Cautionary Tales

First featured in issue 32 (March – May 2010) of SA Mountain

Lo, Mo and Flo were a trio of very experienced, weather-beaten Cape Town trad climbers. With expeditions to big walls all around the world to their credit, they were a tough and capable team. While Lo had many El Cap nail-ups to his name, Mo was a seasoned BASE jumper, and Lo and Flo had been romantically involved for years and ran a climbing shop together.

Cape Town trad climbers speak with respect about ‘country climbs’. These don’t rise out of dairy paddocks, but in the mighty Du Toit’s Kloof and Hex River ranges. Some of the biggest walls, with the baddest walk-ins in the country fall into this category. Names like Yellowood Amphitheatre, the Witteberg and Duiwelksloof command respect.

One of the great classics is Mike Mamacos’s North West Frontal on the 500 metre face of Du Toit’s Peak. Opened in 1949, it was one of the hardest and biggest routes on the planet in its day. Today it is still respected as a test piece at grade 19, 16 pitches long, with wild exposure on a huge and intimidating wall.

The day of their epic ascent dawned like many mid-summer Boland days – hot, and set to get hotter. The Cape Boland can be an oven in mid-summer. Having done the route before, and being thoroughly tough guys, they decided not to camp at the foot of the route, but to do the walk-in and the route on the same day. They travelled light, planning on summiting early, being back at the car well before nightfall.

Between them they carried three litres of water, which they sipped cautiously. The climbing went smoothly, pitch after pitch slipping by, until they found themselves 300 metres up, the steep scree way below them, with the wall shimmering in a heat haze. The rock was so hot that fingertips hurt when they touched the sandstone. Lizards headed into the shady corners. By mid-morning their water was finished.

By lunchtime their throats were like sandpaper, the hard pitches were behind them and they had only the top water scoop pitches to finish. Once finished, their plan was to head down the long A Ridge that connects the summit of Du Toit’s Peak to the valley floor and their car. It is at least a four-hour descent, on a good day. Mercilessly, the day got hotter and hotter.

As they topped out and began their descent, they were on the lookout for a drip, something to sooth their raging thirst. But, the hot and barren fynbos yielded nothing and they began to feel worse and worse as they descended. Spots started appearing in front of their eyes, they became clumsy, irritable and stumbled over unseen rocks in the dense bush. The north-facing slopes received the full heat of the sun. They had no option but to carry on, mile after mile, legs shredded by the thorny, hard bush.

Their situation had changed from difficult to terrible. They were in danger of collapsing from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Hour after hour they thrashed on, skin no longer clammy and brains overheating. The man in the black cloak looked at them hungrily; vultures circled overhead.

Eventually, they reached the road, stumbled down to the Molenaars River and dived in headfirst, drinking as much as they could. The vultures moved off, disappointed.

Moral of the story: never underestimate the size of a big wall, the heat of the day, or your ability to move quickly. Factor in unexpected delays, lots of sweat. Your body does not like becoming overheated: it is better at warming itself up than cooling itself down.

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