Skip to content

Cats – A long story told slowly

Up to 1978 cutting-edge Cape climbing was all about big, bold and hard, and the leading proponents at that time were Dave Cheesmond, Tony Dick, Butch de Bruin and the young stars Chris Lomax, Dave Davies and Greg Lacey.


Kelfkoos (Dave Kelfkens – everyone got nicknames from Cheesy) was on the fringe of the main hard-climbing, wild-partying crowd. He was serious and different. He was excited about boulders in the Newlands forest and wrote up hard problems that were 2 and 3 metres high. The rest of us didn’t get it. He was the Cape’s John Gill and the rest of us were trailing 30 years behind that vision.

Then in 1979 Kelfkoos and Talks (Greg Lacey) established a new route on Table Mountain that was revolutionary. The pair broke all the rules by railing out of a roof without ‘feet’ and by hanging on the rope and working moves. We’d never heard of ‘projecting’. No one else would have given the line a second look as it was obvious that it couldn’t be onsighted and climbed clean, even with a full rack of six nuts and three hexes. Kelfkoos and Talks established Tour de Force – the first local route to weigh in at an unprecedented grade of H1.

I remember the first time that Brian Gross and I tried to climb Tour de Force a couple of months after it was opened. We were pathetic. Desperate upside-down hanging was not in our repertoire. But after a while we got the hang of it and Dave (brother), Mike Roberts and I made a good showing when we did a clean second ascent of this powerful and technical little route.

David Davies Table Mountain
Dave Davies (19 years old) sending P1 of Tour de Force in 1979. First gear 15m off the ground.

Cool Cat

I teamed up with Kelfkoos who was a few years older than me and finishing his engineering degree at UCT. We had a great time working our way through the best routes on Table Mountain, much of it including Hans Graafland. And then we came upon this crazy – maybe just possible – line inbetween Escalator and Elevator. But in those days before micronuts and cams we had a problem. The first 5m of the line were highly technical, unprotected, and offering a really bad landing. Beyond that we would get one piece of gear and then have a committing and risky section through a roof. Our solution was controversial and upsetting for some.

Kelfkoos railed in from Escalator on the left and jammed a big hex in our rail. Then we attached a piece of cord about a metre long to the hex and we left it in as fixed gear. This wasn’t too classy, but I was 18 and more concerned with fun than with class. Over a few outings Kelfkoos and I worked the project and soon I was styling the technical wall but running out of gas over the roof. Kelfkoos was still battling with the first part when I suddenly got a full charge of brave and sent the route with just two pieces of gear – the fixed hex and one very dubious wire nut over the roof. Kelfkoos lost all further interest in the route and never returned.

Hilton table Mountain
An 18 year old Hilton Davies on Cool Cat before the send.


It was a few years before some more considerate person than me came along and removed our in situ piece that had become widely known as the shoestring.  It’s a strange thing that although a couple of bolts had appeared in the Cape by then, and theoretically we could have placed a bolt to solve our problem, that shoestring caused my ascent to be published as a toprope ascent.  It was a million miles from a toprope ascent – it was the bravest thing I’d done to date.

That little pitch was quite a bit harder than Tour de Force and so I called it H2.  No one else seemed interested in doing the route and confirming the grade.  Oh, and the name?  That had something to do with one of the hardest new routes around.  A great Rick Williams/Don Hartley/Tony Chinery route on Postern Buttress called Hot Dogger.


In 1981 a little blonde teenager of about 14 walked into Camp and Climb in Loop Street.  In the back of Geoff Ward’s store the boy whupped my ass in a chin-up competition.  By 1982 the young Andy de Klerk began a decades-long domination of the local climbing scene.  The other major event of 1982 was the appearance of the first cams – called Friends.

Pretty soon AdK had climbed all the hardest routes around and he had soloed many of them.  He began to open new harder lines and his style covered all angles.  In the bouldery style he noticed the very sheer wall above the Staircase Traverse on Fountain Ledge and in 1982 he opened the excellent Eternity Road with John Davies (another brother) on the right of this wall.

A 15 year old, AdK opening Eternity Road in 1982


Scaredy Cat

When I opened Cool Cat I had looked up at the iceberg wall above the Staircase Traverse a few times, but my vision had blurred each time and the future had evaded me.

In 1984 the future arrived and AdK opened the next-revolution Scaredy Cat in the centre of the iceberg wall. It was the new hardest and most committing route on Table Mountain.

In his 1989 book Western Cape Rock, more commonly known as The Book of Lies, AdK wrote of Scaredy Cat: “might be used as a logical finish to Cool Cat”.  It’s bothered me ever since.

Stitching Cats

In the last few years I’d become serious about making a really good multi-pitch route incorporating Cool Cat and Scaredy Cat – not one like Clinton and Jimbo’s proper-hard nearby routes, but one that can be onsighted yet still give a decent workover.  In between big wall missions Guy Paterson-Jones and I did a few tours on Scaredy Cat (which he despatched quickly) and Cool Cat (which kept working him over).  I was the other way round.  Some of the tours were pretty hopeless.

But I had three issues: I was still really scared of falling on the Cool Cat wall.  If the micros ripped (where the shoelace had been) decking into the jagged Staircase Ledge at the bottom would be bad.  Then I was unhappy about stancing on the Staircase Traverse for the top section.  With the long and hard run-out section up the iceberg wall I was afraid of Guy coming off and landing on me.  The third thing was that the two Cats routes had to be elegantly connected.

A couple of years ago my old friend Matthew Sim (who opened A Private Universe with David and I) helped me out.  Using secret and devious means we relocated the jagged blocks from Staircase Ledge.  They live now on Fountain Ledge one level below.  Then we cleaned up the ledge and turned it into a five-star base.

A 2015 pic of Guy and Hilton showing the bad old landing! Photo: Karl Hayden


The other two issues were solved together.  Guy and I found wonderful climbing that cut a direct line from the Cool Cat stance to the Scaredy Cat stance and it wasn’t part of any other route.  Then it made sense to do this section as well as Scaredy Cat as a single pitch.  This way it would be much safer for both leader and belayer.

Sending Cats

With a really good line sorted out and all the bits climbed in sections, we simply needed to send in one go.   Unfortunately things got in the way, including a bad injury for Guy, and this project became a never-ending deferment.

Then in June 2017 Helen and I had a houseful of top international alpinists Ines Papert, Luka Lindic, Paul McSorley and Seppi Pfnur, and photographer Franz Walter.  Towards the end of their high octane trip when they must have been physically and mentally drained, Tinie Versfeld and I took them for the essential Table Mountain gig.  Ines easily onsighted Africa Arête to warm up.  Same for Dynamite next. Luka flashed the routes like he was buttering toast.  Same for Paul and Seppi with Africa Lunch and then Arete.  Ines did Dynamite again.

Tinie and I should have been showing our new friends how old-time locals send on TM (i.e. with mediocrity, but keeness!), but I was in a bad way.  It had to do with a storm and a crate of firewood and my back, a few days earlier.  I didn’t know it then but I was three weeks away from lower back surgery.

After Tinie had made us all tea the Arcteryx professional climbers wanted to go around the corner to Fountain Ledge.  I suggested Triple Jeopardy for them.  I think purely as an act of kindness and goodwill, Luka said that he wanted to do Cool Cat.  Purely out of self-interest and personal ambition, I countered with a suggestion that he, Ines and I do the first ascent of Cats. (In truth, Ines, Luka, Paul and Seppi had filled our hearts and become our lifelong friends – and so I was very excited about sharing a bit of our life stories together).

Tinie went off with Paul and Seppi on Roulette.  Paul had to climb Roulette as it was opened by his neighbour back home at Squamish in Canada – the legendary Robin Barley (also a special old friend of mine and best friend of brother David’s).  Ines tied in for Cool Cat.

Cool Cat did not lie down easily.  Ines had to fight.  It’s a serious lead and the crux is all about hanging in while getting some gear out.  And of course Ines had quite a morning behind her, not to mention a hard few weeks.  She pulled off a rare and very impressive flash.  Luka and I then followed her to the semi-hanging stance.

Ines going to war Note the nice landing


Same pose as Hilton 38 years earlier


The cutloose


Luka quickly led up the new piece of terrain leading to Scaredy Cat.  He placed the important No.3 Camalot in the Staircase Traverse and started up the sheer iceberg wall.  The climbing is thin and technical and gets very run-out.  Luka was super-solid even way above his gear.  Within no time he had made a very impressive onsight of Scaredy Cat and then brought Ines and I up.  We group-hugged and enjoyed the moment.

Gotta place the heel hook to place the gear


Footless mantel


Even Tinie is impressed


Luka leading ScaredyCat


Groupie pic


I quickly led up to the top then we hurried down to rappel Staircase where we met up with our buddies who had reveled in Roulette.  I phoned Guy to apologise. Being the fellow he is, he was happy for us.

We had a magnificent nuclear-sunset walk down Table Mountain that reflected the warm glow in my heart.  It had something to do with the climbing.  It had more to do with the 38 years of unadulerated joy on this little project with heart-expanding people from Dave in the beginning, on Tour de Force, to Ines and Luka finally, on the first ascent of Cats.

14 August 2017

Sad note: Dave Kelfkens died from pancreatic cancer on 8 September 2016 in Connecticut, USA



  1. Nice one Hilton!!!
    Awesome pics (especially love the ones from the 70’s!!).
    Glad to see that you have recovered well from your back surgery! 🙂

  2. Stunning!! Great read.

  3. When I grow up I want to be like Hilton, one seriously cool cat!

  4. Thanks for the story. Loved the little bit of climbing history.

  5. Awesome write up Hilton! The way routes mark the passage of time is one of the unique things about climbing. Hope that back heals up chop chop!

  6. Such a cool read! Well written & well done!

  7. Reading this makes you want to climb, thanks Hilton!

  8. Aw, thanks guys! I was really buggered on Send Day but on the way up again, health-wise following an operation to deal with a ruptured lumbar disk. Hope to start climbing some easy stuff again in a couple of weeks. See y’all on the steeps soon, my friends…

  9. What a wonderful read! It pulls an average Joe’s mind (like mine) into a space of keenness beyond one’s ability 😀

    Thanks Hilton!

  10. what an epic journey and lifetime achievement! congrats to Hilton and all you courageous people involved in this noble sport

  11. Hilton – thanks for the great read, memories and inspiration!

    Many years ago, when Cool Cat still sported the shoelace and the ugly landing, we (Adrian Pigmy Jardin and I ) drove down from Natal (as it then was) to show AdK exactly how this sport ought to be done. On our first morning on the hill met up with AdK and Ed and, without any sort of acclimatisation, headed straight to Cool Cat. For some odd reason I was dressed like Ron Fawcett in a bright red tracksuit covered with stripes down the legs and sleeves and I was first up. Things did not go well. In fact they went humiliatingly badly. Finally, as so often happened with AdK I was forced to “hand over the lead to someone more competent” (his words) and stick my tail between my legs somewhere in my bright red tracksuit pants.

    I then thought I would redeem myself on Arms Race. It’s hard to believe they could, but things got worse. At some point AdK soloed across from Cool Cat, like a blond naughty monkey, tongue sticking out, and once again took over the lead.

  12. Arno, Dave and Steve – thanks guys
    Such modesty from the great Steve Bradshaw! Thanks for a good laugh, Steve!
    Your story reminds me of the perils of listing people’s names. Any list of leading climbers in ’78 must include Ed February and Brian Gross… and many others.

  13. Hi . Can you tell me if Chris Lomax is still alive?, and if so, where is he now? Thanks. Di

    • Chris is well and alive… perhaps look him up on FB?

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *