Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Malawi - Mulanje Madness!

There I was, high on some remote crag perched on a loose tussock, ferreting through moss trying to find a hold hidden beneath. Routes are often describes as ‘lichenous’, but this one was definitely mossy, and grassy, and shrubby. Hell, it was practically vertical scrub. Not quite what I’d daydreamed about all those months ago as I’d sat staring at gray Sheffield skies through the office window. I had imagined vast sweeps of granite that burn pink in the desert sun; multi-pitch ironstone crags rising proudly out of tropical rivers, where eagles fly overhead and crocodile spotting provides rest-day entertainment; rock spires standing sentinel over the African savannah with zebra wandering calmly by. No other climbers around, just my friends and myself, enjoying warm evening breezes and the sun setting on another perfect day, before another evening sat around the campfire in an idyllic campsite.

Then I found myself in the Mulanje Massif in southern Malawi, a small, isolated group of mountains surrounded by forestry works and tea plantations. A number of rock routes were established in the massif in the 1970s, including the longest continuous rock route in Africa, 1700m long. We had our sights set on several shorter routes, 300-400m, on the east face of a mountain called Chambe, most of which still lack a second ascent.

Armed with maps and a guidebook – a faded, hardbacked tome published in 1979 – our truck rattled along the dirt tracks from Blantyre, the commercial centre of southern Malawi, to Likibula. There we found a ramshackle collection of buildings that form the gateway to the Mulanje massif, and we began the five-hour approach walk.

Walking up through verdant vegetation, we were distracted from the oppressive tropical heat by the sickly-sweet smells of purple Bougainvillea, the echoing cries of baboons in the treetops and a never-ending insect chorus. The track took us past small trout-filled streams, a few wooden huts, and forestry plantations where bare-chested, bare-footed Malawian men put us to shame as they wobbled unsteadily past us at staggering speeds with 10-foot lengths of tree-trunk on their heads. Fresh pine smells gradually replaced the Bougainvillea scent as we sweated upwards through the contours, until eventually we arrived at the Chambe Hut, the alpine-style hut beneath the east face and our base for the next few days.

The guidebook described the climbing as ‘adventurous’. It said there would be ample vegetation. It said the belays and most runners would be on trees or the large Vellozia shrubs that are common in the region. But we thought to ourselves, we like adventure, and we’d seen photos of the face and figured that there was enough clean rock for us to pick our way between the vegetation. And tree belays, well, they’re generally pretty good. Even heeding the guidebook’s warning though, what the next day had in store for us was beyond our most pessimistic expectations. In common guidebook idiom, we were in for a ‘very interesting experience’.

But without the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, we were happily buzzing when we reached the hut. Talk of gear and ropes, food and possible descent routes filled the now chilly air. Blinkered by those day-dreamed images of vast sweeps of perfect granite and long, adventurous climbs following beautiful natural lines of open-book corners and splitter cracks, we looked up at the obviously green east face of Chambe from our hut with bizarre and misplaced optimism.

Eight of us planned to climb routes the following day, and with much nervous excitement we sorted our racks, packed our bags, and went to bed with the setting sun.

After a 3am alarm call we began the mile-long approach, only managing to reach the base of the route four hours later - four hours of hacking our way in the dark under, over, round, between and straight through the dense primeval forest. Long-dead moss-covered tree trunks which straddled stream-beds and boulders, low-hanging boughs intricately decorated with countless hanging vines, dense spiky shrubs damp in the pre-dawn dew and shining vividly green in our head torch beams and, later, in the soft early light of the day. More than once one of us needed help to extricate ourselves from the entwining branches and hanging vines. Someone commented, with wide bright eyes that revealed his freakish love of this kind of exercise, “it’s just like being in Jurassic Park!” and he was right. Brenda (our largest and therefore much-loved machete) was dented and tired by the end of those four hours.

Two pairs headed for the South Monolith Route, while Duncan and I, along with another pair, aimed for a route called Gordon’s Gully, VS-HVSish and, so the guidebook said, 300m of truly pleasant and well-protected climbing. The first two pitches followed easy angled slabs to the base of a series of discontinuous gullies.

We’d expected vegetation, and the slabs were indeed covered in grassy tussocks and small Vellozia shrubs. We hadn’t expected the tussocks to be the most solid features on the face. Apparently the average tussock can hold 60kg before its roots give out (oh good!) but this was nevertheless more weight than we wished to test the rock under – it was rapidly becoming apparent that the rock was horrifyingly friable.

The Vellozia plants had obviously suffered from woodworm, and to top it all off, it seemed that a forest fire had recently swept across the face (yes, the face, despite being 75-80o, is vegetated enough to be affected by the regular forest fires that sweep through the region). We ended up climbing on burnt grass tufts, belaying on rotten and wood-wormed shrubs, and avoiding a constant barrage of recently exfoliated granite plates that whistled down from above, with nothing and I mean absolutely nothing to call running protection.

We really should have taken the hint at that point, heeded the warning that those initial pitches issued. The other pair did, climbing 40m or so before backing off, having to abseil off three bits of tat looped around three clumps of grass (I kid you not…), but we didn’t. The first two pitches, according to the guidebook, would take us to the base of gully systems, and we thought we’d push on to that point at least.

But rather than get better at that point, the climbing got worse. The rock became looser, dirtier, more vegetated. Now, thick layers of intensely moist moss grew beneath the already plentiful vegetation. This vegetation became more rotten and wood-wormed. Worst of all, the climbing became an exercise in that bastion of traditionalism, chimneying. We spent hour after disgusting hour back-and-footing (with rucksacks) up several discontinuous gullies. Still there was no gear for protecting pitches or belays. Fear mounted with each passing pitch until is became too much to handle, and dissipated into a dull acceptance of our hideously committed position. There were no anchors we would willingly abseil off, and any abseil would surely bring serious amounts of loose rock and dirt down on our heads.

While going up was still an option and fearing an abseil retreat, we pushed on, climbing 10 pitches of moss and shrub under increasingly gunmetal-grey skies indicating an impending tropical storm. It was 4pm, before the threat of bad weather, the lateness of the hour and the risk of benightment, something not worth contemplating given the paucity of gear, forced the ab off we’d so wanted to avoid. The decision was cemented when we realised, looking around at features on the face, that despite having run out 350m of rope and climbed 10 pitches, we were actually no more than half way up this ‘300m’ route.

The ascent was scary, but the retreat really was the stuff of nightmares. It took seven abseils to put our feet back on solid ground and five were seriously marginal. Imagine committing yourself to tat looped around small protrusions in friable rock with another rock placed on top to stop the tat moving. Imagine trusting your life to a burnt, wood-wormed shrub two foot high and two inches in diameter with tat looped around its base. Imagine, if you can, some tat looped around a wobbly, flared, right-facing flake that is all of four inches from top to bottom and from left to right, and no more than half an inch thick.

In backing off the route we lost 25m of tat, a friend, two slings, some blood and a lot of sweat. But eventually we were back down and bush-bashing back to the hut by moonlight. By the time we got back at 7.30pm, about 16 hours after we’d left, both of us were exhausted but exuberant, happy and not a little surprised to find ourselves alive and back on solid ground!

I’ve been back since that day, walking and scrambling and exploring more corners of the beautiful Mulanje Massif. My rockboots and harness though, did not come with me.

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