Vertical Ethiopia: Climbing Toward Possibility in the Horn of Africa

Publication Year: 2009.

Vertical Ethiopia: Climbing Toward Possibility in the Horn of Africa. Majka Burhardt, with color photography by Gabe Rogel. Addis Ababa: Shama Books, 2008.

Vertical Ethiopia chronicles the fascinating journey of a team of climbers who seek untouched lines in a region of the world rich in rock and beauty yet “off the radar” of climbers. Curiously, the book is less about climbing than Ethiopia’s cultural geography, celebrated in the well-crafted narrative as well as the images, which receive equal billing—good-looking enough to be placed on the proverbial coffee table. Accordingly, Vertical Ethiopia is a great read, less guidebook and more reflections about climbing in a land unfamiliar to climbers and most Westerners.

Burhardt, both author and protagonist, shares main billing with a few other climbers, Rogel (the photographer), and a handful of Ethiopians who make the trip logistically possible. Essentially the book is a travelogue of Burhardt’s 2007 trip to climb the sandstone cliffs of Gheralta, in far northern Ethiopia. She describes searching for possible climbs, interacting with local people, and getting to know her travel companions—though it would have been nice to learn more of her actual climbs. In fact, she spends more time discussing a day spent scrambling and admiring one of Ethiopia’s many amazing sandstone cliff-side churches than she does on any single climb. We learn about the ancient, beautiful, and still-practiced rituals of Ethiopian Christians. We do not learn as much about the quality of the rock, protection, or descents.

Significantly, the primary audience of this book does not seem to be climbers. Burhardt presents the requisite, if personalized, rationale for climbing—to be in touch with ourselves by pushing minds and bodies to their limits. Though for her it’s not just the climbing but also the adventure of travel that proves attractive. There are very basic descriptions of technical rock- climbing skills, rating systems, and even several pages, laden with pictures, that explain rock- craft and climbing protection (think Freedom of the Hills). These are quite good, though unnecessary were the intended audience climbers. Moreover, Burhardt does not describe many of the climbs, generally does not rate them (almost all of their routes are first ascents, well worth mentioning), and provides no topos. In short, a climber who wants to repeat any of the routes climbed by Burhardt needs far more beta than provided in the book.

What climbers do get out of this book is a much-needed reminder that a “climbing trip” is more than just the climbs. Burhardt spends much space describing the country’s geology and geography, Ethiopian culture, and the travails and joys of traveling in a place far different from North America. Burhardt encourages us to journey to Ethiopia not primarily because the climbing is so amazing—though the mountains are spectacular—but because we will find joy in pushing our limits where no climbing guidebook exists. Burhardt always treats the natives with respect and courtesy, even when some of her possessions are stolen (and quickly recovered).

The wonderful and plentiful photography of Rogel ranks among the book’s best features. Numerous one- and two-page photographs of the rocks, climbers, and local people adorn this gorgeous book. If you are familiar with the size, feel, and images of Alpinist, then you can imagine the photography in Vertical Ethiopia.

I commend the author for collaborating with an Ethiopian publisher to ensure that local peoples profit from foreign tourists and guidebooks. Unmentioned in the book—but noted on her website—were the strict limits placed on topics Burhardt could discuss, including kidnappings of foreigners and ongoing military conflict with neighboring Eritrea. Still, I cannot help but wonder whom the market audience is, assuming that the Ethiopian copies also are printed in English.

Part climbing story, part travelogue, part primer in Ethiopian history and culture, part introduction to technical rock-climbing, and all coffee-table book, this work does many things, most quite well. I hope that Burhardt and Rogel produce other books as interesting and awe-inspiring.

Peter Cole