23 April 2009

Mountain escapes

White knuckles and adrenaline – or a fantastic mountain escape that works both body and mind? Set yourself free on one of these fine rock climbing routes.


White knuckles and adrenaline – or a fantastic mountain escape that works both body and mind? Set yourself free on one of these fine rock climbing routes. By MARK JOHNSTON for YOU/Pulse magazine.

Taken your kids to an indoor climbing gym recently? You really should try it. More and more families are discovering that far from being a dangerous, daredevil pursuit, rock climbing is a wonderfully rewarding sport that works not only your body but also your brain.

That’s right – sheer brute force isn’t enough to haul your body up a route, you also need to use your noggin to read the sequence of handholds, work out when to push it and when to grab a rest. It’s all about strategy, much like a game of chess.

Climbing is an excellent full-body workout. You call on every muscle group to help you pull, push, reach and stretch to get to the next hand- or foothold. Research has shown that even limited exposure to climbing leads to a noticeable improvement in muscle strength, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance.

There are three types of climbing. In traditional climbing the leader places specially designed pieces of equipment into cracks and other features in the rock face to secure the belay or safety rope. The going is sometimes slow and can be dangerous if you can’t find a suitable fissure in the rock.

When a cliff is too steep or blank for traditional gear, climbers use bolts drilled into the rock as anchors. This climbing is much quicker and generally safer and is therefore known as sport climbing. Finally there’s bouldering, where climbers test their finger strength on small rock outcrops and boulders. The routes are short – often only a few moves long – but the climbing is physically very challenging.

Indoor climbing gyms provide a safe, controlled environment to learn the ropes as well as improve your strength. Some also offer training courses for beginners. But there’s more to climbing than pulling on plastic grips. The real adventure starts outdoors. In the mountains. On proper rock. And here in southern Africa we’re blessed with some of the most interesting and varied rock formations in the world, from the sheer basalt cliff s of the Drakensberg to the glorious orange sandstone of the Cederberg. Here’s our pick of the best local routes.


How fit should you be? While the climbing section is short and easy, the hike in to Tafelberg is quite steep so a good level of hiking fitness is recommended.
Where? Cederberg Mountains, near Citrusdal in the Western Cape.
Why climb it? Although the Tafelberg is not the highest peak in the Cederberg (that’s the Sneeuberg, visible on the other side of the valley), its distinctive fl at top and the fact that you need to do some dinkum scrambling to reach the summit make it a popular climb.
Time Budget a full day from the Welbedacht parking lot to the summit and back, although many parties make a weekend of it, overnighting in Spout Cave at the base of Tafelberg.
Route description From the oak trees at Welbedacht, follow the path over the river and up the valley to Welbedacht cave. A short but welcome section of fl at on the shale band leads to another steep path, which leads up to the neck between Tafelberg and the Spout (the prominent rock tower that makes the peak look like a teapot from certain angles). From here the path traverses beneath dramatic red cliff s to a rocky gully, which leads steeply to the summit. The scrambling section is right at the end of the gully.
Guidebook: Peter Slingsby’s Cederberg: the Map ( is a good general reference but for a more detailed description get Tony Lourens’ new guidebook, Tafelberg & Spout, Central Cederberg, Western Cape: a Climber’s Guide, available in climbing shops.
Access You need a permit to visit Tafelberg. These can be purchased through CapeNature. Discounts are available for Wild Card holders.
Contact, 021-659-3500.


How fit should you be? Fairly fit. If you hike regularly you won’t have a problem at all.
Where? The route traverses Africa Amphitheatre on the front side of Table Mountain.
Why climb it? This is a true Table Mountain classic, with fantastic exposure and great views of the city and Atlantic Ocean beyond.
Time Approximately five hours round trip from the lower cable station on Tafelberg Road.
Route description From the lower cable station ascend the popular India Venster path right up to the base of the upper rock cliffs (note that this route has some exposed scrambling sections so take care here). Where the path begins to head right towards Camps Bay, turn left, taking the lower of three prominent bushy ledges cutting across the face. The route follows this ledge, taking you on an unlikely obstacle course over boulders and through a series of narrow cracks to exit on the other side in Union Ravine.
Guidebook Adventure Walks & Scrambles in the Cape Peninsula by Karen Watkins, available from Mountain Mail Order, 021-790-6026,
Access No permit required.
Contact Table Mountain National Park. Find them at, or phone 021-701-8692.


How fit should you be? Because of the wide choice of routes available, everybody from beginners to honed rock jocks will find something to climb here.
Where? The climbing is situated just outside the town of Waterval Boven, Mpumalanga, about two hours’ drive from Gauteng.
Why climb there? Boven is the weekend/holiday climbing destination for work-weary Gautengers – the vibe is fantastic, the choice of routes truly boggling and the red sandstone cliffs offer some of the finest climbing in the country.
Time You choose. Climb a couple of routes and head back to camp or spend a full day hanging out at the crag.
Route description For full route descriptions check out the Boven guidebook (details below). Beginners should start out at the Flying is Fun and Hallucinogen walls. The Crèche (on Tranquilitas wall) also has a pleasing spread of easy grades. For more challenging routes visit the Superbowl and God No! walls.
Guidebook The Restaurant (At the End of the Universe Crags) by Gustav Janse van Rensburg is the definitive guide to climbing in the area.
Access Rock up and climb!
Contact Roc ’n Rope Adventures are the area specialists, offering accommodation, guiding as well as gear rental and sales., 013-257-0363.


How fit should you be? Fairly fit. Except for the crux pitch, the climbing is generally pretty easy.
Where? Sentinel Peak, northern Drakensberg.
Why climb it? The Angus Leppan is a Berg classic that weaves up the dauntingly sheer north face of the Sentinel with surprising ease. The rock is generally good quality, and while many Drakensberg climbs have painfully long approach hikes, the start of the route is an easy one to two hours from the Witsieshoek car park.
Time Six to seven hours round trip.
Route description From the car park follow the well-established path that leads up towards the Chain Ladders and Mont-Aux- Sources. This path cuts directly beneath the north face of the Sentinel, then ducks around the corner to the right towards the back side of the peak. From here a deep, grassy gully can be seen running up between the main summit and a subsidiary pinnacle on the left. The rock climbing starts at the top of this gully on the right.
Guidebook There are currently no climbing guidebooks for this area, but an excellent route description can be downloaded from the Mountain Club of South Africa website,
Access Permits must be bought from the warden at the backpackers’ lodge at the Witsieshoek car park.
Contact The Sentinel is part of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park. Find them at or phone 036-438-6310. For guided climbing on the Sentinel and other Drakensberg peaks contact Peak High Mountaineering on 082-990-5876 or visit


How fit should you be? Very fit. The ascent includes some steep hiking, exposed scrambles and several pitches of roped climbing.
Where? In the middle of the vast Namib Desert, about 300 km northwest of Windhoek.
Why climb it? Time According to the guidebook it should take you around six hours from the campsite to the summit and back to the campsite but this is if everything goes smoothly. Finding the route is quite involved and it’s not unheard of for climbing parties to spend a full day on the mountain. Start as early as possible (before dawn!) to avoid baking under the desert sun.
Route description This is a true adventure climb, involving some tricky scrambling, squeezing through narrow chimneys and even a compulsory abseil. The route starts on the east face of the mountain and follows stone cairns through a series of gullies and chutes leading on to the northern side of the peak, where the true climbing begins. Five roped pitches lead to the summit.
Guidebook Spitzkoppe & Pontoks – Namibia: A Climber’s Guide by Eckhard Haber, available from Mountain Mail Order, 021-790-6026,
Access The Spitzkoppe area is open to all – no bookings required. However, permits must be bought at the entrance to the reserve.
Contact Namibian Section of the Mountain Club of South Africa,


Shoes Rock climbers use snug-fitting shoes with special high-friction rubber soles for extra grip on the rock.

Rope Mom’s washing line doesn’t cut it! Proper climbing ropes have abrasionresistant sheaths and are designed to stretch slightly to absorb some of the force if you fall.

Harness Old-style climbers used to simply tie the rope around their waists but today padded harnesses provide much more comfort and safety. Chalk bag Like gymnasts, climbers use powdered chalk on their hands and fingers to absorb the sweat for a better grip.

Belay device Instead of using their hands to hold the rope if their partner falls, climbers rely on something called a belay device, which uses friction to lock the rope.

Carabiners These are strong metal clips used to fix your rope to the bolts or any other protection that you place in the rock.

Want to meet other climbers? Not sure how to get out into the mountains? The Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) is a nationwide organisation of active hikers, rock climbers and mountaineers and has a regular programme of climbing meets, training programmes and other mountain-related activities. To find out more about the MCSA or how to join, call 021-465-3412 or visit

Johannesburg: Wonder Wall 011-708-6467,
Pretoria: The Climbing Barn 082-335-3220,
Cape Town: CityRock 021-447-1326,
Durban: The Rock 031-570-9200

For more on rock-climbing and other climbing, click here.

[This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Summer 2008/2009 edition of YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS. The current edition is on sale now.]




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