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Mt. Mulanje: a Long, Hard Day          

By Mark Seuring


Stay hard, stay hungry,

stay alive!

                                                                     Bruce Springsteen


We 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.

Being 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.


First 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.


We 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.


Blantyre 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.


If 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!


We 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,


We 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.

The 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 plank.


Chambe 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.


The 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 after another.


Later 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.


I 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.


The 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.


Although 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.


The 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 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.

Another 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.


It 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.


The 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.


All went well, however, and 2 and a half hours later we stepped into the warmth of Chambe hut. We were greeted with mugs of steaming coffee and congratulated on our success. That night I felt completely at peace, my mind calm: a calm normally only seen after a heavy storm. Its good to be alive.

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