No Fly Zone

I grabbed the ear of rock with a firm half-open left, tweaked the fingers to apply a type of crowbar pressure-test to the hold – a subconscious skill honed over the years - brought my left foot up to high-step into the layback and stabilized with the right. I was looking down at my feet when I heard it crack, creek.

There is a reason that I do not climb with headphones, especially soloing in the big mountains (where headphones are inviting distractions) – every one of my senses is heightened, all in an attempt to stay alive. The void visible between my feet was, by this stage, pretty impressive; I was about level with the top of the roofs of the main amphitheater, but being on the frontal arête gave a sense of being higher, as the ridge ran 800m down to the river below. I didn’t even look at the hold to check if I’d heard right, merely kept the focus, adjusting my weight slightly to take pressure off of the hold and commit more to the right hand and the feet which were the focus of my gaze. Stepping up and past the hold, I pulled it up, out of it’s fractured security and tossed it to the riverbed.

That thing was gonna get someone hurt!

It had been a long time since I’d done anything cool - for myself. Cape Town to Cape Town in a day, soloing the frontal and flying off the top is, rightly or wrongly, my idea of a self-indulgent-cool-thing-to-do.

The Klein Winterhoek is an epic place – big, imposing, inaccessible and alluring. The frontal rib is so prominent and aesthetic when viewed from the town of Tulbagh and, of course, the amphitheater – hidden from town - is incredibly imposing, once you get to gaze up at it. It is just as imposing to climb, but I was here for a more mellow outing: a quick ‘run’ up the frontal route and, hopefully, a flight back to the car from the summit.

My first visit must have been circa 2002 – it was certainly before the days of compact digital cameras as I still have the slides – where I got pushed into the deep-end and climbed Oceans of Fear with Stuart in a day. He’d done it previously over 3 days and wanted to do it in a day – I was meant to tag along as the 3rd, until Andrew Ward couldn’t make it. That was the first time I experienced complete and utter exhaustion but, that, is another story. Over a 5 year period I returned at least six times, with pretty high success – O.I.A.D again with Clinton Martinengo; 2nd ascent of Children of the Sky (first clean) over 5 days with Stuart; 5th ascent of Wall of Silence (first clean) in a day and a half. But I’d never taken the time to climb the classic “easy” route, always obsessed with the hard stuff.

I’d thought that it was important.

It’s hard to articulate how one can have a personal relationship with a mountain, how you can be repeatedly successful on some mountains but not others - some are a good match, and others aren’t.

As best I could remember, the last time I was there was a ‘social’ trip circa 2010 with Joe and Candice, when Joe was trying to free Oceans. By that stage I’d already started to move into a sort of isolationist realm, triggered by a costly relationship and subsequent failed move to Vancouver, wandering the world alone searching for whatever vagabond climbers and skier’s search for – and learning new tricks for independent fun along the way, like paragliding, and speed-flying where partners are not required. The last few years in the Alps I’ve managed to combine skiing, climbing and flying into one outing – replicating that goal in Africa just needed the right mountain (obviously the skiing bit is not as likely, although I have tried). As far as terrain goes, we have very few climbs which are good enough to want to solo, AND which also top-out on a summit which is launchable – they’re either gargoyle’d and a cliff-launch, or fynbos infested and chossy climbing. All of our peaks are prone to wind – Westerly’s in the Drakensberg, South Easterly / Easterly in the Cape.

 The Klein Winterhoek has many of the above requirements, coupled with a personal history, which was, comfortingly, a successful one. It’s hard to articulate how one can have a personal relationship with a mountain, how you can be repeatedly successful on some mountains but not others - some are a good match, and others aren’t.

That said, I have only ever taken five lead falls whilst climbing in the mountains, and four of them were on the Klein Winterhoek. Once on an exploratory trip trying to forge a way up the gully (ill advised!) to the base, a cam, my only piece, placed as an after-thought catching me when a hold broke. Once, inexplicably, off the finishing moves of the first pitch of Oceansthat was unexpected to both my belayer and myself! Once being lazy on The Telephone Repairman pitch – the spectacular A1 roof pitch on Children – and instead of placing another piece, I thought I could swing/pendulum on the wire to which I was fifi’d and slap a cam in around the lip…that ended predictably, and amusingly. Once on the final exit pitches of The Frontal (which are shared with all the aid routes), when a hold broke as we were finishing Children of The Sky.

So while I’ve had success on The Klein Winterhoek, I was certainly aware of the other side of our relationship. But the day’s objectives were, in order:

  1. Don’t die
  2. Live (technically different to not dying)
  3. Solo the Frontal
  4. Fly back to the car

At a little under 2000m asl (my watch said 1980m asl) the summit, sadly, caught the strong Easterly/South Easter – it was perfectly calm in the valley, but blowing a gale on top. I had chosen to bring my Ozone XXLite single-skin paraglider: at 1.2kg it is tiny. But it is also slow, and no one knows what it does in turbulence – I chose not to find out.

75% of the goal is an acceptable return, so I’ll take it and keep chasing the elusive 100% - I guess if it happened regularly, it wouldn’t be unique J

...someone who looked like they’d been dragged through a bush, backwards. Because, I had.

On my way home I phoned a friend in the hope I might grab a beer, and some food but made the point that it would need to be at a venue that’d serve someone who looked like they’d been dragged through a bush, backwards. Because, I had been. My good friend Mark Johnson is of the opinion that there needs to be a special Cape-Fynbos-Thrashfest grade scale, to give an indication of just how bad the thicket thrash is likely to be. I had a pretty good approach in the morning (3.5hrs to the base), but a combination of haste and fatigue got me full value on the way out – culminating in a 45min crawl through a Protea plantation, less than 600m from the road! By that stage I was spending more time off my feet than on them, so I simply gave up the fight and virtually crawled through it. Cape Country climbing is not complete without an epic walk – which is, exactly, why I had taken a glider!

Later I was asked afterward in conversation

SK: “whyyyy?”

Me: “because I can.”

Me: “It's my version of a canvas. Everyone is exposed to 'canvasses' to 'paint' their story. This is mine - yours is different. No less (or more) significant, or important.”

SK: “I know. I mean I know you well enough to know why, I was more just expressing the terror I feel when I observe”

Me: “It's so easy to admire doctors risking their lives being exposed to drug resistant TB, Ebola or having an HIV needle prick... And you'll tell me that I don't understand how 'not at risk you are', how medical boldness hides behind calculated science”

Me:”...and I'll say ditto. Same same, just different.”

Later, on a social platform, Chris (Lomax), one of the pioneers of South African solo-ing (and flying off of things) commented, “Many will never understand the science behind boldness”. The common view from the non-participant is that it is a death-wish, or that you are an adrenalin junky (my pet hate) – I can assure you that we are not trying to kill ourselves.

For me, it is a way of stepping into a zone that completely absorbs me. Where I’m engrossed in action and constant analysis – of terrain, of the ‘feeling’ of the environment, the options and permutations presented and managing the potential risk versus goal while always being aware of how I am feeling. There is massive personal engagement involved, and it would not be the same if the commitment weren’t there – the no-option-but-to-deal-with-it commitment.

It is the closest that I’ll get to the engagement of emergency medicine.

Of course; I hope I don’t end up being the recipient of emergency medicine (again), but that is, kind of, the point. Without that consequence, the engagement is not nearly as, well, engaging. Making life and death decisions on the go for a day is a special experience.

Undoubtedly selfish, but show me something which is not.


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