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.
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-solo “Roulette” (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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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