One hundred routes: my climbing in 2019 in numbers and pictures.

The year 2019 was the centenary of the foundation of the KwaZulu-Natal branch of the Mountain Club of South Africa (hereafter MCSA-KZN). To celebrate the occurrence, my climbing partner Neil came up with a challenge: to climb 100 different routes within the year. Sixteen people took up the challenge; of those, six of them reached the targeted number. Some would claim that climbing is all about the experience but, deep down, we all know that it is all about the numbers. Here are some.

Number of different routes I climbed in each month of 2019.
My climb towards the 100 Routes for the Centenary. The dotted red line represents the goal.

I climbed, give or take, 102 different routes graded between 9 and 25. Of those, 87 were in South Africa, the hardest being of grade 25 (7a in the French system), and 15 were in Italy, the hardest being of grade 6b (South African grade 20). Most of my climbing this year was on single-pitch routes, and only four multi-pitch. Bolted routes were 75 of the total, up to grade 25, while 27 were “trad” (for the non-climber: trad routes are those in which the large majority of the protective gear is not fixed, but placed while climbing and removed afterwards) up to grade 20.

The rate at which I bagged routes was not constant. After a slow start in January and February (which either means that I was not climbing much or I was not logging routes very accurately) I started to make good progress, while between July and September I barely ticked any routes. At the time I was working “A day without clouds”, a line bolted and opened by Roger Nattrass at the Umgeni Valley crags and graded 25 (about 7a or 7a+ in French grades). The route became the focus of my climbing efforts and I barely climbed anything else for at least two months. On September 8th I finally managed to snatch a desperate free ascent of the route, which is my hardest climb to date. I remember feeling relieved because I could finally feel free to hold other holds than the crimps that I knew by heart by then. Freed from my climbing project, I was still 40 routes short of the targeted 100. I started the race to catch up, barely making it before the end of the year. I got to the 100th route at some point during the mid-December trip to Morgan Bay. My climbing logbook for 2019 was not as accurate as I thought, so I am not sure of which route was my 100th, but it must have been one that I climbed with the sound of the wind and the sea in my ears, and an exhilarating feeling in my chest.

Flashing “One step from the Earth” (17 trad), Morgan Bay. Gavin Raubenheimer at the belay. Picture by Anthony van Tonder.

This challenge pushed me to explore new grounds: 54 routes out of 102 I had never climbed before, and I visited at least two climbing areas in South Africa and three in Italy where I had never climbed before. Above all, the sea cliffs of Morgan Bay in the Wild Coast were the most exquisite of the new climbing spots that I got to experience. For almost a week I got to climb seldom-travelled routes, breathing salty wind, while roaring waves hit the base of the cliffs. At the end of the day we would walk back to the car and enjoy an almost-cool beer while lying on the grass at the top of the cliffs. It was a good opportunity for reviving the friendship with good people, shortening the distance that came into being between us for reasons that were not worth it. In spite of all the exploration, my local crag of Umgeni Valley maintained its position as the crag where I have climbed the most, with 30 different routes climbed there throughout 2019.

The year was not without failure: I went for an expedition to Mount Kenya with Vivek in which we failed to stand on Point Batian, our main objective; my attempt to summit the Column in the Drakensberg with Graeme fell short of the summit because we feared of being benighted, although we ended up being benighted at the base anyways; Matthew and I attempted Mponjwane and bailed for no real reason besides our lack of experience with reading the weather conditions that come with climbing in the Drakensberg in summer. Each one of these adventures will deserve an article of their own. Although we did not succeed in our goals, I am reluctant to label them as failures; they were all enriching experiences. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”: it may be a trite saying, but it is not completely wrong.

What I really enjoyed about the “100 Routes for the Centenary” challenge was how it pushed me both in terms of grades and in terms of exploring new grounds. In an attempt to keep that vibe up, for the year 2020 I will try to climb at least 25 routes that I have never climbed before. I picked the number 25 because 25 is the South African grade of my most difficult ascent so far. More practically, it is a number high enough to keep me on my toes, but low enough to allow me time for projecting routes. Given that I have climbed most bolted routes graded 20 or easier in my local area, I will have to focus my attention on bolted routes in the 20-25 grade range that do not necessarily suit my climbing style, or on trad routes. This will likely require me to spend more time and focus on each route than I did on most routes that I climbed in 2019.

On “Mustard Cutter” (22 trad), Monteseel, on a failed lead attempt. This route is on my to-do list for 2020. Picture by Neil Williamson, who also opened the route.