence and pessimism; however, when viewed in the context of a country barely a decade free from thirty four years of civil war things take on a rosier glow.
Pause on that for a second: many Angolans lived a practical lifetime in a constant state of unrest, wherein the present state of peace has become the exception to their existence. For those of us in the western world we cannot and will not ever know what that really means. Our de facto team leader Stacy Bare had spent nearly a year clearing land mines, simply aiming to return the countryside to a basic state of usability. How many times have you scouted what looks to be a promising climbing destination only to abandon it because the approach was too threatened by the possibility of land mines?
On August 30, Alex Honnold, Stacy Bare, Ted Hesser, and myself boarded flights to Luanda with some audacious goals for a two week trip: we sought to sample the climbing, see the state of affairs 10 years after Stacy’s last visit, and initiate a pilot program for off grid solar entrepreneurship. Ted in particular (with what help I could offer) had been pushing hard and fast on the latter goal for the better part of six months. We had made great strides but hit many roadblocks – in fact our solar products were still stuck in customs when we arrived in country. Nonetheless, we had come as far as we could from our computer screens and Skype, the only thing left to do was get on the ground and figure out if all the other off grid solar companies who refused to enter Angola thus far were right after all.
This is where the horizon begins to look bright. Not only did we establish a handful of routes from 5.7 to 5.13c, we learned that the HALO Trust (Stacy’s former employer) and other similar organizations just passed the halfway mark to clearing the roughly 1,500 documented minefields across the country, and it appears that by importing just 100 home solar systems we’ve convinced the Energy Minister to order another 3,000 units as part of a broader market test. It is far too early to say whether Angola will see the type of micro-grid solar explosion that is sweeping East Africa, but it’s heartening to know that a country with a traditional mono-economy of oil and gas is investigating these kinds of alternatives. Our partners at organizations like SolarAid and Elephant Energy have been eyeing Angola for years, perhaps our devil-may-care effort will remove the mystique and enable them to come in equipped for success.
Fittingly, our own expedition was largely powered by the sun: equipped with lightweight Goal Zero setup our climbing team was able to charge our drill to keep bolting new routes; power phones, cameras, and computers along the way; and hand out some Torch 250s to local kids who gave us a hand with our gear. Also along for the ride was a film crew from VICE Sports, who relied on more robust Goal Zero systems to charge drones, cameras, lights, and computers of their own every night.
These last two weeks were a blur of climbing rocks, spontaneous dance battles with the locals, and late night debates about the efficacy and approaches of bridging the energy gap. There were ups and downs, setbacks, and triumphs. Just like everywhere in the world we learned that at its most basic level Angola is full of good, decent people who see and strive for a better future for their country; except these people are starting the race 10 meters back and without the starting blocks available to many of us. While our impact may be minor in scale, we at the Honnold Foundation believe that only by refusing to accept current realities can we bridge those gaps. More than anything, we hope that you believe the same thing, too.
Be sure to tune in to VICE Sports this fall for the feature on Alex, Stacy, and the Honnold Foundation’s trip to Angola.