In the summer of 1974, a couple of young, hard climbers from up north – Hannes Boshoff and Phil Dawson – arrived in the Western Cape. Their tanks were full with drive and ambition. If opportunity would intersect with preparation and talent, they would do something special…
Hannes and Phil pulled off the super-impressive first ascent of Firecracker on Witteberg in the du Toits Kloof mountains. It immediately ranked as one of the biggest and hardest rock climbs in South Africa. It was up there with Oscillation, Central Diedre, Apollo and North by Northwest – and in some respects more scary and committing. On www.climbing.co.za the route is described in three terse words: “Daunting and dangerous”.
In the summer of 2019 three highly motivated Cape Town climbers – afficionados of ‘big, hard and scary’, resolved to climb this route. Guy Paterson-Jones, Andy Court and this writer, Hilton Davies, set our sights on climbing this route. The route had only received about four ascents – and the last one was around 1980. Cheesmond’s book had the route was written up at a grade of G1 A2. In those days G1 for a big country route could mean anything, but at a minimum it meant hard.
These days we have fanatastic advantages that Hannes and Phil didn’t have. We have great rock climbing shoes, chalk to dry our hands, and really good leader protection. Our first goal was to get up the route. Our loftier goal was to use our modern-day benefits to lift the bar by eliminating the aid climbing on the five aid pitches, and to send the route entirely free. It would be an FFA, or First Free Ascent – the development of a great historical route and a great prize for us!
I had been half way up the route in March 2017 when I roped-in Tinie Versfeld for an attempt. We had no difficulty with the first three free pitches and then I had free-onsighted a previous aid pitch and then Tinie had onsighted two very hard pitches in one combo that had both previously been aid pitches. After that we did two easy free pitches to the top of a broken tower. Here we were stymied by what lay ahead. The route desciption seemed to lead us up impossibly hard looking steep rock. For a long time we struggled with ideas and go-forward. Eventually Tinie declared that it was time to abseil off this mountain. I was keen to press on and commit to a bad night out but Tinie wasn’t having any of it. We rappeled in the light and walked out in the dark.
A couple of years would pass before I’d get two keen and strong compadres to do the route with me. From the outset my plan was to try to send the route free. I knew the plan was audacious and that success was far from guaranteed- especially given what I knew about the section that had stumped Tinie and I – but I was psyched for a good attempt. Considering the long walk in and the massive descent off the mountain, I knew that we had to expect to spend a night on the mountain – and most probably on the wall – and so we went prepared.
The hike in is identical as for Thunderbolt Direct and Exposure in F Major. Firecracker lies between these two regularly climbed classics. After leaving Cape Town at 04:30, we began the long walk at first light. We made good time -considering that we were carrying 16 kilograms of water alone! We knew that cups of tea and coffee would get us going for the route. But it wasn’t to be. Andy had forgotten to pack the pot…
Tinie and I hadn’t enjoyed the original first pitch. It couldn’t avoid a soily and vegetated bit that was grim. This time I’d noticed a nice, clean white wall 5m left of the start of Exposure. Without discussion Guy tied in and started leading. The pitch turned out to be a wonderful start – clean, straight and easy. And it got us right onto the big, bushy ledge where things get steep.
Andy combined the easy second pitch and the surpisingly tricky third pitch in one. He looked good. When the three of us were in his hanging belay stance, I racked up for the next pitch which I’d freed two years earlier. It starts with a committing overhanging section on thin wafers with no gear. With a bunch of encouragement from my mates I sent the overhang and then the long handjam/fistjam crack to a semi-hanging stance. Guy and Andy revelled in the pitch.
For the Combo Pitch 5 & 6 two years earlier, Tinie and I had opted to not traverse out left to the rib as described, and to then traverse back to the right higher up, but rather to go straight up overhanging rock to reach the big crack system, and then climb the crack system. Tinie had struggled for ages on this monster. Guy struggled for quite some time too. It starts with a hard, slightly over-vertical 8m section with no gear and a bad fall. After a bit of psyching-up Guy went for it (he did say that if it weren’t for Tinie previously going up here he wouldn’t – so props to Tinie!). He kept his bottle and was super-solid, making big moves. Once he got into the big crack corner system he was relentless in eliminating move after move of A2 aid climbing at around G3 or 22, and maybe 23. Guy pulled off a big one and we were really amped.
Guy had made a nice hanging stance on three cams. We hauled bags and then Andy forged on up what was an A1 pitch. It was pretty hard to start, and with very poor gear, but Andy was great. He used no aid and then he quickly moved up the next pitch of easy free climbing to get us onto the top of the Broken Tower. We could sit down for the first time in a long while, and so this was a good place to get a bite to eat and chug down a litre of water.
It was at this place that Tinie and I had been stumped and then retreated. Our sling and biner were as we’d left them. Guy, Andy and I studied the RD and the big, high-quality print of a photo topo that I’d received by email from my friend and first ascentionist, Hannes Boshoff (in Sydney, Australia). Tinie and I had been right about the line. And now the three of us concluded that the aid pitch ahead was not free-climbable.
The natural instinct was to try to climb up to the right of the line as the wall there is less scary. But I decided to go out left, over the void, as the climbing appeared more feasible. The gear placements were difficult, and mostly required excavation (always lead these things with a nutpick!), but the climbing was very good. Up high on the pitch I had to clean out cracks and pull off furry lichen to reveal critical hand holds, but they were there – just. I excavated a horizontal rail to make a hanging stance and my buddies came up. This variation, totally free, turned out to be a critical piece in the puzzle, and although scary with fairly poor gear, the climbing was great and only around G2 or 21. We were pretty excited to be forging ahead in totally new terrain for us.
We figured that the next pitch would be a doozy. The original F3 A2 pitch headed up and left. Andy went straight up. He did well to keep his cool with poor gear for a long way. Eventually he managed to climb a slightly overhanging orange corner to then find good gear. He headed up and left over sketchy ground to an obvious break in the long overhang that was resisting our future plans. Here he found an original pin (piton) and we wooped.
The overhanging break was confounding. It lacked holds and Andy tried all sorts of body positions. Progress slowed down while remaining daylight sped past. Guy expressed his concerns to me.
After a while I asked Andy to come down so that we could retreat to the Blocky Tower for the night. He placed what gear he could get out and lowered off to join Guy and I. We quickly reconfigured ropes and my buddies slid down. While they were on the ropes I got my headlamp out then rappelled in darkness. Andy was totally amped to be spending his first night on a big wall. We moved some rocks around and accidentally knocked a couple off. They left a stream of sparks and smell of cordite as they thundered a thousand metres down the mountain. A flash fire was ignited and we were relieved to see it die in a matter of seconds. Guy ensconced himself in a little cubby hole on the right. Andy had a semi lie-down spot under a low roof. On the left end I abseiled a few metres down to a slopey ledge where I was lucky to find some wedge-shaped rocks that I could place along the outside of the ledge to prop up my right shoulder that overhung the wall below.
We had bivvy bags but no sleeping bags. We each had a double sheet of newspaper that we had lifted from the Wimpy en route (the hobos know this trick!). The night was long and cold. We were not sorry to welcome daybreak. With sunshine straight on to us I started my day with a migraine. It’s a coffee addiction thing.
I took some meds and just as Andy poked his head over the edge to check on me, I puked out a big column of green meds and water. I think he was a little concerned. , and then after taking some more meds I quickly prusikked up the ropes to the previous evening’s high-stance. Andy climbed the pitch on top rope and loved it in the warming, early morning sun. Guy packed up the ledge.
While Andy racked up for his important lead we talked. He said that if he couldn’t free-climb through the roof he would aid on some gear and get us through. I took my time to get my words right. I said to Andy that he can take his time up there and look for a free variation, as I had the previous evening. And then in a quiet voice I said: “Andy, we are one or two aid moves away from an historic first free ascent and this would be one of the toughest big free routes in the Cape”. Then I shut up. This seemed to light a fire under this strong young man. His face lit up and his response was: “I’m so psyched to do this, man… I’m so stoked to do this, bru”.
Guy came up. Andy set off. He regained his high point and then with encouragement from below he slowly and methodically worked his way through the overhanging crux. He got onto his feet to face more hard stuff. With one piece of really dodgy gear he climbed the next 5m to a poor stance. We whooped and hollered! Andy was heroic! We were home and dry…
The next 100m of climbing was easy and went quickly. We got to the top and high-fived. We basked in the warm sun on flat ground. We felt we had done justice in building on the great achievement of Hannes and Phil. We were a bit psyched and a bit stoked – we felt we’d done a good thing..
Firecracker (the Original)
By Hannes Boshoff
In our summer holiday of 1974 Phil Dawson and I set off in his Mini from Johannesburg to Cape Town for a month or more of climbing. I just finished my first year of a commerce degree and Phil just finished his third year of his Engineering degree. I recently became 20 and Phil was 22 years old.
As people Phil and I could not be more different. He was English and from a well to do family in Johannesburg while I was Afrikaans and from a very middle-class family from Pretoria. You would never have known that Phil, who lived a spartan existence and who was very much an altruist at heart came from a wealthy family while on the other hand I was a hungry wannabe capitalist boy trying to escape the middle class. Although we clearly had very different outlooks on life the chemistry between us worked from the outset.
I can remember that I set off on this month-long climbing holiday with the proud sum of R28 (it was worth more in those days) which I earned during my University Holidays and I believe that Phil did not have much more! This was to pay for our petrol and sustain us for a month. We set off from Joburg to Cape Town in Phil’s Mini which was more reliable than my very old Volkswagen Beetle. When we weren’t on a bivvy in the mountains, we stayed at Du Toit’s Kloof Hut and we added to our provisions every number of days by going to the Worcester Pick ‘n Pay to scavenge for any edible food from their garbage at the back that was thrown out by the store as foods reached their expiry dates.
Both of us were drawn to the big walls of the Cape and had little interest in Table Mountain in that we climbed routes of a similar length in the Magaliesberg all the time. For this holiday our interest was broadly the big walls in Du Toit’s Kloof, Castle Rocks, Klein Winterhoek and the South Face of Mount Superior in the Jan Du Toit’s Kloof.
I got the idea for Firecracker from a very poor photo of the Witteberg in the 1969 MCSA journal which clearly showed the unclimbed Firecracker central arête catching sun in the late afternoon. Our plan was to do a couple of training climbs and then launch into this route.
The day after we arrived in the Cape we started off with Thunderbolt and two days later we did Exposure in F Major. As we knew that speed on these walls might avoid a bivouac, we really turned up the dial and completed both routes by mid-day. That gave us enough confidence to have a go at the Firecracker line after a rest day at the Du Toit’s hut.
To set the scene for climbing in the 1970’s I should point out that we both climbed in Vibram soled Yosemite boots (no smearing) and had a limited range of nuts (cams did not yet exist at that time). We each owned a Willan’s Sit Harness and had a rack of Pitons and two 40m ropes. As a bivvy bag we ironed two plastic paint drop sheets on three sides to make a very light bag that could fit both of us but yet folded to the size of a matchbox. We also had a set of antiquated jumars that was lent to me by a climbing friend.
To give us every opportunity to succeed we decided to walk up and bivvy at the base of the Witteberg the night before. We decided to limit ourselves to one small canvas backpack that was given to me by Hans Graafland. He used it on the opening of Pisa Wall, Exposure and Thunderbolt. The intention was to add another route to the bag’s climbing record! In the bag we had two bottles of water mixed with game, some chocolates and a canvas anorak each. We also had a packet of solid fuel tablets and a lighter. Both of us were climbing in shorts.
The first pitch to the upper grass ledge was hard. After a short intermediate pitch Phil then led a beautiful Pitch 3 to reach the first set of overhangs. He then did a fancy little traverse to the right to make a stance where the overhang looked climbable. Unfortunately, on the traverse he used a block as a hand hold which became loose. When I reached the traverse it immediately became clear to me that the block is too loose to use or to pass. The problem was that the block was over the rope between me and Phil and trying to pull it off would jeopardise the rope (and me). After some faffing about I eventually got the courage to put my arm behind it and heave it with all my might over the rope.
After a bit of yo-yoing between me and Phil trying to get through the big roof free (pitch 4) I eventually used a point of aid and then started climbing a crack system above it. Soon I reached a man-sized flake in the crack that looks very suspect. As Phil was directly below me in the fall line, I decided to move left out of the crack on the wall to avoid the block.
Phil then did a short pitch (5) to just short of where we had to decide whether we will veer left or right of the central arête (visible on MCSA journal photo) that the route follows.
On the next pitch (6) I stayed in a crack to the left of the arête. My recollection was that this pitch was almost entirely aided until I ran out of gear below another overhang and ended up in a hanging stance. Phil followed me and cleaned the pitch by jumaring up the rope. From there Phil continued up the crack (pitch 7) and through the overhang and up some very steep terrain to a small stance. From this stance easy climbing took me up to what will become our bivvy ledge for the night. As we had some daylight left Phil made a start on the next pitch up a scooped brown face that he crossed to the left and up to a very exposed stance. Just before sunset he abseiled down to our ledge. After kicking off some loose rocks, we cleared a small ledge that could accommodate both of us sitting side by side with our legs hanging off the ledge. The process of clearing the rocks off the ledge drummed our situation home as the rocks took more than 6 seconds to touch the wall and when they finally did, we saw the sparks flying in what was now darkness.
Soon clouds started to roll in and it was clear that we were in for a cold and windy night. Sitting at night high up on the Witteberg is quite an experience. One’s only umbilical cord with civilization is the lights of cars driving through the pass far below. We both got into our drop sheet bag head first with our feet hanging out the bottom. In the bag between us we placed a flat rock on which we burned half a solid fuel tablet every time the chills overcame us. That filled the bag with hot air and fumes for about half an hour, when the process was repeated. Every now and then when we got stoned enough by the fumes and carbon monoxide, we came up for air to see that traffic through the pass were getting less and less until it all but disappeared in the cold morning hours.
The next morning with ropes still in place Phil climbed to his high point and cleaned the pitch as he went. I decided to jumar up to him but was not prepared for the wild swing I took out into free and very exposed air when I let myself go from our ledge.
The next pitch produced some very hard free climbing that led me to an overhang with a big nosepiece block below it. Above there was clearly a series of more overhangs to deal with. For what felt like an hour I now searched for a way up and through this overhang and I started to wonder whether we have reached the end of the line. But with the top in visual sight and 10 very overhanging pitches below us there was no thought of retreat at this point. At last I found a very thin crack above and on the right of the overhang and was able to knock a knife blade into it. That placed me on a very unobvious break that took real tenacity to climb. All in all, it was one of the hardest pitches in one of the more desperate and intimidating places that I have ever done to that point. Phil climbed and eventually jumarred the last section up to me. I asked him to leave the knife blade piton in place as a route marker. Later when Tony Dick and Butch de Bruin did the second ascent, Butch spent some time looking for the route on this pitch, until he spotted our piton!
From here we could see a crack system to our right. Phil did a delicate traverse to the right and easily climbed this crack to the ledge on which the steep part of ‘Exposure in F’ ends. At this point the feeling of relief escaping the wall and knowing we are on our way to running water matched any joy we felt about our new route.
By the time we picked up our sleeping bags and gear from the base of the Witteberg and walked down to the road, darkness was already approaching. At the hut we were very surprized to find a lot of people who were obviously preparing for a party. When we inquired what the occasion was, to our surprize we were told it was New Year’s Eve. We did not make midnight that year!
Hannes Boshoff (by HB)
I was born in Johannesburg in 1954 and went to high school and university in Pretoria. I lived and worked in Joburg as a Stock Broker for the last 13 years before I left SA for Sydney Australia in 1988 at the age of 33. I was a member of the MCSA Natal Section for many years (although I lived in Joburg). Since then I have lived four years in Paris and some time in Philly in the US. Many brutal rock climbing years on my hands required me to fuse bones in both thumbs and reconstruct some joints in both hands ten years ago. That and age effectively put an end to any top-class rock climbing for me. I still do Alpine climbing but most of my activity is now directed at instant gratification in the form off Ski Touring, Ski Mountaineering and Heli Skiing which I do for at least a month every year. This is despite the fact that I had both knees replaced 4 years ago.
Ed note: In 1975 Hannes and Phil made the second or third ascent of the NW Ridge of Western Injasuthi Triplet in the Drakensberg.
Phil Dawson (by HD)
Phil was born on the 4th of July 1952 in Johannesburg. He had three sisters. He was introduced to climbing at Wits University where he studied civil engineering from 1971 to 1974. Phil did a lot of hard climbing in South Africa, and had a very productive career with Hannes Boshoff, including the December 1974 first ascent of Firecracker. In 1976 he had an exceptional season in South America with the legendary Dave Cheesmond. In July in the Cordillera Blanca: Alpamayo ascent of the East Face and descent of the North Ridge (4 days), Artisonraju ascent of the North Ridge (2 days), Nevado de Ulta first ascent of the NW Face (5 days). In August in the Cordillera Real: Illimani second ascent of the NE Ridge (5 days), Tiquimani first ascent of the West Ridge (3 days). In December on FitzRoy they almost completed the Super Couloir but retreated in a storm from high up. Also in December of 1976, in Torres del Paine area they made the first ascent of The Mummer by a 20-pitch route up the SW Face.
Phil stopped climbing in 1984. In 1986 he married Stephanie Pape and had four children: Hannah, Becky, Abigail and Mike. In 1986 Phil was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. He approached his MS with the same zeal he climbed mountains – constantly finding more creative ways to live with the disease as it became more debilitating. He left engineering in the mid-1980s to teach maths and science at St. Barnabas college in Bosmont (the first school in South Africa to be open to all races) and later worked for the Rural Advice Centre (1989-1992) where he designed rural water supplies in the Mafefe area (in what is today Limpopo province). Phil passed away on the 29th December 2007 due to complications connected to his MS.