Cautionary Tales – Swan Lake

by ANDY WOOD illustration by RICHARD SMITH
Featured in issue 33 (June – August 2010) of SA Mountain.

Swan Lake at the Mine is a well-respected test piece among Cape climbers. For many up-and-up climbers it is an exam, and one with a high failure rate. The crux comes after a small roof and involves some boldly overhanging moves through a corner, leading to another pumpy headwall. It is a tough grade 25, and is one of those routes that overhangs as much as it ascends – the lower-off from the chains plonks the leader a long, long way back from where you started. The route has spat many a cocky youngster and blown the fingers and forearms of codgers and cruisers alike. 

Randy and Bambi were very much in love. Swan Lake was high on Randy’s hit list, and Bambi was quite willing to hold his ropes. They were at the end of a long road trip and had been doing plenty of good climbing, and Swan Lake was in their sights, trigger ready. They warmed on the uber-classics Trade Winds and Sickle Moon and then craned their necks upward and backward.

Bambi positioned herself at the base of the route, like most sport climbing belayers do, without clipping into an anchor.

Randy strode up the ramp at the base of the pitch, pulled the first overhang and established himself soundly on the headwall, looking strong. He stuck the moves and pulled the crux solidly. Whoops of elation floated down as he cruised the pumpy final moves to the chains. A big name route was his, and in fine style. 

He then threaded the chains and asked Bambi to lower him, cleaning the route as he descended. Being so steeply overhanging, removing the quickdraws under the roof was strenuous work. Clipped into the rope with a short ’draw attached to the belay loop of his harness, he would swing outward after he had removed each of the ’draws, and then have to pull himself a long way back towards the wall to remove the next one. As he made his way down the steeply overhanging wall, his swings would become longer.

Then, at the final ’draw, things went wrong.  He forgot to unclip himself from the rope after he had removed the last ’draw. He swung outwards with enough force to yank Bambi backwards for a couple of metres until she hit a pile of boulders head first, knocking her unconscious. It was only the GriGri that prevented further disaster. Nearby climbers rushed over, lowered Randy and tried to revive Bambi, whose head wound had begun to bleed profusely.

She spent a couple of hours in the ER being stitched and a long while recovering from concussion and a neck injury.

The moral of the tale is simple: While cleaning overhanging sport routes, when the leader removes the ’draw from the last bolt, he must remove anything attaching himself to the rising rope so that he can swing out freely without towing the belayer with him. And, of course, anchoring the belayer and wearing a helmet, even when on the ground, is always a good idea. 

Previous Vertical South Film Fest - Montagu
Next Climb4Hope SA Montagu 2021 Event Report