Eight thousand miles is a long way to travel just to set up a top rope. That’s especially true when there’s a guy with a machine gun blocking your way on the approach. But here on the sandstone cliffs of the Gheralta Massif was a unique opportunity to help writer and mountain guide Majka Burhardt establish some of the very first sport climbing routes in the nation of Ethiopia. The risk of automatic weapons fire notwithstanding it didn’t take long to convince me that it was still a good idea.
Majka invited me to come along on a trip to explore a remote region of Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course I jumped at the chance, particularly when she asked me to come out four days before her clients arrived to sink a few bolts on a relatively unclimbed cliff face.
“I need someone who knows climbing and can follow instructions in English,” she said in a phone conversation. “The last thing I want is to teach some local guy how to belay while I’m up there pounding a f**king drill.”
So with those basic qualifications I signed on to the expedition. Together Majka and I flew from Washington D.C.–17 hours with a quick stop in Rome-to Addis Ababa. From there we flew to the northern city of Mekele. Our driver for the week, an energetic kid of 23 named JoJo, met us at the airport. After a quick breakfast and a bumpy two-hour Land Cruiser ride we arrived at the Gheralta Lodge.
Named for the mountain that dominates the view from its veranda, the Gheralta Lodge is a rustic inn. Only three years old it has all the modern amenities of home for the equivalent of $15 a night.
“Drop your bags, grab your gear and let’s head out,” Majka said as soon as we checked in. “I want to scout the site before it gets dark.”
Jojo fired up the Land Cruiser and pointed it toward the horizon. The Gheralta Massif was impossible to miss. Its high red walls of solid stone loomed ahead in the distance. We just drove until we ran out of road and then we set out on foot.
At its base Gheralta is ringed row after row by walls of stacked rocks. Meant to prevent erosion theses stone terraces were piled by hand over the last two thousand years. On the approach they made for tough going. As we scrambled over them we tried our best not to knock them down or slip on loose gravel underfoot. But less than halfway to our object there was something else to block our path.
Suddenly there appeared a man. I’m not really sure where he came from. It was as if he materialized out of a rising plume of dust. At his shoulder he carried a machine gun. An old weapon to be sure, but I could see shinny copper cartridges through the slits of its banana clip magazine. He waved us back.
“He works for the construction company,” JoJo said translating from Amharic, pointing with his chin down to the valley below. There we could see a huge bulldozer pushing a mound of dirt. “He says we’re not supposed to be here.”
Me? I thought we were heading back to the Gheralta for cocktails. It was almost 5 o’clock after all. But Majka calmly but firmly held her ground. “Tell him we have permission,” she said to JoJo but looked at Machine Gun Guy. “Tell him the director of tourism is at the lodge and he said we can climb here.”
I flashed on an important looking dude in a white robe we met about an hour earlier. Majka had serious juice and the next thing we know Machine Gun Guy is carrying one of our extra bags.
The next morning we piled into the Land Cruiser and headed out to the site ready for a full day of climbing. To be fair, Majka did the climbing. I was there for the belay assist and assorted dirty work. Gheralta sandstone is a crumbly mass of loose rock that will pop right off in your hand. So you have to be really careful. Never having been climbed before, the cliff needed a lot of work before it would be safe for Majka’s clients.
Over the next several hours Majka drilled holes, screwed in bolts and secured hangers to protect six new climbing routes. While I kept her safe from a fall, Jojo and a few kids from a nearby village watched as Majka flogged away at the rock with the drill. Now a part of the team, Machine Gun Guy stood guard in the shade of a small tree taking pulls from a bottle of the local homemade honey wine called Tej. “Guns and liquor,” I thought. “Just like climbing in Texas.”
When she was finally done it was my turn to start cleaning each new route. But I wasn’t just stripping them of the gear she placed. As Majka belayed me from above I climbed the routes. The hardest was maybe 5.7. Along the way I yanked out clumps of grass, swept out piles of dirt, cleared loose rocks and smacked precarious holds with a hammer. Anything loose was coming down.
We worked at it straight through lunch and into the early evening. Only after each route was scrubbed free of debris did we call it quits. I’ve been climbing 20 years and can’t remember ever getting so dirty as I did that day. But as we packed up our gear and made our way down the terraces to the Land Cruiser I also couldn’t remember feeling such a proud swell of satisfaction. These may well be the first sport routes ever established in Ethiopia. And in years to come I’ll be able to say I was there to help make it happen; me, Majka, JoJo and Machine-gun Guy.
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