Roger Nattrass Interview

Roger Nattrass

Where are you from? How old are you? Where do you live?

I was born and grew up in Durban. I’m 43 now and live on a 30-acre small-holding near the village of Hilton – just outside Pietermaritzburg.

When did you start climbing and how?

I started climbing with the Wits University Mountain Club in 1984. It was an active club and had the first (and only) climbing wall in SA. This wall was the site of my introduction to climbing. A few weeks later the club took me into the Magaliesberg kloofs where I got to climb on real rock on real (trad) routes. By this stage I already had my own Willan’s (Whillan’s) harness and a pair of EB’s (shoes) – so my footwork sucked and my sperm count was non-existent during these “early years”. I was studying at the Medical School at the time and bought only second-hand (and possibly out of date…) textbooks, using the saving to pay for my climbing gear. Wits taught me to lead climb on trad using a wonderful apprenticeship programme. You climbed with experienced leaders who showed you how to place safe gear and never to fall. The process took about six months. Once you qualified as a leader the club gave you a set of 9 mm ropes to use. A few months after issuing mine they seriously considered taking them back as from the outset I was keen on pushing my limits and kept falling off of course. That just wasn’t on.

What’s the best crag in SA?

For sheer volume, length and quality and a great social setting nothing comes close to beating Waterval Boven as my favourite venue.

Other favourite crags:

With Boven out of the way I am then left looking for anything distinctive – Table Mountain for the location, Milner Amphitheatre for size and majesty, the Wave Cave for the best super steep climbing I have seen anywhere in the world. The Canyon at Kloof Gorge for that “Lost World” experience on brilliant rock. Howick Falls for the Via Ferrata cable and waterfall. At the moment I love Umgeni Valley for the thrill of countless unclimbed lines in a stunning venue.

Roger on Cold Steel

Nothing Heals Like Cold Steel (27) (First Ascent)

The Top 5 on your iPod:
Seether, Nickleback, Daughtry, Fleetwood Mac and U2. (Plus a bunch of cheesy 80s hits – ask any poor bastard who has driven to Boven with me.)

How often do you go climbing?/Do you train?

I climb every Thursday afternoon and have structured my life around this slot. I also get out 2 to 3 Sundays a month. My holidays almost always have an element of climbing attached. My two boys Cameron (10) and Max (6) are just getting really interested in climbing and love Boven with its high quality beginners’ lines, mountain biking and swimming pool. On the whole I don’t train but rather climb. The perfect programme would be climb Thursday and Sunday with power or endurance training (depending on what I feel is lacking) on Monday. This gives me two rest days before each climbing day. My schedule usually gets in the way of this ideal. During heavy periods at work (weekend calls) or if rain washes out climbing I will go to the wall more often.

Tell us some more about THWACK
Thursday’s Wickedly Athletic Climbers’ Klub is a bunch of like-minded climbers who have agreed to carve some regular time out of their busy schedules to have fun while climbing to the best of their ability. We spend the afternoon at the crag and climb as hard as we can – focusing on having a blast while achieving our goals. Regardless of what goes down we all walk out with a silly grin on our faces simply because we have successfully made it out of the office. Then a cold glass of draught, clasped by tender finger tips, rounds off the afternoon. It clears my head and creates a space for good social interaction – kind of like a book club for climbers.

What climber inspired you the most when you were starting out and why?

Climbers have inspired me for different reasons at different times in my climbing career. In the beginning my heroes were Andy de Klerk, Steve Bradshaw and Kevin Smith. They were at the top of the game at the time and like any kid I wanted to be like them when I grew up. These days I am inspired by anyone with passion and motivation who is prepared to push their boundaries.

If you could go climbing anywhere, where would you go? Why?

I have great memories of living on the road while climbing in the USA. I have been lucky enough to have had two long road trips (10 months each!) and two short (one month each) trips in America. When living that nomadic existence you get to visit many great places – all in the company of like-minded nomads. All the travelling climbers move around together as the seasons dictate when it is the best time to visit each area. It is a beautiful country with huge open spaces and spectacular climbing. There are many places I have yet to visit – especially the Red River Gorge.

Roger and Andrea on 'Rhino on the City Hall Steps' - Mount Everest

Roger and Andrea on ‘Rhino on the City Hall Steps’ – Mount Everest


Have you climbed in any other exotic locations?
Andrea and I have been lucky enough to have climbed in the US, UK, Spain, France and Thailand. I would like to get to Italy one day. I am going back to the US with my family in July to visit my Dad in San Francisco and spend some time in Boulder, Colorado, then Lander, Wyoming.

What’s the best route (you’ve opened a lot, so top 3) you’ve ever climbed/bolted that’s grade 18 or easier?

Easy question as there are only two routes at these grades and they are both great – The Gospel Express (18) at Montagu and Glamorous Fool (18) at Umgeni Valley.

Lazy Summer days at the lake in the Midlands

Lazy Summer days at the lake in the Midlands

What projects do you have right now?
I am trying to repeat Evan Wiercx’s 90’s test piece Gravity’s Rainbow. It has only had 4 ascents in 18 years and is brick hard. I did the second ascent in ’91 and graded it 29 – Evan had no idea what grade it was at the time. In retrospect I think my ego got in the way as I did not want to admit he had just opened the first 8a in KZN.  It’s definitely 30. Even the legendary Paul Brouard found it desperate – well done Evan.
I am close on a new Umgeni project called The Godfather which is 31/2. I have also spent some time on another Umgeni project – The Blue Horizon – which still feels very much beyond me and will be 33. If I manage to get it, it will be the hardest thing I have ever climbed. Once done with The Godfather I plan to give it another serious go but I suspect I may have to pass that one on.


Roger on the cover of Southern Rock Magazine redpointing Stormwatch.  Photo by Steve Bradshaw

What’s the hardest grade you’ve climbed and what has been the most challenging route and why?
I have never managed a 33 and this is a long-term goal for me. Stormwatch (31) at Fernkloof was the toughest route I have ever done. Everyone knows the story, 23 days etc., etc. Jumping the cutting edge three grades took a lot of believing. There were only a few 28s at the time and even today Stormwatch has a reputation of being very solid at the grade. Barricade (32) at the Wave Cave was a huge exercise in endurance. No matter how wired I had it I was always pumped from only a third of the way up. Vicious Fish (32) at Smith Rocks in the US was a real technical challenge. The Godfather (the Umgeni project) has some of the hardest moves I have done (or am yet to do…) on rock.

Describe the perfect route.

I am weak … I suck as a boulderer. I have only ever sent one, yes one, 7a problem! The perfect route has no stopper sequences or brick hard moves but rather is 30m long – sustained, continuous, uber-exposed with little prospect for rest.

What happened to Southern Rock magazine (it was a really cool climbing mag)?

We ran out of money … Mike Cartwright was in debt to the tune of R60k when we stopped. (That’s about R180 000 in today’s terms!) The reason he left South Africa was to earn $s to specifically cancel that debt. He killed the debt in two years and “retired” 5 years later – a dot com success story.

What is the biggest epic you’ve had while climbing?

That was a rescue in the Drakensberg in 1994. I was surrounded by bad weather and incompetence. We crashed the chopper at the top of the berg and still had to continue with the rescue. The entire rescue crew who was choppered in was unable to climb/deal with the technical challenge of the situation. Myself and two other climbers (who were on the wall already) rescued a climber with a broken femur and ribs. He had fallen 80m when his rap anchor pulled – luckily his partner had tied in the bottom ends of the ropes. He took a full rope length factor two fall – can you imagine that! He was trapped halfway up Mponjwane on a tiny ledge with water pouring onto him. The only gear we could find while stabilizing him was 1m below the ledge we were perched upon! The rescue took three cold and wet days. It was the coldest I have ever been in the mountains (and it was January!). It felt colder than a winter season I spent in South America bashing my way up 6 000m peaks.

Opening new routes is obviously important to you. Why?

I enjoy the process. It holds my attention from the first exploratory rap, placing the bolts correctly and then that moment of perfection – nailing the redpoint. I get a lot of satisfaction from other climbers having a good experience on my routes and am very picky about what I choose to bolt. The line has to pass my stringent quality control standards. I keep a log and have opened 112 so far with 53 of them being 27 or harder.

Roger on Nothing Heals Like Cold Steel (27) (First Ascent)

Roger on Nothing Heals Like Cold Steel (27) (First Ascent)

And your favourites?

Phew … Phantom of the Opera 28+, Barricade 32, Paragon 30, The Shouting Stage 29, The Activist 30, Cyberpunk 25, Agnes the Skinhead 26, Dance Macabre 26, The Gospel Express 18, Kiss the Guns 27, Cosmic Cowboy 28 ….… it’s a long list

OK so you’ve opened a lot of quality sport routes, do you trad climb too?

Not much but no trip to Cape Town is complete without a day on Table Mountain. I also get to Monteseel a couple of times a year. I stay away from big country routes though as a dodgy back makes long hikes with a backpack potentially problematic.

You disappeared from the scene for 5 years – what was that all about?

I was sitting at work one day when I noticed that I could barely lift my arms. I got weaker and weaker as the day progressed and was rushed to hospital. I was started on some toxic drugs to treat a rare condition called Myasthenia Gravis. Complications from the drugs (some of which were powerful chemotherapy agents) put me back in hospital a few months later so like a good doctor I chucked all the medicines into the bin and told the specialists to get stuffed. I didn’t get any worse so then the diagnosis was in question. But I could not exercise at all for about 4 years and shuffled around like an 80 year old. The clever doctors finally called it Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It was possibly related to a variant of chronic tick bite fever. I eventually got better…

What are you doing with your days right now? You graduated right 🙂 ?
I am an Anaesthesiologist (Anaesthetic Specialist). I work in private practice administering anaesthesia for any type of operation you can think of – from cardiac surgery to surgery on premature babies. I also spend a great deal of time in ICU looking after critically ill patients. This is a real challenge and source of much of my stress (ask any of my climbing buddies as my cellphone always rings a few times at the crag). I also spend a morning a week teaching anaesthesia at one of the big state hospitals in Pietermaritzburg.

Lesotho roger nattrass family

What about life other than climbing?

I have an awesome wife, Andrea, and two very cool sons, so I try to give them all the attention they deserve. It is a constant challenge as my job keeps me very busy with long hours. I am on call (in some form) 25 out of 40 days! I need time for them and time for me when not at work. We do a lot of camping as a family and go climbing about once a month. We do all the usual family things – beach, swimming, movies and Spur meals. A surprise new passion is watching their cricket matches and the three boys sitting on the sofa glued to Top Gear. The kids know all the cars and Max does a great Clarkson impersonation.

I have done a fair bit of mountain biking with my favourite rides being on the “Thin Air Challenge” in the highlands of Lesotho which I have ridden on five occasions. You really are out there – sometimes 50km from your vehicle. The Sani 2C is a fantastic race and anyone who rides must get their bike to Moab in the USA to ride the Slick Rock and Porcupine Rim Trails.

I dabble with the piano and have an interest in architecture. I have been lucky enough to have designed and drawn the plans for six houses that have subsequently been built (usually with other people’s money). I also chair a small investment group of doctors where we find and renovate old buildings (in keeping with their historical heritage) to be used as office space. Pietermaritzburg has some beautiful red-brick colonial-style buildings.

I am also about half done with a new KZN guidebook. It will be beautiful if I say so myself – full colour throughout with a very modern layout. Oh, I am talking about climbing again…in that case I should also mention my addiction to – but I am getting help with that and am making good progress … but as they say “once an addict always an addict”!

Click here to check out Rogers KZN Guidebook

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