They began by traveling the only paved road in the country–and then driving 700 kilometers farther.
In November 2010, six climbers–Jimmy Chin, Alex Honnold, Tim Kemple, Renan Ozturk, James Pearson and Mark Synnott–spent ten days exploring the Ennedi Desert, a little-known corner of Chad with a wealth of gracefully carved sandstone towers. “I’d never heard of [the Ennedi] and honestly had a sketchy grasp of where Chad was in Africa,” said Honnold.
Leading the charge was Mark Synnot, a freelance writer, veteran big-wall climber and adventure traveler from New Hampshire. Synnott first caught wind of the fabled desert rock in Chad in the late 1990s while climbing in Cameroon. “I knew that climbers had visited the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad, but I wondered if there were other areas worth exploring,” Synnott wrote. “After studying Google Earth, I found the Ennedi, and an Internet search brought up amazing photos of beautiful rock towers and arches.”
Synnott’s curiosity about the area was finally quenched when The North Face sponsored an expedition to the region guided by Piero Rava, the 62-year old owner of trekking outfit Spazzi D’Avventura. As a climber with more than fifteen years of experience in the Ennedi, Rava knew more about the region than anyone. When his clients arrived, he already had a long list of potential lines he had scoped out over the years.
After flying into the capitol of N’Djamena, the climbers loaded their gear into tired-looking Land Rovers, and set off for the desert. After an hour of travel Rava drove over a sandy bank and off the road, Synnott wrote in an online American Alpine Journal report. The climbers wondered if they were stopping for lunch. But as Rava began entering coordinates on his GPS he simply said, “This is the way to the Ennedi.”
The crew drove nearly four days across the roadless dessert to reach their destination, passing only the occasional water well and decaying war machine along the way. “After eating a feast of tomato plus tuna our eagerness got the better, and we ran from camp like giggling school kids to make a group free solo of our new local cliff,” wrote Pearson.
For the following ten days, the climbers ventured into the Ennedi to discover whimsical new formations, finding climbable weaknesses within vast columns of unprotectable choss. “We have no real system for finding new routes. We just drive for hours across the desert to the next well-known landmark and see if the rock is climbable,” Kemple wrote from the field. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so much stone in my life, so at times it can be overwhelming. It’s mostly loose sandstone, but there is enough good rock to be found that every turn finds everyone’s eyeballs glued to the windows wanting to be the first to spy the next gem.”
Many of the climbs were ticked by Honnold, who frequently broke away from the rest of the group to seek out his own free-soloing adventures. Most of the rock he soloed was very featured climbing that was 5.9 and easier. The lack of difficulty allowed him to avoid rotten rock and made downclimbing less terrifying. Honnold said he backed off lots of climbs while soloing, at times feeling like the whole formation would collapse if he continued.
“I had an awesome time going up towers, building a little cairn, and then climbing back down. It felt very ‘pure,’ for lack of a better word… I don’t normally like all the ‘climber as an artist’ or spiritual-type stuff, but it’s hard to not enjoy that kind of minimalism,” Honnold said.
In total, the crew climbed around a dozen formations in the Ennedi, with a few highlights: The Citadel, the climbers’ first taste of Ennedi choss; The Wine Bottle, where Synnott and Pearson dug deep to overcome exploding chickenheads and desperate aid climbing; The Rainbow Arch, where Honnold claims “Chad’s hardest rock climb” in a cavernous offwidth; and The Delicate Arch of Ennedi, a spindly desert gem in the most remote part of the Ennedi.
The Citadel (5.11d/5.12a R, 200′)
At the end of their first day in the Ennedi, Rava drove the climbers to an area he new had potential. They quickly discovered The Citadel, a blocky tower with a well-defined arete that became Pearson’s focus. The next morning, the climbers took a cautious approach to the tower, sharply aware of their distance from medical attention. The first piece of pro popped out of the rock during a pull test, and the following twenty meters of climbing were not an improvement. Though moderate in difficulty, the “rock” was barely lithified sand. Pearson built a “nest of slings, nuts and cams” below a roof, pulling on a fragile chicken head to gain the lip. Above the overhang the rock was mercifully solid for the final forty meters of the climb. Pearson made his way up the headwall and to the summit.
“…[T]he quality of the climbing was wholly unexpected and, combined with the location and the formation, made for a phenomenal first taste,” Pearson wrote.
The Wine Bottle (5.11+ R/X A0, 90m)
On November 23, James Pearson and Mark Synnott, along with photographer Jimmy Chin, started up a sandstone tower they knew they had to climb as soon as they saw it. The ninety-meter spire is shaped like its namesake implies, with a wide base that narrows into a 100-foot neck and capped with a bulbous spout. With no obvious line up the formation, Pearson battled his way up sixty meters of poor rock with little pro. Synnott took the lead on the neck, following a line of readily removable holds. He soon switched from free to aid climbing, and at thirty feet above the belay, Synnott weighted a slung chicken head that exploded as he placed his next piece. The sling held on an unlikely nub and Synnott tried to drill a bolt, but couldn’t get it to tighten down. He instead hammered in a piton and handed the lead over to his partner.
Pearson soon reached the highpoint, and committed to the tricky moved above Synnott’s bolt. He moved carefully from questionable pro to questionable pro, free climbing where he could and sending a constant shower of debris down on Synnott. Eventually Pearson topped out along a solid crack, and Synnott followed him up to the summit.
“The Ennedi Desert stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, and it really sunk in just how far in the middle of nowhere we were,” Synnott wrote. “Unclimbed spires stretched to the distant horizon, and we could only marvel at how many other classic first ascents like this one still lay out there waiting.”
The Rainbow Arch (5.12+, toproped)
The crew stopped at a formation they called The Rainbow Arch to check it out “as tourists.” When they pulled their Land Rovers up to the strangely symmetrical arch, they found an irresistible offwidth that split the length of its underbelly. The group had little gear with them, so Kemple set op a three-anchor toprope for Honnold, who chose to start up the easier and less chossy-looking side of the arch. He reached the apex of the formation before finally taking a fall. Honnold found success starting from the other side and moving through a bouldery section to access the crack.
“I broke off tons of holds and a certain points could hear sand pouring into my ears,” Honnold wrote. “In some ways it was the most disgusting route of my life in terms of poor, sandy rock and hard climbing. But it was also the most satisfying pitch of the trip for me.”
At 5.12+, the climb is expected to be the hardest in Chad, but it has little competition, joked Honnold.
The Delicate Arch of Ba-Chikele (5.10c R/X, 200′)
In the final days of the expedition, the climbers set out on a final adventure to the most remote part of the Ennedi where they found The Arch of Ba-Chikele, a tall, slender arch that reminded the climber’s of Utah’s Delicate Arch. They scoped the spindly formation and found only crumbly cracks and blank slabs. Pearson and Synnott opted for a line up the forty-meter slab, finding terrible rock and just five pieces of pro. “At one point Mark tried to place a bolt and it was so loose in the hole he had to double stack pitons around it to make it even remotely passable as protection,” Ozturk wrote. The sun dropped below the horizon before Pearson and Synnott could reach the top of the formation, so they retreated for the day.
Meanwhile, Honnold was attempting an onsight free-solo of a crack on the other side of the arch. Halfway to the summit, Honnold had his knee jammed in a wide crack and was unwilling to transfer to a loose, refrigerator-size block. He carefully downclimbed 100 feet to the ground while his partners watched with sweaty palms and clenched teeth.
Getting an alpine start the next morning, Pearson led the final terrifying section of loose rock while Synnott belayed. The protection was so poor that Pearson would have stripped the entire pitch (including the anchor) had he fallen, Ozturk reported in his blog. After topping out, the duo brought the entire crew up to share the final summit of the expedition.
“However haggard, diarrhea ridden, sand caked, starved and exhausted we all may be there is no doubt we are vastly grateful for the experience and the opportunity to be the first to climb in this remote region,” Ozturk wrote about the trip.
A special thanks to Renan Ozturk and the rest of the Camp 4 Collective for providing the beautifully, and painstakingly captured footage viewed in the video above. -Ed.
View Jimmy Chin’s spectacular images from the expedition on his website, under “Projects.”