Doug Scott’s expedition to the Tibesti Mountains in Chad

In 2016 when I was working in Rome, Edita was posted to Chad in central Africa by the UN World Food Programme, to run a project distributing mosquito nets the length and breadth of the country.

She worked on a similar project in Zambia in 2014. When the project ended, I flew out to join her, and we did a short trip to identify then climb the highest mountain in Zambia, Mafinga Central (2,339m). It was an easy walk up, but we had fun finding it, and while we were out there we decided to climb Mulanje (3,002m) as well, the highest mountain in Malawi and one of Africa’s more interesting mountains.

The summit crater of Emi Koussi, the highest mountain in Chad (Photo: Stefan Thüngen / Wikimedia Commons)
The summit crater of Emi Koussi, the highest mountain in Chad (Photo: Stefan Thüngen / Wikimedia Commons)

I enjoyed the trip so much that I decided these cheaper, exploratory trips to more unusual mountains were the way forward. When Edita got posted to Chad we naturally thought of trying to climb the highest mountain in Chad while she was there.

That trip didn’t happen in the end, but I got a lot of enjoyment from researching the prospect. Chad’s highest mountain, Emi Koussi (3,415m), is a barren volcano in the Tibesti Mountains in the far north of the country. The peak lies in the heart of the Sahara Desert, very close to the Libyan border.

I found an Italian company who were able to arrange the logistics, but things were complicated. The Tibesti Mountains are several days’ jeep drive from N’Djamena, where Edita was working. It was necessary to take all our own drinking water and two vehicles in case one of them broke down. We were looking at a three-week trip for a short desert trek, most of which would be spent driving. We decided to meet up and climb Kilimanjaro again instead.

Perhaps we should have gone, as very few western travellers have visited the Tibesti Mountains. One of those who did was the great British mountaineer Doug Scott, who died last week. Much has been written about Doug Scott’s Himalayan and Alpine exploits, but hardly anything about this trip in his 20s that must have been among the more adventurous he did.

Inspired by a six-week trip to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco in 1962, Doug obtained £400 of sponsorship from the Mount Everest Foundation for a trip to the Tibesti Mountains in 1964. The money enabled him and his friends to buy three army lorries for a desert journey across the Sahara.

A glossy chapter on the Tibesti Mountains from Doug Scott's coffee table book Himalayan Climber
A glossy chapter on the Tibesti Mountains from Doug Scott’s coffee table book Himalayan Climber

These were in the days before Colonel Gaddafi’s military coup of 1969, when Libya was more accessible. They travelled from the north and made an 800-mile journey across Libya. Halfway through, they stopped at an oasis to fill up with water.

For the next 400 miles they were unable to refill their water. While crossing the Mourzouk Sand Sea, one of their vehicles broke down. Fortunately, one of their team, Ray Gillies, was a mechanic. He spent eight hours repairing an axle while sand swirled around them in a cold winter storm.

In his book, Himalayan Climber, Doug Scott described their journey across the desert as much a part of the adventure as the climbing. He contrasted the bumping along on sandy tracks with the ever-present smell of petrol to the silent desert camps where they watched the sun turn the glow of the desert to pink and purple as it dropped below the horizon.

They crossed the Korizo Pass into Chad and found themselves surrounded by 450m sandstone towers known as the Aiguille de Sisse. They drove along the rim of a huge volcanic crater, the Trou au Natron, that was 600m deep.

The main objective of their trip was an unclimbed peak called Tarso Tieroko (2,910m), a mountain that the great desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger had described as ‘probably the most beautiful peak in Tibesti’.

P.R. Steele's marvellous hand-drawn map of Tieroko and surrounding peaks (Picture: P.R. Steele / Alpine Journal)
P.R. Steele’s marvellous hand-drawn map of Tieroko and surrounding peaks (Picture: P.R. Steele / Alpine Journal)

Another climber P.R. Steele published an article in the 1964 Alpine Journal that may have provided the inspiration for Doug Scott’s trip. Steele described a trip to the Tibesti Mountains by Cambridge students in 1958, during which they climbed Emi Koussi and made an attempt on Tieroko.

Steele and his companions made a three-day journey on camel back to reach the oasis of Modra Wadi, where they made their base camp to explore the surrounding peaks. They climbed two satellite peaks which they named The Imposter and Hadrian’s Peak, but their attempt on Tieroko was thwarted by vertical crumbling rock 50m or so from the summit.

Steele said that water was scarce. They could only find it with the help of locals, and even then it was usually stagnant. Modra was the only place they had access to running water.

Steele also found the volcanic rock difficult for climbing. Large stones that would have made good hand- and footholds were embedded in crumbling conglomerate, and were very insecure. The friable nature of the rock meant that they could not use pitons or other artificial aids. A full-page photo in Doug Scott’s glossy coffee table book shows this only too clearly.

Doug Scott's photo of the crumbling face of Tieroko from his book Himalayan Climber
Doug Scott’s photo of the crumbling face of Tieroko from his book Himalayan Climber

Doug’s team also decided to make Modra Wadi their base. They befriended the local Tibbu tribesmen and rented a hut built from date palms. This useful tree enabled villagers to be self-sufficient. As well as building materials, the date palm provided food, fuel, animal fodder, and material for ropes and baskets.

From Modra, it was a three-day trek to their mountain. Tieroko was the highest point of an eroded volcanic crater, whose geography can be seen from a pencil-drawn map in Steele’s journal article. Tieroko’s north face rose 900m above the crater floor.

They were unable to climb the north face, but Doug and Ray Gillies crossed the west ridge then traversed across the south-west face to reach a shallow gully that they were able to follow most of the way to the summit. Here the rock was smooth, but safer than the crumbling north face.

They had not expected to reach the summit so quickly, and it left them with time to make two more first ascents, one from the south by Ray Gillies and Pete Warrington, and another from the north by Doug and Clive Davies.

Doug Scott will always be remembered for his great Himalayan climbs of the 1970s: his first ascent of Everest by the South-West Face with Dougal Haston, first ascent of the north side of Kangchenjunga with Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker, and his first ascent of The Ogre in Pakistan with Chris Bonington, when he had to crawl back down again with two broken legs. But this lesser known expedition in his early 20s offers a glimpse of the adventurous spirit that led him to become one of the great figures of mountaineering.

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2 thoughts on “Doug Scott’s expedition to the Tibesti Mountains in Chad

  • December 17, 2020 at 7:41 am

    I didn’t know Doug Scott passed away last week. Maybe “adventurous spirit” is the expression that describes best his personality. Adventure, something many of us yearn for but few attain.

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