In a few days’ time Alan Shepard and his crew mates would blast off in Apollo 14 to perform the third moon landing. They may have listened to My Sweet Lord, the hit song by George Harrison, at the time. I was 9 years old and starting Standard 3 (grade 5).
The summer day was Sunday 17 January 1971. Two of the leading climbers of the day, Mike Scott and Don Hartley, had previously been working their bold new line to the left of the brilliant and demanding route Touch and Go. This was the day to go large and do the first ascent of their new line.
Ten metres left of Touch and Go (and just four metres left of the new route Quake), Don set off with a clutch of pitons and hammer. He aided a thin seam up the very attractive steep white face until he could free climb up to an overlap and then around it on the right and up to stance on a ledge. At this point today one finds two bolts which are the lower anchors for the regular Magnetic Wall abseil descent. Jonathan Levy and Tim Hughes joined Mike and Don to follow up their route on its first ascent.
The second pitch headed left into an awkward chimney that turns into an offwidth, and which then rails left under an overhang before aiding on pegs led the team up the front of a pillar to reach a platform. An interesting tunnel through the mountain forms the third pitch to reach the large platform that is the launch pad for the famous Magnetic Wall pitch that is so well-known and well-loved. Mike freed the top pitch on that Sunday in his big army boots with some nuts and slings for gear, and the others followed to establish a proud and iconic route.
I do not remember the first time I climbed Magnetic – and by this I mean the top pitch – as everyone these days means. It would have been around 1977 when I was 16 years old. My brothers David and John and I had a dodgy old rope and a couple of nuts and hexes. In those days the route was tough and quite bold. In the years that followed I climbed the route many times, always marveling at that top pitch that floats a kilometer above the city and that always attracts gasps from cable car passengers as they float past.
In the winter of 2014 Guy Paterson-Jones and I established a pattern where we would spend one day a week on Table Mountain, first warming up on a classic old route and then moving on to one of our hard projects. Guy’s introduction to trad climbing began a few years ago with a few easy routes and then he suddenly leap-frogged to really hard routes and in so doing missed out on lots of great old moderate routes. This winter we have been steadily filling the gaps with warm-ups like Touch and Go, Magnetic Wall, Haggai, Africa Edge, Can-can and the rest. On one of these outings we wondered where those original aid pitches of Magnetic go, and whether they warrant a look-see for a free climbing attempt. What we saw really excited us. The first pitch in particular looked super-good. The second pitch isn’t a great pitch and does a big wiggle out left and up, but it looked pretty challenging. We returned with a brush and did some cleaning and became more captivated.
Fast forward to 28 September 2014, 43 years after the first ascent and about 37 years after my first ascent of the route: we warmed-up on that fantastic first pitch of The Good Doctor, reveling in a bit of cold sun, then headed over to Magnetic Wall. There was a quick detour to rescue some guys on Touch and Go, then we dropped down to the bottom. Conditions were sublime.
The first pitch is quite similar to Eternity Road and the top pitch of Tour de Force in style and difficulty. It’s a leader’s pitch – that is to say, the toughness is in leading it as the hardest part is getting gear out while remaining composed in quite a demanding position. It’s really quite technical.
What Vincent van Gogh did in painting Guy does in leading this sort of thing – it’s artistry.
That first pitch has many unusual moves to it, rather more like a sport route than a Table Mountain crank-and-pull. Guy styled the first pitch as expected, and I quickly joined him at the bolt-station. The second pitch has some moments right at the end but is otherwise not a memorable bit of climbing, but we quickly freed it too. Before long we were at the backpacks at the top of Mike and Don’s majestic Magnetic Wall. Magnetic had received its first free ascent. We had tea.
Fast forward to 12 October 2014: following much speculating we were back at Magnetic Wall to investigate the possibility of straightening the line – this after warming up on Mellow Steady Flow while our mates Andy Court and Sheldon Smith climbed The Good Doctor next to us. Andy was back from a year of traveling abroad. Sheldon was fresh from a second place finish in the SA Climbing Championships which seems pretty good for a 16 year-old (Guy had placed 6th which in my opinion is pretty fine for a trad-artist – unless there were only 6 competitors, I suppose). As a SACS schoolboy Sheldon is continuing the tradition of his school producing leading climbers, following in the history of Chris Lomax and Andy de Klerk – two guys who could climb a bit (and two guys who should be climbing with me, but have abandoned me so that I have to climb with strong young fellas who could be my sons).
Magnetic’s original second and third pitches do a bracket around to the left of the line and are pretty arbitrary. In this sandwich the filling is a bit disappointing but the two end bits are from a master boulangerie. We had spied what looked like a possible straight line but it looked mental – our project name had been Magnetic Wall Insane Direct. Now we were back to give it a shot.
From the lower bolt-station I easily led directly above the bolts to reach a ledge under a steep roof that Cable Way crosses. I was surprised to find an intact old beer bottle. Although the pitch is quite short at about 10m it is essential to make a stance here. Guy came up and lashed in tight to the mountain. Hanging onto Guy’s extended arm I leaned out backwards at a crazy angle and managed to get the fingertips of one hand onto a little juglet on the tip of the 45° roof overhanging the path far below.
With no possibility of gear and a Factor 2 fall possibility, I committed to the no-return swing and went for it – but with full knowledge of what was on the headwall around out of sight (from all the abs down that descent route). With feet swinging over Camps Bay I managed to get my second hand on the rock and campused up to a little rail half a metre higher. With gear in, Guy was able to tell me how terrifying the whole thing looked. The headwall to get to the big Magnetic platform went airily but fairly easily. Guy shat himself making a crazy swing out over space then quickly came up while our buddies on Touch and Go received full-value entertainment.
Guy climbed on top of the famous chopping-block flake then went straight up to the Magnetic traverse that comes in from the left. He placed two pieces of gear on the headwall pitch and quickly got to the backpacks 35m up. We drank tea then walked down – after we yelled goodbye to our mates on Touch and Go.
Magnetic Wall Super Direct was done.
Magnetic Wall Route Descriptions
The first pitch described hereunder starts about three metres to the right of the crack pitch of Quiver Crag.
- 27m F A2: Climb a slight crack in a white face using four pegs. Continue up free to an overhang above. Move to the right and up to a stance.
- 20m F A2: A chimey-like crack on the left is climbed to an overhang. Follow a crack to the left and upwards around the block then reach for the top of the block.
- 10m E: Walk clockwise around a big block and ascend a chimney to a stance on the right.
- 37m G1: Climb up two metres and traverse to the right to a corner. Continue to the right for about two metres. The pitch goes virtually straight up from this point. A resting point will be found eight metres above, slightly on the left, followed by a crack to another resting point a further 10 metres above. Climb the face above using layback holds to a ledge. Ascend from the right of this ledge.
Take the easiest line to the top.
First Ascent: Mike Scott, Don Hartley, Jonathan Levy and Tim Hughes, 17 January 1971.
Magnetic Wall Free
Pitch grades: 22, 22, 19
First Free Ascent: Guy Paterson-Jones and Hilton Davies, 28 September 2014.
Magnetic Wall Super Direct
Pitch grades: 22, 18, 22, 19
First Ascent: Guy Paterson-Jones and Hilton Davies, 12 October 2014.