Out of your comfort zone

I spent the weekend on my anti-style – crimps.  It’s funny how these things evolve.  When I started climbing I loved crimps.  I felt like I could dig my little fingers into them.  Slopers?  Blegh!  How do you manage on these non-holds?

But then I moved back to KZN and found slopers to be the norm.  I learned how to hang my weight differently on them and soon slopers became a delight (in good conditions at least).  No more, tendon-stressing might-blow-off-of-at-any-time crimps for me.  Slopers were nice and gentle on the fingers and became synonymous with my dear Wave Cave, which was full of them.  Who needs an actual hold when you have a bomber foot lock or knee-bar?


Happily camming a foot in at the Wave Cave

But then Umgeni happened.  I could appreciate that there were some quality lines at this stellar crag but it was far away and there was plenty to keep me happy closer to home.  In mid-summer, however, we lose the Canyon due to nesting birds and over the last few years we have left Cave in favour of crags we won’t get mugged at.  Umgeni does well in the summer.  The rough and friction-rich rock maintains during humid and rainy conditions.

So every now and then I find myself at Umgeni.  And slowly but surely I have warmed up to the idea of crimps again.  More so, I have gotten to trust micro-crimps to a point where I feel I can actually shake out and recover with my hands and feet on nothing more than a collection of credit card edges.  And the best thing about over-coming your anti-style is that when it comes together you get a greater sense of accomplishment.


Popping my bolting cherry

Roger had started teasing us some time in the middle of last year.  He began by sending pictures to the “Climbing Plans (+drivel)” What’s app group that some of the KZN climbers are on.  Pictures of a glorious new crag that he had found near Delville Wood.  Palms sweated and questions flew as we drooled over the superbly long and steep walls we were seeing.

You know the crag is overhanging when you lower your climber so far away

You know the crag is overhanging when you lower your climber so far away

But I was distracted by my trip to Kalymnos so off I flew to Greece while Roger and a handful of others began to investigate the potential of this new spot.  By the time I returned 3 lines had been bolted and a number of anchors set up.  I was looking for any way to recover from the post-trip blues and itching to see this new crag.  So one Thursday afternoon I journeyed out with Roger and he chirped me “you should feel like royalty.  You get to walk on this path after a lot of work has gone into it already.”


James Barnes helping to build a better base

In the end I put in my own fair share of time on that path.  Chopping branches, clearing vines, re-routing and re-routing again till the walk-in was as direct as we could get it while still following contours and avoiding erosion (aka. muddy bum slides).

Kirk falls is one of those crags that you want to take new people to.  The kind of place where you make sure you walk on ahead and turn around to see their faces the moment they stop and look up.  It has that “Whooooooaaaaaa” factor as you strain your neck looking up, up, up.  And as you look you can’t help but laugh and point at the many incongruous holds littering the crag.  Each overhang boasts a buffet of beautifully shaped jugs with solid faces in between, resulting in a pumpy endurance climbing not unlike the style we found in our beloved Wave Cave.


What an overhang!


The typical route will warm you up gently with a starter of happy jug hauling, the moves becoming progressively more powerful as you reach the scoop of the roof.  As you go you will sample from a rich menu of finger-locks, knee bars, heel-toe cams and other gymnastic rests as you punch your way up these 7 course marathon climbs, seeking out every drop knee, heel hook, knee scum and energy saving delicacy because you just know you are going to need every ounce you can get when you reach that spicy ending.

Due to the name of the area it was decided that the routes would have a Star Trek/space theme.  There are cool lines like Enterprise and Star Date that make you want to bolt a route just so you can name it something fun.

After my first day there I eagerly cast around for drill bits, desperate to claim a line and see the crag thriving with more routes.  As I took on the task of scoping out my desired line, cleaning off sand and grass and algae, swinging back and forth, trying to suck myself in close under the overhangs with hastily placed trad gear, I realised how I had jumped straight into the deep end.


Misty early morning bolting missions are good for the soul

For my first route ever I wasn’t choosing to bolt a friendly little face using mechanical anchors that would be far easier to rap down onto, far easier to place the bolts on and far easier to scope out the line.  I had gone straight for a steep overhang using glue-in bolts.  This entailed more planning, setting up of directional gear, more preparation and finally, when all was ready, the urgent gluing in of the anchors in as quick and efficient sweep as possible before the glue dried in the nozzle.  Go go go!   It’s little wonder that I named my project Warp Speed.


And we have lift off! Testing out my new route

I find that missioning out on mornings by yourself is a weird little bubble of time.  There is a certain sense of independence.  You get a unique sense of satisfaction and achievement when doing some manual work on your own, wielding a power tool and getting stuff done, all before most people have stumbled out of bed.  There are those Tim the Tool Man Taylor moments where you just want to grunt with the raw testosterone of it and there is that beauty of creation, of carefully pondering where the natural line is, of imagining clips, falls and moves.  All in a beautiful setting, feeling far removed from civilisation.  And bit by bit it comes together and a route is born.

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It’s also kinda stressful placing bolts for the first time, wondering if you have gotten everything right.  The thought of other people’s lives in your hands should you get it horribly wrong.  And worse than being life threatening…..what if they don’t enjoy my line???

I scrubbed those bolt holes cleaner than I have ever scrubbed anything before, wondering what critical mass of dust would be needed for the glue to fail.  But the thrill you get from sitting on your bolts for the first time and realising they are solid outweighs the stress.


Happy climber

There are still some things I need to tweak with the route before I can claim the bolting finished (like adding nicer chains).  A faulty drill battery, a road trip and some extra work has slowed progress significantly.  Oh, and there is that small detail of sending the route.  But everything being equal, this should all come together in the next weekend.  Exciting times!

Thank you to my partner for all his support and for sitting up one night, whittling away at a toothbrush so that I would have a “brushy thing” to clean the holes with.


Specialised tool A1B09 (aka “brushy thing”) next to specialised tool BP147 (aka “blowey pipe”)

Thank you to Scott Sinclair for all the lively bolting discussions and the use of the pipe to blow the dust clear.  And thank you to Roger for his generous donation of anchors and advice.

Stress is good

Your forearms are blazing, your eyes are bulging, your breathing is erratic ….and that’s just from putting your climbing shoes on.  Before we step up to a route our body has a stress reaction.  We go into our primitive fight or flight mode.

The hypothalamus sends an emergency signal to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which sets in motion a cascade of reactions to stress.  This was helpful back in the day when you were faced with a woolly mammoth and you needed to decide to either fight it and put it on the dinner plate or decide that you like your chances of out-pacing your fellow caveman, Ug.  But sitting in your controlled sporting environment, wearing your comfortably padded harness, tied to a length of rope that is rated to happily take more than your wiry body weight, you have to ask yourself what are you fighting or fleeing from?

For years we have been told that stress is a killer.  New light has been shone on this subject and we are now coming round to the idea that the health risks incurred are more strongly linked to the interpretation of experiences as stressful than actual stress.  So perhaps it’s time to get the hypothalamus to bring it down a DEFCON level or two.

Once we realise that all these reactions are just our body preparing us for the situation ahead, we can use it to our advantage.  The response was originally made to endow us to run faster, hit harder, think quicker and pull stronger than we could have without it.  The ANS provides us with some handy physiological responses such as accelerated heart and lung action, inhibition of digestion while your body focuses on other activities, liberation of energy sources such as fat and glycogen, dilation of blood vessels for muscles and dilation of pupil.  Of course, nothing in this world is without its downsides.  You might also experience inhibition of salivation (dry mouth), relaxation of bladder, tunnel vision and shaking.  It’s at this point that you might want to take a deep breath, smile and remind yourself that we are doing this for fun.

We already know that certain stress is good for us.  We klap it hard in the gym, putting our muscles under stress as we train.  We push them till they hurt so that they can break down and heal, growing stronger with the repair.  As my brother’s Chinese wife would say “Later you feel better”.  Without some blood, sweat and tears we won’t get to strut around later showing off our big guns and enjoying our new found strength.

Those people who use stress to push themselves have a similar physiological profile as someone who is ecstatic.  And let’s admit it; we are a tad addicted to the adrenalin rush.  So next time you are feeling tense about a climb, don’t let the distress inhibit you.  Feed off the energy it gives you and let it help you meet the challenge ahead.


War on Paws


Walking towards the main wall at Oudtshoorn

Everyone has that route.  The one that stands out like a blemish on your mental picture of your climbing portfolio.  The one that you inexplicably can’t seem to send.  Or perhaps its many routes, that litter your view like bugs on a windscreen.  For me the most painful one to own up to was Paws, the poster child of Oudtshoorn.  A simple 7b that was a thorn in my side for too long.

  After many memorable road trips over many years I have sent nearly all the surrounding routes of similar or harder grade than that blasted Paws.  It should be nestled well within my comfort zone.  Every road trip would start with me walking up nonchalantly to the base of Paws, convinced that I was stronger, fitter and better looking than any previous times and I would cruise it on the warm up.

Contemplating future projects in the Short Circuit cave

Contemplating future projects in the Short Circuit cave

But as always, I would sail up the bottom 2/3 of the route, congratulating myself on better footwork and more confidence in the bigger pulls, cheerfully sitting in the odd seat rest, calmly assured that I was as fresh as if I had just stepped off terra firma only to blow off a few short moves later the instant I touched the crux, kicking and screaming in frustration.

Generally I would skulk away, head hanging lower each time and move on to other (supposedly) harder routes which I could send and use to pick my ego back off the ground.  However, on one trip to Oudtshoorn 2 years ago, Micky and I had declared War on Paws.  This time we would put egos aside and stop pretending that this little 7b was something we could send any time …. you know, if we really wanted to.  This time we were dedicating some time and energy to it.  Every day would start with confidence.  Day 1 of War on Paws.  We’re going to do it this time Mick…….Day 4 of War on Paws.  Come on!  We can’t give up now.  Day…..who knows of War on Paws.  Stuff this route.  It’s the hardest route on the planet.  Fact!  We walked away from that road trip with no victory and very little else to show for our time on rock.

Sending Sid Vicious (7b+) in 2008.  Pic by Micky Wiswedel

Sending Sid Vicious (7b+) in 2008. Pic by Micky Wiswedel

At the end of 2013, just when I was thinking this might be the first time in several years when I would not make my annual cape pilgrimage, an opportunity presented itself for a very scattered and rushed road trip.  To be honest, the trip was so ill-conceived that I only believed we would make it to the cape once we had set foot on Western Cape soil.

The evening we arrived was a typically hot Oudtshoorn day.  We rushed out of the car after many hours on the road, to get a quick touch of rock before setting up camp.  I can’t say that I felt hopeful as I gazed up at the vast expanse of limestone above me.  Especially after hearing that the chains had been moved about 6m up.  Excuse me?  What?  Whose sick joke was that?  How am I ever going to send this monstrous thing now?

I ran up Paws in the fading light and refreshed the beta, feeling no better or worse than I had on it any time before.  If anything, I felt insecure about my beta, having a faint memory of some helpful drop-knee that I couldn’t find.

When I returned the next day I clambered up it on the first go, grunting a bit through the crux, being strict with my foot placements so that the large cross over moves became a doddle instead of a fight against the pump and forced myself to not rush the new and extended ending in my eagerness to clip the chains. To be honest, the send was an anti-climax.  I let out a perfunctory “Woohoo” without much heart in it.  The victory and relief that the War on Paws was  over only sunk in when I reached the ground and my belayer reminded me that I could paint in another square of my epic tick list for 2013.

Later on I contemplated what had made it come together this time.  I guess part of it was letting go of the need to send this route.  For a moment climbing had become a pure again.  It became more about being in the moment, soaking in the joy of moving. And perhaps that was the trick of it.  Sometimes you have to sneak up on yourself and send while you’re not looking.  I had done zero mental or physical preparation for this trip.  Sending this demon was the farthest objective from my mind.  Merely getting to the cape with limited resources had been top priority and had captured all of my attention and  any time on rock was treated as a bonus. And part of it was truly putting the ego aside and not being afraid to pull hard on what should be a comfortable grade for me.  All in all I found it a satisfying end to 2013.