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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Be the inspiration you seek

While I’m at work I often have a particular TED Talk in my head.  It’s one that talks about how you’re not selling a product, you’re selling an image.  The speaker goes on to list many examples of how one product could be identical or even superior to another but the marketing of the image of the other product or the ideal of the company is what has secured their spot in the market place.

And for me, climbing is the very picture of Inspiration.  How many companies use the image of a climber to denote the challenges met, the adventurous gutsy overcoming of obstacles to bring you this amazing shampoo?  ;p  But jokes aside, the very essence of climbing, after all the adventure and adrenalin is out the way, is to be inspired to achieve more.

And, as part of the community, we are all stepping on each other’s shoulders to reach new heights.  So, in a way, it is nearly selfish to keep your achievements to yourself.  No, this isn’t a game of “Look at me”.  We have enough social media throwing that at us every day.  It is more a contribution to the collective thought of what is possible.  Inspiration for the majority of us is incremental.  Sure, every now and then there will be a wonder kid that comes along and blows all the limits out of the water.  But for the rest of us, we get inspired on a day to day basis and push our limits a bit further each time someone shows us that the next step or the next few steps are possible.  What was once impossible soon becomes common place.  It’s the reason we go to slideshows, read autobiographies or log on to the community websites.  We’re hungry to know what’s going on out there.

There were a few key moments early in my climbing career that will always stick out in my head.  All of them entailed seeing a local female climber doing something that was way behind my horizons and blew my preconceptions out of the ball park.  That is why I jump at the opportunity to compete, to be part of a collection of strong climbers, to be exposed to that level.

I’m not the greatest climber in South Africa, not by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m not even the greatest climber in Durban.  But I’m happy to share my story if it helps you in any way and in return, I would love you to share yours.