Forging ahead

That was beautiful.  I’ve never felt so one hundred percent Present in a climb. Noting every foot and hand placement.  A running dialogue in my head noting how I must “turn my hip properly on the next move.  Find that micro foot.  I can make that next clip. Man I’m feeling good. Feeling the grip and ah, there’s that dimple.  Okay, I can easily make that next move now.  How beautiful is this climb?  The flow of the moves, the journey it takes you through.”

Climbing during a previous Oudtshoorn trip. Thanks to Ezan Vercuil for the picture.

And all the while, appreciating the myriad of moments that were interwoven to lead up to this one. From my friendship with Brigitte which had brought us to Oudtshoorn this weekend to visit her (Cape Town hasn’t been the same for me since she moved to Plett), to the suggested warm up because my friend wanted a top rope on her project, to the snow yesterday that prompted a forced rest day.  And as much as we moaned about the cold we were awestruck by the beauty of the Swartberg pass covered in snow and giggled at the fuzzy frost covering everything that morning.  

A frosty fuzzy car

Brigitte and I jumping for all the joy of the weekend

Beautiful snow covered peaks in the distance

I was watching one of my friends climb the previous day and could see he was totally focused on the crux of his route. He didn’t care if he was sloppy or burning energy on the way up to it. As much as we tell ourselves we can recover in the rest before a crux, it struck me how important it was to get the lead up right. This encouraged me to focus on every move. 

Besides that, in the quiet moments of the morning or during long drives I have been contemplating, listening to podcasts, reading – all about living in the now, about letting go of the past in the hopes that I could heal and forgive and move on with a heart that is whole. This is on the back end of 2 years of contemplation, struggle and evolution as I deal with a different phase in my life.  And in that journey to the chains I felt it in the most tangible way.  Once again climbing had shone a physical light on a spiritual and mental path.  

It was the most thrilling experience of my year. To be so fully immersed in the beauty of each moment.  And pushing pushing pushing. Looking up and seeing the draws stretching off for many meters above me and, instead of feeling even a little bit daunted, I simply felt the thrill of the challenge.

By illonapelser

A different kind of training

I was having a deeply philosophical run yesterday through the forest. I went there to clear my head and ended up thinking about the comparisons between training and life philosophies.  
In training for any sport we purposely but ourselves through stresses and seek out new challenges. We do this in view of bettering ourselves, unlocking new abilities. We constantly seek ways of pushing limits. Why then does it feel like we often try and find comfort zones in our mental and emotional states? We try and avoid stress. Perhaps we challenge ourselves in some way but it is highly unlike the grueling and relentless way we strive to improve our bodies or physical abilities. Our approach to it is different.
How often have we found that by pushing ourselves further out of our comfort zone, that our initial hurdles become obsolete? That what used to be our workout now becomes our warmup? What makes us thirst for new physical challenges but makes us recoil from any emotional ones?

By illonapelser

Head space

Lately I have been finding myself in these situations where I’m looking at myself in a slightly detached way.  You know those times where you’re going “well what have we got here missy?  You’re run out, smearing on sketchy feet, holding on with a half pad thumb gaston and the potential fall could be the nasty ground type where Gravity has the upper hand yet you’re casually whistling your way up.  Don’t you think it would be appropriate to show a little fear right now?  Maybe even just fake it a little?  Because hot damn, shit could get real here.”

And yet, with all the ranting that little voice does, I can’t seem to muster the fear.  Oh, it’s still in there for sure.  For years my head was the biggest obstacle to my climbing progress.  And I’m certainly not the most bucking cowboy on the block but lately those moments have happened more and more.

Perhaps there is some internal auditor taking stock of the amount of friction divided by the difficulty of the move, timesed by the coefficient of how gutsy/stupid the next move might be and rounded off to the nearest level of experience.  An internal auditor that sits there with a pencil jammed into the too tight bun which sits behind the ear where their oversized glasses rest and nasally responds “honey, you got this.  You’ve been here before.  Only it was 3 years ago in the peak of summer with worn down shoes and on tired arms and ever so slightly sleep deprived but you still pulled it off.  Okay, you were younger and fitter an certainly skinnier but now you’re more experienced and wiser.  So shut up and climb.”

I don’t know what the answer is but I’m going to ride the onsight spree while I can.

The day after

I wake to the rhythmic sound of traffic.  What happened to the melodic tinkling of the mountain streams?  I look around my empty room. Where are my friends, my tribe?  I put a heavy pack on my back and invent a mission to go on that morning, just so I can get out.  I yearn for the mountains so badly it aches.

I miss that feeling of getting up and going.  Your heartbeat thudding, strong as a drum.

I shuffle on to work, passing by the bergies who are packing away their “home” for the night.  Stuffing their bedding down manholes or in drains, out of the way of the rest of us.  People zombie on past me, the malaise of the city cataracting their eyes.

Why do we do this?  When did we buy into this?

Why are we not in the mountains where we feel alive?  The places where we don’t have to seek happiness, where it comes naturally.

Instead we ferret ourselves away in our little boxes, isolate ourselves with our “don’t talk to me” shields.  Glaze over with screen eyes.

By illonapelser

A complicated way to simplify life

I found myself grovelling my way up a grotty chimney, who knows how far above my last pieces of pro. I had lost track after the first few lead outs. All that mattered was getting the lads off the mountain and the longer I dallied, the slimmer our chances were of doing it without an epic. The light was quickly fading, I was bumping and sliding my way through dirt and Dassie poo and I was seriously reviewing the life choices that had brought me to this point. Sure, we had been in high spirits for 7 pitches up this behemoth but now I was starting to think some not pretty thoughts in the direction of Snort.

Months earlier, the tenacious Dr Edelstein had sent out a feeler email to Jimbo “Mohawk” Smith, Johan Lanz and I, suggesting we join the AAC/MCSA exchange. I was in a yes phase of my mood cycle so I skimmed over the email, shrugged at the acronyms and simply replied “I’m in.” I didn’t have a clue what I was signing up for but I believed that, with Snort involved, it would be a helluva ride.

I soon found out that AAC stood for the American Alpine Club and Snort’s vision was to get as many of their climbers over here to sample our trad climbing followed by a trip to America at some stage where they would reciprocate.  What followed was months worth of strategizing, big talk about large groups of psyched climbers descending on the Cedarberg and wild parties with dancing girls (Snort’s version). And then more talk of manageable sized groups of anyone keen to join, with some reasonable locations (the rest of the committee’s version). There was a lot of back and forth via emails until eventually the day arrived.
The Americans had landed and the trip began on Table Mountain.


The classic climber on Table Mountain shot.  Pic by Allister Fenton

Further sampling of our local trad menu included tastes of Yellowwood, Hellfire and the Magaliesberg. But the main event for many of us was the Blouberg trip. Having all heard the tales of the walk in (which could be anything from 2 – 6 hrs depending on which stories you listened to), the extreme heat (forecast to be 33°C), and the difficult path finding through the dreaded Boulder maze, there were mixed feelings about this leg of the trip. With mutinous mutterings stirring and alliances forming, it was starting to smack of an episode of Survivor.

After a minor confrontation between the rebel leader (aka Cheeky Boy) and the federation, the air was cleared and we put our heads down to our fate. We marched up the hike from Frans’ Kraal in the dark, a stream of headlamps slinking it’s way up to the vlaktes. Dropping our bags we wondered what the campsite looked like in the light.


The line of headlamps slinking it’s way up to Blouberg. Photo by Damien Schumann

We weren’t to see it till 2 days later as we set off the next morning in the dark, already stressing about the rising temperatures. Having spent some hot days at Yellowwood, I worried how I would get up its big bad brother without suffering from the cramps that were often synonymous with a day of multi-pitching in the sun.


Yellowwood amphitheater. Spot the two climbers if you can.

The excitement was high. The strategies were rolled out and we set off in our various teams. Paul stepped up to the plate, opting to do the first pitch of Teddy Bears in exchange for James and I leading the meatier later pitches. But his attempt was not to be. The “delicate flake” a few meters up proved to be too balancey and trick.  Within minutes our first pitch was stalled by Paul’s ground fall as his two small cams ripped out of the flake and he flew off, getting away lightly with some bruises and a badly sprained ankle. To his credit he dusted himself off and followed me up the first pitch of our contingency plan, Bush Pig.


A topo if you please

With his ankle throbbing, Paul swallowed his pride and chose to abseil down after the first pitch in order to not “slow down the team” and James and I set off in high spirits despite the unorthodox start to our day. Between us, James and I had over 2 decades of sport climbing but only a smattering of trad climbs. Surprisingly, we quickly found our groove and raced up the next two pitches to meet the rest of the climbers on the Grassy Ledge. Hoorah, we had caught up. All around us the teams were reshuffling and leapfrogging onto different routes from what they had set out on whether it was because they realised they had bit off more than they could chew or they had lost team mates due to injury or illness.  “They’re dropping like flies” Squeaks commented. We realised our ascent wasn’t too shabby in comparison. From the Grassy Ledge Chris joined us as his team had retreated.


James having a whale of a time up Blouberg

Which brings me back to the grotty chimney, 4 pitches later (and one crazy moment when a swarm of bees flew up the crag, stunning everyone into frozen climbers, hoping to be passed by unnoticed). Why was I here I asked myself. Despite the enormous amount of gees James and I had given to this day, 13 hours later we found ourselves hitting our first low. I shook my head as I thought “what would my brother think of me now, squirming my way up this rock like the way we used to shimmy up the door frames in the house when we were little? …..maybe I should’ve stuck to the cozy door frames instead of finding myself in what is fast approaching an epic.”

As the light faded so did our enthusiasm for the route. The terrain looked different in the light of the headlamps.  Foot holds became harder to find and we now inched our way up the wall instead of yarding.  We topped out thanks to Chris taking the final pitch and then looked aroun.  Disappointed. This was not the promised top out. More mountain loomed above us, barely catching the light of our headlamps.

With a lot of false starts we finally scrambled to the top.  Had we known the territory was going to be so treacherous we would’ve thought twice about soloing it in the dark.  Eventually Chris spotted headlamps in the distance and we raced towards the cavalry.  We found the Americans waiting patiently with Jimbo and Snort who led us on the not trivial 2 hour hike back to camp in the dark. Surprisingly, the others who we had last seen on the Grassy ledge were hours behind us. We were the lucky ones who made it back on aching legs to our sleeping bags by 11pm. I vaguely recall hearing the others stagger in at 4am. By all standards, us silly sport climbers had done well.

The next morning was a slow one. We finally got to hang out at the campsite in the light. Stories of all the epics were swapped and notes compared. Remarkably, everyone had come out smiling. In fact laughing and singing. And that was when I understood why we were here. Why we put ourselves through this. It gave us perspective. It brought us peace in some weird way. With every meter gained up that rock face we left our first world problems further and further behind. We scrambled, crimped and side pulled our way to freedom from our 9-5 lives. Far from being “weird” for pursuing such adventures we were being more natural in this state. Swimming in crystal clear water, being part of a community of our like minded tribe, living with a lightness and passion, fired up with fresh air and the kind of jet fuel that runs through your veins that instead of needing rest after a week worth of solid grueling exercise and lack of sleep, leaves you feeling invincible and capable of grinding through more hours of trekking with nearly half your body weights worth of stuff on your back. You know that whatever comes up, you’ll make a plan and deal with it. It makes you feel in touch with the earth again, away from the noise and over-stimulation of your city life.  And in the heinously complicated way with all the shiny engineered gear and intricate rules that is part of our sport, for a few days we simplify our lives to be all about survival.

Big girls don’t cry

Paige Claassen once wrote an article about crying at the crag.  While climbing can certainly stir all sorts of emotions and stir them hard, I can’t remember ever crying.  When I read the article I thought perhaps I’m just not that girly or different people respond in different ways.  Paige is one of my climbing heroes so I didn’t dismiss her words. Someone who gives everything they have every time they step off the ground certainly gets a bit more cred than your local gym rat.

But I digress.  Today was probably the closest I came to letting loose on the water works while on the sharp end.

I haven’t been tradding for a while and my trad experience as a whole is limited. But my head space feels good at the moment and that environment is starting to resonate with me.  And most importantly, I need to not look like a complete noob when a bunch of hard core Americans come to SA next month for the trad exchange which I have been roped into help organise.

Likewise, Charlie also needed to dust off ye ol’ nut scratcher and get back on the mountain.  He chose Africa Lunch for our come back route.  And while it is firmly within both our grade ranges…..we ended up with multiple mepics (mini epics).

My moment came as I set confidently off on the 23 pitch.  I doddled up the crack, humming to myself, casually placing gear along the way, being careful to keep the red cam aside as apparently I would need it right at the top.  I paused on the jugs at the top of the flakes and eyed the next part.  The rail looked fairly good but it was hard to see what was happening up the arête.  I checked the gear I had placed one more time and set off.

The rail turned out to be worse than expected and went from barely accepting my fingertips to narrowing even more the further you went from your protection.  So I put this attempt into reverse gear and frantically down climbed back to the cams, burning precious forearm and shoulder juice.  I eyeballed it again and made another go, this time getting just around the corner. By now my eyes were starting to bulge.  The rail stuck true it’s nature and got progressively worse and the arête had not magically presented options.  Reverse reverse reverse!  By now I was breathing heavily and losing some of my composure.  So I did what most people do in this situation – lace the hell out of the rail in front of you.

“I don’t know if I can do this Charlie.  I’m terrified.”

“You only get one attempt at an onsight.  You can do this.  Calm yourself and go for it…..Although you’re looking pretty calm.”

I’ve been scared on trad.  It’s like expecting to get wet when you surf.  It’s inevitable.

Nearly every time we go out one of us remarks about how scared they are just as we are about to cast off into the crux.  And either we suck it up and do it or the other manages to talk us through.

I think I gave it another go before asking him to take.  Not a normal thing to do on trad.  I sat looking balefully at the rock, silently begging it to reveal it’s secrets and feeling like I had broken some sacred rule.  I pulled myself together and went for it, moving with confidence and getting further around the corner only to find no feet and no great ideas leaping into my head about how to go up.  Tearing back to my gear I flamed out.  My mind snapped.  I was severely shaken. This time I had red lined.  The holds were too bad.  The potential swing into the rock too frightening.  I was close to hyperventilating with fear.

Charlie suddenly remarked that perhaps this wasn’t the way.  I looked up to the left and could see a sequence.  I had just enough gumption left to try the new sequence.  I focused in once again and made my way up the flakes, shakily reaching for the next rail only to find a polished surface.  I was breathing like a steam train to hold it together just long enough to place some gear and yell Take.  My shattered nerves said “no further”.  

“I nearly didn’t make that!” I heard the quaver in my voice and felt the emotion burning the back of my throat.  I was close to tears.  I gulped down the emotions while Charlie apologized profusely for sending me into the great unknown.  But even knowing that was the cause and not my poor onsighting abilities didn’t make it better.  At least not until much later when reason had returned.  I ended up stancing right there and then and our mepics continued for the day. But we arrived on terra firma no worse for wear and I even got to lead one of the ultra classics – Atlantic crag.  Which restored a modicum of faith in my trad climbing ability and ended us off on a high note.

I lay awake last night dissecting the day and determined to push on.  It got me thinking, perhaps I am no braver than anyone else (in fact, the way I was feeling at the end of that day, I certainly wasn’t).  Perhaps the reason I hadn’t broken into tears before was that I hadn’t pushed myself hard enough.  I studied the route guide and I know I will be back soon.  I know I am not done.

The narrow beam of grief 

It’s strange how grief sharpens your focus, how it cuts away at all the noise of our day to day life and only leaves the broad strokes.  Suddenly all the questions that you were balancing on the fence of have a black and white answer.  Suddenly small things get blurred around the edges leaving only the big things to deal with.  Suddenly seeing the ones you love trumps all obstacles in the way.  No time or money or effort features.

The daily banalities that you were only moments before fretting about melt away.  Does it really matter whether you go to that concert or not?  Are those dirty dishes in the sink even a blip on your radar?  Is that snide comment from a workmate even water off a duck’s back?  Do you even remember what time you ran this morning?  

All that matters is that person you nearly lost.

By illonapelser

Seasonal cycles

Having spent the largest chunk of my life in Durbs (where there is Summer 1 and Summer 2) I think I’d nearly forgotten what it’s like to have seasons.  It has been refreshing and awe-inspiring to see the changes the Cape brings, every season somehow more beautiful than the last.  I think I now understand why the Cape Townians are known to hibernate in winter.  It’s not because the weather is as bad as they make it out to be.  It’s because you need that down time before the renewed vigor of summer keeps you burning the candle at both ends once again.  I can feel the energy steadily picking up as the temperature increases and the daylight hours lengthen.

This year has been marked as a year of learning, with a learning curve that looks like the vapor trail of a rocket ship.  New skills in everything from management to people skills to cooking to new adventures.  Every week has brought something new and challenging.

Coming to the end of a cycle, I feel like my personality and even some of my old fitness is returning.  I think about the reasons that brought me here every day.  A piece of my heart probably always will.  And although there is a tinge of sadness and longing in those thoughts, and it feels like I had to go many steps backwards before finally moving forwards again it’s been a helluva journey.  And if life is about learning then I’ve packed this year full of life.

By illonapelser

Deconstructing the problem

It’s been nearly a year now.  So you would think I’d be far from the problem now.  You would think I would have gotten somewhere.  Instead it feels like I was nearly over it right away and then woke up a year later to find I was only really having issues now.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Surely if the characters in Alice in Wonderland can get it right, so can I….instead I feel like I’m going in the opposite direction.

Today, on the long plod up Table Mountain I had time to think.  It started with me wondering why I was plodding instead of doing my usual pushing to get a decent pace.  Somewhere along the line I had lost all ego.  But it wasn’t just ego, it was self-esteem.  My mind reeled over all the things I had let go of in the last year.  All the areas in my life where I used to push myself I now told myself I was taking it easy to get more balance.  And maybe at some stage I had found balance.  But I had also lost that fire.  I no longer cared about any results for any aspect of my life.  Things have gotten out of hand.

And I don’t know why one meant sacrificing the other but it wasn’t that linear.  One did not equal the result of the other.  I had lost that fire because I had lost faith in my ability to make decisions.  From what to do about getting a new car/job/shoes to what the hell to do when someone asks me on a date.  And it wasn’t that I wasn’t making decisions.  Oh, the ol’ brain cells are firing with as many clever schemes and ideas as they always have.  It was the fire to pursue them that had quelled.

And now that I’ve finally taken a step back and looked at it, I’m ashamed.  I didn’t realise I was doing it.  I had come up with all sorts of reasons why it was okay.  I was in the research phase or I was still saving up money or I simply never needed to be in a relationship ever again.  Why would I?  I can’t begin to understand what it was that got me in to them in the first place.  Once upon a time it wasn’t a choice.  It was a feeling.  It was heady and wild and free.  Now it was tightly bound by the need to decide.  I cringe to think of the number of times this year I’ve left a guy standing on the curb after a fun night out, only to end it with a chaste hug and a “thanks for a wonderful evening” before trotting away and trying hard to make it look like I’m not fleeing from the scene.

And then I laugh at myself again and roll my eyes at my first world problems and I carry on living my life and enjoying the moments.  This year has been full.  Packed to the brim with first times, new adventures, genuine smiles and laughter, soaking up the now.  In many ways I am happier than I have ever been.  Things that used to upset me or stress me out are gone.  I believe I’m a better, more loving person than I was 3 years ago.

And the only reason I am questioning my choice of a single life is because I am questioning my motives.  It was fine when I believed I was living simply.  I didn’t feel the need to share my life with someone.  There was utterly no desire to.  But now it feels like I’m actively running away instead of inactively not pursuing.  I thought I was not moving on because I hadn’t been swept away.  I hadn’t had that overwhelming feeling, that connection that drove me to want to spend time with someone.  But now I wonder if I’m not blocking the way with every excuse I can find.

I need that fire back.  I am not this indecisive sheep.  I am not the person who lies low.


By illonapelser

Don’t look at me

I wanted to fail. I wanted to be detached from the image of me that everyone associated with achieving, with always being on the go. It was the only version of me I had known how to be for 3 decades. But now I wanted a break. I wanted to not feel that expectation from others. I am not that person anymore.
I struggled to climb or even hang out with people who were outcomes based. People whose whole identity seemed to be tied up in their next send. I wanted it to be completely fine for me to fail. I don’t consider it failing. I simply wasn’t reaching for a tangible goal. The only goal now was happiness, contentment at being where I was at, wherever that was, with whoever I was sharing the day and the experiences with. If I didn’t send, I didn’t care. I didn’t want to feel like anyone else did. But somehow so many people see it as wrong. As if you are disappointing them somehow, even though it’s not their goal, it’s not their climbing career.
I put on weight on purpose, a physical barrier to push the world away. To make it okay to finally not push so damn hard all the time. To be fine with just being. I enjoyed being me even more. I feel like I’ve always been comfortable in my skin but I sunk even deeper into the soles of my feet. Compliments and criticisms phase me even less than they have before. I’m enjoying getting older. I’ve earned it.
But it still perplexes me that other people don’t seem to want to let me be. I went to Rock Masters with almost the intention to fail. I was exhausted, overweight and unfit. I had no hope. And I didn’t mind it. I did the best I could and that’s a result I can live with. But others gave me the “better luck next time” or the sympathetic look. Why the sympathy? I don’t feel sad. I feel relieved. Why does it worry other people more than it worries me?
These days I enjoy individual moments far more. There is a greater level of general satisfaction and contentment. There is not one iota of desire to be connected to what I can achieve, and even less over what I have not yet achieved. I am merely here, in this moment. Don’t give me that look. Rejoice with me in every moment that I delight in my world.

By illonapelser