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Mt Wehni - The Prison of Princes

Updated: Apr 17, 2018

“From the crest of the ridge the last half of the plateau was finally revealed. The vast natural forces that had thrown up these regular downs had suddenly run wild. In the docile plain there opened a gorge perhaps half a mile wide, leading to a bowl shaped valley. It was the valley of Wehni. From the centre rose the scoriae black thumb that was the mountain. It was in fact twice the height that it first appeared and its sides perfectly sheer to the ground. Once again my stomach contracted in fear.” Thomas Pakenham, The Mountains of Rasselas.

The Hot Rock Global Challenge had been going for four months since that misty day when it left the docks of Dover to start the epic world record breaking climbing expedition. It was to travel the length of six continents overland, the objective to climb existing and new routes. The expedition has just been back from the first successful expedition to climb to the summit of Mt Wehni, a basalt tower in Ethiopia. We are the first known people to be on the summit since it was the prison to Ethiopian princes 300 years ago. The princes were held on the peak to protect the king from being over-thrown; all 200 prisoners and inhabitants were kept on a summit 120m by 80m. The cut steps and wooden stakes that were used to climb the peak had long gone and the closest you could get to see the visible ruins was by looking across from the hill tops on the other side of the valley. Two helicopter missions failed to land on the summit, the British forces could not climb the peak and numerous explorers were just left at its base imagining what treasure the summit still held.

I had been put in touch with a local boy who claimed to know the whereabouts of the peak from a contact in a village further south. An unused road could get us 5km from the peak, but as the roads were so bad we would need to get a local bus/tank to drive us in. That night the bags were packed along with 30kg of oranges, 150 loafs of bread, 250L of water, 10kg of the smallest onions in the world, and all the climbing kit we could collect into the ‘bus’. We left the next morning at 6:00am.

The bus stopped 5 hours later at the town of Addis Zemmen. Our guide jumped out and spoke to a man (old and blind). After a heated discussion they both came on to the bus and informed us the walk started here. The mountain had moved again!! We were informed that it laid 20km that way (direction given by a throw of an arm). We had to trust this blind old man, and go against the advice of the ‘trusty’ contact. This was hard to do, as to walk 20km and find out he had directed us to his hut for lunch would have been soul destroying. But we trusted the blind man and packed up the water and food onto the backs of 11 very small donkeys and set off. The word had gone round the village that white people were here to climb their hills, and a crowd of a couple of hundred kids screaming “YOU YOU YOU” escorted us for the first hour of the walk.

The donkeys were useless. We were “walking” (pushing donkeys up hills) at an average speed of 1.5kmph, and with the big pass still to come getting to base camp that night was out of the question. In fact we only managed to get halfway. The last 100m to the top of the pass involved us carrying the water for the donkeys. We camped on the outskirts of a small village. At this point we still had no idea if the peak we were walking towards to was the one we wanted!

We left early the next morning. With their bellies full of straw, the donkeys trotted on at a happy pace. The hilltop opened out to a flat plateau, rather like Salisbury plain but with monkeys. There at the edge of the plateau we received the same view that Thomas Pakenham had had 50 years ago. Did my stomach contract in fear? No! Did I smile like a kid at Christmas and almost cry with relief and for the joy of the others? Yes! There it was, only a couple of km away. We could make out the ruins on the summit and the guardhouse built two thirds of the way up the cliff. An hour later we had made a base camp under an enormous olive tree and in the shadow of the west face of Mt Wehni.

The audience had grown and the murmur of the crowd had risen to an excited roar. The forangis had come to climb the prison of the princes. There was suddenly a mad cry from the hill overlooking the col on which we camped. A man had stripped down naked and was running down the hill towards us. He reached a spot 20m away, stopped and started whipping himself while dancing in a style of a religious “stomp” after one had just licked the cane toad. Our guide, Mike, translated his cries and told us that he is upset, because we will steal the Ark of the Covenant that is on top of the peak!!! The local priests took this seriously. After an hour or two they approached us and said that before we climb we had to have our bags checked so when we returned they would know what treasures we had stolen from the summit. This gave us a buzz, as they really had no idea of what was on the summit.

The route I climbed was good climbing but very unprotected (Placing only 4 bits of protection in 6 pitches of climbing). As our route meandered along the original route up the mountain we came across several sections of very polished rock, which would have been done by the hundreds of princes who had passed up and down the route. About 60m from the summit we passed through the doorway of the guardhouse and from there I could see the rest was just a scramble.

The very last move was to squeeze past the enormous olive wood door that blocked the entrance to the prison. We had done it. We had completed the dream of so many explorers and were about to join the vultures in knowing what secrets lay on top. The top was covered in long grass hiding all the walls and potholes which we stumbled across. Our aim was to map the summit and photograph everything. Most is just ruin but the church gave us a bit more interest. There were old paintings on the wall and carved crosses and Amharic scripture in tablets partly hidden by the cracked plaster on the walls. Sadly we found no gold or booby traps, and all skeletons must have been deeply buried. In fact the only interesting artifacts that we found were two massive clay urns containing nothing but hyrax poo. We spent the night on the summit and then descended the next day. We were on the floor in 3 long abseils and 2 hours later.

The priests were the first to greet us. They dipped their heads and kissed our hands. An English speaking man approached us, “We have so much respect for you, and such an incredible journey I have never seen!” The rest of the day was spent drawing the ruins and the carvings we had seen on the back of a box of tea bags, for the chief of the village to keep and show the waiting crowd.

We celebrated that night with a pit roast sheep. As it is Lent they would not kill the sheep, but were happy to let us do it. This was an experience that was close to making me a vegetarian. But I soon forgot this when it was cooked, eaten and was being slowly digested as I lay back and looked at the route we had just taken to the summit, absolutely perfect. The next day I took the last of the 12 members in the team to the summit along a route that was graded E1 5a and named “Beneath the Path of Princes”.

On our descent that day we were greeted by a crazy-eyed man with equally bizarre hair and teeth. We tried to communicate and then as we walked off we realised he wore a set of shackles around his ankles. We were told the gruesome story later of how he used to be the village policeman until he had murdered a few too many friends and family. His punishment is to stay shackled for the rest of his life, the theory being that he is too slow to catch and kill anyone else (unless he gets his hands on a gun, they quietly added)!!!

We left the next day and walked 7 hours back to Addis Zemmen and based ourselves in a bar celebrating with ice cold beer and ‘chat’ (a small leaf when chewed has a similar effect to the coca leaf). Eventually the bus arrived and we traveled south to Bahir Dar to meet up with friends. The whole experience is everything I could have hoped for: rumors of being beaten to the top, donkeys, porter disputes, crazy locals screaming about legends of treasure, ruins, fine climbing and every member of the team climbing to the top and safely coming down.

About the Author: I work as an expedition guide, safety consultant and production manager. In short I keep people safe and happy so that they can achieve their goals. Click here to find more about me and what services I can offer.


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