F3 + Monteseel = a dry mouth

This article was first published in SA Mountain Magazine

Gerald inched up a little higher, and gained the thank God rail for a well needed rest, and then grabbed two medium hexes and shoved them into the gear-sucking crack.  Soon it was evident that the rail was a working rest only; the crux was just above.  With caution pushed to the back of his mind he did the next move up, then a forearm-stretching lay-away to the right.  Suddenly this easy route had got him into position for a four meter lob.  He moved up now to more lay-away moves, easy ground ahead someplace…… sh…………t!

Gerald took the biggest lob so far of his nine month old climbing career and I caught my first ever leader fall.  The year was 1986 and we were learning fast what F3 at Monteseel was all about.

Monteseel Rock Climbing

Gavin Raubenheimer on the crux moves of Free Ride (17). Photo by Cesar de Carvalho.


Monties is set mid way between Durban and Pietermaritzburg on a cliff which forms the southern boundary of the Valley of a Thousand Hills.  It has over 300 Trad routes and at a time was at the cutting edge of South African climbing.  Back in the 70’s this is where the hard climbing was happening, using the old alphabetical grading system.  It was also the place where the “new” open numerical system was first used.  For reasons which will be explained later it also turned up some of the finest, but hardest grade 17’s anywhere.

Monteseel Rock Climbing

Cesar de Carvalho on Republic (Left Break).



Black Diamond Equipment is proud to present the 3rd annual TRADATHON.  Festival of trad climbing @ Monteseel starting on the 14 June 2014

Southern Rock, Bush and Bundu and Outdoor Adventure Gear are supporting the Tradathon by offering a 10% discount on all Black Diamond and Beal trad gear.



Now these 17s used to get a grade of F3 in the old system and were in fact, mostly at the bottom of the F3 grade.  Almost all the Monties 17’s were opened between 1960 and 1979 and most of the 5 star lines were done in the last few years of the 1970s.  Lines like Space Truckin with it’s bouldary start followed by the forearm-pumping ten meter rail to the left and then the crux vertically up and to the left again.  Then there is Old Man’s Climb direct with a gorilla take off and a crux which pulls through a small overhang and a thin crack above, which just takes some micro cams, if you have the stamina to stop and place them.

Perhaps the best of all of them is Free Ride, the route described in the opening of this article.   line follows a slight line of weakness from left to right, up a large open face of 45 metres.  The lower sections are on perfect rock with just enough gear to keep your mind intact.  Then you reach a good rail with bomber gear.  The crux lies just above and if you keep your wits about you,  you can stop and place a good tiny cam or wire in a horizontal crack and then just keep it together to the top.


Monteseel Rock Climbing

Hannelie Morris Pickering on Sizzle


So what makes these lines worth the mental effort.  The reason is this.  They are all located on good if not perfect rock, the gear is always good and you should not get into any dangerous position.  But they are generally sustained  and exposed lines that don’t give you much room for sloppy climbing technique.  You should also be leading comfortably a few grades above 17, if you are from other areas of South Africa.  These are not routes that you will talk to your mates about and refer to “the 17 next to the 21, which is just the other side the nice 18”.  These are routes you will remember the name of, grade and every move, for a long time to come.Monteseel Rock Climbing

The Monteseel Seventeen Hit list, in no particular order:

Hades:  Located at the far west end of the cliff. A bit difficult to find and a longish walk. Abseil to the start. This gives fine exposed face climbing with a beautiful lay-back crack at the exit.

Republic Left Break:  This has unsustained climbing till midway. Then you move out left under an overhang. The gear is good. Then you have to find a hidden handhold above, place some more gear and pull up the wild layback to a good ledge. Phew!

Return to Fantasy:  Where the grade we know today was first applied. If you want to know what 17 should be like, lead this route on-sight. It’s the gold-standard. Can be a little dirty on the first 5 meters. Then move left on tricky moves and up the long and sustained open book above.

Free Ride:  Enough said already.

Old Man’s Climb direct:  Enough said.

Space Truckin:  Ditto.

Couchant:  A sustained route up a left leaning break. Gear in the first 3 meters is sparse. Great climbing the whole way.

Gentle Aquarian:  Situated midway along the eastern buttress, this route gives sustained and exposed face climbing and is well protected.

Gemini Dream:  The route just next-door to Gentle Aquarian with much the same attributes and with a sting in the tail.



Black Diamond Equipment is proud to present the 3rd annual TRADATHON.  Festival of trad climbing @ Monteseel starting on the 14 June 2014

Southern Rock, Bush and Bundu and Outdoor Adventure Gear are supporting the Tradathon by offering a 10% discount on all Black Diamond and Beal trad gear.

Click here for the Monteseel Topo and more info on Monteseel


Monteseel Rock Climbing

Scott Sinclair on Child of Darkness


History of the “New” South African Grading System.
Prior to 1978, Natal and the rest of South Africa used an alphabetical grading system.  It started with “A” which in fact indicated a walk.  In some books there was even a grade before this called grade “P” which showed it was suitable for horses!  B and C were scramble routes and grade D was really the start of proper rock climbing.
Then from E grade onwards each letter was divided into 3 sub-categories as in E1, E2, E3,  and F1…

In the 70s the top climbers at Monteseel were starting to climb many routes in the F3 range.  There was resistance to grading a route in the G grades, as the feeling was that G grade belonged to big mountain routes only and could not be possible on crags.  However, the climbers of the day were climbing harder and harder routes, which led to a compression of the grade in the F3 range.

It was also felt that the present system was too coarse for the routes being opened.  In 1978 a meeting of climbers was held at the MCSA Monteseel Hut,  where it was decided that Monteseel routes were to be converted to the Australian open numeric system.  The first route ever to be graded with the Aussie system was Return to Fantasy, and was graded 17 by a visiting Australian climber.
From this other routes were graded and converted over to the new system.  The rest of South Africa followed this system about a decade later.

The Drakensberg routes are generally still graded in the alphabetical system as it better describes the variation and conditions of these bigger mountains.

All these routes can be found in the latest route guide: A Climber’s Guide to KwazZulu-Natal Rock by Roger Nattrass.

See also:   Grannies Suped Up Wheelchair


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