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Home » Features » Playing his own game: An Interview with Edmund February about coming of age as a climber during South Africa’s apartheid

Playing his own game: An Interview with Edmund February about coming of age as a climber during South Africa’s apartheid

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 85 (Spring 2024), which is available in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up the hard copies of Alpinist for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Greg Child belays Ed February as he climbs a route on Table Mountain, which stands 3,500 feet above the city of Cape Town. “Forming an enormous bowl with the city nestled at its feet, the mountain is central to every Capetonian’s psyche,” February wrote in Alpinist 83. [Photo] Jimmy Chin

Edmund February wears his climbing shoes with socks. Always. With no fear at all that the shoe will slide around on his foot. “Rubbish!” he says emphatically. “I’ve had dozens, dozens of climbing shoes. If the shoe moves on my foot, it’s because it’s a cracked shoe. It’s not because of the sock.… The cultural fashion is to climb without socks. I’m not fashionable, and that’s fine. I can be unfashionable.”

These days, February is known primarily for his academic work studying the effects of climate change on vegetation structures in natural systems, not his hundreds of first ascents globally. During his time at the University of Cape Town’s biological sciences department, February published nearly 100 papers. February still lives a few hours outside Cape Town, where he can access the mountains by bike or on foot. He doesn’t spend so much of his time climbing anymore—he’s fighting bad arthritis in his knees and wrists—but he is still happy just to be in the mountains, where he often goes on walks reminiscent of those he took with his mother as a child. These walks instilled in him a love of the mountains. As that love evolved in his teenage years, February began going on longer multiday hikes and, eventually, climbing trips with his brother. By the time he was fifteen, he was taking climbing seriously. Soon he was opening new routes and repeating tough existing climbs.

While February feels nostalgic for those early days when he was learning to climb, his rise to prominence was by no means simple. Policies, facilities, resources and access throughout South Africa were segregated under apartheid. Apartheid was a system of state-mandated racial segregation policies implemented in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. In 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) won a majority in the general election, elected Nelson Mandela president and announced the Government of National Unity, which began broad repeals of apartheid laws. Even after the repeals, the effects of segregation lingered in the culture and society of South Africa despite no longer being explicitly written into the laws governing the country.

While these racist policies were in place, access to the mountains was more difficult, and February, being Black, struggled to find climbing partners early on. While there was no official rule against it, he wasn’t welcome at the local chapter of the Mountain Club of South Africa, and he couldn’t access certain climbing areas. 

There were some people who climbed with February regardless of the country’s norms. Still, the racial discrimination he faced made it so he couldn’t experience climbing in the same way as his white peers. He couldn’t focus solely on climbing, and the activity didn’t provide the same fantasy of escape from society that American dirtbag culture has long depicted. While February ended up excelling, opening up hundreds of new routes, his race always complicated his involvement in the climbing world. In response, February developed a knack for skirting around rules that sought to keep him from doing what he loved, not cheating exactly—he is very clear about that—but circumventing, maneuvering and equivocating around policies.

By the 1970s, February’s prominence on the outskirts of the climbing community began to attract notice from within it. Though the Mountain Club’s members were discouraged from climbing with him, that did not stop select individuals from partnering with him anyway. By the end of the decade, February had a regular group of white climbing partners. By the early ’90s, he had become such a prolific figure in the community that the Mountain Club asked if he would join and take an active leadership role. Eventually, the club issued an apology for conforming to apartheid norms, though, for February, it still wasn’t enough to address the systemic racism that he faced.

The tensions of apartheid did not disappear with February’s induction into the Mountain Club. In 1996, February was part of a climbing expedition to summit Chomolungma (Mt. Everest). The expedition was heavily publicized, and it even received the blessing of President Mandela. But the trip, in many ways, revealed the lingering effects of racial segregation rather than the hope of a new multicultural vision for the nation of South Africa. Ian Woodall, the expedition leader, reached the top along with Cathy O’Dowd, who became the first South African to summit Everest. But Woodall’s decision-making prior to the summit push alienated other members of the team, including February. February was heavily critical of Woodall for what he described as a lack of transparency and concern for group safety. Eventually, February, two other members of the climbing team and the expedition doctor left the expedition early. The trip ended in tragedy when one of its members, Bruce Herrod, died on the descent.

The reason February walked away from the expedition is the same reason he climbed so well on his own as a teenager: throughout his life, February has always tried to play his own game, to play by his own rules and prioritize what he holds dear whenever possible. The way he tells it, he never got good at other folks’ ways of climbing, only his own—so good, in fact, that people started wanting to climb with him. When I spoke to February last year over video chat, I was surprised that what leapt out at me most was his wonderment with the world. Knowing that he had grown up in apartheid South Africa, I expected him to hold the anger or critical distance or the careful subtleties necessary to move within a system of racial oppression. He had these too, but he also had wonderment in abundance. Sometimes he answered my questions succinctly, but when he got going, he spoke excitedly, adding interesting details, telling jokes and then always fading off into a comfortable silence, leaving me to imagine the stories he was reminiscing upon.

[The following conversation, which was transcribed from a recorded interview between Brandon Blackburn and Edmund February, has been edited for length and clarity.—Ed.]

February poses for a portrait in Cape Town. February retired from a career at the University of Cape Town in 2020, after twenty years of working as a professor at the school. [Photo] Jimmy Chin

You had a long and influential climbing career. You’ve opened up—what is it—several hundred routes around South Africa?

Yes, a couple hundred, I would imagine. I have no idea. I don’t count these things. People will say to me, “Oh, I climbed your route at this place.” I go, “Oh, what route?” I have no idea what I did. Climbing for me was going out with friends and having fun. That’s what we did. At one stage we were climbing some hard stuff but that was happenstance. We were a couple of kids having fun.

For me, that’s what should be the ethos of climbing. You shouldn’t be worrying about grades and what you’re climbing and who you’re climbing with. If you’re climbing with friends and you’re sharing an amazing environment with them—that is what’s important. The grade is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. It’s about how much fun you’re having.

What you’re saying reminds me of a talk you did for Fascinating Expedition & Adventure Talks. You were talking about this idea of playing your own game, responding to some of the controversy on Everest, like these conga lines of folks going up mountains, and thinking, like, “Oh, this isn’t real mountaineering. This isn’t real climbing anymore.” It’s different. The rules are different. The stakes are different. It’s the game that they’re playing. It’s not the game that you’re playing. It doesn’t have to be.

I get a lot of people saying to me that this whole new ethos of modern Himalayan climbing, or even modern climbing all over—it’s not just the Himalaya, people are hiring guides to drag them up all kinds of things these days—is not climbing. [They say that what] is real climbing is doing manly-man things out there, being rugged and surviving on your own, carrying your own stuff, and I don’t care. What is important is that you play the game on your terms. You go into [the] mountains on your terms. That’s what’s so fantastic about mountains. They’re big enough and broad enough to take all of that fancy stuff.

If you want to do via ferratas, that’s fine by me. I haven’t got a problem with that at all. If you want to climb really easy grades, that’s also fine. If you want to do Himalayan climbing where a guide puts up all the ropes and feeds you oxygen, and puts your tent together, and gives you food, that’s fine. I haven’t got a problem with any of those games. I’m not going to do them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t play them. I love seeing people in [the] mountains. People have to be in [the] mountains. If you’re having fun in [the] mountains, having fun is the operative phrase. As long as you’re having fun, you play the game on your terms.

If you want to pull on quickdraws all the way up the sport route and then tell us that you climbed it, that’s fine. That’s not what the rules say. If you want to play [by] those rules on your terms, that’s OK. Everybody will know what you’ve done, so what’s the problem? People take these things far too seriously. Come on, man, we’re all out there enjoying ourselves in a natural environment. As long as we keep that environment natural, as long as we don’t throw out crap all over the place, then I haven’t got a problem.

As soon as you start damaging that environment, then I get tense. You can play your game, play whatever game you like, but don’t modify or change the environment to the detriment of other people using that same environment.

February stands on top of one of the Krakadouw peaks in South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains in 1974. February and Dave Cheesmond had just completed the first ascent of a route they called Orang-Outang (5.10). [Photo] Courtesy Ed February

I like that ethos a lot. What were some of the points in your climbing career when you had the most fun?

My first trip overseas was to Yosemite Valley. [My friend] Brian Gross and I flew into Canada and bought a van. It was a real rattletrap. We bought this thing, fixed it up and got it to go. We drove from Calgary, Canada, all the way down along the coast to Yosemite. It was an amazing trip. We climbed at various places on the way down. Driving down from Tuolumne Meadows into the Valley was the most mind-blowing experience I’ve ever had.

On the Valley floor, we got out of the van, packed the bag and immediately walked up to Half Dome. We didn’t even stop for five minutes in the Valley. The next day we were climbing on Half Dome. We were moving fast, Brian and I. We got to two pitches below a traverse—I forget the names of these things … Big Sandy? We were sitting on it, looking out over the Valley. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and we said, “Should we finish this thing today?” I looked at Brian and he looked at me and said, “This is such a nice place. Let’s stop. Look at this. This is amazing.”

We sat there for the rest of the day, just looking out over the Valley. It still burns in my memory, sitting there on that ledge until the sun set. That climb may not have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it may not have been the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but it was an amazing experience.

By the time we got to the top, we’d run out of food. But Brian says to me, “We can’t go down; it’s just so amazing.” No food, no water, but we stayed there another night. After we walked down the following day, we sat in the Valley and then looked at each other and said, “The Nose?” “Yes, the Nose.” The next day we were on the Nose. … That to me stands out as one of the most brilliant memories in my climbing career. That week, we redid the Nose and Half Dome.

February leads a route at Oudtshoorn in 2003. The limestone crag, known for its overhanging routes and stalactites, is about 260 miles east of Cape Town. The cliffs were first developed for climbing in the early 1990s. [Photo] Greg Child

You started climbing in apartheid South Africa. What was that like?

It’s kind of funny, I’m still kind of bitter about it in some weird way. I should get over myself. I ended up having to teach myself to climb from a book even though there was a fancy mountain club just down the road from where I lived. It was a little difficult having nobody who could actually quite literally show me the ropes. My brother and I went out there, and we played. My poor brother—I needed somebody to hold my ropes, and he was available, whether he liked it or not.

He ended up holding my ropes for a lot of those early years because there was just nobody else. We did find some people who did teach me. There was this guy, Errol Flint, who did teach me. We were all the same color so that kind of helped, and all that stuff, and he did know a bit. But I quickly outgrew that very basic level that people of my color were climbing at. I wanted to go up to the next level. My brother was reluctant, though, and you can’t blame the guy. He was just terrified a lot of the time.

I actually practically forced him to go climbing with me because I just didn’t have anybody else. Those early years were really rough. My brother and I enjoyed ourselves out here. I certainly had more fun than him, but I take my hat off to him for actually being there for me at that time because nobody else [was] available. It was only in the late 1970s that I actually hooked up with some white guys who were prepared to climb with me regardless of the Mountain Club not wanting them to climb with me. It wasn’t a pleasant part of my climbing career in those early years. How we didn’t kill ourselves, I have no idea.

There’s a kind of question that you always get asked if you’ve faced adversity, which is: “Do you think the adversity made you better?” I’m not going to ask you that because I think it’s a silly question…. But I guess I’m curious: Do you carry that adversity with you? Did you carry that throughout your career?

My first reaction was just anger against society in general. I was angry against society initially. Then you bury that anger somewhere very deep down, you put on a brave face. You forget or try to forget about that period in your life, and you move on. Alternatively, you try and find ways around it. There’s adversity, and you go, “Yes, it’s there, but I’m going to ignore it, and I’m going to play this game on my terms.”

That’s when I became a better person. That’s when I [got to] where I am now: when I realized that I shouldn’t be angry about the system, I shouldn’t rebel against it in a dramatic fashion, but acknowledge it’s there and play my own game. From when I was sixteen to maybe twenty years old, there was head-on confrontation. Eventually, I realized I don’t need all this shouting and I don’t need antagonism.

If there’s somebody or something that is hindering what you wish to do, you find a way around it. We had an apartheid system here from all of the time I grew up. I wasn’t allowed to do a whole load of things. There were ways around that. If you couldn’t stay in a hotel, you didn’t stay in a hotel. You camped around the corner. If you couldn’t walk on the mountain here, then you didn’t walk on that mountain there. You walked around the corner on the mountain.

It sounds like you’re talking about circumventing the stakes of the game, where you’re not trying to win the game that the other person’s playing. You’re saying, “Well, you can do whatever you want over there, but I’m going to be over here doing my thing.”

Yes, I’m playing my game. You play your game, but I’m not prepared to play your game on your terms. I’m going to go play my game around the corner here, and I’m sure I can find people who are going to be happy to play my game with me.

How did some of those feelings change post-apartheid? After it ended, did you see any changes on the ground?

All through the 1970s, the Mountain Club actually had it clear that the members were not allowed to play with me, period. I was well-known in the community. When you’re climbing the hardest routes around, then you can’t not be known. [In] the ’80s, [the Mountain Club] mellowed, but nobody really was climbing with me, and anyway I didn’t want to climb with them. I was playing my own game, my terms, and it was all good. In the ’70s, I wanted to play their game and they didn’t want me. [By] the ’80s, I’d reinvented and was playing my own game. In the ’90s, they came to me and asked me if I [would] play with them…. That was a hard decision. It took several years of thinking about it, with [the Mountain Club] constantly trying to ask me [to join]. Eventually, I decided that I would play with them. A lot of people said, “Oh, you’ll be playing the system for playing with those guys.” I feel that it wasn’t. In fact, what I was trying to do was change [the system] from within. I was trying to change that society by being part of that society. For the next ten years, I actively worked within the club, so I felt that I’d done my turn and I wanted to do something else.

I pushed through a number of things that were actually quite important in getting young people into the club. And I changed the club quite fundamentally. But … the chair at the time was still thinking in the old philosophies. And eventually they refused to acknowledge that they had a major role to play in the apartheid era. They upheld the apartheid principles, and they refused to acknowledge that, and I couldn’t get them to understand that they needed to make a profound apology that came from the center of the club. And I eventually had a fight about it and resigned, but I didn’t actually resign. Because they had given me the Gold Badge of the Mountain Club, which is the highest accolade. They had made me an honorary life member.

You mentioned that there was kind of an old guard in the club. Were some of those people the ones who had been enforcing this stuff early on in your climbing career? 

Yes, yes, yes.

February sits at the base of Scarfoot (5.10), at Oorlogs Kloof, Montagu. “Yosemite may rule for big walls, Pakistan for vertical faces, and Thailand for beach cliffs, but South African climbing is singular,” Greg Child wrote in Outside in 2004. [Photo] Toni van Houweninge

Did they ever apologize? 

One of the major, major protagonists was a guy called Claude Katz. Claude many years later wrote me a letter of apology, a personal letter of apology, which unfortunately I’ve lost. And I was very impressed that he did that, because he was one of the main people, and he did apologize. And then a guy called Mike Scott, he wasn’t a main protagonist but he upheld what they said. He wouldn’t climb with me and he wouldn’t let anyone who climbed with him climb with me. But it’s only because he was told that, and he always followed the rules. But then, years later, Mike and I met through a group of climbers. And Mike personally apologized to me in front of his family and my wife. That is big. He said, “I’m sorry for upholding what those guys told me. I should never have done that. I should have thought for myself.” That was big coming from Mike.

I’ll never forget that, it was very important to me. That was an amazing thing to do. When you do it in front of your wife, and your little kids, and my wife, it’s big.

In the 1990s you were invited to join South Africa’s first Everest expedition. My understanding is that the 1996 expedition was really highly publicized. It had Nelson Mandela’s approval, but it fell apart for some political reasons.

I’ve been on big mountains, but the Himalayan climbing is just something [else]. I don’t like the cold, it’s just miserable. I have played the game, but it’s not one I really enjoyed. 

After the apartheid era, the multicultural diversity of our team represented, for me, the new South Africa. I thought that this would be a great example of how these different cultural groups could work together to climb something like Everest. I joined them purely in the effort toward nation-building, for want of a better way to put it. It fell apart because, in the end, it’s Everest.

Everest brings out the worst of everybody, it seems. We all have to have our bit, we want this for us. It fell apart because the guy in charge had his own little agenda, and he didn’t include everybody else. He was going to climb Everest regardless of what anybody else did. I just thought he was going to kill someone with this attitude. This was before you had a whole bunch of ropes all the way up to the top and people dragging you all around. You had to do a lot of it yourself in those days. I just thought that his attitude was wrong.

Nation-building is about including everybody. It’s about inclusivity and understanding and dialogue.… We didn’t know if there was enough oxygen for everybody. We didn’t know what the camps would be like—we just didn’t know. There wasn’t enough information, and there wasn’t enough information sharing, and so I wasn’t happy about that. I wasn’t happy about the idea of somebody as a leader of an expedition that is not actually explaining to everybody else what the agenda is and how we’re going to achieve it. So I left, and several people left with me. I think that was the best decision I’ve ever made, because that year [on Everest] tended to be catastrophic for a lot of people.

Yes, it’s political. I should never have been on a mountain actually thinking that I could achieve a political objective. The political objective was nation-building, with culturally diverse people. But many of those people, the other climbers, I still get on with very well. I made some good decisions on that trip, and the best of them was to come home.

It seems that, for me, coming into the game quite a bit later, all I hear from Everest is controversy these days.

Yes. That’s why I started this by saying, “It’s Everest; it brings out the worst in people.” Why is it that the biggest, tallest has to do that? As a result, I don’t want to climb any of the tallest anything. Yes, people climb these things for the wrong reasons. You should be climbing for the love of climbing, and for the love of being in that environment with some cool people. I’ve climbed the second-highest mountain in Africa several times, but I’ve never been to the summit of the highest one.

We talked a little bit about your scientific research, which you said that you were focusing more on [for] fun now, but we didn’t really talk about how you became a professor.

I got to being a professor at the University of Cape Town through an apartheid era that tried its best to avoid that happening. The whole education system in South Africa was against people of color becoming professors. I grew up in South Africa, got my education in South Africa and became a professor in South Africa, regardless of what the law said, or what they tried doing.

What was the process like?

There’s a whole load of things that got in the way, and I ended up graduating with a PhD at age forty-five. I was twenty-seven in the first year. What was interesting was that, as I graduated, there was this huge intent for cultural change [and] diversity within universities. The university put out a call for a person of color with a PhD in botany for a tenure-track position in the botany department.

Three years after I got my PhD—with no postdoc, and very few publications, and no idea of what an academic was doing—I ended up getting the job primarily because it asked for a person of color with a PhD in botany. At the time, there were very few people of color with a PhD in botany. They had no option but to take me.

It wasn’t an easy ride initially, because there was a lot of antagonism among faculty toward taking somebody who clearly would not have been accepted for the job under normal circumstances. They tried their best to get me to not work there. That’s my impression and others may argue that’s not the case. The alternative is [that] a tenure-track position is really hard; to be an academic is really hard. I didn’t really cut it, but I just made it, thanks to alternative arguments and all this kind of thing. I ended up making tenure.

It took a few years, but eventually, you get accepted by the faculty, and everybody actually accepts that, really, you can do the job. It takes a while, and for me, it was damn hard. I put in long hours, and it wasn’t easy. Those first three or four years, I suffered. I survived, and my climbing didn’t, but I did. I did very little climbing, mostly because I just didn’t have the time.

February leads the first of three pitches on Little Dutch Boy (5.10c) at Paarl Rocks, a South African crag known for its granite climbing. [Photo] Dion Tromp, Mountain 137

After those first few years, what changed? Had you become more established, put out more papers, published, been at the university, or was there an event that marked the end of that … hazing period?

Yes, man, exactly. After four years, the papers started coming out, the students started giving good reviews, and I was in, but it took that long. The first two years, I got awful reviews from the students. I got no papers published. I was fighting to keep my head above water, but then you slowly get on top of things. First you get the students, and the funding, and you build the research. Then, once you’ve actually built the research, and you’re starting to get the results from that research, the papers start coming out, the students start graduating, your lectures begin to solidify.

That trial period, everyone needs that, you know what I mean? It wouldn’t have just been you; it seems just so petty to take a development period that everyone needs to start a job and hold it over your head.

Yes. The thing is, nowadays, there’s nobody in that place [who] will do something like that, but back then, because I was a person of color coming in, because there was a certain amount of animosity—it was clearly a privileged position. There’s a lot of antagonism about that. You can’t have that. There was no quota. Nobody gave anything. I had to fight for everything. I survived, but it was odd. Just survived, actually. I almost didn’t get tenure, and then that’s fine. Twenty years later and everybody said what a wonderful job I’d done.

Ed February gets horizontal on Dancing on the Ceiling (5.11d), an overhung route on the Muizenberg Buttress overlooking Cape Town. The buttress is known for its multipitch trad routes. [Photo] Dion Tromp, Mountain 137

And how they supported you all the way, right? Especially in those first years. 

[Laughter.] Yeah, right. It would have been nice to have a mentor, somebody who you could go to, who actually could give you direction. When you don’t have a mentor, you’re finding all of the stuff yourself. You’re asking anybody for advice. It is odd. I’m so tired of being a pioneer.

I started climbing maybe ten or twelve years ago. I can count on one hand the number of influential people who look like me that I’ve talked to in all that time, and you’re the first person that I’ve had an extended conversation with. First off, any advice? Second, is that something you’ve noticed, or is that something that you’ve seen change?

No, I haven’t seen any change. Over the years, people of color don’t climb. It’s how it is. You’re going to be the only guy at the crag. You’re going to stand out like a sore thumb. People are going to look at you funny.They’re going to expect that you’re not going to climb very hard. They’re going to ignore you. It’s how it is. If you’ve got your buddies, have fun with your friends.

A very old friend of mine used to always say, “Fuck them.” It’s the only way. You can ignore society. Ignore why they’re looking at you funny. Do your own thing. As long as you’re actually enjoying it. If you’re not enjoying it, then no point. Because it’s hard. You go to the pub after you’ve been climbing, and you look around the room and you’re the only guy that stands out again.

You’re always going to be the guy that stands out. All my life. That’s my story. You’re the guy that stands out. You’re different … fuck different! I’m the same as every bloody other person out there. I’m just a different color, that’s all. I’m the same. That is the important thing. Just keep that in your mind. You treat everybody like you would treat me. People I know well, they don’t even see that I’m different. They don’t even notice, their children don’t notice. It’s because of me, and they know who I am, and they don’t have to see to care—it’s only funny people who do that.

I think it’s important that you’re out there. You need to see the diversity at the crag.

What you’re saying reminds me a lot of how you were telling me that you’re tired of being a pioneer, standing out and all these things. Oftentimes, we think about standing out as “Oh, you’re performing above, and you deserve attention,” but no one ever really thinks about standing out when that attention is unwanted. No one ever thinks about standing out because you have to stand out, because you have no choice.

I’m afraid there’s no choice. [Laughs] I don’t think you want to hear that, but it’s true. I realized that people look up to me. People look to me all the time, and I have to behave in the best possible manner. I have to behave in a particular way all the time, because I’m different.

You can’t misbehave at any point when you’re out there. You go to the crag, you behave properly, because you’re the guy who’s different, and they’re all looking at you. That’s how it is. You’re representing a whole bunch of people out there. You’re a representative, an important one. Very important one. Sorry for being a bearer of bad news.

No, not at all. I always appreciate candor and honesty over pretty words.

[Laughs] I’m not good with pretty words. Just think about how I must have felt when I arrived in Yosemite Valley in 1980. Forty years ago, I arrived in Yosemite Valley, and got on the Nose. The whole of the Valley’s eyes are on me. That’s how it is.