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Nkima Speaks

Tarzan's Rock Climbing Records

David Adams

First appeared in ERB-APA, #64, Spring 2000

Caution and perseverance gain the day -- the height is reached!

and those beneath cry, "Incredible; ‘tis superhuman!"

—Edward Whymper, from Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69

I. The Cliffhanger

Tarzan of the Apes is undoubtedly the most famous tree-climber of all time, however he spent a good amount of time on perilous cliff faces during his illustrious career. Tarzan did not enter these regions of risk for sport, nor to test his climbing mettle, yet he was surely one of the best free climbers on naked rock in history, although his accomplishments have gone completely unsung in the climbing world.

Detail from ERB Inc Letterhead

During his youth among the mangani, Tarzan learned all the tricks of climbing among the branches and vines of his equatorial forest. He was as adept as a great ape in the trees from an extremely early age, and he negotiated both the middle and the upper terraces of the jungle with uncanny strength and agility, utterly without fear. Thus, it is only to be expected that this greatest of brachiators should be able to apply his skills to rock as well, which indeed was the case.

Although Tarzan was skilled in the use of a rope, which he often used in the jungle for hunting purposes, his climbing exploits were nearly always done in a free and unprotected style that few climbers would recommend. Only his great strength and skill allowed him to come back from these occasions alive.

ERB loved to place Tarzan on perpendicular cliff faces, literally writing "cliff-hangers," which was of course the basic stuff of pulp fiction. Some of Tarzan's greatest feats of daring take place in these regions where "only eagles dare," and his fans love to read about them and feel their own palms begin to sweat as they climb along at home in their easy chairs.

I will present some of Tarzan's famous climbs from the viewpoint of a climber, not one who is able to himself accomplish extreme maneuvers in high places, but one who has a love of the famous climbing literature from Whymper to Krakauer.

Tarzan remained in the trees during Burroughs' first account of his adventures in Tarzan of the Apes , but by the second novel Ed had Tarzan out on the cliffs, and he hardly wrote a Tarzan adventure afterwards that didn't involve a daring climb.

II: The First Journey to Opar

Return of Tarzan, Whitman

In The Return of Tarzan , the ape-man led a party of 50 men up almost perpendicular crags, the barrier cliffs in a chain of thousand foot peaks. The city of Opar was located in a valley in this mountain range.

"For days they marched -- up one river, across a low divide; down another river; up a third, until at the end of the twenty-fifth day they camped upon a mountainside, from the summit of which they hoped to catch their first view of the marvelous city of treasure. Early the next morning they were climbing the almost perpendicular crags which formed the last, but greatest, natural barrier between them and their destination. It was nearly noon before Tarzan, who headed the thin line of climbing warriors, scrambled over the top of the last cliff and stood upon a little flat table-land of the mountaintop. On either hand towered mighty peaks thousands of feet higher than the pass through which they were entering the forbidden valley." (Return, 226-227).

"For an hour the little expedition rested upon the mountaintop, and then Tarzan led them down into the valley below. There was no trail, but the way was less arduous than the ascent of the opposite face of the mountain had been." (Return 227).

Tarzan did a boulder climb "out on the plain between the city and the distant cliffs he and his black warriors had scaled the morning previous" (Return 266). "To descend its rough and precipitous face was a task of infinite labor and considerable peril even to the ape-man . . ." (Return 266). He then accomplished a swift descent of the previous cliff face. (Return 267).

Later, Tarzan returned to the boulder with the 50 warriors and reclimbed with this party. Since they did not have ropes, they fashioned a long pole which Tarzan carried to the top. Why this expedition with full knowledge of the difficulties ahead went into the mountains without ropes to aid their climbing is beyond comprehension.

"If it had seemed a difficult task to descend the face of the bowlder, Tarzan soon found that it would be next to impossible to get his fifty warriors to the summit. Finally the feat was accomplished by dint of herculean efforts upon the part of the ape-man. Ten spears were fastened end to end, and with one end of this remarkable chain attached to his waist, Tarzan at last succeeded in reaching the summit.

Once there, he drew up one of his blacks, and in this way the entire party was finally landed in safety upon the bowlder's top." (Return, 268).

One might assume that a Waziri spear was over six-feet in length, so the boulder climb was probably around 60 feet high. When they returned with the gold ingots, a load of about 80 pounds each, we must assume that they cast their burdens to the foot of the boulder, then reclimbed down the spear pole. We might also assume that they threw the gold down the barrier cliffs instead of trying to carry it.

Tarzan had to return to Opar to rescue Jane. In the course of his adventures he reclimbed the granite boulder again, this time "like a cat," but he knew the route and like a good rock climber had obviously had memorized the holds. He also accomplished a treacherous, but relatively short, 20 foot rope climb (he thought to bring a rope this time!) up the shaft of a well. The stone must have been extremely smooth here or else Tarzan would have made an easy free climb to the top. (Return, 294).

Tarzan then descended the boulder for the third time but carrying the unconscious Jane tied across his shoulders. It "was no easy task." (Return, 298).

Tarzan ran with Jane to the barrier cliffs and descended rapidly, so fast that he was half a mile down the mountain side before the fierce little men came panting to the edge. (Return 299).

III: Summary of the Climb

Tarzan did some fair climbing on his way to Opar. He managed to climb one of the thousand foot peaks, leading 50 men up the barrier cliffs without ropes. The first ascent of the nearly perpendicular cliff took from early morning until noon, or we may assume around 5 AM until Noon, which made it a long 7 hour climb. Since this was a first ascent led by Tarzan, he had to find the way, and the task of leading 50 inexperienced climbers safely undoubtedly accounts for the great length of the climb. Tarzan later climbed this barrier very rapidly when he was on his way to rescue Jane, and his descent with her strapped to his shoulders must have been in record time because he reached the bottom before his pursuers reached him although they were only a mile distant.

The 60 foot boulder climb was also remarkable, not only because they did not bring ropes into the mountains, but also because Tarzan memorized the route so rapidly and climbed it with such speed on subsequent attempts. The first descent "was a task of infinite labor and considerable peril even to the ape-man," however, he almost ran up the boulder like a cat the third time and made the final very rapid descent carrying we may assume over 100 pounds of an unconscious Jane.

From ERB's meager descriptions of the barrier cliffs, it is difficult to access their true heights and rate the difficulty of the climb. Werper easily solos the cliffs behind Tarzan inTarzan and the Jewels of Opar . In this book, Burroughs seems to rate the difficulty of the boulder climb, which he calls "the might granite kopje," much higher than the cliffs. The ape-man swings nimbly up the rock face, and Werper follows the perilous ascent sweating in terror. Tarzan uses a rope to aid his fifty Waziri warriors to the summit of the kopje, but apparently they have made the barrier cliffs unaided, so the difficulty of these "almost perpendicular crags" must have diminished somewhat in Burroughs' memory.

According to the best sources available, Opar is located in the Congo (Zaire) in the mountains west of Lake Tanganyika. Michael Winger notes that the Great Rift Valley "cuts right through Tarzan's country and borders the land which surrounds the Brueckel-Harwood location of Opar. In this valley there are "great escarpments (some rift-valley walls rise more than 10,500 feet above the flat and sometimes drowned valley floors)" (Brueckel, 93-94).

A very thorough discussion of the topography around Lake Tanganyika is presented by Henry M. Stanley in his famous account, Through The Dark Continent., since he circumnavigated this body of water in 51 days 1876. He reports a mountainous country the entire way -- "it is rimmed by mountains and hills -- the least altitude is 600 feet, the highest 4000 feet, above the lake." (Stanley, 39).

Of course, this portion of Africa is especially intriguing to ERB fans since it lies very close to Opar, and some features of Stanley's account do seem to reflect possible literary sources for Burroughs' account of this region inThe Return of Tarzan . The topography presents towers that rise 1200 feet above the lake in this lands of spirits.

"That part of the western coast which extends from Mbete or Mombete to the south, as far as the Rufuvu river, is sacred ground in the lore of the ancients of Urungu. Each crag and grove, each awful mountain brow and echoing gorge, has its solemn associations of spirits. Vague and indescribable beings engendered by fear and intense superstition, govern the scene. Any accident that may befall, any untoward event or tragedy that may occur, before the sanctuaries of these unreal powers, is carefully treasured in the memories of the people with increased awe and dread of the Spirits of the Rocks.


Such associations cling to the strange tabular mounts or natural towers, called Mtombwa... Within a distance of two miles are three separate mounts, which bear a resemblance to one another. The first is called Mtombwa, the next Kateye, the third Kapembwa. Their three spirits are also closely akin to one another, for they all rule the wave and the wind, and dwell on summits. Kateye is, I believe, the son of Kapembwa, the Jupiter, and Mtombwa, the Juno, of Tanganika tradition." (Stanley, 28).

As interesting as these fact may be in relation to the location of the city of Opar, my purpose here is to get some idea of the height of the barrier mountains, or at least find a description of the area to judge the difficulty of the climb. The picture of the "High Places" of the Spirit Mtombwa given by Stanley is remarkable not only because it fits ERB's description, but also because it illustrates a peak that might take seven hours to ascend with 50 untrained climbers, yet seem accessible for a descent in a matter of minutes to a superior climber like Tarzan.

Even though Opar undoubtedly lies further inland and could not be seen from the lake, Stanley's view of Mount Murumbi, 2000 feet above the lake, near Muri-Kiassi Cape gives one an idea of a cliff face in the area. It's perpendicular walls are indeed a barrier that could take seven or more hours to climb, yet it appears that a rapid descent could be make along certain cracks. Thus, once might safely assume that the climb that Tarzan and the Waziri made to Opar was at least a 2000 foot climb up perilous but passable walls without the aid of ropes.


As an interesting footnote to this first climb, Stanley records that "The wooded slopes and dense forest growths which fill the gorges and haunts of what the Wangwana call "Soko." a distinctive title they have given either to gorillas or chimpanzees. I heard the voices of several at Lunangwa river, but as they were at a considerable distance from me, I could not distinguish any great difference between the noise they created and that which a number of villagers might make while quarreling." (Stanley, 33).

Perhaps he was hearing voices from Opar.

IV: Further Ascents At Opar

In Tarzan and the Golden Lion the great barrier cliffs that were so difficult to ascend in Return have now been reduced in Burroughs' account to "rocky hills," which are quite easily surmounted by Flora Hawkes, Esteban Miranda, and their nefarious party. However, the kopje, which led to the treasure vaults, remains a difficult climb, a "huge, precipitous granite rock with almost perpendicular sides" (Golden Lion, 77).

They have to construct a ladder with poles and branches to surmount the kopje, and indeed after they have raided the Oparian vaults, they do cast the gold ingots over the cliff to the ground instead of trying to carry them down the ladder .

In Tarzan the Invincible , the barrier cliffs again seem rather formidable, "the almost perpendicular crag which formed the last and greatest natural barrier to the forbidden valley of Opar," but Tarzan and Nkima make the ascent easily without further comment by Burroughs. (Invincible, 65). However, Peter Zveri with his fighting men find it to be "an arduous climb." (Invincible, 79).

During Zveri's second ascent of the barrier cliffs, Tarzan rolls a boulder over the edge which carries two of Kitembo's warriors to their death at the base of the escarpment. However, the truly interesting statement in this chapter reveals the fact that Tarzan did indeed know of "a precipitous trail to the bottom of the cliff," which he undoubtedly used in the rescue of Jane in Return (Invincible, 129).

In future issues of ERBapa, many other exciting rock climbs of Tarzan will be studied in detail.

Works Cited