Popping my bolting cherry – bolting my first route

Kirk Falls rock climbing

Illona on Time Warp at Kirk Falls, KZN

Roger had started teasing us some time in the middle of last year.  He began by sending pictures to the “Climbing Plans (+drivel)” WhatsApp group that some of the KZN climbers are on.  Pictures of a glorious new crag that he had found near Delville Wood.  Palms sweated and questions flew as we drooled over the superbly long and steep walls we were seeing.

But I was distracted by my trip to Kalymnos so off I flew to Greece while Roger and a handful of others began to investigate the potential of this new spot.  By the time I returned 3 lines had been bolted and a number of anchors set up.  I was looking for any way to recover from the post-trip blues and itching to see this new crag.  So one Thursday afternoon I journeyed out with Roger and he chirped me “you should feel like royalty.  You get to walk on this path after a lot of work has gone into it already.”

In the end I put in my own fair share of time on that path.  Chopping branches, clearing vines, re-routing and re-routing again till the walk-in was as direct as we could get it while still following contours and avoiding erosion (aka. muddy bum slides).

Kirk falls is one of those crags that you want to take new people to.  The kind of place where you make sure you walk on ahead and turn around to see their faces the moment they stop and look up.  It has that “Whooooooaaaaaa” factor as you strain your neck looking up, up, up.  And as you look you can’t help but laugh and point at the many incongruous holds littering the crag.  Each overhang boasts a buffet of beautifully shaped jugs with solid faces in between, resulting in a pumpy endurance climbing not unlike the style we found in our beloved Wave Cave.

Kirk Falls rock climbing

You know the crag is overhanging when the climber lands far away from the rockface


The typical route will warm you up gently with a starter of happy jug hauling, the moves becoming progressively more powerful as you reach the scoop of the roof.  As you go you will sample from a rich menu of finger-locks, knee bars, heel-toe cams and other gymnastic rests as you punch your way up these 7 course marathon climbs, seeking out every drop knee, heel hook, knee scum and energy saving delicacy because you just know you are going to need every ounce you can get when you reach that spicy ending.

Due to the name of the area it was decided that the routes would have a Star Trek/space theme.  There are cool lines like Enterprise and Star Date that make you want to bolt a route just so you can name it something fun.

Kirk Falls rock climbing

Illona on Time Warp at Kirk Falls, KZN


After my first day there I eagerly cast around for drill bits, desperate to claim a line and see the crag thriving with more routes.  As I took on the task of scoping out my desired line, cleaning off sand and grass and algae, swinging back and forth, trying to suck myself in close under the overhangs with hastily placed trad gear, I realised how I had jumped straight into the deep end.

For my first route ever I wasn’t choosing to bolt a friendly little face using mechanical anchors that would be far easier to rap down onto, far easier to place the bolts on and far easier to scope out the line.  I had gone straight for a steep overhang using glue-in bolts.  This entailed more planning, setting up of directional gear, more preparation and finally, when all was ready, the urgent gluing in of the anchors in as quick and efficient sweep as possible before the glue dried in the nozzle.  Go go go!   It’s little wonder that I named my project Warp Speed.

Hammer Drill

I find that missioning out on mornings by yourself is a weird little bubble of time.  There is a certain sense of independence.  You get a unique sense of satisfaction and achievement when doing some manual work on your own, wielding a power tool and getting stuff done, all before most people have stumbled out of bed.  There are those Tim the Tool Man Taylor moments where you just want to grunt with the raw testosterone of it and there is that beauty of creation, of carefully pondering where the natural line is, of imagining clips, falls and moves.  All in a beautiful setting, feeling far removed from civilisation.

It’s also kinda stressful placing bolts for the first time, wondering if you have gotten everything right.  The thought of other people’s lives in your hands should you get it horribly wrong.  And worse than being life threatening…..what if they don’t enjoy my line???

Blower and brush

Specialised tool A1B09 (aka “brushy thing”) next to specialised tool BP147 (aka “blowey pipe”)

I scrubbed those bolt holes cleaner than I have ever scrubbed anything before, wondering what critical mass of dust would be needed for the glue to fail.  But the thrill you get from sitting on your bolts for the first time and realising they are solid outweighs the stress.

There are still some things I need to tweak with the route before I can claim the bolting finished (like adding nicer chains).  A faulty drill battery, a road trip and some extra work has slowed progress significantly.  Oh, and there is that small detail of sending the route.  But everything being equal, this should all come together in the next weekend.  Exciting times!

Thank you to my partner for all his support and for sitting up one night, whittling away at a toothbrush so that I would have a “brushy thing” to clean the holes with.

Thank you to Scott Sinclair for all the lively bolting discussions and the use of the pipe to blow the dust clear.  And thank you to Roger for his generous donation of anchors and advice.

Illona Pelser is a climbing athlete for The North Face | Follow Illona on Twitter

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bolting my first route

8 Responses to Popping my bolting cherry – bolting my first route

  1. David Wade Jan 15, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    Finally, a chick with a drill!
    Nice work Ilona.

    • Jaak Jan 15, 2014 at 8:13 pm #

      Indeed! Shot susta!

    • illona Jan 16, 2014 at 10:45 am #

      It’s so addictive! And forget crossfit, bolting a route is a proper work-out. ;p

  2. Nigel Bailes Jan 16, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    Nice one Illona, can’t wait to pop my KZN climbing cherry at this crag

    • illona Jan 16, 2014 at 10:46 am #

      We’ll make sure there are lots of routes for you to try out when you next come through Nigel. 🙂

  3. andrew p Jan 16, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

    very cool guys. Nothing like a new crag to turn up the psyche! When there are a few more routes I’d love to come check it out, looks great. Probably ideal for winter? Andrew

  4. illona Jan 16, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    Kirk falls handles the Durban summer conditions surprisingly well. Shade from about 9am onwards and a breeze that comes through to keep the rock pleasant. Scott and Candice are bolting a super steep route at the moment and Roger has put who knows how many chains up for a number of other lines (he is sneaky like that). He’s a bolting machine. And I’m eyeballing 2 more lines.
    So by the time you come through there will be lots.

  5. Jurgen Jan 20, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    Looks amazing Illona, well done. @ Nigel Bailes, I dont think they have bolted any grade 15’s for you to climb though 🙂

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