We couldn’t believe that we were stuck in a traffic jam in Cape Town while we were headed out to Du Toit’s Kloof on a climbing mission. It’s not that traffic jams in Cape Town are exceptional, but this was at four o’clock in the morning.
The summer of ‘14/’15 for Guy Paterson-Jones and I involved half a dozen painful 3am starts so as to start hiking in to our big project at around 4:45am. The traffic jam incident occurred on our third mission. We had both gone to sleep quite late on New Year’s Eve and our new year was starting with all-night party animals holding us up in the centre of town. Something was wrong with this picture. We suspected the other guys had it right.
In November my friend Robin Barley came for a visit from Canada and we climbed Celestial Journey together. He had opened that route with my brother David in ’78. Now you know how it goes – we talked and talked about routes, climbs, ideas and concepts. Naturally, Robin wanted to know about my future projects and I told him about a big, steep, scary wall in Du Toits Kloof. To my great surprise Robin told me that he and his brother Tony had hiked up to this wall for a look-see in 1967, on their first visit to the Cape. Nothing came of it however. (Also to my great surprise, another of my ideas had Robin-involvement, but that’s a story for another day).
A week after Robin’s departure I took my dear old mom for a weekday drive in the country that doubled up as a recce to figure out parking, access and approach to this crag that I had been eyeing intensely for the last few years. All the Yellowwood trips would especially rub it in, as the crag is viewed from the road where the east-bound carriageway joins up with the west-bound carriageway such that you can do a u-turn to return to Cape Town.
To be more specific about location: when heading from Cape Town through Du Toits Kloof Pass, near the end of the pass the lanes merge, then the motorway goes over the Molenaars River (where you find Arjan de Kock’s bouldering area called Weighbridge), and then you get to a turnoff to the right for Rawsonville. We park on the left (north side of the road) amongst a whole lot of road signage and next to a gate marked for Eskom. Here we start the hike (first trip) or cycle (subsequent trips) along the flat jeep track that doubles back up the pass, but on the other side of the valley, towards a mast. We had some fun times cycling that track in almost pitch darkness around 04h45 without headlamps.
On the first foray we went for it. We tried to climb the wall onsight, ground-up, in a day. We drew straws and having drawn the short straw Guy went first. He selected what he thought was easy ground on good rock. It turned out to be tenuous climbing without gear – like those first pitches on Oceans of Fear. The rest went better and we made good progress to the top of the grey rock section four pitches up. But here we hit a snag. What we thought was quite a big roof (and I secretly thought I would get through as a strong and brave aid climber!) turned out to be a huge roof that wouldn’t submit to free-climbing gear. We were thwarted. This roof required engineering – pitons, hammers, drills and bolts – or some combination.
On our second foray we were organized for construction. A couple of days before Christmas we loaded up with all our climbing gear and additionally with drill, bolts, and all the associated paraphernalia, and also pitons and a hammer. We painfully humped this load to the summit by going up a gully to the right of the wall then across above the big amphitheatre. Now if you know this sort of thing I don’t have to tell you that it can be damn difficult to find a line from the top of a wall. And when it is a wildly overhanging wall it is just about impossible as you can see diddly-squat below you. But being an almost-old hand I had lined up trees and buttresses from below to get a marker.
We sorted ourselves out on the nice summit and were ready to go as the first rays of dawn hit us. In this always-majestic moment I made an awful discovery. I hadn’t packed a drill bit. I felt I should fall on my sword, or off this rock face or something. And Guy made matters worse. No swearing, cursing, or even a knee into the side of the leg.
After coming to terms with the tragedy we set about doing what we could. I thought back to climbing in the Verdon Gorge in France with David where you start by abseiling down the thousand foot face. It’s a grimly scary way to start the day and doesn’t get me into the best zone for climbing. Nevertheless, we secured a point to a Waboom (Protea nitida) Tree and went over the edge. Oh man.
We both found the wall horrifyingly scary. It is unbelievably overhanging and has a look of dread and foreboding. We knew we’d be back soon.
On New Year’s Day we were back and this time missing nothing except a large dose of courage. We abseiled down with great difficulty but on the upside we were able to study the line of our visions. We wanted to go large. We wanted to avoid the usual trad climbing escape routes of cracks, gullies, chimneys and easy breaks. We wanted crazy, overhanging faces and flying arêtes. We wanted a big wall sport route but climbed as a trad route. We wanted an Oceans of Fear on steroids.
While descending the crazy wall we were scared out of our wits. A rope would skate across a sharp edge and we would panic. A piece of gear holding us in to the wall would pop and we would gasp, a block would detach and our hearts would stop beating for the 6.5 seconds until the monumental smash into the scree slope below. While we managed to talk theoretically about the heroic line, execution somehow evaded us.
We’re dumb critters. We returned and set about putting in a few absolutely essential bolts and one piton. In total we placed six bolts on the 200 metre wall for use as runners. We also put in three double-bolted hanging stances and one single-bolt standing stance. (For completeness, I should also mention a single bolt low down on the rappel line – 60m ropes needed). After some absolutely terrifying climbing experiences we even settled down a little and set to work on the daunting pitches. Good fortune was on our side and we had placed the bolts in precisely the right places, even though this was done via abseil. We even found that just when the sealed rock would seem to bring to an end our clean climbing aspirations, some little slit or hole would appear – just enough to keep us whole, and our aspirations alive. We made good progress but I could see that neither of us could keep this up for much longer.
The drive out on Sunday 22 February was like the others. Dark, gloomy, grim and fueled by coffee and the most bizarre music on Heart Radio (50/50 love, not 70/30 or even 60/40; and other such arithmetic gems). Unlike the other times the bike ride was icy cold. It was hard to keep going forward.
We got to the base of the wall in good time. I showed Guy what I believed to be the first hold – a nice little pocket. I stuck my fingers straight into a comatose lizard – my blood matched the lizard’s in temperature. We refer to this first pitch as the sit-start pitch. It’s hard right off the ground – probably harder than the crux on Captain Hook. Guy was solid and methodical in the cold temps. We were pleased to have straightened the line with some great climbing that we hadn’t previously done.
We got back onto known ground and quickly got up to the Roof Pitch. This was the last remaining pitch that we hadn’t previously climbed. I had placed two bolts and a piton in the big roof and we had both taken a good look at it. We were hoping that it would go like Cape Fear at The Hole. We had both climbed everything else and done everything free. This was the last skittle that we needed to knock over. Guy knew it was his job to lead us through this daunting stepped roof of about five metres. He tried to abandon a bunch of the heavy big wall rack but couldn’t – knowing what awaited above the roof. He hung on desperately for a few moves but couldn’t stick a parallel-sided, vertical fist jam that is just the right size to cause immense pain. He was off. From that point it gets harder.
Guy gamefully tried to aid the rest of the roof but eventually sagged back to the stance. He handed the ends to me. I went through the roof and found it really hard. Whoever might think that aiding is easy or isn’t real climbing doesn’t have a clue. This was damn hard, very strenuous and helluva scary. Over the roof-proper, the slope eases up to about 100 degrees. At this point I found it incredibly difficult to commit to free climbing but after enough beating down of my inner-baby I was able to get going and led the long way up the slightly overhanging wall to the first double-bolted stance. I felt pleased to get there. (It had been about a 2 hour lead).
Guy came up and said something nice to me. Although I’m his superior in every way – looks, strength, intelligence – I still find a rare little compliment makes me feel a little glow of pride. Oh, I nearly forgot for a minute – I’m none of those things. Anyway, moving along.
All the rest we had previously climbed. Coming next was the Spikes Pitch, so-named for some phallic spikes of rock sticking straight out. The wall is very overhanging and is an over-baked dark brown. It looks evil and foreboding, like a crag in Mordor or Hades – definitely not Tonsai Beach. Guy hung in there on the overhanging wall and slowly made the centimetres count. A fast blast on this pitch won’t work. It is relentless and although it is hard for every move, there is a crux right at the very end.
Last up is the Bat Pitch. On one of the early missions I had levered off a loose block to reveal a cute little exposed bat. It had flown away and I hoped it would be alright. The pitch is scary and sustained but we pulled it off without incident. Like the previous pitch it is overhanging and relentless and the hardest stuff is at the end. Following the scramble-out pitch we were done and dusted. Although we both love climbing, and we seem to specialize in big-hard-and-scary, we were pleased to be done with the wall. I thought I would like to take up smoking and heavy drinking.
I think it’s true to say that this is a great route. And some great climber, maybe a Clinton or a Jimbo, will free that big roof. It’s a tough route and hard trad climbers will love it, hate it and respect it.
It is Righteous Condemnation.