How long does a man really live? On average a man lives 28,000 days or 672,000 hours. But are those hours truly lived or just hours of life? Are we alive during sleep, which accounts for nearly half of our lives? And if we discount the time spent in the office, considered by some to be the very opposite of living, the number of life-hours is drastically reduced. In all, man is alive when he participates in life to the fullest. From this perspective, life is fleeting to say the least.
The Koraro Towers in Gheralta Valley, Ethiopia.
Niels in the Flesh
Hello Nico, I like your writing and it seems you’re keen on adventure so I will cut right to the chase… These words set a dusty voyage in motion and me on a journey to reach the summit of several desert towers in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.
Utah climber Niels Tietze contacted me back in March. He and others would take part in a high-volume cataract surgical intervention in northern Ethiopia as part of the Himalayan Cataract Project. In a matter of ten days, international and local surgeons operated on 1200 patients and now plan to spend a year studying the economic impacts of sight restoration on some of the patients.
Virtually all Objectives
Instead of climbing basalt walls around the holy city of Lalibela, we changed our tickets to climb notoriously brittle sandstone in the Gheralta Mountains in central Tigray, less than 100km from Ethiopia’s northern border with Eritrea.
Welcome to Tigray!
The Bombardier turboprop airplane rose through the atmosphere, flew around Addis Ababa and returned to the landing strip. We spent 3 hours in the terminal, I relaxed in Cloud 9 with Coke light and samosas while Mino spent the time in his kennel weighing his options.
Timmy O’Neill was waiting with Niels in Mekele across the street from the Morning Cafe. Timmy O’Neill and Dean Potter set the 3hr 24mn speed record for the Nose of El Capitan back in 2001. He’s also famous for being funny. But he wasn’t in Ethiopia to sparkle us with his wit and mad antics, and told the star struck amateurs he would sit this climbing expedition out. My two friends and I and this guy Niels, whom we’ve never met or climbed with. And of course the Mino Meister the rock hound.
The Varsity Team
Canyon + Mesa
There’s a small family living on a hill outside of Koraro town not far from the main road. Beyond a dry river bed, five sandstone towers rise from the desert landscape and lure the visitor’s eye to scan the base to its tip in wonderment. The Koraro towers rise and fall like pistons of a car engine and pose like a lineup of disfigured criminals. It’s hot, we see few climbable cracks, a series of bolts aiding halfway up the middle tower and He-Man chooses a chimney on the east face of the largest tower. Nobody knows where the chimney will lead, but a deep layer of bird shit tells us that if you are squeezed out of a vulture’s ass, you will probably hit the ground.
Koraro Towers in Tigray
Into the Crack
Famous Non-last Words
He-Man: Tell my mother, that I left the same way I came into the world: through an enormous crack.
The Hesitation Blues
Space Cowboy: Let us know if there’s a lot of birdshit because that could be a bit of a deterrent.
1st Pitch Poop
He-Man: There’s a hellofalota birdshit boys. Close your mouths and open your hearts.
FIrst Pitch Wedging 50m of Chimneying
In the Heart Valve
Mino remained at the base of the climb while Captain Habesha and Spiderman and I follow He-Man into the dark crevice using just our feet, hands, shoulders, butts, heads and any other body part that will gain traction against the birdshit papered wall. The Captain fights off a near-seizure after the first 40 meters of wedging his body between the two walls. Spiderman and I pass the Captain swapping ‘Pakistani death loops’ connecting our harnesses. We meet He-Man in the heart valve of the tower’s core. During 65 meters of climbing, He-Man placed 4 pieces of protection in bird shit layered sediment on the aptly named pillar of fecal fortitude. As a team, we pulled the Captain over the final roof in the chimney and contemplated our life forms breathing on a ledge deep in the center of the massive pillar.
Watching the Watch
It was 4pm but in Ethiopian time it was actually 10 hours past the dawn, and that means there was just 2 hours until dusk. He-Man flew up the second pitch, placed no protection but we put him on belay anyway.
Belay Station Talk
The Captain reached the top of the next pitch while I’m belaying He-Man to the summit. He-Man crawled through a tunnel, exited the flaring chimney and reached the top. Somebody said: The only way anybody will ever repeat this route is if somebody as courageous as Niels happens to come to Ethiopia, find the tower and choose the same chimney, or somebody places bolts to protect the leader. As we spin away from the sun’s glory, we all summit our first desert tower in Ethiopia.
No Hands Salute
The Dark Horse
In 2006, famed British adventure-climber Pat Littlejohn published photos of the same tower asserting: Four pitches of enjoyable and very atmospheric climbing led to a great chamber in the heart of the tower. The only way onwards was an unprotected section of wide bridging. It was either commit to it or give up, and I hesitated for a long time before I was mentally ready to go for it.
By the Power of Grayskull
Four pitches to the valve? He-Man must have ridden his fearless cat to the top.
On the tip, we knew that Tigray’s farmers were turning in. Smoke billowed over the valley as dung-fed ovens were fanned for a dinner of bread, injera and possibly spicy pepper sauce. Captain Habesha forgot his belay device and was lowered back into the tower’s inner abyss. We followed rappelling into the main artery while vultures, masters of soaring flight, returned from another day of infinite circles lingering thousands of feet above the valley without ever moving a feather. We finally landed with a thump onto the pillows of bird shit, and Mino was nowhere to be found.
Summit Caption Here
Mino: When Nico disappeared into the fractured blackness, I stood there under the intense observation of three children from the village below. I waited to see what would unfold. When I finally heard Nico’s voice echoing through the sandstone cavity, I swear he was on the other side of the massive impediment. So right before dusk, I meandered around the other side of the rock. I thought I would find my human counterparts, but found nothing. Nothing but a waterless ledge of scorched rock. A dead carcass and the blinders of night. When I heard my name, I couldn’t find Nico. I spent the night on the mesa looking at stars I couldn’t see.
Dogs, they rule the night.
A Stone’s Throw
A gang of young farmers quickly rose to meet us at the base of the tower. Our voices disturbed the peaceful night and their pleas for us to be silent quickly turned to threats. One boy carried an axe and another a cane. They hurried us off the mountain and when my calls for Mino continued, they began to huck fist-sized rocks into our vicinity. He-Man wondered why they would try to stone us. It’s part of their culture, an oft cited justification for any and all Ethiopian customs, beliefs and traditions. We turned off our headlamps to move unseen through the night. But that plan backfired when a panicked He-Man stepped into a wash and fell more than 5 meters.
Man Down Search Party
The loss of Mino really laid a dagger in glory’s gut. Our tower triumph lost its significance since the fifth member of our party was now lost in solitary confinement in the cracks of Abyssinian bedrock. We solemnly drank our beers and force fed ourselves mutton. Even our petite fan club of teenage girls back in Hotel Adula were devastated. I turned out the lights and stared at the empty chair where Mino had slept the night before.
Mino in Jam
Lost and Found
The next morning I marched to the base of the Koraro tower. Tears streamed down my face as I crisscrossed the mountain screaming my faithful companion’s name. When I got to the top of the mountain and the base of the climb, Mino appeared passionately wagging his tail. The night was long and the morning, restless. Though, it is plausible that Mino believed we had finally come back from an all-night climb. He stayed close to me and we walked down. Mino took a bath in the village’s hand dug well, and we rejoiced by visiting a rock-hewn church and scouting our next tower.
We’ll Make Great Pets
He-Man names the climb Scared Hamster Tube Party. 5.10- R/X, but we don’t know if Littlejohn climbed through the same hamster tube and we never will.
The Pillars of History
The small church Abuna Yemata Guh is said to have been carved in the 4th century by a troupe of wandering Syrian monks. The church is nestled on the cliff’s edge in a deep saddle between two sandstone spires known locally as the Guhe Towers. Tourists get their thrills from the church on the approach which requires some vertical scrambling and ends with a very airy scoot around the corner of the tower to the church door where a hungry priest unlocks the sanctuary’s secrets for a small fee.
He-Man led another incredible line first up a chimney, then a handjamming crack and finally a flaring hand and arm crack to the top of the tower. The four of us climbed more efficient than in the Hamster Tube and reached the summit of the smaller of the Guhe Towers above the church. The church-key master told us that the larger tower is kil-kil (forbidden), because the saintly namesake Abuna Yemata is buried on the tower’s summit. Some say Littlejohn has climbed the larger tower.
A comfortable ledge is the lazy boy of climbing
I say: Have you seen his grave.
Key Master says: No
I say: Then how do you know?
Key Master says: Because it is written.
No Ghosts on this Tower
On our way back to the vehicle, we spread seeds of myth. I told men and children of a divine voice we heard from the atop the stone steeple. Abuna Yemata’s spirit told us farenjis to climb the larger tower. Toothless grins, smiles and committed eyes met me with eager lust for the truth. The larger tower must be climbed, the sage once said! Before diving into the minibus and vanishing, we left the village with one more revelation: On top of the tower lies an infinite amount of gold! Enough gold to adorn your many wives, your son’s future wives and his son’s wives. Gold for all the faithful. If you just climb the larger tower. Open your hearts and your ears tonight and the holy voice of Abuna Yemata will speak to you. We will return tomorrow and climb the larger tower.
We never returned to the holy towers. Instead, we gravitated southeast of Megab to the Gudele towers, an island of rock spires leaning on each other. On the southwest face, He-Man shot up another fissure in the wide world of unprotected offwidth climbing. The obvious body crack rises nearly 100 meters to top of the 2nd pitch. The 3rd and final pitch is a left trending hand crack through some of the most brittle sandstone in the Gheralta Mountains, a veritable vertical beach. We reached the summit of the highest tower before sundown and left evidence in the way of a cairn.
Please, Hammer, don’t hurt em’
I spent just 144 of these precious life-hours in the Gheralta Mountains on the heels of an exceptional climber with a strong head for adventure. We crowned 3 free-standing desert towers in 6 days. All climbs we conquered with no prior knowledge of the tower or the route, and we left a total of 1 bolt, 3 nuts, a half dozen slings and some carabineers among the vultures.
One more first ascent
Every Wednesday, hundreds of villagers walk varying distances to the market in Hawzen, the major town in the Gheralta Mountains. On June 22, 1988, the Ethiopian Air Force executed an air raid on the town that laid waste to the village market. Over 2,500 farmers, women and children (almost the entire population of the town) perished. Today, in the center of town stands a 12-meter obelisk commemorating the victims. On a steady supply of Ethiopian beer, our adventurer, Niels Tietze, AKA He-Man, climbed his final tower and laid claim to yet another first ascent, barefoot. Villagers rejoiced and declared the sunburned and dirty farenjis legends, for they have truly lived their adventures, with purpose and determination.
The Scooby Doo Van
Abuna Yemata’s Crack
Niels, Stuck in Gudele Tower
Granite Boulders in Gheralta
First Pitch Jitters