The Day Rock Climbing Changed an Ethiopian Village Forever

Limestone in Waseya Cracks, Tigray

Climbing Limestone at Waseya Cracks, Tigray

In Ethiopia, there is a lot of rock. Aside from the priests, not many people have climbed it. For most, the history of modern sport climbing starts in 2008 with Vertical Ethiopia, a picture book about a group of women jamming their way up cracks in the Gheralta Valley. However, before that, in 2005 Belgian climbers had developed a trad limestone crag called Waseya in the Tembien Mountains. And before the Belgians, in the 90s, an American climber had bolted a couple mixed sport climbs in the Entoto Mountains near Addis Ababa.

Add in a few dozen climbing expeditions, and you have catalogued almost everyone who has rock climbed in Ethiopia.

Although the list is short, the climbing potential in Africa’s most mountainous country is enormous. Many factors have kept Ethiopia out of the minds of climbers and tourists, but images of drought and famine have been perhaps the most devastating. For too many, Ethiopia is the face of African poverty and for a generation of children, it is the reason that you should finish your dinner. Nothing could be further from reality.

Rock is central to Ethiopia’s past. Much of the country’s history has been etched into rock. Ancient dynasties chiseled 30m tall stele from granite walls in Tigray. Ethiopian Christians sculpted subterranean churches into the basalt bedrock and carved monasteries high up in the craggy mountains. Ethiopia is both where the Nile is born and the Roof of Africa. According to local legend, the world’s mountain ranges once gathered in Ethiopia, and when the meeting ended, none of them went home.

I can relate. That’s what happened to me. I spent the better part of three years traveling around the country, roping up with phenomenal climbers and searching for the least visited mountain ranges and unclimbed towers. However, I didn’t realize that in my own backyard—right outside of the capital Addis Ababa—I would find and establish Ethiopia’s first complete sport climbing crag.


A Wall is Born

In March 2013, I began placing routes on Armora Gedel, a cliff-face high above the Farensay neighborhood in Addis Ababa. The 60-meter vertical basalt wall is a symphony of brown, black, and orange rock spotted with green and yellow lichen. Lines vary from cracks to pockets to edges and slopers. The rock is alive, yearning to be discovered, and by that I mean climbed.

Most Ethiopians find it difficult to reconcile climbing rock faces and human nature, and equate our actions with those of monkeys. Why climb a rock face when there is an easy-to-follow path leading to the top of the cliff? My plan was to change the focus from why climb to how to climb.

Armora Gedel—meaning Hawk’s Cliff in Amharic—lies in the Entoto Mountains, 2800 meters above the hazy cityscape. Local farmers from Kile, the village perched above the cliff, cultivate wheat and teff in the valley. Here, like most of rural Ethiopia, farmers use oxen to plow the fields, depend on the rainy season, and integrate their children into the cycle of agriculture at an early age, producing shepherds instead of students.

On that day in March, the ‘small’ rains were late, the sun baked dung while crowded clotheslines swayed in the cool breeze. Following the smell of roasting coffee, we found ourselves in the hut of a woman named Werke. She welcomed us by sweeping the yard while her daughter began preparing coffee, intrinsic to hospitality in Ethiopia.

Werke (left) and neighbors of Kile

Werke (left) and neighbors of Kile

We represented what cosmopolitan Addis Ababa had become. A half dozen farenjis—as we’re euphemistically referred to—in possession of modernity’s latest and greatest wonders, like houses made of magic fibers that repelled rain, small hi-tech cook stoves, and lightweight beds of air. In addition, we came with heavy bags of climbing gear. We were foreign and mysterious, and it was very likely that this climbing project would change the village of Kile in one way or another.

Immediately the villagers who weren’t out preparing fields for seed gathered around Werke’s hut. The neighbors, the uncles drunk on homemade liquor, idling children out of school, and an old man who was either blind or deaf or both, came around to hear what the visitors had to say.

How could I convince the village that we were not drilling the rock to extract hidden riches? I showed the villagers a climbing magazine, explaining there were professionals who do what we do, but are so good at it, they get paid. Although the name Chris Sharma meant nothing, the glossy photos surely impressed them.

“You have a cliff here in your village that we will try to climb like they do in these photos,” I explained in Amharic, Ethiopia’s unifying language. “We will not die, and if anybody wants to learn to climb rocks, we are here to teach you.” The Ethiopians seemed dubious.

On the 2nd pitch of Cracked Wheat.

On the 2nd pitch of Cracked Wheat.

“I would never get close to the cliff. My blood pressure is very high,” one neighbor said. “Armora Gedel is where the birds live. It’s not a place for humans.”

I put on a harness and shoes and handed climbing equipment to the neighbors. I tried to show that rock climbing was a sport: their children play soccer, we climb rocks, simple. None of the villagers visibly opposed our ideas, but they were clearly having trouble with the idea of climbing as sport. Several villagers asked me if it was gold I was after. Another assured me that people have come to drill for oil, but to no avail.  Talking wasn’t going to convince anyone.

“Come with me. We will no longer stand on the ground. We will stand in the air,” I declared, raising the Bosch to the sky.

Small Climbers, Big StepsDSC_0309

The same day we set up rappel from the top of the wall and drilled anchors on the first and second pitches of the first climbs. The work had barely begun, and villagers were perplexed. “And if these ropes suddenly break, their bodies will be buried in the fields,” a neighbor said over and over.

Every day, village youngsters gathered around our dusty rope bags and watched as we climbed up and came down, climbed and lowered. Their interest grew each time we appeared on the ground alive. They clearly wanted to learn to climb their cliff.

Then one day, we produced a harness and shoes small enough for the children and tied 12-year-old Wubalem into the end of the rope. He climbed just three meters before fear surpassed his courage. The same happened with the next climber, Wondessen. And the same thing happened to Hailu. They were scared, but what had been a wild idea, a home for the birds, slowly turned into a playground.

I visited the cliff frequently over the next four months, mapping out sport, trad, and mixed routes. I gave most of the routes names in Amharic like Taragaga (Take it Easy) and Jegna Almotem (Heroes Never Die). The kids came to appreciate my presence and tried their hardest to keep an eye on their herds from the base of the wall. Soon, Wubalem was belaying Wondessen and Hailu and tying the figure eight knot and they were taking turns on the wall. Their donkeys and sheep wandered unwatched up and down the valley. The kids and I grew closer, while the adults quit paying attention to us. For the kids, the moments on the wall were perhaps the first time they had ever disconnected themselves from the life of farming and the village.


A few weeks later, on their second and third attempts, one by one, each boy reached the top of the wall’s easiest climb, Oyster’s Nuts. We searched out harder routes on Armora Gedel, and the boys of Kile were just beginning to understand the sport’s beauty.

On every approach, I passed a familiar face from Kile. We greeted each other in Oromifa (their preferred language), and they asked if I was going to sleep in the village, and if I would stay at Werke’s hut. I asked about their babies and siblings. They smiled and we hugged. We shared more than just the cliff below their homes, we shared vitality.

In June 2013, I campaigned to raise harness and shoe donations for the children of Kile and sent flyers to climbing gyms around the world. In less than two weeks, the mountaineering club in Pamplona, Spain had scraped together the campaign’s most significant donation: five harnesses, three pairs of shoes, five figure eights, and several chalk bags.

Then one day, I met Wubalem’s mother on the road. I had never met her before and immediately saw the resemblance she shared with her rock climber son. Days before, I had given her son the gear donated by the Spaniards. She introduced herself and with tears in her eyes embraced me.

“Your son is the future of the project,” I explained to her. “When the climbers come to Armora Gedel, he will show them the way.”

“My son has never had anything like this before,” she said and thanked me repeatedly.

The children of Kile can be added to the list of rock climbers in Ethiopia. As they brace for the ‘big rains’, I can only hope that my climbing project has changed Armora Gedel for good. The history of the country was yet again etched in rock, and I’m positive my connection with the boys of Kile will outlive it all.

Wubealem on Belay

Wubealem on Belay

A glass of tej in Kile's bar.

A glass of tej in Kile’s bar.