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Wildfire Tears Through Cape Town Crags

The worst wildfire in 15 years blazed across the periphery of Cape Town, South Africa for over six days, coaxed by shifting 40-60 mph winds. It spread in all directions within Table Mountain National Park, devastating the vegetation in the region. Crags in the area are closed indefinitely.

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 The wildfire blazes out of control    in Cape Town. Photo by Mark Harley Photography.    The worst wildfire in 15 years blazed across the periphery of Cape Town, South Africa, for over six days, coaxed by shifting 40- to 60-mph winds. It began on March 1 and spread in all directions within Table Mountain National Park, devastating the vegetation in the region. Table Mountain and the surrounding hills are now covered in a deep layer of ash, the rock scorched black.

Climbing areas affected by the fire include Silvermine East and West, Topside, Lakeside, Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Hout Bay, popular for both bouldering and sport climbing. All have been closed for rehabilitation until further notice.

Authorities say the cause of the fire is still under investigation, but believe that it was human started.

“It’s a pretty hopeless feeling watching your home crag burn to the ground,” Marijus Šmigelskis, a Cape Town climber, told Rock and Ice. Šmigelskis has been climbing in the area for 14 years, since he was a teenager.

Erosion is now the main concern, with vegetation wiped out as the rainy winter season approaches. Little plant life remains to hold the soil in place or to prevent people from wandering off trail.

Chapman Peak burning in early morning on March 2. Photo by Mark Harley Photography.  Table Mountain National Park representatives say the range is closed indefinitely, until seedlings sprout and stabilize the environment.

According to Šmigelskis, the local flora, called Fynbos, needs a burn every 10-15 years to re-germinate as part of its life cycle; otherwise a species of thicket plant takes over.

“When a sport-climbing area burnt a while back in the Cederberg, it remained closed for three years,” said Šmigelskis. “Though I highly doubt that will be the case in Cape Town.”

The rock is charred, new cracks have formed and a few climbs have lost holds due to exfoliation from the heat of the flames, but climbers are eager to return.

The integrity of bolts and anchors is another question.

Jim Karn, product designer for Metolius Climbing, says, “Mechanical bolts are probably okay, but glue-ins are probably not to be trusted.”

 The aftermath. Photo by Marijus Šmigelskis.Alan Jarvis, materials engineer consultant at Warthogs Unlimited and UIAA representative, weighed in on Climb ZA, which is South Africa’s largest rock-climbing community forum: “Silvermine anchors are 316 stainless steel, which is not really affected by tempering like low alloy steel anchors are.

“I’d say the only at risk anchor items are the hangers. If they are heated in an uncontrolled manner (like a fire), then some strength might be lost. Could they get hot enough in a fire? Yes, in a confined fire like a building. In a brush/forest fire? Dunno.

“I think the main problem will be the resin of glue-in anchors. Some of those are permanently affected even from 50 C (122 F).”

“In my opinion, most bolts should be fine,” Justin Lawson, founder of Climb ZA, wrote Rock and Ice. “The rock is generally set back from any plants and most areas have indigenous vegetation that does not burn incredibly hot (compared to Pine and Bluegum trees).”

The effect of heat exposure on the resin of glue-in bolts will be the determining factor for replacement. A pull-test is the best way to test their integrity.

“There isn’t much that can be done at this stage,” says Šmigelskis, “especially since we’re not allowed into the park. I think once the new plants start sprouting and the rains come, nature will sort itself out for the most part.”