Dodging and not Climbing Rocks in Ethiopia

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Rocky Love Affair

I’ve had so many experiences with dodging rocks in Ethiopia, you could say throwing rocks is the national sport. In addition to ducking rocks aimed at my head, I’ve slungshot them, cracked them, climbed them and collected them. So much of Ethiopia’s history is recorded on rock—granite obelisks, entire churches made from rocks, and sandstone caves carved in the name of God—interaction with rock is inevitable, even if you aren’t passionate about climbing them.

And perhaps most revealing of Ethiopia’s relationship to rock was the time I was assaulted at rockpoint at Chelenka Falls, three kilometers south of Mekele. Not at gunpoint, not at knifepoint, but the old fashioned shakedown, ‘hey you, we have big rocks, give us all your money’.

Before the pirates of the Caribbean, Butch Cassidy, the Spanish Conquistadores, and the Peloponnesian Wars, man’s weapon of choice was rock. To not be stoned cost me $15 dollars.

With the recent report of a couple kids throwing rocks at Armora Gedel, a crag near Addis Ababa, I thought it relevant to give account to other tales of climbing in Ethiopia and my interaction with the country’s infinite supply of rock.

As the country becomes a popular destination, new lines and crags will be developed while others remain unclimbed. More and more, rock climbers will become a part of the everyday life of villages located at the foot of Ethiopia’s largest and best walls, and these climbers will undoubtedly dodge rocks of their own.

The Waseya Cracks were first climbed in 2004 by Belgian climbers living in Mekele in the region of Tigray in Northern Ethiopia. The part time climbers were really soil engineers and happened upon the village Waseya close to Hagere Selam, where the limestone walls sit high on the escarpment above the desert floor. Few climbers have visited Waseya Cracks since, and this could be one of few documented expeditions since they hand drilled two bolt anchors on approximately 10 climbs.

Goin up in Waseya

Goin up in Waseya

The three of us and my dog, Mino, arrived after midnight and camped on the side of the dirt road. In the morning, wanderers gravitated to our tents. For the youngest, the overnight appearance of three tents (red, yellow & blue) stoked their doubts of life in the universe. These strange houses more than likely held peculiar life forms, and as our tej-powered flatulence took over, the tentwatchers began guessing whence these windy noises were coming.

“That was the yellow one,” said one teenager in his native Tigrinya.

“Are you sure? That sounded like the red one,” said another.

Aware of the growing curiosity, I slowly unzipped the netted door on my tent and pushed my dog out and under the rain fly into view. I timed Mino’s exit with a heroic blast of peptic might! As the laughter rippled through our investigators, we slowly rose to greet the day of climbing and the relentless engagement with villagers.

If not following you around asking questions and holding your hand and vying for gifts and ultimately friendship and the chance for something exotic and different, rural Ethiopians could just as easily spend the better part of a day staring at you. Then suddenly, powered by necessity to leave quickly, he will disappear and return the next day at the break of dawn and talk until you get out of your tent to properly greet him.

The First Morning on the Escarpment

The First Morning on the Escarpment

After suckin down some tea, we did all the necessary research to achieve the following: climb, have water, not get lost and leave our vehicle without worry on the village road. We loaded a couple donkeys with gear and water and trekked down the canyon to the base of the walls. After just 20 minutes, we came to a giant wild fig with long sturdy branches that provide protection from the sun and make the kind of base camp you that draws you in again and again.

Waseya village cascades down a shallow canyon high in the Tembien Mountains. On the northern flank, villagers are privy to a vast window overlooking the sunburnt country of Tigray and the mountains and canyons reaching into Eritrea and the Red Sea beyond.

Whisper Djebena

Whisper Djebena

For the next four days, we climbed the limestone routes that the Belgians had mapped out. At the top of the 20m routes were the remnants of the group’s bolts, obliterated into a flat strips of metal pegged to the rock. Each one reminded me of the penny smashing machine, and I half hoped to find shapes of Ethiopia’s national monuments etched into the steel.

Most likely the children of the village smashed the anchors with rocks. Owning a piece of metal in a landscape so overwhelmed with rock was seductive to a mischievous ten year old. Some hangers were completely missing, others intact hidden from the children’s view.

As we prepared lunch, the first rock dropped into camp with a thud!!! And again, thraaaaaaap!!! As we ran for cover behind the tree, another rock grenade crashed into an aluminum pot with a loaded din. We ran away from base camp in pursuit of our attackers, standing on the cliff 60m above us. Running uphill after Ethiopian kids on their home turf is something like chasing camouflaged goats through tall grass.

A teenage girl promised it was Hagos who was trying to kill us. We found Hagos’ father in the village back from the field.

“Your child is Hagos?”

“Yes, I know Hagos.”

“He is throwing very big rocks at us from high above. This is very dangerous and can kill a man.”

Hagos father mustered a blank stare and his next reaction was to offer suwa, the Tigrinya word for the yummy fermented grain juice pressed and filtered through a basket. He tried to gouge the price, but we knew better. After an afternoon climbing session, we drank the Ethiopian elixir around a small fire listening to the hyenas across the valley intimidate the oxen.

The skirmish with Hagos wasn’t enough to scare us away. We found boulders, climbed cracks and discovered the secrets of Tembien limestone, a wall encrusted with thousands of shells and invertebrate fossils. We climbed almost every route, Mathieu opened a new line, we drank coffee with villagers, gave the children a very useful distracting ball, and a spider nibbled on Aylwyn’s foot.

In terms of climbing, Waseya can’t compete with the Adwa Mountains or the towers of Gheralta, and I’m sure adventure climbers will continue to discover more and longer lines in Ethiopia’s unexplored mountains. However, the destroyed anchors of Waseya should serve as a lesson about bringing climbing to Ethiopia.

And having rocks thrown at you is unavoidable.

Aylwyn, AKA Captian Habesha, with the fan club that may or may tried to kill us with rocks.

Aylwyn, AKA Captian Habesha, with the fan club that may or may not have tried to kill us with rocks.

Post dedicated to Aylwyn Bromhead, an Ethiopian hero and the creator of the Rock Climbers, Ethiopia Facebook page. He also put together the following short film about the expedition to Waseya in which presents the spirit of climbing in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Mathieu on a climb with smashed up anchors

Mathieu on a climb with smashed up anchors