The Debre Damo saga: the incredible ascent

At half past three I was on the way. The little old man with a disproportionate loose turban, which is in fact made of a white overcoat, shouted at me saying he was coming along too. He catches up and keeps going at a gait that feels more like a trot. He says that in two hours, against my knowledge of three, we will be at the monastery, and I don’t doubt it, if we keep the mad going. At most we’ll be knackered.

I ask the man where Debre Damo is and he points straight ahead. In front we have a huge mountain with a conical base ending in a big flat-topped tower of rock. I can’t see any monastery or access to this impervious stalwart and it seems too distant a destination to be possible. Yet, the way keeps pointing towards it.

Half an hour into the walk I realise I haven’t got purifying tablets for the water. At this pace and in this heat, I am sweating a lot. I have less than one litre with me and the monastery has dubious supplies, but it’s far too late to turn back.

The man takes a short cut that descends into the valley, crosses a river without much water, its pebbles covered in green algae. We are joined by another man who, as a greeting to my companion, kisses the cross that he takes out of his jacket, which means he must be a priest. In fact, he turns off at one of the churches at the base of the slope, commending me to the other man who follows on.

We tackle the long ascent clambering on the stony path that leads up to the base of the cliff-like rocky top. As we get near and see all sides perfectly impregnable, I wonder what the famous entrance to the monastery will be like. At the end, we arrive at the point I had dreaded. A rope hangs from a little door in mid-air, about 20 m higher than the point where I am standing, unbelievingly looking up with a gaping mouth.

There is one braided round leather rope and a parallel one made of hide strips that the prospective visitor is tied around the waist with as makeshift security. The man invites me to go first, but I’d rather watch him and take example. With dramatic solemnity the man kneels down, prays and kisses the rock repeatedly asking for the strength to accomplish the feat. It looks as if these could be his last minutes on earth.

Without little difficulty, the man hoists himself up. Now it’s up to me. I am feeling tired from the walk, dehydrated, nervous. I strip of my bag, which I tie to the rope and have it taken up. When the rope comes down again, I slide it around my waist. It is fraying leather that will certainly give way under the jerk of a falling weight and if this should happen, the very monk pulling on top would be dragged down too.

I nevertheless start to hoist myself up the sleek surface with the strength of my arms, but I’m almost overcome by a moment of hesitation, just a metre under the ledge. It could have cost me dearly: if I had lost grip of the rope I would have tumbled down without anything stopping my free fall, apart from the flimsy rope that, short of securing me, would certainly have snapped in two. I muster up all my courage and determination not to look down, then I feel for the wooden peg and clasp my grip around it, pulling the rest of my body into the opening. The monk in a yellow blanket must see a body creep in and sink to his feet, drained of energy, legs trembling with emotion. I must recover from incredible tension.