A Private Universe
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.
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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