The Austrian Prodigy Tells The Newsroom Why He Went To The Baatara Gorge And How He Achieved The First Ascent Of The ‘Avaatara’ Cascade Route.
At 25, David Lama has not only been successful in competition climbing but has made a name for himself as an extreme mountaineer, opening routes that were said to be impossible. But a photo of the Baatara Gorge, a cascading sinkhole in the Tannourine, 75 kilometres outside Beirut, brought his focus back to his climbing roots.
Supported by local climber Jad Khoury, Lama scanned the overhangs of the gorge also known as the ‘Cave of the Three Bridges’ for a suitable line. The athlete eventually found a wild one and it took him three days to make it through the 100m cascade.
Lama and Khoury agreed on the name ‘Avaatara’ (9a) for this route. “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 and that it’s just as unique as the climb itself,” explains Lama.
“When you hear about Lebanon you don’t think about climbing, nature, or activities,” adds Khoury. “You only hear about war! Climbing in Lebanon is very new, but it’s on the right track. There is so much climbing potential.”
‘Avaatara’ is now the hardest route in Lebanon and, for Lama, one of the most difficult climbs he’s ever done. Here he explains why he chose it, and what makes first ascents so special.
How do you plan the trajectory of a new route?
David Lama: “There is no standard way to go. Normally you just get inspired by an untouched wall you see and go for it. The way it worked for this project in Lebanon was special though, as I only had a photo of this stunning location and none of the climbers I contacted in Lebanon could tell me much about the climbing potential there. However I immediately thought this can’t be real, and if it’s real, why hasn’t anybody climbed there? I was a bit skeptical to be honest (looking at the pictures) because you can’t just take anything on trust.”
So you went there to find out?
DL: “Yes, I thought, if this really exists I need to go. I met local climber Jad Khoury in Beirut and he showed me around. We spent an afternoon climbing in Tannourine, which has a bunch of really cool climbs, but after I had seen the Baatara gorge I knew that this is where I want to try to put up a new route.”
What’s special about opening a new route compared to “normal” climbing” and repeating climbs established by others?
DL: “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. It’s a creative process you go through, because you try to find the most logical, easiest way through a piece of rock. The route follows features that nature has developed and these features define if a line is climbable or not. Having the eye to see such lines takes experience and doesn’t necessarily correlate with how hard you can climb.”
Does a first ascent make a climb riskier, and why?
DL: “No. Risk isn’t what’s at stake on climbs like ‘Avaatara’. Sportclimbing routes pretty much all over the world are protected by bolts, so a fall – if belayed correctly – is usually without consequence. It’s more the first ascents out in the big mountain ranges that involve risk.”
You say, “in a first ascent you never know if it’s possible.” At what point did you know you were going to succeed in Lebanon?
DL: “That actually took quite some time. Finding the climbable route out of the Baatara sinkhole was really tricky. The lines that first caught my eyes ended up being either wet, loose or had no features to hang on to. I had almost given up, but then another part of the wall caught my attention. I found a wild line of crimps and slopers that seemed to connect through the entire, near-horizontal roof. But the holds looked bad and given the steepness of the climb I had my doubts, if I would be able to connect them.”
Is there a limit to the number of first ascents still “untouched” out there?
DL: “A lot has been explored and established over the years despite new stuff being found. What must come before the quest of putting up something new is the question, if something new is logical and makes sense at all. I’ve experienced old, classic routes being devaluated, because new routes were forced too close near by them or were even crossing them.”
What’s the next first ascent you have in mind?
DL: “My next adventure will take me back to the big mountains, more precisely to the high altitudes of Nepal, the country my dad’s family is from. Together with American Conrad Anker I’m looking at a yet unclimbed peak that looks really tempting.”