A Private Universe, Slanghoekberg, Western Cape, South Africa

What happens when 3 friends decide to do a 2 day wall with no previous big wall experience between them? A BIG adventure followed by an even bigger breakfast! I was pretty sure we weren’t ready. But the timing was right and Mike and Johns’s enthusiasm won me over. All we needed to do was learn to aid climb, figure out what to pack (more importantly what not to pack!) and then pit our wills against the biggest wall we’d ever seen this close.

Slanghoek Amhpitheatre is 650m high and generally overhanging, involving 20 pitches of fairly sustained climbing and aiding on a range of rock quality. Our biggest event to date was 7 pitches at grade 21 (510b) and none of us had done aid climbing before (well except for the odd cheater move).So I insisted on a couple of aid training days. Dynamite (26(5.12) or A1) on TM scared me silly. Hanging on a marginal mini cam as I dangled at the lip of an overhang trying to place my smallest nut into a not-so-constricting crack gave me a whole new appreciation for fear, focus and faith. I did 15m in 2 pitches and it took me almost 3 hours. When we took on Elsies Peak and aided Winds of Change a week later we brought our 18 litres of water and bivy gear just to make sure this unlikely procedure was even possible. I think we were only satisfied because by now we weren’t going to turn back.

The epic began at 4am Saturday morning. We found the farm and parked as far along the dirt road as we could before a large rock brought the car to a halt via my oil sump. The hike up was a bit of a bundu bash but beautiful in the morning light. We filled our water bottles at the waterfall and slogged the last talus field to the base. Mike lead the first pitch from atop a 10m pillar. At this point, the first of our team made a bid for retreat. Mike bag leaped off the pillar and crashed down the talus below. John retrieved it minus 2.5 litres of water and a couple of holes in my thermarest. Not a good start but a start nonetheless.

It was as we followed the first pitch that the bags ceased to be bags and became the PIGS! They a conjured a frightening loathing from whomever was closest to them for the next 40 hours! They hindered every movement from standing up to mere breathing. Worse yet, we found none of the supposed bolts after the first two pitches and were wondering if this was the right amphitheatre. On the second pitch I pulled of a suitcase sized rock onto my knee and immobilised my ankle for the next 30 minutes. Pitch 4 saw my approach shoes, in an act of desperate mutiny, unclip themselves from the pig and make a run for the ledge atop pitch 1. I retrieved them and gained a solid, 50m lesson in prussicking to boot. It was at this point that retreat was still relatively easy and you wouldn’t have had to twist my arm far. My ankle hurt, my back was aching and my mind had ground to a halt with the immensity of the task ahead. But John and Mike ignored the option and pushed on ahead and I tacked my will to theirs and followed. Finally we got into the groove and started making real headway. The rock was improving slightly, and the gradient was moving past vertical. Pitch 7 was easy aid on bolts and afforded Mike and John a good lesson in jugging too. Pitch 9 was my prize for not giving up. Spectacular 20(5.10c) climbing with a phat bivy ledge to welcome the end of the day.

We strung up a safety line, made tea, some Tasty Sludge and settled in. I wish I could say I got a good nights sleep but alas it was not meant to be. Sharing a sleeping bag and pad in between uneven and rock hard rocks kept me searching fruitlessly for rest. But exhaustion did the trick in the end and I woke up to first light and heavily overhanging wall above. Day two held more pitches of higher grade and steeper gradient. Our only comfort was knowing that we were carrying only 6 litres between us but they were still PIGS! John led the first aid pitch (her first ever) and I learned the meaning of trust as I unhooked the first piece of gear and swung out over nothing to start jugging the Line. As a climber I had to fight every instinct in order to let go of that wall and swing out. The exposure was mind numbing and I bent toward the task of hauling myself and the PIG up that rope. I was happy to lead the next pitch with the relatively light and unencumbering rack.

This next section was written by John.

On the second day we started climbing at 7 in the morn and while half the day had disappeared with the sun we were only three pitches up out of 11 and no possibility of backing out. So we all entered into a matrix program: crash course in big wall climbing and went into hyper[climb]drive. This helped. Alex finished the last pitch of 22 climbing at the end of dusk when you enter into that phase called full on darkness and we followed the last pitch with our head-torches and pigs. We topped out on a rather grassy and sandy piece of escarpment and had the prospect of a 15km walk off with no apparent path and no water at that present moment (bizarre, we actually planned for that to happen – I mean having no water – meant lighter packs)…. But we found water shortly (we actually knew that so it wasn’t that dramatic). We stared at a map for a while, actually Mike and alex stared at a map for a while – I was almost incoherent with exhaustion, and figured out that we had to stumble west and not fall off a large cliff at the same time.

So west it was. We went one valley too far to the left however and landed up abseiling off waterfalls in the dark [entertainment]. By then I probably was mostly or fully incoherent and close to tears with exhaustion in a not so happy like way. We curled up on uncomfortable rocks and rested our eyes waiting for the sun to come. When it did we swiftly moved right along. By then I felt energised in a new way. The valley was a beautiful valley in a pristine mountain world. Memories from the night before of full-flavoured and diverse fynbos smells that you wouldn’t believe if I told you and a single huge perfect protea flooded in. I realised that we were so lucky to have gone through this experience together. The river led us rock-hopping all the way back to civilisation. I can’t really say that we were focussed on appreciating where we were consciously (we walked straight past baboon barks without flinching and would have probably punched them on the nose had they appeared in any kind of threatening way) but having light and a clear direction to go in and water (such simple things) brought me a sense of contentment and allowed me to notice things that I will never forget like the magic smells of the fynbos and the meandering curve of a life-giving river. I was actually really happy. My body was so tired but it had helped me to let go of tiredness. We were just moving-that’s all there was to it. Then Alex our fearless leader, found the path. This was amazing!!!! We didn’t have to think every second were to go. Alex is amazing in that way – he can bring himself out of the immediate struggle to place of larger perspective, like taking the extra effort (and we didn’t have much to spare) to go scout the path. This saved us so much energy I can’t actually convey to you.

Eventually we reached the end of the track and the last km to the lodge where our car was. It felt surreal walking into that restaurant – we had travelled a universe beyond and back: the intensity of hunger, then no hunger, tiredness, ropework and the entirety of the experience. We ate, and ate, and ate, and paid and travelled on… a private universe inside us.

3 replies
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  2. Mustisusti says:

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