Chad's Ennedi Dessert: A Google Earth Adventure

Posted on: July 20, 2011


The North FaceŽ: Towers of the Ennedi from Camp 4 Collective on Vimeo.

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."

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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.

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