Libya - Bikku Bitti
Guinness Book report
53 Libya - Bikku Bitti
Libya’s highest mountain was the last of the 53 countries in Africa I had to climb. It also proved to be the remotest of all the mountains I had done yet and the most challenging.
Bikku Bitti, at around 2300 metres, is situated in the far south of the country, in a sensitive area blighted by landmines, rebels and bandits. The mountain is in one of, if not the, remotest and least known parts of the Sahara desert and there are no reports of the peak ever having been climbed. Indeed, it may be the only country in the World whose highest point has never been summated or at least documented.
This whole vast area, the Libyan Desert, is totally unfit for human habitation. Its central part is a place of extreme aridity, there are periods of 20-30 years with no rainfall. This region was selected by NASA as the earthly region most similar to conditions on Mars during the Viking lander projects. There is no permanent human habitation, no roads or tracks, just the great open void. This explains, why relatively few people venture into the deeper reaches, as opposed to the western part of the Sahara, where pistes and a denser pattern of oases make traveling easier. Wars and conflicts have also played there part in keeping people away. Although Libya has recently started opening up southern Libya is still off limits as is the Tibesti in northern Chad creating one of the biggest areas in Africa that foreigners are not allowed to visit, officially. This last mountain of the project has required by far the most research and numerous people have assisted in establishing both its location and to chronicle previous attempts to access the region where the mountain lies.
Previous Expeditions in southern Libya
1930-1937: Italian expedition, Umberto Monterin. Monterin visited the Tebu villages and guelta near the mountain and discovered some rock art but did not climb the peak. A document entitled ‘L’esplorazione del Tibesti’ (November 1937) is a good account of the Italian exploration.
1931: Frenchman M Dalloni, Scientific expedition to the Tibesti.
1942: Italian expedition, Ardito Desio. Desio was the first Italian to reach and survey the Bikku Bitti peak but did not climb it.
1957: Nigel Heseltine. Heseltine traveled through Libya to Chad, details of which are published in his book ‘From Idbyan Sands to Chad’ (1959). He traveled well to the south west of Bikku Bitti, a place he described as the most remote, desolate and harshest place on earth.
1960’s: Several expeditions carried out by British military forces.
In 1964 exercise ‘Gravel Rush’ was undertaken the objective of which was to explore a large spur of the Tibesti that extends northwards across the border into Libya. This was the biggest of all the British Army expeditions and got the closest to Libya’s highest point, around 60 kilometers distance.
Jan/2004: Eamon Fullen, first attempt.
Bikku Bitti around 2300m is without doubt the remotest of all the African peaks. The nearest village, Yebbi-bou, is hundreds of kilometers away to the south in Chad and is a rebel strong hold. Bikku Bitti has all the problems Chad’s peak has, that is, being off-limits, landmines and rebel activity. There is no record of this peak having been climbed, and having now seen the terrain, I’m sure it hasn’t been. I went in with 2 vehicles with my same Toubou guide (from Yebbi-bou) that I had for Chad’s peak. The easiest approach looking at the maps is from the south via the villages of Ouri and Mousso about 25 km south of the peak but there is good information that this area has been land-mined.
We headed in from the west 400 km north west of the last town in Northern Chad. 60 km out from the mountain range we ran into the same problem as the British military expeditions of the early 1960's had, the maze of foothills that they could not find a way through. With our smaller Toyota trucks and a good guide and a day scouting ahead we managed to find a route through. This gained us access to a secluded valley leading south to Ouri and North to Libya. We headed west through the maze of valleys and deep ravines getting to within around 30km of the peak by vehicle.
The terrain is as broken as anywhere in the world with a maze of ravines, gullies, pinnacles and gorges. We could not make more than 10 km a day due to the problems of route finding. The next week saw several approach attempts, none gaining more than 30km to Bikku Bitti, and all ending with deep gorges blocking the way. We even tried heading to Ouri but turned back at the first vehicle we saw which had been hit by a landmine. Time, and rather food and water, was running short. We headed up another valley for one last try from a southwesterly direction pretty much along the border and 40km by GPS from the mountain. Again route finding along the way was difficult and time consuming and carrying water for 4 to 5 days quite hard work. This route may be possible given time. I called a halt just 10 km away from the peak but still maybe 2 days away. Whereas I managed over 60 km in the first day on Emi Koussi with a height gain of nearly 3000 metres, here we were slowed to 5 kilometers on some days. Another added problem is that the mapping is poor and dated. Some maps put Bikku Bitti over the border in Chad and some maps put another peak as higher.
Jan/Feb 2005 Eamon Fullen, second attempt.
Every possibility was tried to gain the assistance of the Libyan authorities to climb their highest mountain. None were successful. I delayed my second attempt to climb the mountain waiting for help that was promised but never came. The wait nearly proved fatal as I left my departure as late as possible in the cool season. An early heat wave, little water on the mountain and a certain amount of overconfidence and pushing too hard for the mountain saw me run out of water 3 and a half kilometers short of my goal. The return was rather desperate and I would have not made it back alive had it not been for the Toubou guides I had who managed with very little water and returned to get more just in time before my body gave up the fight.
Nov/Dec 2005 Eamon Fullen, third attempt and successful climb of Bikku Bitti.
Returning very early in the cool season, but having the misfortune to hit a late heat wave we never the less prepared the mountain first with plenty of water stashes. We also managed to find a better route in and drove 10 km nearer the mountain meaning only a walk in of 30 km by GPS instead of 40km. After 2 days carrying water in we spent a further 4 days on the mountain.
As regards to just which mountain was the highest in Libya we were still not in the clear yet. Different maps I had gave different co-ordinates. The peak in front of me now though seemed the best contender and it was clear then several of the maps gave these co-ords to a varying degree of accuracy. Only a few months before Grant had emailed me some recent and very detailed information he had found from a new shuttle radar package he had.
Grants email – September
Hmm, interesting mountain. With the shuttle radar data I’m seeing some canyons to the northwest and what may be your pinnacles to the southeast, a lot of data drop-outs on a otherwise gently sloping area. Bitti itself seems to consist of two arc-like ridges separated by some sort of drainage course. The coords from atlases are centered on the southern arc, with a highest point of 2240m but the northern arc is higher in the shuttle data. Given the 90m sampling interval that’s well compatible with the published height of 2267m.
However…There’s a conical thing rising maybe 10km southwest of the main ridges, and it tops out at 2351m at 21 59.00N 019 08.70E. These are clean looking data, and 100m is well outside any quoted error limits for the shuttle radar. So that’s the highest point in the massif for sure. Trouble is, it’s just a few km north of the border. Nice thing about the border though is its geodesic and somewhere I have got a note of its endpoints so I can do a calc to double check the position relative to the border. But it seems like this
might be the thing to go for.
Second email – September
I’ve done the calcs myself, and checked with two online calculators. It’s at the level that you have to allow for the fact the earths not a perfect sphere. We’re all coming up and placing this point 1-2 km inside Libya, which is what my combo of shuttle data and Vector shoreline borders shows too. Four way check, so it the border coords are good the location is good. The lines were drawn in 1994 by the International Court of Justice, from the 23 27N 16 00E to 19 30N 24 00E. The border agreement actually used the Tropic of Cancer for the first latitude – it’s in fact a hair under 23 27N but I’ve used the round figure in all calcs to be on the safe side. If the borders actually a little south of where we expect, that’s not a problem, but I want the error to be in that direction obviously.
The latest coords from Grant of the conical peak he mentioned was the general area I was aiming for. I was hoping amongst hope that this would be the mountain even though it did not really look conical. In fact it looked more arc like which was slightly troubling. I would take in the other possibilities on the trek back but none looked as obvious and prominent as the peak before me.
4th December 2005. 0630 we were on the move quickly gaining the western ridge. We walked on broken rocks taking our time now, the chase was hopefully coming to an end. We reached a dip in the ridge about half way up, from here we could finally look north over Libya. Nothing looked higher and the terrain was spectacular. Another barrier of pinnacles and deep gorges surrounded the peak to the north about 10 to 15 km away nearly making a complete circle around the mountain. Foothills and high sand dunes were beyond that and empty desert for hundreds of kilometers beyond that. The mountain range seemed to be formed as a natural fortress with southern Libya and the Tibesti Mountains in Chad being officially off limits it made for one of the most difficult places in the world to get to. The heat, landmines and lack of water only added to the problems. In climbing you learn it is all about eliminating risks but also taking chances. Getting a balance is the hardest challenge. Get it wrong you might die, get it right and you might not climb the mountain.
We walked on reaching a secondary summit. There were a number of Cairns on top we could clearly see. Soon we were on the summit. The height was 2389m but was it in Libya? The northern latitude was just a few hundred metres south of Grants position but the east longitude was also just a little more east then Grants coordinates so pushing the mountain nearer to Chad. A conical peak was clearly visible but very much lower a couple of kilometers north. I was pretty sure the peak I was on was in Libya but I would not know for certain until I had contacted Grant. It was definably the highest point in the Tibesti spur I was sure and the most easily identifiable.
I felt no great need to celebrate; Bikku Bitti was ‘just another mountain’, albeit a tough one and the last one in Africa. There was no shaking of hands that would wait until we were safely back in at least Tukro. Mahadi and Armed did call me by a Toubou name now though as I was seemingly worthy of it. Kore Kally is what they now called me.
We arrived at 0741 and left at 0900 having taken plenty of photographs and leaving a bottle up there with Gadaffis Green Book inside which I had signed and dated and a toubou knife along with some M & M’s. I left it inside a cairn with my walking stick. I did not have time to reflect too much as I had to walk out and take in several other peaks on the way just to be sure. None were higher or as spectacular as the 2389m peak though. The moment of Bikku Bitti and Africa’s Highest Challenge was coming to an end.
If you can tell me these coordinates are in Libya then we have found our mountain. 21 58.915N 019 08.662E. Eagerly awaiting your reply.
There is only a few tenths of a degree in it, but it’s north of the great circle line marking the border. I’ve used two different calculators that allow for the elliptical shape of the earth and I’ve used conservative latitude for the tropic of Cancer. Looks like a keeper to me.