Words: Guy Paterson-Jones
Photos: Guy & Hilton
It was a fairly mild Friday afternoon. The sun was starting to wind down, getting ready for its well-deserved rest, and the sky had turned the azure blue colour so typical of the southern part of Africa. For most of the inhabitants of that particular part of the continent, the dwindling sunlight was a relief – it heralded the beginning of the weekend, and the end of yet another gruelling week of labour and stress. For a select few, however, that statement could not have been more false.
One of those few, I couldn’t help but feel a slight sense of foreboding and anxiety as I stared up at the jagged, tooth-like Klein Winterhoek. Soaring high into the sapphire sky, the mountain dominated my view. It was a somewhat worrisome thought that I would actually have to hike up the thing, let alone climb part of it.
As I stood there at the top of Jannie Theron’s farm, surrounded by orchards and a gently rolling landscape of orange-brown fynbos, a saying I heard once upon a time drifted through my mind. It went something like this – “The walk-in is half the fun!”
It wasn’t the first time I thought somebody must have had a few drinks too many when they said it. For some reason, most of the quotes I know about climbing always seem to miss the mark in my head. If you aren’t really getting what I mean, head out to Table Mountain and yank on a “climber’s friend” bush. Boy, is it friendly.
While I was lost in my brief réverie, Hilton had just finished sorting out his bag. We took one last glance at the walk-in description, figured we knew where to go, and before long had begun the first section of the walk – a long slog to the top of the forest. Impossible to miss due to their being an actual road under your feet most of the way, it later turned out to be one of the only parts of the walk in which we had a definite clue about where we were going. Blissfully ignorant of that fact at the time, however, we charged on, thoroughly convinced that when we arrived at the campsite we would be feeling fresh as daisies and have hours of time to spare.
Things started going pear-shaped as soon as we hit the end of the road at the top of the forest and the start of the never-ending traverse across the mountain. Despite it being vital that we get the level of the traverse right to avoid time-consuming errors, we somehow managed to cock it up completely and within a few hundred metres of the forest we had lost the path altogether. Bashing through neck-high fynbos, we were finally saved fifteen minutes later by Hilton, who managed to recognise a tree he had walked past a few weeks prior with Dark Horse.
The fact that the tree looked exactly the same as the many others scattered sparsely across the slope didn’t do much to deter us, and by some fluke it just happened to be the correct one. Elated to be back on the path at last, we missioned onwards and avoided incident for the rest of the traverse. Once we reached the ridge marking the start of the climb upwards again, we slogged for what seemed like an age before we reached the third section of the walk-in – the forest, part two.
This forest that we found ourselves reaching was itself inside a gulley that led down from the Klein Winterhoek amphitheatre. By all accounts, it would seem that finding your way through the place would be a trivial task. And thus we naïvely took what looked like an obvious path to us, only to come across a dead end. It must have taken us almost an hour to figure out where we went wrong and remedy the situation, by which time the sun had long gone down. So much for having hours of spare time.
Finally, at about ten o’clock at night, we stumbled into the campsite, bleary-eyed and drunk with exhaustion. Not even considering the idea that we could haul gear up to the rock face to save time the next morning, we got straight into our sleeping bags and crashed into the world of dreams like two felled trees collapsing onto the ground beneath them.
The next morning I was viciously torn from my sleep by the loud ringing of an alarm. With more than a little grumbling I got up and started to eat breakfast – oats and hot chocolate. Before long I was joined by Hilton, and by the time light started streaking into the sky we had packed our bags and started walking up the grassy gulley to the amphitheatre.
Halfway up, we came across the tiny drip Hilton had found the last time he was there. We had specifically brought a dromedary in the hopes that we could take advantage of the drip – it would be awesome to have a source of water much closer to the rock than the campsite. Carefully, we constructed a small platform out of rocks, fixed a small plastic tube to the drip and attached it to the dromedary. Bit by bit it began to fill up – success!
Then we dropped the dromedary lid, and spent the next half an hour failing to find it. Bugger.
Figuring it wasn’t really necessary, we continued to the rock face. There, we checked out what was to become Rapture. It had an awesome looking start up a triangular pillar, leading into perfect dihedrals and crack systems, and finally breaking up what looked very solid – if scary – climbing. We spent the remainder of the day climbing the first few pitches of the route, and figuring out where the rest would likely go. The first pitch turned out to be nice climbing on big holds, leading into a completely different second pitch which broke through the dihedrals seen from below. Finally, we led up and over the pillar on some amazing terrain to reach a high-point just below the next dihedral crack system on the face proper. After checking everything out, sorting out what we planned to do for the rest of the route and figuring out the mechanics behind it all, we retired for the day.
Tired, I managed to fall asleep relatively quickly, despite the unnervingly large ants crawling around near my head. The plan was to wake up early, eat fast and then hit the route with all we had in a do-or-die (well, hopefully not) approach.
The next morning, at before the crack of dawn, we jumped out of our sleeping bags, rearing to go! I wolfed down my oats and hot chocolate, Hilton wolfed down his oats and hot chocolate, and finally we were off. Passing the dromedary again, we realised we had a minor problem – how could we climb with the dromedary when it had no lid?
The issue was resolved with a bit of clever thinking on Hilton’s part. He poured half the water into our empty bottles and then tied the remainder of the dromedary onto the side of his backpack, tying it tightly against the straps. Surprisingly, it worked rather well, and not a drop of water escaped the ordeal.
Getting back up to our highpoint was quick and painless – we scrambled up the Frontal route to the left and then traversed back right onto the end of the third pitch. Hilton set off up the tricky, somewhat scary fourth pitch, and before long I joined him in one of the most cramped semi-hanging stances I’ve experiences thus far. Then it was my turn.
I must admit, I was somewhat hesitant about the fifth pitch. From the ground, it looked like awesome climbing up a fantastic crack system, but from just below it looked mightily hard. Luckily, as I moved up, holds seemed to be set in just the right places and it ended up being everything it looked to be. Except for the last move to reach a ledge to the left.
To get to said ledge, I had two choices – either I could haul at full extent off a loose flake above my head and then try and lurch my way leftwards, or I could do a ridiculous drop-knee crimp move thing off a small holding facing entirely the wrong way. Since I really didn’t feel like breaking holds off at that moment in time, I chose the latter. Bad move.
Grabbing the small crimp, I shot out my left leg and twisted in, and then reached desperately for the ledge… and missed. Feeling myself falling backwards, I slapped upwards in an attempt to stop my momentum and by some fluke managed to find a crimp I had completely missed! Relieved to no end, I clung on and scampered up onto the ledge.
The next pitch was Hilton’s. After viewing the options, he decided to take the face to our left, which looked to be the best climbing. A few meters up, however, things started to go awry. After pulling some hard moves on small holds, the only gear Hilton managed to procure were two small nuts at shin level. Not the most comforting situation to be in!
With nothing else to do, and no more gear to find, Hilton committed and did a long pull up to the next rail. Then he hit a stopper – there was nowhere else he could climb. The features we had seen from below turned out the be much too far away to reach, and the crack traversing out right from Hilton’s hand level ended abruptly just a meter beyond. Things were getting a bit spicy now – a fall could have ended terribly if the two nuts were to pop.
Tentatively, Hilton started to down-climb. Move after move, I watched with a quiet fear in the back of my mind. As he started to reverse the hard moves in the beginning, I thought he was off for sure, but luckily Hilton pulled it off with aplomb and before long was back at the stance. It looked like we were back to climbing the crack system to our right, avoiding the faces.
The rest of the route seemed to go rather quickly. Perhaps it was the heat, or perhaps it was just the situation, but I started to zone out when I was belaying and sometimes even when I was climbing. Time moved quickly, and before we knew it Hilton was leading up the final pitch to the summit, just as the day was beginning to come to a close. Elated, I ran up on second faster than I had climbed the entire day, and just as I touched the summit beacon the last rays of the dying sun disappeared. The route has exceeded out wildest expectations – it went entirely free, and despite some doubts on the walk-in the rock turned out to be fantastic!
We didn’t really have much time to ponder on things, however. We still needed to walk all the way back down to the car that day, and night had already fallen. Quickly, we sorted ourselves out and headed back down to the campsite.
A final cup of hot chocolate to celebrate and we were off, walking back down the same path we had walked up. It seemed like it had been weeks.
Uneventfully, we got through the forest and missioned onto the long ridge. Things had gone almost too well – surely the descent was supposed to be a desperate affair, never knowing exactly where to go?
Perhaps that thought entered my head too soon. Just a few minutes later I began to have my doubts about where we were, and soon a conformation came from Hilton – “Are those the trees we passed on the way up?”
“I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure they’re lower.”
“Ya, I think so too.”
Lower and lower we walked, until it eventually became clear that we had no idea where we were. Eventually we decided that the only way we would find the path again is if we missioned across the traverse, even though we were on a lower level. So we set off, smashing our way through head-height fynbos, crawling through massive ditches, and eventually arriving at a forest.
“Yes!” we thought. It had to be Jannie’s forest! We had finally found our way back!
On a second wind we rushed through the forest, eager to hit the path again. But then something bizarre happened – we reached the other side of the forest very quickly, and it was clear that it was not Jannie’s farm at all, but a farm far lower. I think I told Hilton that I would probably harbour evil thoughts about him for at least two weeks for losing the path twice in a month (see Dark Horse’s article – Klein Winterhoek – The times they are a changing)…
In despair, we carried on trudging through the vegetation. It must have been about four in the morning when we finally found the road again. My relief at that point was indescribable, and the rest of the journey home was merely a blur ending in blissful sleep.
It was an awesome experience, and despite the caveats is one that I’ll never forget. Whether that’s a good thing or not is yet to be determined!