Weekend Warm-Up: Towers of Tigray

Lucy was discovered in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974. The several hundred pieces of bone, making up 40 percent of her body, is the oldest hominid skeleton ever unearthed. She is 3.2 million years old.

In the Tigray region, some miles away from where Lucy was found, Caroline Ciavaldini is also testing the limits of human existence. The accomplished rock climber is vertically exploring some of the oldest rock on the African continent, with the additional challenge of being a new Mum.


Ciavaldini’s physical prowess is extensive. She picked up the sport by chance at school on her native Reunion Island, a French colony off the coast of Madagascar. Initially, she focused on competitive sport climbing. Ten years later, she moved into bouldering, crag, and multi-pitch climbing.

More than half her life has involved climbing, but she is now forced to learn a new skill: balancing her previous passions with focusing on her child. Her husband, James Pearson, and their 15-month-old son, Arthur accompany her in Tigray.

Pearson has an equally impressive climbing CV. Soon after picking up the sport in his teens in England’s Peak District, he became one of the country’s top climbers. Since then, he’s climbed in Borneo, Sardinia, Thailand, Italy, and Tasmania. This is the couple’s first foreign climbing adventure as parents.

“We wanted to bring Arthur here to share our experience with him,” says Pearson. “But I think we ended up sharing his experience of Africa.”

Tigray was one of the oldest Christian cultures in the world. Ancient churches, carved into sandstone pillars protruding from the desert, are reminiscent of Petra. Some stand 70m high. Local worshippers still climb up to the churches today, without ropes or other aids. They’ve been doing so since the fourth century.

“I’m not a religious person,” says Pearson. “But having stepped on top of one of these towers and felt the power that it brings, I think I can understand why they want to be up there,”  Pearson says.

Ciavaldini and Pearson’s home in Connaux, France has its own indoor climbing wall, but this is Ciavaldini’s first chance to trad climb since birthing Arthur. “You can’t do much rock climbing with a baby,” she says. “You need someone to look after him.”

Climbing sandstone as a new mother brings many lessons. The art of switching the mind off and focusing on the task at hand is one of them.

Like all athletes, there’s a critical moment when exertion peaks, and one begins to question one’s own ability to continue. At that precise moment, Ciavaldini can’t help recalling Arthur’s cries from being left behind with his grandparents that morning. It makes her wonder whether she is doing the right thing, something every mother can empathize with.

First, the couple tackle Sheba Tower, originally climbed by legendary Brit Pat Littlejohn in 2005. The 150m high Sheba is the most impressive tower in Tigray and has an enormous crack running from floor to summit. From the top, a yellow panorama of Ethiopian scrub desert stretches across the Tigray plains.

Crumbly sandstone holds add an extra layer of difficulty to the Tigray towers.


After their Sheba warm-up, Ciavaldini and Pearson hunt for a challenge all their own. “We wanted to see how hard the climbing was going to be,” Ciavaldini says.

They find a tower they’re both drawn to, but there’s a problem. The holds look strong, but the iron-laced sandstone is very unstable. Elsewhere, the “holds” are simply loose sand. “The rock here takes things to another level,” Pearson says.

With Arthur in mind, Ciavaldini battles with her heartstrings mid-climb. For the first time, she feels that it may be selfish to leave an infant behind for a potentially dangerous sport. Back on flat ground, however, the pair notice a new and unexpected element that Arthur brings to the trip.

Ciavaldini and Pearson have climbed in many countries but never before as parents.


As babies tend to do, Arthur attracts plenty of local attention. Ethiopian children play with him in the street, and other parents stop to chat with Ciavaldini and Pearson. Through a child, humans from different backgrounds bond. “We don’t feel French or English, we feel human,” says Pearson.

Meanwhile, Ciavaldini concludes that “I think you can be selfish as a parent and have an adventure, as long as you make sure your baby’s having a great time.” Arthur was the real star of this adventure.