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Mega-Adventure In Malawi
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September 2009 :: Malawi :: Mulanje Massif

Joe Forrester and Jeremy Roop traveled to Malawi in autumn of 2009, backed by a Mountain Fellowship Award from the AAC. Here is Forrester's report about their successful trip .

In late September 2009, Jeremy Roop and I headed to Malawi. Situated south of Tanzania and west of Mozambique, Malawi is a small country in southern Africa, most famous for the lake that bears the country’s name. A year earlier, Jeremy and I had stumbled across a website describing a half-mile-long, 5,500-foot wall on the west face of Chambe Peak, one of many peaks comprising the Mulanje Massif (9,855 feet). The wall was described as being broken after the first 2,000 feet by a large, broad jungle step, on top of which was an additional 3,500-foot wall. After comparing firsthand accounts from two South African climbers, Alard Hufner and Mark Seuring, who had climbed on the face in 1997, with Frank Eastwood’s guidebook, published in 1988, we decided the west face of Chambe warranted further exploration. Through our research, we were able to find only two routes on the lower face and two routes on the upper face, three of which were pioneered by Eastwood in the late 1970s. We felt assured that we could find a new route to the top, preferably to climbers’ left of the original Eastwood Route.

After arriving in Lilongwe, we began the hectic process of shuttling our gear south through Blantyre to Likhubula, a town at the base of the Mulanje Massif. While in Blantyre we had the chance to meet Maggie O’Toole, chairperson of the Mountain Club of Malawi, who provided us with additional information about the Mulanje Massif. Five days after departing the States, we arrived at the CCAP House in Likhubula, a small Scottish Mission where we camped for a nominal fee. On a recommendation from Maggie, we hired a local guide for our first day of hiking; he showed us the path to the lower west face of Chambe and the start of the Eastwood Route. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as the approach required us to transect private fields and intricately weave our way through increasingly thick jungle. In addition, our guide, Edwin, helped us learn rudimentary Chichewa, the local language, which proved invaluable during our future unguided treks in the region.

On October 3, we awoke in the predawn hours and walked four hours to the base of the Eastwood Route, carrying a rope and a light rack. Our goal was to climb the Eastwood Route on the lower face and then spend time perusing the upper west face of Chambe for a potential new line. The first thousand feet of the lower west face went quickly, as we soloed this section with difficulties up to 5.7. The climbing was surreal. Large vellozia bushes and clumps of grass on the face had been burned recently in a large wildfire, and we climbed among ash and charred trees that lent a very post-apocalyptic feel.

The first major obstacle we encountered was an overhanging headwall created by a roof system transecting the lower face. According to the Eastwood book, the natural crack feature had been attempted unsuccessfully during the first ascent, necessitating the placement of a bolt ladder. Approaching the crack, we found it thoroughly entrenched with vegetation. Undeterred, Jeremy headed up and onsighted the pitch (5.10d). The climbing was “fully jungle,” with the crux consisting of overhanging fist/offwidth to a “tarzan vine” move. As we continued upward, the difficulty began decreasing, but the level of burned vegetation and ash increased, making climbing difficult. Despite these obstacles, we eventually climbed onto the jungle step. We had completed the first known free ascent of the lower Eastwood Route by avoiding the bolt ladder (III 5.10d, 2,000').

What looked like a short horizontal ledge from below turned out to be a horrendous jungle devoid of trails or paths. Constantly fearful of cobras, mambas, and troops of unruly baboons—some of the creatures we had been warned to avoid—we clawed our way through knife-sharp grass and pricker-bush patches. After three hours of ”jungling,” we arrived at the base of the upper west face and the start of the upper Eastwood Route. Future parties would be advised to take one of the natural stream drainage beds instead of the pricker fields that we crossed. To our disappointment, the face to climbers’ left of the Eastwood Route looked devoid of any continuous natural features. While the granite did contain numerous edges, there were few crack lines and the face was densely covered with grass. We felt that heading onto this portion of the face would require siege tactics and substantial bolting. Not wanting to embark on such a mission, we traversed the jungle step to the south (right). Much to our excitement, we spotted a continuous crack system to the climbers’ left of Roshnik’s Route, the other known route on the west face. Stashing our gear at the base of this line, we hiked off the jungle step and walked back to Likhubula.

After two days of rest (necessary to heal the horrendous wounds received while “jungling”), we headed back up to our gear stash and bivied at the base of the route. Early the next morning, on October 7, we headed up the crack. What had looked like a relatively clean crack system from below turned out to be a nightmarishly vegetated slot for 3,000 feet, requiring every jungleneering skill we had. We simul-climbed difficulties up to 5.8, and pitched out four sections with difficulties up to 5.10. The majority of the climb was 5.5 in difficulty. The highlight was the 600-foot section we called Shelob’s Lair. This huge bombay chimney was dark and ominous; it was also filled with spiders and scorpions and other nasty critters. The climb became increasingly vegetated as we approached the summit, and we became quite adept at lassoing loosely adhered vellozia trees for protection. Six hours after starting our climb, we summited. We had managed to climb the route onsight with no fixed gear. (Both members of the team onsighted the climb.) We decided to call the route Nkhalango Khoswe (Chichewa for “Jungle Rats”) and graded it IV 5.10, 3,000+'.

The Mulanje Massif was a truly magical place to climb; the adventure level was fantastic, and the local people were incredibly friendly and took us into their homes, making us feel a part of the community. For information about climbing on the Mulanje Massif, future parties are advised to talk with the Mountain Club of Malawi, which has a wealth of information about access, conditions, and route activity in the area.

We would like to thank the American Alpine Club and the Mountain Fellowship for support of this trip.