By Ed February
Featured in Issue 1 (June 2002) of SA Mountain.
Recently Dirk Versfeld and I were having a really high gravity day on the first pitch of Persona on Barrier Buttress on Table Mountain. First I went up and prated around for a while and then he did the same. After some time we had three pieces of gear in and a total lack of motivation to proceed higher so decided to retreat. Well Dirk was up at the time so he had to retrieve the gear. I was belaying on two skinny ropes. How difficult is this going to be? A few minutes I thought and then we can go off to do something a few grades easier.
Well to cut a long story short, I was holding Dirk on the last piece with a piece above him while he tried to figure out what to do next when the piece he was sitting on popped. With two ropes there should not be a problem. Just hold him on the other one. However, Dirk is a lot heavier than I am. It is also difficult to hold onto one skinny rope while also keeping the other one in your hand. So when the piece popped I was busy using both hands to wrap as much rope as possible around my belay device. With neither hand on it, the weighted rope zipped through the Sticht and Dirk hit the ground. This was the first time in more than thirty years of climbing that I had dropped someone, I was absolutely devastated, and it has been on my mind ever since. This is how Charlie broke his leg at Krakadouw, how Forsooth broke a lot of things at Elsies and many others have broken many things. A common mistake and one we should be very careful of. Climbing is dangerous, you can do a whole lot more than just hurt yourself, and you would be amazed at how fast a great adventure can turn into an epic.
This occurrence at Barrier led me to thinking of a particular set of incidents that happened to me a few years ago. I was then working at the South African Museum and was fortunate enough to spend a sabbatical at the University of Arizona in the United States. I had been in Tucson for two months and was finally getting on top of my work sufficiently to get out and go climbing. On one particular weekend I managed to go down to Cochise Stronghold for the biannual Beanfest.
This Beanfest thing is an old Tucson tradition going back for about 20 years. It is always held in Cochise Stronghold and involves climbing on the Saturday and a bouldering comp on the Sunday. It can also involve all kinds of other things but is really dependent on the person who is in charge also known as the Bean Master. The idea is that people bring refried beans and tortillas and everybody joins in for the Saturday night at a joint bean burrito feast that is normally accompanied by much drinking of tequila and beer. Then on the Sunday there is a bouldering comp. The drinking tends to be taken more seriously than the bouldering comp. But then people are there for the party. It is a rather infamous event that normally gets a one-paragraph mention in Climbing magazine and because I have heard of it for years now I felt I wanted to participate.
This year’s event was rather traumatic. In fact I felt very sorry for the Bean Master who had to deal with all the shit. On the Saturday night, everybody was sitting around this huge fire that he had made and there was generally much merriment when some drunk decided to jump into the fire.
Now drunks have been doing this kind of thing for years, but on this occasion hot coals shot off into the crowd (around 100 people) sitting around the fire and one women got a face full including into her eyes. The rangers were called in and she had to be rushed off to hospital. As it turns out she was OK, except for the burns of cause, but this did mean much late night discussions with the Rangers and a general dampened on what was beginning to turn into a good party. In fact we all turned in at a reasonable hour because of this.
To make matters worse. The next day it was discovered that one of the guys had died in his sleep and it was only when his mates realised that he hadn’t moved in his sleeping bag that this was discovered. This was all quite horrendous and left a really sour taste in my mouth. As I said to this guy Mike that I went out with. Here we are having a really great time and not 20 metres away all kinds of shit is going down that doesn’t affect your party. Both Mike and I were less than 20 metres away from this guy and I still remember seeing him lying there in his bag.
I have attended hundreds of parties, drank gallons of beer and as a kid lived seriously dangerously and I am still here today. What is different about Me, Tinie, Snort, Guy, Douglas and any of the rest of us that have done silly things as kids? Why are we still here?
Yes it seriously disturbs me when a guy in his early 20’s dies of some unknown cause less than 20 metres away from me and I didn’t even know that it was happening. It disturbs me in many ways but mostly because I feel this dark shadowy thing brush past me and I know that it is lurking out there not far away. So too is it with belaying. For years you may belay not quite realising the consequences of a lapse in concentration and then one day just as you have both hands in your bag looking for the food your mate falls off and kills himself.
Belaying is a serious game. Treat it that way.