In 1983 Charles Edelstein and George Mallory did the first ascent of Royale Flush on the South West Wall of the Great Spitzkoppe. This was a year after the iconic SW Wall route had finally succumbed to Haber, Ward and Holding, following at least 5 years of effort.
Royale Flush was remarkable because it was a pure ground-up ascent over two days and required no fixed protection. The relatively new ‘friends’ proved instrumental for the ascent, but the climb still involved some very bold and committing passages.
In June 2009 Ian Kotze and I did an almost certainly rare ascent of the route and discovered wild adventure climbing up a huge wall. The fairly inaccurate RD’s and the obviously un-touched nature of the climb combined to make it feel like a first ascent, 26 years after the original.
The adventure started 10 minutes from the campsite. The RD told us to head up the unappealing grass gulley to the right of the SW Wall route. We thought we knew better and instead attempted to force a way up the cleaner slabs further right, starting at their lowest point. 30 metres up and 10 metres out from the last piece, the featureless water-chute looked unappealing, so we opted instead to crawl under a hanging fig creeper for half a pitch to emerge onto easier slabs above. Two or three rope lengths of scrambling and bushwhacking brought us to the ‘F1’ slab that the RD suggested should be climbed to get to the start of the route. After some deliberation we oozed up this solo and quivered to the base of the first crack.
I am tall (like 2 metres and some change), but I could still not reach the first piece of gear. The RD instructed me to aid ‘use aid on friends in the crack’ but in the end I just had to climb the rock to get to the kit. Five metres up and the gear improved, so much so that we were able to unwittingly link the first two pitches.
The next pitch had also originally been done on aid (‘use aid through friable rock’), but we had a secret weapon: Aliens! These cunning small cams allowed us to free the friable rock section with a modicum of safety and launch up into the terrifyingly described ‘off-width crack’. In 1983 Mallory and Edelstein did not have a big enough cam, so this pitch had proved to be the psychological crux. In 2009 we felt we were cheating as we plugged our cams numbers four through six. The good protection obviously made the difference as this pitch felt relatively easy, and we again managed to link two pitches.
Up to this point we had been following the obvious massive corner/water-chute between the SW Wall arch and its right hand retaining buttress. The route now moved right into an adjacent vertical crack system, before gaining the big diagonal chute up to the right. The traverse and subsequent grassy crack were scary but not too hard, with occasionally a foot skating off the slippery grass.
At the next fig-tree stance we took a breather and inspected the RD: ‘Traverse to the left into the rightward-sloping crack (careful with the rock), then move up to a small stance.’ The pitch was graded ‘F1’. Great, we were through the hard stuff and could cruise the rest of the way to the top. I had to remind myself of this as I straddled the creaking time bomb that comprised the bulk of the pitch. Did I mention that I weigh a lot? Neither of us breathed for the next 10 minutes. We collapsed in a heap at the base of the water chute and fought back the urge to puke. How many more of these ‘F1’ pitches were there going to be?
Fortunately we really were through the hard stuff now. We raced up the rightwards diagonal, past the spot where Mallory and Edelstein had shivered through the winter’s night in shorts and tee-shirts all those years ago. The gear was good, the climbing was easy and the rock was solid. At the top of the diagonal we had a snack on a perched platform, right at the crest of the retaining buttress. The Namibian plains stretched away to the horizon, and we could see our brave tent and tiny rental car 500m below, on the same planet but in a different world. It’s for moments like that that we climb.
The first ascentionists had used aid to gain the next diagonal crack (this time leading leftwards). Modern gear rendered this unnecessary and we quickly reached a cubby-hole from where we could gaze up into the maw of the final 80m of the route. The crack was eight inches wide, perfectly parallel, with rounded edges. Below, the bulging rock was undercut, causing the towering summit headwall to seemingly float in space. On any other mountain a crack like that would have been the cue to retreat. On Spitzkoppe, however, the slabby nature meant we could climb it easily, howling at the exposure, plugging our big cams and savouring the excellent friction. It is a pitch I won’t forget.
As we made our way through the summit maze and then down the SW Ridge Gulley, the rays of the slowly setting sun glowing through the granite crystals, I felt a bond to all those climbers who have made their climbing statements in bold and uncompromising lines and with strong ethics. A route like Royale Flush is a gift to future generations of climbers, a guaranteed adventure, free of the sterilisation of fixed gear. To climb it was a privilege and the highlight of the trip. We did other good routes, to be sure. But in one way or another, the misguided efforts of those that had gone before detracted from the experience. From route names and grades painted on the rock at the Sugarloaf, to bolts next to splitter cracks on Pontok Spitz and the SW Wall to defacing arrows pointing the way on the abseil of the Normal Route, the over-zealousness of climbers was evident. We’ve all done it, getting carried away in the moment, and, whether out of ego or merely in an attempt to help others, making our mark on a route. The lesson learnt on Royale Flush is to be bold and creative with new routes, but to consider the legacy you leave to future climbers. Bolts have a place but should be used with discretion, particularly in the big mountains. And graffiti, in any guise, is out of the question. If someone has the wherewithal to find their way to a crag or mountain, then surely they will be able to figure out where their route goes? And if not, so what? They might just end up doing something new and having an adventure.
This route description is what we climbed. We had 70m ropes and cams up to a number six (recommended). The original grades for each pitch are given in brackets.
Approach: Either scramble rightwards up the gulley from the base of the SW Wall Route towards the obvious corner, or invent a route up the slabs starting 10 minutes above the campsite. Either approach will put you at the base of the gulley below the start of the route. Step onto a platform on the left and solo up a slab to a tree and then further up to a ledge which can be traversed right to the corner.
1. 70m 20 (G1, M1): Climb the wide crack to a ledge. Make scary moves up the layback corner to get to the first good gear. Climb the crack, pull through a bulge, and continue up to a deep cubby-hole.
2. 70m 21 (G2, M1): Climb up the back of the chimney/cubby-hole until able to break through the bulge on friable rock (small cams provide good gear). Continue up the crack above, passing some wide sections to a semi-hanging stance below a linear overhang on the right, topping a white face.
3. 30m 19 (G1): Undercling the overhang to the right to get to a grassy crack. Climb this to a fig tree.
4. 45m 16 (F1): Traverse left to the base of a horror time-bomb pillar. Climb this carefully to the base of the rightwards-leaning water-chute. Climb the water-chute till you run out of rope or gear.
5. 50m 16 (F1): Continue up the water-chute till it ends, then go left across the slab to another rightwards-diagonal water-chute. Up this to an amazing platform level with the overhang on the left.
6. 70m 17 (F3, M1): Break through the overhang at the crack. Walk left up the sloping ramp to the start of the final headwall splitter. Climb this wide crack to where it widens.
7. 45m 16 (F1): Continue up the crack then cross the left hand slab to a water-chute which takes you to the top.
Descent: Scramble along a ledge until you get to the top of the SW Ridge Gulley. Follow this back to the campsite.
First ascent: George Mallory, Charles Edelstein, July 1983
First free ascent: 2000 by J. Wamsteker and S. Wallis