Mark Synnott loves discovering a remote, unclimbed wall. He loves discovering a little-known culture even better.

Synnott is an elite climber sponsored by The North Face who has made a name climbing big walls — vertical cliffs rising 3,000, 4,000 5,000 feet. He broke into the climbing scene big time in 1996 with a 39-day assault on the 4,700-foot north face of Polar Sun Spire, a rock tower thrusting out of a frozen fjord in Canada’s Baffin Island, and he’s been at it since, climbing everywhere from Patagonia, Nepal and Cameroon to Chad, Oman and the Karakoram of Pakistan, bagging some of the biggest walls and toughest routes on Earth.

He’ll talk about those conquests when he appears at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh on Nov. 12 as part of The North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. But he’ll also talk about another passion: exploring the people and cultures he discovers along the way. Those discoveries were once a sidelight to his climbs but are emerging as his focus.

“They say that there are no more places to be discovered,” says Synnott, who lives with his wife and three kids in New Hampshire. “Well, I’m looking for places that haven’t been explored very much, the places that were briefly touched by earlier explorers, then pretty much forgotten.”

The curious case of the Kumzaris
Take the case of the Kumzaris in the Musandam Peninsula of Oman. One day several years back Synnott was going through his ritual for finding a new destination, which starts with “spinning a globe.” He stops at a place that looks interesting, then starts investigating, via the internet, books, magazines. In this case, he was thumbing through a back copy of the American Alpine Journal, the official record of mountain exploration worldwide, of which Synnott has a complete set dating back to the early 1900s. He was checking on something else when a “cryptic item” about the Musandam Peninsula caught his eye. He got on Google Maps and drilled in on the satellite view.

Whoa! Look at those 3,000-foot cliffs plunging straight into the sea.

Climbing remains the driving force behind his travels — “It kinda has to be,” he says, alluding to his primary sponsors National Geographic and The North Face (especially the latter). In this case, as stoked as he was by those 3,000-foot cliffs, he was equally intrigued by what he was able to gather about the locals who live on the craggy isthmus jutting into the Straight of Hormuz, which measures nine miles in length and narrows to 200 yards in width at one point.

“Their land is only accessible by boat, the people live in little villages, they’re fishermen, [using a type of boat found nowhere else in the region], and they have their own language spoken only by 5,000 people in the world,” says Synnott. “The language borrows elements from various other languages. It’s based on Persian and Hindi, but has traces of Spanish, French and other languages.

“What’s even more bizarre is that no one, not even the Kumzaris, know their history or how they got there,” Synnott adds. “One theory is that they were driven from the mainland by attackers. But I tend to think they’re descendants of shipwrecked sailors, which would explain the language.

“All of the places we go we find people, maybe not at the base of the mountain, but on the way in,” says Synnott. “In a lot of these places the people are friendly. In others, they don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Growing up in New Hampshire
Synnott was like a lot of kids growing up in the 1970s and early ‘80s. “We did have electronics and stuff, we had TV. But video games were just coming out and computers were barely around. It was always more fun just to go outside and play.”

His dad turned him on to climbing as a teen, and, thanks in part to the abundance of opportunities in his native New Hampshire, Synnott was hooked. He started reading books and magazines about climbing, which was how he discovered there was a big, wild world out there to explore. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1993, he set off to explore that world, embarking on multiple two-month expeditions per year, working as a carpenter in between.

Then came the one and perhaps only thing that could cause Synnott to throttle back: kids. He and his wife started having children (their three kids are now 14, 11 and 8 ) and being away for months at time wasn’t as much fun. Today he limits himself to one big expedition a year, and tries to keep it to a month or less.

But he hasn’t let that quash his lust for discovering new places.

Big adventure in your own backyard
“Just last month I found this cliff not far from here,” says Synnott, whose base camp is in Jackson, N.H., home to his Synnott Mountain Guides guiding service. “It was way back in the woods. Other people had been there, but not too many, and I hadn’t. It was cool.”

He adds, “There are always great places to explore. You can find some right out your own back door.”
In addition to his guiding service and sponsorships, Synnott helps produce films on his adventures and writes about them as well. His work has appeared in, Outside, Climbing, Skiing, Men’s Journal and New York Magazine. In January, the climber who seems just as happy playing anthropologist, will add another feather to his non-athletic cap: his first article, on the Musandam Peninsula, will appear in National Geographic.

Says Synnott, “It’s always been a dream to get an article in the the yellow magazine.”


What: Mark Synnott: Off the Map, part of The North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series
When: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m.
Where: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Auditorium, 111 W. Jones St., Raleigh
Tickets: General admission is free, $10 for reserved seats. All seats must be reserved online, by going here.