Helen Dudley

Helen Dudley

Exploring new angles of an ancient country.

Story by Majka Burhardt
Photos by Gabe Rogel

Four women rock climbing in Ethiopia — climbing anywhere, really — are hard to miss. Each of us was adorned with 25 pounds of metal and nylon, and we took turns contorting our hands and feet into orange sandstone as we tried to get higher. Our purpose? Charting a new course into the unknown.

Launching yourself up vertical inclines is not normal. I have learned that in my 17-year career as a climber. It is, however, glorious — when it works. And on that day in March 2007, it was glorious.

Five months before, in October 2006, the idea of rock climbing in Ethiopia was no more than a hunch. I’d spent a week traveling through the country’s rich, green coffee lands doing research, during which I caught occasional glimpses of another landscape that would appear and then vanish. The basalt and limestone escarpments tucked into verdant valleys were playing tricks with my mind.

I seized my first opportunity to learn more once I arrived in Jimma, the largest city in southwest Ethiopia. It took me five minutes to locate the singular Internet connection in the three-block radius of the downtown.

Ten minutes later I watched a photo appear over the dial-up connection, horizontal line by horizontal line. The screen flickered. I waited, holding my breath. And then I saw confirmation: sanguine and orange bolts of sandstone stretching 600 feet into the sky. Read more