I was dropped off at the Mozambique/Malawi border by a three-strong gang of motorbike riders – I had a lot of kit. Behind the haze, huge granite domes loomed in the distance, a seemingly endless amount of granite. I was surprised how swiftly my visa was issued but before both feet left the room I was ushered back in to see a ministry of health representative. After much rustling of papers, he mentioned my paperwork wasn’t in order, but five dollars would fix this problem.
Like many of my objectives, it starts with one photo. A friend of mine had guided an overland trip through Malawi and took a photo of a group of kids playing in a tea plantation, behind them the crater rim of the massif. The granite domes looked impressive in the photo but I had no idea until we started hiking how impressive the massif actually is. After some research, I found that quite a few routes had been put up in the late ’70s by Frank Eastwood, who later published a guidebook for the area. Like many guidebooks of that era, old sketches, brief descriptions, and black and white photos were the extents of the information. This just added to the adventure. We set our sights on the West face of Chambe direct. A 1700m route, making it the longest rock climbing route in Africa. The topo was a single line on a grainy picture and the description was 200 words.
We rode on the back of mopeds to the start of the walk, dodging potholes, pedestrians and wildlife. I had repacked my bag to fit my helmet but soon realized it would be a lot better off on my head. “Vicky's shop” marked the start of the path. A group of local children followed us. Small houses sat next to boulders of similar size. Soon the children lead the way through the complex warrens between boulders and houses. We attacked the 600m of slabs, simul-climbing it all apart from two steep breaks in the face. Breaking out on the top of the slabs a forest plateau stood between us and the impressive 1100m headwall.
We climbed a few more pitches, more engaging than the slabs below. On a particularly desperate traverse, I counted four bolt holes. Each 8mm hole contained a small spider’s web. I reminded myself of the description “4 bolts, 3 left.” It seemed like the remaining 3 were missing too. I clawed at patches of dirt, scraped at roots and finally made it up to the belay station and our home for the night. A gorilla’s nest. A secluded spot that had amassed dry grass blown down from a thousand meters of vertical fields. An emerald lizard cocked his head looking at our selection of food, tinned tuna, peanut butter, and carrots. We fell asleep with the hot African air rising; taking with it the sound of the local shabeens playing music.
We estimated 8 hours for today’s climb. What Waldo would call a 1000mg day as he popped a few more ibuprofen to quell his throbbing ankle. He was climbing with one approach shoe and one climbing shoe. I preferred to forget about Waldo’s ankle, a retreat was near impossible and any slight problem with his ankle could extend this climb by another day, which our food and water wouldn’t allow for.
Our rack consisted of five cams and five nuts. We had heard of the lack of rock protection on the route and supplemented our hardware with 10 sling draws for the tufts of grass we encountered along the way. Now and again we would find an old peg, may be placed by Chris Bonnington who had once led the route. The rotten rope attached to this peg looked like a snake and I hesitated before clipping it. Anchors were bolted and crux moves were once protected; the holes now just serving as homes for the funnel-web spiders and indicating a crux move was coming up.
The route followed an obvious line of faults, chimneys, and scars. The multiple chimneys were huge and mostly unprotectable. We climbed up into the dark, large chockstones blocking the exit. Squeezing in-between the blocks and into the light before shouting down as the rope drag became too much.
The crux pitch was a fight. “Cleaning the route” was an understatement. The dust rose with me as I climbed, having to contort my body out of the crack to get fresh air, out of the taste of toxic dust. An overhanging offwidth. A new shiny bolt hid under a layer of crud which I was relieved to find, and another rotten peg ripped off as I clipped it.
We climbed to the summit as the sun was setting. Taking a moment of reflection before the long descent. But we were now trapped between an African sunset burning the horizon and in front of us, a bush fire. The adventure was not over yet. After thirty-six hours on the wall there was no place for rash decisions. The wind was forcing the blaze towards us and the ridge-line stopped us moving around it. We instead made a small firebreak. At a distance we watched the smoke change direction, it was our chance. The flames were being forced back into the already burned foliage and would soon die. With my shirt over my mouth, we followed the red dots and cairns through the smoldering bush. An apocalyptic scene. By midnight we sat on the porch of the cedar cladding mountain hut, watching the flames advance further, outshining the southern cross above it. Waldo spent the night violently throwing up and convulsing. Malawi was not being kind to him.
At the airport Waldo was interrogated by the border force, they hadn’t stamped his passport on the way in, despite giving him a visa. I handed my passport over with my cracked and bloodied hands hoping I wouldn’t have the same issue, instead, he asked If I had been climbing and with a smile on his face and waved me through, barely checking my passport.
All images credit go to Tim Howell (unless stated otherwise).
What a brilliant read - Tim Howell is one of our Product Partners, who is a former Kruger Park Guide, a Royal Marine Commando and now focuses on climbing, mountaineering, and Wingsuit BASE jumping.
Check out Tim's social channels and website below.
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