Ben Amira: The great return of Sahara climbs (EN)

klettern in der sahara
@Jean Marc Porte

Eight major equipped routes. “Easy” access and stay logistics. The largest monolith in Africa and its satellites deserve much more than this pitch: Ben Amira is quite simply the only large Saharan climbing site still accessible…today.

Text/Pictures: Jean Marc Porte

Sahara Climbs – Ben Amira

Thursday February 10. In 72 hours flat, the promise of a reunion with the gray concrete of Roissy, temperatures at the edge of frost and the long nights of French winters. But for now, you just have to let yourself be overwhelmed by the slight excess of the moment. This morning, even before the orange of the very first light, accompany the beam of the headlamps of Jean, Nadine and Jean Louis towards the foot of the face. A small handful of minutes from the camp, with the sand still cold underfoot, the nose raised towards 500 meters in front still sleeping under the stars: the day, everyone knows, will be long. We now have our “local” landmarks. Those of the slowly rising temperatures and relentless lights over this very private paradise. Of the particular intensity of the (possible) question of thirst or purpose in this type of terrain. Extraordinary dimensions of navigation on the slabs of Ben Amira and its nearby satellite, Ben Aïcha… And minimalist and precise logic of the style and commitment of climbing on these overheated seas. The Dream Team, by engaging for the first time in the 11 lengths of the law of the desert, will stick to a nice site, the first of the current Dawn Wall of the area… A flight straight to the belly of the north face , with the equipment just in place, still full of uncertainties and questions. Remember a (very) long day and a somewhat rare sight, full of excitement and vague tensions, seen from the ground? Around 10 a.m., the roped party in the middle of a fight in the key pitches, always moving level with the large virgin bulge which overhangs the entire right of the face. Then, past noon, the vertical of the sun which ends up erasing the very idea of ​​a possible shadow. The slow bifurcation of the silhouettes towards the umbilicus with a clear eye, promising a “comfort” relay on the right, abandoning the black and perfect line of the dark dyke which very scrupulously lines the face for some 450 meters. Seen from the ground, telephoto or not, the dimensions of the route seem to pin the climbers in millimeter displacement against the thousands of square meters of an endless palm. Around 3 p.m., the peak of the intensity of the metallic sun, which ends up transmuting the colors of the brown rock into immense flat areas of mercury. At the end of the afternoon, the radical change of worlds and perspectives: Anne, who keeps the timing of the lengths up to date, ends up giving the starting signal. The old bloodless Land Over propels us towards the far side of the moon? Bypass of the monolith. Facing south, go up the normal route to the race to recover the rope at its exit, right on the pass mined by blocks which separates the real summit from its eastern pre-summit. Against the sun level with the pale yellow horizon, the silhouette of Jean finally emerges from the void, staggering a little under the crazy wind that sweeps the summit this evening.

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The abandonment of the Sahara

Almost perfect monochromy of space and matter, drowned in the flat tints of sand dust, rock and the ocean of dunes in barchans that run very far, until they reach the sky. A sip of water, leaning over the last belay. Nadine and Jean Louis who join him. In 72 hours, we will be returned to the gray concrete of Roissy? For a moment, the immense gift of Ben Amira unfolds without limits. That of the reunion with the marriage, so singular and powerful, of the desert, altitude and climbing. Before talking to us, the three friends, finally barefoot, hug each other for a few seconds. The wind a little crazy, therefore. Space. The happiness so particular engraved in the depths of the gaze of this journey which ends without a hitch, leaning against the void of immensities. Ben Amira, or the slight miracle of a possible return to the equations as major as they are delicate to bring together today, climbing and the vast Sahara?

If you are under 25/30 years old, the beautiful question of going to climb in the desert, as Théodore Monod might have said, may not even arise: since the Arab springs (2010), over an evolution geopolitics as dark as it is implacable, the list of Sahelo-Saharan countries gradually closed to travelers and climbers concerns almost the entire great African desert. From the Atlantic to the Red Sea, 6 million square kilometers passed into the red zone, and become out of reach? On the climbing side, if the splendours of the massifs and ergs of Libya, Chad, Egypt, Sudan or Niger have never really delivered major spots, from the domes of Tesnou to the massifs of Assekrem (Atakor ) and Tefedest (Garet El Djenoun) in Algeria, to the cliffs of Bandiagara and Haut Gourma in Mali, the high places of Saharan climbing (in)sung for short and dense from Frison-Roche, Catherine Destivelle, Jean- François Hagenmuller or Arnault Petit, now seem clearly out of reach. And for a long time. Decades and decades of climbing to rare pleasures, to flavors much more exploratory and otherwise committed than the cliff near you, still engraved with these dimensions of isolation and unequaled aesthetics, now inaccessible? The unequaled atmospheres of the immensities and the Saharan verticals, in the process of being forgotten on our geographical and mental maps, nevertheless seem once again within reach…

This is Ben Amira’s gift. A very exclusive, unique and fiercely unexpected gift in today’s Sahara. Not only has the largest monolith in Africa, despite its proximity to the incredible line of the Nouadhibou–Zouerate mineral railway, remained almost very oddly a blind spot in the endless quest for new spots for climbers until the end 2019. But also because, apart from Morocco, Mauritania is quite simply the only country with a sufficiently stable security situation to still be “open” to travelers in the Sahara, according to the criteria of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (see box ) …

The largest monolith in Africa

Slight backtracking? The Ben Amira formation and its immediate satellites (Ben Aicha, Haddad, etc.) belong to what geologists poetically designate, the spectacular family of inselbergs. Literally: mountain islands. Some of these formations, such as the sacred sandstone for the aborigines of Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia, are the result of outcrops of sedimentary strata that have resisted erosion. Here, on the very old Saharan base full of large volcanic areas (Air, Hoggar, Tibesti, Sinai, etc.), the granite domes are the remains of aborted volcanoes: their shape is that of their underground magmatic chambers, released by millions of years of erosion. And now outcropping more than 500 meters above the dune ergs…

The rather staggering “presence” of the monolith has probably been an important beacon in the immensities since the Neolithic? A landmark on the major caravan routes of the last millennium between the north of the Mediterranean and the south of the Sahara? The site, isolated, is located in the northeast of the massif which rises in the center of Mauritania, the Adrar. Territories of plateaus surrounded by ergs, but dotted with oases, the most famous and oldest of which (Chinguetti, Ouadane, etc.) are listed as world heritage sites. As the crow flies: 110 kilometers due south-west separate it from Atar, the regional capital, which was a classic stage in the heyday of the Paris Dakar, before becoming, at the end of the 1990s, the gateway almost exclusive of Saharan tourism in the Mauritanian Adrar, thanks to its airport…

Escalation in all this? His story, here, really took all its time. Before accelerating… passionately. It just starts at the very end of 2019. And without luck. Thanks to the curiosity of a climber who has a long love affair with Africa and the Sahara, Jean-Louis Lauféron. With more than sixty well-packed broomsticks, this young man has decades of trails and adventures in West Africa, intertwining experiences covering the mythical car sales in Gao, great solo motorcycle trips, as well as the management of a “Medicine and Mountains of the World” association which will work mainly in Mali, between medical campaigns and local development (opening of routes, accommodation, topos and ski rental included, etc.) near Hombori, until the dramatic closure of the Dogon Country in 2011. Taking advantage of the flights of the Point Afrique traveler cooperative chartered on Atar during the tourist season (December / March…), Jean-Louis is “on vacation” with his partner Anne de Belinay, somewhere in the ergs around Chinguetti when a (Saharan…) Mauritanian guide exchanges a few words with him about Ben Amira.

Birth of a giant

Click? Jean Louis has already tracked, by motorbike and without ever arriving there, the site of the monoliths. Back in Atar, he talks with the boss of a major local agency, Kadi Mehdi. Still no coincidence? Kadi not only knows his territory like the back of his hand (and therefore Ben Amira)… but he is also in charge of a Saharan camp, set up each season right under… the north face of the monolith! The camp is an almost luxurious jewel (shower and large traditional raÏmas…) dedicated until now only to the nights of stopovers for travelers on the Desert Train. The improbable deal is tied: with the logistical support and the administrative support of Khadi, deeply interested in the possibility of developing a climbing activity hitherto totally non-existent on the maps of Mauritania, Jean-Louis is entrusted with the key to a piece of paradise… totally virgin.

Less than two months later, in the middle of the Covid storm, a big return to Atar. With in the holds of the Boeing 727, nearly 50 kilos of gear, perfos, stats and bolts included, to start opening and equipping… very seriously. Ann is there. As well as Jean Kanapa, another young boy with white hair, lifelong friend, BE by profession and trainer at CREPS in Vallon Pont d’Arc. Without forgetting Maxime, 17 years old, grandson of Jean Louis, passionate about bouldering. Results of this first round: in addition to removing uncertainties about the quality of the granite on the sites, two normal routes, accessible to any good walker, have been identified on Ben Amira and Ben Aïcha. And two “easy” routes are opened from below (Point Afrique leads the way, Even the camels die of thirst). Champagne for these first spits and these first open pitches in Mauritania? A second sale of equipment is scheduled for October 2020. The Ben Amira file is clearly becoming official. Jean-Louis has meanwhile become head of mission for the Mauritanian Minister of Tourism. A detail that is not one. And that says a lot about the importance of tourism and its benefits for this country. With him, Anne, but also Stéphane Moussard, mountain guide, Philippe Craplet, and Romain, his own son, BE climbing. The (complex) equipment of Princesses Aura and Haizea, the first major route of Ben Amira is completed, coupled with a recce on a “minor” monolith, Haddad. At the end of the 2020/2021 Saharan season, the balance sheet increases to 7 equipped routes. Of the longest. From the hardest. On paper (and not only…) the work carried out has enough to ignite some sparks for any normally constituted climber, in terms of great atmospheres, distant points and exceptional territories.

The present of the desert…

The real journey to Ben Amira can begin. December 21. Festival of the oasis towns of Ouadane. In the nights full of musicians, between camel races, songs of the griots, shooting and petanque competitions, in the wonder of these rare reunions with the worlds so isolated today from the Sahara, Jean-Louis and Anne present for the first time publicly “their” Ben Amira. And embark quite wildly some happy few almost incredulous, including yours truly, straight to the site. Gradual change from secret spot to light? Beware of superlatives. Too candid enthusiasms. But without making tons of it, this single unveiling, the real approach of Ben Amira, (whether or not you have already climbed or traveled in the Sahara…), was, for all of us, heavy. Past the great plateaus of Adrar and its passes, the road falls towards Choum. Then the off-road track due west, towards ergs with no real visual limits, just bordered by the track, quite hallucinating in these solitudes, of one of the largest ore trains in the world (200 wagons carrying 15,000 tonnes of iron ore towards the Atlantic, the true sandworm of Ben Amira…). The incredible rise of the power of the Inselberg which barely has time to take on its true dimension near the station/village of Ben Amira, only a handful of kilometers from the monolith. Before even thinking, the almost nameless confrontations with space and the magnetic dimensions of the site climb, re-anchoring the power of the desert in a big way. The simple steps towards the shade of crumbling blocks, flush with the faces, in search of a rock painting panel. The slow movements and the (good…) perspective around the domes, to follow the course of the lines of the perfect dykes, to identify the sectors. The flight of the first gains in altitude, on the sometimes impressive fleeing normal routes, straight towards the somewhat hallucinatory mazes of the summit blocks. The reunion with the heat, the wind, the cold (also) of the Sahara. The profound simplicity of minimalist and luxurious bivouacs, literally flying over the desert. Camp time, too, with his Mauritanian team…

open worlds

The following ? It actually belongs to you. Last February, Jean Louis and Anne, with Nadine Rousselot (veteran French champion…) Jean Kanapa and two neophyte climbers, after having taken over all the basics (from very hard to easy…) of the existing routes, after having refined a few points of equipment, trained the first Mauritanian guides in the basics of progression and safety on “their” site. In addition to the immense pride of Dah, Mahmoud, Yeslem or Sid Ahmed in becoming familiar with climbing in the mini-school sector equipped in front of the camp and in “real big routes”, not to mention their happiness in treading “their” summit for the first time, these Saharan guides of a completely new type supervised in situ the first groups of Western summiteers, travelers of the train of the desert, in safety, on the normal ways. Ben Amira, as you read these lines, has completely returned to his solitude and the furnaces of the Mauritanian summer. But it’s all there. Both cleared. Totally new. Open and accessible. Equipped routes, topos, camp logistics, local skills… Ben Amira, this coming winter? It is possible to think of its immense “elsewhere”, if you have one day dreamed of projecting yourself into the extraordinary dimensions of the climbing atmosphere “made in Sahara”…

Climbing Informations/Topo

Ben Amira _ TOPO _ INFOS

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