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Stay hard, stay
had heard about Chambe and its massive West Face, the highest rock wall in the
Mulanje Massif, Southern Africa and possibly Africa from a friend and climber
originally from Malawi , Mike Mason, who spoke of ‘his’ Mulanje with pride
and overwhelming intensity; he surely loved the place. Alard and I were hooked
on the prospect of climbing this wall on our return trip from our climbing
expedition to Mozambique.
the first known climbing expedition to Nampula Province in northern Mozambique,
we obviously had to focus all our attention firstly on making this expedition a
success: namely to get back alive, hopefully with a few 1st ascents to our name.
So the idea of climbing Chambe West face, had to remain dormant, until, at
least, we crossed the border back into Malawi.
we had to relax, recuperate and regain our climbing motivation. We did just that
at Lake Malawi, where we hooked up with David Evans and Clive Bester(Kayak
Africa) who had just completed the first complete descent of the Rovuma river on
the border between Tanzania and Mozambique. We spent 3 days paddling to islands,
sleeping on deserted beaches and enjoying the underwater fish life. And yeah, we
climbed, but the medium was a whole lot softer than rock, even than granite.
David knew a huge Baobab tree growing on one of the islands, and obviously, we
headed there to climb. We had a great time, completing the 10m traverse
circumnavigating the ancient trunk (grade 20). We also managed 2 new routes, an
18 which Alard lead (barefoot and no chalk) and called “Hard Boiled Lads”
and me finally completing a difficult toprope problem. The name: “Tickling
Titties, grade 23” provides the first clue toward success. We enjoyed a most
fantastic sunset, relaxing on the highest branches of our new found, ancient
friend, before paddling another 7 kilometres, accompanied only by the splinters
of a moon riding our waves, to another island for dinner and a satisfying sleep
on the beach.
felt sad leaving the lake and bidding farewell to our friends. (I now understand
why Africa travellers with great plans get stuck at Lake Malawi: Its lifestyle
sucks you in and holds you; a dangerous place where time is lost, ultimately
betraying your adventurous soul). Hearing of our plans to climb Chambe west
face, David just cocked his bushy head and quietly said: “ You guys better
nail that bastard.” With that we left, our focus now on Mt. Mulanje.
came as a shock to our system. A bustling town, invading our space and grating
our nerves. We found refuge at doogles where a couple of green’s(local beers)
relaxed us somewhat. We met up with Colin Say, an ex-MCSA member, now
living in Blantyre. His hospitality was overwhelming and made our stay in
Blantyre a good experience. He also warned us of
the dangers of Chambe West and of it being a very serious undertaking.
This was great and motivated us even more to climb it, maybe even in one day!?
Colin’s grin, followed by a frown,
betraying his thoughts concerning this plan.
you can survive the road to Mulanje, you’ll survive anything. Of the total
distance of 82 kms, approximately 36 are of the worst rutted nature, so that a
speed of 25 can rarely be exceeded. It used to be completely tarred, but the
weather caused potholes to form, more weather enlarged these until it was
decided, instead of fixing them properly, all the asphalt was to be removed. And
so: Good luck to all private cars!
were so engrossed in navigating this road that we very nearly failed to see the
huge, dark bulk of Mulanje looming out of the haziness up ahead. Dorothy
welcomed us at Likabula forest station together with swarms of porters, guides and craftspeople hoping to sell
their services and excellent Mulanje-cedar craft. She is a real character and
ensured the safety of our car and belongings, although being somewhat disgusted
at our refusal to use any of her porters,
decided to hike up to Chambe hut that same afternoon and deposit some gear and
food there, which hopefully would be waiting for us after our climb.
skyline path is long and steep, heading straight across the contours to the
Chambe basin. All the time we were boggled by the local lads carrying these
cedar-planks down the mountain. Not just one, often two but mostly three 5 meter
planks were balanced on their heads, supported by the most powerful of necks.
They do three one-way trips in a day, receiving a mere 50 Kwacha (R10) per
hut was filled with travellers so we slept on the veranda. The fire in the hut
is truly an experience: You gaze into the licking flames and glowing coals,
entranced, you’re absorbed into a world far away from the hut and the people,
a world of tranquillity, undisturbed by thought.
following morning we used our honed pancake making skills to impress the British
research contingent. They had given up on the idea of pancakes after some
failures and had progressed to lying under the solitary cedar in front of the
hut. Soon, they were surprised when out of the hut came one perfect pancake
that day we descended back to Likabula, found Edwin, a guide who had shown the
French climbers the start of the route, and organised to pick him up the
following morning at three. We told him of our plan to climb West Chambe in one
day. He said that it had never been done and that the French had taken two days.
He thought it was not possible. We cast aside this negativity and prepared for a
quick ascent by taking the minimum gear, a basic rack including jumars, two 50m
ropes, snacks and energy rich chocolate bars, our sleeping bags and a fly-sheet
from our tent in case we had to Bivvy.
awoke at 2h30 the following morning after a disturbed few hours of sleep at the
Likabula guest house. We left our
car at a private residence (50K a day) below the wall. Alard had checked out the
wall the previous day and had come back saying it was the largest wall he
had ever seen and that he doubted we would manage to climb it in a day. I knew
that for Alard to think we would fail, it had to be pretty big. Now, that I
stood below this 1700m wall, I felt pretty small, like a little ant, about to be
squashed by one of us giants. “Don’t look at the whole wall, “ I told
myself, “keep your gaze down, set a smaller goal and go for the next goal when
you’ve achieved the first.” That is how we started up the face at sunrise,
setting small goals in terms of time and distance climbed.
first 100 m we soloed and then roped up for a shorter, harder pitch. From then
on Alard headed up a fault line with me following simultaneously a full 50
meters back. This is how we ended up climbing most of Chambe West face, the
leader occasionally placing gear, the person seconding retrieving it and pacing
himself so that both would be climbing constantly, in relative safety. The final
pitch of the 600 meter long approach slabs turned out to be the most difficult.
Alard led up a smooth, steep, grassy face with little solid gear to gain a
corner crack which I managed to ascend to the large basin, separating the slabs
from the 1100 meter high main wall. We reached this basin at 9h00 , reaching the
base of the main wall at 9h30. This is where we had our only major delay: Edwin
had told us we could find water some 100m to the south along the base of the
wall. We had decided to take the minimum of water for the first stage of the
climb, entrusting the success of the climb to finding water
below the main wall. It was increasingly frustrating, however, having to
scramble 300 meters back to near
the top of the approach slabs before finally finding a small trickle of water,
just enough to fill our bottles.
not to serious, the one hour delay experienced here impacted negatively on my
psyche. I felt we wouldn’t make it. Alard
calmly reassured me by saying we only had 1100 m to go and more than 7
hrs to do it in. Hey, that didn’t seem so bad.
first pitch of the main wall was my lead. The guide states its a 6 inf. but the
route was liken covered and greasy, so I was forced to head left and
then climb up over a smooth face to a grass tuft. As I committed to the
hardest move, slowly smearing my feet on a small knobble and squeezing my nails
into a minute flake, my last nut-runner popped, leaving me with a potential
ground fall. Urgh, my stomach turned at this prospect, but the thought of
turning back seemed even worse, so, I went for it and grabbed that tuft of grass
with conviction and trust...it held. A long, easy section led us to a steepening
of the fault line we were following. Alard led the following pitch, a horrid
chimney which contained the remains of some
abseil chord and carabiners, apparently left there by the retreating American
army climbers earlier in the year.
hard offwidth and crack pitch led us to the overhanging corner aid pitch which
Alard led with determination. This was shown in the fact that he could not, at
first, locate the two bolts placed by the first ascentionist, Frank Eastwood.
They were hidden by a layer of moss and when finally exposed, did nothing to
calm Alard’s mounting
frustration. They looked old and mangled, barely seeming to hold one’s weight.
Alard was understandably relieved to reach the stance. I followed, jumaring with
both packs, the dry moss blowing into my eyes, irritating, making me swear at
the God of Mulanje, who must have
watched my grovelling with a certain amusement.
was now 2 PM and we knew for the first time that we were going to make it. Ahead
were 700m of relatively easy terrain which could be simul-climbed to the summit.
Yeah, it was easy, a few sections of 16 and 17, but the main challenge was
fatigue. Our bodies were tired from all the chimneying, our legs aching from all
the high-stepping and our minds a blur from all the concentration. The summit
was everything now. We climbed on, steadily, in a trance, stopping occasionally
for a bite of chocolate or to swap leads until we finally, as the sun set over
the distant plains, reached the summit cross, wasted, yet exuberant; our
achievement not really registering. All we wanted, now, was to slip into our
warm sleeping bags and fall asleep to the crackling fire.
lights at Chambe hut were glowing from the basin below. So close and yet so far.
We ate what we had left and started the descent with only one headtorch. Luckily
the path is well marked with cairns. Still, we found ourselves lost on numerous
occasions, once, having to downclimb a long, relatively steep crack system
without being able to see the bottom.
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