The first South African to send 9a

22 days of projecting spread across 3 seasons, this is the story of the first 9a to be climbed by a South African
July 31, 2023

In June of this year Mel Janse van Rensburg clipped the chains of Speed Intégrale in Switzerland, becoming the first South African to climb 9a.

It took the 20-year-old climber 22 days over three seasons to send the route – his greatest climbing achievement since taking down South Africa’s hardest sport route, Mazawattee (8c+) in 2020.

The Boven-born climber’s career kicked into hyperdrive as a young teen – sending his first 7a at age 14, Snapdragon (7c+) at 15 and Rodan (8c) at age 16.  “I think climbing with a lot of psyched, strong climbers helped me learn to push myself,” he told Vertigo. “I was also exposed to a lot of climbing when I was younger, maybe that helped.”

Speed Intégrale (9a) is the extension of a mega-classic test piece Speed (8c+). Mel was introduced to the 40 metre endurance climb four years ago by Austrian crusher, Barbara “Babsi” Zangerl. “She convinced me that it would suit my style. When I did eventually try it, I really enjoyed it,” he remembers. “I think it’s important to choose a route you like if you’re going to be working it for a while.”

This became especially important as Mel wrestled with uncertainty and frustration. “This was the hardest mental battle I’ve had with a route. I always knew I could do it but there were definitely some doubts along the way.”

During his tenth session he fell at the top of the crux, and two days later just below the chains. “For the rest of the season I couldn’t even get to the crux again. This was super frustrating and enraging,” Mel recalls. He was falling “all over the place,” and sometimes didn’t even know why. “I was in a terrible headspace and I had to pull myself out of it.” It was only when Mel managed to set aside the pressure to send that he was able to execute a perfect attempt.

While the key to sending the route was winning the mental battle, he says conserving his energy was critical. The physical crux was climbing the first 45 moves to the redpoint crux efficiently. “You have to climb it well enough to still have some energy left to do the [hardest] move, and then still have enough in the tank to push through the last 20 moves.”

While a 9a send is a notable progression in South African climbing, Mel says “being the first doesn’t really change anything.” He has had his sights set on the grade for a while. “I’m just really happy to have finally done it and I hope that there will be many more South Africans to climb 9a in the near future.”

With the completion of his project, Mel switched gears to compete in the World Cup circuit.

“The comps have been a new experience for me. It has been great and I’ve learned a lot. Unfortunately my results haven’t been amazing. Hopefully with a bit more training and experience I can do better in the future.”

Mel is currently in Squamish, Canada projecting Dream Catcher, an iconic 9a opened by Chris Sharma. Soon he’ll be studying in France with plans to spend time climbing in Céüse.

This was the hardest mental battle I’ve had with a route. I always knew I could do it but there were definitely some doubts along the way.