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Travel

Dec 15, 2018

The Bale Mountains: Formed by Fire and Ice

Located in southeastern Ethiopia, 400km from Addis Ababa, the Bale Mountains are a landscape created by volcanic fires and shaped by glacial ice, home to some of the rarest creatures in the world.

WRITTEN BY

Sarah Kingdom

Located in southeastern Ethiopia, 400km from Addis Ababa, the Bale Mountains are a landscape created by volcanic fires and shaped by glacial ice. The highlands are almost always ringed by clouds and covered in mist, rain or sleet. Giant lobelia plants stand guard over the undulating plateau and its numerous glacial lakes and swamps. You are surrounded on all sides by volcanic ridges and peaks.

Garba Guracha or ‘black water’, one of the many alpine lakes that dot the park. Photo: Sarah Kingdom

Only about 150 or 200 people a year trek in the Bale Mountains, and on our visit we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We didn’t see another trekker for the entire week we were in the park, and if it hadn’t been quite so cloudy when we climbed to the top of Tullu Demtu (Ethiopia’s second highest mountain at 4,377m) I know there wouldn’t have been another person below us in this spectacular, ethereal landscape, for as far as the eye could see.

The seemingly endless, undulating plateau. Photo: © Sean Sikinger

Many of the things that live here are found nowhere else

Averaging 4,000m above sea level there is nowhere else like it on the African continent, a place where natural selection has been hard at work; plants, animals and birds have all been fine-tuned to withstand the extremes of temperature, oxygen depletion, fierce winds and extreme ultraviolet radiation. The result has been the creation of an ecosystem that is one of those rare and rarefied places, where many of the things that live here are found nowhere else. There are more animals unique to these mountains than just about anywhere else on the planet!

All of the big-headed mole rats in the world are found in the Bale Mountains. Photo: © Sean Sikinger

The Bale Highlands are home to 20 endemic Ethiopian mammals (5 of which, including the magnificent and endangered Mountain Nyala, are found only here), 12 endemic amphibians, 12 reptiles, 16 endemic birds and all the Bale Monkeys and Big Headed Mole-rats in the world. They are rated as one of the four top birding spots in Africa and it is easy to see why, with such rare birds as the Blue Winged Goose, Abyssinian Catbird, Spot Breasted Plover and Abyssinian Ground Hornbill to be seen. Ethiopia has more than 860 species of bird, 283 of which are found in the Bale Mountains and 16 of which are endemic to these highlands.

In 1969 215,000 hectares of the Bale Mountains were declared a National Park and in 2009 nominated as a World Heritage site. But Bale is not a national park in the normal western understanding of the concept. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people live within the park’s boundaries, divided between local villagers in the Harrena forest and pastoralists tending cattle, sheep and horses on the Senetti Plateau. Stock numbers now exceed the sustainable utilisation of the fragile moorlands, threatening the food source of the rodents, who are in turn the principle food source of all the carnivores, including the Ethiopian wolf.

An Ethiopian wolf stalking his prey. Photo: © Sean Sikinger

The star of the Bale show is undoubtedly the Ethiopian Wolf (Canis Simensis). With its thick, brick red coat on top and white belly below, its narrow snout and lithe body, it looks more like a large fox or a jackal than a wolf. The afro-alpine zone of the park is home to about half of the world’s total population of between 400 and 450 Ethiopian wolves… this is the rarest canid on the planet and Africa’s most endangered carnivore.

The campfire glows inside a cave. Photo: © Sean Sikinger

An even bigger threat to the wolves than the shortage of rodents to eat is the presence of several thousand domestic dogs in the park. These dogs are carriers of rabies and interact openly with the wolves. In 2010 rabies and distemper killed 106 of the wolves (about 40% of the Bale population at the time) and again in 2014 between 30 and 50% of the parks wolves were killed by rabies. The numbers have recovered slightly now, due to a rabies vaccination project and the ‘Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme,’ which attempts to vaccinate 4000 domestic dogs, and all of the wolves in the park, annually. We were lucky to see twelve wolves during our time in the park and also met some of the researchers working with the conservation project as they walked the plateau making notes on the wolves they saw. Conservationists worry that if a viable solution is not found and efforts to control the unsustainable exploitation of the park’s natural resources are not successful, that not only the Ethiopian wolf but a number of other rare and endangered animals in Bale will vanish.

Between 20,000 and 40,000 people live in small settlements within the park boundaries. Photo:© Sean Sikinger

A week was barely long enough to do justice to this beautiful park. We trekked across approximately one-third of the park, starting in the tiny rural town of Dinsho, crossing the Senetti Plateau and finishing in the Harrena Forest. It was a ‘rustic’ style trip, food was basic, to say the least, our cook had a repertoire that consisted solely of rice served with cabbage or pasta served with tomato sauce, and we ate these dishes with regular monotony; always knowing that whichever we ate for lunch, the other would, without fail, appear at dinner! The accommodation was tents, which were tiny but snug and warm and many mornings we awoke to find the outside of the tent covered with a layer of ice. This was an amazing opportunity to visit Ethiopia’s most important biodiversity hotspot and see some of the rarest creatures in the world.

Cover photo: Ethiopian wolf on the lookout. © Sean R Sikinger

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Events

Mar 25, 2019

GritFest 2019: The long-awaited trad climbing event returns

Fueled by a common passion, an assembly of seasoned climbers revive the traditional climbing movement just outside of Delhi, India.

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The wind coming off the rock face felt inhospitable, but the air itself gave off a sense of communal joy. After 33 years in absence, the thrill at the Great Indian Trad Festival, or Gritfest, emerged again for a new generation. 

We stood together in ceremony around Mohit Oberoi, aka Mo, the architect of the Dhauj trad climbing era, whose been climbing in the area since 1983. Mo, who continues to inspire many, briefly underlined the cause behind the Gritfest: a two-day annual trad climbing gathering that finally saw the light of day on February 23rd and 24th 2019. The gathering, although one of its kind, was not the first. The first one took place in 1985 and was put together by Tejvir Khurrana.

Read next: Mohit Oberoi: My History with Dhauj, Delhi’s Real Trad Area

“Dhauj is huge and there exists such an amazing playground right on their doorstep”

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the climbing scene in India, Dhauj is where some of the country’s finest climbing began. Located in Faridabad Haryana, Dhauj is roughly between 18 to 20 miles away from Delhi. The region is home to the Aravali Mountains that start in Delhi and pass through southern Haryana to the state of Rajasthan across the west, ending in Gujrat.

The Great Indian Trad Fest was long overdue and brought together by Ashwin Shah, who is the figurative sentinel guard of the Dhauj territory. In addition to being the guy with more gear than you’d ever expect one man to own, he is also often caught headhunting belayers, sometimes even climbers. His never-aging obsession with Dhauj is also very contagious. I’m grateful to start my own climbing journey with Ashwin. In my first attempts at belaying, my simple mistake caused him to drop on a 5-meter whipper. It could have been more.

Rajesh, on the left, getting ready to belay, Ashwin in the middle and Prerna on the right

That whipper, in hindsight, transmuted into a defining moment for me. The primal squeal Ashwin let out while falling made me realize the danger of this new passion I couldn’t help but fall for myself. That being said, had it not been for Ashwin’s impressionable optimism to entrust me with his life, Dhauj wouldn’t have held the same allure that it does for me now. Ashwin started contemplating the Gritfest after his return from Ramanagara Romp in Bangalore: a three-day event that gauged the possibility of climbs undertaken during a two-day window.

Read Next: Why the Aravalli Forest Range is the Most Degraded Zone in India

The idea behind the Gritfest is to celebrate a legacy built over the last four to five decades. A legacy that should be preserved for posterity as it has been thus far. “The objective is to think about the future,” said Mo, as he jogged his memory from back in the days. Furthermore, the fest also aims to encourage and educate aspiring climbers on traditional climbing: a form of climbing that requires climbers to place gear to protect against falls, and remove it when a pitch is complete.

Mo leading Aries at the Prow.

Sadly, the fest also takes place at a time when the government of Haryana seeks to amend an age-old act,  the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 (PLPA), that would put thousands of acres of land in the Aravalli range under threat. India’s Supreme Court, however, has reigned in and we will likely know the outcome in the days to come.

The know-how around trad climbing rests with a handful of members in the community. This also makes the Gritfest ideal for supporting a trad-exploration pivot in the country. Dhauj, also home to the oldest fold mountains in India, has been scoped out with lines that go over 100 feet. The guidebook compiled by Mohit Oberoi documents some fine world-class routes since the early stages of climbing in and around Delhi. With grades ranging between 5.4 to 5.12a, Dhauj has more than 270 promising routes.

The fest kicked off with Mo leading the first pitch on Aries, a 5.6 rating, 60 feet high face at the prow, while the community followed. Seeing Mo repeat some of the climbs he’s been doing for over 30 years was exhilarating to say the least. Amongst the fellow climbers, we also had some professional athletes, including Sandeep Maity, Bharat Bhusan, and Prerna Dangi. The fest also saw participation from the founders of Suru Fest and BoulderBox.

Kira rappelling down from the top of Hysteria with a stengun, 5.10a.

“Trad climbing can be a humbling experience”

While the Gritfest finally came to fruition, I wondered as to why it took so long for it to happen. One of the questions that I particularly had in mind was regarding the popularity of places such as Badami and Hampi over Dhauj. Although the style of climbing varies across all regions, the scope and thrill of climbing in Dhauj remains underestimated. For one reason, I knew that there is a serious dearth of trad climbing skills which makes it partly inaccessible. Whereas the red sandstone crags bolted with possibly the best sports routes in India make the approach to Badami relatively easier.

I reached out to Mo, and asked him to share his perspective on the fest as well as some of the questions I had in mind.

1) Tell us a little about your thoughts on theGritfest?

It’s a great way for climbers to get together and climb, form new partnerships, share information and also solidify the ethic part of climbing, especially in Dhauj, which is purely a trad climbing area.

2) What is it that the current community can learn from Gritfest?

The possibility of climbing in Dhauj is huge and there exists such an amazing playground right on their doorstep, also Dhauj is an amazing place to learn “trad climbing”.

3) Since it was the first installment, where do you see it heading in the future?

I think it will grow to a large number of climbers congregating here as long as we KEEP IT SIMPLE, and climb as much as possible. We should keep the learning workshops “How to climb” type of courses out of this. This should be one event where we just climb at whatever level we feel comfortable with.

4) Why is it that Dhauj isn’t nearly as popular as Badami or Hampi?

I’m not sure why, really. It’s possible that the grades are not “bragging” grades and climbers don’t feel comfortable starting to lead or climb on “trad” at a lower range of grades. “Trad” climbing can be a humbling experience as one has to work up from the lower grades upwards. It is both a mental and physical challenge unlike climbing on bolts. Despite the guidebook, there is a reluctance to going out to Dhauj which surprises me, that Delhi / NCR locals would rather have travelled more times to Badami / Hampi than take a short ride to their local crag.

Perhaps it is about bragging rights. Perhaps it’s about the lack of skills. Whatever the reason might be, Dhauj will continue to inspire generations to come and fests like Gritfest will serve to strengthen our community. Whether you are new to climbing or have been at it for years, there is always something to learn.

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