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Ascent of Sapitwa Peak on 2019-03-26

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Sapitwa Peak
    Location:Malawi
    Elevation:9849 ft / 3001 m

Ascent Trip Report

Eric, Serge, Michel

March 22 Depart Seattle
March 23 Fly to Nairobi
March 24 Arrive Lilongwe, drive to Likhubula village
March 25 Hike to Chisepo Hut
March 26 Summit Sapitwa Peak, return to trailhead, drive to Lilongwe
March 27 Switch rental car for taxi (cheaper), ride to Karosonga
March 28 Drive to Chisenga, hike Mafinga Central/South, return to Karosonga
March 29 Drive to Lilongwe
March 30 Fly out
March 31 Arrive in Seattle

I had a week free for spring break at the end of March and teamed up with Serge and Michel to hit some more country highpoints. March is not a great time of year for many glaciated country highpoints, but it is a good season for low-lying African highpoints.

We spent a few weeks trying to figure out logistics to combine Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti, but eventually concluded that Eritrea and Djibouti are currently too politically unstable in the border regions to risk trying to tag the highpoints.

As a backup plan we settled on the Malawi and Zambia highpoints. This combination makes logistical sense because both can be accessed from within Malawi. The Malawi highpoint, Sapitwa Peak of Mount Mulanje is in southern Malawi and the Zambia highpoint is on the Zambia-Malawi border. I got some valuable beta from a German friend Markus who had just climbed these two peaks a few months earlier, so we booked our flights and got ready to go.

Two weeks before our departure, though, southern Malawi and surrounding regions got hammered with heavy rain, washing out roads near Mount Mulanje. We were worried we’d have to abort the trip, but I emailed several people in the Mountain Club of Malawi and a few guides in the area and they assured us there was an open road to the trailhead and people were still climbing the peak.

This was reassuring, though more rain was forecast over the next week. I decided to commit to booking a local guide for the trip, even though one is technically not required. The benefit of booking the guide, though, was that he would have an incentive to keep us updated on local conditions and whether the mountain was accessible.

A week later cyclone Idai swept through Mozambique, southern Malawi, and Zimbabwe, and resulted in what was later deemed one of the southern hemisphere’s worst natural disasters. Somehow Malawi was not hit quite as bad as neighboring Mozambique and our guide assured us the roads were still passable. Moreover, the week we planned to arrive looked to be the first dry week in a long time.

I left Seattle on Friday night, connected in New York City and Nairobi, and arrived in Lilongwe in the early afternoon Sunday. Serge and Michel arrived a few hours later and we picked up a rental car and started driving south. Our plan was to drive down to Mulanje Sunday night, climb Sapitwa Peak Monday and Tuesday, then drive to the northern tip of Malawi to climb the Zambia highpoint. We figured renting a car and splitting the cost among the three of us would be reasonably cheap.

The rental car situation in Lilongwe, though, is complicated and can be very expensive if you’re not careful, as we found out. The only rental agency in the airport is Avis, and they charge around $90 per day for a standard car, plus 90 cents per km with no free kilometers. Avis doesn’t specify this per km charge in the online rental page, though, so it came as quite a surprise to us. We were planning to drive about 2,000km on the trip, so this would actually be a very expensive rental. I’ve never encountered such a high per km fee before.

It was late Sunday by then, though, and we didn’t have enough time to arrange any other type of transportation on our tight schedule, so we bit the bullet and took the rental car.

We drove into Lilongwe and picked up groceries at a store, ate dinner at a KFC, and picked up some Malaria medication at a pharmacy that was somehow still open. We then took turns driving south through Blantyre to Likhubula village at the base of Mulanje. Our guide Samuel (samuel.mathewe@gmail.com) had reserved a night at the CCAP Likhubula House for us, and we arrived at 1am. Another guide was sleeping nearby and found us the key to our dorm. It was pretty cheap at $11 per person for the dorm room.

The next morning we met Samuel, paid him 1000 Kwacha (about $1.50) per person for the park permit fee and 1000 Kwacha per person for the hut fee, and gave him a few extra dollars to buy food for the trip. The fee for the guide is set by the park as $25 per day, which I think was worth it since he gave us up to date road condition information.

By 9am we started hiking up the trail, which started directly at the lodge. It was hot and sunny and Samuel said this was the first sunny day in quite a while. The trail was easy to follow, and we passed a few locals hiking down. Samuel said they were planting trees higher up on the mountain to help recovery from a fire that had happened recently.

After a few hours we reached a large plateau below Chambe Peak. This plateau was bereft of trees and must have
been where the fire happened. There was the remains of a cable car and station at the edge of the plateau, and this had been used for transporting timber down from logging operations on the plateau before the fire. It now appeared abandoned.

At the plateau we took a shortcut trail to the right that went directly towards Saptiwa peak, skipping the Chambe Hut. The trail descended steeply to a stream, then climbed steeply up on the other side. We eventually reached some trees and took a short lunch break along with a few other hikers.

From there we hiked across a col to the main Mulanje massif and started ascending into the clouds. The clouds were stuck above around 5,000ft and visibility dropped considerably. Luckily it didn’t rain, though.

By 3pm we reached the Chisepo Hut where we planned to spend the night. The hut was large, with a wrap around porch, fire place, and several mattresses inside. A group of six German hikers were already there, having climbed Saptiwa Peak that morning.

We hung out on the porch and admired the view down to the lowlands below. The clouds fizzled out and by the time the sun set it was completely clear. I pulled a mattress out on the porch to sleep where it would be much quieter than inside.

The next morning we got up at 4:30am and were moving by 5:30am. We hiked directly up from the hut and soon encountered some steep and fun granite slabs. The slabs would be pretty sketchy if wet, but luckily it was sunny and they were mostly dry. The route would have been a bit tricky to follow without Samuel leading the way, though there were faint red arrows painted in confusing sections which were helpful.

By 8am we reached the summit, marked by a metal wind vein type structure. I’d heard on a clear day the Indian Ocean would be visible, but clouds to the east blocked our view. We still got to see a great panorama all around us, though. There were tons of granite cliffs and sub peaks on the massif and it would have been fun to spend more time exploring the area.

We soon headed down, scrambling a few 3rd class sections then hiked back to the hut around 10am. After a short break we packed up and continued hiking down, reaching the trailhead by 5pm.

Recommendations for Sapitwa Peak:

-A guide is not officially required by law for the peak, and if I did it again I would do it as a day trip unguided.

– Cheaper rental cars are available in Lilongwe, though still expensive. One rate I later found is $65 per day + 33 cents per km with 150km free per day. I would recommend this over the airport Avis, though you would need to take a taxi from the airport to town and back at the end of the trip ($35 each way for the taxi).

– If driving more than about 500km per day it is actually cheaper to hire a driver with car (like a taxi). This is counterintuitive, but we paid about $130 per day for a driver (plus gas) later when driving to the Zambia highpoint and saved a lot of money. We went with John (johnwaiinkosi@gmail.com, +265996809244)

– If you have more time it would be considerably cheaper to take a bus from Lilongwe to Blantyre then a taxi to the trailhead and back. This option would take too much time and have too much uncertainty to fit both the Malawi and Zambia highpoints in the 5 days we had, though I think with 7 days on the ground it could work.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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