“You go on ahead, maybe I’ll just wait here,” I said, eyes on the rocks looming above us.
It was day three of our travels through Ethiopia, and day one had found me, not toasting the New Year poolside in some swanky hotel as planned, but wrapped up in blankets, summoning the energy to cross the room and turn on the electric kettle for a cup of tea. The flu, as it turns out, doesn’t mix well with climbing mountains.
Ahead of us soared the face of the cliffs where 5th century Abuna Yemata Guh, known as the most inaccessible church in the world, hides among the rocks. We were halfway up the hillside that the Gheralta Cluster springs from, and I’d stopped every five minutes, like clockwork, to take a sip of water and stare out across the valley floor. To wait for my breathing to return to normal. Though painfully slow, this is not a bad way to climb. How much do we miss, speeding along trails, staring at the ground as we pick our way over loose stones and sprawling roots? The Tigray region stretched beautiful and stark across the horizon, and the only way to see it was to stop and turn around.
In spite of my reluctance, we pressed on, reaching the face of the cliffs where a small group of local men waited with a harness, to coax us one by one up the flat stone wall, perhaps two stories high. A small resourceful tree, sprung from a crack in the rocks, served to hold the rope in place while a small, wiry man on the ground pulled in the slack. The harness was optional, rented by our guide from a local shop, but probably worth the extra money when weighed against our collective lack of rock-climbing skills. We squeezed precariously onto a sloping ledge, waiting for everyone to finish the climb. I did my best to dig my nails into the stone beneath me, half in awe of the view laid out below, half terrified of sliding slowly off the edge. We scrambled over a few rises and boulders, then descended slightly onto a wide flat slab surrounded by walls of hollow stone peaks. In one cave, the elements of a baptism ceremony, in another the skull and bones of a priest peeking out through the crumbling brick that once sealed his tomb.
We climbed again, this time stepping up onto a narrow ledge that wrapped around the face of the cliff, the ground nearly seven hundred feet below. My knees buckled and the hot, dry wind whispered through the valley, emphasizing the drop. Pregnant women make this climb, they told us, to seek blessings, clad in long skirts and scarves. We clung to the rocks and walked slowly across the ledge, not daring to look down. Eventually the narrow ledge widened into the mouth of a cave that looked out over the mountains, and a door inside the cave led us into a small room, the church, blanketed by mats and woven carpets. Frescoes depicting saints and apostles stretched across the ceiling. Astoundingly, because of lack of sunlight and water in the cave, they are perfectly preserved.
We spoke briefly with the priest, who had things to attend to in the valley 2,500 below, and then followed him back down the mountain as he floated through the most harrowing sections of the climb as if they were nothing.
That evening, we visited another church, the 10th century Abraha We Atsbeha. This priest came from a long line of others, his father and grandfathers had been priests as far back as he can remember, his son will be, one day, too. He didn’t attend traditional school, his education was purely theological. The 15th and 16th century frescoes, restored after the church was burned in a fire, depict St. George and the dragon. This church was a concession from our guide, we were meant to climb up to another, but the slow pace at Abuja Yemata Guh narrowed our possibilities for the day.
A week later, trekking 13 miles a day through the Simien Mountains, my lungs burned in the altitude, still weighed down by lingering flu. We scrambled up and down trails between 9,000 and 12,000 feet, stopping only to watch the Gelada monkeys play or to drink in the endless and breathtaking views from the mountaintops. Again and again, I paused to catch my breath on the steepest climbs, and ceded carrying rights of my backpack as the two older South African men in our group insisted on letting me climb unhindered by camera lenses and water bottles. It’s embarrassing to be the last one up the mountain, the one everyone else waits for at the top. They were gracious, of course, insisting the rests were welcome to everyone, but that’s little consolation to the part of me that never wants to draw attention to myself, never wants to inconvenience anyone or accept help.
But here’s the thing. When I was thirteen years old, I passed up the opportunity to hike to Machu Picchu, because it looked too hard. I stayed in the city, visiting restaurants and museums, and though I enjoyed the time there, I have regretted that decision for the rest of my life. Not everything in life comes easy. Sometimes it’s best to put aside comfort and listen to the friends coaxing you to jump in. Sometimes you have to put up with a little suffering or reluctantly accept help. On the other side of those uncomfortable moments, though, lie the sorts of views that burn themselves into your memory, that will come back to you on your lowest days and give you faith in your own ability to persevere and reach the top.
So if you must- use the rope, the outstretched hand. Ignore the stubborn pride that wants to finish on its own terms. Just don’t stop moving- at least not for more than a minute or two.