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.
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.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. 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. 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.
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.