Compiled Elzanne Erasmus | Photographs CJ van der Westhuizen
Few people are aware of the many rock-climbing challenges Namibia has to offer. As hikers and climbers discover ever more areas, the sport is becoming increasingly popular, both with locals and with visitors from abroad.
The Spitzkoppe, at 1,728 metres, was first ascended in 1946. Since then the range has attracted hundreds of climbers every year. As one of Namibia’s most recognisable landmarks, and often referred to by climbers as the Matterhorn of Africa, the Spitzkoppe rises above the dusty pre-Namib plains of southern Damaraland as if out of a mirage.
Considered a climber’s paradise, the Spitzkoppe and surrounding areas – including the Pondok (or Pontok) Mountains (because they resemble the rounded Damara huts called pondoks) – boast over 30 natural and 30 sport climbs. Sport climbing entails routes that are secured with bolts, whereas natural climbing involves unsecured climbing techniques or ‘free climbing’.
In Namibia, climbing routes are rated in accordance with the Ewbank system as measured in technical difficulty, exposure to the climber, length, quality of rock, protection and other smaller components: the higher the rating, the more difficult the route. Popular climbs in the Spitzkoppe surrounds include the route Goldfinger (21) on Rhino Horn, a very sought-after climb that is well bolted. The South West Wall is home to many popular routes such as Watersports (20), the South West Wall Route (24), INXS (24) and Herero Arch (26). Along the highest peak of the Pondok Mountains – Pondok Spitz – you’ll find the route To Bolt or Not To Bolt (18), a five-star climb that’s not excessively difficult. Sugarloaf Mountain also has great bolted routes.
Although the Spitzkoppe surroundings are considered to be the most popular climbing destination in Namibia, there are many other areas for climbers, including Omandumba in the Erongo Mountains, Aussenkehr on the southern border of Namibia and the Midgard country estate, 90 km north-east of Windhoek.
Reading about height statistics and the techniques used to grade routes does not unveil the ins and outs of rock climbing, though. As with many adventure sports, it is the passion of the adventurers that drives their love of the sport, and makes them strive to reach new heights, in this case quite literally. So maybe it is best if you hear from them.
2013 was a life-changing year. It took 37 years for me to find something that I did not even know I was looking for. At a coffee bar an old school friend asked me if I would like to go climbing with them that weekend and as I have always loved climbing up mountains to enjoy great views, I said: “Yes!” To my surprise they had a rope, special shoes and lots of other interesting things with them. That was the day I had my first go on a sports climbing route on the Schattenwand at Omandumbe Erongo Mountains. I was hooked straight away, obtained my own gear and joined the climbing community to go friction climbing at Namibia’s favourite climbing site, the Spitzkoppe. After that I used every chance I could get to go climbing, from bouldering at Avis to the climbing areas close by Windhoek. Unfortunately, in the last six months I was not able to go climbing as the closest climbing area is 840 km away from where I work now. As my soul needs to be at one with the climbing rocks of Namibia I am now looking forward to get a job closer to those steep slopes that leave my heart beating. I have found that life can be so much more if you’re looking down at it from a mountainside, and I thank the people who introduced me to this lifestyle every day. I can’t wait to go climbing with these incredible people in one of Namibia’s great spots again.
– Sven Geider
The Great Arch
The alarm clock went off… It’s 4:30. A little bit more sleep would have been nice, but it was time to start our journey. A quick cup of coffee, a small piece of bread, and Roland and I were on our way. For me there were mixed emotions, a dream coming true. But do I have what it takes? I never thought this day would dawn so quickly.
After one hour of scrambling with head lamps, our timing was perfect, with just enough sunlight to be able to start our climbing ascent. Gearing up with a couple of cams I took on the first pitch. Two steps and I could feel that this one was going to be a challenge. The first move is over a crumbling block and there is nothing for your feet. The rest was fair with a runout towards the end.
I think the second pitch was probably the most difficult. It was a very slippery off-width crack with the crux move right at the end. Considering the rope drag, Roland climbed very well.
Next it was my turn again. On the third pitch the crack continues for a couple of meters and is then swallowed by the huge face of the South West Wall. And, as we all say, happiness is a bolt. It was a bit of a mental adjustment switching from crack climbing to face climbing.
In a big pocket, Roland was preparing for the fourth pitch. This one really looked hard. Two aided moves on an overhang granite face is no easy task. This one took a lot out of me, I must admit.
On the fifth pitch five, the bolts were quite close and it was my turn again. Halfway into the pitch Roland said: “I think this one is a 23”. All I could say was: “Thanks for telling me now!” His response: “I know you can do it”. Does that sound familiar?
Then we were standing at the beginning of the great arch, the Herero Arch. Roland took the lead again. The first bolt was quite far away. Somehow this arch helps you when it feels like there is nothing to hold on to, even if you can just support your back against it.
It was my turn again, the second pitch on the arch, pitch seven. We reached the end of the pitch at twelve o’ clock. There was shade in the arch but the rays of the sun lighted up the whole South West Wall as they hit the rock.
We had to decide whether we were going to continue into the sun and heat, or call it a day. After Roland went out onto the traverse pitch to test the heat of the sun, we decided to call it quits.
I enjoyed every single moment of the climb. My climbing shoes were pushed to their limit. Even the fact that we did not summit was great because our climbing journey did not become a climbing mission.
– Maarten Venter
The Big Question
To summit or not to summit is the real question to ask. It’s been months of preparation and every manner of exercise to be able to go up Pontok Spitze. By the first of May we were all at the Spitzkoppe for some amazing climbing. At that point there were four climbers, Evan and I, and Maarten and Daniel as a team to ”to bolt or not to bolt”. The weather was still too hot and we decided to wait until it was cooler with some more shade. So it was… “Not to summit”. After all, it was Daniel’s very first time at Spitzkoppe, and we needed to do more training and gain some more experience. We therefore decided to rather go up Rhino Horn, and what an amazing expedition that was! And a real windy one as well! Evan and I managed a few other long routes too, and Maarten and Daniel also had some great climbs. They kept on with their training for the whole month at Falkenstein. June came and another climbing weekend was organised, and so the four of us decided to summit. Even though Evan and I did not have adequate time to train physically, mentally we were set up for a whole day’s climb. On arrival that Friday we did two quick warm-up climbs and on Saturday, at 5 a.m., the four of us started the route with a long and difficult hike. After a beautiful sunrise we were ascending the first tricky pitches. Maarten and Daniel were ahead while we followed, all moving at a good pace, with eight pitches before reaching the summit. In the meantime, not far from the Spitzkoppe, Swakopmund had been blowing away. The weather conditions became quite unpleasant and with every pitch the ever-nagging question returned: to summit, or not to summit? Even though the wind was punishing us on that big wall and draining our energy, we still kept moving. Evan asked Maarten how the ‘18’ felt (pitch five) and his reply was, “Like Rhino Horn”, but I can only guess that it was the wind that reminded him of Rhino Horn at that level. We still had enough time after Evan did a great ascent up pitch five, with Maarten and Daniel ahead. By the end of the sixth pitch, the off-width route was a real energy breaker and we couldn’t move any farther. Maarten got up that crack of a chimney. What an awesome climb!
I’ve learned that everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it – Andy Rooney
A guidebook entitled Spitzkoppe and Pontoks Namibia by Eckhardt Haber contains all the route information of the area. To date, the highest peak of the Spitzkoppe has been reached by climbers more than 600 times. Members of Namibia’s rock-climbing community form part of the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA), which has a Namibian charter. The club facilitates and engages in mountaineering, climbing of all types including boulder climbing, hiking, international expeditions, mountain search and rescue, training, the conservation of mountain areas, and the procurement of access for mountaineering.
DID YOU KNOW?
There are a few climbing areas within 20 km of Windhoek, but these are usually on privately owned property where the right of admission is reserved. The climbing company, Urban Friction, facilitates climbs in popular spots throughout Namibia. No experience is needed to join these climbing tours, and they are open to everybody, from amateurs to professionals. MCSA Namibia hosts regular outings to Spitzkoppe during winter. Dates for scheduled climbs can be found on the website MCSA Namibia: www.mcnam.org.
Camping at the Spitzkoppe
There are few experiences as amazing as camping at the Spitzkoppe. The unbelievable clarity of the Namibian night sky and the absolute silence will leave you wishing the sun wouldn’t come up until noon. For a truly special experience, plan your next camping trip there to correlate with the full moon and get a sense of how Neil Armstrong felt. Spitzkoppe Rest Camp is a community-based tourism initiative. The 31 campsites, nestled into their own private nooks, can accommodate a maximum eight persons each. The campsites have dry toilets only, but hot showers are available at reception. Members of the local community come by the campsites in a donkey cart each day to remove rubbish.