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Two American climbers take the direct route to Chambe
Narrative: Jeremy Roop

 

During the last 20 years, rock climbing has become an increasingly popular sport, and climbers around the world are now traveling farther than ever before in search of new challenges and remote peaks to climb. The majority of large mountains and rock walls have been climbed many times over, and the opportunities for pioneering first ascents are quickly diminishing.

 

This is why, when my climbing partner Joe Forrester and I happened across an obscure website describing a 1700m rock wall in Malawi, we were immediately intrigued. This rock wall, called the Chambe Face, is situated on the west face of Chambe Peak in the Mulanje Massif, and according to several sources, is the largest rock wall in Africa. What’s more, at the time we discovered Chambe, there were only 2 established routes that reached its summit. Compare this to the 1000m tall El Capitan in the US climbing hotspot Yosemite Valley, which currently holds over 70 routes.

 

For Joe and me, Mulanje was a huge discovery. While remote climbing destinations in Patagonia and the Karakorum have seen a flurry of climbing activity during the last decade, Chambe had remained untouched, and was ripe with potential for first ascents.
In early October of 2009, Joe and I clambered out of a minibus into the village of Likhubula, nestled at the base of the Mulanje Massif. This was to be our base camp while we prepared for our ascent of Chambe. After setting up camp outside the CCAP Likhubula mission, we hired Edwin, a local hiking guide to show us the approach path leading to the Chambe Face.

 

Edwin navigated through the maze of intersecting trails through the village farmland, and three hours after leaving Likhubula, we arrived at the base of the Chambe Face. Standing for the first time beneath this enormous wall, we simultaneously felt a combination of awe and humility. It was the largest rock face that either of us had ever seen, and its towering heights, obscured by misty clouds were more than a little intimidating.


The next morning we awoke before dawn and repeated the hike to Chambe, this time with ropes, carabineers, and various other items of gear to ensure our safety during the ascent. After a quick snack of hard boiled eggs, we cinched down our harnesses and began to climb. The initial 600m of the climb passed relatively quickly. The rock was low angle and offered a variety of handholds that made upward progress surprisingly easy. In order to climb this easy terrain efficiently, Joe and I climbed together simultaneously, each tied into opposite ends of our rope. The leader would place gear in the cracks of the rock, through which he would clip the rope, and the follower would retrieve the gear as he followed in the leader’s path.

 

In this way, we were able to climb quickly, while still remaining attached to the rock in the event that one of us should fall. Several groves of short velozia trees that were improbably growing out of rock face made the terrain somewhat surreal. Fires that had escaped from the farmland below had burned several of these groves which were charred and black, and emitted clouds of ash as we carefully picked our way through.


After several hours of climbing, the wall began to steepen, and our progress slowed. We made our way into a steep chimney system that allowed us to continue upwards by pressing our backs against one wall, and walking our feet up the opposite facing wall. Vegetation was abundant and we often clawed our way through bushes and used vines as handholds. After over 1000m of climbing, we came to the crux of the entire route: a huge boulder that had become lodged in the chimney system, creating a horizontal roof that barred upward progress. By smearing our sticky rubber shoes on the wall below the boulder and pulling it with our arms, we were able to traverse out and around the obstacle and continue upwards into easier terrain.

 

 

Nearing the summit, exhaustion began to set in as the chimney widened and the vegetation thickened. We took a short break to finish our remaining food and water, and then pushed for the top. Sometime during the mid afternoon, we emerged from the vertical jungle onto the bare rock of Chambe’s highest point. We were scratched and bloodied, covered in ash and thoroughly dehydrated, but we collapsed on the smooth granite summit, thoroughly satisfied with our efforts. We named this third route to the summit of the Chambe Face, “Jungle Rats”, an acknowledgment of the dirty, highly vegetated challenge of the climb.

 

in the pic: The Chimney

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technical description

 

The first section of our route up the lower Chambe face follows the pre-existing Eastwood route, West Face Direct. However, at the prominent roofed overlap that forced Eastwood to drill a bolt ladder on aid, we ascended the obvious overhanging corner crack to the left at 5.10d. From the top of the overlap, the climbing wanders up across slabs and chimneys (5.9) to the break between the upper and lower faces.

 

Jungle Rats begins on the upper face and follows an obvious, left leaning chimney system between the Upper West Face Route and Roshnic’s Route. The route’s defining feature is a 150m dark chimney/cave that starts roughly 200m from the ground. Follow this chimney (5.9) to its end, then traverse left into the large gully/groove and follow this feature to the summit. The crux of the route comes near the summit where a large chockstone forces a strenuous, undercling traverse at 5.10.

 

The route’s easier slab sections do not offer many features for placing gear but the cruxes are adequately protected.

 

Rock Climbing Rating System

 

• 5.0 through 5.4 -- beginner level. Easy to climb, like a ladder.
• 5.5 through 5.7-- intermediate level. Climbable in normal shoes or boots but requiring more skill.
• 5.8 through 5.10 -- experienced level. Requires climbing shoes, experience and strength.
• 5.11 through 5.12 -- expert level. Perhaps only the top 10% of climbers in the world can handle these routes.
• 5.13 through 5.15 -- elite level. Can only be handled by the best of the best.
‘Chimney’ - crack wide enough for a body to fit
‘Crux’ - hardest part of a climb

 

 

Above: This is how Jeremy was at the end of the hike, Successful but exhausted.
Photos: Joe Forrester

 

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