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A Long Line to Infamy

The sensation of flight: It's an odd feeling, made all the more so by virtue of the fact that I'm not falling but rather am flying, in a very controlled manner, down valley. Considering my most recent lesson in physics, this sense of control adds a slight euphoric tinge to the surreal sight of sunset, the mountains and the valley floor hundreds of meters below rushing by in a blur.

Actually, the morphine may well have had something to do with the euphoria...possibly the blurring too.

An hour's drive out of Cape Town, Du Toits Kloof is spectacularly alpine in nature – foreboding in foul weather, radiant in good weather, and hemmed on either side by majestic mountains. Tucked away at the head of Leeuklippie Kloof, not much more than 2hrs walk from the highway, is the campsite often used by climbers attempting routes on the Northwest wall of Du Toits Peak. It is a special place nestled under a canopy of green and surrounded by hulking masses of mountain, it seems it should almost feel oppressive. It is, in fact, the epitome of tranquility. Of course at four thirty in the morning we could only sense the beauty while trying to force breakfast down in the dark, although the mountain's presence was hard to ignore. Stuart and I were here to climb North by Northwest and hopefully Renaissance the following day, and with 22 pitches of North by Northwest ahead of us we felt we needed the early start. Also, being December, the less time spent in direct sun the better.

We had thrashed our way through the very dense fynbos the previous evening having pushed hard to avoid the approaching night. We'd hiked this once before at night with spectacular antics the result: Stuart had rolled backwards down a scree slope, boulder in tow with sparks adding visual effect and a cordite-like smell filling the air; and I'd fallen into a hole between two rocks while crossing the river leaving me wedged at the chest, feet dangling uselessly in mid air. Amusing once, we were keen not to repeat the performance!

The climbing started at seven, electing to solo as much of the lower section as possible in the interests of time saving. We tied in at pitch 4 and Stuart got to lead one of the most awesome pitches I've done - a clean hand-jam crack some 2 inches wide and overhanging slightly, on impeccable dark red, compact sandstone. The setting was surreal as Stuart powered up the crack with the rising sun casting a ginger luminescent glow on the opposite ridge crest – being absorbed in a committing climb on a wall that was still in shadow gave one a sense of mild aloofness. A couple of mediocre and one friable pitch later placed Stuart on the sharp end once again, facing a smooth featureless recess but for this huge detached razor-sharp flake. The route description hinted at actually using the flake, which Stuart duly did - but near its top, sans any gear between my belay and himself, he found that it moved.

A lot.

Much heated banter saw me scurrying for some form of shelter and Stuart gingerly down climbing, and choosing an alternative line of attack to the ledge above. For a while now we had been confused at the 'Rd and 'topo not aligning, but figured after the mention of the flake that we were there or there abouts. It was a few pitches later that we accepted, with finality, that somehow we were not entirely where we were supposed to be - but Stu, being strong, and me well versed in the fine art of jummaring, decided that straight up was not a bad way, and it looked to be about five pitches and would ultimately place us where we wanted to be: atop of this wee wall. Not feeling strong enough to tackle the overhangs directly I angled off up and left for about 15m, then climbed my way into what was increasingly looking like a dead-end. Stuart was trying to get me to head right - that looked very difficult, but my way straight up was blocked by a seam of rock that looked at my limit. After a tentative foray up the seam I down climbed to my last piece of gear and backed it up and equalised it, eventually gathered my thoughts before committing and then headed up. The seam yielded to a cool series of technical laybacking, sadly gearless, but I reached the "jug" with a wildly pumped forearm...and some 20 feet between my last piece and me. While pausing briefly to regain my breath before mantling onto the ledge to make a stance, the portion of rock – the size of a 10 seater dining table - that I was perch on inexplicably tore away from the massif proper without any warning whatsoever and a hair-raising tearing sound.

This resulted in me experiencing the aforementioned sensation of flight with a ledge bigger than myself in tow! This, I imagined, was not recommended.

For 40+ feet I fell backwards head-over-heels with the occasional knock to the helmet, and at some point parted company with the offending block and was then unceremoniously smashed into the wall, compliments of gravity and my rope coming tight. A massive jerk on my harness as the rope came tight and a blinding white flash is all I remember of the impact. When the world stopped spinning and I was able to amass and collate the various neuro messages being thrust wildly and desperately to my brain, I was hanging a few meters away from the rock-face turning around and around and strangely able to see my left arm actually flapping out left. As if detached. After it refused instruction to return, I realised that it was in fact (almost) detached: a clean (if rather large) open fracture of the upper humorous being the cause.

Having grown up in the golden age of cinematic special effects, I still see it all happening from an observer's perspective: imagining how it must have looked like rather than a comprehensive first hand view. In a way, it is less painful as an observer – less fear too. But all the modern day editing tricks still only pander to two of the senses. And every time I replay the scene (willingly or not, on the ground...or not) I am left remembering the smell. We see a lot of Hollywood blood these days, but it lacks the sense of smell. I was able to direct Stu in lowering me to a ledge (I'd climbed left out of sight) where I sat holding my arm together while he cleaned his stance, climbed half the pitch self-belaying and then rapped down to me off my last few pieces using my (not quite dead) body weight as a counter weight. It is difficult to describe, but lying there with Stuart's whole shirt stuffed into my upper arm in a vain attempt to plug the leak, I don't remember the pain (too much) or the scorching sun as much as I remember the smell of my own blood.

We debated the course of action and I was convinced that we were not very far from the walk off slope so suggested calling in a chopper, as I figured they'd get in easily. A weird three-way conversation between Stu, Ross Suter (who happened to be at Hellfire) and the rescue manager managed to get the chopper to us within an hour. It's a beautiful sound, I must confess, the sound of helliborne help. We heard them as they crested the Du Toits Kloof pass and had to scramble to get my helmet back on (I at least wanted to look responsible!) having removed it for comfort sake...the trivial things are still amusing. As it turned out, we were in fact too low and the overhangs above prohibited the chopper from getting in close enough. Six hours later Woody literally dropped in on us, having been lowered 200m and directed by the ever-present airforce Oryx. He was soon joined by Rik, the all-important doctor – he's important because he brought the drugs! The sun was, by this stage, setting so there was a sense of urgency about it all but two things stand out in my memory. Firstly the procedure for issuing morphine requires that the issuer vocally confirms with the other rescuer that he is taking X amount of morphine and injecting it into the patient, the other guy then repeats the confirmation! It was just a bizarre conversation to hear perched on a ledge nearly 300 hundred meters above the talus, with sticky blood all over the place. The second thing to stand out was that we had been forced to ration our remaining water, as we had no idea how long this would take. My rescuer in shining paraphernalia arrives, Stu offers him a sip of water, and he duly finishes it! I had been made to stagger my single sips to twenty-minute intervals and here Stu just lets him finish it! It's an odd jealousy, but for 6 hours I was living from sip to sip and felt a strange attachment to my water.

The sun had set when the Oryx returned for one attempt to get us off. Woody had attached himself to me, was leaning out from the belay and the pilot was, impressively, able to swing the end of the long-line with absolute pin-point accuracy in to Woody who caught it, attached us and literally stepped of the ledge in one clean move. So, that's when Woody and I logged some flight time, leaving Rik and Stu to jummar the 200m out. They and the rest of the rescuers atop the mountain were lifted off at midnight... I was long since sleeping.

Postscript

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