Mallory and Irving

First featured in issue 37 (June 2011) of SA Mountain

Mallory and Irving were a pair of keen beginner trad climbers based in Johannesburg. They were tired of the usual Magaliesberg kloofs and felt in need of some exploration further afield.

The Magaliesberg kloofs are particularly beautiful in an unexpected sort of way because they are ‘invisible’. Most mountains look like mountains from afar: you can’t help notice El Cap when driving into Yosemite Valley, but the kloofs are out of sight when driving along the road west of Hartebeespoort Dam and a first time visitor is often put off by the lack of mountainous terrain or any visible rock at all. But, tucked away are some stunning ravines with Cederberg-quality sandstone rock, deep, dark, cool pools on a hot day and Japanese waterfalls complete with trees and moss. And at the heart of it all, some world-class climbing.

And so it was that, one bright morning, the intrepid pair made their way up Hammerkop Kloof in search of something challenging to get their teeth into. They settled on ‘Erectile Projectile’ as their first route. It consists of a number of grade 15 pitches, the first of which requires a 10-metre scramble to reach its base. The two romped up the steep but easy rock to the ledge that marks the start of the climbing. There they uncoiled their ropes, organised their rack of trad gear, pulled on their boots, fluffed out their chalk bags and got themselves ready for action. It promised to be a stunning morning on the crag.

Mallory set off up the easy rock that marked the first few metres, placing a large cam as his first piece of gear. The first few metres were on a slab, with the feature of the route, an overhanging bulge, just above him. It was a grade with which he was comfortable and all was going well. Irving saw that a snag had developed in the ropes. Somehow they had got themselves tangled into an enormous ball and the knot had become jammed up against his belay device, preventing him from paying out any more rope. There was no way Mallory could progress further until the tangle was unravelled.

‘Can you hold it there while I untangle this mess? I need to take you off belay,’ Irving called up to Mallory. Mallory felt that he was on easy ground and could wait a minute or two as the problem was tended to.

‘No problem,’ he called. Irving unclipped the rope and started trying to sort of the muddle.
In order to get himself more securely settled, Mallory reached up to a big handhold. Just below the hold, he disturbed at wasp’s nest. His head was tilted backward as he looked up with an open mouth. In a flash, an angry wasp flew from its nest and stung Mallory in, of all places, the inside of his mouth. The pain was instant and intense.

To make matters worse, he saw two more wasps zoning in on their target, his open mouth, and he realised that he had to do something he had never done before – jump! He knew that he was off-belay, but had no alternative. As soon as he had fallen past the cam, he grabbed the rope. By then he had built up plenty of speed and the rope burnt his hand. Irving too grabbed at the rope and stood on the tangled bundle. Mallory fell past the ledge and came to a halt several metres below the belayer, but fortunately above the ground. Shaken, and nursing a damaged paw, he was lowered to the ground, lucky not to have taken a deck fall with far more serious consequences.

The moral of the tale is a simple one: never take your hand off the belay without placing a back-up knot. If you need to unclip the rope, tie a back-up knot to safeguard the leader. Expect the unexpected.

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