Climbing Spitzkoppe: Granite Mountain in Namibia

Rock Climbing Destinations in Africa

Elevation: 5,846 feet (1,782 meters)

Prominence: 2,296 feet (700 meters)

Location: Namib Desert, Namibia, Africa.

Range: Grosse Spitzkoppe, Erongo Mountains.

Coordinates:  -21.825160 S / 15.169242 E

First Ascent: First known ascent by Hans Wong, Else Wong, and Jannie de V. Graaf , November 1946.

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Spitzkoppe is Dramatic Namibian Mountain

Spitzkoppe, one of Namibia's highest peaks, rises out of the stark Namib Desert. Photograph copyright Mark Hannaford/Getty Images

Spitzkoppe, dubbed the “Matterhorn of Africa,” is a towering granite dome that towers 2,300 feet above the arid Namib Plain of the Namib Desert in northern Namibia in southwest Africa. Spitzkoppe, along with neighboring Little Spitzkoppe and the granite peaks of the Pontok Montains, rises as a shimmering mirage. The landmark peak has a stark dramatic shape, but no similarities with Switzerland’s Matterhorn. Instead Spitzkoppe is what locals call an inselberg or literally “island mountain.”  

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Rock Climbing on Spitzkoppe

A climber nears the top of a slab climb near Spitzkoppe. Photograph copyright Andreas Strauss/Getty Images

Spitzkoppe, while almost unknown to American climbers, is one of Africa’s most famous rock climbing areas. Spitzkoppe, along with nearby rounded domes, offers excellent slab climbing on the towering golden walls as well as scrambling up easy routes to airy summits with spectacular views. Most of the routes are bolted, although some crack climbs are found. The granite is coarse with lots of crystals, giving good friction smears and sustained crystal-pinching on steep walls. 

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First Attempts to Climb Spitzkoppe

The huge Southwest Face of Spitzkoppe features some of the area's longest and hardest routes. Photograph copyright Julian Love/Getty Images

The first known attempt to climb Spitzkoppe was in 1904 by a Royal Schutzruppe soldier from the German colonial army. From 1884 to 1915, Namibia was a colony called German South West Africa or Deutsch-Südwestafrika.The man attempted to solo the mountain and supposedly made a fire on its summit, but he never returned from his adventure and his body nor any proof of his ascent was found. Spitzkoppe was later attempted in the 1920s and 1930s, and a team of South African climbers attempted it in 1940. 

July 1946: Climbers Reach South Peak

In July, 1946 the South African climbing team of O. Shipley, L.D. Schaff, and P. O’Neill spent eight days on Spitzkoppe looking for a possible route to the summit. After climbing the Southwest Ridge to the South Peak, they found the route barred by a gendarme with smooth unclimbable walls and retreated.  

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November 1946: First Ascent of Spitzkoppe

A climber works up a groove on a climbing route on Spitzkoppe. Photograph copyright Andreas Strauss/Getty Images

In November, 1946, climbers Hans Wong, and Wong and Jannie de V. Graaf  used beta from the summer party to forge a route to the summit on the north and northwest faces of Spitzkoppe. The route, now the standard summit route, climbs a couloir on the north side to the “dark chimney,” then makes a rappel to a traverse across the northwest face. The team placed a fixed piton and chopped two steps to reach a diagonal crack which leads to a short chimney and the summit. Friedrich Schreiber wrote in the 1960 MCSA Journal: “The route is so complicated that one must describe its discovery as a work of genius.” The route and peak was not repeated until January, 1957 by Graham Louw and D.A.M. Smith.

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Spitzkoppe in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Grosse Spitzkoppe Natural Bridge was featured in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photograph copyright Mitchell Krog

Several sites around Spitzkoppe appear in the classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. The backgrounds for The Dawn of Man sequence near the beginning of the film were shot in Namibia. The rock arch seen in the movie is the 78-foot-long Grosse Spitzkoppe Natural Bridge. Back at the MGM-British Studios in Hertforshire in southeast England, Kubrick filmed the hominids in front of a 100-foot-long by 40-foot-tall screen, with the Spitzkoppe images projected on it.

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Rock Art and Widlife

Spitzkoppe towers above arid desert plains in northern Namibia. Photograph copyright Giampaolo Cianella/Getty Images

The Spitzkoppe area, protected in Grosse Spitzkoppe Nature Reserve, not only offers great rock climbing, but also spectacular galleries of ancient rock art and lots of wildlife, including cheetahs and cobras.  The Spitzkoppe rock art has at least 37 separate sites, mostly of pictographs or rock paintings, which were created over the past 4,000 years by aboriginal peoples. 

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Climbing Description for the Normal Route

The Normal Route climbs the northern faces of Spitzkoppe. Photograph copyright Hougaard Malan/Getty Images

Normal Route (5.8) 5 pitches and a scrambling approach. This trad route follows the line of the first ascent of Spitzkoppe. It usually requires a full day to climb and descend. Much of the route is marked with cairns.

Begin at the northeast side of the mountain below a gully (GPS: -21.821647 S / 15.174313 E). Scramble up the gully, climbing slabs and around boulders, and following cairns for about an hour.

The next section climbs a pitch up a dark chimney system for 45 meters. Continue scrambling and climbing easy rock (may need to rope up). Climb a pitch up the “three-step chimney,” then a squeeze chimney. Sometimes fixed ropes are in place on the lower chimney. Above, climb a couple more pitches to the summit. Pitch 4 requires a 50-foot rappel.

Descent: Rappel the route. Make two rappels to the top of the squeeze chimney. Continue with two or three more rappels.