Big-Wall Free Climbing in South Africa

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Dave Birkett leads the fifth pitch (5.12c) of Newborn in South Africa. Birkett, famous for his headpoints in the English Lakes District, is married to South African Mary Jenner. Photo by Jeremy Samson.

Dave Birkett leads the fifth pitch (5.12c) of Newborn in South Africa. Birkett, famous for his headpoints in the English Lakes District, is married to South African Mary Jenner. Photo by Jeremy Samson.

Jeremy Samson and a gang of other climbers have completed the first free ascent of Newborn (29/5.13a, 14 pitches) at Yellowwood, a massive sandstone cliff in the Du Toits Kloof area, north of Cape Town. Samson, Dave Birkett, Mary Jenner, and Jamie Smith redpointed the route in six hours on January 11.

The development of Newborn was started in 1999 by Sean Maasch and Nic Mathews, and other climbers have worked on the route, including Clinton Martinengo, who was first to redpoint the crux lead. Mostly bolted for protection, the route has nine pitches 5.12a or harder.

“The bolting ascent was very entertaining,” Samson said. “Sean employed casual labor, guys that sort of hang around the street hoping for manual jobs. Ten of them piled into the back of the truck, not entirely sure what their job for the day would entail. They were driven to the base of the wall and instructed to walk up. Some made it, others bailed. The wall has no water, so he wanted them to carry tons up. Most of them drank all the water on the walk up.”

Maasch had a child the same year (thus the name Newborn) and mostly stopped climbing. Samson discovered the route after a trip to inspect the wall for BASE jumping. It took him around 14 trips over the next two years to complete the bolting and get fit enough to climb the route. During the redpoint ascent, Samson led the crux pitch and several 5.12 pitches, and Birkett (the English climber well-known from the movie Set in Stone) and Smith led the other hard pitches.

Clinton Martinengo on the fourth pitch (5.12b) of Newborn. Photo by Jeremy Samson, courtesy of Climbing.co.za.

Clinton Martinengo on the fourth pitch (5.12b) of Newborn. Photo by Jeremy Samson, courtesy of Climbing.co.za.

“I have offered a bottle of Lagavulin 16-year-old to anyone who onsights the route,” Samson said. “This is a 750mm bottle and goes well late in the evening with nonsensical conversation.”

In late November, meanwhile, Martinengo, Charles Edelstein, and Stewart Middlemiss completed what’s likely the hardest mostly free big-wall climb in the country: Dog of Thunder (30+ A0, or 5.13b with one hang, 13 pitches). The route tackles a 1,000-foot quartzite face on the North Wall of Blouberg, in the far northeast of South Africa, and it went with a mix of bolts and traditional gear for protection.

The three climbers visited the crag six times over four years to complete the route, and their final effort was marked by violent thunderstorms. “We somehow managed to complete the route ground-up, despite Clinton Martinengo having to free a grade 25 [5.12b] pitch in the dark and on wet rock after a major downpour, Edelstein wrote at the Climbing ZA forum. “One lightning flash was just 300 meters away (one second pause before the deafening thunderclap), and the heat seared our faces. Very exciting indeed.”

Dog of Thunder has three pitches of 30+. The route went all free except for one rest on the ninth pitch (30+ A0).

Jeremy Samson follows the sixth pitch (5.12d) on Newborn. Photo courtesy of Climbing.co.za.

Big-Wall Free Climbing in South Africa

Martinengo, 33, has redpointed up to 5.14b, establishing the sport route Streetfighter at that grade in late October. In mid-November, after visiting the Winterhoek mountains for several seasons, he finally repeated the Andy de Klerk traditional testpiece Oceans of Fear (sandbag 5.12+, 800 feet).

Dates of Ascents: November 24-24, 2007 (Dog of Thunder); January 11, 2008 (Newborn)

Sources: Jeremy Samson, Climbing.co.za, 8a.nu, Alpinist.com

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The Yellowwood amphitheater in South Africa, about an hour from Cape Town. Newborn (5.13a, 14 pitches) takes a line just left of center, through the yellow roofs near the top. Photo by Jeremy Samson, courtesy of Climbing.co.za.

Big-Wall Free Climbing in South Africa