TIGRAY, ETHIOPIA  -  THE NEW WADI RUM

 

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Ethiopia is over a million square kilometres, the size of France and  Spain combined. So when the invitation arrived from the Ethiopian Tourist Authority to visit their country with the express purpose of exploring the rock climbing potential, our first reaction, after the initial thrill of excitement, was ' Wow, where do we start?'


A ring around the usual suspects revealed no one who had climbed in Ethiopia at all. A few, such as pioneer adventure climber, Tony Howard, had trekked in the Simiens Mountains in northern Ethiopia and had noticed various likely looking peaks in Northern Tigray, but we could find no trace of anyone with climbing experience. This was later confirmed by the Ethiopia Government. No permits had ever been issued for climbing anywhere in Ethiopia before.


In 1974, the old imperial regime of Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by the left wing junta led by Col Mengistu. This led to a reign of terror known as the Derg that lasted until it was overthrown by popular revolt in 1991. During this brutal period, Ethiopia became effectively a closed country, shunning tourism and western support. This isolationism was only interrupted by the flood of aid, largely generated by Live Aid, during the period of intense drought in the early 1980's. It is still a country of terrible poverty, 5 million of the 65 million population are dependent on western food aid for survival. The life expectancy for a man is just 43 years. With over 85% of the population dependent on agriculture, the arrival of the annual rains is crucial. But now the unnecessary border war with Eritrea is finally and conclusively over, Ethiopia has a democratic government keen to place Ethiopia back on the world stage. They are determined to change the image of their country from that of a war torn desert to a country at peace, of great natural beauty and with a depth of culture going back to the dawn of human time. Our invitation was part of the programme to create a positive image, encourage tourism and the foreign exchange that it brings.


We call ourselves the Bookham Crag Rats, a long established group of climbing friends led by the charismatic dentist Andre Hedger.  We climb regularly in the UK and every two years or so, we put together a major expedition. Eight years ago to Antarctica, six years ago to Namibia and three years ago to Soqotra which  lies 250 miles off the tip of the Horn of Africa and belongs to Yemen. It is described by Geographic Magazine as one of the few unexplored island wildernesses left in the world.  With over 350 endemic species of plants, it is home to such exotics as the Dragon's Blood tree and the Cucumber tree. Despite being a small island, it has a central ridge over 5 ,000ft crested with magnificent granite spires. Whilst climbing and exploring there, we found not only a new species of Aloe but also a trout sized fresh water fish that was completely unknown.

           
That sort of experience, almost unbelievable at the close of the 20th century, is addictive.  So we had no difficulty recruiting almost the same team for Ethiopia. As well as Andre, was myself, whose taste for adventure had not been satisfied by many long distance ocean voyages in a small yacht. My wife Katie, new to climbing, new to adventure, whose frequent
cries of ' Do you know, I've never done that before' made even the most cynical of adventurers soften. Andy Hasted, the voice of experience, the voice of caution whispered in Andre's ear. Richard Bull, white bearded like Father Christmas, climbs E4, Rob Gowan, rocket scientist,

(seriously); the detail man, Tony Noonan, the cat who walks alone, 100 ft run out without a tremor,  Dave Wallis, steady, dependable, there, just when you need him.


We took off from Heathrow in some trepidation; it was just a few weeks after Sept 11. We took some comfort that Ethiopia is largely a Christian country. The picture we all had of Ethiopia was of starving millions, refuge camps, civil war, endless windswept desert, images from the terrible famines of the 80's and the Live Aid concert. That was soon to change.


Flying low into Addis airport, the first of many unexpected facts emerged, stretching as far as the eye could see was an intricate patchwork of  green fields, every surface that was not too steep was cultivated. This pattern of intensive agriculture continued everywhere we went throughout our entire journey..


The adventure began at Mekele, a small town in Tigray province, 550 miles north of Addis Ababa. It is just 50 miles from the edge of the Danakil Depression, the hottest place on earth, where temperatures of over 50oC are not uncommon. Unfortunately, our schedule did not allow us to attempt to climb below sea level. We finally settled on a route starting from Mekele, then through Adigrat, Axum and finally to Gondar. This would take us in 500 mile circuit through the Northern Highlands, including the Simien Mountains, where we imagined, incorrectly as it turns out, that the bulk of the good routes would be found. This Northern Plateau is very high, Addis Ababa is at 9,000 ft, most of the journey was above 8,000ft and our high camp in the Simiens was 11,800ft.


We had chosen in advance the possible camp and climbing locations based on information received from Tony Hickey of Village Ethiopia. Tony is based in Addis and organises tourist expeditions to explore Ethiopia. I have no hesitation in recommending his organisation. He did an excellent job for us despite the unusual nature of our quest.  He knew the country well, particularly Tigray, but was not a climber.  A finger pointed at a road map of Ethiopia, the only  map available, and the comment, 'There are big cliffs here, here and here.' was the sum of our advanced climbing intelligence. No information about rock types, vegetation, approach routes or local conditions was available.
The first camp site near Dugum, was idyllic. Hailu, our Tigran guide, took us to a grassy river bank shaded by acacia trees, tucked down a steep bank away from the road. Grassy meadow, a river of clear flowing water, shade trees, not the picture we had of Ethiopia at all. Bilharzias is an acute problem in some rivers in Northern Ethiopia but fortunately, not here, so we were able to wash and swim in the clear but extremely cold water.

From the campsite we watched in awe as the massive crags standing 800 or a 1000ft proud of the plain turned bright red bathed by the last of the setting sun.         


As we travelled north from Mekele we had inspected every rock face, looking for our first route. The choice was huge, limited only by access and by what was a more significant problem, the quality of the rock. Inspections of roadside crags had revealed a relatively soft sandstone, harder than our Kent sandstone, suitable perhaps for carefully placed protection, but not confidence inspiring.  The crag we chose, known as St Mary Gulsha, was massive, with vertical sides and jagged top reminiscent of a gigantic gothic cathedral standing sentinel on the flat plains of northern France. A party of six set off for the first climb, possibly to make history with the first official routes ever in Ethiopia. Katie and I stayed in camp nursing sore digestive systems. The party split into two groups and put up two routes that met together in an incredibly spectacular summit. Somewhere Else HVS  4c. 100m and We Laugh At Danger   HVS 5a 100m.  The climbing was good, broadly similar to the Boulder Ruckle at Swanage, but plagued by loose and crumbling rock and poor protection. It was time to move on and find something better.

 

                                                                      Climber: Richard Bull
 

Something better, turned out to involve more climbing on sandstone, but gave us a memorable glimpse of the depth of Ethiopia culture. A Christian country since the 4th century AD, Ethiopia is famous for its rock churches. These churches were carved out of solid rock some 1000 or more years ago, often in the most inaccessible places for their own protection. Hailu took us to visit Abuna Yemata, where he had been christened. Access was via a

Churchgoer: David Bruton

 

narrow ledge on a massive sandstone cliff some 400ft above the valley floor, the church is still in regular use. The climb up was reminiscent of

Flying Buttress on Dinas Cromlech in Llanberis.  Steep and exposed.  We watched with some anxiety, as three women dressed in long white dresses climbed slowly past us. The first, a young girl, was visibly shaking with fear as she carried her fourteen day old baby, held in a sling on her back, up to his christening in the church above. There were no safety ropes.


The final approach to the door of the church was a 20 ft traverse along a sloping ledge some 18 inches wide with a vertical drop of 600ft into the next valley.  A slight niche in the otherwise blank wall of the cliff led to the heavy iron door. The interior of the church consisted of three domed chambers carved out of the rock decorated everywhere with magnificent paintings completed in 1530, depicting biblical scenes and characters that we instantly recognised.                        


From Dugum we travelled north to Adigrat and then turned west towards Axum, the Queen of Sheba's capital in the 10th Century BC.  All the time we travelled we were looking for the next climb. But like a kid in a candy store, choice was almost impossible. As we moved on the rock type changed noticeably. Gone were the distinctive sandstone outcrops to be replaced by an endless variety of steep sided volcanic plugs which promised climbing in an all together different league.We selected another riverside campsite, this time near the village of Dudua, within a short drive of our selected climb, a peak called Dabrazeit..  We estimated the peak at about 1100ft above the plain with about 900ft of climbing. We were dropped off about a one hour walk from the base of the climb. We divided into two groups of four; Andre, myself, Katie and Andy. and Richard, Tony, Rob and Dave.


The rock was fantastic, very hard and good friction. Our first few pitches led to a major ledge, where an alpine style traverse led to the start of the serious part of the climb. A long vertical crack led to the start of a thin fault line running up diagonally left to the left edge of the face, from there another fault line led to the top of the face.


Andre led off, while the three of us huddled under the bushes to keep out of the hot sun. Although we were very close to the equator, the air temperature at 8,000ft meant the climbing conditions were very comfortable. This pitch, rated a 5c E2, depending on the use or not of a critical bush, was the crux pitch of the climb, although for Andy, probably not the most scary. At the end of his lead, while setting up the belay, he watched mesmerised as  a green mamba,  one of the most poisonous snakes in Africa, emerged from a crevice in the rock above him. It slithered across the rock just feet from where he was tied in, completely unable to move should the reptile loose its fragile grip on the nearly vertical rock surface and drop into his lap.

After nine pitches we finally made the summit a few minutes before the second team arrived triumphant. The view from the top was awesome, around us scattered across the plain were countless massive rock pinnacles stretching north to the border with Eritrea, nearby, the golden brown of valley floor was dotted with bright diamonds of light where the evening sun glinted on new corrugated iron roofs. For Katie and I it was our first true first ascent. A new route on a new crag in a new country on a new continent, now that takes some beating. 
We named our route Green Mamba E2 (5c) 300m.  It definitely rates ***  in the  Ethiopia Climbing Guide Book.

 

The other party had their own *** climb taking a route some 50 metre right of Green Mamba.

Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds. E2 (5b) 300m Climber: Katie Bruton


The abseil descent was another story. The tropical night shut off the light like a switch as Andre, dangling at the end of the first rope length, was forced to pendulum back and forth looking for a stance for the second rope. A meagre flake was found and the second rope set up, Andy dropped down the first rope and Andre down the second. Again he found nothing, more desperate searching until, at last a minor crack was found. Katie dropped to be with Andy on the first stance. There was no ledge, Katie and Andy tied into the thin flake and hung patiently in their harnesses. In response to a request for more rope, Tony took a pair of ropes down to the second stance By now the summit party had been waiting for nearly two hours, in the dark and increasing cold, anticipating a night on the top.  Finally,  when I dropped over the edge in complete darkness, the only light visible was the flickering of Tony's head torch 450ft below. The two tiny radios we carried made the difference between a dramatic but controlled decent and a cold night on the summit for all of us.  Safely off the rock face, we had an awkward scramble descent for over five hundred feet to the village below.

 

An epic climb and epic descent in an epic location. A day that will, for me,
 always encapsulate why climbing is the best sport in the world.

Our next stop was Axum, one of the historic jewels of Ethiopia where we stayed in the Hotel Africa in some comfort.


The next stage of the journey, to Debark, the gateway to the Simien Mountains, took us along what has to be a serious contender for the world's worst road. 150 miles in 15 hours, rising and falling some 6,000 metres in the process. Once metalled, the surface was ripped off on the orders of Emperor Haile Selassie to prevent him from being humiliated by the Italians in the United Nations.


The scenery approaching the Simien Mountain Plateau is awesome, like staring into the maw of some gigantic monster, 1000ft high teeth of rock, coloured green by vegetation, march away into the distance to blend with the grey blue outline of the escarpment. The Simiens are, and I use the term loosely, on the tourist trail. It was the first time we encountered any one other than a few independent individuals on our travels.  The two or three groups we encountered did not amount to more than thirty or forty people in total.We approached the plateau on the road from Debark full of anticipation.

Everything had led us to believe that here we would find some world class wall climbing, vast cliffs thousands of metres high.


The plateau is a curious place, mainly rolling grassy plains that brought to mind Salisbury Plain but with vast tribes of gelada baboons, giant labelia plants and a very serious shortness of breath, it is above 11,000ft. But stray towards the edge, and I do mean edge and, sharp as a knife cut, the plateau ends and the valley floor, hazy with heat and distance is some 6,000ft vertically below. It must be one of the best views in Africa.


Despite the awesome potential of these magnificent cliffs, we failed to find any that were not heavy with vegetation. But the plateau is vast, our visit just a few days.....


We ended our road trip in Gondar, 80 kilometres north of Lake Tana the fabled source of the Nile. From there we flew back to Addis and thence to London.


We checked out a small area of a vast country. What we found in Tigray was a revelation. Green and fertile countryside, flowing rivers, beautiful camping, fresh food in the markets, friendliness and hospitality everywhere. But it is impossible to forget that Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. There is no litter, everything, even the most meagre tin can, is recycled, turned into a lamp or a ladle, they can afford to waste nothing. They live on the absolute edge of survival; any money that tourism brings into these areas has got to be beneficial.

 
For pure climbing, a flight from Addis to Mekele or Axum and less than a day's road travel to the area of Adigrat would put you in touch with almost unlimited, unexplored climbing opportunities. If it is adventure you want, then every step you take in Ethiopia is an adventure.

 

The Bookham Crag Rats would like to thank the Ethiopian Tourist Authority, Ethiopian Airlines and Tony Hickey of Village Ethiopia for their support of our expedition.         

For further information:

Tony Hickey                           village.ethiopia@telecom.net.et

Village Ethiopia                     www.village.ethiopia.com.et

Ethiopian Embassy London. www.ethioembassy.org.uk

           

           

           

                       

              

 

           

             

 

            

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copyright: david bruton