David Lama achieves first ascent of the Baatara gorge in Lebanon.
“If you travel roads that have already been discovered, you are basically always just following. But if you go somewhere where no one’s ever been and do something no one’s ever done, you’re on the lead and that’s one thing that I really like.” David Lama’s guiding philosophy has already taken him to the most impressive mountain ranges of the world and, more recently, to the Baartara gorge in Lebanon. A surreal ‘Avatar’-like landscape, unexploited and untouched.
It was a photo taken from behind a waterfall, showing the gorge with its bizarre arches and overhangs, that inspired the 25-year-old Austrian, whose focus had been directed exclusively towards mountaineering for several years, to go back to his sport climbing roots and try to put up the first ever climb out of the Baatara gorge sinkhole, also known as the ‘Cave of the Three Bridges’. A landmark of Jurassic limestone in Tannourine, 75 kilometres outside the Lebanese capital city, Beirut.
And reality surpassed the image. “When I walked in for the very first time, I almost thought this can’t be real. The sinkhole is a magical place: Waterfalls dropping in there almost a hundred metres, three, beautiful, natural arches, the blue and orange rock, a perfect contrast – simply beautiful. In combination with the lush green plants, it immediately made me think of the surreal landscape in the movie ‘Avatar’,” David Lama says, “it’s not very common that you get to such a stunning location and there’s nobody who’s ever climbed it.” Just like countless other promising looking walls all over the country.
“There is so much climbing potential,” explains Lebanese climber, Jad Khoury, who supported Lama in this project.
Scanning of the overhangs for features and holds that would make a climbable line began; the obvious lines turned out to be wet, dirty, loose or simply unclimbable. Had no climber left his mark at this unique spot because there was no possible line? Together with his local supporter, David Lama was able to get rid of uncertainties and doubts and found a wild line of crimps and slopes that seemed to connect through the entire, near-horizontal roof. “When you stand in front of an unclimbed wall, you pick the line and make the decisions and you got this full freedom and you can just express yourself by climbing through it. I knew that all the moves were possible to do, but I wasn’t sure if I could link them.”
Effort and endurance were key to climbing through the really steep, complex roof with only small and limited holds.
Giving it everything and fighting against what felt like increasing gravity with only the final jug in mind. “Going to something unknown, or doing a first ascent, you never know if it’s possible. When you pull over the lip, it’s the first time you realize how much beauty there is around you. I guess when it comes to climbs that are just this hard or close to your limits, climbing is almost more an art than it is a sport. It’s the transition of an idea that you have in mind to something that actually everyone can see. Like now everyone knows this line is climbable. That’s beautiful in my opinion.”
Referring to its surreal setting, and as a tribute to the geographical location of the route, David Lama and his supporter, Jad Khoury, agreed on the name ‘Avaatara’ (9a) for the cascade route descending into Mount Lebanon. “The name is a combination of ‘Avatar’ and Baatara, the name of the gorge. It was important to us that the name of the route has an Arabic feel to it and that it’s just as unique as the climb itself.” ‘Avaatara’ is now the hardest route in Lebanon and, for Lama, one of the most difficult climbs he’s ever done. “I basically witnessed how this route ascent went on,” describes Khoury, “It’s the first time I see a route this steep being sent. Very exciting for sure, like being part of history.
Inspired by the ascent of Avaatara, Jad Khoury will further establish rock climbing in Lebanon, while David Lama’s next mountaineering adventure will lead him to a yet unclimbed peak in the high altitudes of his father’s home country, Nepal.