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Culture of South African Alpinism

Grand Capucin

Does one exist?  This was a questioned posed to a South African Mountain Guides Association (SAMGA) representative by a member of a very respected international climbing authority in recent times.
I can’t help but admit that I was a bit thrown aback by this question but soon I realised that as a community, there is not much information out there capturing what we Saffa’s have been up to.  This is hopefully a small start to capture what South Africans are out doing in the world of Alpinism and winter climbing during the past season (as I am writing this in July, I have arbitrarily chosen July to July) and hopefully will galvanise more people into this fantastic and exciting element of the climbing world.

Ice climbing Makhaza
Shelly Hufner ice climbing at Makhaza.


Starting off with a local KZN activist, Tristan Firman.  In between scaring himself silly doing speed wing descents and steep skiing, Tristan managed to do a very fast ascent of the Frendo Spur on the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi in 8 hours.  He has been up to a bit of mixed climbing too managing an M8 onsight (hard!!) in Allgau, Germany.

Back at home and getting up to mischief, Tristan managed to dodge the Lesotho and SA border police and skinned up Sani Pass to do a full ski descent of the pass, his logic being that he’d only be in trouble if the police could catch him on his skis.  They obviously didn’t.

Tristan must have lucked into some great ice conditions in July 2012 as he managed to open a new route at Makhaza, Culture Scene, WI 5 (I watched this route collapse this July 13 as it is fully in the sun).

flying above Chamonix
Tristan Firman flying above Chamonix.


There was a bit of a South African invasion to Scotland in February this year with Colin McCoy, Paul Henderson, Jeremy Colenso, me and my Belgian climbing partner Nic making a trip at the same time.  Timing was perfect as we lucked into what can only be described as the best weather ever in Scotland.  Seven days of perfect weather with amazing sunshine.

Nic and I had arrived a day earlier and climbed “Morwind” IV/4 at Aonach Mor.  The next day we went back and Paul and Colin did it too.  Things turned exciting as it was now quite warm and the ice was melting fast casing both our teams to vary from our chosen routes quite high up.  Lots of anxious moments and drytooling followed. Scary day!

Colder days followed.  Colin & Paul and Nic & me walked into “the Ben” and quickly dispatched the 1000m “Tower Ridge” IV/3 in 5 & ½ hours climbing as two separate teams.  The next day, Colin and Paul went drinking whiskey and we lucked out by getting to the base of Point Five Gulley literally seconds before the next team.  Definitely worth the reputation as one of the best gullies around.

Morwind mixed climbing
Colin McCoy on Morwind.


Nic headed back to work and I hooked up with Colin & Paul to climb “Hadrian’s Wall”.  Someone who shall be named (Paul – sorry Paul ☺) forgot the second rope so I bailed but fortunately hooked up with some chaps we met previously and climbed “Green Gully” IV/4 with them while Colin & Paul did Point 5 on one rope.  Paul bought the beers!

Jeremy and myself did some guiding work with a client climbing “Chute Route” V/5 in the Cairngorms and “Hadrian’s Wall” V/5 on the Ben.

Back at home; Colin has gone on to do a bunch of ice back home too, climbing a bunch of times at Makhaza and Sani Pass.

Gavin Raubinheimer has been a busy chap, between being meet leader for the KZN MCSA Ice Meets, he has managed to climb and guide a fair amount at Sani Pass and Giants Castle.  Gavin is also actively involved in teaching mountaineering skills and instruction.

Jeremy Colenso and myself have managed to escape our wives (both of them climb so this is not easy!) and do some really fun stuff in the Alps.  We both skied the Valley Blanche numerous times this year.  The VB is arguably the most famous backcountry descent in the world, descending from the Aiguille du Midi to Chamonix, the total run being about 20 kilometres long.  On one occasion we skinned up the Leschiox Glacier to have a look at the approach to the Grande Jorasse but couldn’t access the Leschoix hut due to a huge icefall and had to endure a rather unpleasant night on a snow ledge under a cliff sheltering from avalanches.  I must say that being woken up by the sound of an avalanche in pitch black is a trouser filling experience.  Our next trip was much more successful, we skied in and set up camp at the bottom of Mont Blanc du Tacul where we stayed for 5 nights.  During this stay we managed to do what was likely the first accept for the year of the Grand Capucin (ED), the Gabarou Albinoni Route on Tacul (TD+) and the Contamine Route on Pont Lachenal (TD).  All three routes being uber classic.  Our skin our back to the Midi proved challenging as we ran out of food a day and a half earlier.

Grand Capucin
Jeremy Colenso on Grand Capucin.


I managed to get a bit more than Jeremy and climbing with my Belgian mate Nic, sent “Chere Couloir” (WI4) and Supercouloir on Tacul (ED1), the later being an 800m challenging and quite serious route.  We managed to “tuck under” and avalanche whilst on the route.

Again with Nic and another partner in crime, Steve Arnold (UK), we did various trips to Cogne in Italy chasing ice lines and managed to send some fantastic routes including the famous routes “Tuborg”, “Candelabro del Coyote”, “Stella Artice” “Stalacitto del Cristalio”, Monday Money and many more.  No too keen for a rest, we headed off to the Zoo and the Spa (both drytooling venues) in France with Nic and I managing to get up an M9 both our hardest drytooling route to date.

Tower Ridge
Colin McCoy & Paul Henderson on Tower Ridge.


Wales had a brilliant season with climbing and skiing all the way into late march. Together with my wife, we got “Idwal Stream” III/3 and “The Ramp” III/4 done.  Through a friend from my local climbing centre, David Barlow (UK), I met another South African ice climber from KZN, Megan Beaumont.  We climbed as a three with Megan leading the “The Devils Kitchen” V/5 all too easily. In the same day, we also did “Chicane Gulley” IV/4 and “The Screen” IV/4.  Steve managed to make it out and we got “South Gulley” IV/5 as a consolation as the “Devils Appendix” VI/6 was not quite formed.

Finally, I made my first pilgrimage to Giants Castle to sample what SA Ice has to offer.  I have heard lots of moans from all the local guys about how bad the season is but I was pretty surprised with the ice we found. Alard Hufner, Shelly Hufner and I climbed a bunch of routes at Makhaza but unfortunately the other routes weren’t in great condition.  I can’t wait to see SA in a good season. It’s also a uniquely South African experience walking in for seven hours with 25-kilo backpacks, sleep in a dusty cave climbing ice without a hint of snow.

Ice climbing Makhaza
Rob Powell at Makhaza.


Crossing over the Alpine Climbing / Bigwalling threshold, Alard Hufner, Douard Le Roux, Shelly Hufner, Adam Liebenberg, Carter Jenson (USA) and myself were lucky enough to go on a trip to Trango Tower in Pakistan in August 2012 doing battle with stacks of mixed climbing and two solid ice pitches on our way to the summit.

I have definitely left people out and for that I apologise.  If you have been up to some winter or alpine climbing in recent time or will be in the future, please could you drop me a personal message on username “Rob P” and I will include this in the next article.

About the author:  Rob Powell is a DEAT Registered Mountain Guide offering guiding and instruction in South Africa and the UK.

Facebook: SAMountainGuides
Twitter: @SAMountnGuide

More South African Alpinism related articles:



  1. Awesome! Good going SAFA!

  2. HI Rob.

    Cool article, well done!!! some excellent pics!!!!

  3. Great to see. I think there are plenty okes doing alpine stuff all over the show, here in winter and overseas when they can…ranging from trekking alpine peaks, easy alpine rock routes and hardcore winter routes pushing grades…whatever. Not everyone is doing hard stuff. My feeling is that a SA culture will be made up of mainly average guys doing average stuff…I am about to head out to do some summer peak bagging on Vancouver island, Strathcona park – mt Colonel Foster and surrounding peaks.

    • Hey Digby, very cool to hear you are getting out there doing stuff. Please do sent me the details and some pics once you’re done and I wish you the best of conditions. If you also know of guys out there doing stuff, please also ask them to get in touch. We are trying to demonstrate the Culture of SA Alpinism to the said International Organisation so the more the better.

  4. 5 Saffas, Myself, Willem Le Roux and expats Kevin Smith, George Mallory and Martin Le Roux ticked one of the great Alpine tours in the USA last week i.e. The Teton Traverse. Snort and Margaret and Nick (15 years old) also ticked Mt Baker or at least to the rim.

    I climbed the Fin direct of the Backbone rout on the Dragontail cascades and was denied walking up Rainier past 12 000ft as I was Solo.

    Crampons and ice axes and type 2 fun all the way….

    • Hey Snort, Well done, sounds like really good stuff. Any chance you could drop me an email with some pics and more details for the next article? Thanks.


  5. Hi Rob, an interesting summary of a fairly energetic sounding program. I don’t mean to be negative, but I am not sure there really is a “culture” of alpinism in SA. Sure there are repeatedly some impressive achievements, but strictly these are exceptions, reserved for an elite few with the time, ambition and nerves. I’ve lived in Europe on-and-off for 12 years now, and my feeling is that our climbing culture (the way we do things) is very different from that in the Alps. Try climbing short-roped for example. I still find it horrible, and would rather solo. But that’s just how people do things in the Alps – the masses I mean – those people who constitute the culture. Perhaps if there really is any kind of ongoing “culture” in SA alpinist practises it’s that naievity of a group of okes who’ve never been on a glacier before, roping up and just figuring things out as they go along…

    • Interesting points you raise. I’m not entirely certain I would agree though. In my view, our climbing culture is not the how or way we do things but the fact that we do. The lack of alpine terrain in South Africa does mean that the skills are not very easy obtainable as there is not a whole lot of individuals that have the knowledge to pass on. The affordability issue is another factor holding back SA Alpinism because people who are interested are not learning back in SA and learning via a guide or course overseas is generally unaffordable (and maybe not even considered but that’s another question!!). I do think the situation of a bunch of okes rocking up on the glacier but having no clue is very true. I have seen and rescued South Africans in Alpine terrain in the past and it frustrates me that the dangerous of Alpine climbing are just not realised in SA. The skills needed to do this sport safely are numerous and not easily learnt on ones own.

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