Ennedi Desert, various ascents.
By Mark Synnott, AAC
On November 14 Jimmy Chin, Tim Kemple, Alex Honnold, Renan Ozturk, James Pearson (UK), and I arrived in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Our goal was to explore and climb in the Ennedi Desert, which lies in eastern Chad near the border with Sudan. The expedition was outfitted by an Italian company called Spazzi D’Avventura and our guide, the company’s owner, 66-year-old Piero Rava.
We spent one night in N’Djamena and the next morning loaded all of our supplies into two Land Cruisers and a Range Rover for the ca 800km journey to the Ennedi. Piero’s crew included four Chadians: a cook, cook’s helper, mechanic, and a driver. For the first 100km we followed the only paved road in the country, which led us northeast out of the city. The landscape was desolate: a flat, gray expanse of sand that stretched as far as we could see in every direction. We were only on the road for an hour before Piero drove over a sand bank on the side and began punching buttons on his GPS. We thought we were stopping for lunch, but Piero simply said, “this is the way to the Ennedi.”
We spent the next three-and-a-half days questing, mostly off-road, across nearly the entire country of Chad. One whole day was spent crossing a particularly bleak expanse of hardpan sand flats that Piero called his “shortcut.” Along the way we saw many Chadian nomads, who eke a living out of this barren environment by raising camels, donkeys, and goats. There are ancient wells spaced periodically across the desert, and life for these people revolves around trips to their local watering hole. We stopped at many of these wells to resupply our own water, and it was fascinating to observe the local Chadians and their herds of livestock. November-December is their winter and the dry season, and we hardly saw a cloud during our trip. High temperatures during the day were in the low 90s F. At night they fell into the 50s. The air was very dry, and it was always comfortable in the shade.
I had first heard about the possibility of rock climbing in Chad back in the late 1990s on a climbing expedition to the Mandara Mountains in Cameroon. I knew that climbers had visited the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad, but I wondered if there were other areas worth exploring. After studying Google Earth, I found the Ennedi, and an Internet search brought up amazing photos of beautiful rock towers and arches.
As we entered the Ennedi, we could have been in Utah’s Canyonlands desert. Sandstone buttes, towers, and arches covered an area that Piero said was about 60,000 km2. Piero had been to the Ennedi many times and was the first person regularly to start leading adventure tours to the area. He is also a climber, but a modest one, as it was only after Tim pulled out a book on Patagonia that Piero casually mentioned he had almost made the first ascent of Cerro Torre with Casimiro Ferrari back in the early ’70s. Piero is THE authority on the Ennedi, and he assured us that we were the first group of technical rock climbers to visit the area. Every time we turned a corner and a new landscape was unveiled, we had to up our estimates as to how many towers there may be in the Ennedi. By the end of our first day in this African canyonland we were debating whether there were thousands or tens of thousands of unclimbed towers.
Over the next two weeks we drove around the Ennedi establishing different camps, venturing out to climb as many towers and arches as we could get our hands on. All told I estimate that we made first ascents of about 20 different towers, ranging from 50-300 feet tall. Many of these were onsight free-solos (up to 5.10), completed by Honnold. Alex also made an impressive ascent of an offwidth splitter, which incised the underside of an 80′-tall freestanding arch. His ascent involved upside-down levitation and foot camming, as well as exploding choss holds, and a section dripping in guano. Protection consisted of a toprope that Kemple lowered down through the crack from the top of the formation: The Rainbow Arch 5.12+ (a.k.a. The Hardest Route in Chad). Other highlights of the trip include the first ascents of three of the most impressive towers in the Ennedi: The Citadel (5.11d/5.12a R, 200′, Honnold-Pearson-Synnott, no bolts); The Wine Bottle (5.11d R/X, 300′, Chin-Pearson-Synnott, three bolts); The Arch of Bashikele (a.k.a. Delicate Arch of the Ennedi, 5.10c R/X, 200′, Chin-Honnold-Ozturk-Pearson-Synnott, one bolt).
The rock varied considerably, much like it does in other desert climbing areas. Some of the towers were encased in a dark varnish or patina that made for solid holds and protection. Other towers that lacked the varnish were sandy and dangerously loose. All told, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the climbing. Truly, the Ennedi contains a lifetime’s worth of unclimbed sandstone towers, and I look forward to getting back there some day.
Our team would like to thank The North Face, without whose generous support this trip would not have been possible.