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Climbing granite domes in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

    Isithumbe, known to climbers as “Old Baldy”, is a mmmmassive granite dome in the valley below Monteseel, in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), overlooking the Umgeni River. There are only four established routes at the moment, all from the ’90s: one is trad, all the others had bolts in a dire state. We have recently re-bolted two of them (I say “we” but Gavin and Werner did most of the work, with a little help from Kirsty, Hallam and me) and this weekend Hallam, Werner, Brad and I went to repeat them.

    Hallam and I climbed Quiet Desperation (graded 16, 200 m) on Saturday morning in about 3.5 hours. The route starts on a giant flake/ramp that can take a n.2 and/or a n.3 cam (or be soloed if you forgot them, or if you want to show off on easy terrain), then throws you in the deep end with some long moves on good footholds. The second pitch is an easy right-ward traverse with big holds, protected by one bolt (if you were smart enough to carry them, the n.2 and/or n.3 cams will come in handy again). Enjoy those holds, they are the last ones larger than a 50c coin that you’ll see on the entire route. From that point on, it’s all friction climbing at a fairly positive angle. The terrain is vertical enough to make you cringe, run-out enough to make you question your climbing choices and your passion for climbing in general, but safe enough to keep you in relative good health in case you were to slip. Another possibility is that a hold or flake may give up as you touch them (or look at them too intensely). We got rid of the most obvious loose flakes and the rock is generally very good but the first few repeaters might have to do some more cleaning, hopefully without taking a whipper in the process.

    Beware1: the second-to-last pitch is missing two bolts at the moment, because of… Stuff that happened. Either wait until those are fixed before jumping on the route or just run it out on the second half of that pitch. It’s a 12-ish m diagonal run-out, so you would look at a 25 m slide/tumble. Long enough to teach you that you should know better than climbing slabs.

    This climb is a fun (mostly type-1) ride through a sea of granite and deserves to become a classic.

    On Sunday I went back with Brad and Werner to sink our teeth in Frail Illusion (graded 18, 200 m). This is yet another proof that a short memory, a certain level of masochism, and a skewed definition of fun are key features for climbers. Or perhaps just slab-climbers. Or maybe it’s just me. Anyways. This route shares the first two pitches with Quiet Desperation, then continues straight up for two pitches and leans right towards an aloe in the middle of the wall. Pitch 3, graded 18, is phenomenal and it gave me a metallic taste in my mouth, tunnel vision, and a hint of a 1000-mile stare by the time I reached the chain. It has cool, committed, exposed moves on excellent rock. The new bolts integrate the rather minimalistic style of the original bolting, mitigating the risk of permanent damage (physical or psychological) in case of a fall without killing the Original Spirit of Slab Climbing (which is, as we all know, all about fear and regret). The following pitch felt a bit easier, let’s say grade 17/18 (just to piss off those who don’t see the beauty of “slash” grades), but scarier because of the rock being not as solid as before. It’s still a good pitch, but a bit too hollow-sounding to be fully enjoyable on an on-sight. By the time I was half way up pitch 4, my mojo had packed bags and left me, weakening the Buzz Light-Year in me. By the time I was at the chains I wanted to be somewhere else, preferably weeping softly in the corner of a dark room. From that point on, the route eases. Pitch 5 ends by some aloes perched in the middle of the wall. The final pitch (pitch 6) goes diagonally up and left to a thick patch of aloes and two expansion bolts (the same where Quiet Desperation ends).

    Side-note: because of the meandering nature of the routes, at this stage walking down from the top is much easier than abseiling.


    1: the issue has since been fixed. The routes are now fully equipped.