Fear and Loathing – An Interview with Alex Bester

Interview by Andrew Pedley (AP)

Alex Bester

Alex sticks the crux dyno on his climb in Mhlanabtini – Fear and Loathing, 29. Photo by Michelle van
The picture that will inspire many an attempt!

 

On Sunday 2nd March Alex Bester pulled a gem-of-a-line out from the kloofs! ‘Fear and Loathing’ (29).  Takes the blunt arête left of the Final Cut (25) in Mhlabatini Kloof in the Magaliesberg.  The line is a pearl; steep, clean, exposed sustained and HARD.  The hardest pure trad line in the Magaliesberg I am told, and not a peg in sight. The blankness of the walls either side frame the line perfectly, as captured superbly by Michelle van Aswegen in her photo.
The line has no big jugs after you start the climb, pumpy open grip climbing on a 15 degree leaning prow with tricky feet, and fiddly gear, way off the ground.  It pumps you out royally for the last moves into, and then executing the mad dyno, with gear wobbling well below your feet.  The falls are big but clean, and when you lower off you are so far out from the belay that a lasso is needed to bring the leader back onto the ledge.  I have looked up at the lines in the kloofs on many occasions, but never been inspired to do much there, until now, I was there on Sunday!  And it did not disappoint, its brilliant.

In recognition of his pioneering spirit and bravery and need for some new kit (!) Mountain Mail Order have given Alex two x Mammut Phoenix 50 m x 8mm SuperDry ropes, one red, one blue!  Good news for Gautengers… MMO will soon have a mega shop in Joburg, at the New City Rock climbing wall.

So, Alex, Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you based? How long you been climbing?  And what do you do, apart from climb?

I’m a currently a student studying Adventure tourism management at Tshwane university of technology in Pretoria which has been nice due to the many days of strikes giving me plenty days to go climbing , I’ve  been climbing for about  5years and have been totally obsessed with climbing ever since.

Apart from climbing? mmmh hard question never been good at anything else except talking shit, but I have been  delving  in the dark art of white water kayaking witch is fun and scary at the same time.

Alex Bester

Alex taking a break from hard tradding. Pic by Brendan Salzer

 

Where did you learn the art of tradding?

I got into to trading in the worst possible way, it was around matric I received a film called “The sharp end” I took it to Wesley (Blacks)’s house after watching it at least three times, then walked into Drifters with my matric vacation money and bought a few cams and nuts and continued to develop my skills in Bronkies and Boven.. those where the scary days not knowing what held or not .

Your comment on Facebook reads: “No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well… maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten”

Seems like you are suggesting this was a real mental and physical challenge for you..tell us a bit about this, did you have to overcome a fear barrier? Did you almost give up?  Or just get stronger on the moves?  What about the name, I assume it reflects the Fear but what about the Loathing?

The story starts about 2013 when my friends (Mo and Wesley) and I went trad climbing in the Rocklands area.  I tried to open a route ground up (mistakenly leaving my helmet in Pretoria) Close to the bottom of the route (which later I found out is the crux) I came flying off, getting my foot stuck around the rope and head swung into the ground , few hours later I received 6 stiches in my head thanks to the Clanwilliam emergency room.  It was actually pretty serious and could have been worse.  It was difficult coming back from a incident like that, always having it play in the back of your mind.  So that’s the ‘Fear’ part.

Climbing head injury

Alex’s head after a groundfall. Are they brain cells that I see falling out? Pic by James Barnes

 

And The Loathing?

I sent the route on pre placed gear, not the true style the route deserves (Ebert will always give me shit about this AP: he already is!). The gear is small and fiddly and the holds are horrible, pre-placing the gear gave me confidence to trust the rock and overcome my fears of previous routes. I will go back soon to give it a pure ground up placing send but for now sport climbing.

That’s cool. Main thing is you are open about the style of the FA. You still had the vision and forged unknown ground and created a wonderful thing for which we are grateful. The gauntlet has been laid for a placing gear on lead ascent.

 So, on the day of the send, did you expect to do it? Did you get an early night he night before? Tell us a bit about the send itself.

I’ve been obsessing about the route for months before I sent it, consuming my dreams, I went back to the route may times trying to figure out the beta and gear, on the day I went out with the Mo, Michelle, Du ploy and Peet.

I tried it twice in the sun but failed low down and then later on the dyno , I took a long break wondering around the kloof, sipping some whiskey waiting for  Mo and Michelle too finish their climb for the day.

I met up with them and had the mandatory cup of coffee and a joke.

I went up again, falling midway through the bottom again getting frustrated and pissed off, Mo let me back to the ground and we sat on the ledge listening to music, Mo talked about a story about them going sailing and singing a Bob Marley song  to bring the wind.  I was hoping for the winds of friction to come up the kloof, this never happened but in that moment, the winds of sends hit my sails.

I slowly headed up the route, climbing the bottom smoothly, at half way before the shit hits the fan there’s a semi-jug where I shook my tired arms, I set my sights and headed full steam into the crux and found myself staring up at the final jug, ready to dyno, rope shaking.  At that moment, I remembered Mo telling me  to try double hand dyno to the jug (this was original beta but way too uncontrolled for my liking ) so I left my fear and just threw myself at it, I saw my hand rap around the jug and all screams let loose, breaking the natural sounds of the kloof.  This was probably the happiest I’ve ever been in one of my favorite places in the world!

Wow, sounds like a brilliant moment, for you and your buddies who were supporting. Mo should try it, he’s plenty strong!

And that line, it’s stellar. How did you spot it and what did you think initially?  Must have been a cool experience?  Did you close the project, how does that work?

I can’t receive the credit for spotting it Wesley Black saw it and was convinced it would go.  This is about three years ago, I ended up climbing a tree between Fear and Loathing and Rivers of Rain and traversing over the top to another tree which is conveniently right on top of the route, I toped-roped the route many times to try figure out the moves and the gear, it was a really cool experience trying to figure everything out and realised how difficult it was during multiple attempts with my friends  trying to figure moves out.

Mmmh I wouldn’t say it was a closed project, due to the nature of the route I can guess five people in Gauteng have the delicate balance of power, technique and courage to do the route all of which are close friends of mine there was a general understanding that I put a lot of work into it, this held them away which I’m grateful for.

Inspired by your send and the line myself, Brian (Weaver) and Ebert (Nel) tried the route on Saturday.  I wanted to try it ground up placing but got scared and started thinking of my family, so Ebert saved the day by making his way up (popping 2 pieces in the process!).  We all then managed to top out ground up but there was plenty of fear and we were too pumped to send.  In fact it’s an endurance crux I think, setting up for the dyno, the dyno itself (as in the now famous photo) is OK.

Do you agree?  Did you take the whipper at the crux a few times?  The gear is OK when you know it, what pieces did you use to protect the crux and did they ever rip?

Yeah I flew off the crux dyno about 8 times, each time coming closer and closer to the jug, I had a number 3 tapered DMM nut in a shitty horizontal crack and a ‘0’ Metolius cam in a vertical break (the same cam that popped in Rocklands!) the gear held all my falls dew to me being a skinny shit but that nut will be retired because of the wires breaking slowly after every fall. AP: Put it on your wall ( :

The rope in the pic looks pretty frayed.. and is it even a trad rope?  We also suspect you used a nut in the crux as you don’t have enough cams!?  Respect.

Ha ha, yeah the rope is old and my only one a 70 meter sport rope, I folded it in half and used both ends. And yes, you’re right, I do not have two of the same size cams that are needed so I used a sideways nut!  The nut took a pounding (see pic)  AP: Classic. Stuff of legends!

So you must be pretty stoked to get two new trad lines from Mountain Mail Order!?

Yes!!  Totally awesome of them, they will be put to GOOD use. 8mm Mammuts!! Shweet.

broken climbing nut

The nut took a good few falls off the crux!

 

When you are not in the kloofs, where do you climb?  I think you are working Stormwatch (31) in Fernkloof at the moment, how’s that going?  A lot less scary I think!  What other routes would you like to succeed on in the near future (next year or so)?

Ooh Stormwatch that thing is hard , not really my style but its probably one of the best routes around.  I can do all the moves and after the crux can run up to the top every time I think I just need a good day on that one. AP: Good luck, maybe a sip of whiskey?

There’s quite a few routes left on the hit list but the one working on my mind is Ebert and my route we tried at Blouberg in April in last year called ‘the sons of anarchy’. It  will be very hard too, and scary.

I also want to free oceans of fear near the end of the year, that will be great.
But the future grand project is to get funding and the crew for a Patagonia mission. AP: You should speak to Snort..he’s always in need of a belay there.

Whats next? The arête to the left looks as good! I plan to ab down it soon (see what you have done!). Do you think there is scope for more hard class lines like this, in the kloofs?

Yeah of course there’s always potential for more amazing lines in the kloofs , Fear and Loathing has a direct start witch might fall in the 30s range, but the tricky thing is to find a sustained route in the kloofs usually it revolves around one hard move, like twist and shout witch is cool but not amazing. AP: Agreed, that’s why I love Fear and Loathing.

I think with the new development in gear and people getting stronger by the day we will truly see what the kloofs will provide.
Personally I think a painted bolt here or there would help open up some amazing lines, so long as the trad ethic is first and foremost. Some of the old timers abused this (there are several old bolts/pegs only climbs in the kloofs) which did not help. Today’s youth like your crew, who are active in the kloofs have a full grasp of ethics and respect for the kloofs, as demonstrated by your ascent of Fear and Loathing.

What are your thoughts on this?

The kloof are a special place and Mhlabatini is not one for the faint of hearted because of the difficult access, I always laugh when someone asks about those bolts because in that time they were revolutionary and now we see them as evil in the trad kloofs. But there is a time and a place for all things, a good example is ‘Ego-whipped’ higher in the kloof.  It is a hallwed classic bold route that has a bolt and without this bolt there is a guaranteed ground fall.
Why should we not allow for another climb like this to exist?  We climb because it is fun and adventurous and we don’t want to break legs on a gear-less routes.  But coming back to the core of the issue there must be a balance between bolts and safety if the route enters the real death potential then yes place a bolt.  But if it’s just a case of getting scared above good gear  “…maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion”  AP: Harden the F up is what Alex is saying I think.

I’m probably opening a can of worms but I would like to see the ‘critical’ pitons in the kloofs replaced with painted bolts, most are so rusted and ready for the next person to fall and rip them out.  As a result, many old peg climbs are un-climable.  So long as there is not a trad placement alternative, there are some amazing small gear these days.  Replacing pegs with pegs I think is shortsighted.

That picture by Michelle is amazing!  Big thanks to her for capturing a landmark ascent. A picture like that really makes a great line like yours into something that many climbers will aspire to, for many years to come.  Do you have any words for Michelle?

Michelle has always been an artist in my eyes since I first met her a few years ago at Tuks boulder cave, she has jumped at every possible opportunity to follow us along  all our crazy missions and has never complained once, she has become asset to our gang in every way and always happy for a chat and joke.  She has also developed her climbing photography into one of or even the best photographer in the country and I look forward to many more days on the road with her.  AP Ya, her shots are amazing, she too the Boven Guidebook cover too.

You can check out her work at michellevanaswegen.com

And on a side note this girl can crush – look out for her in the future!

Thanks Alex, good luck and see you out there.

Ya man.

Alex Bester

Enetering the crux sequence, leaving the gear behind. Photo by Michelle van Aswegen.

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One Response to Fear and Loathing – An Interview with Alex Bester

  1. Steve Bradshaw Mar 27, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

    Cool interview guys – thanks

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