There comes a time when rock climbers start to think about what it means to climb walls that have never been climbed before. Climbers begin to wonder if they have the smarts, strength and guts to go to remote places, untested rock, and start climbing. Carrying a heavy rack and the possibility of failure, we have such climbers to thank for bringing the sport to places like Ethiopia.
In fact, the majority of climbers don’t care to make FAs (first ascents) and stick with climbing guides and well known crags. Nonetheless, for some adventure climbing has been the rub since the inception of “rock climbing”(apparently some time in the 6th century). And it is when a climber goes forward with no information and no topos that we can appreciate the spectacle of watching two opposing forces, man’s dominion of nature and nature’s subjugation of man, tear each other apart.
As the world’s climbing community increases, finding these unclimbed lines can seem difficult. Climbers walk long distances, search mountain faces through binoculars, and study Google Earth until the early morning hours.
Luckily for me, these walls are only a short flight from where I live in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a group of French climbers were to be the enablers. In late 2011, a French expedition of five rock climbers had its sights on the Adwa Mountains located in Northern Ethiopia in the region of Tigray. The climbers, from Grenoble, convinced local alpine associations, government offices and companies to give them money and gear to sponsor the Horizon Ethiopique Expedition in return for the chance at being part of a far-flung adventure, photos, videos, and trip reports. (see video here: http://vimeo.com/36080056 )
“One store gave us t-shirts and hats to wear in the video, but we left those in France.”
My dog Mino and I were along for the ride part climber, part translator and part community liaison. Admittedly, Mino does most of the liaisoning.
TOP OF THE SKY
The Adwa Mountains have been in the hearts and minds of Ethiopians for the last 100 years. In 1896, Ethiopians beat back the colonial efforts of Italy in the first ever victory of an all-African army against a European army. The mountains were famous for giving the Ethiopian fighters plenty of hiding places in the craggy, quartzite peaks (sometimes very similar to Utah quartzite).
The mountain’s myth and lore go back much further. One friend told me that there was once a meeting of the mountains near Adwa. All of Ethiopia’s mountains were there. When the meeting ended, some mountains decided to stay.
In the heart of the Adwa Mountains, lies Abba Girima monastery, an Ethiopian Orthodox sanctuary founded in the sixth century by Girima himself, a famous Syrian saint who helped spread Christianity throughout the highlands. Since then, monk, ascetics and religious fanatics have carved hundreds of churches and holy caves in the rocks of Tigray, sometimes hundreds of meters up.
One local told me that Abba Girima himself created these mountains with his own hands. And the highest mountain, known as Samayata (3300m) was off limits to mortals. Most of the villagers have never considered hiking to the top of Samayata, a name that evokes top of the sky in local Tigrinya. Children in the valley grow up listening to stories of bloodthirsty hyenas and the virtual impossibility of standing on top of the mountain.
The French expedition decided to put their base camp in the village below Girima monastery, not too close, but not too far. There is a spring near the monastery where it is said that Girima once spit and the water has flowed since.
The history of Ethiopian rock climbing predates the Girima Monastery and probably started with the Debre Damo monastery, located one hour east of the Adwa Mountains on a plateau rising above the desert floor. The only way to the top of the trapezoidal plateau is by climbing a 15 meter wall, while the rest of the walls around the base are between 30 and 50 meters.
At the plateau’s lowest point, Abuna Aragawi, (A Syrian saint spreading God’s love in Ethiopia’s rocky highlands) completed Ethiopia’s first free-solo, though believers will tell you that he cheated. The legend is that God gave Aragawi a magic snake to make a clean first ascent to the top of the plateau.
For the next 1500 years, Christian monks, deacons and priests (men only!) have followed the holds and edges leading up the north side of the plateau. Even today, tourists wear a leather-harness while a priest from above belays with a thick braided rawhide rope. Aragawi opened a virgin line, on a virgin wall in a virgin landscape. Aragawi’s magic snake route is 5.8.
The history of modern climbing in Ethiopia is a short chapter in the sport’s annals and 99% of it is concentrated in the region of Tigray. For most visitors to Ethiopia, the story starts with a book called Vertical Ethiopia, written by Boulder-based climber Majka Burhardt. She and a group of women climbers jammed their way up some perfect cracks in the Gheralta Valley— three hours southwest of the Adwa Mountains— and published the photos to show off Tigray’s beauty and ruggedness.
Before Burhardt made her ascents, a group of Belgian climbers, known as the Tigray Rock Climbing Club, bolted anchors in a limestone crag called Waseya near the town of Hagere-Selam, four hours south of the Adwa Mountains between 2000 and 2004. Yes, limestone cracks, climbing Ethiopia is always a surprise.
And finally, Pat Littlejohn—British adventure climber—began climbing in both Gheralta and Adwa in 2006 and leaving his adventures and trip reports in alpine journals for followers to build on his achievements. In one description of crumbly sandstone in the Gheralta Valley, he writes:
“For the next two hours I tried everything but the obvious, traversing out left, then right, then back into the tower to squeeze through to the upper of the rounded off-widths. In the end there was nothing for it but to attack the overhang directly. With just one runner between me and Steve I had visions of stripping both of us off the face if I fell, but eventually I passed the first bulge, only to be confronted by another. With time and energy exhausted we abseiled off and walked back as the sun set… I’m quite sure that the climbing world will be hearing a lot more about Tigray sandstone.”
Then Littlejohn went back in 2007 and “discovered” the Adwa Mountains:
“A superb range of peaks composed mainly of solid rock – basalts, quartzite and, amazingly, marble. Many are technical summits which had never been climbed… and there is huge scope for serious adventure/trad climbing on many untouched faces. So far this is a bolt-free area and long may it remain so!”
FOR GOLD OR GASOLINE?
My new friends carried Littlejohn’s descriptions and specifically came to find these many untouched faces. From the village base camp in Abba Girima, a half dozen quartzite walls between 100-200m protected the valley. It’s no wonder the Ethiopians slaughtered the Italians so easily; there’s an ambush around every corner.
Horizon Ethiopique was more or less formed around Nils, the strongest climber of the group who was also nicknamed the fer de lance, or the spearhead. When I arrived, a week into the expedition, the spearhead was sprawled out on a crash pad and sweating through multiple layers of clothing while grappling with a fever, dysentery and maybe the altitude of Tigray (above 2000m). By the end of the expedition, each climber had fought his own battle with local parasites and amoebas feeding on their stomachs and intestines.
“We met with the village elders and they said we could camp here,” Nils said when I arrived. “We have a guard and a cook that we brought from Addis Ababa, but so far the guard hasn’t done much. Put your tent over there.”
The expedition’s Ethiopian staff consisted of two old timers. The cook specialized in pasta, onions, vegetable oil and chili powder while the guard was constantly at odds with the group telling him to fetch water.
I arrived at a critical time. Nils and friends had opened various lines on the Abba Girima cliff, a wide band of quartzite rising above the monastery with potential for more lines. In the meantime, my friend Mathieu and I climbed a Littlejohn tower on the flanks of Samayata and opened a line called “Independence Day” on another wall in the valley.
One day, when Jonathan and Nicolas were opening a line called “Give Me Money or Go Home” a local woman came up to me to gather information about these strange “farenji goats” vertically invading the skies.
“Why do you go up?” she asked in Amharic.
“Because it’s fun,” I replied.
“What’s at the top?”
“There are many rewards,” I told her.
“Is there gold or gasoline at the top?”
“No gold, no gasoline. Only God, but sometimes God’s not there either.”
“So why do you go up?” she repeated.
“Because there’s a lot of gold up there,” I admitted.
At night we drank local beer brewed from sorghum known as suwa and talked about the next day’s activities. They complained about the guard’s laziness and we joked about marrying the village maiden whose beauty and coffee could wake a corpse.
Mino, happy to be back in the mountains, followed me to and from, waited hours on end at the bottom of the towers, attracted fleas, rolled in the dirt and scared the locals, too surprised to see a man and a dog so close. As climbing partners, Nils and his friends brought positive vibes from France: camaraderie, respect for the local culture, ecologically responsible base camp, and plenty of encouragement. I’m grateful for the chance to be a small part of their expedition.
On my final day, we decided to hike to the top of Samayata (3200m). Led by Tom—who hikes faster than the wind—we made it to the top to see the world on the other side of the valley. Beyond the Adwa peaks, the plateaus of Tigray rise out of deep sandstone canyons. Cultivated hillsides surround the base of the cliffs, and for thousands of years, Tigray’s inhabitants have subsisted in these fertile highlands and clung to the principles of an ancient religious that are as much a part of the rock as the sediment.
Until now, only the monks and priests knew the secrets of the Adwa Mountains, now it’s up to the climbers to keep the secrets safe.