In march 2017 an elite team of AAC (American Alpine Club) members made their way to sunny South Africa. They all had the time of their life climbing on the impeccable sandstone rock. During their stay in South Africa the American trad climbers were warmly hosted by a group of MCSA (Mountain Club South Africa) members headed by team leader Charles Edelstein (Snort).
In response the American climbers were to host a dozen south Africans, us for the period of two weeks during late spring of May 2018. This is my account of the United States of Awesome!
It’s a rock climber’s wildest dream come true! Imagine experiencing the most exotic, thrilling & awe-inspiring scenes from mountaineering stories you’ve only read about. Say yes, jump on board! Travel to an unfamiliar breathtaking wilderness with spectacular climbing, epic scenery and genuinely hospitable locals.
Boarding my first flight from Cape Town, I was so excited I almost forgot to pay my bill at the cafe before boarding. After a long flight, arrival at international transfer Vancouver airport.
‘Agh hmm’ the US border control cleared his throat, “Mr Iliev?”..’Dammit’ I husked under my breath.
Swiftly, I was frisked, emails and phone privacy violated. The border policemen laughing together. “Is that a real job” they giggled. With my tanned gypsy appearance I didn’t blame them. I managed to convince them that mountain guiding was a real job and didn’t involve establishing secret bunkers in deserted escarpments. Smiling, he handed my passport back as I walked away, relieved and with a skip in my step.
Excited, I hopped onto my final connecting flight to Denver, then made my way to Boulder via a midnight bus. Boulder is a small town nestled in the Rockies overlooked by the most iconic 300m protrusions of The Flatirons. This was our meeting point for the trad exchange…
A dark cloud loomed nearer as we were climbing higher. Nervously I adjusted my foot on a slippery edge, feeling shaky I clenched onto the sedimentary rock. Heavily breathing 180 meters high on a free solo of the famous first Flatiron. My hands were unnaturally sweaty, in my mind I hadn’t really gotten off the plane yet. This was my first morning in the USA.
One of our American hosts Maury Birdwell trotted effortlessly past me and trumpeted chirps of encouragement “Hooray Teo”.
“Jassis, that’s not lekker hey.” I mumbled looking at my slippery feet. I was wearing a pair of oversized smoothly worn approach shoes generously borrowed to me by Maury. All my climbing gear still held up in Canada after my recent frisking episode. It takes some adjusting to the free solo experience before it becomes somewhat manageable, I topped out alongside Brent Russel, a fellow South African, we reveled in our introductory adventures.
The full exchange contingency united for the first of many group dinners. Dinner prepared by the ever delightful & joyous american host Heather Weidner. Heather not only cooked mean dishes with crushed garlic but also crushes grades up to 5.13 on-sight.
I learnt quickly this tour wasn’t just about the extraordinary climbing out here but bonding with fellow like minded mountain people. Prior to the tour, I hadn’t met a lot of the South African team members. Having only heard tales of exotic big wall climbs by Julia Wakeling, ultra endurance man Damien Schumann, hard man first ascents by Willem Le Roux, post-pregnancy grade crushing by Gosia Lapinska not to mention endless theories of life preached on forums by Snort; it was a great time to get to know my legendary compatriots.
The clinking of a wine glass got our attention and we were captivated by the hosting Chris Weidner’s announcements and break down of the tour. His goal was to make us saffer’s become sufferers. “Cheers everyone!” he concluded, some of us may have possibly pooped ourselves with fear and excitement for what was in store.
The first days spelled rain & a spontaneous snow storm became considerable obstacles. We spent this time adjusting our internal time clocks gradually getting over the jet lag and sport climbing around Colorado. Including a world class limestone sport crag Shelf Road.
The sun eventually showed some face and we set ourselves up for a full day of trad in Eldorado Canyon. An exquisite valley with a plethora of classic 5-star routes on offer. Many of the South Africans teamed up with Americans to get in line for the all-time favorite – Naked Edge 5.11b. A proud and prominent line in the valley.
Brent Russel and myself, with little to no crack climbing experience between us thought we should simmer it down a bit and ticked off a few easy classic routes. Handcracker Direct (5.10a, SA 19), Hair City (5.9, SA 18+R [Runout or sparsely protected]) and Bastille Crack (5.8, SA 17). These routes offer a great variety of climbing styles. Clear hiking trails through lush pine forests led us easily to the base of each route. Obvious bolted rap points and belay stations made for a perfect introduction to the location.
After another grand dinner hosted by the lovely Heather. Maury our exuberant host, arranged that we take a late night cruise into the wild back hills of Boulder, and find ourselves a local hillbilly hoe down. I hitched a ride with Garrreth Bird a fellow South African. Up the snaking mountain road through cowboy country. Warm light glowed in the windows of the dingy, weather-beaten rendezvous. I would never have stepped inside if it wasn’t for the groovy beat hop shaking the walls. Stomping & romping our feet off, we had it!
As I swung the cowboy lubricated swing doors inwards. A guitar solo blaring through the ceiling, whiskey & beer flowing. No hesitation to dance. Men in ten-gallon hats, woman in tight jeans and heeled boots. It was glorious! Bird and Wakeling took the lead in a dance move throw down. Richard Halsey a fellow South African was flowing through the crowd with arguably the world’s longest arms. Snort cheered us all on his pulpit of a counter top, “Yeehaa!”.
Early morning, vehicles packed, ready to depart south west to the formidable Black Canyon – Snort pulled up in the biggest RV he could find. I immediately ditched my original lift plan and jumped on board the Snort mothership. This came with some T’s & C’s – essentially don’t be boring by sleeping the whole time. After 4hrs of driving south west from Boulder, we arrived at Phat Pat’s family farm shed. Warm hearty food and an endless supply of good country brew. Pat Goodman our festive American host made sure everyone was well liquored up. Bonfire, smoke, and sparks flying into the crisp cold starry night frames the memory of an evening shared with great company.
The Black Canyon, a gaping chasm in the Earth’s crust with 600m walls plunging down to a raging river below. ‘We were going to climb out of there tomorrow….’ I gazed out lost in thought. Admiring the multi coloured quartz veins and ominous dark painted metamorphic walls. ‘Beep Beep!!’ The Snort Ship hooted and I was snapped out of the trance, all the others had already walked back from the viewing point. Our camp for the next three days was situated perfectly on the rim of the canyon.
The lights of my 4:30AM alarm flashed brightly in my eyes. Richard and I had paired up the evening prior. Hot brewed coffee, a light breakfast and a final gear check. Gosia our new South African mama had finished up feeding her baby and was already descending into the Black with Julia. Following suite we trailed their headlights as we descended into the canyon. A series of abseils and chossy scrambles surrounded by poison ivy made for a comically horrific situation. Bobbing and weaving, we manoeuvred our way through these heinous plants.
Ahead of Richard now, I was feeling slightly anxious as I had never climbed anything near as big as the walls in the Black. After about an hour descending we arrived at the start of the 600m Scenic Cruise, a 5.10d (SA 21). ’Ching, Chong, Cha!’, my rock-paper-scissors skills bagged me the first lead. I was feeling more relaxed now as the sky lit up in a soft cloudy blue.
The rock is a metamorphic type schist and gneiss mixture. At first it felt very slippery under foot, almost polished. The climbing felt a little precarious and involving as I moved up the first 40 meters. As I set up the belay stance I shouted down, “Man, this is some real gneiss shist!” Richard didn’t get it.
Richard swapped leads, we were moving swiftly until we were met by Endurance Crack. I sailed up the first twenty meters, then the crack started to change in size. Jamming my hands and fingers in a seriously inept manner. Contorting my feet, I forced my toes in between the tight corners of rock. Pulling hard and pumping out in every hand jam. Blood dripping from my fingers, it was a quest to find a rest. Awkward and straining, with my head down I moaned my way up the crack. A flaring crux, my hand grip slipping out in slow motion while placing a cam for protection. I tried to bounce into a better hold with my hand, “Tsaah!” my fall halted by my last piece of protection. Soon I found a good stance – ‘Holy hell!’, I was exhausted. That was pitch three of thirteen. The alarming length of what was still to come was dawning on me. ‘That wasn’t even the crux!’ Richard cruising on through the next pitch using stemming manoeuvres and pulling up a small roof. A few more crack pitches went by. Soon I was following on a wildly exposed & poorly protected traverse. The sound of the raging river below a constant reminder of the surrounding wilderness.
We had a long rest on pitch seven, a well-deserved wrap and cliff bar break. The technical crux, a hand crack roof was immediately ahead, it entailed awkward moves with some laybacks, a lot like Yellowwood climbing. We made good progress through the crux pitch, however it wasn’t over yet, this route is undoubtably sustained. Another severely runout traverse was on the cards. Richard led around a long corner and up a sketchy face climb on crimps protected by a single bolt.
He was out of sight, the ropes strung out far to my right swaying in the breeze. Amongst the thundering noise of the river below, I heard a familiar murmur calling, “Off belay!” – I thought. It was around 18:30pm. Instinctively I took the ropes off safety. Two lines swishing freely in the wind. At this very moment, Richard was straining & yelling noises, on a runout sandbag crux.
A moment later, thinking to myself, ’What was taking so long?’. I felt a strange stomach swirling sensation. In response to my concern, wrapping the rope around my waist in a body belay. Suddenly I felt it move forward. Rapidly I put it back on safety. “Pheww!” Arriving at the stance next to Richard with wide eyes. ‘Wow, what a sandbag!’ I said smiling in trepidation. We discussed what happened. Fatigue setting in, we made a new plan for our communication. Off we went climbing swiftly up the sustaining last pitches. Around 20:00pm we limped into camp like two stray dogs, met by a crowded fire place of glowing faces filled with dirt and stories. The exchange contingency clapped and cheered like we were some sort of war heroes, it certainly felt like it.
The following day I partnered with the legendary alpinist Steve Swenson. Steve a well accomplished alpinist with notable ascents of Everest, K2 and multiple first ascents in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan. His technical wisdom and worldly knowledge is inspiring. We spent the day climbing a moderately easy route in the shade on the checkerboard wall of the Black Canyon. We escaped the scorching heat of the day, topping out and high-tailing it to base camp. Every night we shared more stories around the campfire. The headline for that evening was South African Allistair Fenton and American Pat Goodman’s scorching sun burnt climb up the Scenic Cruise was the highlight of the night. Walking in as zombies into camp, we cheered for them!
Early morning on our final day in the camp. Most of the group were packing up tents and having coffee around the simmering coals of the fire place. South african climber Willem Le Roux was stomping around camp buzzing & sniffing around for a climbing partner ‘one more route’ he was asking. “What a mad man”. I thought to myself. We were all departing in 4hrs. He looked at me with those big puppy eyes. Instantly, I accepted.
The clock was ticking. Packing up my camp in under fifteen minutes, while Willem hustled a rack, he had scored two micro tractions and am 80m single rope. ‘Swish swoosh’, we practically ran the descent gully in 20mins. On-sight, simul-climbing the 300 meter Comic Relief grade 20. Using two micro traction devices for backup while we connected multiple pitches. The thrilling rush of the speed ascent of the cracks was unbelievable. Completely immersed in the moment. I felt my crack climbing abilities were immensely improved – we blasted up the route from camp to camp in under 4hrs. Snort waiting in the mother ship gave us the classic scolding for not being faster.
We hit the road west toward Indian Creek, our next stop for the tour.
An endless desert backdrop of towering rock features protruding through the flat red glowing horizon, the Snort ship banked and sailed along the winding roads which eventually led us to a dusty dirtbag campsite.
The early morning desert sun radiating onto my tent, I could feel my sore muscles from the big days climbed in the black. Sweating in my two man microwave canvas, eye lids dried crusty. Ears ringing, doof, doof, bang, bang, “Check me out Y’all, feel me out Y’all”. Hip hop beats unceremoniously bumping and grinding through the early morning stillness. Peeking through my tent zip I could see three shirtless dirtbags. Sun burnt, tattooed desert locals with wired hair, hunched backs and bobbing heads – swirling yellow dust around in the neighboring campsite sorting their climbing gear for the day.
Insanity Wall crag was first up. Climbing perfect single pitch crack lines on the smooth red rock crags of Indian Creek. Everyone had a go at the famous MC’s Hammer 21. Heather and Chris Weidner taught Michael Kloos, a fellow South African, and I how to tape our hands for crack climbing. A few of the strong climbers were having a go at Puzzle Factory – a stiff SA 25.
A peaceful night. The party now settling in a circle, snug under a blanket of stars in the crisp dry desert air. Everyone tuned in to survival stories of epic proportions told by our weathered American host Bruce Miller. Vivid wild tales of harsh climates and outrageous scenarios set in alpine environments so far away and high, it was chilling just to listen. American hard men, cutting their teeth on the world’s biggest and scariest mountains.
After another full day of jamming our way up cracks at the superb Meatwall crag we dealt with a sunset rope retrieval and some other vehicle shenanigans in the desert dirt. Half the team gathered at American host Chris Weidner’s holiday love house in Moab while the rest were warmly accommodated by renowned mountaineer Greg Child.
Towering sandstone skyscrapers, jutted out of the rolling dirt hills of Castle Valley. From our accommodation we had a phenomenal outlook to the 150m looming desert rock towers. It’s a wonder of nature how these structures have not eroded away over time. Castle Valley, Utah was our final stop for the exchange.
I roped up with Chris O’Donovan a fellow South African climber. We set our sights on climbing the north face of Castleton Tower, a 5.11b SA23. The first pitch is the perfect crux, a 30+ meter hand crack onto a spicy calcite layback step-over. Jamming my way up the crack I was popping and scraping open old wounds leaving significant blood on route, I hollered down apologies to Chris before he followed up the blood-stained pitch. After two weeks now, this whole crack climbing game was really taking a toll on my skin. Chris took on the second pitch which involved navigating delicate and tentative manoeuvres on slippery calcite deposits. Every time we spotted the white deposit on the red sandstone we cringed at the sight of the stuff – it has a texture like as slick as ice. Finally, I took on the awkward runout chimney pitch to the summit. Very involving, it’s got some very artistic gear placements with a serious sprinkle of head game. It was one of those long, runout, top-of-the-pitch-in-sight moments. “Calm down, deep breaths, and focus.” When climbing trad, there are times where falling is just not an option. The reward of a 360-degree panorama from the summit of Castleton Tower was worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears shed over the last two weeks. It was late afternoon and a farewell dinner was booked at Greg Child’s place.
Rappelling off the top of Castleton Tower, I met with Johan Lanz a fellow South African and we decided to try squeeze in one more tower before sunset. We managed to get two thirds of the way up a classic 5.11+ SA23 called Fine Jade. High up on the route Johann slipped and took a whipper, catching the rope under his foot which flipped him upside down. He was hanging above me inverted about 15 meters up. While he hung there looking at me we decided it was probably a good time to make our way down and giggled at our circumstance.
A grand dinner at Greg Child’s house set the scene for our final meeting point for the exchange contingency. We expressed our gratitude and thanks to our American hosts who played a key role in the exchange. Myself & Richard Halsey continued our north american adventures. Exploring for another two weeks on the road, climbing Devils Tower, Spearfish canyon and the Mount Rushmore needles. Dirt bagging our way through the states of Wyoming & South Dakota.
A big thank you to MCSA & AAC for their sponsorship and contributions to the 2018 trad exchange. A special thanks to Charles Edelstein, Chris Weidner & Heather Weidner for their leadership and organising.
Words by Teodor Iliev
Edited by Joshua Butcher