The immense and daunting Fernwood Precipice would not yield a codger’s route – of this we were sure. But we really didn’t want to open a heroes’ route. Something in between would be just right. Something in the golden grades of trad climbing – G2 and G3 – and on excellent rock with outstanding rock-climbing. We were shooting for the stars. And we almost got it all.
Fernwood Precipice is known for its serious and scary routes, opened by some of our most heroic climbers. ‘Fernwood Gorge’ – the gully on the right, by George Travers-Jackson (Lordy!). ‘Fernwood Precipice’ – the first route to start up the wall then escape out left, by Barry Fletcher, Rick Williams and Paul White. ‘Fernwood Precipice Direct’ – aiding straight through the big overhangs, by Rick Williams and Tony Chinery. And ‘The Prodigal’ – with just one aid pitch, by Marijus Smigelskis and Donovan Burls.
We are over trying to be hero climbers. We wanted to dumb this place down to our own level of mediocrity and in so doing open a route that would be great for the people.
I had been slowly but surely closing in on something here for some years. I had involved Guy Paterson-Jones and more recently, Andy Court. Finally on Christmas Eve, Tinie Versfeld and I slinged a little pine tree overhanging the lip of the 350 metre face and over we went. Then we abseiled off an overhanging Cliffortia (one of those prickly bushes ironically called “Climbers’ Friend”) and then we climbed the 50m headwall. It had never been climbed before. And it was phenomenal!
We started sensing that we might be onto something very, very special. And we were back a few days later to abseil the entire overhanging and vertical wall, to walk out from the bottom.
All the trips and research paid off. We abseiled the extreme right (looking from below) of the wall and hit the jackpot. The whitish, kind-of-pillar right next to the Gorge is the treasure. And although the rap route is not entirely trivial (it never is, down a big overhanging wall), it worked really well and by 9pm we were down at the cars. After a day’s rest we were back, hiking in from Newlands to do a ground-up first ascent.
Our ‘for the People’ route is on the extreme right. At one place it gets to within one metre of the grassy Gorge. Due to tapering of the wall towards the bottom, our route does not start at the bottom apex. It starts off the right end of the Graveyard Ledge where the Ledge intersects the Gorge. It had taken ‘Fernwood Precipice’ nine pitches to get to this level, and it had taken ‘The Prodigal’ three pitches (big ones). From the bottom we approached by doing three pitches up Fernwood Gorge, following in the footsteps of the great George Travers-Jackson on 28 January 1906 (and the equally great Mike Scott with Gabriel Athiros in 1974).
The first move off the ground was proper and lovely. It remained that way for the whole pitch. It was like Touch and Go (opened by that team of three mentioned above). This put us at the right-hand end of the long thin overhang, which we had previously discerned as unclimbable. Marijus’ route skirts the left end. We had hard climbing to get above the big roof and to rail left to regain our plumbline. This second pitch turned out to be the crux pitch of the route. It is a solid and run-out 23. It couldn’t be onsighted as some critical handholds and gear placements had to be excavated. This was to be the case several times on the route, where the leader would be compelled to sit on a piece of kit and use his nut-key to extract a plant or dislodge some soil.
Some big, hard-ish, (21s and 22s) pitches requiring fairly deep wells of courage got us racing the clock to get to the Rooi Els Ledge. We know this fantastic ledge by the beautiful Rooi Els (Red Alder) tree growing from it. The tree is very flat against the mountain – almost 2D – and it offers shade and comfort and its very pretty. Marijus and Donovan had come up to this same ledge from the left side (and they named the ledge “The Bachelor Pad”).
We reached the ledge about 20 minutes before darkness won over daylight. Having had quite a day, we were pleased to haul our kit on our third rope and then settle in for tea and supper. Tinie maintains he “doesn’t do epics”, while I do. In his 45 years of climbing he has done very little in the way of spending cold nights on mountains. He doesn’t like cold, but I had extolled the merits of a cold night on a big wall in some half-decent clothing. So you can imagine his reaction when I pulled out my little sleeping bag! (But I shared it with him. In series. It’s too tight to fit two.)
It was very heartening to detect first light at around 4:30am and it was wonderful to get first direct rays at about 5:45am. Shortly after that we were cooking.
We were pretty crocked in the morning. It had been cold. And we’d had a big week. And maybe we are not at the pinnacle of our primes like a Julia Wakeling or a Gosia Lipinska.
From the bivvy ledge the next pitch starts in the shade of the Rooi Els. The shade is lovely and the rock is outstanding – and it all starts with quite a crank. And then it doesn’t let up for the rest of the pitch. While leading I heard voices. And there Tinie was communicating with our buddies Ant Hall, Brent Russel, Richard Halsey, Rachel Strate and Catherine Kuhn, as well as folks we didn’t know – Peter Wood and Kurt Roberts – who had come up Wormhole Ravine to get some pics and get the party started. Next thing we heard voices from the top of Protea Buttress. Our buddy Andy Baxter as well as John and Colin Gale . Our usually lonely adventures had become fun and social!
The pitch from the Rooi Els was spotlessly clean and just fantastic – like Farewell to Arms. And then another good pitch that needed two or three hangs and excavation to get to our next comfy ledge where we had a stash of water to make tea. Relief!
This comfy ledge is long and thin and goes all the way around the corner into Fernwood Gorge. The other two big routes that climb this huge face both hit this ledge and then follow it into the Gorge to then scramble out. Fernwood For the People scampers in the opposite direction to get to a break through the overhead roof. It then climbs this break and then teeters across a difficult slab with one thousand feet of air beneath the soles, to then climb very thin stuff to get up to a Thank God Rail. It’s not crazy hard but it is a very thin and tricky 22. Tinie styled it. He is such a master at thin technical climbing. I am not, and in a state of exhaustion I fluffed it. I was misfiring as my petrol was running out and used a couple of slings to get through the crux (rather than land out in space below the roof).
We bade farewell to all our friends and continued with our route. On the last pitch, which I happened to be leading, I made my last move to get off the wall. I pulled on a little pine tree. Not the abseil one. This one was the thickness of my thumb. Tinie came up and said: “lets get away from this cliff”.
First ascent: Fernwood for the People (10 pitches grades 20 to 23) 220 metres
Tinie Versfeld and Hilton Davies
8 and 9 January 2021
- The reason we didn’t get it all: we had to accept one pitch at Arms Race level i.e. grade 23. Oh, well.
- The route is climbed but not ready for presentation. That will be after another round. The route description will then be published.
- This route is going to be Chateauneuf du Pape for the people. Our people.
- Our utmost respect to the first ascentionists: George Travers-Jackson, Barry Fletcher, Rick Williams, Paul White, Tony Chinery, Marijus Smigelskis and Donovan Burls.
- Out utmost respect to anyone who has climbed any of the routes on this wall or the Gorge (yes, the Gorge too. If you get to it your admiration will be massive).