05 February 2014

why do i climb the mountain?

Somewhere toward the beginning of my time in Ethiopia, I fell into a dream within a dream. During my Demystification trip to Wukro, a small town 45 minutes north of the Tigray regional capital, I shared a beer with my pre-departure mentor, RPCV Ben Morse. The beer was called Dashen. It has since held its own as my favorite (mass produced) beer in Ethiopia. I asked Ben the meaning and he told me it was a tribute to Ethiopia’s highest mountain, Ras Dashen. From that moment on, it was absorbed into my being: I must climb that mountain.

Other Mountains

Nearly 20 months have passed since that moment, and I have scaled a handful of peaks throughout Ethiopia. First was Gelama, named, from what I understand, after the sunrise to which it plays host every morning. I made it there, for the first time, a smidge over a year ago, in the company of my best Ethiopian friend, Daniel, the most badass Ethiopian I know, Zegeye, a Stand By Me guest from Belfast named Melissa, and Daniel’s coworker Dereje. It was a pinnacle accomplishment at the time. I felt the way about Gelama when I arrived in Bekoji as I did about Ras Dashen when I first tasted that beer. And it only made me want more.

Throughout the last year, I made it seven times to the top of Gelama, as well as a trip each to Ashetan Mariam in Lalibela, Mount Soloda in Adwa, and Chilalo in Asella. Add to that a half-day hike back in August with Laura, through a portion of the Simien Mountains– the family Dashen calls his own – and it’s easy to see how my desire continued to grow. That our short time in the Simiens was rendered virtually void of scenery on account of rainy season fog only managed to stoke my “get to Dashen” fire. There was no mystery in my mind as to the epic scenery I was missing. If Facebook pictures and tales told by R/PCVs had taught me anything it was that I had to find a way back to this area and make real that dream within a dream.


As my 27-month-tour-of-duty marched on, and year one barreled into year two, I started to wonder if I might have to let go of the top item on my “Ethiopia Bucket List.” I was running short on time, low on funds, and facing the challenge of making the trip align with both the appropriate season and recent changes to PCE travel policies as they pertain to Education Volunteers. Somewhere around mid-October, I had one of those moments so spiritual that there was no way I could refuse what my heart was telling me to do. I needed to find a way to make this happen, one way or another.

I sent an inquiry message to a tour-guide-turned-travel-agent who came highly recommended by PCVs and PCE Staff alike. I started contacting some of my closest friends who I thought might be interested in sharing the journey. Schickling was in if we could work it into the “free” travel window allotted to Education Volunteers, but before her parents arrived in Ethiopia. Zach was in if we could schedule it around his sister’s visit. The Luttrulls were in if they could afford it. Mike was in if everyone else was. And then we all had to get separate approvals for our planned travel.

[cue some quote about somebody saying it was easy]

I was starting to lose hope. Getting our stars to align seemed implausible. I accepted the fact that I might actually have to let this one go.

Embark to Debark

But somehow everything did work out. I can’t say I’m quite certain how, but I suppose this was one of those things that was simply “meant to be.” And on January 21st, the six of us were sitting in a hotel room in Gondar, handing over a payment that looked far more impressive in Ethiopian birr than it would have in dollars, to Shif of simientrek.com.

 The next morning, we drove two hours to Debark, where the park office is located. We entered our names into the registry, met our guide (Dejen), and picked up our scout (Yayu). It was really happening. We were about to climb Ras Dashen. Well, sort of...we had four days of trekking ahead of us before that would happen… 

Day 1 – Ethiopian Hustle

Our minibus took a right off the main road onto a Western-esque dirt road that lead all the way to the park entrance. We whizzed past sweeping mountain views and Gelada Baboon troupes that would have required stopping for photographs were we not in for much more of the same in the coming days, en route to Sankabar camp. At Sankabar, all of our gear was unloaded and weighed to determine how many mules our trek would require. 

The magic number turned out to be four, but we were off on foot before that number was even announced, making our way along the escarpment overlooking the iconic “table top” mountains that define the Simiens. It didn’t take long for the heavy breathing to start. At one point, I took a look at my GPS watch to find that we were moving at around 18 minutes per mile – fast for a walk on daily terrain, downright torrid for a hike that started at 10,750 feet. We later learned that we’d gotten off to a bit of a late start that day and the high clip was set by our guide in order to ensure we got to Gich on time. Although we had little time to fully take them in, the views were spectacular. Seriously – you need to see this place to believe it. 

We made it to Gich as the sun was starting to set, allowing us just enough time to change into warm clothes before the near-to-sub-freezing temps set in; camping on an open plain near 12,000 feet tends to invite a bit of a chill. Our tents were all pitched and ready for us to prepare our night’s bed, and a table of snacks to accompany our coffee and tea was waiting upon our arrival. A dinner of delicious soup, pasta, and vegetables capped off a successful first day. This would more or less be the scene each evening of the trek.

Highlights from the day included Yayu whipping a stone from a sling like David toward Goliath (and the whirring sound it made as it sailed out of view), playing the Mr. Potato can bongo with villagers of Gich, and geeking out over stories featured in Selamta when we met the magazine's Managing Editor and Photography Editor around the campfire; they were staying in the park to do a story for an upcoming issue.

Day 2 – Up & Down & Up & Down

07:30 - Breakfast of scrambled eggs, and we’re off! A bit outside of the campsite, Yayu scooped up a chunk of ice from a small patch of stagnant water – no wonder I needed a blanket to cover my face last night! Two hours and a thousand feet of climb later, we reached the Imet Gogo viewpoint. At 12,931 feet, this stunning overlook of the Simien lowlands marked a new “highest we’d ever stood on the planet” for the group – a record we were set to break later that day, and several times over the course of our trek. 

From Imet Gogo we started our ascent into a valley, spotting a family of Walia Ibex along the way, in order to climb an even higher mountain on the other side. We were all secretly wishing someone had built a bridge from one peak to another, but that was not to be. A bit after noon we reached the valley floor, and stopped to give Schickling a breather. It had become apparent that she was battling altitude sickness, and the impending climb was nothing short of intimidating in the face of such a condition. Lacking proper meds, I offered Shick a motion sickness people, hoping it would help fend off the nausea. We gave the meds a little time to absorb before starting our climb to Innate, where we would break for lunch. Although the motion sickness pill couldn’t do much for fatigue or shortness of breath, it reportedly did the trick for nausea.

Once we passed the 13,000 foot mark, I, too, was starting to feel the effects of thinner air, but I also had plenty of baboon sightings to help distract me, and not much longer before we were set to take a break. We sat down just before 14:30 for lunch at 13,350 feet – our second “highest high” of the day. Not a huge fan of the day’s packed lunch (tuna & veggie sandwich), I dined on Clif Bars (thanks, someone from America), gummi bears (thanks, Colleen), and a mango, which did enough to help me recover from the mild fatigue and shortness of breath I was feeling toward the end of the climb. Oh, and the view was even sweeter than my dining.*

Our descent into Chennek at 12,300 feet was “100% downhill” (minus the 10% that wasn’t). We pulled in at 16:45. Thanks to an earlier arrival, we were able to take our time settling in for the evening. We signed off with a round of 20 questions and a whiskey nightcap by the fire. Spirits were noticeably high upon the completion of our first full day.

Day 3 – Over the River and Through the Village

7:50 - After a power-charged breakfast of peanut butter, honey, “nutella,” and bacon (thank you, care packages) wrapped in a crepe, I was feeling energized and ready to go. The day ahead was long - roughly a half-marathon of hiking that would end at Ambiko, home of Ras Dashen base camp. As with the previous day, our journey started skyward in pursuit of yet another “personal high.” By 10:30, we had reached Bwahit Pass at 13,881 feet, again spotting more Gelada Baboons and Walia Ibex along the way. I hadn’t really noticed we were approaching a point much higher than the lunch spot on day 2 until I checked my GPS watch. Apparently I’d acclimatized enough not to feel the effects of a slightly higher elevation. Shickling was still battling fatigue and shortness of breath, but a preemptive motion sickness pill before we broke camp appeared to stave off the nausea.

We crossed the pass and began the searing, dusty descent into the village of Chino Laba; that this leg took us a good three hours to complete is a testament to just how challenging a downhill portion it was – a journey we’d have to reverse just two days later. We rolled into town a hair before 13:30, appearing perhaps our most haggard since starting out from Sankabar, and took our seats at reserved benches outside of Greenland Restaurant – we’ re a pretty big deal, you know. Our camp chef and an assistant cook had prepared for us a pot of veggies that we washed down with korafe, a thicker, darker, and arguably tastier version of the homemade “beer,” t’ella, found throughout most of the rest of Ethiopia. I had packed away the leftover breakfast crepes and fashioned myself a nice little dessert by covering them with raspberry flavored Clif gel, sent to me by Mary Abraham before she COS’d (thanks, homie).

14:15 - We're on the move, descending still lower into the valley. Temperatures are noticeably higher. Beads of sweat appeared on our brows – a sight unfamiliar at the altitudes we’d been trekking. An hour later, we reached Mesha River, marking our lowest point of the day and the trek as a whole at 9,240 feet (roughly the elevation at which I pass most of my Peace Corps time in Bekoji). After a brief stop for some of us to dip our feet in the river’s cooling waters, we surged on, climbing just over 1,000 feet out of the valley to reach Ambiko at 17:15.

The air was significantly warmer than our previous two nights’ stays, as Dejen promised us it would be, and the camp was significantly less populated than the others. And by that I mean we were the only people staying there. We had been told that the summit hike was far from the most popular option amongst park visitors, but it was unclear just how true that was until we reached this point. Yet, Ambiko actually felt the least isolated of the three camps, as it was situated directly next to a village. As village residents took a profound interest in our presence, it came as no surprise that we were implored to ensure all of our belongings remained in our tents at all times.

We shared s’mores and stories around the campfire before an early “lights out” in anticipation of our pre-dawn departure toward Ras Dashen.  

 Day 4 – The Roof of Africa

4:15 - Alarm sounds for the big day – the realization of a dream that has spanned my entire Peace Corps service. Of course, at that hour, in the wake of 2 ½ days of pretty serious hiking, it was impossible to consider any sense of profundity.

5:20 - We start out in total darkness, walking by headlamp for more than an hour. The only scene I recall from that day, before reaching the top, was that of the mountains we’d scaled the day before, slowly coming into light as the sun rose in an opposite sky. For the most part, the morning felt more like a military march than a hike – we had an objective, and little else was of any concern.

10:20 - We eclipse 14,000 feet, but there was no celebration of being “higher than we’d ever been”; there was still more work to be done. We trudged our way through fields of volcanic rock and dust, lending the illusion that we’d somehow ended up on Mars, climbing steadily higher.

11:48 - on the 25th of January in the year of our Lord 2014, after a short free climb, a group of six Peace Corps Volunteers stood proud, 14,922 feet above the sea, and, for a moment, were undeniably the highest people in Ethiopia (with exception of, perhaps, some folks in Shashamene).

One of the assistant cooks lugged a pot of spaghetti, along with a set of plates and forks, up to the top, allowing us to lunch in style. We took a bunch of photos and danced to Shatner of the Mount (stay tuned for our forthcoming video rendition) before making our way back down to Ambiko. We were greeted upon our arrival by the cooks and mule handlers singing, “Welcome! Ras Dashen!” while handing each of us a bundle of flowers, a small yet unexpected gesture that brought a smile to each of our worn-out faces.

That night, we were treated to a chicken dinner – a surprise at the end of a mostly vegetarian menu – and a bottle of Ethiopia’s finest, Guder wine. We again closed out the night with s’mores, stories, and sips of whiskey around the campfire.

Day 5 – The Day That Never Comes

I’m not really sure where the final day started or ended for me – or if it ever really started at all. Less than two hours after falling asleep, I awoke with great urgency and hurried to the outhouse; more of the same two hours after that. I downed some Pepto in hopes of capping the problem for our hike, but it was no use. Everything was passing right on through. It’s worth noting that I may have celebrated a bit harder than would be advised the night prior, but not to the extent of such a fate, and certainly not more than my body is able to handle; besides, I could tell for certain that there was something more at play.

I made it through the pre-dawn portion of our deadline-driven day OK (had to be back to Chennek by 14:00), albeit sluggishly and in some pain. I even felt like I could carry on at a slower pace as we climbed from Masha River back to Chino Laba. I sat down again at Greenland Restaurant and mixed some oral rehydration salts into a bottle of water in hopes of combating the dehydration I was suffering as a side effect of the diarrhea, but it was too late.

From that point forward, the wheels were slowly coming off. As we climbed the steep ascent toward Bwahit Pass, and the sun grew stronger and the air grew thinner, my condition rapidly declined. I was entering into a state of severe dehydration. The higher we climbed, the fewer steps I could take before collapsing. I started to feel genuine concern for my own health and safety. Dejen suggested that I try and catch a ride back to Chennek, once I made it to the road. I was in no position to argue. But the road was much higher above us than I had originally thought. I slugged on in my state of despair, stumbling and lurching and falling to the ground. In my head, Metallica’s The Day That Never Comes was on repeat. There was no way I was going to make it to the road, let alone to Chennek if no ride came along.

The site of Phil could not have been more welcome. Phil was the mule that had been carrying Schickling throughout the morning, and he (or she) was being lead back down the mountain by his handler to retrieve me (good thing I packed my helmet!). I saddled up and held on tight for what proved to be quite an exciting way up a mountain. In fact, we later agreed that we all should have just “muled it” on the last day, given the day’s difficulty, time crunch, that we had already made summit, and this portion was not new to us.

Once at the road, Dejen revealed that hopping a ride would likely cost quite a pretty penny. The typical foreigner in my position was desperate (I was) and willing to pay just about any price (I was not). He suggested another option: flag down a mule handler with an empty mule to get me to the top, which wasn’t all that much further, and I would walk down the other side. This sounded much more my speed. Before long, I had mounted a ragged mule, whom I named Sammi, for a steep and treacherous ride to the pass (seriously, the mule almost tipped over a couple times).  

I hopped off, handed over what would equate to $3.66USD for the ride, and joined the rest of the group for the first time since Chino Laba. We sat awhile before a short climb to Bwahit Pass and slowly winding our way back down to Chennek. As we approached the camp, and the final steps of our journey, we locked arm-in-arm, flanked on either side by Dejen and Yayu. We made a circle in front of the van awaiting our travel back to Gondar, and put our hands in for a pee wee basketball-style cheer, proclaiming what had become the banner of our adventure:

[hands in]

Why do I climb the mountain?

[hands up]

Because I’m in love!!!!!

Concluding Thoughts

Getting to the top of Ethiopia’s highest peak was no picnic (despite our many picnics along the way). In fact, it was quite the contrary. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, ranking right up there with breaking four hours in my second marathon after completely falling apart in the later stages. But it was also incredible beyond words, on two different levels.

First, there was the scenery. While no one in the group had ever been to the Grand Canyon, we pretty much agreed that the beauty found here was of similar magnitude (if not surpassing; but we’ll have to wait until we actually get to that American treasure to judge). For that, the Simien Mountains National Park is absolutely a must-visit before you die. The good news is that you do not have to do the summit trek to enjoy the heart of the park. In fact, the portion typically missed by non-summit-seekers was nowhere near as beautiful as the other parts we saw.

Second, this was an experience that was very much about the journey; a veritable metaphor for the 27 months we are spending in Ethiopia as Peace Corps Volunteers. We experienced amazing highs and shattering lows, both collectively and as a group, but we pushed through it all and made it to our goal. Along the way, we solidified a lifetime bond, and undoubtedly became stronger as individuals.

If you found the summit portion a bit anticlimactic, I can’t fault you. Truth is, there wasn’t much to the summit. It was just a big rock in the company of other big rocks, some of which have spurred controversy about which is actually the summit. The view isn’t really much to envy; in fact, peaks we reached during the earlier portion of the trek were far more awe-inspiring than those we encountered atop Ras Dashen. As I mentioned, the same can be said of the portion of the trek that is exclusive to your approach of base camp – the surrounding scenery simply isn’t as attractive. Add to all that the fact that locals pronounce the peak Ras Dejen and take offense to the more widely accepted pronunciation, and you can start to see why our group came to the consensus that it did: we’re glad we did the summit trek, and would highly recommend trekking around Simien Mountains National Park, but would strongly recommend against this particular itinerary for the average hiker.

One way or another, I feel a strong sense of closure around this endeavor. It reminds me a great deal of the baseball roadtrip I took back in 2008, with one of my all-time best friends, Nick. We still talk about that adventure with incredible fondness, something I don’t see ending so long as we walk this earth. I foresee similar fortunes for the five days I spent tackling the Simiens with five of my closest Peace Corps friends. These are people with whom I know I’ve made lifelong connections, and I already look forward to all the reminiscing around this otherworldly adventure. 

Final thought: If you go for a five day hike in Africa, and then have the opportunity to watch The Lion King in the van on the way back to your hotel, do it.

Also, this happened...

As did this...

*Photo credit for "Lunch with Birds" to Daniel and Danielle Luttrull

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