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Africa, Ethiopia, The Sandstone Towers of Tigray

The Sandstone Towers of Tigray. The province of Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, is a region of sandstone mountains and high desert; it has been compared to Arizona. It may seem an unlikely place to go climbing. Apart from being close to the troubled border with Eritrea, the region is always one of the worst hit in times of famine. However, if you like Africa, Africans, and climbing adventurous routes on spectacular sandstone towers, it is a wonderful destination.

As one of the oldest Christian cultures, Ethiopia has an amazing heritage of rock-carved churches reminiscent of Petra. The story of its ruling dynasties begins with the legendary liaison of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, their son Menelik being the ruler who brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia, where it has supposedly remained for the past 3,000 years. Ethiopians are knowledgeable and proud of their culture, which remains strong, partly because they are the only Africans never to have been colonized. The Tigray province is famous for its rock-hewn churches concealed high in the cliffs. Some of these require 5.4 climbing to reach (uniquely challenging for both priests and parishioners!).

Stephen Sustad and I flew to Tigray’s regional capital, Mekele, and based ourselves at Hawzien, a village three hours drive to the north near the Mountains of Gheralta. All the climbing that we discovered could be easily accessed from here. Other teams may wish to explore somewhere completely different; there is plenty of rock. Climbing at Tigray was like being pitched back into the early days of exploring the desert towers in the U.S., a golden age if ever there was one. We investigated a fairly limited area, climbing three big towers during an eight-day stay. Our style of climbing? Start at the bottom with a rack of nuts and cams, and do your best. Adventure guaranteed.

One of the most remarkable rock-hewn churches in Tigray is carved into the base of a great castle of rock, which appears impregnable on every side. Beside it is a slender tower called Abune Yemata, which we climbed via a line of chimneys on the west face to a saddle, then up a crack line on the south face till about 80' from the top, where it became a repulsive overhanging off-width. We then squirmed through the tower to the corresponding crack on the north face, which gave some very exposed climbing to our first virgin Tigray summit. The grade was about 5.11.

The queen of all towers we discovered was Sheba Tower, a 500' monolith of beautifully sculpted sandstone in the Nevelet group, just 15 minutes drive along the track from Abune Yemata. The fissures on the north side looked smooth and scary, so we chose the south face, where a more featured chimney, leading to a massive bulge, looked like it might be a bit of a problem. Four pitches of enjoyable and atmospheric climbing led to a great chamber in the heart of the tower. We belayed on a huge jammed block at the level of the bulge, and Steve led upward and outward through a bottomless slot that cut through the giant overhang. From here a relatively normal pitch, featuring a 5.10 bulge at the end, led to the summit. This was a fantastic spot, with the whole of Tigray province spread below us, and very interesting-looking rock peaks shimmering in the distance.

Horsetooth Tower was the first we’d investigated, and it hadn’t excited us as much as the others, being a bit smaller (400') and less striking. We left it till the end, for an easier day. What a joke! With the usual group of children in tow, we slogged up to the base and chose our line, again, unfortunately, on the sunny side. Steve took the first pitch, which looked straightforward but had a mean bulge. I took over and got some great 5.10 climbing up grooves in the crest of the tower. An intermittent crack took Steve to a hanging belay. It then got steep and required 5.11 climbing to pass a bulge and reach a long, narrow shelf. I thought we’d cracked it, till I looked at the face ahead, which was lower-angle but essentially devoid of cracks. Traversing back and forth revealed neither easier ground nor protection. This was one of those situations where you have to commit yourself into unknown hostile territory, risking a huge fall if it doesn’t pay off. “Why always on my pitch?” I thought, till I remembered Steve’s lead on Sheba Tower. Delicate climbing, which I would have hated to reverse, brought a thin bendy flake within reach. The RP placed behind it was purely psychological but still important, helping me press on across a precarious traverse, the odd foothold snapping for that extra buzz. Finally, I sank hands and runners into a decent crack. This was British HXS territory, and the toughest climbing of the trip.

Ethiopia was a bit of a revelation. The poorest country to which I’ve been but rich in so many ways, including its climbing potential. A very special climbing area that we’ll be revisiting.

Getting there: There is a direct flight from London to Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines, and EA passengers get half-price on internal flights (e.g., to Mekele). You can hire 4WD (with compulsory driver) and get all the supplies you need in Mekele.

Accommodation is cheap, if you don't mind it basic. Rooms from $ 10/night in Addis to $3/night at the “hotel with no name” in Hawzien.

Maps and guidebooks. We used Lonely Planet, which was fine, and bought maps from www.stanfords.co.uk

Gear and ethics. Take nuts and cams, mostly medium and large, cams to at least a 4 Camalot. All climbing done so far has followed a “clean climbing” ethic: no drills, hammers, or pegs. Many cliffs are important archaeological sites containing rock-carved churches, shrines, and burial chambers. Try to leave as little trace as possible.

Pat Littlejohn, U.K.