Ascent of Ras Dashen in Ethiopia

ascent of Ras Dashen

Extract from the story " Seyssinet-Pariset/Addis-Abeba - November 2015- July 2020 - Small chaotic chronicles of various commitments " by Hervé Doulat. The whole story is readable online. We had already mentioned very briefly our ascent of Ras Dashen in Ethiopia in this article.

The Nile, the link between Ras Dashen and Kilimanjaro

The highest point of the Simien massif, and of Ethiopia, is the Ras Dashen which culminates at 4550 meters of altitude. Well below the 5892 meters of the Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the highest point on the African continent. Geologically and topographically, the two mountains are very different. One, Kilimanjaro, is very isolated and its mass, cloaked in the white of eternal snow, can be seen from hundreds of kilometres away. Ras Dashen, on the other hand, is drowned in the middle of summits of equivalent altitudes and is one of those mountains that you only know is a high point (and even then...) when you are on its summit. 

Yet these two continental giants, although thousands of kilometres apart, are doubly connected. Firstly, because they were formed on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, which cuts across East Africa, by the tectonics of the African and Somali plates. Then because the Niles take their sources at the feet of each of them. Indeed, the Blue Nile takes its source in Lake Tana, at the foot of Simien, while the White Nile takes its source in Lake Victoria, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, before joining Khartoum in Egypt. 

Okay, these topographical and orographic details are not of great interest except to reinforce the mystical dimension of my Ethiopian experience. You are not obliged to share it, but when in doubt, I preferred to tell you about it. Anyway, for Eric and I, born mountaineers, Ras Dashen is a goal that we quickly put on the agenda of our trips, from the third one in the fall of 2016. We scheduled its ascent at the end of our stay, after 5 days in Addis Ababa and as many in Sona and Debark. We kept 3 days in the schedule worked out with Daniel to try to reach the highest point of the country. 

On the way to Ras Dashen

The trip thus began at Sona after an intense session devoted essentially to the setting up of the governance structures of the project, the school council and the building council. Hours of meetings and discussions, necessary but exhausting, fortunately interspersed with time dedicated to the realization of the images which were going to be used to communicate on the project in Europe. It was also the first time that we arrived at Sona with a massive load of school supplies, notebooks and pens in particular. 6 mules were needed to transport the minimum annual equipment for each schoolchild. The distribution was organized with great care by the members of the school council and the teachers, under the guidance of the principal at the time, Melese (pronounced Mélessé). More than a distribution of equipment, it was a genuine distribution of smiles! Seeing these 500 children receive their equipment with eyes wide open, incredulous in front of what seems to us Europeans so basic, even insignificant: two notebooks and 3 pencils or pens... The school has not yet begun to emerge from the ground but already the project is taking shape for the families of Sona, who are already more numerous to send their children to study. So, of course, the distribution of material is attractive, but it also gives credibility to the teaching: how can you learn to write and count without a notebook or pen?

This done, we leave Sona early in the morning in October. Daniel and Agere, our mountain guide, hurry us because the stage is long until the village ofAmbikwoThis is the base camp for the ascent of Ras Dashen, with more than 30km of hilly terrain between 3000 and 3500 meters of altitude. Long but beautiful, especially at this time, the entry of the dry season, the equivalent of our spring and early summer. Everything is bright colors, from the infinite variety of orange yellows of the cereal fields to the greens of the meadows, from the black or red rocks to the blue of the sky. The hours pass quickly in this scenery and only the impossibility of recharging the batteries limits me, despite the temptation, in the use of my drone. Often the path, on the side of the hill, overlooks deep valleys where the rivers that shaped them sparkle. On either side, the crops extend to the steepest plots and already groups of women and men are busy in the early hours of the harvest campaign. Despite the breeze blowing and the altitude, the heat is overwhelming and the sun is beating down hard. As the hours go by, the fatigue is felt and we finally reach the town of Chiro Laba. Ambikwo is on the opposite slope, as is Ras Dashen. They seem to be very close, but first we will have to go down to the bottom of the valley that separates us from the base camp...

The river Meshesha flows 400 meters below the Chiro Laba who, like AmbikwoIt is at about 3150 meters of altitude. A nice descent and above all a good climb to finish the day... And as expected, the descent goes relatively well and we arrive in good shape at the edge of the Meshesha. In spite of our desire to finish, Daniel encourages us to take the time to breathe and especially to refresh our overheated feet with the cool water of the river. Among the few useful things I brought back from my military service, I had been able to verify and record well this maxim of one of my sergeants, namely that the feet were the best friends of the soldier and that as such, he had to pamper them! 

A very strange convoy

So, Eric and I gladly complied with Daniel's suggestion and we sat side by side on the comfortable stones by the water. The cool water and our massages quickly produced their delicious effects on our swollen and dusty feet. It soon became clear that the break was going to last a while, but since there was nothing to stop us except the desire to drink a cold beer, we took our time. All the more so as a sudden and unexpected bustle of activity was in the offing with a noisy convoy which, like us, was arriving from Chiro Laba and was rapidly approaching the river.

Soon we saw a stretcher carried on the shoulder by four men, with a nondescript form under a blanket. It was escorted by about twenty people who were singing and clapping, undoubtedly providing relays for the bearers and guaranteeing a very festive atmosphere. They walked past us, greeting us, exchanging a few words with Daniel and Agere, the blanket giving us a glimpse of the face of a woman lying down. What a strange carriage, which was now attacking the ascent of Ambikwo at an Ethiopian pace, i.e. so sustained that it would have been vain to try to follow them, even with the loaded stretcher!

Without waiting for our request, our incredulous and questioning faces being more than enough, Daniel gave us the explanation. For some years now, the law has obliged mothers to give birth in hospital, or at least in a medical environment. Indeed, the mortality rate in childbirth of women and children is high and the Ethiopian state is of course trying to remedy this. The challenge is great when you live in Simien and that is the reason for the circulation of these stretchers carried by men as the terrain is far too steep to imagine safe and comfortable transport on the back of an animal. And the convoy that had just passed us was bringing back a mother and her little girl from the Chiro Laba to Ambikwo where they reside, in general rejoicing.

Ambikwo base camp

This positive note gave us back our heart to the work and, painfully putting on our shoes and backpacks, we carefully attacked the last 400 meters of the day's ascent. It was a long and difficult climb on this west-facing slope, which was soaked by the late afternoon sun. But finally we entered the beautiful little village of Ambikwo, pleasantly perched in a valley shaded by many eucalyptus trees. The campsite The official and obligatory site is a large, slightly sloping piece of land, run by the parish priests of the nearby church, who receive the tithe. A basic kitchen is set up at the upper end of the field, where our little team, Cassa the cook and Bantie his helper, who preceded us, are already busy. Without them and the muleteers, this kind of trip would be much more difficult and for me impossible without choosing between my photo/video equipment or my personal belongings! And then it's our team, our friends, united from now on for the success of the school project for which each one brings his energy and his good will. In short, we are happy to be back at the base camp for a drink! 

The ascent of Ras Dashen is not a feat but it is not to be taken lightly. First of all, it requires a very good physical condition to make the 1500 meters of difference in altitude that will lead you to the summit, on a steep stony ground and at an altitude where the efforts become costly. That's why Daniel and Agere have scheduled a 4am start time to give us the necessary time safety margin and above all to save us from climbing in the heat. 

Climbing the "roof of Africa

We started at night and progressed by the light of the headlamp. Fortunately the climb starts on a wide comfortable path but we leave it after an hour's walk to tackle a very steep path made of boulders. It's rough but fortunately, the day is starting to dawn and it announces a magnificent day. The only drawback is that it reveals the huge face we still have to climb to a large pass/shoulder which is our goal. We have to switch to "mule" mode and our little group of 4 becomes silent, moving forward at the slow and regular pace that is our best guarantee of reaching the top without too much difficulty... 

Finally we reach the pass at 4300 meters. Even well acclimatized, the efforts are costly and we know this state of light daze which easily plunges you, eyes in the vague, in a contemplative mode a little pathetic, looking for information that you have difficulty to analyze. It's hard but it's beautiful! The vegetation is still present, although very limited, and on the other side of the pass, the terrain is much flatter, forming those huge plateaus characteristic of Simien. The summit is within reach, 200 meters higher and from which we are only separated by a large grassy slope and... a cliff!

Drone video from the top of Ras Dashen

As we cross the last alpine pasture, the cliff that faces us and separates us from the summit is a mystery: how will we get over it? It is not very high, maybe about 50 meters, but it is vertical. That said, as often happens as we get closer, the systems of ledges and chimneys appear more and more clearly and a cairn marks the start of the passage to the summit. And in fact, in 20 minutes of easy climbing, although quite exposed, we reach the summit. The view is magnificent in its amplitude and aridity. It doesn't offer the majesty of the alpine glaciers, it's very different but it's just as impressive. We take pictures and videos, including with a drone, eat and empty the top, filled with Mexican alcohol and marked with Eric's red flag with a white cross. 

When we decided to leave the heights, we knew as old mountaineers that this descent was going to hurt our thighs, knees and backs... But we also knew that the magnificent images recently imprinted on our brains would play the role of painkiller and that the small pride of having reached this summit in a very honourable time and without a blow would carry us to Ambikwo where the traditional tea and biscuit from Cassa and Bantie would be waiting for us. And no doubt one or two beers negotiated with the children of the village who offer them to you, as everywhere in Simien, in a basin of fresh water. The best beer in the world for sure!

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