A short story of our epic on the big blue hill that is Blouberg by Kieran Richards
The psyche was high as we left Jozi at noon with an awesome crew of keen climbers, the goal was to have an epic weekend of climbing on Blouberg. Little did we know it was not the type of epic that we were intening on. We had a smooth drive into Limpopo and down into the Glade to park at Frans kraal at about 7pm. Confident that there were at least 3 of us who could navigate to the cave successfully, we set off into the darkness keen on the adventures that awaited for the weekend.
About 40 minutes into the hike, just after the donga section of the trail, we stopped to strip some layers and pound down some water. We noticed pretty quickly that something was missing, in fact two somethings were missing, an Ale and an Allister. Somewhere down in the forrest they had decided to take a “photo” of something interesting. Once they acquired their interesting photograph, which i have never actually seen, they lookup up only to notice that the rest of us had vanished into the thick dark bush.
If you have ever been to Blouberg you will know that the cattle paths leading you up the mountain are about as hard to follow as it is to convince a climber to go cycling. Ale and Allister attempted to navigate these paths hoping to turn a corner and find the rest of us waiting with pancakes and milkshake. Unfortunately for them this was not the case! After about an hour of waiting and many failed phone calls and shared locations, we finally heard our two lost soldiers hustling their way through the thicket. By this stage the rest of us were well keen to get a move on, and they didn’t receive much of a greeting before we promptly shot back off up the hill, this time making sure they were in the middle of the group. Unfortunately we did not have an Edilrid signature Tommy Caldwell Pro Dry 9.6mm 70 metre rope with us, it would have been great for daisy chaining us all together and keeping the straglers in line;)
After a long and tiring walk we finally saw the familiar sight of the luxurious cave that was to be our home for the next two nights, so we thought. We promptly unraveled out mats and sleeping bags, sorted some gear, scoffed some chow, spoke some sh&% and hit the sack. A rude awakening saw us all up and psyching each-other up at 4am. After quick cup of coffee and some instant oats we set off into the dark to grab some water and head off to the ramp. Water was quite the controversial topic that morning, with plenty of banter slung at us for carrying 9l for our party of 3. We were hauling a bag and it was hot so the extra water made sense at the time. Why not?
We started scrambling down the ramp and after not too long i took a wrong turn around a boulder, with Dylan hot on my heels i quickly made a prompt U turn when we realised we were on the edge of the cliff scrambling down into the abyss. Some cuss words were mumbled and we quickly found our way onto the correct route down the ramp. The ramp always feels longer than you remember, and by the time we got to the base of the cliff we had all worked up a pretty decent sweat. We split up into our 3 teams of three being:
* Allister, Evan and Dylan
* Chris OD, Zakk and Chris C
* Ale, Wes and I
After promptly dropping the kids off at the pool we all set off on our separate routes. The goal for our party was to climb “Hey Jude”. Pitch one was a breeze. Pitch 2 and Pitch 3 proved quite a bit slower, as we had a few gumby issues with the haul bag and realised that maybe we should have taken less water and snacks! This thing was freaking heavy and it didn’t help that these pitches were mostly blocky and slightly on angle, it was hooking on everything. Hauling was going to be an exhausting task. When we reached the grassy ledge, we realised that we were behind schedule and decided to make the tactical (read wuss out) decision to switch routes. We decided to follow “Moon Shadow” which I had done a while back. After the trek across the grassy ledge we reached the base of the corner where our alternate route continued. A quick ching chong cha and Wes took the lead.
I gave Wes the beta and off he went, route finding became quite a mission up there and after a few attempts at finding the right route Wes asked to be lowered to the stance. I quickly racked up and followed where he had climbed quickly realising that i had given the poor oak very very bad beta! I completely forgot about the first small roof, so where i told him to traverse left after the roof, he did so perfectly, except it was at the wrong roof, i quickly understood why he asked to be lowered! My bad Wes! I found my way to the stance and got my partners and the pig up there ASAP. After some apologies and laughs Ale was up to lead the next pitch.
Ale missioned up through the next pitch and after some route finding and rope snafus he made it to the stance and called safe. Wes and I got ready and told ale to start hauling, the bag moved about 5mm every 10 seconds, i knew something was up. I decided to follow the climb ahead of Wes to sort the tag line out and help Ale haul. I made my way up the climb trying to position the tag line as plumb as possible. At about 3/4 of the way up the pitch i experienced something fascinating. At this point you reach a ledge where there is a left facing corner, the route goes up here. However the left face is formed by a pillar, therefore there is a right facing corner on the other side of the pillar. I climbed the left hand corner (the correct route) which only had one piece of gear about a meter up, i was impressed as the climbing is spicy for the grade. Close to the top of the corner i noticed the second rope was going around the pillar and pulling me sideways. I fought and fought but could not get the rope loose. I asked ale to lower me and made my way around to the other corner where i was astonished to find another piece about halfway up. Ale somehow climbed both corners, or half of each, or one and then the other because it looked good too. I removed the gear and continued up the second corner. After reaching the stance, Ale and I managed to haul the bag up and belay Wes up to join us, there was a lot of trickery involved and thus we lost even more time. The hustle was on.
We marched up the next pitch and reached the bivy cave where we had a quick snack and some water. Wes lead the next pitch, which is one of the coolest pitches of climbing i have done. It has an awesome setting, and the climbing is diverse and exciting. Wes lead it like a boss and reached the next ledge in good time, I followed and helped haul while Wes belayed Ale up. At this stage there were 3 pitches above us, all of an easy grade. I had followed them once before but all in the dark so i could not recall where they went. We had to consult the good old RD to figure out where the route went and once we had an idea we were ready to make our way to the summit. Wes was psyched from the previous pitch and was keen to lead again, he racked up and set off.
After traversing up and down and putting in a good amount of effort trying to figure out where the route went, Wes admitted defeat and got lowered to the ledge. His feet hit the ledge just in time for sunset. I knew this pitch was tricky to route find and sparsely protected, this made me anxious to try and decipher it in the last bit of light that we had. I quickly racked up and put on my headlight in preparation for the darkness. Ale stepped up, whipped out his Edilrid Mega Jul, told me everything was going to be just fine and put me on belay. With my mind slightly more at ease, i set off onto the chicken heads to try and find my way to the ledge above.
The last few bits of light disappeared in a flash and before we knew it we were in total darkness, no moon in sight. “Traverse right until the climbing gets easier, then straight up to the ledge above” i mumbled this rather vague description to my self as i tried again and again to find the “easier” climbing. After a long while searching i got frustrated and decided that i was just being a wimp and i needed to man up and just get the damn ledge already. I found what i thought was a possible way up, placed some gear behind a block and made my way upwards were not too far up i found one more placement, a very crap placement for a small cam. I continued upwards, the climbing thinned out and started getting uncomfortably difficult. After a while I eventually reached a point where i could not climb any further, there were no holds, the feet were tiny and I knew I couldn’t continue upwards without facing the consequences of a bad fall. The first thought that crossed my mind was “sh&% can I down climb this last section?!?”. In my frantic state i looked down to the last piece of gear i had placed. The sight of my little cam about 7 or so meters below me did not help my state of mind one bit.
I called to Ale and Wes, told them I was attempting to down climb and that they should be ready incase I did take a fall. Mega Jul in hand Ale assured me he was up for the task, I on the other hand was not too keen on all of this, a fall would surely have ended in a visit to the hospital with all the ledges and on-angle rock below me. The Mega Jul that Ale was wielding gave me hope. One move at a time I reversed the sequences inching towards my last piece. It felt like an eternity, I was pumped out of my mind and all I wanted was to get off that damn rock. I eventually made it down to my last piece, removed it and continued down to the block. Reaching the block was a massive sigh of relief! I put a piece of cord around the block with a biner, clipped my rope and called take. Pulling myself towards myself I did the long traverse in reverse and made my way back to the ledge where I was greeted not so happily by Ale and Wes, we all knew what we were in for!
The three of us standing on that ledge weighed up our options and decided that abbing back to the base in the dark, in the state we were in after a long day, was a terrible idea. We had to stay the night on the wall. We decided to ab back down the last pitch to the bivy cave and spend the night there. Egos blown and bodies sore we made the ab off the block down to the cave, left our ropes up so we could top out the next morning and prepared for a long cold night! If you have ever climbed past the bivy cave and had a look inside you will know that its nothing close to comfortable, its wide enough for two people to fit next to each other on their backs and once you have wiggled your way inside, the roof is about 20cm from your face. Unfortunately we were a party of three, which meant we had to really squeeze in and could only lie on our sides. OG spoon style!! The sun was long gone, the wind was howling and we were beat, we crawled in, assumed our positions and tried to get comfortable.
Lying on your side on hard rock is nothing short of miserable, we managed to lie on one side for about an hour before we could bare it no more. In order for us to turn over we had to do a synchronised roll, it really was quite comical! At least we could laugh about it a little before the misery set back it. That period before we had to roll got shorter and shorter through the night, all trying to hold off until we could not handle it anymore, someone would always call for a roll and the other two were always happy to oblige. As you can imagine, we got pretty damn good at this, it was a work of art in the early hours of the morning. To make our night even worse, there was a freezing cold wind that blew constantly throughout the night, we were shivering continuously. The one space blanket we had over us periodically got blown to the bottom of the cave by our feet, convinced it was making a difference we always made a plan to get it back up to out necks. Due to the height of the cave, this was quite a task as you could not sit up to get it, one arm was always trapped under your side and there was not enough space to bring your knees up so your feet were no use either. Another task that would either bring immense frustration of historical laughter. That night proved to be a roller coaster of emotions.
Ale: “How long do you think it will be until the sun comes up?”
Wes & I: “Cant be long now, we’ve been in here for ages!”
Me: “Let me check quick… Sorry guys its only 1AM…”
The lowest point of the entire epic was learning that at our wits end, we were only halfway through the night! We continued to roll and shiver for the next few hours. When the light started hitting the walls of the cave we made our way out to the ledge like reptiles after hibernation, waiting on the cold rock for the sun to soothe our broken bodies. When the sun rose and hit that little ledge it was heaven. It was a beautiful sight waking up in a cave in the middle of the sky to the rising sun, a moment I won’t soon forget!
We had some breakfast, half a handful of peanuts each, had some water and made our way up the ropes to try and navigate the pitch in the light. Reaching the ledge above, we soon realised how tired and unhappy we really were. Since Wes and I had each attempted the pitch the night before, Ale was up next. He racked up and headed off to navigate the chicken head maze. Cheering him on Wes and I were happy to spend some time baking in the sun. After a long time and a truly generous effort trying to navigate the pitch, Ale too admitted defeat and made his way back to the ledge. We knew that there was a long day ahead of us no matter which vertical plane we chose to travel, the rest of the crew were at the cave waiting for us, the plan was supposed to be to walk back to the cars in the early morning and make it back to Jozi before sunset. Trying the pitch again would mean wasting more time, and we had two more pitches left after that before we topped out. Bail was the option we chose and it wasn’t one we were very pleased about! Three short easy pitches from the top and we had to bail!
We began the long bail down to the ramp, slinging boulders and chicken heads as we went. Three tiring 50 odd meter abs and we made it to the grassy ledge without having to leave any gear behind and without getting our ropes stuck. We traversed the grassy ledge to the ab route where there were two more abs to the ramp. We reached the ramp at about 1 and we chugged down a bunch of water, saving some for the slog up the ramp. Thank goodness we decided to take all that water with us! The day was hot as hell and we were wrecked when we hit the ramp! We split the gear between us and got ready for the slog. The ramp feels like a long walk on the way down but in the middle of the day in the sun after a cold uncomfortable sleepless night on Blouberg it was pure torture. It just kept coming at us, false summit after false summit. We eventually turned a corner and heard could hear voices, our spirits picked up and we hit overdrive. We saw Allister, Dylan and Chris C appear through the bushes yielding snacks and water like beardless skinny Santas in the wrong month of the year. They took our gear as we scoffed some snacks and we made the mission back to the cave.
We at long last reached the shady cave, were we knew we could not spend a long time before having to walk back down to out cars. We packed out bags, said our goodbyes to the cave where we should have slept the night before and started the long walk back to the car. The steep slog down took its toll on all of us, but waypoint after waypoint we made our way down to the Glade and the sand road that lead to our cars. That sand road was the end of us, it felt like our cars were around the corner but we just kept walking and walking with no end in sight. After what felt like hours we finally caught sight of the kraal where our cars were parked. Reaching the cars we collapsed into piles of uselessness next to them, taking a minute to recover before taking our bags off. Knowing we had a long drive home we tossed our bags in the boots and set off onto the sand roads.
For me the journey home consisted of mostly sleep. It was a rather quiet drive home and no one was really in the mood for talking. We stopped once for some food which I gobbled down in an instant. I was woken up when we hit the mother land, not far now to the rest of the cars that were parked in the City Rock parking lot,. Allister had made special arrangements on the way home for us to get in and get our cars. We finally arrived at City Rock, it was midnight, morals were low, Carte Blanche was over and we were already into Monday. We got in our separate cars and headed home to our soft cushy beds where we could not sleep for long before waking up for work.
If you ever want to make lifetime friends, please go ahead and follow the steps above, I can accrue you that spooning in a cave 300m off the floor is bound to bring you closer whether you like it or not. That night in the cave was miserable in the moment but after the fact it is a moment that I will never forget and something I am grateful to have experienced. Thanks to Wes and Ale for an epic adventure, for keeping the spirits high even when everything went pear shaped and for staying safe!! The Blue Hill strikes again!