The First Ascent of Space Race – a new route on Table Mountain
(or, The Story of a Helmet)
By Hilton Davies
I pictured Guy walking around Bishops, his school, wearing his school hoodie, looking like a cadaver that was roughly sutured back together. The story is a little like this…
I called Lisa, mother of my climbing buddy Guy Paterson-Jones, to ask how I could go about replacing Guy’s hoodie. Lisa wouldn’t hear of it and was adamant that Guy wouldn’t either. She told me that he was perfectly happy with the reconstruction job that she had done. I didn’t feel too good about this as I was more than a little responsible.
In ER at a Cape Town hospital in the middle of the night last 18th August the staff had taken scissors to Guy’s hoodie which I was wearing. They cut up the length of the arms and up the middle of the front. They did much the same for the rest of my clothing while my wife Helen and son Kieren adjusted me as necessary. My friends Andy Wood, Rik de Decker, Douw Steyn, Roy White, Anthony Hall and others had arranged this last part of my Saturday night.
To re-wind a little…
Guy and I had spent the afternoon on Table Mountain working on our Space Race project. It was our third or fourth session on the project. I had led the desperate first pitch to the right of Farewell to Arms up the steep white wall to the big rail and then out the enormous triangular overhang using tips of knifeblade pitons, tiny C3s and the smallest RPs. The free climbing was hard, committing and relentless but the aid climbing was desperate. It required high-stepping to get flat against the roof to reach piton placements that were at maximum extension. The tiniest RP placements with wires like dental floss were tenuous. In fact when Guy came up second, his extra couple of kilos popped an RP and a piton and he swung out towards the Atlantic.
For me on the lead end a zipper fall back into the wall from six or seven metres out was the big scare.
We got through this tough first pitch as night descended and an icy winter wind picked up. On the platform above the roof we fiddled in the murky blackness to place gear that we would rappel off. It felt serious, but we managed to land back on earth. We pulled the ropes down and while Guy remained behind to sort out any snagging, I dragged the ropes and solo’d across to the base of Arms Race. The last cable car of the day had left an hour earlier and we would have to feel our way down Table Mountain without headlamps and with no moon.
I pulled the ropes across and began to scope the scramble descent. Peering into the dark void my middle-aged eyesight discerned a ledge that I could step down onto.
I stepped. But there was nothing there.
As I plunged my first thought was to grab the ledge. My second thought was that I’d just killed myself.
Helmets are a pain and I usually don’t wear one. But on this day I did. And after falling about seven metres I impacted head-first on a sharp rock, bounced, rolled down a steep ledge and then went into free fall. At this stage I was surprised that I was still alive but sure that I had only seconds left. A few seconds after impact, and after falling about 20m in total, I was again surprised, but at this stage I was sure that I was experiencing multiple organ failure. The pain in my chest was indescribable. But after a while I was able to communicate with Guy and asked him to call Helen and to tell her to ask Andy Wood to come and fetch me below Touch and Go.
I could count on Andy.
It was cold. MCSA Rescue told Guy to stay where he was. I told him to get to me. Guy eventually got to me after an hour of brail climbing. I needed his body heat before I died of shock and exposure. Guy held the phone to my ear while I said goodbye to Helen.
Before midnight my friends Douw Steyn and Rik de Decker arrived. I felt a deep and abiding love for them. If anyone could save me these two great climbers and expert doctor could. Then my friend Roy White pitched up, followed by a squadron of kind rescuers.
Saturday night was looking up.
The party became quite festive and Andy had arranged first class travel. The guys generously carried me in a nice bed with many straps and poles, and they had wrapped me in some crinkle-wrap. It was getting more pleasant, and then I had a deep-space ride up into the orbiting and stationery cable car. Andy, Ant Hall and others put their backs into it and pulled me right up. It was good to see my mates, and Ant kindly warmed my very cold hands. It was a balmy 4 degrees Celsius in the cable station and in the cable car we were out of the icy wind that had been hurting Guy and I so much.
To cut a very long story a little shorter, what followed was ambulances, hospitals, operations, rehabilitation etc. Only in November did I start walking again. In December I started fast walks up mountains, and in January I started climbing. It takes time when you’ve damaged all those soft things inside you. And broken an arm and your back.
I’m weak and sore. But becoming less of both. When I climbed some moderate old country routes in January and February with my buddies Guy and Neil Havenga, I seriously thought about quitting climbing.
It was very hard and I suffered.
But things progressed and March was better and April was pretty good. Guy and I had a good Tafelberg trip. Kieren and I had a good outing on Valken, I held Kai Fitchen when he took a 10m screamer on Last Tango and with dedicated belaying by my old buddy Alan Ross, I could do some concentrated cranking on sport routes and managed to get my fastest time on Sterling Silver down to 1m 37 seconds.
Finally, I felt ready for a re-match.
Whilst Guy and I had climbed all of Space Race, we hadn’t done it in one go. Also we hadn’t climbed what we thought could be a good variation to give an entirely free route. The roof will never go free – well not until there is some significant tectonic movement. For more than a metre at a time there is no crack at all, and then the crack may be as thin as a toothpick.
Sunday 5 May dawned a world-class day. We had the odd minor hitch in getting on to Space Race, like Guy not having a belay device, but nothing so serious that things like body-belaying couldn’t fix. The first pitch was again pretty tough in getting up the slightly overhanging wall to the big rail. And the first 6 or 7 metres off the ledge involves some commitment.
This time I wasn’t weighed down by hammer and pitons but I was by Camalots no’s 6, 5 and 4. Those babies are big!
The 15m rail across to intersect Last Tango is excellent and gives a fantastic free pitch that goes at about 23 and S3. S3 is a term used by Snort and I to indicate a seriousness factor and more or less adds what feels like 3 grades to the overall toughness.
Guy came bounding up to my hanging stance while I said hello to Ross Suter and then led through on Last Tango to the platform stance above the lip of the enormous roof to re-join Space Race. This is such a nice variation and will appeal to guys who don’t want to suffer through hard aid.
From the platform stance Guy boldly took on the ‘bottle pitch’ while Fiona, a hiker, took photographs from Fountain Path below using an Apple iPhone. A hard crank gets one around the roof above the stance and then it’s a case of firing up the middle of the beautiful slightly-overhanging white wall in-between Last Tango and The Cruise. At about 16m up the wall Guy came to the last small rail. Here he sunk two cams and then committed to the smooth and gearless top section of about 6m. Each move goes at about 22 but the sting in the tail is latching the sandy ledge and having to mantel off the overhanging wall onto sand and loose rubble. Guy didn’t lose his bottle.
The youngster has a mind like set-concrete.
Cableway Crag, Last Tango, The Cruise and The Dream all finish at this rubbly ledge and scramble off up to the right to get up onto the Magnetic Ledge. Our next pitch, another bottle pitch for the young beast goes up the steep, smooth and gearless slab directly above the ledge. It then takes a few rails and crimps over a little overhanging buttress to get onto the Magnetic Ledge. We had done the gearless slab on top rope a couple of times and Guy was confident he could keep his bottle on this one.
It has ugly fall potential onto the ledge and over the edge but Guy was smooth and calm and although it only goes at about 19 it is a definite S4 or S5.
Guy is in a very small class of seventeen year-old supreme tradmeisters. (But not for much longer as he turns 18 in a few days!)
Most of us head along the Magnetic Ledge to the rappel points and abseil down. But when we want to top-out from Touch and Go or Arms Race, we do that crank through the notch in the roof above, and then up the easy wall to the top. For Space Race our top pitch starts two metres to the right, through the very improbable big roof. We use a couple of underclings in the roof to find jugs on the out-of-sight wall then do a good old-fashioned “arm pull” from the ‘fifties or a new-fashioned “campus” from the ‘nineties, to get onto the steep wall.
Once established we go slightly right to get onto the aesthetic arête and climb lovely gargoyles to the top and finish in the overhang where we leave backpacks.
All-in-all Space Race is an excellent route for all-round, big-wall climber-types and Space Race Free is an excellent route for climbers with a bit of bottle.
Oh, and the name: first there was Farewell to Arms made by Dave Cheesmond and my brother Dave Davies in 1978.
Then came Arms Race made by my buddies Andy de Klerk, Ed February and Greg Lacey in 1982. (Three of the five have died too young).
After the cold war Arms Race came the 1960s Space Race. And also that roof is way-spacy!
This route starts on The Dream ledge 3m to the right of Farewell to Arms. This is not directly below the roof crack but a few metres to the left.
Pitch 1 25m 23 A3 S3: Take-off from blocks, through an overlap, to get on top of a small pillar. Head up leftwards and then straight up to the big rail. The first crux is getting to the rail. Place a Camalot no.6 and rail right a few metres to get to the start of the roof crack. Place a Camalot no.5 in the rail and head-on out for about 7 metres using four knife blade pitons, tiny cams and the smallest RPs. At the lip of the roof encounter the next crux where you do some desperate and committing cranks with lots of fear of zippering the whole show. Stance on a great platform next to Last Tango.
[The Space Race Free alternative: when reaching the rail continue railing right for 15m (a Camalot no.4 and Camalot no. 3 are useful) to intersect Last Tango. Make a hanging stance at this point. Continue up the last part of the Last Tango pitch (i.e. up the dihedral and then traverse out to the left) to regain Space Race on the platform.]
Pitch 2 25m 22 S3: Bust through the notch in the roof and head a little left before going straight up the white wall in-between the crack systems of Last Tango on the left and The Cruise on the right. Commit to a big run-out on the smooth section at the top until you latch the sandy ledge to stance.
Pitch 3: 12m 19 S4: Get up to the big smooth slab and get on top of a block. Take off up the tenuous wall angling left using a vague rising ripple (no gear). Climb the little overhanging buttress above on the left to get onto the Magnetic Ledge. Scramble up leftwards to stance under the roof.
Pitch 4: 17m 21 S2: Using hidden pockets in the big, flat roof reach out to jugs on the wall and crank up. Head up tending rightwards to get onto the aesthetic arête and climb the gargoyles to the top.
First Ascent: Guy Paterson-Jones and Hilton Davies, 5 May 2013.