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Ascent to Mauga Silisili-A'opo Village on 2019-04-04

Climber: Duncan Lennon

Date:Thursday, April 4, 2019
Ascent Type:No Summit Goal
Point Reached:Mauga Silisili - A'opo Village
    Location:Samoa
    Elevation:0 ft / 0 m

Ascent Trip Report

I ended up not attempting Silisili. I did all the legwork required to climb it, however. In the end, the circumstances of the guiding arrangement proved complex and possibly antagonistic and I generally had a bad feeling about making the climb. I was disappointed, but to me pulling the plug felt like the right call.

I stayed a night at the awesome Lauiula Beach Fales, in the village of Lano on the eastern part of the island. The next morning, I hitchhiked up to the next village, Asaga, and rented a little 110cc scooter from MotoSamoa. I rode up to Manase, dropped my backpack at a fale there, then continued inland to A'opo, the village where the trek to Silisili begins. At first I just walked up to some random houses and asked about the climb. The people I talked with on the village outskirts didn't understand much English but were very friendly. I continued to the center, a place with a church, a small shop, and a spur road aimed toward the mountain. Here I had many conversations with diverse individuals and groups of people, most of whom spoke some English and were curious about me and my desire to climb the mountain (pronounced more like Silsil). At one point, I rode up the road towards the mountain, following directions to the house of the village's High Chief, one Mailata. Before I could get to his house, though, a guy turned me around and told me that before I could go on the road I had to obtain permission from the High Chief. Catch-22. I went to the shop and talked to one of the girls working there. She said that Mailata was in New Zealand.

Next I talked to a lady who said her niece could take me to a guy whose father is a guide for the climb. Perfect. I followed this little girl through the village and she led me to a nice young guy about my age. He said sure, that his dad had made the climb before and could take me. He quoted a price of 125 tala, about $50 USD. He went looking for the dad in the palm grove behind the house, but couldn't find him. But if I showed up at the house at 10am the next morning, he would be ready and we could hike up to the high camp on the mountain. All right! This had all taken about two hours, but everyone was very welcoming and I didn't mind chatting with so many people since it's important to promote a positive impression in the village. I began to walk back to my scooter.

I was nearly out of town when a silhouetted figure in a house shouted and beckoned to me. I went up there, introduced myself to a guy in his mid-forties, and explained what I was up to. He already knew. He told me that I could do the climb with him. "Thanks," I said, "but I've already arranged it with that guy," and here I pointed to the house I'd just come from. He began to insist. I said I was sorry, but I couldn't back out of this other arrangement. He and I went next door to the house of an elderly gentleman, who I took to be some sort of deputy chief. Things were explained to him in Samoan. I made my case, that everything was already resolved on my end. He didn't speak for a while. Then he told me, in fluent English, that I must go with his son (the guy in his forties). Moreover, that it would be a dayhike and would cost 150 tala. I told him nicely that I wasn't interested in this arrangement, and specifically that I wanted to camp up there. He frowned, not too happy with that idea. He vaguely mentioned that doing the hike as an overnight would involve another guide and an additional, unspecified payment, but didn't address my follow-up questions. I should note here that everyone I talked to mentioned that much of the climbing fee goes into a pot that pays for meat for everyone in the village.

I felt kind of stuck. It didn't seem like I could ignore this elderly guy's wishes without risking the violation of some social standard. His daughter (my prospective guide's sister) came over and we talked about my staying at her place for the night before and after the climb for a small additional fee, with food provided. This sounded like as good as I was going to get, so I said yes to a day-hike of Silisili beginning in two days' time, with two nights at the family home. We all shook hands, and someone brought me a bag of oranges which proved to be delicious. Now, I explained, I had to go tell the original guy that I wouldn't be needing his dad's services. I walked back over and the guy was super nice and understanding. Then some ladies called me over and I sat and shared an orange with them and explained the situation. They seemed a bit dismayed, and had derogatory things to say (in Samoan) about the folks I was now involved with. I grew uneasy. To punctuate this, my guide came out into the street and started aggressively waving at me to leave the house I was at. Not wanting to be rude, I continued sitting with them for a while and we had more friendly conversation. Eventually I went back to my scooter, fist-bumped my guide with whom I was able to clear up any misapprehension, and rode away.

That night, I was feeling pretty anxious about several things. First, day-hiking the peak would be a lot of work (Eric G. and guide spent 11 cumulative hours hiking over two days). My guide's fitness was questionable and the condition of the route was unknown. Second, I had no evidence that he was qualified as a guide. The first guy I talked to told me his dad had climbed Silisili a number of times. This new guy had never mentioned any experience on the mountain, deflecting when I asked. Third, I worried that my experience in the village could cause a small conflict between the competing guides, or else alter people's expectations of visiting climbers, or even constitute supporting the town bully. There was so much about the situation that I didn't understand, and was concerned about offending people or making it difficult for future climbers to access the mountain. If Mailata, the High Chief, had been in town I would have insisted on some form of mediation from him. Beyond him, I had no knowledge of the power dynamics of the village and didn't want the act of paying random community members and climbing a sacred mountain to cause a disruption. Finally, I was realizing that my excitement level for the mountain itself wasn't high enough to overcome these first three apprehensions. Silisili is less of a peak and more of a high point, guarded by some ferociously hot jungle. It sounds lame to say this, seeing as how this climb was a part of the reason I chose to travel to Samoa, but it's how I felt. Certainly I would have pressed on to access a rugged alpine objective (see as an example of tricky dealings with locals to climb an amazing mountain Petter Bjorstad's Cristobal Colon trip report).

But I wasn't feeling it, I made my decision, and in the morning I rode up to A'opo to give the bad news. The family wasn't there, but I left a note, a little money equaling one night's stay at their place to pay for any extra food they may have bought for me, and continued on to hang out at the stunning Falealupo Beach at the far western end of Savai'i.
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