Ethiopia: More Climbs and Finds by Pat Littlejohn

​In March this year Steve Sustad and I made another trip to explore the vast climbing potential of northern Ethiopia.

In 2005 we had seen a truly amazing crack line which we hadn't been able to attempt because of a lack of big cams - this was one major objective, another was to try to climb the remarkable Haweza Tower which graces the cover of the Ethiopian Airlines brochure, and another was to explore the area of volcanic towers near Adwa in the far north, a unique landscape which seems to feature in so many older paintings of Ethiopia.

If you get your travel connections right, travel to northern Ethiopia is surprisingly rapid and within 2 days Steve and I were whisked from a very wintry North Wales to the baked desert landscape of the Tigray region. Soon we were gazing up at the crack once again, me thinking it looked a lot harder now that we'd actually come to climb it! We had both been training hard for the trip, but after 2 days of desperate climbing we only managed to get halfway up the line. As far as we got the climbing was probably E6 or American 5.12 'offwidth'. May others come to finish the job.

Travelling through Ethiopia is a big adventure in itself, with maps out of date, roads washed away, and villages which haven't seen a vehicle for years. It was a hot dusty trip over 3 days to the northern ramparts of the Simien Mountains where Haweza Tower is situated. The region here is arid and desperately poor. We stopped in a village where the best hotel had one light bulb, and half a bucket of water per day was the ration for all your needs. The walk-in to the tower was long and the heat withering, but after a recce day and a 'rest' day when we had to travel miles to get permits for the Simien National Park, we were ready to attempt our climb. Up close, the tower looked rather impregnable, being composed of very compact volcanic rock. We circled the base looking for a weakness then to my amazement spotted a piton 20m up the only feasible-looking line. I led off and reached the peg, an ancient mild steel specimen. I climbed further; the rock became more and more compact till suddenly I was confronted with - a bolt! Not the modern 8mm Petzl variety but an ancient 'golo' staple such as Dolomite climbers were using in the 1930's and 40's. I worked out that there must have been Italian climbers here during Mussolini's brief 'conquest' and occupation of the country in 1936! The bolt marked their high point and I could only get a few moves higher, lack of protection and exfoliating rock being the problem. So another failure - was this to be the theme for this trip?

The ancient town of Axum was our base for the next few days. Being higher and cooler it is a much more agreeable place to stay and even has an embryonic tourist industry. The main attractions are the permanently guarded church where the Arc of the Covenant is said to be kept, and the Stelae Park, a collection of granite monoliths including the tallest standing stone in the world (22m high and carved from a single block of granite). Driving to Axum we had spotted a massive volcanic tower to the south which we learned was called Damo Gela. We were told that one man had climbed it, in the time of Mussolini. The NW face was an imposing 350m vertical wall which looked very hard; the rib forming its left edge looked more amenable and was the obvious route to attempt first. We made a pre-dawn start to approach and were climbing soon after first light. The best discovery was that the rock was fantastic, hard and solid and offering plenty of natural protection. The line we chose proved to be a 10-pitch E1 and got us to an airy summit just as an afternoon storm was brewing. The descent on the opposite side of the mountain was another trip into the unknown and we got down at nightfall.

Now that we knew the quality of rock in this area the possibilities seemed limitless. Over the next week we climbed a number of 5-pitch routes up to E4 in the immediate area, then we drove eastwards towards Adigrat. The landscape was breath-taking and the climbing potential……. Suffice to say that we'll be back!

36a Horsetooth-East-Face
36b Steve-on-megacrack-overhang
36d Damo-Gela-E1-pitch
36e Damo-Gela-evening

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