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.
I am the Space Cowboy, Mathieu is Spiderman, Aylwyn is Captain Habesha and Niels is none other than He-Man, Master of the Universe. Mino remains Mino because he couldn’t possibly understand the attachment and shedding of names in such a short period of time. It took years for Scooby Doo to master name recognition.
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.
Famous Non-last Words
He-Man: Tell my mother, that I left the same way I came into the world: through an enormous crack.
Space Cowboy: Let us know if there’s a lot of birdshit because that could be a bit of a deterrent.
Tigray’s farmers were turning in. Smoke billowed over the valley as dung-fed ovens were fanned for a possible dinner of bread, injera and possibly spicy pepper sauce. Captain Habesha forgot his belay device and was lowered back into the enormous, dark crevice. We descended into tower’s main artery as the vultures, masters of soaring flight, return 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.
Mino: When Nico and his friends 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.
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 was restless. He may have just thought we were finally back from an all-night climb. Mino took a bath in the village 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 may never know.
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 approach 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) becuase the saintly namesake Abuna Yemata is buried on the tower’s summit.
ME: Have you seen his grave.
ME: Then how do you know?
KEY-MASTER: Because it is written.
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 crack 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.
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.