An opinion on adventure and motivation
By Hector Pringle
Ancient Roman amphitheatres were designed to awe the spectators and dwarf the “entertainers” – typically gladiators, charioteers, animal slayers and executioners. It is fitting, therefore, that when you stand beneath the Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg you start to wish you were a gladiator or knew how to slay wild animals. The place makes you feel inadequate.
The first thing that strikes you is the massive black wall. It strikes you because it is 4.5km wide and 1km high. It is fucking huge. You then become fixated by the proud bulk of the Sentinel on the western flank. It gazes eastwards over Beacon Buttress to the far eastern flank of the Amphitheatre. The Sentinel is right to keep its gaze on that eastern arm. It is always good to know where the Devil is. Tucked in between the three summits of the Inner Towers and the large bulk of Eastern Buttress is a jagged Tooth of crumbling basalt. The Devils Tooth, and the splintered adjacent Tooth Pick complete the complex eastern flank. The Amphitheatre is an intimidating and inspiring place. This is a story about three very different adventures that unfolded across its walls and peaks.
The first adventure was just over twenty years ago. Two experienced mountaineers shared the Sentinel’s view one day and were inspired by the northern prow of the Eastern Buttress. They went home, made a plan and returned to try and climb a new route up the very outermost arête. They hiked up Lion Ridge below it and climbed straight up the prow in impeccable style, ground up and using no fixed protection. The final two pitches were very bold and committing with bad rock and big runouts. To their surprise they discovered, upon topping out, that they had made the first ascent of a stand-alone peak, separated from the main bulk of Eastern Buttress by a chasm. They abseiled down their route on suspect anchors and finally made it back to their high camp that night, elated at a proud first ascent on a new peak. They named the route Lionheart – a fitting name for the arena of the Amphitheatre.
The second adventure began some nineteen years later, on the opposite flank of the Amphitheatre. A large group of mountain enthusiasts spent hundreds of man hours lugging steel cables, drills, rebar and clamps up the north eastern arête of Beacon Buttress. They drilled 18mm holes in the rock, into which they epoxied the rebar. They then clamped the cable to these anchors to create a via ferrata – an almost continuous snaking cable from near the contour path all the way to the summit. The idea was to create a safe and non-committing route to enable timid climbers and brave non-climbers to experience the massive exposure and thrill of a high Drakensburg climb. The first ascent of The Gordian Edge, as their route was called, was only the start of the adventure. The strongly mixed reactions in the climbing fraternity paled to insignificance alongside the legal route taken by the authorities. The correct permissions had not been sought for the via ferrata construction, and the land owners came out guns blazing. This adventure continues with an uncertain outcome.
The third adventure was earlier this year. Two climbing mates had long been inspired both by Lionheart, and by the continuation convoluted Eastern Buttress skyline. They came up with a plan to link the seven eastern summits and the two western summits of the Amphitheatre in a single alpine-style push. Their first attempt was a dismal failure due to heavy snow, but it gave them some new ideas for their second attempt. The project had a high chance of failure and there were many uncertainties. The biggest question marks were the new ground to get from the Tooth onto the Inner Towers, and how to manage the lack of water on the route. On the day, however, the plan was a success. Despite some route finding errors the climbs went quickly and the pair wrapped up their project in just over 41 hours.
What to make of these three, very different adventures?
All three were born out of the inspiration of the Amphitheatre, and a genuine love of high and remote places. In the cases of Lionheart’s first ascent and the Amphitheatre enchainment, the vision was to meet the mountain’s challenges in as minimalist a style as possible. To steal a phrase, the style was the ascent, and to diminish the style was to fail.
In the case of the via ferrata the inspiration was to share a passion for the mountains with the nameless many who possibly would not otherwise experience the grandeur of the big hills. For the via ferrata construction team climbing is such a defining, fulfilling aspect of life that it was obvious to try and educate non-climbers about what they are missing out on. That handles the easy, touchy-feely side of these adventures.
But what about that other, and equally important, aspect of motivation: Ego? For all three ascents there were strong external motivations. They were all firsts in some way and everyone wants to be the first. They were all advertised and touted after the ascent – journal articles, blogs, web pages and the like, within the constraints of the era. You need a lot of ego to put in the mental and physical effort demanded by all three adventures. You get a buzz off the recognition of doing something hard or dangerous – even if the recognition is negative.
Enough impartial observing now, and time to put my opinion on the line. I found the via ferrata shocking. I have huge respect for the protagonists and their prior accomplishments and I just could not reconcile this with what I viewed as a desecration. But why is my claim over that piece of ground stronger than theirs? Why, according to me, is there more merit in what Andrew (Porter) and I did with our enchainment, or in what Paul and Russ did on their first ascent of Lionheart, than in the ostensibly altruistic construction of an accessible route that all can enjoy?
For me it boils down to what it is that we seek in the mountains. And that is adventure. Everyone will have their own definition of an adventure, but mine goes something like this: An adventure is an unnecessary goal-oriented undertaking with an uncertain outcome. When I think about it fundamentally, the process of adventure is truly the reason I climb. I imagine the same applies to most any climber – from bouldering to sport or trad to the alpine, the learning process is the point, irrespective of the level of difficulty or whether you succeed or fail. And in order to learn there must be uncertainty. There must be a chance of failure, and a chance of averting failure by making good decisions. I therefore see the via ferrata as dismally unsuccessful in the realm of allowing people to fall in love with climbing. It sends out the message that you should expect decisions to be made for you, and thereby removes all uncertainty. It is not an adventure, it is a stunt, like bungy jumping. By all means many people enjoy via ferrata for the sheer fun of it, and I have no doubt it must be a hell of a lot of fun. But is that really the hook that will bring them back again and again? I argue that those who pursue climbing seriously after a via ferrata excursion would be equally likely to get psyched after being taken up the Sentinel, say, or after their first trip to ‘Boven. Both those outings would have a far greater fundamental element of adventure than following a steel cable up the side of a cliff.
But, the argument might run, if it is fun what is the harm? I say the risk is that a via ferrata steals someone else’s adventure. Two young alpinists recently chopped the infamous compressor route on Cerro Torre after climbing a variation of it using almost no bolts. Jason Kruk, one of the choppees, said of Cesare Maestri who originally put the bolts in: “He stole that climb from the future“. I realise this is a dramatic and overstated example, but as a principle I agree with it in the context of via ferrata. Steel cables preclude any adventure other than the one designed by the installers. If you have a different vision for that piece of hill, then sorry. Rather go look elsewhere.
In writing this I’m aware of the gauntlet of arguments and absolutes that can ensue. I think its important to keep three things in mind. One, in the grand scheme of things climbing is insignificant. A steel cable here, or a bolt there has zilch impact on the rest of the world. So let’s keep some perspective. Two, very little in life is clear cut. Everything has nuance and circumstantial uniqueness. Let’s not use dogmatic principle to dilute the nuance. And three, anyone reading this, and anyone involved in mountainous adventures almost certainly loves high places. We might have different visions, but we all have the same passion.
After many, many words the points I am trying to make are: let’s be honest to ourselves about our motivations for climbing; and let’s be aware of the impact our adventures have on the adventures and dreams of others.
2000 years down the track and the Roman Amphitheatres are still with us. Gladiators no longer skewer each other and wild animals no longer get slain. Instead camera-wielding tourists traipse between the columns. Although the Drakensberg Amphitheatre rock is crumbly the grass there is tough and it binds the whole lot together quite well. I give the via erbosa, or grassy routes, there good odds to last longer than 2000 years. By then, our adventures and cables, via ferrata and chain ladders will be irrelevant. Now there’s a thought that gets me psyched to go out into the hills.
- Lionheart was opened by Paul Fatti and Russ Dodding in March 1992.
- The Gordian Edge was installed by a host of people in late 2011. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the authority responsible for the management of the area in which the via ferrata was constructed, has declared the via ferrata illegal and has taken legal action against some of the installers.
- The ‘Amphitheatre Enchainment‘ was done by Hector Pringle and Andrew Porter in April 2012.