The climb to Ras Dashen is perhaps one of the most anticlimactic climbs I’ve had on African peaks. The final day’s climb is on goat and animal tracks. Sticky mud when wet. Ending abruptly on a flat, rocky, uninspiring outcrop. A single concrete block on top marks the highest point in Ethiopia. And the views from here are… hmmm… ho-hum… But! The trek to get here, is possibly one of the best and most interesting mountain trekking experiences I’ve had in all of Africa!
It started at the spectacular 500m-high Jinbar Falls (also spelled Jin Bahir), one of the tallest waterfalls in Africa, with griffon vultures and eagles soaring above. Nearby geladas were frolicking on a large open patch overlooking the valleys below. Wattled ibis and an augur buzzard also made their appearance. Along the road, antelope grazed undisturbed. And all of this before I started walking! Where I was treated to some of the most spellbinding scenery imaginable. And it’s not just the scenery that’s dramatic and interesting… Along the way I met an interesting array of people that further enriched the experience of trekking in this landlocked country with its fascinating history.
Where is Ras Dashen?
The 4,550m-high Ras Dashen, or Ras Dejen (the name used on Ethiopian maps), is the highest peak in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. Situated in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, the Simien Mountains are the fifth-highest mountain or mountain range in Africa; with Ras Dashen the fourteenth highest peak in Africa.
In Amharic script (fidäl) Ras Dashen is written “ራስ ደጀን”. And, as a matter of interest: Amharic is the second-most commonly spoken Semitic language after Arabic. More than 30 million people use it as their first language, and another 25 million as their second language.
Ras Dashen forms the eastern edge of the rim of a large volcano. The ravines along its flanks drain into the Tekezé or Täkkäze river. Forming the deepest canyon in Africa, with depths of 2000 metres in places. The 600-plus kilometre long Tekezé River joins the Atbarah River in Sudan before it flows into the Nile. The western counterpart of this volcanic rim is the slightly lower Mount Bwahit – 4430m high. What Mount Bwahit lacks in height, it more than makes up for in terms of views! Separating these two peaks is the Meshaha river valley.
First recorded ascent
The first recorded ascent of Ras Dashen was in 1841, by two French officers Ferret and Galinier. For modern-day explorers the trek starts at Sankaber. And, after a few days’ trek you reach Ras Dashen. In less than a week’s time, you can fly from Addis Ababa to Gondar, drive to Sankaber, climb Ras Dashen, and return to Addis Ababa. By contrast, these two French officers probably had to trek for several weeks, if not months, before even reaching Sankaber!
And despite all of their efforts, they are more than likely not even the first ascensionists. Dotted around the base of Ras Dashen, and along its flanks, lie several villages. Given the ease with which the summit is reached, Ras Dashen will probably have been climbed by these villagers to use as a lookout post, or perhaps to signal to other tribes living in nearby regions. Long before the two French officers arrived on the scene!
Dramatic scenery and abundance of bird and wildlife
The dramatic scenery, coupled with the abundance of large and small birds, the very interesting wildlife, and the kaleidoscope of colourful people you’ll meet along the way, makes for a truly unforgettable trek.
Martial eagles, mountain buzzards, griffon vultures, bearded vultures, wattled ibis, thick-billed ravens, and Erckel’s spurfowl among some of the bigger birds I saw. The last three being endemic to Ethiopia. And then hundreds of little guys. Some chirping from trees. Others hopping along the ground, pecking here, pecking there, others diving past you at great speed.
I sat and watched geladas play for an hour. Fascinated with the socialising and interaction. Spotted the rare Ethiopian wolf (aka Simien fox) from a distance. Was unlucky not to see any walia ibex. And then there are the views. Sometimes so beautiful that it hurts. The stunning panoramas from the escarpment edge. The first being at the beautiful Jin Bahir Waterfall. Then again from the summit of Kedadit, the little mountain above Chennek, where I sat and watched the geladas play. And even more from Imet Gogo – from where you can see for miles and miles and miles… Dramatic, and breathtaking! Surely the best rewards a hiker can hope for on any trail.
And don’t forget the fascinating plants. Groundsels and giant or tree heather bushes being some of the most interesting ones I saw. And lots of sewejaartjies – the name my mother called everlastings (Helichrysum sp.)
The people of the Simien Mountains
On my way to Ras Dashen, I came across local people regularly. People live in villages in and around the edges of the National Park. (Those living in the park are slowly being relocated.) Most of these were children. Some wanted to pose for pictures when they saw the camera dangling from my neck. They’d take up position, either singly or in a group with some predetermined pecking order determining who stands where. At other times, the alphas would jostle for position to take centre stage in the picture. Sometimes one or another child would push another child out of the picture, insisting they pose separately. Just to be difficult, I’d make the ones who had pushed the other person out of the way, wait while I took pictures of the one pushed away.
Some were happy to pose with snotty noses and all. Others had to carefully rearrange their clothes before posing. Turning a collar down, exposing a favourite necklace or lowering a zip subtly to show a bit more skin. A quick look on the camera’s LED screen was normally enough for them to wander off happily. Giggling and chattering with each other. Possibly commenting on each other’s poses. Or perhaps about the weird photographer who’s passing through their countryside…
Others were selling local hand-made craft. None perhaps more committed than the four children I encountered on the trail from Inatye to Chennek camp. Even more committed was the youngster who set up shop at about 4000m! Selling cold drinks to our climbing party on our return from Ras Dashen. He promptly disappeared down the hill, soon as we had finished our drinks and handed our bottles back to him… I suspect he saw us ascend in the morning, packed his bag with bottles of soda, walked uphill to his chosen spot on the path, where cold water seeped from the mountain-side to keep the cold drinks ice-cold, and waited patiently for our return.
Yet others wanted to spend time practising English words. On one such an occasion I spent at least an hour surrounded by a half-a-dozen or more children. All on their way home from school, pronouncing the words they had learnt in school, with me correcting them. When I’d say the word back to them, they’d spend a few minutes mimicking my pronunciation. Or, when I responded to a question, like, ‘where are you from?’, they would repeat the answer, until they were comfortable they had got it right. When they started repeating everything I was saying, I was slightly confused. For a moment, I wondered if I was being mocked… Then I realised what they were up to and was happy to join in their learning game. (PS! If you come across Ethiopians speaking with a South African accent, you know why…)
I also saw scenes that made my blood boil! A tall character, draped in a gabi (a hand spun cotton cloth worn over the shoulders and upper body by Ethiopians and Eritreans) appeared with an entourage of people soon after we left Chiro Leba, on our way to Ambiko. Locals, including some of my trekking party, were down on their knees, bowing and scraping, and digging in their pockets to give money to this parasite. Whereupon he blessed them and moved on. I did wonder what would happen to people who did not bow and scrape in front of this pretend-Jesus? An impostor, who doesn’t work, but pretends to be a man of God and takes money from poor people who do work. Fortunately, I did not come across this kind of nonsense very often…
When is the best time of the year to climb Ras Dashen?
Ethiopia enjoys a summer monsoon season from June to mid-September. Typically, you can expect mornings to be sunny and clear. Towards the afternoon clouds start rolling in and develop into afternoon thunderstorms with heavy rains. During the months of June to August the campsites in the park are closed. And quite frankly, given the mud I encountered on the paths, which stuck to my boots like thick heavy chewing gum on wet days, I would recommend avoiding these months for trekking in the Simien Mountains.
October to May is considered Ethiopia’s ‘dry season’. Post the monsoon season, until December everything is freshly green and lush. Flowers abound and skies are clear. As the sun marches past between March and May, on its way to the northern hemisphere, day-time temperatures peak. On the mountain however, the days remain cool, averaging between 11-18 degrees Celsius. Night-time temperatures drop below zero and range between -2.5-4 degrees Celsius. When snows fall on Ras Dashen during this period, it will tend to melt the same day. Snowfalls during colder months may last for several days or weeks.
Altitudinal climate zones
The Simien Mountains vary between 1,900 and 4,500m. It is divided into three primary altitudinal climate zones. Thanks to its relative isolation, several endemic species of plants, wildlife and birds occur in the park.
At the lower altitudes you’ll encounter the Montane Forest zone, which lies between 1,900 and 3,000 metres. Junipers, and wild olives (Olea africana), Ficus, and other trees grow in this zone. Shrubs like the Abyssinian rose (Rosa abyssinica), endemic to Africa and Yemen, and herbs like thyme can be seen. You may also see vervet and colobus monkeys, bushpigs (don’t get in their way), duikers, and baboons. Leopard have also been recorded. Abyssinian woodpeckers and orioles (endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea) frequent this zone.
Between 2,700 and 3,700 metres we’ll come across the Ericaceous zone. Most of the steep escarpment areas lie in this zone, with some of the plateaus also containing remnants of giant heath forests (Erica arborea), growing up to five metres tall in places. Also look out for the giant lobelia (Lobelia rhynchopetalum) when you pass through this zone. Walia ibex, wattled ibis, and thick-billed raven (all endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea) frequent this zone. You’ll most likely also come across geladas as you trek through this zone. Keep your eyes peeled for the magnificent bearded vulture – especially when close to the escarpment edge.
Above 3,700 metres you’ll be in the Afroalpine zone. This zone is mostly covered in grasses like the Festuca species. Afroalpine rodents are the dominant species found in this zone, playing an important role in turning the soil over regularly. The rare Ethiopian wolf (aka Simien fox), walia ibex and geladas – all endemic to the area – can be seen in this zone. Also look out for the black-headed siskin, and spot-breasted plover, both of which are endemic to the area.
How long does it take to climb Ras Dashen?
The trek starts near Sankaber and takes about five days. The route roughly follows the escarpment edge. Along the way to Gich (also spelled Geech), where you’ll spend your first night, you’ll pass by the spectacular Jinbar Waterfall. From Gich, you continue to follow the escarpment. Past the outcrop of Imet Gogo, from where you can see almost the whole world… and beyond. And then it’s uphill across the 4058m-high Inatye to Chennek camp. From Chennek camp you’ll cross the Bwahit Pass before descending to the Meshaha valley. After a lunch-stop in the little village of Chiro Leba, you’ll start the climb up to Ambiko. Your final camp for the night, before your summit ascent the next morning.
By the way… you can climb Ras Dashen in two days! You simply drive to the nearest junction on the road. Walk in to Ambiko; climb Ras Dashen the next morning, and return to the road head in the afternoon. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but Ras Dashen can even be climbed in a day…
Be warned! If you decide to climb Ras Dashen in two days you will be missing out on the best part of this climb. The serrated mountain peaks, carved by millions of years of erosion, with precipitous cliffs fifteen-hundred metres high, and the deep valleys and ravines that run from the peaks to the plateaus make it perhaps one of the most dramatic mountains in Africa. And you’ll miss all of this, and more, if you take a shortcut and climb the peak in one or two days!
How fit do I need to be?
Climbing Ras Dashen is no more difficult than the hike you did last weekend on your local mountain. Except! You will be trekking every day. Four to seven hours each day. With no time to recover between hikes. For the first part of the hike you’ll be trekking between 3,200 and 4500m. You’ll notice the effect of altitude, especially on the climb to Inatye, and again to Ras Dashen. At altitude even the simplest of tasks, like taking a bite on an energy bar, takes a huge effort. And, regardless of how fit you are, once you get close to the 4000m mark you will feel the effects of the height.
My advice is simple. Most of us who have been climbing mountains forever know that the best training for trekking is… trekking. Do a multi-day hike (three-to-four days) in the final month before you embark on your climb of Ras Dashen. Sleep as high as possible on your treks – i.e., start the acclimatisation process. If you can sleep at 3000m, that’s great. If you can sleep even higher, like at 4000m, that’s even better. Getting used to multi-day hikes and sleeping at altitude is the best training you can do for any mountain climb above 4000m.
Coping with the altitude – Acclimatisation
Most people who fail on mountains above 4,000m, fail because they have not taken the time to acclimatise properly. For the best chance to get to the top, make sure you’ve spent a few days at a height of 3000m or above, and if this is not possible, spend a few extra days in the region before starting the trek. It is also possible to start this trek before Sankaber, to give you extra time to acclimatise. We’ll discuss your trip with you in more detail and decide how best to attempt it.
What equipment do I need to climb Ras Dashen?
This is a typical high-altitude trek. Not quite as cold as you may find on other African mountains, but cold enough! Layer your clothes, so that you can put on/take off as required. See Walk in Wild Places’ equipment list for full detail about the equipment I would use.
Generally speaking, and starting from the feet up, here’s a summary. Wear a good pair of well-worn comfortable boots or shoes. Proper hiking socks make a difference to your comfort. Practice layering your clothing. Both top and bottom, so that you can put on/take off as required. I’m not a fan of hats and gloves, but I’ve had no problem wearing mine on some of Africa’s highest mountains. You’ll also need a sleeping bag rated for at least -10°C for the nights spent above 3,000m, a head torch, metal water bottle (the cook will boil water for you at night-time – stick your bottle in a thick sock and inside your sleeping bag like a warm-water bottle). Hiking sticks may be helpful for some descents.
Burning calories: what do we eat and drink?
On an average trekking day, you’ll be burning in excess of 4000 calories. That’s about one-and-a-half times your normal daily calorie burn. Our cook will delight you with his culinary skills and keep you well-fueled for the next day’s trek. The menu will contain a large proportion of carbohydrates, which are particularly beneficial to your diet at altitude. Carbs require less oxygen to metabolise, replace glycogen, and helps to prevent muscle depletion.
A typical breakfast may consist of oats porridge, fruit, and pancakes with jam. Plus coffee and tea as much as you want. Lunch may be a packed lunch (depending on the day’s activity), or a sit-down meal with pasta, soup and bread, and fruit. Dinner is normally soup and bread, followed by a curry and rice, or a pasta dish, or a meat plus vegetables and potatoes, and a desert.
Take a supply of your favourite snacks to refuel along the way. Jelly babies also work well for me. Full of sugar, and easy to digest. Nuts, raisins, crystallised ginger and liquorice are all good energy-giving and nutritious snacks.
Drink. Even when you don’t want to. Especially at altitude. Don’t wait until you’re dehydrated. People have failed on their summit attempts on Kilimanjaro, missing out on what is for some a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, only to discover that they were dehydrated. Check your urine. If it’s yellow, drink more.
Choosing a guide
You could simply arrive at the Simien National Park offices in Debark, and take pot luck hiring a guide and scout. The scout is mandatory. The guide not. But therein lies a catch. The scouts don’t speak English. So if you want to communicate with the scout, you need to hire a guide. Catch-22. Unless of course you speak Amharic. Which most of us trekkers don’t. Cook and muleteers are optional, but highly recommended.
But, rolling up at the National Park offices and taking pot luck comes with risks! And, given some of the adverse comments I’ve read over the years (and my personal experience) of people being let down, guides asking for extra money, pre-paid transport not arriving as promised, the price changing halfway, being harassed for extra tips, etc., I’d recommend that you work through a trekking company. Walk in Wild Places, my trekking company, has built up a strong relationship with a number of highly experienced local guides. Professional and respectful people we trust. Guides who will make sure that you have a great experience, without being let down or harassed. There are other companies available as well. A search on your favourite search engine will reveal some good as well as (unfortunately) less good ones.
Choosing an itinerary
Depending on how much time you have, and of course budget, you can choose from a four-day trek – normally considered sufficient to acclimatise for the ascent of Ras Dashen, to a ten-day trek which includes a trek through the lower valleys below the escarpment.
We also offer an adventure tour, which includes a trek with Ras Dashen as an option; a visit to Erte Ale, the bubbling lava lake in the Danakil Depression, and the salt lakes at Afdera; and trek/climb to one of the many churches in the sky. All of our trips starts and ends in Addis Ababa.
What activities are included in a typical itinerary?
We start our trip exploring Addis Ababa. This gives us time to adjust to the time zone, get rid of some of the jet-lag, and start acclimatising. It also gives us an opportunity to dig into the historic highlights of this fascinating country! (Mine, by the way, was a visit to the museum to pay respect to my great-great ancestor, Lucy, the oldest known hominid, and an evening in a traditional restaurant where artists were performing traditional folk dances and music).
Our next stop is Gondar, where we’ll spend another day exploring and acclimatising. Gondar is one of my favourite African cities. The Fasil Ghebbi (aka Gondar Castle), built in the 1600s by Emperor Fasilides is quite spectacular. So are some of paintings in the local churches. Perhaps less amusing is the sign at the Debre Berhan Selassie Church that states the west gate is for men, and the south-west gate is for females; and you are advised not to enter if you slept with your spouse yesterday, or you are menstruating… Dinner is at a traditional restaurant where guests are invited to participate in the traditional acts and dances.
The next morning we move on to Debark, where we register at the Simien Mountains National Park. Here they’ll assign us a scout to protect us from elements unknown. If we haven’t previously met up with our guide and assistant guides (depending on group size), and cook, then we’ll meet them here. We’ll shop for food from the local markets, buy all the necessary bits-and-pieces like toilet paper, etc, and rent whatever equipment we need for the trek from local suppliers. And then we’ll travel onwards to Sankaber, where we’ll meet up with our mules and muleteers.
Climb Ras Dashen itineraries
All of our itineraries start and finish in Addis Ababa.
Ras Dashen – quick and fast (4 or 8 days)
For those with limited time. To the top of Ras Dashen and return to Addis Ababa in a week. Eight days total. It is also possible to join this trip in Gondar – i.e., join for a four-day, three-night climb of Ras Dashen.
Duration: 8 days, 3 nights on the mountain, 4 nights in hotels/lodges
More info: Eight day Ras Dashen trip itinerary
Ras Dashen and Bwahit Peak (11 days)
If you prefer not to be rushed. The trekking commences in Sankaber, and includes climbing Bwahit Peak (4,430m), Ethiopia’s second-highest peak, and a more relaxed programme than our eight-day trip.
Duration: 11 days – 6 nights on the mountain, 4 nights in hotels/lodges
More info: Eleven-day Ras Dashen trip itinerary
Simien Mountains trek, including ascent of Ras Dashen and Bwahit Peak (14 days)
For those who want to spend more time trekking in this spectacular country. Our trek starts in Sankaber, climbs Bwahit Peak and Ras Dashen and then continue along the valley with spectacular views up towards the escarpment, ending in Adi Arkay.
Duration: 14 days, 9 nights on the mountain, 4 nights in hotels/lodges
More info: Fourteen-day Simien Mountains trek with Ras Dashen and Bwahit Peak itinerary
Ethiopian Adventure Tour – Ras Dashen plus Danakil Depression, Lalibela, Gheralta, Lake Tana (16 days)
A full-on adventure tour of the some of the most fascinating places in Ethiopia. Visit the historical castle at Gondar. Trek the Simien Mountains and climb Ethiopia’s highest peaks, Bwahit Peak and Ras Dashen. Then fly north for a visit to Gheralta’s rock-churches, before heading east to Erte Ale – the bubbling lava lake, and the salt lakes at Afdera. Stunning, dramatic, and fascinating!
Duration: 16 days, 6 nights camping, 9 nights in hotels/lodges
More info: Sixteen-day Ethiopian Adventure tour itinerary
PS! Ethiopia – a country steeped in history
If you haven’t realised it as yet… Ethiopia is a fascinating country, steeped in history and amazing places. Did you know that Ethiopia was the only African country never to have been colonised? That Haile Selassie I was born Ras Tafari? That Rastafarians, who took their name from him, considered him Yah? And did you know that our oldest known hominid ancestor Lucy was found in Ethiopia in 1974? Or, that the Royal lineage of the Emperors of Ethiopia is claimed to be connected to King Solomon of Israel?
Here are some of the other fascinating places, some of which we include in our Adventure tour! Fasilidas’ castle in Gondar – one of my favourite African cities… The Danakil Depression – 125m below sea level. The hottest place on earth. Salt lakes and bubbling lava lakes. Home to Lucy. Or, the rock-hewn churches of Gheralta, and Lalibela, the tranquil waters and wildlife around Lake Tana and Lake Langano, one of the many national parks teeming with bird-life, and many other fascinating places with an equally fascinating collection of people and cultures.
PPS! Leave no trace
We have a carry-in/carry-out policy on all of our trips. What we mean by this is that we do not leave anything on the mountain, except our footprints. We provide guidance to our trekkers on how to be as eco-friendly as possible.
We ask each of our trekkers to carry a waste bag with them. If you spot rubbish, please pick it up and bring it to the next campsite for disposal. Check that your campsite is clear before leaving. If you have to wee in the bushes, please do so away from campsites, including lunch stops, rivers, etc. If you have to go to the toilet while on the trail, carry your paper with you in a plastic bag for the porters to burn at the next campsite. And bury your excreta (especially at higher altitudes where there is less UV to aid in the decay of waste).
Don’t use soap or detergent to wash in rivers or streams. And stay out of the water if you’ve just put sunscreen on. Don’t empty waste water into rivers or streams. Stay on paths. Don’t take shortcuts, especially on steep slopes.