Two South African trad climbing exchange meets have taken place with the UK to date. The first exchange meet took place almost 20 years ago and then last year the event was repeated. A group of 10 talented UK climbers from the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) visited South Africa for about 12 days and then a group of South Africans returned the visit in May.
It was now time to move on from the Imperialists to one of the (ex) colonies. After consultation with various experts in exchange programmes, i.e. with Dave Turnbull, the local MCSA team and Margaret my wife, the consensus was to test out the Americans. Americans, as you may know, are usually very well equipped and funded by companies like Patagonia, The North Face, National Geographic, BD, Petzl et al and all too often have a power drill in hand and camera crew in tow. By their blogging, Vimeo clips and publications American Climbing Celebs ensure that otherwise arbitrary destinations in the 3rd world become dramatized and romanticized and then the “go to” places and people tend to flock there. So, in the local context, I had the world-famous Rocklands Bouldering and Boven Sport Climbing to compete with as destinations. (BTW both are pretty damn good and definitely not shit-holes!)
So it was time to put the matter to rest as to what is really world class with regards to rock climbing in South Africa with the following observations in mind:
My good friend Greg Child just turned sixty and he has been around. I mean a lot! He has climbed K2 and also done Everest. He has done no less than two “trad” first ascents on El Cap in Yosemite. He has climbed the sand stone in Australia and in the USA. He was a world class Alpinist, High altitude Climber, Sport Climber and trad climber.
He was so impressed with South African Sandstone trad and particularly Blouberg that he came twice, the second time with the climber photographer, Jimmy Chin.
Greg in Out There Magazine wrote in 2004:
“Here’s what I found on that first trip: Yosemite may rule for big walls, Pakistan for vertical faces, and Thailand for beach cliffs, but South African climbing is singular. It has something to do with the tangerine stone, the big-sky sunsets, the way the rock has settled into a dawn- of-time landscape. By the end of my stay, I’d sampled the best climbing on earth.”
But was this enough. Nay! I climbed “Prime Time” at Yellowwood Amphitheatre 23 and Dog “Day in Heaven” 25 at Blouberg in 1998:with Ged Desforges. So, what did he have to say?
“Let’s face it, sport climbing in South Africa is shit. Waterval Boven world class? Please, I’ve done better climbing on my chin up bar (except for Monster, that’s good). If you want to see what good sport climbing is, go to Spain. End of story. As for Montagu, don’t even consider trying to tell me that’s good. I’ve seen better multi-gyms than that.
Point is you lot have got some of the finest adventure climbing imaginable. Don’t waste it. I’ll be back soon.”
My point would not be well made unless at least one famous top end professional sport climber capable of climbing 9a+ substantiated the above views and this is what Steve McClure had to say about our trad just last year!
“South Africa. A country I always wanted to visit, but ending up on the “Love to but probably won’t” list”.
“All of us climbed some of the best routes of our lives.”
He also on Facebook stated:
“I hate to admit it but South Africa has the best rock climbing in the World”.
So, with the sanction of Steve Swenson, a new best friend that I met at Fitzroy we fomented a plan to get around 10 Americans here and he put me on to Chris Weidner. Chris did a wonderful job of gathering no less than 11 Americans. So, I googled them all and wow. Their online CV’s were impressive. On some research, it seems that they were, at the very least, very accomplished hard core climbers with all of them seemingly having climbed or at least being capable, of climbing some of the hardest trad routes in the world. My challenge was how to bring them down to our level and more especially to my 58-year-old-and-rapidly- deteriorating-level-of-mediocrity in a cunning way and without them noticing too much. It would be a pretty poor show if they came here and like Alex Honnold and Hazel Finlay trivialized some of our harder and classic trad routes.
First priority, was to gather a good team of local climbers who could climb well enough, have enough experience on trad and put up with me. My first local victim was Jimbo Smith and he can climb well having put up several test pieces on the Jeopardy wall on Table Mountain in the last few years. The other rope gun I had in mind was Clinton Martinengo but he found love and was nesting and feigned an injury of sorts. Who else then? Gosia is pregnant and Julia was exhausted from the last exchange that she organized and was on quest to Alpine climb in Chamonix.
Phlip Olivier, Illona Pelser, and Nadine Methner volunteered, all very good climbers but somewhat inexperienced on trad. Charlie Standing put up his hand and by golly he excelled himself as climber and chef extraordinaire. We had a team. Now for some wisdom and youth and local knowledge of Yellowwood and Blouberg. Richard Halsey was my man, and he deserves special kudos as he was a true worker on the last exchange. He is reliable, experienced, an excellent trad climber and very knowledgeable. Then of course Johann Lanz with his young mentoree Luke Eberhard joined. Garreth Bird signed up. He is also a really good climber and very experienced at Yellowwood by having the dubious honour of having spent a whole night trying to get off that cliff with Faffel Davids. They eventually got down via “Down Time” rapelling through the night on one of the most “out there” descents on any big wall. Jean-Paul De Villiers and Damien Schuman were convinced and then a host of youngsters including Geg Thompson and Clifford Hakimi from Cape Town and Allister Fenton, James Barnes and Christopher O’Donovan from Jo’burg signed up.
Various characters of the trad community clocked in and out as the event proceeded including Douw Steyn, Kate Larmuth, Tini Versfeld, Ross Suter, Yvette Cloete, Willem Le Roux, Mark Straughan, Margaret Milne and Duncan Edelstein.
Eventually some 45 individuals of which 11 were American were directly involved with climbing trad routes at various venues including Table Mountain, Yellowwood Amphitheatre, Hellfire, Magaliesberg (Tonquani, Cederberg, Boulder and Mhlabatini Kloofs) and Blouberg. The standard of climbing was high with routes up to grade 26 being climbed on trad. Overall, at least 60 people climbed with or within the proximity of the group and if one includes the tradathon that was combined with the event in Mhlabatini over 100 people were exposed to the Americans.
Socials and slide shows sponsored by RAM mountain, Eiger Equipment, CityROCK JNB and the JNB and CPT MCSA were well attended and much enjoyed. Direct participation by younger climbers was much improved compared to the BMC/MCSA exchange (6 in total under age 30) and outstanding in this regard was the very young Luke Eberhard age 13 who
amongst other things climbed at Yellowwood on consecutive days with very early starts. He also completed a route at Blouberg with Charlie Standing and in good time but had to wait for Richard Halsey and his group to top out and they all ambled into camp at 04h00!
I experienced, as the organizer a.k.a. autocrat-in-chief a considerable degree of resistance from the Americans to co-operating with the program with illness and injury adding to the challenge. However, I did anticipate some opposition and as I told my American counterpart Chris Weidner, even before he arrived, that I am pretty darn good at herding cats. Of course, my assertions in this regard were sorely tested by none other than Maury Birdwell, an obnoxious, self-styled expert in South African climbing (although he had never been here before). He made it quite clear that he was not buying into any authority from another obnoxious, self-styled expert in South African climbing who just so happens to have been climbing on South African rock for 42 years. But more of this later.
My first challenge was to get the Americans over their not unexpected love affair or rather infatuation with climbing on Africa Ledge on Table Mountain to which they were introduced as they arrived. This happens on every exchange.
After sampling routes like “Africa Lunch” 23, “Out to Lunch” 24, “Africa Arete”, 25, “The Good Doctor” 23, “Odds-Shouters Outing 22” and “No Longer at Ease”, 25 they were convinced that this was the best that South Africa had to offer. This is no surprise as indeed these are some of the best routes anywhere in the world on trad. How could there be better? These routes also are also situated on one of the 7 new wonders of the world and within walking distance of the city centre of the “best city in the world” as voted by Telegraph Travel and also the best food city in the world as per Conde Nast.
The second unfortunate challenge was illness that felled so many of the participants. The Americans blame the water at Yellowwood of course but Jenn Flemming a very talented and bold climber with hard and run-out 5.13c (grade 31) trad climbs to her credit arrived very ill and she lurked upstairs in Nick my eldest son’ room for the first 48 hours and then needed a few more days to recover fully. She had been travelling and working in Kenya and one can but speculate as to where she contracted the virus that laid her so low. All the same, I have to commend her that throughout her convalescence she remained up-beat, friendly and as cheerful as one can expect and was a real pleasure on the trip once she was up and going. However she likely passed on the bug that nailed many of the group over the two weeks.
Weather also played a minor role in disrupting the agenda. Wednesday 15th March morning it was forecast for rain so some of the Americans did a bit of MTB and some visited the penguins at Boulders. Some climbed on Table Mountain
On Thursday the 16th we did some more climbing on Table Mountain and then headed out to Du Toit’s Kloof with a stop at Fairview wine estate to sample some cheese and wine.
Friday, 17th was scheduled as the big day at Yellowwood amphitheatre and this required some careful planning and pairing up. Completing a major route at Yellowwood on any given day is no mean feat and only about half the participants on the exchange last year did so. Phlip was versed on climbing “Fantastic Time” 23 and he and Chris Weidner went and styled the route. The soon-to-be problem child, Maury latched onto Jimbo our current rock- jock and they raced up “Show Time”, 25 in excellent style. Clifford Hakimi was tasked to climb with Heather on “Newborn” 29 the super hard sport route. They clearly had an orgasmic time as evidenced by some of the shrieks that emanated from that part of the wall during the day. Allister Fenton and Bruce Millar founds some challenges on the “Extra Time” 24 roof pitch but enjoyed it.
Charlie Standing (almost) climbed “Timerity” 22 with young Luke Eberhard but Luke got off route on the crux pitch and I saw him hanging there a very long time.
Austin Siadak climbed “Fun Time” 20 with Garreth Bird and Andy Wyatt and Dylan Johnston accompanied by Nadine styled up “Test of Time” 24. Damian Schumann and Jarrett Engelbrecht climbed “Lekker Time” 17.
Madaleine Sorkin was touted as the strongest climber of the group. Just last year in September she did a fine free ascent of one of the hardest high altitude trad routes in the world on Longs Peak. I last climbed “Prime Time Direct” 25 a few years ago and I thought she would be the ideal candidate to haul my aging arse up the route one more time. I led the first pitch 23 and did the direct version on lead for the first time and was super chuffed about it. The second pitch is one of those all-time iconic intimidating hard core trad pitches, 40metres long. Although it is actually not unsafe it is super scary and run-out with there being 3 cruxes of which the first two are run-out. The hardest move means climbing well above your gear that amounts to two micro cams. Madaleine performed a very impressive flash of the pitch that she executed with slow meticulous precision. She really is very strong and fit and climbed it beautifully.
I then led the super-run-out next 22 X pitch and then things started unravelling. The sun hit us like a sledgehammer and that was also the start of Madaleine feeling unwell but she did do the long pumpy 55m 21 pitch to the halfway ledge. It was stifling hot when we got there and I went to plan B finishing up a shady pitch to the right of Smalblaar arête thereby avoiding 6 hours of hard climbing in direct sunlight.
Madaleine then started deteriorating and was slow on the walk down to the rap route and then really suffered walking down to Du Kloof lodge. Thanks to Garreth for nursing her down to the lodge over 3 hours. She remained ill for days and unfortunately had to return to the states without any further climbing. Chris also then succumbed to a stomach bug and he was down for the next two days.
Margaret, Mark Straughan, Pat Goodman and Jessa Goebel came for the walk to Yellowwood but did not climb.
On Saturday after a significant party at Du Kloof lodge, those that were feeling strong enough went to Hellfire and Mark Straughan ably assisted by Allister Fenton took the two young lads Duncan Edelstein and David Straughan bouldering. They developed a boulder area dubbed “Purgatory” and made some excellent problems around the electricity pylon on the walk up to Hellfire. Johann Lanz and young Luke Eberhard went and climbed “Good Time” 21 at Yellowwood. Jean-Paul and Illona did “Divine Time” 19.
Several climbers sent “Hellfire” 24 including Jenn, Willem Le Roux, and Richard Halsey Austin, Andy and Dylan went adventure climbing up Cameron’s ridge.
Sunday, 19th it was back to Table Mountain where a variety of classic routes of all grades were done with a whole host of local climbers joining in for the day. Captain Hook stymied Maury until I suggested the cunning knee bar but the same knee bar got the better of Pat Goodman who tore his medial collateral ligament of his knee. This shut him out of climbing for just about the whole trip. Poor man!
Some of the Americans dug in their heels and refused to even consider climbing on Fountain Ledge still believing that Africa Ledge was the best that Table Mountain had to offer and waited till the afternoon shade to climb there again. They missed out poor souls….
So where was I, oh yes.
On Sunday night I was faced with another potential disaster. Charlie our foodie was ill with the dreaded virus that also had mildly affected Jimbo. Charlie felt he would not make it to Johannesburg the next day. I crooned sympathy and empathy in his ear and told him to get his sorry arse to the airport the next day and to see how it goes from there. He made it!
On Monday the 20th we all headed to Johannesburg and instead of heading straight to Blouberg as planned we diverted to the Magaliesberg so as to accommodate the ill and injured. We climbed in Tonquani, Cederberg and Boulder Kloof where lots of us got spanked by routes that are sand bag compared to Table Mountain sand stone. “In Bed with Madonna”, 27 sport route got lots of action but no one topped out. “Dog Style” 23/4 received several ascents some in good style and others as, well, Dog style.
Hangdog” at 21 was declared a sand-bag by Jimbo followed by Charlie and Bruce with Phlip tried very hard to fight his way through the “Suicide” 24 overhang.
Jenn, Jimbo and I got shut down on “Rough Diamond” a mere grade 23 route but we did manage “Dogmatix” 22.
“Tigatrix” 21 was thoroughly enjoyed by many of us and I climbed it with Jenn. We then finished the day off by climbing out on “Leaders Corner”, a mere 17 or so but that taxed me to the limit as I led it with a very heavy pack.
The plan and I mean the plan was then to head off to Blouberg the next day. Everything to date had been a build up to this and we had already lost out on two days climbing there. Exit strategies had been implemented for the ill and injured.
Blouberg by any measure is one of the most amazing places to climb that I have ever had the privilege to frequent. I, with various mates, have for decades been fashioning what I consider to be some of the best multi-pitch adventurous trad routes to be found anywhere in the world. The environment is so “Africa”. It is wild and remote but ever so forgiving for doing trad routes. The weather is mostly benign all year. The rock is superb and is gorgeous red, orange and yellow quartzite sandstone flecked in places with beautiful lime coloured lichen. There are many moderate classic routes of grade 20 or less that are gear friendly and have little or no fixed gear. There are a host of harder routes on the main wall of grade 25 (5.12a) or harder. All, except “Dog of Thunder”, grade 30 or 5.13a/b were done ground up without fixed gear initially. Some have had a few bolts and pegs added so as to make the climbing less scary. The two best hard routes in my view at Blouberg are “Dream of White Dogs” 5.12b/c and “Dog Day in Heaven” 5.12 a/b. In the 20 years since I did the first ascents they have each had just one ground up independent ascent by Hector Pringle and partners. I climbed “Dog Day In Heaven” with both Greg Child in 2004 when I red- pointed it for the first time and with Ged Desforges in 2008 and hence their comments above.
Last year no less than 6 of the hardest routes were climbed by the Brits combined with South Africans which to me was an outstanding feat. It was my goal to repeat this with the Americans. Indeed, the essence of the exchange was get some of the better climbers from around the world to climb the best multi-pitch trad routes in South Africa with local climbers and in so doing inspire all of us to up our game.
Prior to the exchange, and as Blouberg is logistically difficult to visit, I had held council with local climbers who have climbed there before and we all agreed that Blouberg was a “must” and especially as the Cederberg was no go due to the wild fires.
But I was now, the night before departure faced with grumblings and an eerie sense of dissent in the American ranks and “Boven” was bandied about. As diplomatically as possible, and I am not very diplomatic at the best of times, I explained that Boven is a sport climbing venue that is world renown and not exactly on the agenda of a trad climbing exchange. It was not appropriate to dash the expectations of a whole contingent of South Africans to abandon the Blouberg venture and to accompany our foreign guests to go to Boven when, indeed, they could do so any time in the future at their leisure and without local assistance. I had also received a “heads up” from Candice Bagley who had been there over the weekend that climbing conditions were perfect.
I was then confronted by my nemesis, Maury, who was down-right obstreperous and subversive about the matter. He seemed bent on destroying the event and following a different agenda. I then approached Chris with perhaps a little too much red wine in me and told him to think about reigning in Maury or it was FIFO for him. I was not going to let any individual bring the party down at the expense of the local climbers who had invested a considerable amount of their time and money into going to Blouberg.
The next morning, the mood had improved and I engaged Maury over coffee. We agreed that he could team up with his buddies using their preferred methodology on his single rope and I would follow along with Dylan on the same route “Dog Day in Heaven”. Jimbo and Garreth would team up as an all South African pair on the route to the right, “The Dream of White Dogs”. This was a major compromise as the event was supposed to integrate the Americans with the South Africans but this seemed to satisfy everyone.
As for the sick and injured, Pat and Jessa stayed back in Johannesburg and were hosted by Allister. MRI scan of Pat’s keen confirmed my clinical diagnosis of a grade 1 MCL sprain. Madaleine flew back to the US.
The drive up to Blouberg was problematic as google maps sent various cars into the wilderness on dirt tracks but the walk up to Blouberg was uneventful and cool. We made good time on the hike and got to sleep at a reasonable hour after another gourmet dinner prepared by Charlie.
Blouberg was truly awesome as it always has been for me and it was interesting to see that almost all the climbers from both the US and Cape Town were out of their comfort zone and found the routes much harder than they anticipated for a given grade. In fact, just about everyone thought the place was a sand bag. I have been climbing at Blouberg for almost 40 years so I have a different view based on familiarity.
At Blouberg, 2 Saffas had to bale due to injury. Jean-Paul de Villiers sustained a grade 1 sprained ankle after a deck fall and had to hobble out. To his credit, he carried his pack down the mountain without a whimper or a grumble and a smile on his dial. Damien sprained his wrist.
Austin, nobly abandoned the route he was climbing with me and 3 of his American compatriots, as it was just too hard for him on the day. This allowed the rest of the party of myself and 3 Americans to complete the route “Dog Day in Heaven”, 25 but which they grade 5.12b (26). They all freed all the pitches with Dylan Johnson performing a fine on-sight lead of the crux pitch. We finished as it got dark.
To the right of us Jimbo and Garreth were confounded by some of the climbing and ended being benighted for about an hour or so. We waited at the top for them.
Johann selflessly abandoned his route to assist Jean-Paul and Damien who sprained his wrist and who, on abseil, could not pass a knot on the rope with only the use of one hand.
Illona and James continued on and sent Bush Pig, gaining Chris as a third when Johann went down to assist Damien.
Richard had a complete epic ascent with Jenn and Heather doing a link-up that required difficult route finding, abseiling, traversing, and new routing on 2 pitches. Phlip and Nadine also did a link-up and finished up with Richard and his crew. Nadine slashed her leg open on the descent.
Chris and Bruce climbed together on “Scatterlings” 22 and were to first to top out in good time.
As we progressed on our route I could see that Maury was at first impressed by the quality of the climbing and then I could sense that he was beginning to gain just a little respect for me and the plan I had implemented. After some pitches he was evidently enjoying himself and by the crux pitch he was raving. He was finally sold on the place and found it within him the grace to state that “Dog Day in Heaven” was one of the best routes of its kind he had ever done. This resulted in him wanting to stay on and climb another day and I was not surprized and definitely gratified. My biggest challenge had been realized.
I agreed with staying and so 5 of us stayed on at Blouberg on the 24th to climb an extra day but that did not affect the participation of the other climbers in the tradathon the next day. We only started climbing late in the afternoon shade and climbed several pitches before darkness and weariness forced us down.
Integration with the Black Diamond tradathon was seamless on the 25th and a great event was had by all. I presented a talk on the Magaliesberg history ably assisted by Roger Nattrass who thoroughly entertained us with captions and photos of the golden “lycra” years.
On Sunday 26th climbers went to Fernkloof or Mhlabatini where Chris Weidner flashed Faberge 28 sport. Jimbo Smith and Richard Halsey on-sighted the inimitable “Crystal Fire” 24 in Mhlabs which spat Hector Pringle off the previous day resulting in a broken cam and broken helmet! A host of classic routes, easy and hard were done and all enjoyed the beautiful approach up the kloof.
I was the last to succumb to that damned virus that had downed so many already. I returned home to celebrate Margaret’s Birthday and on Sunday 26th night I was in dire straits with fever and gastro combined with a raging pharyngitis. I had a horrible sleepless night and almost, but not quite, lost my voice.
On Monday 27th some of the Saffas climbed in Mhlabs some more and the Americans went to the Lion Park to stroke lion cubs.
I returned to Johannesburg for the final social event and closure at CityROCK in Johannesburg that was hosted by Petzl and the MCSA. Much to the dismay of all present I recovered my voice sufficiently to have the last say at the closure. Chris again entertained us with some wonderful pictures of American climbing and also of the exchange.
It was a fitting end to another exchange.