Nebelet tower group, new routes. Ethiopia: the birthplace of humanity, coffee, Emperor Haile Selassie, and … climbing? Maybe. The people of northern Ethiopia understand getting vertical: they have churches carved into sandstone pinnacles. To get to one church, Abune Yemata, you have to climb 5.2 up a 150-foot face to get to the final three- foot wide gangplank walkway to the entrance. The country is covered with rock. On my first trip to Ethiopia, in October of 2006, I optimistically brought along a pair of rock shoes and a chalk bag; I returned three months later with a quadruple set of cams.
My March 2007 expedition was inspired in part by Pat Littlejohn and Steve Sustad’s trip (AAJ 2006, p. 305-307). Pat and Steve had spent time in the Gheralta, in the Tigray province of northern Ethiopia. They’d done a few impressive lines, and Pat sent me tantalizing photos of unclimbed massifs up to 1,500 feet tall and 1.5 miles long. Kristie Arend, Helen Dudley, Caroline George, Gabe Rogel, and I spent three weeks climbing around the area.
Scouting for continuous crack systems is the trick to climbing in Ethiopia. Pat and Steve had shot up a major chimney on Sheeba Tower, the primary tower in the Nebelet tower group northwest of Megab. We sought out other options, and ended up on a five-pitch route on a tower we called Tewadros: Learning The Hard Way (III, 5.10). The route ascends a left-leaning crack on the south face, through a section of face climbing, to another wider crack to a large ledge on top of the second pitch. From here, scramble up and around to the west to the higher vertical wall; two pitches of exciting face climbing with intermittent cracks take you to the final summit mushroom, which we climbed on the west face.
Other climbs of note include two routes on the Gheralta proper, both two to three pitches long. Our routes ended where the rock quality became suspect (read: friable, chunky, loose, unstable). Gheralta has potential throughout her flanks, though there is a persistent horizontal band at about 300 feet that tends to change rock composition. Many corners and cracks abound, the majority being wide (4–20 inches).
The volume of rock in Ethiopia is immense. There are towers, ridges, buttresses, canyons—everywhere. It is exploration at its greatest, with all of the perks and challenges along the way. The sandstone is quite soft and the face climbing is thus difficult. Because so little climbing exploration has happened to this point, it’s hard to predict what all is possible for rock climbing in the area. One thing is for certain, however: you would be hard pressed to find a place with as balanced an offering of climbing and cultural experience. If you go to northern Ethiopia, you are climbing in the part of the country that was hit hardest by the famines of the 1980s and inspired “We Are The World.” This is where the Derg dropped a napalm bomb on a market in 1988 and killed 2,500 people. Where endless terrace systems fight the ongoing battle against drought, rain, and short-harvests. This is not climbing to get away from it all. It’s climbing within it all.
Majka Burhardt, AAC