By James Pearson
Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office says this about Chad, the seventh poorest country in the world, situated in the heart of Africa:
“We currently advise against all but essential travel to the capital N’Djamena and against all travel to other regions of Chad. There is an underlying threat from terrorism and kidnapping. Attacks could be indiscriminate, often involving excessive violence.”
We went there anyway. To climb in an endless expanse of sandstone towers and arches, in a 60,000 square kilometre desert called The Ennedi.
The idea to try climbing here was Mark Synnott’s. This 41-year old American’s quest for unexplored rock has led him to Baffin Island near the Arctic Circle, tropical mesas in the Amazon Basin, and vulture-infested volcanic plugs elsewhere in Africa. In addition to me, Synnott enlisted Alex Honnold, the 24-year-old free soloist who’d become a legend for unroped ascents of hard, multi-pitch free routes, like Half Dome in Yosemite. To document the expedition were the crew of the Camp Four Collective, a new force in adventure film making, comprising Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk and Tim Kemple. Our in-country guide was Piero Rava, an Italian with 40 years of guiding in this remote place. Piero was a climber himself (he’d been on an early attempt to climb Cerro Torre in Patagonia) and he had a feeling that the Ennedi could produce good climbing. He had also lost his vehicles in this desert before, at gunpoint, to bandits.
And so, after arriving in N’Djamena and loading our bags onto Piero’s tired looking 4×4’s, we headed out. At a seemingly random point, Piero turned the cars off the highway and onto the sand. This was the road to the Ennedi. We followed this vague track, navigating by GPS, for 800 km, for four days.
The word barren does not come close to describing this place. Trees and people thinned out until there was only a sea of dunes. This was the most isolated and disorientating place I have experienced. Wrecked war machines from Chad’s recent civil war sometimes appeared littering the sands. Water came from sporadic ancient wells. Three thousand years ago, in greener, river-fed times, before the land dried out, Neolithic people existed here. In the coming days we’d see their eerie paintings in caves and cliffs. Eons before all that, the desert was a vast lake. The pinnacles we were headed towards were the ancient sediments of this petrified oasis, sculpted by wind and time. Yet even in this arid place we encountered people – Muslim nomads, herding their camels and goats.
On the fourth day a dark mirage appeared on the horizon. The mirage morphed into towers and arches of every shape and size, which we drove right up to. We were in tower heaven. One line stood out above all others, a slender spire we dubbed The Citadel, with a beautiful sharp arête. I declared that I wanted to try it, so next morning, as the rising sun warmed the chill desert night air, I started our first ascent.
We were four days away from a hospital, so when the first piece of gear ripped through the rock during a pull test, I started getting nervous. The first 20m was hard sand, with lousy gear, yet only 6b. But at a looming roof things got tricky. I arranged a nest of slings, nuts and cams, then I reached out to a delicate looking chicken-head on the lip, and gently pulled around the roof. Now I was at the headwall, which glowed in the dawn light. When I tapped the rock above me, a huge smile spread across my face. The rock was bullet hard for the remaining 40m. With my feet throbbing in my tight, sun-scorched rock shoes, I made my way to the top.
That was the first of four main routes we climbed during our 10 days in the desert. The second route – The Wine Bottle – was horribly loose, with terrible protection. Falling was not an option.
The third route – The Crack – featured a gaping wide fissure on the underside of an arch. The crack split the arch without any obstructions, so we inserted a top rope from one side to the other. Alex spent an hour shuffling up this guano-filled feature, breaking rock on almost every move. On completion, he was almost unable to stand.
The last route – the Arch of Ba Chikele – was the most incredible rock formation I have ever seen. Our route tackled a 40m slab with only 5 pieces of protection, and the rock was a nightmare. At a point when Mark had to drill into the sugary rock he found that the ½ inch steel expansion bolt would not tighten. So he hammered in a larger-diameter ¾ inch angle-piton, but that flopped around almost as much as the bolt. Next, he nested a second piton beside it and pounded the whole rig into the hole. So – to create this one piece of protection Mark had to insert one inch more metal than the diameter of the hole he’d drilled!
Beyond that point, I took over the lead. The position was incredible, but instead of elation, I felt fear and dread. The vertical wall became a sandy slab. For a moment I lost the plot, till I mustered the calm to continue to the top.
Shortly afterwards, the whole team stood together on the Summit. It was a moment I will never forget. We’d come so far for this tiny piece of rock, but this moment with friends was worth it.