WHIPPER TAAL

With a little less enthusiasm one can achieve amazing things!

By Garrreth Bird

Jimbobob mid rail on Whipper Taal's 2nd pitch

Jimbobob in the middle of the wild rail of Whipper Taal’s 2nd pitch

“What a piece of mountain!”

Three smooth columns of orange and silver rock burst out of the rough mountainside. The textures and shapes toyed with the mind, as did the climbing possibilities; phantasmagorical was not too strong a word! Phlip Olivier and I did some heavy mouth breathing as we stared up at the cliff.

“Have those things really not been climbed?! You could definitely get to that rail… and then that rrrail…HOLY MOLEY!!”

Hilarious! What a route that would be. And there was another  amazing one on the pillar next door, also involving a wild rail out into space. Man, I thought to myself, I haven’t really made first ascents the main focus of my climbing life,  but to become associated with anything at all up there on those amazing faces would be a  bonanza of unexpected proportions!

Arriving at Turret Peak

Our crew arrives in the jumbled wonderland of Turret Peak. Pic

A month later, that crazy rail now stretches out from me into the middle of space. The ropes tug at my harness as they droop out, away from anything vaguely rational. I’m not  crazy-high off the ground, but there’s something extremely intimidating about this outrageous  endeavour.

I have just watched Jimbobob (Smith) lead across the long rail without coming off. Whoo hooo! However, Jimbobob is a bloody strong climber, and man, even he was getting worked! And here I am on this  little ledge  still warbling on in three versions of Scroteish from New Years Eventhusiasm Er ma gerd.

In climbing, getting what you wish for can often include a little tightening of the  poep-string.

In my defense, I had always thought that the CLIMBING TRIP! and NEW YEAR’S EVE! combo sounded a little painful. Aren’t those diametrically opposed objectives? But come the day and it felt like a masterstroke: a having our mountain cake and eating it party!

I think things started to go south around Black Douglas. A few of us decided it just wasn’t right to head up into the hills on New Year without a bit of the old tipple. In Ceres a scan of the merchandise brought us  face to face with BLACK DOUGLAS: a whiskey with a fearsome Scott calling to battle on the label. Man, was he ready for action, and we were suitably inspired! So inspired that when I paid for the bottle I spoke to the cashier in a Karoo Afrikaans suddenly infused with a lively Scottish bray. It was pretty foolish of me as that’s one hell of a combination, and the team looked on, linguistically perplexed, as if waiting for me to sustain an injury. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and we were all suddenly feeling  very fortified.

Black Douglas bottle

The fearsome Black Douglas, ready to provide inspiration on the mountain top. Pic Garrreth Bird

Our master plan involved taking a photo of the label then decanting the whiskey into plastic bottles for the 3 hour hike in. Once up the mountain we could call up the photo on our phone, tape the phone to the bottle as we are drinking it, and so maintain the pleasure of Black Douglas’s motivating company.

By the end of forming this plan our entire crew had broken out into some thick interpretive brogue of their own. It was hard to understand everyone, so we decreed that if someone didn’t understand your brogue then you had to SPEAK LOUDER so that they did.

And then Jimbo, who is actually James but was already Jimbob by then, got a real name problem when we decreed you had to add a ‘bob’ onto his name every time you said it, and pretty soon he was ‘Bobobob tue tha poerrr A Scroteish!’, or even a bit louder. (I haven’t included the Bobobing rule here as it may well have sabotaged this entire writerly undertaking.)

Turret camp bouldering

Bouldering around our camp site. Pic Oliver Williams

Our campsite sat amongst jagged, angular boulders; you could do routes from your bed if you like that sort of thing. In the dusk our fairy-lights strung themselves between animated rock formations and the booming night sky, and more people arrived and brought snazzy relatives of Black Douglas  along. And soon Scroteish filled the sparkling night air! HALLA NEW YEAR! At midnight we all switched to Italian accents for about 10 minutes, which was fantastic and strange, and then everyone reverted back to Scroteish again at their own pace.

Phlip on Sunset Lightning

Phlip rails out wildly on the final section of Sunset Lightning. Pic Garrreth Bird

Phlip wasn’t with us this time, so I inevitably began  hyping the route he and I had put up on the left of those orange columns called Sunset Lightning. But I kept the real raving for the view we had onto the wall next door: “Man, then you go railing and railing and railing… right out to the apex of  this giant  roof!”

Bobob perks up an eyebrow and goes: ‘Wheer?’

I go: ‘Dooon theeerrr!’ and point energetically.

Bobob goes: ‘Wuppertal?’ (Wuppertal is a town across the plains).

‘Ya!’ I go. ‘WhiperrrTaaal!!’

Which was awesome because soon we worked out that “Taal” is Afrikaans for ‘language’, and “Whipper” is climbing jargon for a long, scary fall.

Oooohhhh. Why does Great Outdoors  have to be so bright! The whole of the New Year seemed to have arrived at once.

I had just manage to squeeze an eyelid open more than a crack when Bobob springs into blurry view. He has already been up for hours, ‘scouting’ he says. His eyes are kind of sparkly, but I don’t think it’s a hangover. He says just one word: “…railingandrailingandrailingandrailing…” then holds my gaze and bobs his head up and down many times in succession. I force my other eyelid partly open and stare back at him. “Whipper Taal?”, I reply, and I also bob my head up and down many times in succession, although a little more gingerly than him.

Sleeping crew

The team takes a cat-nap after New Years lunch. Pic Garrreth Bird

But Bobob and Squawk had a storming day planned already, and they powered off to put up blistering and beautiful lines. My camp mates ribbed me about my cranial distress: “Time for Whipper Taal eh Garrreth?!  How about a quick one  before lunch hey?” Nope. Not that route, with this body, on this day. I was wearing the scars of going to battle alongside Black Douglas!!! But in the back of my bruised mind I thought about how there were still a few hours available tomorrow morning before we had to head down.

Our last day. Plans fluctuate but somehow the conversation ends up with Bobob and I once again locked in the Whipper Taal stare. It’s on! And I’ve got  a climbing Maserati with me to assist! The only down side is that there will  be no warm up.

Garrreth scrambling on Chopping Block

Garrreth trying to sort the hang over from the over hang on New Year’s Day. Pic Damien Schumann

Now the Honey Comb crack slopes up over me. The wall kicks back crazily as you stand at the base. It’s wild, and I still can’t believe I don’t get a warm up.

I start climbing and it’s immediately committing. I move past the very cool honeycombs then reach a small roof. Above is an inscrutable groove with no gear. Hmm. I sling a super sharp flake and get a small cam that moves about in the flaring crack rather unreassuringly, and the ground is still pretty darn close. I propel myself over the lip and fondle up where there seems to be a hold, but I can’t figure out a way to get my body high enough. My climbing brain hasn’t switched on yet and the angle of the rock is relentless. I know Black Douglas would never say this, but I’m terrible without a warm up. I down climb to the vague rest, already flash-pumped from the opening sortie.

I go back up but still can’t figure out the move. Instead of unlocking it securely I would have to power through up that slippery grove, and it’s a long way before more gear…and now im totally  pumped again, and …god dammit! I go down.

Normally I might ask my partner if they minded if I rested for a bit before trying again. But we were on a tight schedule, and one of us was the killer Bobob, and who’s to stand in the way of that? Besides, I didn’t care about leading the route nearly as much as simply being on the adventure of it.

Jimbobob cranks up into the wild formations

Cranking up into the wild formations on Whipper Taal’s steep 1st pitch. Pic Garrreth Bird

Now Bobob also approaches the groove with caution, but then pulls up into it and gets a very surprising knee bar above the lip. He uses it to lever his body and move up to the hold. When I follow I discover a foot jam inside of one of the honeycombs that makes the crux quite manageable. Now why didn’t I just do that the first time?! Higher up, the route moves under a ‘horse’, and you have to lean out and undercling it’s rounded neck as you move up from under its head. It took balls for Bobob to just power around there not knowing when or even if any decent holds were going to appear. Salute! We stance on a small landing in the crevice between the two columns, deciding the pitch was about 24.

And here I stand, looking out at the infamous rail. I wish I felt a little perkier, but I focus my breath and start up. A few steep moves get me up to the actual rail, then I start moving along out, so glad for a heel-hook or two to save the arms. It is awesome climbing, with the exposure thundering around you. But then the footholds disappear, and the rail only takes the very tip of your toe, so you’re cranking your entire core to place them. But at least now the rail at my hands has widened, and I plunge in for a jam, normally the best way to get a rest. But the leverage of my body’s weight on my forearm is too much without some footing, and that plan instantly goes up in smoke. Ooh and the pump is rushing back in. COOME UN!! I’m past halfway already! BLAAACK DOOGLAS YA BAAASTART IF YER TIME IS EVERE, IT IS NOOOW!!

The rail widens some more, so now you can get a little foot in, but at your hands it has gone all rounded, and I am so god-damn pumped. I thrutch up to get the cam that Bobob rather frantically threw in, and its pretty over-cammed and CHUNK wont move! The amount of gas it takes to pull up to look and wrestle with it is a disaster. I could pull the rope at an angle on it…but that would involve weighting the rope…and void climbing it completely freely. Im so close to the end, but i’m using up precious power working this cam. Aah Fuck TIGGGHT!! It is what it is. I lever up in to the rail, jam, and attack the cam from alongside, which loosens it, then pops it out, and I am right back in the battle again. I rail some more, then use the very last of my core strength to swing my legs through under me and up towards the point of the nose where there is a tiny ledge. I get just high enough, and stuff my legs desperately as deep into the wide crack as they will go. Jeeezuzzz!! I am now hanging almost completely upside down right on the tip of the nose, levering awkwardly off my legs to squeeze out a moment of respite.

Bob on Whipper Taal lip

Getting a leg up onto the tiny ledge to grab a desperate respite as the valley stretches out below. Pic Garrreth Bird

After a moment I manage to wriggle up so I can almost sit,   protruding way out over the valley with fresh air all around me except for above. It’s a crazy position to be in, my legs swallowed by the gargantuan beast whose skin we have been granted licence to revel in. And as I perch there I realize that we didn’t even tape Black Douglas to the whiskey as we drank it. And then I thank the Scroteish Gods for that, for with any additional enthusiasm I very much doubt that my name would be anywhere near  half-way up this absolutely incredible route.

Two proud lines

Two proud lines. Pic Garrreth Bird

Turret Sunset

Sunset from the top of the Turret. Pic Garrreth Bird

 

 

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Stars in the Eyes of Myself as a Child

In tribute to Celestial Journey, among the most legendary climbing lines in the land.

I was 12 and I could hardly believe my eyes.

Something…clinging to nothing… in the middle of a smooth, blank wall.

An isolated climber. Waaaay up. Prone and desperate. The void below seemed to draw them down like a stone.

That was the first time I saw someone on Celestial Journey, clinging tentatively to the ‘Grey Face’, a canvas of rock as spare as it is sheer. The position, far above the valley floor, was startling. To be THAT climber, on THAT route… well, it seemed like madness. Despite this, some switch in my youthful brain had tripped.

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Leo wrestles the off-width crack near the top of the route.

Way back then I was busy doing the famous ‘Wolfberg Cracks’ hike in the central Cederberg, a wilderness area 3 hours from Cape Town. The hike takes one through wondrous fissures that split the Wolfberg buttress on its southern end. These labyrinthine gullies have left behind giant fins of rock that jut up like exclamation points into the sky. But just before they do their damage the buttress is at its most proud, and a towering collision of fiery orange and gunmetal-silver dares any interloper to throw caution into the wind on one of its stern lines.

And throw caution someone did, now more than 36 years ago, as David Davies and Robin Barley put together what was to become one of South Africa’s most revered rock climbs. This was no mean feat. The route turned out to be consistently tricky, and they did it ground-up, onsight, and without the benefit of today’s camming devices for protection. What kind of temerity allowed these two to head up into the centre of this wall without knowing exactly what they might find?

In 1978 David was 18 and Robin 23,  and from this time on David’s legend only grew. I never got to know him well before his tragically early passing from a brain tumour in 2010, but I do recall meeting him while hiking up to the cliffs of Table Mountain as a young man. He had a poodle tucked into a purpose-built bag on his back, and told us that he was heading up to go free-soloRoulette” (the name of a famous route). This was a very bold undertaking indeed…but he was doing it WITH THE DOG…well, that certainly left an impression. This turned out to be only one of a thick novels’ worth of tales that seemed to stream off the man like confetti as he went.

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The proud southern face of Wolfberg. Celestial Journey follows the red line.

So long ago, way up there on that intimidating wall, the Grey Face had seemed an insane proposition. Looking up at it now from the base of the route, despite the climbing experience I have gained in the intervening years, I still feel a shadow of nervousness shade across my face.

I am here with Leonard, a climbing partner with whom I have quickly formed a solid brotherhood of the rope, and we are both excited to finally have this legendary route in our sights. We prepare for our usual pre-route ritual: the Rock-Paper-Scissors game that determines who gets first choice of the ‘leads’.

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Some deep breaths at the base of the Grey Face. The line heads up between the two orange streaks. Pic by Leo.

Why care about who heads up each section, or ‘pitch‘, first? Well, leading a pitch is a purer form of climbing it. You get it fresh, every move a surprise, with the need to place gear to protect you as you go an extra demand on your psyche.

The rope that runs downwards between your legs towards the distant earth serves as a constant reminder of the need for focus, balance, to move efficiently… lest you end up slipping off into the expanse below. It is the full experience.

Before we can make the call I interject: “Dude! I have to get the Grey Face pitch. You can choose the next two.”

Leo nods his acceptance. I have spoken to him about my connection to this pitch before. And even though the Grey Face is justifiably iconic, the opening ‘Pea Pod” pitch is actually the more notorious of the 6. The route is graded at 22 (a measure of its difficulty) but people speak of the subjectivity of these numbers. The first pitch alone has befuddled more than a few climbers of renown.

Leo enthusiastically stakes his claim to it, then adds the 5th pitch off-width to his agenda. I take the 6th and final grade 22 pitch, and the remaining 2 fall where they do.

At the base of the wall we see the plaque dedicated to David affixed to the rock at the start of the route: ‘David Davies – Forever on your Celestial Journey.’ It only adds to the already cosmic dimensions of the grand but entirely suitable name. We will not carry only gear and rope with us up the route, but the weight of galactic legend as well.

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Leo entering the crux of the Pea Pod.

Leo ties into the rope and moves up towards the heavens. He climbs with confidence until he reaches the bottom of a smooth groove. This is the ‘pod’ into which the climber moves, thus becoming the ‘pea’.

Here, in line with the many tales we have heard, progress stalls. He tries a few options up the dihedral, but doesn’t seem very keen on any of the results, retreating back down each time. After a short while he decides he has hung about enough, and with great intent launches himself up into the glassy groove.

This turns out to have been a little rash, and within a few seconds he is bouncing back down towards me. The gear is good, so all is fine as I catch him, but He has a confused expression on his face and I judge him to be highly unsatisfied with the result.

It isn’t long before he once again wriggles up into the crux. I watch carefully to pry some useful information from his approach. But this timehe uses some slight-of-body manuever gleened from the dark climbing arts and wriggles up to a hold.

“Err…how exactly did you do that?!” I call up to him as he pants at a rest.

“…no…idea.” comes the rather curt reply. Leo is not in the mood for a chat. There is still plenty of climbing to be done.

When I get up into the Pea Pod it is clear what the problem is: there are simply no holds, and both sides of the groove are glassy smooth. Not being familiar with many suction techniques I revert to some desperate jamming, crimping and general thrutching about until I manage to coax my leg high enough to land the shoulder-high jug with the very tips of my toes. I almost burst a few blood vessels along the way, and nearly pop off mid-move, but soon I join Leo at the belay. Man, that’s some 22!

We continue up. Nothing comes easy but the climbing is top draw.

Soon I stand on a ledge at the base of a smooth, sculpted silver wall: the Grey Face. It is no less intimidating up close. It has taken me a very long time to stand here, but this fierce slab of rock cares not at all. It seems so smooth, I wonder where the gear will go. The ledge that juts out below works on my mind: I may deck it if I fall.

There is a palpable tension in my body, so I take a few deep, steadying breaths.

Then I reach up for the tiny holds that will lift me from the ledge.

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Me on a tiny undercling, scanning for holds in the middle of the Grey Face. Pic by Leo.

The realities of the situation crowd my head, so I work to clear my thoughts. I narrow my focus to the few meters ahead and dig my fingers into tiny ripples in the wall. With my waist close I shift my balance onto my higher foot and slither up to gain an undercling. The clarity of intent brings stability, and each tenuous move up reveals another tiny fissure deep enough for the pad of a few fingers. Tiny crevices appear hear and there, enough to allow for some small gear placements. Gripping a small edge with one hand while fiddling the gear into the rock is nerve wracking, but it provides a welcome measure of security.

As I inch up further I begin to loose myself in the puzzle, to think with my whole body. After 15 meters of careful progress I must traverse a little, and I rail along above the void, feet smearing on featureless rock. It is fantastic. I am strung out between the power of surging adrenaline and the calm of rhythmic intent. The moves aren’t exactly easy, but wings seem to have sprung from my back.

Suddenly just the present moment seems to hold all the time I have been alive. I am THAT cimber, on THAT wall, but suprisingly fear doesn’t rule me. Instead I switch my weight this way and that. I lever my body efficiently to holds otherwise out of reach. It all makes sense as the universe and I toy with each other, and I climb on reflected in the eyes of myself as a child.

A little further upwards and the tension is broken. I whoop and holler down to Leo. Too soon I do the last tricky mantle onto a thin ledge and the Grey Face, one of the best pitches I have ever climbed, is over.

We continue up the route, its reputation for consistency well founded, but we have completely relaxed into it by now. Leo wrestles with, then dispatches the off-width pitch 5, and I am left to pull airy, reachy moves around the bulges that guard the summit. We revel in the journey till the very last move.

Soon we stand and grin at each other from the gargoyled platform on top. The wonderland of Wolfberg wraps us up in its arms. Every now and again our faces spasm irrationally into wide smiles. It is still light but we stand there, tall, with our heads amongst the stars.

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Leo takes a rest on a ledge half-way up the route.

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Among the wonders on top.

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Descending via the famous Wolfberg Cracks.

A little climbing jargon:

Route/line: the path a climb takes up a face

Pitch: one section of climbing that a long route is broken into

Onsight: to climb something without any prior knowledge

Free-solo: to climb without ropes for safety

Roulette: a famous test piece on Cape Town’s Table Mountain

Gear/Protection: metal items wedged into cracks then connected to the rope in order to catch a climber if they fall

Jamming: to lock ones fist in cracks as a hold

Crimping: to claw sharply on extremely small holds

Jug: a very good hold

Crux: the hardest part of a pitch

Mantle (formantle shelf): to pull one’s whole body up onto a ledge

Off-width: very wide cracks that are extremely awkward and strenuous to climb

Alone in Another World

A Private Universe

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Blood pumps thickly through our veins as we balance and thrust our way up the viciously loose boulder field below the base of the wall. In the cavernous silence of this place you can hear the thud of it passing by your ears. We emerge from the dark ravine where we spent the night to find ourselves facing a gigantic buttress of bright orange overhanging rock, folded back on itself until it almost touches again. The mist that dapples the upper sections makes the sky seem lower than the top. The dampened silence of our surroundings is broken only by water droplets smashing into the centre of the valley floor, having fallen 550 unmolested meters from the lip of the wall.

I am here with Leo, my climbing partner, a strapping lad in his mid 20’s. I am 15 years older than him, but that seems to be a very small difference between us, sharing as we do a temperament, a sense of humour, an unbridled enthusiasm for exploring high and wild places. We are not the best climbers around, but our general fitness, mutual respect and love of the game gives our pairing a solid grounding in difficult situations. Each outing together has advanced our symbiosis, and as I stare up at our looming objective it’s comforting to know that I implicitly trust the person who will watch over the other side of my rope.

The wall’s magnetism has diverted my concentration just as the ground shifts beneath my feet. A big, sharp boulder suddenly ripples in the stack then stabs sideways into my ankle. Thankfully it just nicks me. I am reminded that someone had to be rescued from this forbidding venue a few years back after being trapped under just such a boulder. The rescue involved a big chopper, which at one stage descended into this cauldron to deposit those who came to help. The very idea sends a shiver down my spine. We are a long way from the benevolence of daily routine. It is now just our minds and our bodies in a fight against gravity, in a place where one does not easily recover from mistakes.

Click an image to view slideshow

Excitement now firmly tempered with trepidation, at last we dump our bags at the base of the wall. We must carry everything up with us as we hope not to come back this way: climbing gear, sleeping bags, food, a stove and 14 liters of water, enough for 2 days on the wall with a little to spare.

This wall did not yield easily to the attentions of those bent on its first ascent. After many attempts by various legends of the South African climbing scene, each petering out mid-way up the cliff, eventually brothers David and Hilton Davies, along with Mathew Sim committed to the idea, leaving a tent and gear at the base for almost a year before a route through the roofs finally offered itself up in late 2002. Their familiarity with the place must account for the complacency of the route guide, which doesn’t seem to match what we now see in front of us.

Things don’t start well. The first three pitches are vegetated and uncertain, and as I head up an unexpectedly tricky grove, pulling out reeds and moss to try and gain better purchase, I realize that I am surely already off-route. Everything is loose and slippery and there isn’t much gear; the tiny nuts I wiggle in seem like purely psychological protection, a fact confirmed when one of them pops out and rattles a long way down the rope to rest at my previous gear. I am now seriously run out, and it all feels a little desperate for first thing in the morning! I gather my nerves and push through, treating the creaking holds as little time bombs, to be handled with kid gloves.

A landmark or two gets us back on-route, and as the wall steepens the vegetation disappears and the rock improves. The route guide, however, still seems to have a mind of its own: ‘Move left at the roof along a rail, then up’. Errr…ok: above the rail is a bulge of rock jutting out over exposed ground, a perfect crack formed between it and the wall. As I move up it, it is smooth and steep. Counter-balancing off little nicks in the crack’s façade delivers incredible climbing. The bulge is undercut, and even at this relatively low altitude the exposure is omnipresent, the eyes of that awesome god compressing my consciousness into the way I move my body. The angle mellows as I crest the crack system, heading out into wildly hanging rock. I feel like I’m floating as I warble down to Leo about how awesome the climbing is.

Now that I analyze the way forward it looks like trouble. The rock is smooth and bullet hard but all the seams close out, making it very hard to climb, let alone protect. Man, that is really awesome… but I ain’t going out there!!! I call down to Leo: ‘Where the hell are we?! Halleluiah!!!’ The struggles of the route pioneers spring back into mind.

Once again we interrogate the route guide, perturbed by how little there is available to be semantic about. The line probably continues along a lower rail instead, so I reverse the crack, a little spicy heading down, and then continue out left to easier ground.

At the stance I set about the rhythmic exertion of hauling up the weighty bag. With the repetitive effort my mind drifts, revisiting the movements up that bulge. Just the memory spikes my dopamine levels once again. I focus the energy it gives me onto the ropes I work, hand over hand, hauling the ‘pig’ up to my ledge. As Leo starts up to join me I shout down how sad I am that he won’t get to climb that beautiful feature, but then I check myself… what is one little ripple in this ocean of rock? We aren’t even a third of the way up yet, and looking at the roofs just above me I see that it’s time for the gloves to come off.

It is late afternoon as we complete the exposed traverse that leads to a comfortable ledge, rather an incongruous feature in this vertical wilderness. This will be our home for the night, and we make ourselves comfortable, prepare our sleeping positions, and then set about making some food.

With the height we have gained we can now see out the entry gorge to the farmlands that stretch out beyond, and in the beautiful glow of last light we feel blessed to be spending time in a place as incredibly unique as is this. My bed is narrow, with only a small, loose boulder between me and the precipitous drop below, but the ledge is relatively smooth and I feel surprisingly comfortable as I climb into my bivy bag. I still wear my harness, and am still tied in to the wall, just in case I decide to do a little more rolling around in the dark than might be considered best for my health. And off into the drifting half-sleep that those who spend nights in wild places know all too well.

My alarm beeps in the gloom. I quickly remind myself not to roll over and stretch. The back of my shoulders and arms bite at me as I move them, a love letter from yesterdays hauling routine. Gingerly we brew coffee and eat breakfast as we cast our eyes up at the overhanging seam above. Having acclimatised to the wall somewhat we are now raring to go, and having used a fair bit of water on supper and breakfast the bag should be easier on us today.

The next three pitches are really good quality, and we revel in them as we pass on through. We use a few points of aid to overcome serious difficulty: a short blank seam, and then a bulging off-width roof crack, but otherwise the climbing is stellar and surprisingly mild considering the angle of the wall. We keep up a steady pace as we negotiate the upper sections of the cliff, our minds and bodies focused by the drop in temperature courtesy of the swirls of cloud that have begun to pour down from above.

‘A Private Universe’ is a brilliant name for a route in this place. Not only is the whole wall secluded from the rest of the world, but the size of it and the silence of its volume allows one to roam about within oneself as you slowly navigate its domain. You become accustomed to the hundreds of empty meters below – by now the dinky architecture of the enclosed base of the wall half a kilometre away seems like a trick on the eye. But then you might follow the rope down to make sure it wont catch on anything and BOOM suddenly the chasm jolts something ancient within you, and your instincts scold the part of you that allowed yourself to assume a position as precarious as this. Ho–ly–shee–ut that’s a long way down!! There isn’t enough space in ones lungs to draw in the amount of ‘life lived properly’ that it allows you to feel.

Stepping outside myself again I squint up into the light. The unsettled sky is cloudy and bright as I try and watch Leo as he leads somewhere just out of my line of sight. The tag line he trails momentarily catches on something, and in surreal slow-motion  a black football-sized rock emerge from the white. It hurtles down in my direction and I take action without conscious thought, swinging on the slings of my hanging belay to make myself flush with the face. The air throbs as the rock hurtles harmlessly by me with about a meter to spare. Fuck! That was pretty close. And it was big enough to do serious damage. There is no use in making a big deal of it, but I take it as yet another reminder that you are only successful on an outing once safely back at home.

As I lead off on the final pitch our conversation becomes a little incoherent as we channel our fatigue into laughter, and soon we clamber wearily out of the cauldron, escaping the sucking void to become reacquainted with our long-lost friend: solid ground.

We both feel a sense of great accomplishment at having safely ascended so magnificent a feature. As Leo and I share a hug our euphoria is tinged with an undeniable feeling of sadness that such an intense adventure has begun to wind down. What we have been doing has seemed so full of meaning, so true to itself. The wind whips at our scuffed skin and we are tired, hungry and thirsty … but ordinary life suddenly seems to pale in comparison with the adventure of the past 30 hours in this amazing place.

True to form, we misinterpret the route guide’s description of the way down, and so we slide and scuttle down through the ragged gorges of yet another awesome Western Cape mountain side. We ponder the possibility of being caught out by darkness as clouds darken the steep valley sides, but eventually we drop down from the final ridge line to safely reconnect with the vegetated river course.

We arrive back at our car just as the light begins to fade, and we have just enjoyed a well deserved sip of  beer from the first pub we passed on the way home when the sound of rain starts up on the solid thatch roof. We did well, but luck was also on our side. We give thanks to the universe. Both inside and out

A Private Universe
22 A1 or 28 (7c), 19 pitches
Slanghoek Amphitheater, Witteberg, Western Cape

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Some of the epic scenery during the decent. The very left hand side of the Private Universe amphitheater is visible behind the free-standing turret in the distance.

This Newborn took years off my life!

Newborn – Yellowood Amphitheater, Du Toits Kloof (29/7c+, 12 or 13 piches)

A long day out negotiating the epicness of Yellowood’s only sport route. As the route is a little above my grade I was glad to have Matt Bush as rope gun. He made short work of even the crux pitches whilst I thrutched about for dear life! The walk in is fairly stiff, meaning that from Cape Town it was about a 20 hour return trip. Rapping down such an overhanging wall after dark was wild, with the pin-pricks of our torches completely swallowed in the sea of darkess.  I got home feeling severely worked but on a total high.  An amazing outing on an incredible wall.

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Approaching the base of the 350m Yellowood wall after the frisky walk in. Newborn goes almost straight up the wall just to the right of Matt.

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Awesome climbing on pitch 3 (23) as the grades rapidly stiffen.

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Also on pitch 3 (23). (Pic: Matt Bush)

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Pitch 4 (25) was one of the best I have ever climbed.

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How awesome is this pitch?!! (Pitch4, 25)

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By pitch 5 things start getting tough. The open book above Matt is a real struggle. (26)

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The angle eases off for a pitch just after the ‘half-way’ ledge before really kicking back. Very intimidating to look up at that knowing you are going to climb right through it.

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Matt having just done the crux on pitch 8 (29). I was completely befuddled by the thing and after a few tries I resorted to a bit of ye ol’ quickdraw fondling.

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So much fun bashing through these roofs, Pitch 9 (26)

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Another crux, pitch 11 (29). What you cant see from this picture is that the corner hangs out over the entire wall.

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Me at the top of pitch 11, feeling completely shattered, wondering what the hell im doing in this place! (Pic: Matt Bush)

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View from the summit over Du Tois Kloof valley. Now for the decent in the last hour of sunlight.

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Airy absails down a 350 meter overhanging wall.

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A selfie at one of the hanging stances on the descent.

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Half way down the cliff we say good bye to the sun. The light died soon after.

Sunlight through snake oil

Slangolie Buttress, 12 Apostles, Table Mountain, Cape Town (14)

A little solo sortie up the mellow but picturesque ridge of Slangolie buttress (‘Snake Oil’ buttress) on a perfect summers day (Grade 14). Slangolie is one of the  ’12 Apostles’, the mountains that form the back of the Table Mountain massive as it runs down the Cape peninsula.

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The route is mellow but does have a few steep sections.

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Looking South. The suburb of Llandudno lies just around the corner.

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A ledge near the top, with the best pitch still to come.

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Looking onto the back of Table Mountain.