Table Mountain is the cradle of rock climbing in South Africa and, since the formation of the Mountain Club of South Africa in 1891, adventurers have pushed the grade further and further.
Words by Fiona McIntosh
Photographs by Shaen Adey
Siyabona Africa recommended book on Table Mountain:Table Mountain Activities
Authors: Shaen Adey and Fiona McIntosh.
Copyright © 2004 Struik Publishers Cape Town.
Those involved in extreme activities a century ago would be astounded by the range of adrenalin rushes available on the mountain today.
Hiking, scrambling, mountain-biking and caving offer major excitement, but that is not enough to satisfy the serious adrenalin junkie. In the last 25 years a range of new sports have hit the headlines - some open to the novice, and some incredibly specialised and available only to the few who have pushed the limits beyond normal bounds. Here are a few activities that may appeal to the modern adventurer.
Africa's Table Mountain abseil is undoubtedly one of the most extreme activities you can do without any previous experience. From the Upper Cable Station, walk towards the viewpoints over Camps Bay to the long drop above Fountain Ledge. The experts will clip you in and show you the ropes before you let yourself go. Billed as the highest commercial abseil in the world at 112m (367ft), the drop is initially down the sheer rock face of the front table and then down an overhang where you can hang around and admire the view.
In the same way that new climbers on Fountain Ledge are oft surprised by the sight of an abseiler whizzing down from above, the mountain's first base jumpers raised some eyebrows from below. September 1998 saw Karl Hayden and Shaun Smith take the historic leap from the ledge above the Abseil Africa site - the first ever base jump off Table Mountain. You may occasionally see jumpers on this short 61m (200ft) cliff, but remember that base jumping (jumping with a parachute from buildings, antennae, spans or earth) is definitely for experts only.
Jumping from The Lookout, the site on the south face of Table Mountain just underneath the observation platform, is more popular, as the drop is around 152m (500ft), allowing three to four seconds of free fall before the jumper opens the parachute and glides down to land below Tafelberg Road. People watching the first flight of a base jumper in a wing suit, in March 2002, would have been even more amazed than those who witnessed Smith and Hayden take their historic jump. (A wing suit is a special suit with material between the arms and the torso, and between the legs, that fills with air as you fly.)
Four seconds of free fall is normally the maximum a jumper can risk when taking off from the highest vertical drop on Table Mountain, on the front table just to the right of The Lookout. But American Jeb Corliss flew for 23 seconds on that first historic flight. Base jumping is a very specialised activity - you need to have done at least 150 skydives and must own your own base jumping rig before even considering jumping off Table Mountain. If you meet these qualifications and want to link up with other Cape base jumpers.
Since the mid-eighties, the bold souls of the airsports community have been launching from the three most prominent landmarks in the Cape Town city area: Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Signal Hill. Paragliding - as the practice of jumping off a mountain with a canopy soon came to be known - was started in the early 1980s in France, but in the true manner of new adrenalin sports, quickly spread around the world.
As paraglider designs became more and more efficient, descents have evolved from a basic glide down to the landing field, to graceful soaring and thermalling flights. Pilots have now mastered how to use the elements to their full advantage, covering large distances as well as sustaining flights for a number of hours. Currently, Cape Town has over 120 active pilots and a thriving commercial tandem paragliding industry.
The front table of Table Mountain offers three recognised take-off sites. The Camps Bay-facing 'Gully' behind the Upper Cable Station has a launch height of 1 020m (3 346ft) above sea level, and is flyable in a westerly wind not exceeding 20km (12 miles) per hour. The daunting front face launch of The Runway (just past Platteklip Gorge) is 1 035m (3 396ft) above sea level, and is flyable in a light northerly wind. The rarely used southeast facing launch site at Maclear's Beacon boasts a launch height of 1 087m (3 567ft) above sea level.
All the Table Mountain take-off sites are only accessible to advanced or sport licence holders and at present only solo flights may be done, so no commercial tandem flights yet! Lion's Head is available to basic and advanced pilots and is definitely the most popular and most sought-after paragliding flight in the area. If you look out from the Camps Bay side of Lion's Head, you will see the bright green carpet of the lower launch site and on a fine day up to 20 colourful canopies float round the conical peak.
In a steady southwesterly wind, impressive height gains are often achieved from the launch site at 360m (1 181ft). Indeed, given the right conditions, usually a southwesterly wind of around 25km (15.5 miles) per hour with good thermic activity, many pilots actually manage to climb up to over 700m (2 297ft) above sea level and make the famous 'Table Mountain Crossing', a 600m (1 968ft) horizontal gap between Lion's Head and Table Mountain.
Once they are on the lower slopes and rock walls of Table Mountain, the thermal and mechanical lift of the wind is sufficient to get the pilots and their paragliders up a further 300m (984ft) or more above the Upper Cable Station. From this vantage point, gliders can fly the length of the Twelve Apostles to Llandudno and still have ample height to glide back to land at the soccer field at La Med close to Clifton Beach. The average flight time for this kind of epic journey is usually around two hours.
Signal Hill has the lowest launch height of only 250m (820ft) above sea level. This site can be flown in a westerly or northwesterly wind for many hours and can sometimes get moderately thermic. Occasionally, conditions are suitable to gain substantial height and cross from here to Lion's Head, and stretch even further to Table Mountain.
The site record is held by Stef Juncker, who, in March 2003, flew tandem from Signal Hill to Lion's Head, then on to Table Mountain, down the Twelve Apostles over Hout Bay on to Chapman's Peak and over Noordhoek beach to Kommetjie - an amazing flight of over two and a half hours and a total round distance of about 22km (14 miles). A lesser known and rarely used flying site is the one at Noordhoek. Situated at the very top of the Silvermine Nature Reserve, it is actually the highest takeoff site for commercial tandem paragliding in the Western Cape at 754m (2 474ft). The site overlooks the entire Hout Bay harbour and The Sentinel and is one of the most visually stunning views of any flying site in the Western Cape.
Rock climbing, Climbing areas
Where else in the world can you climb such dramatic routes on great rock, high above a spectacular city? Table Mountain boasts some of the finest and most easily accessible climbing in the world. So, whether it's trad, sport or bouldering that takes your fancy, you are spoilt for choice. Below is a summary of the main areas, and a list of climbing guidebooks. Contact the Mountain Club of South Africa for guides and further details.
A short history
Although Table Mountain had been regularly 'climbed' via Platteklip Gorge, Kasteelspoort and the Bridle Path during the preceding couple of centuries, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that mountaineering and rock climbing really took off. The formation of the Mountain Club in 1891 was the catalyst and, at the end of the nineteenth century, numerous paths were laid out and marked by cairns and beacons.
The first era of rock climbing, at the turn of the nineteenth century, was heralded by Jim Searle, who opened up some of the classic routes on the front table, and by the brilliant young climber George Travers-Jackson who had opened up over 50 new routes - from D to G standard - by the year 1907. In our day of modern sophistication, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of such feats - in those days the leader didn't even have the protection of a rope.
The principle that the leader must not fall continued until the 1950s, when the use of nylon ropes, slings, carabiners and dynamic belaying techniques allowed a new breed of climbers to push the standards to new and exciting heights. The next couple of decades saw young climbers scaling new routes and the advent of aid climbing - the use of mechanical climbing aids such as pitons. Much of this took place on the main face of Elsie's Peak, with Don Hartley a prominent figure.
The foremost trad climber of the time was Mike Scott who in 1976 held the distinction of having ascended 'in some fashion or other, all 643 of the then known climbs and ways up Table Mountain'. Mountaineers are fond of rising to the challenge - freeing aided routes and repeating first ascents as soon as they are known - but I somehow doubt that this amazing feat will ever be repeated by a contemporary mountaineer. As Scott himself confesses, 'it is highly unlikely that anyone in their right mind will contemplate a repeat of my epic, as some of the routes are dangerous, bushy, filthy and unpleasant.' The gauntlet is thrown.
Women on top
When the Mountain Club was first formed, it was definitely an all-boys club. Women were excluded and it was only after considerable pressure that they were eventually admitted, first as honorary members, and then, in 1894, as full members of the club. Many of the male climbers of the day thought mountaineering and the hardships it presented were particularly unsuitable for the gentle womenfolk. Nevertheless, most of the leading rock climbers of the era, including Travers-Jackson - had ladies in their parties, several of whom were leading climbs on difficult rock.
This was no mean feat given the dress code of the day: women climbed in long skirts, boots and long sleeved shirt and tie! In the early twentieth century the dress was relaxed to gym-frocks and pumps, and finally women took the plunge and brazenly appeared on the mountain slopes wearing shorts. Perhaps the most famous woman climber on Table Mountain was Joan Quail (née Fothergill). Her ability clearly put some of the men to shame. In a charming piece about women's membership of the MCSA (MCSA Journal, 1994) we read that 'one of her regular climbing partners, Brian Quail, was once heard to say: 'If that woman climbs with us again, I'm not coming.' The next time he opened his mouth publicly regarding 'that woman' was to say 'I do'.
South Africa's all-time great
Andy de Klerk, a Capetonian who cut his teeth climbing on Table Mountain, is arguably South Africa's greatest mountaineering all rounder - in his heyday he was one of the best in the world. In the 1980s De Klerk almost single-handedly took climbing to unheard-of levels, pushing the grades on Table Mountain and opening up numerous routes elsewhere in South Africa. His 20-year mountaineering career took him to all the world's premier mountaineering centres, from the Himalaya to the Alps (including a solo ascent of the Eiger North face), as well as to a good number of obscure peaks and crags. He is now spending more time focusing on his most recent passion, base jumping.
Bolting started in the late 1980s, and sport climbing in earnest in 1991. Huge inroads were made by Guy Holwill who opened up many of the major sport climbing areas and also produced the definitive guidebook on the subject, Western Cape Rock. Silvermine has the best range of routes, whilst Lakeside Pinnacle, Peers Cave and Trappieskop and The Hole above Kalk Bay are popular. Skoorsteenkop above Hout Bay, and the somewhat dodgy bolts on the granite of Llandudno, are alternatives that can be found slightly closer to town. Currently, the highest grade sport route is Bubble at the Mine, graded 31.
Few would argue that The Ledge, consisting of the spectacular routes on Africa and Fountain Ledges on the front table, offers the best rock climbing on Table Mountain. The home of trad climbing in the Cape, The Ledge and the lower buttresses are easily accessed from the Upper Cable Station or by climbing up the India- Venster Route. The Kasteels, Valken and Barrier buttresses on the Camps Bay side are also excellent trad sites. Lion's Head offers routes on both sandstone and granite, whilst further along the Peninsula there is excellent cragging on Muizenberg Crag and Elsie's Peak.
Ropes are rarely used in bouldering and this is often considered the most natural form of climbing. A climber is often only equipped with a chalkbag and boots. Safety is achieved with a bouldering mat or pad made from a specially constructed foam laminate. A specific series of moves is often tackled from a sitting position, with the bouldering mat absorbing the shock of any fall. The height of a route may be anything from one to ten metres (up to 33ft) in length. The premier location for bouldering is found at Topside, a large area accessed from the top of Ou Kaapse Weg or from Boyes Drive.
If you can't get out to the crags, or just fancy checking out the talent in the gym, then mosey on down to City Rock in Observatory. This state-of-the-art climbing gym is the largest of its kind in South Africa and features 27 different top ropes, numerous leadable routes, a kids' wall and a bouldering gym, as well as a rental and gear shop. The Mountain Club of South Africa also has a climbing wall, as does the University of Cape Town.
The grading of climbing routes varies throughout the world. An approximate conversion table for the main systems is given overleaf.
- Table Mountain Classics, Tony Lourens, Blue Mountain Publishers. Walks, scrambles and easy climbs.
- The Ledge, Table Mountain, Leonhard Rust, Blue Mountain Publishers. Covers trad routes on The Ledge and lower buttresses.
- Western Cape Rock, Guy Holwill, Blue Mountain Publishers. Sport routes at Muizenberg, Elsie's Peak and Montagu.
- Peninsula Rock, Tony Lourens Richard Behne, Blue Mountain Publishers. Trad routes on Muizenberg and Elsie's Peak.
- The National Geographic AdventureMAP shows all the main climbing areas.
Tel: 021-424-4760 email@example.com
City Rock Indoor Climbing Gym
Mountain Club of South Africa
Para-Pax Tandem Paragliding
Tel: 021-461-7070 or firstname.lastname@example.org
South African Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association (SAHPA)
Free climbing vs aid climbing
As opposed to free climbing (trad and sport climbing, bouldering and scrambling), where the gear is used as protection only, in aid climbing the gear is used as the primary means for ascending the wall, while also serving as protection from a fall. This form of climbing is also graded differently - an A0 grading would be easy gear placement and unlikely fall potential, while A5 would mean a very long and potentially fatal fall, with difficult gear placement.
Did you know?
The first aid route to be climbed on Table Mountain was Africa Scandal, by Basil Honikman, Rusty Bailie, Murray Boyes, Brian Clark and Andrew Gruft (1960).
The Number 1 routes
Jacob's Ladder is probably the most climbed route on the mountain. Wild and exposed, it is only a grade 16, which even a relative novice can attempt if led by an experienced climber. But when you are on the hanging belay with a drop of hundreds of metres below you - boy, do you feel that you are a serious climber.
Fernwood Precipice, a 500m (1 640ft) plus wall, was first climbed in 1963, but that first ascent omitted the very steep section. The direct route was opened in 1966 by Rick Williams, Paul White and Barry Fletcher.
At the beginning of 2004 the hardest route on the mountain was Mary Poppins opened by Clinton Martinegro in 2003, and graded 32. Apparently, when Martinegro performed the crux move, which involved suspending his entire weight from a two-knuckle fingerlock in the roof as he moved his feet from one section of the roof to the next, he looked just like Mary Poppins holding onto her brolly!
The Mountain Club's first outing
Chapman's Peak was the scene of the new club's first outing and the account makes for fascinating reading. Chapman's Peak Drive did not exist then (it was opened in 1922). The main party took the train to Fish Hoek and beat their way through Noordhoek Valley and up to the nek between the Noordhoek Mountains and the ridge terminating in Chapman's Peak.
There the group met with several mountaineers who had hiked from Sea Point and proceeded to the summit - described as 'a rough climb' but one of 'wonderful beauty'. Twenty-eight climbers, and a dog, marked the highpoint of this historic first outing. They must have been fit young men since the quickest ascent (from Fish Hoek station remember) was two hours.