Every so often we hear of exceptional human feats of endurance, from Shackleton and Messner to more recent mind blowing free solo epic craziness by Alex Honnold and others in the extreme elite. Somehow, it does feel rather unfamiliar and difficult to get a real feel for how far they must push themselves. Yes, the film (you know which one I’m referring to) helps us to get the finest armchair experience and brings it a lot closer to all of us. Yet … for many of us, nothing beats the real thing and being there or taking part and seeing it unfold in front of us, knowing that this is a one-take-wonder imprinted on our memories. Never to be seen again, I was there when…
It all started with our two young legends of the country’s rock climbing scene. Chris Cosser represented South Africa in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and exceeded all expectations. He looked good, climbed strong, set a new SA speed record and made us proud. Mel Janse van Rensburg grew up in Waterval Boven (Boven for short) and ticked all the hard routes over the last five years, including two of grade 34, opened a 33 and also won the boulder and lead sections in the Africa Continental Championship. These two climbers have been training together, going on road trips and also competed against each other on numerous occasions. On a recent trip in Boven, with various missions like doing Freak On (24/7a) in 1 minute and 1 second by Mel, they somehow brainstormed an idea to get a fundraiser going in aid of the local climbing club of Boven.
In October 2021, the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA), the Wits Mountain Club and the Boven Reboot Initiative hosted the Boven open weekend in order to get climbers from everywhere to get to know the local Boven climbers and to be treated by some hidden gems that the Emgwenya climbers have been discovering. With the help of Roc ‘n Rope Adventures, they have bolted routes and designed hiking trails and properly started taking ownership of their outdoor experiences. Equipment sponsored by the MCSA has been keeping them going and it has been so refreshing to see their progress as well as Chris and Mel’s generosity in doing this fundraising for the local climbers of Boven. Their idea became a poster and from there the posts took social media platforms by storm and with whispers amongst the climbers, it spread like wildfire. Snapdragon! What? Laps on Snapdragon? How many?
We all remember raising funds for school, with parents pledging 5 or 10 cents for every lap around the course. The rules for this challenge were just as simple, pledge and amount per combined amount of laps done by Chris and Mel from 10h00 till 22h00. To spice things up, we opened a little optional side bet: for R100, you could put in your calculated guesses into the pool, the winner takes half and the Emgwenya Climbers Club take the other half. Everyone wins!
In 1992, Richard Lord and Mike Hislop found, bolted and opened South Africa’s most iconic sport climb. The word got around, and we sometimes get climbers from abroad arriving in Boven with the first question: “So where is Snapdragon?”. The two climbers from Johannesburg had old school bolting gear and took longer to drill the route than to actually make the first ascent! During that same era, Richard also opened Jabberwocky at a grade 33 and it became the first route of that grade in the country. When I asked ‘Ricky’ about his prediction on how many laps is possible he did not miss a beat and answered: “Thirty each”. I was speechless at first and asked him how he came to that? We ended up heading down a rabbit hole about modern training techniques, hang-boards, importance of nutrition and general psych. Richard now lives in Cape Town, mostly bouldering and has admittedly gone to the ‘dark side’ with the acquisition of a downhill e-bike!
Chris and Mel literally had to get jump started on Saturday, 22 January 2022. The entry sign was up, the lights lit up on the route, but they were stuck in town with a flat battery in the car! With only a couple of minutes to spare before 10h00, a coin was tossed, heads was called and Chris got the honours to do the warm-up lap on Snapdragon.
To put things in perspective, even for seasoned climbers, this route is no walkover. It is an endurance test piece with the hardest moves between the second and third bolts on credit card crimps. Imagine stacking three credit cards on top of each other, flat on a wall. That’s what you reach for on each hand, hold onto and then have to pull up and move onto the next holds, which are thankfully better. This brutality is followed by sequential and long taxing moves, using rather slopey holds through the bottom face section (see image of Chris). It seems vertical but as you reach the ‘jugs’ under the first overhang and look down, nothing below you can be classified as vertical. It gently overhangs all the way, forcing you to use your arms more and the foot holds are scattered as if it was a route designed in an indoor wall, just where you want them, when you need them but never big enough to stand on them to get some back.
Moving out on full extension will bring you to a flattish ledge out left where a rest should theoretically be possible, but the angles are all wrong and an extended shake-out is all you get. Unless your name is Mel, then you engage clarinet-playing chin powers to get a quick no-hands relief (see image of Mel). The next section traverses diagonally out right fairly easily on positive holds and sparse feet before the real business section of the climb starts. You have to throw to small edges, place your feet just at the right angle, sometimes crimping a layback or simply just gritting your teeth through the redpoint crux before reaching the famous Snapdragon heel-hook move. The jug is not really incut enough to rest on well and there is big air below your feet. Any possible footholds are hidden below little roofs that you just pulled through or they are at the wrong angles! Then comes the crack and you have to actually caress the crack with a fair amount of intent! A possible shake out can be found before the final sequence.
When you look up at this point, the chains are within spitting distance but by now your mouth is dry and you probably have no breath to spare. Then you ask yourself what were they thinking by putting up all the next holds upside down!? Your saving grace is that the angle has eased off and you can actually use your feet to push from as you gently balance up into the upside-down holds. Then, keep it together, lots of climbers have come thus far and sadly botched their onsight or redpoint attempts here! As if it was script-written, the finishing hold is a mega jug and you could choose to stay in control as you slowly extend your legs in order to reach or simply just go for it!!! That is one lap…how much more would Chris and Mel have in them in 12 hours?
Google searches bring up a possible definition: Endurance is the power to keep going even when something is hard. How hard is it really? What is hard for you is maybe not hard for me? What we do know is that for these seasoned climbers, Snapdragon is literally their warm-up route at the crag. And yes, it takes a little while to wrap our minds around this. If you had to rewind back to 1982 and did a grade 29 (French 7c+), you would be amongst the elite, sponsors and press, magazine covers, fame and fortune (ok, minus the fortune – this is not football!).
Mel was still busy taping his (slightly injured) finger when Chris got lowered, tied back in and set off to take the lead: 2-0. Mel steadily stood his ground and by 12 o’clock they each had 7 climbs on the score sheet. They deserved a good 40 minute break before taking on the next 5 climbs each. Things started looking more down than up here and without falling off, Chris hit a wall (in his words), feeling the need to load up with carbs and sugar: “Sense of humour failure, I literally thought I was going to die! That’s me, I’m ready to go home!” Mel wasn’t as expressive about it but the fatigue attacked him as well. They called lunch and enjoyed sandwiches, coffee etc. provided by the friendly folk from Tegwaan Country Getaway and Scallywags Coffee. This also gave time for Alwande Maliba, the Emgwenya club captain, to try Snapdragon on top-rope! He climbed boldly until the bottom crux gave him horns and many reasons to train harder: “Those holds are too small, I can’t even grip!” Chris managed with the help of one of his sponsors to secure some really fine looking T-Shirts for The North Face to hand out to all the Emgwenya Club members. They were full of smiles!
Right: Ncedo Maseko from Emgwenya climbing at the Superbowl during the Snapdragon Showdown.
Time check: 14h00 and back to work. At this stage Chris recovered, all smiles and the two were cruising up Snapdragon in about 5 or 6 minutes each. There were few exchanges about finding even better beta and making the most of quick shake outs. Mel even reverted to a sneaky hand jam under the roofs to milk a rest! They figured that speed was their friend and that less time on the wall would suck less energy as long as they could stay focused and not stuff up any moves which could lead to a fall. With the cloud cover that set in for most of the day, some rain also made things interesting. On his 15th lap, Mel was just halfway when the heavens opened up. Mel decided to gun it and managed to clip the chains before the top holds were properly soaked. Luckily it blew over and we stayed mostly dry for the rest of the evening. Those without down jackets knew all about it and will remember to layer up next time, even in the Boven summer! The goal from here was to punch hard and get 22 laps each on the board before taking another deserved break. It went well until lap 20 when Chris dropped it close to the top. All that energy was spent when he took a big whipper. It was just past 18h00 with less than four hours to go!
Mel had one or two close calls, almost falling off as the fatigue set in and only managed one more climb (and loads of snacks and supplements!) between 19h00 and 20h00 bringing his score to 23 before the final onslaught. Between 20h00 and 21h00 he added 4 more trips to the chains of Snapdragon. By now the crowds were back from doing various other night climbs at the Superbowl, just around the corner. The music was pumping and the hangers-on got involved with next-level screaming and shouting. Adding to the party, 2 sets of strip-lights hung from the top on either side of the route meaning that headlamps were not even required. In the last hour Mel dug deep and added 5 more ascents to bring his total to an amazing 32 and added a whopping victory-whip from the top of Snapdragon for extra style points.
The winner of the betting was Tim Slab with his prediction of 30-25 for Mel. We asked him for some insights on why he chose those numbers: “Well after all, 29 is 5/6 grades below their [current] limits. And I figured that Mel is the local and having had more crag exposure, whilst Chris focused heavily on the indoor competition training in the last year. I woke up on Saturday morning with these numbers coming to me first thing, like in a dream.”.
There are a few people who bet less than 10 laps per climber who may now have to take out a bank loan to pay their dues! 100 people pledged a total amount of R1919 per lap with R3000 added from the betting pool, bringing the total sponsorship amount to R112 383. The aim of the Emgwenya Climbers Club is to do lots of climbing outdoors, to build a training facility and to travel to go competing in indoor competitions. They already have an allocated piece of land close to the local Imemeza High School where they plan to construct a wall.
Mel was lucky enough to get a full body massage by Natasja Prinsloo in Boven where all the climbers go for après-climbing recovery. Chris jumped straight on a flight to Salt Lake City to further his training in preparation for the upcoming World Games, where he and Mel will meet again.
Special thanks to:
The MCSA – thanks for allowing us to park on top of the crag and waiving the daily permits.
Roc ‘n Rope Adventures – thanks for logistics, transporting and feeding the Emgwenya Club members.
For anyone who still want to contribute, contact Mel and Chris via: https://forms.gle/NfgNkRNmTYGKdM8d9