Interviewee: Andy de Klerk
Interviewer: Hilton Davies
Date: 26 April 2014
HD: Andy, first some personal questions: How are your bones holding out?
AdK: (laughing) When a cold front comes in I feel a little bit less flexible and all the broken bits hurt. It’s like a little weather indicator. Unfortunately it doesn’t tell me when the good weather is coming. I should ask you the same thing!
HD: What’s it like living in the shadow of a famous athlete wife?
AdK: It’s great hey. She instills in the family a different focus. This is athletics… it’s healthy… not so much gadget time. We do our own things and its one of the reasons our marriage works.
HD: If Francie said “dad, I want to do what you have done” what would you say?
AdK: Ya, interesting question. I’ve thought about it a lot hey. I would say you can’t stop the kids and they must do what they want to do. The best thing you can do as a parent is give your kids as much skill and training as possible and then hope for the best.
HD: Last of the personal questions: if Ed had been a hot woman would you have married her?
Adk: (laughing) Ed!? Er, I don’t know about the scratchy beard part, um, I guess so… ya
HD: Right, with the awkward personal questions out of the way, on to climbing. When I think of your local routes rising to the top of the list are Oceans of Fear, Wall of Silence, Dream Street Rose, Blue Diamonds White Ice and Technicolour Darkness. Which others give you a warm and fuzzy feeling?
AdK: One of the nicest phases in our development was finding the Lost World Crag at Montagu and climbing pretty much most of the obvious trad routes there. You know it was right on the cusp before the bolting started in Bad Kloof so that was kind of a last hurrah there.
HD: Which would you say are your favourite local climbing spots?
AdK: Milner. What I like about it are the access restrictions and it’s a place that’s got so much more than just the climbing.
HD: At a tender age you soloed Renaissance and Buccaneer. Were you nuts or did you have things under control?
AdK: When you’re that age you don’t really have anything under control, you just sommer go for it and hope for the best. One thing that really terrified – I soloed Buccaneer on a Thursday afternoon then climbed it with Ed February and Greg Lacey on the Saturday. When I was following the big rail climbing third, the big rotten flake snapped off in my hands and I fell on the rope. It’s how close you can come hey?
HD: In the early days of sport climbing you onsighted 8a. With a bit more dedication could you have onsighted harder?
AdK: The thing is we were part of Generation X when our peak was in the period 1985 to 1995. This was the transition from trad climbing where you used bolts as little as possible to like, full-on adoption of sport climbing. At the end of this era the Chris Sharmas emerged. During that period there were all the bolting wars in the States and in South Africa there was that weird business of counting falls, remember? The focus when I was climbing, we went sport climbing as training for mountaineering. There was never much focus on pure sport climbing. I think if my time was shifted along I could easily have gone 8b, I don’t know.
Also another thing about Generation X, we were taught to climb much more conservatively. From the mid-nineties the climbing style was much more dynamic. That’s why the grades have gone along. The almost-falling-before-getting-the-next-hold sort of thing – we didn’t start like that, so there was already an invisible ceiling.
HD: So Andy, at your peak you were redpointing 5.14s. Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra are redpointing 5.15s. So what went wrong?
AdK: (laughing) Age…. and life got in the way. Another thing – climbing has become super-main stream so that it’s socially acceptable and you can make a living climbing. During that time when I was at my high-point there weren’t that many professional climbers hey. They all scrounged around and there were a few that marketed themselves really well, like Todd Skinner, but even he didn’t make a very good living. But now it’s possible to focus entirely on climbing with all the other needs taken care of. So there’s that aspect as well, which makes a big difference.
HD: When you onsighted Automatic how much did you have in reserve?
AdK: Er, good question eh? I was climbing with Greg Child and one pitch below us were Tinie Versveld with Dave Birkett. Because Tinie was there I so badly wanted to onsight it eh? I think I was holding on a little harder than I should have, because he was there, because I wanted to make a point that ‘yes, you’ve had ten climbing trips here’ and dogged the hell out of it. The climbing’s not that hard but it builds up and then on the sixth pitch you get the slopey section, and it crossed my mind, uh-oh, don’t fall off here, because then I won’t be able to tell Tinie ‘I told you so’.
So yeah, there was a bit, but not that much hey.
HD: You soloed Mescalito, the North American Wall, The Shield, Zodiac and a whole lot of other big aid routes on El Cap. Can aid climbing be hard, and does it have merit?
AdK: Um, aid climbing is weird. It’s more a mental game. Carry heavy racks and hauling things. It’s like moving rocks, it hard work you know? And it’s challenging in a different way. But I quite enjoy it. The future of aid climbing is far from done hey? There’re huge walls that are untouched. It definitely has merit. It’s quite enjoyable actually. And it can be very hard. Super desperate. Even more impressive for me is guys trying to free these things today. I mean Mescalito is blank! The crux pitch with that dyno that they’re trying to do….! Awesome!
HD: You left it to poor old Clinton to have to free El Cap. Why didn’t you?
AdK: Um, we used to spend the early part of spring at Smith Rocks then we used to go to Alaska for Spring and then we would go to Tuolumne for summer and then early autumn we would go down to the Valley. With all the trips we spent in the Valley the idea as to do the shorter, harder free climbs like The Rostrum, Astroman, Separate Reality, Tales of Power… all that sort of stuff, and then when you looked at El Cap and Half Dome that was like, those are big-wall routes that are aid routes. It was right at the time that attention was starting to come to freeing the big walls. Lynn Hill had just free-climbed The Nose ,Todd Skinner had just a couple of years before had finished doing the Salathé, um, Free Rider had just been established, so I looked at El Cap as a big nail-up – you take your haul bag, your gear, your ledge and off you go.
HD: What were some of your most satisfying rock climbing ascents anywhere?
AdK: I enjoyed the trip to The Hand of Fatima in Mali. It was very nice. Just brilliant rock. And it was a challenging place. But the climbing was absolutely superb. It was as good as Milner. But in the middle of Africa. That was good.
Erm, I also really enjoyed Ceuse. The climbing there is incredible. And another place that we spent time at that was pure fun was The Needles in California. Just the quality of climbing is so good and it’s kind of off the radar. Keeler Needle and all that.
HD: Moving on to alpinism. You soloed a heck of a lot of big routes in the Alps like the Bonatti Pillar, the Walker Spur, the Droites, the Matterhorn, the Eiger, the French Direct, the Gervasutti Pillar, etc. Were you deeply unpopular?
AdK: (laughing) Well I kinda went there and I went through a lot of partners. Always jumping around with a lot of people. It was just easier to go solo. I did a lot of climbing with a lot of other people and did a lot of climbs with them. It all just went into the mix actually. And actually one of the nicest solos I did was the Peuterey Ridge. You remember Bonatti’s last swan song he goes and solos the Peuterey and mentions the big flat rock on the Col de Peuterey? It strikes a chord with me. I’ve sat on that rock as well, waiting for the sun to go down before the rest of the route freezes. I didn’t have an Italian visa so I caught the cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, walked down the Vallee Blanche to Courmayeur, slept the night there, then came back. It was quite a long haul.
HD: Which were your proudest climbs in the Alps?
AdK: Er, I can tell you the ones I didn’t do, which I wish I had. Divine Providence on the Grand Pilier d’Angle on Mont Blanc – tried that about four times hey.
HD: Why didn’t you get it?
AdK: Various reasons. One time half the Brenva Face avalanched and we were too afraid to go to the bottom. Another time we were a few pitches up and bad weather came in. You know, those sorts of things.
HD: The Eiger North Wall must stand out as one of your proud ones?
AdK: Um, that one was mentally quite difficult. That was good. Another occasion… I’ve actually soloed the Walker twice and one time was entirely at night with a headlamp. I switched my headlamp off at the top. Another really enjoyable one was the Central Pillar of Frêney. I quite like the Italian side of Mont Blanc. It’s wild, and bigger. We had a really nice time on that route as well.
HD: Do any alpine climbs stand out as times of incredible beauty and pure joy?
AdK: I remember feeling like that on the Bonatti Pillar. There’s this one little ledge about a third of the way up and as I got there, there was this full moon rising, just as it was getting dark. It was just incredible. Just a lovely place to be.
HD: When alpinism goes bad it can be a thing of unspeakable horror. The Ghost Wall sounded like an Alaskan re-mix of Heart of Darkness. Was this so?
AdK: (chuckle) The thing is it’s just so remote hey. You’re completely on your own. Um, and it still hasn’t been climbed yet. It’s a brutal place and it’s far away and you can’t just call for help. If the weather’s bad they can’t come in.
HD: You and Swenson had a nightmare there, didn’t you?
AdK: Yeah, it wasn’t too much of a nightmare. You know. It was hard going getting him down when he couldn’t use one arm, …. but it’s an amazing wall hey. It’s like El Cap in Alaska. Also the rock isn’t that great, and…. it’s challenging.
HD: So of Ghost Wall, Latok II, Gasherbrum IV and others, which would you say has been your greatest failure?
AdK: Gasherbrum IV comes pretty close. Thing is I’ve been to the Himalayas four times and I haven’t climbed anything. Like, um, the south east ridge on Gasherbrum still hasn’t been climbed. The north ridge of Latok is still unclimbed. I just wish we had better luck, that’s all. You know, I keep thinking even now, was it a lack of commitment or a lack of luck. We were pretty motivated. I still keep in touch with Steve House a lot. He’s probably the world’s best alpinist at the moment, and as he says, the number of failures he’s had compared to the number of successes – he says it’s two-thirds failures. That’s the luck of the draw. You know he tried the Rupal Face about four times before they did it.
HD: Was Moonflower your most horrible success?
AdK: (laughing) Um, in Alaska? Let me think. I would think even though it was shorter, me and Julie did the Croz Spur on the Grand Jorasses, you know, to the right of the Walker Spur. The first day, I could just see we were going to get nailed by the weather. Anyway the weather got worse and worse and we got into this gully that we just couldn’t get out of. The spindrift was pouring down and it got dark so we spent the night standing on this little ledge with our bivvy bags pulled over our heads. That was pretty bad. We spent the night standing and getting pummelled. The Alaska thing on Moonflower was just less intense but longer.
HD: After fourteen days on the Moonflower outing, five days without food, would you say you were having serious doubts about surviving Mount Hunter?
AdK: No, I never thought we wouldn’t survive, ever. You know, I was completely convinced we would get down. It was just a matter of waiting for the weather.
HD: Have you ever been closer to conking out than on Mt Hunter?
AdK: No, I wasn’t close to conking out. There was no question. We would definitely have made it off even if it was another five or ten days.
HD: Have you ever felt close to conking out?
AdK: In the mountains? No, not really. I don’t think so.
HD: What are some of your most satisfying big, bad ascents?
AdK: Um, you should have sent me the questions beforehand (laughing). Er, I enjoyed getting to the top of Cerro Torre with a full moon. That was amazing. That will always be burned into my memory. Um, everything was blue. Things have changed hey. The weather there is nice now. I’m sure with global warming one of the factors that’s happened is that it’s made the weather better in Patagonia. There are long periods of fairly good weather now. And there are definitely some of the things in the Alps that warm my heart. The Peuterey Ridge thing, one was getting to the top of the Eiger, yeh, I cherish those.
HD: What are some of your biggest climbing regrets?
AdK: Er, not being able to do To Bolt or Not to Be. Just near the top this little pancake hold broke off. I was completely in control, thinking I’ve done it, when next thing this hold breaks off. This little Japanese guy belaying me had lots of slack in the rope. We both ended up level with the first bolt. For some reason I never got it again.
Then there were the Himalayan things. Should we have pushed harder? Don’t know. But then we may never have come back. There’s a fine line. As you know big mountaineering is dangerous and there’s a very fine line between self-preservation and commitment.
HD: I always felt Dave Cheesmond should be the first South African ascentionist of Everest with his new route on the Kangshung Face – he was just desperately unlucky with the weather right at the top. And I always felt that you should have been the first South African guy to do K2.
AdK: Well, I would have liked to. I’ve never had much interest in Everest, it’s not really my scene, but K2, it’s proper hard climbing. Anyway. There was a point when I was 33 and I reached a point where I had recently split up with Julie and my life was at a crossroads. I could have gone Himalayan climbing and done whatever I wanted, or move back here and marry Charlotte and have kids. I remember standing at that crossroads and thinking ‘this is a tough one’ – so K2 wasn’t meant to be. In one respect I’m glad with that because I think if I had chosen that I definitely wouldn’t have been here.
HD: In extreme alpinism what was your weakest link?
HD: What would have gone first, in the famous Andy de Klerk? If you had to be massively extended and pushed one step beyond your limit, what would have been the most likely cause of your demise – strength, stamina, endurance, ‘vasbyt’, attitude?
AdK: Definitely not the mind or determination factor. The weakest link would probably be not taking good care of myself in terms of food and drink at high altitude. If you look at guys like Swenson, Child, Anker, they all have all their fingers and toes and they’ve all done extreme things. Number One comes first. They don’t think ‘okay, there’s a weather window, we must go for it’. They really look after themselves. That would precipitate the whole thing if there’s a storm or something and you’re not able to look after yourself or you run out of gas or whatever and you can’t hydrate properly, that’s the start of the end. But the strength and determination wouldn’t give in, I don’t think.
HD: Alpine horror shows damage us badly. Did you get damaged?
AdK: No, I don’t think so. They made me who I am and just made me realise how precious life is. No one likes to dig up a dead body out of a crevasse you know. It leaves an imprint but it hasn’t really scarred me. It’s made me realise that mountains are damn dangerous… it’s not from anything you do, it’s completely objective, you know. A serac cracks and kills sixteen sherpas… it’s not their fault. It just happens. We’re putting ourselves in an environment where it’s just luck of the draw you know.
HD: What does Andy de Klerk’s future hold?
AdK: (laughing) Er, that’s interesting. Basically in climbing I’ve taken a ten-year sabbatical to build a house, raise a family, start a business – it’s given me a very good perspective on, um, where climbing is going and what I feel about it. Now when we go climbing it’s just lovely – a feeling of joy.
Where previously it was always super-motivated I never looked at the colour of the grass or the flowers, it’s like, we’re going to do that route. Now it’s like ‘wow, this is quite a nice place’. It’s fun. Bit like what you’re doing, going off and having fun. Time is quite limited but I’m getting more and more time and I think it’s going to be a good second chapter – where I do it for fun.
HD: Andy, a few years ago I really didn’t think you would be alive in 2014 but I’m so glad that you are and thanks a lot for the chat.
AdK: (laughing) I’m also glad to be here. It’s very nice. There’s much more to life than just climbing, but you only realise that later on – in retrospect.