Debre Damo

Debre Damo from ten miles away

Debre Damo from ten miles away

There are only four of us in this minibus. There is our driver, a baby-faced kid who oozed himself in the front seat seconds before we disembarked (and whose name or purpose we have yet to explore or learn), Mark, and myself. In direct rebellion to our last minibus trip, Mark and I are stretched out in the back, taking up as much space as is possible without taking part in a game of African Twister.

The four of us are heading through the desert towards our destination: Debre Damo.

Debre Damo is a 6th century monastery in Northern Ethiopia. It is known for having the oldest church building in Ethiopia still in its original style, for its manuscripts, known for its herds of pilgrim visits, and it’s known for its inaccessibility.

It’s inaccessible in a number of ways. In the first place, it is in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere. At one point during the trip, we have turned off of the main road and directly into the bible. We head far into mountains and valleys that are inhabited by a few tribespeople wondering when they can move to a place that has Netflix.

And Debre Damo resides on top of a mountain; a very steep, trapezoidal, flat-topped mountain. And it is accessible only by climbing a rope up a 50-foot sheer cliff.


After driving up dirt switchbacks, the driver pulls over in an area of desolate road overlooking a valley and a few distant mountains. He points, “There is Debre Damo.”

Mark and I make a sound that one makes while watching a professional athlete violently attain a compound fracture.

This trip has thus far been adventurous and intense, but it has been chock full of things way more fun to talk about in the future or in the past. Once it comes to actually having to go through with it is when I am overwhelmed by all the worrisome possibilities.

The only things standing between me and Debre Damo are a dangerous drive through a rocky desert, a 400 meter steep hike at 2,200 meters altitude, and the 50-foot sheer cliff that I have to climb. All of this in order to get a picture of the church and look into its well of holy water.

The kid turns to me and says, “You know that you must climb a rope to get into Debre Damo, yes?”

“Yes,” I say. “I know.” I am trying to concentrate on climbing in my head.

“I know you will do it.” He points at me and nods his head.

“Thank you.” I smile, having received my one and only Ethiopian pep talk.

At the appearance of the Damo, Mark and I stop talking altogether so that we can focus all of our attention on staring at it and obsessing. As we approach, Mark leans over and says, “Who is this kid?”

“I have no idea, but he evidently believes in us.”

“Are we paying him?”

“I don’t know. But we will find out.”

When we arrive the kid begins to lead us up the very steep hill at whose apex reaches the cliff we have to climb into the monastery. We stop him.

“Hold on,” I say. “Who are you?”

“I’m your guide.” The kid looked young before, but now he looks younger. He is short, slim, dark, and baby-faced. His cheeks have never once seen a razor outside of some hazing at illegitimate guide camp. And he, he is supposed to lead us up a treacherous cliff climb? We could actually die!

“We didn’t ask for a guide,” Mark points out.

“I can help you, I know much about Debre Damo. I am a history student.”

“And for how much?” I ask the prickish, yet pragmatic question. You learn the importance of direct pragmatism after your first three-minute, twenty-dollar cab ride.

“What you want to tip me.”

“That’s it?” Mark asks.


Mark leans in. “We might want to do this, he could help us stay alive.”


“OK,” Mark says to him. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Robin.”

“Robin,” I repeat.

“Yes, Robin”

“Robin?” Mark asks the air.

“Yes.” Robin is a little confused. “…Robin”

“Robin,” I say to Mark. “Mark, it’s our guide: Robin.”


After an extended period of time ascertaining the simple name of our guide, we begin our vertical hike. But now there’s an added issue. Robin. Not only does Robin now look young and inexperienced, now I am only able to see him wearing green tights, a yellow cape, and a tight red shirt with a large R emblazoned on the left chest. I can only imagine him emoting rhyming exclamations. Robin – guide wonder.

There are many more directions for these thoughts to go, but before they get too far, we get to Debre Damo. I turn and look at the valley beneath us from the base of the 50-foot cliff. Three kids are going up before us. They shimmy up the sheer face of the cliff as though ninjas in a Jackie Chan film.

There are three ropes dangling from the doorway above. There is a thick leather rope, as seen in at least one scene in every Indiana Jones film. There is a thinner goatskin harness, and there is another goatskin rope.

“OK,” Robin says. “Are you ready?”

Me going up (not pictured: face of terror)

Me going up (not pictured: face of terror)

I step forward. It occurs to me just how much I hate myself for doing things like this. I grab the leather rope, which is too thick, smooth, and stiff. Robin takes the goatskin harness and – with the eye and movements of one who knows what he is doing – wraps it around my waist. Once. Then he says, “Uh. OK.”

I glare at him. “What?”

There are two thin monks in turbans looking down at us from the doorway. When they see that Robin has sent me up, they begin shouting at someone else. Another boy comes out of the shadows (this one looks five years old, but he seems to know what he’s doing) and he expertly wraps the harness around my waist two more times. He yanks it until it’s taut and doing a crude endoscopy. And then I go up.

It’s at this point that I fully realize the difference between explanations in books and reality.

Guidebook: Two monks pull you up with a harness and you help them out by climbing along with the rope.

Reality: You climb and the monks alternate between holding you in place 40 feet above rocks and belly laughing at you from above.

I have no idea how long I climb the rope, only that it is an experience I will describe later as exhilarating, which for now is still terrifying. I put my feet into gaps and holes, hearing distant encouragement from Mark below. I swear that I hear Robin call out a “Holy Heights Batman!” but in hindsight this is probably due to the lack of oxygen in my brain.

The rope makes awful, awful sounds that make me regret each bite of my breakfast pancake. I am stopped for interminable moments, until I can get another foothold or the monks can drag me a few inches up to one. During one such pause, I make the mistake of looking around me at the other mountains and the valley beneath. I correct this and look up at the monks smiling down at me, surely basking in the grace of whatever god put them there and me here.

All of a sudden, I am going through the doorway at the top. Alive. Excited. Dilated. In my exhilaration, I look at the two monks and shout, “Holy fuck!”

They nod serenely and then one points to my feet and says, “Take off your shoes.”

Mark coming down

Mark coming down

They uncoil the harness from my lower intestine and drop it down to Mark. I am unable to look through the doorway down at him; in fact I can only envision myself getting tripped up in his harness and killing us both, so I stay far back. I pull off my shoes and laugh giddily with the three kids who climbed up before us.

They pat my back and congratulate me as I listen to make sure Mark is surviving his trip up to the Damo. When he pokes his head through the doorway, we meet and embrace in the most dignified manner possible, and then jump around cheering like little girls who just got asked to roller skate.

If we embarrass ourselves on the Damo, there is at least the comfort that we will not do so in front of women. In the 1500 years of its existence, there has never been one woman on Debre Damo. Not one. This makes me feel right at home, since this rule has been applied to every tree fort I’ve been in and (seemingly) my flat. I wonder if Debre Damo’s history knows one Viola, and if she got away with it or was caught, and what happened if she was. Still, this “no girls allowed” policy is taken so seriously that there has never been a female animal on Debre Damo.

When we arrive at the church, Robin tells us that we have to wait to be interviewed by one of the monks. An austere and handsome monk comes from around the corner, his hands tucked into multicolored robes, his back straight. He looks us up and down, seemingly checking us for pendulous genitalia, and then, apparently satisfied, he smiles and approaches.

“Where do you come from?”

Our heads are bowed. Mark says, “America.”

He laughs. “America! Sweet!” He shakes our hands and gives us each a light shoulder bump. Mark and I can’t stop from laughing. A woman has never been here, but major league baseball has.

The tour includes the crypts of hundreds of dead monks, the oldest free-standing church in Ethiopia, and a beautiful 600 year old bible in the Ge’ez language. There is a well of holy water whose superpower is that it never ever changes depth. We walk around and meet monks and workers who treat us with the wonderful welcoming demeanor characteristic of the Ethiopian people. And though we are warmed by their charm, the climb down the cliff looms in our future.

Happy to be alive!

Happy to be alive!

Our trip down the cliff is as frightening as the trip up. Namely, stepping through the doorway and being told to let go of the doorjamb. There are periods when I slide a few feet after my grip slips from the rope. I am so elated when my feet hit the ground that even a Bjork song wouldn’t sour my mood. A 2,000 year old beggar woman helps me out of the harness and then asks for money. I give her a ten Birr note and she yells at me for its grimy condition. I don’t have time to explain irony to her, so instead I poke fun at her for never having been up into the Damo. I don’t think she quite gets it.

The ride back is pure joy as we have now visited a magnificent place and had a once in a lifetime experience to get there. The fear can’t match the high on life feeling we have now, having broken out of our everyday lives to do something remarkable.

And later, there will be beer.

  1. #1 by greg galeone on August 13, 2015 - 9:26 pm

    That was a good read Damo.

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