Undoubtedly we should have also gone for the Tommy Caldwell Pro DRY 9.6mm 70 metre rope, not only would we have been down well before sunset, but we also would have saved the MCSA Rescue team the drive from Pietermaritzburg. Our ropes were 10mm and as soon as they got wet in the thunderstorm they expanded and seized when we tried to pull them through, preventing us from descending.
To the climbing community
We wanted to share our experience with the hope of others learning from our ordeal, as well as soliciting constructive advice and beta from those more experienced, so that this situation can perhaps be prevented in similar conditions.
3 of us, Stephan Coetzer, Mercia Malan and Shaun Smith traveled to Swinburne on Wednesday evening to climb ‘Long Bolt to Freedom’ an 8-pitch multi-pitch route on Rensberg’s Kop. We were hoping to climb in 2-person teams with friends but unfortunately, we were the three that could take the Friday off. We decided to climb with three people on two ropes. Mercia in the middle tied to both ends of the ropes while Stephan and I swapped on lead.
We prepared for an ascent on the public holiday – Thursday the 21st of March 2019. We rehearsed in the gym the week before to make sure that we were all on the same page in terms of setting up anchors at the stance. We also made sure that we had all of the correct gear needed for this climb – Radios, 2 x quads, slings, plenty of quickdraws, ATC’s, 2 prussiks each, headlamps, extra carabiners and bail-out biners. We also had two gri-gri’s that always come in handy and we feel more comfortable climbing with, in case something happens to the belayer.
We were staying at the Riverview Country Inn and on the day, we woke up at 06h15 to check the weather. It was overcast and misty. We decided to get ready and drive to Appin in case the weather cleared. It did and we could see blue skies on the way. We arrived at the base of the mountain, kitted up and started climbing at 08h45, a little later than anticipated but well within our window we had planned for. Our maximum turnaround time was 16h00 to allow for at least two hours for three 50+ metre descents.
We estimated that the first couple of pitches would take roughly an hour each knowing that 3 people would take longer than 2. Stephan wanted to have a go at the crux on pitch 3 so we worked out that he would do the first pitch, set up a stance and wait for Mercia to climb on top rope. I would then follow behind and go straight into leading on 2 so that I could set up the stance for them. Stephan could then rest and lead on 3. In an effort to save time, we set up a few slings on quickdraws in case Mercia needed to aid if stuck. We knew that we didn’t have a lot of time to work problems. Stephan attempted 3 but decided to let me lead it so that I could set them both up for top rope. I had climbed this route before. I also set up a few slings so that we could get through it quickly. Mercia attempted it and really struggled, so swapped with Stephan who climbed up to the stance with me at the end of the pitch.
We had two Zartek ZA748 radios on us so that the persons on lead and rear could easily communicate. Stephan had at this stage given the radio to Mercia who would be last on the pitch. I was getting concerned with the time as we were taking a little over an hour with the pitches. Once Stephan joined me we both agreed and started working out possible scenarios that we had planned for, in case one of us couldn’t continue. Mercia radioed in and claimed to be stuck at the beginning of the crux. We couldn’t see what was happening so relied on what she was telling us. We tried to hoist as soon as she made some ground but she was spending all of her energy to get through the problem. She decided that she wasn’t going to get it done so asked if we could lower her to the stance at the pocket again. It was a difficult call for her but definitely the right one and proved to be even more so when we ran into trouble later on.
Stephan traverse sailed back down to where she was. They secured themselves to the quad and then used their 70-metre rope for an abseil from the top of 2. Stephan then bundled the rope, slung it and climbed back up to meet me. We tied into both and I lead up to the top of 4 with two ropes. I had spent a significant amount of time at this stance so was eager to climb, and Stephan needed some time to rest after climbing the crux twice. Once we were both there we moved onto the grass ledge to set up for the next 3 pitches that were shorter. We were climbing reasonably fast to make up the time.
We eventually made the summit at 15h30 took a bit of time to celebrate, take a few photos and sign the geocache log. We heard quite a bit of thunder in the distance and also saw some dark clouds on the other side of the mountain when we were at the top. The weather was perfect until then with occasional clouds but mostly sunny skies. Some mist came in from around the mountain when we were on 6/7 but it didn’t look like anything we needed to be overly concerned about.
While Stephan was signing the log, I started joining the ropes to thread through the chains. We used a fisherman’s knot as well as an overhand on either side to err on the side of caution, as always (I noticed that the MCSA S&R only use a fisherman’s knot). The clouds pulled in extremely quickly and visibility was reduced considerably. I would estimate that it was about 15h50 when the rain started. There was crashing thunder and lightning all around. We put things into fast forward at this stage as the lightning was deafening and lighting up the sky close to us. I was first to set up for a repel and once we had knotted the ends of the ropes and thrown them down, I attached the prussic to a carabiner on my leg, threaded the ropes through my ATC and began abseiling. I don’t think that I have ever repelled that fast before, by the time I was on the ledge I was soaking. I took out my poncho and tried to put it on in a hurry. Stephan was also trying as fast as possible to set up so that he could get off the summit. While I was on repel he was making himself as small as possible, in an attempt to not be the highest point in the Free State for lightning to strike. There was nowhere to take shelter. We also had so much equipment attached to us that a strike close enough would have been the end of us both.
Stephan got down to me and we detached so that we could pull the rope through. We both made sure that we knew which rope to pull at the summit and began pulling Stephan’s 70m. It was soaking at this stage and was stuck, properly so. We thought that somehow the knot had snagged a rock and sent a couple of waves up to try to detach it. It wasn’t budging. We also unsuccessfully pulled the ropes from both sides of the ledge to try different angles. By this stage, Stephan’s fingers were bleeding, presumably from bashing against a few rocks. We gave it some time and then attached 4 prussiks to the rope so that we could have better leverage with pulling it. That was over 170kg of force trying to manoeuvre it. No luck whatsoever. We were literally hanging on it.
Thank goodness I had my phone on me and we notified Mercia on the ground explaining our situation. It was getting dark quite quickly and we were both soaking wet. We tried the rope a few more times and made the call to get a hold of MCSA Search and Rescue to let them know about our situation. We put the call in to MCSA KZN as well as to MCSA JHB – I spoke to Mick and he was also able to assist with coordinating. Our primary concern at this moment was the proximity of the lightning strikes all around us. It was so loud but thankfully I could still communicate with Stephan via the radio. Turns out that they are water resistant. I knew that we had to conserve battery power for communication, so I disabled most of my phone’s functions. We also knew that a helicopter rescue would be out of the question as the visibility from fog and weather made it impossible getting close to the mountain without serious risk.
Gavin Raubenheimer – The MCSA KZN Search and Rescue convener also called a few times to find out what the situation was, and we explained in detail what the problem was and what we were trying to do. We knew that we had prussiks and that we could try to get up to the summit using this method. He also suggested that we try. Stephan gave it a bash and after making little to no progress of ascent after a good few steps, we realised that it wasn’t possible for us in those conditions. The dynamic rope was wet, we were both freezing cold, exhausted and a little disoriented from all of the elements acting against us. To use prussiks on a vertical ascent of 50 metres just wasn’t possible. By this time, the MCSA S&R team had already been dispatched and I believe most were on the way from Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
Feedback from Mercia during this time: Shout-out to the MCSA search and rescue! I was on the ground with limited view of the mountain due to mist and rain. I phoned S&R about 30min after Shaun made the original call to follow up on the situation. They immediately knew what I was talking about and gave me info, which I could relay to the guys on the mountain. After my call, the S&R kept me in the loop of what was happening, and I acted as middle (wo)man between them and the guys on the mountain (who were trying to save phone battery). Thanks to the rescue squad for keeping me in the loop, allowing me to send messages to the guys which helped with their panic levels – and to not do something risky!
There was approximately 20m of rope on the ledge, so we decided that I would lead as far as I could up Pitches 5-6 but realised that we wouldn’t have enough rope for Stephan to belay from the ledge. We were hoping to see where the rope was snagged but it was definitely somewhere near the summit, so we would have had to climb past the final scramble. We wasted a bit of time here as I came back down to the ledge instead of Stephan tying in to the end of the rope and climbing top-rope up to me. At this point neither of us were thinking clearly and making decisions were more difficult from that point on. The adverse effects of being cold and physically/mentally exhausted had set in. We had been on the mountain for close to 12 hours already.
We decided to repeat the exercise and redo pitches 5-8 to get to the summit to see what was going on. I lead 5, Stephan 6 and then I climbed 7 and 8 to the scramble. Stephan had tied the end of the stuck rope to himself so that we could still reach it and flake it once we had freed the snag. The weather was still bad, and we were both still soaking wet. It was incredibly difficult to climb with wet pants and the wet slippery rock didn’t help either.
Once we reached the summit again, we were in a rush to try and free the rope. On the way up the scramble I caught a glimpse of the joint where we knotted the two ropes. It was suspended in the air so the chances of that being the problem were minimal. We had an issue with Stephan’s headlamp as well as one of the radios so communication and visibility was a huge challenge. The noise from the thunder and rain drowned out our voices and we could barely hear each other if we were more than 15 metres apart.
Once we had untied the joining, we began to flake both ropes to repeat the process. The snagged rope that Stephan had attached to had caught on something on the way up and we both tried freeing it by sending a few waves and slack downwards. Not even throwing the other end down so that we could pull a single line up worked. It wasn’t our day with that rope and we had run out of options. If we had set up a belay on a single line from a safe stance we could have seen what was going on with that rope. There was a high probability that the rope was caught past the ledge and overhang so getting back up could have been a problem. That coupled with one light and one radio between the two of us and with lightning all around, we ditched the rope, it was too risky to stay up there for any longer. We decided to simul climb with one rope back down to the ledge at the end of pitch 7 on the other side of the mountain. Finding the bolts to add protection was difficult with the light that we had and there was only 1 bolt half way down the scramble.
After a great deal of time, we eventually got back down to the grassy ledge at 20h30. It was quite a relief. I mentioned that we were making a few simple mistakes due to exhaustion and cold, such as failing to make ourselves safe at one point, incorrectly configuring a gri-gri, forgetting equipment and also forgetting to remove our safety slings before repelling. We also confused ourselves with the rope management the second time we summitted and we had to verbalise what we were trying to do. We decided to double and triple check ourselves as we descended between pitches. We didn’t want to be making any serious and detrimental errors at this point.
We were exhausted and not thinking straight and it was time to buckle down, find what minimal shelter we could, take stock and try to get warm. For a brief moment we saw a few stars sitting on the ledge but then the skies closed in and the rain started again. We moved up the base of the mountain and found a spot next to a boulder where we had partial shelter. We were both super uncomfortable. Drenched, thirsty, cold and hungry. Luckily we had a few snacks to keep us going. Some whiskey in a flask we bought up to celebrate the summit, also cheered us up a bit.
Thanks goodness Mercia was on the ground relaying information back and forth. We sent her a voice note that we were okay and tried to sound cheerful. I also heard from Gavin via text (To save battery) that they had assembled but wouldn’t climb if it was raining due to safety precautions. It wasn’t at that moment, but a few minutes afterwards it started coming back down again. We worried that help would not get to us until dawn. He also wanted updates on our condition.
Minutes felt like hours and Stephan and I kept on hearing and seeing things. At one stage I was positive that I heard voices, only to realise that I had pocket dialled someone that had tried to cold-call me earlier. Shame, they must have only heard swearing when I realised where it was coming from. We were huddled pretty close together to conserve heat and in any normal situation, it would have been considered too much man-love for a rock climb. It felt like Brokeback but only because our asses and backs were so sore and stiff from sitting on rocks under this small recess. We tried sitting on a few slings to make it more comfortable, but it didn’t help much. I was shaking like a leaf and my pants and drimac were still very wet. To this day I will never understand why they call it a ‘dri’ anything. Stephan told me that it was actually warmer taking off the wet climbing shoes and I did, it was.
We got up a few times to check on the imaginary light we were seeing, our minds were playing some serious tricks on us. We were also trying different channels on our radios to see if we could pick up the Search and Rescue frequencies, to no avail. Earlier Gavin had asked if we could see any change of light with him shining his brights and there was just no chance. The fog was thick.
Mercia and Gavin had given us updates when the team were close to the crux (23h26), we were feeling a little more optimistic at this stage, knowing that there were guys coming up. Eventually, at about 00h30 we could see some residual light breaking through the fog and we knew someone was close on pitch 4. We gathered our stuff and scrambled down to meet whomever it was at the chains after pitch 4.
We met Nigel first followed closely by Gavin. They told us the most difficult part wasn’t so much the crux but rather getting past the wet rock on 4. We were so happy to see them. I was shaking so badly that I managed to drop my ATC down the mountain after taking it off my harness for the repel. Luckily Stephan had a spare as my mind was in no condition to remember how to knot a munter-hitch.
Nigel and Gavin set up the two lines for a repel down to 3. We were both eager to get down so descending was a pleasure compared to the previous few hours we had spent up there. I met Carl at the pocket at the end of pitch 3. He had climbed up using two jumars so that he could set up another two ropes for the final descent. It was pitch black so worrying about the height above ground wasn’t as bad as I tied in for the final repel. I got down to the ground first and met John who was ready to address any medical conditions and hypothermia. He had made some tea and I went straight to my backpack, which was left at the start of the climb, covered in a rain cover, to get my other duck-down top. These are also pretty useless in the rain so it didn’t help with warming me up.
Stephan got down to the bottom a few minutes after me and I heard Gavin on the radio asking his team to watch him closely, as he was saying a few things that weren’t making sense. I think we were both suffering from hypothermia by the time we hit the ground. Thankfully we didn’t make any serious mistakes that would have compromised our safety. We were both down at 01h45 having spent 17 hours on the mountain. We waited for everyone to get back down to the bottom, gathered the gear and walked down towards a path where we met Mercia, obviously elated. She had gone back to our accommodation to fetch us warm clothes as well as blankets. We were so happy to see her too.
It turns out that Gavin was the first climber to open this route and we were incredibly grateful that all four of them were highly competent search & rescue climbers who knew what they were doing. I think it was Carl who told me that Gavin had also experienced a similar problem in the past.
We can only conclude that the issue must have been at the chains. Both chains looked a little rusty and there was a newer biner attached to one of the anchors. We threaded the rope through the one chain and through the newer biner. The one contact point could have been higher than the other which caused the swollen rope to seize at the point of contact. Feedback on various groups indicates that this was an uncommon yet likely cause of our problems. I would like to attach a picture of these chains and carabiner/anchor for future reference if anyone can forward one to me please?
Stephan and I would like to thank the following people:
– Gavin, Carl, John and Nigel from MCSA KZN Search & Rescue and Peak High for taking the call, dropping everything on the afternoon of a public holiday and coming to the aid of fellow climbers. A great bunch of lads who we will forever be indebted to. We will do our best to pay it forward.
– Mercia Malan who coordinated efforts from the ground that included communications with climbers who may have been in the area, helicopter rescue contacts, MCSA JHB & KZN and rescue personnel.
– MCSA support staff in Johannesburg for assisting with team mobilisation
– ‘Lead or Die’ and ‘Real Lazy Asses’ climbing crews for offering assistance
Gerald Camp, Pete Janschek, Carlo Antonelli and Adam for retrieving some of our gear off the mountain and bringing it back to Joeys
Blue Skies and safe climbs