An account of the first hammerless ascent of the Wall of Silence (21, A4)
In an article profiling Mt Hunter, in Alaska, Scott Backes starts off by proclaiming that "Hunter is a Siren...Its seductive song captivated me the first time I heard it. I have thrown aside logic and maybe even reason to try to climb it. I am not alone in this bewitchment. Those of us who have been drawn to Mt. Hunter have never been the same...only our passion, our curiosity and our hubris make us vulnerable to its pull." This stand-out peak, with its aesthetic stature and, almost more importantly, collage of serious routes, each a benchmark of sorts in their own right, Hunter is the playground for the elite, the wannabe elite and the stupidly curious. A climber's mountain.
The Klein Winterhoek could, arguably, be compared: She is not the highest in her range, but has from the outset of the 1st ascent, through the plethora of legendary (urban and otherwise) epic ascents on her intimidating and committing amphitheatre, garnered appeal. Always at the forefront of generational boundaries she lends herself to the visionary, the bold and in my case dumb.
Each of the routes (if not now then certainly at the time) have been signatures of the hard-men gone by.First off, the Frontal Route, so obviously aesthetic and ahead of its time for the 1920s was soloed in the '50s by Hans Graafland (to the dismay of the MCSA office-bearers) setting the tone. The Times They Are Achanging (G2/20) – appropriately named – was the first route to toy with the hugely overhanging amphitheatre, skirting it to the right but close enough to allow Greg Lacey a glimpse into the future (it later also gave Andrew de Klerk (AdK) a direct line to the summit which he would solo...with a paraglider on his back!). The future, of course, was the plum route through the amphitheatre – and by the early eighties, the race was on. Eventually it was Lacey and a 16 year old de Klerk who scooped the line ahead of, among others, the Davies brothers, taking five days to create Oceans of Fear (G2/20, A3). The route, in its original state, is iconic - to the extent that when Jeremy Colenso repeated it with Andrew Lainis he felt it necessary to open his account by stating: Fourth ascent of Oceans of Fear...First non-AdK ascent..." They further felt it serious enough to add a bolt to one of the horror belays. Lacey's vision had by now scoped a second possibility, a more direct, less obvious line through the centre. Sadly Greg died tragically in an avalanche while descending a route in Chamonix before being able to attempt the line. Andrew went back, this time with Wayne Clausen and unlocked a little more of the puzzle, but was forced to abandon the attempt due to really bad weather – an epic ensued as the two bagged the second ascent of Oceans, topping out amid a snow and ice plastered Winterhoek. Wayne then died, equally as tragically, in a caving accident.
In a grieving tribute, de Klerk returned.
In 4 days, Wall of Silence (G3/21, A4) was complete – his summit-book entry makes for goose-bumpy reading indeed, and upon his return Andy is rumored to have locked himself in his room for a significant period of time!
In '89 the two Jeremy's (Colenso/Samson) established Children of the Sky (23, A3), bisecting Oceans at its highest traverse. Over the years Wall of Silence was repeated four times, Oceans was climbed (in its original state) in a day by Douw Steyn and Jeremy Colenso, and was then freed by Adk grade 28 – with bolts added where the aid-gear was bodyweight – to become Oceans of Fun. In between, Children was attempted, unsuccessfully, a few times by the likes of Phil Lloyd (who subsequently died in Patagonia) and Charlie Standing. The new line to the right of them all was attempted by Adam Roff and Andre Vercueil but left incomplete due to the prospect of too much drilling and, Children finally saw its second ascent. Somewhere in between, AdK and Pete Zam made the first complete BASE ascent/decent of the amphitheatre.
In 2002 I heard the siren, and rather than pull over, I succumbed to the lure – much like a strobe-groggy lemming worships the DJ – I was entranced. We have danced a few times since, the Winterhoek and I. What follows is my experience on the fifth ascent (to my knowledge) of Wall of Silence where, between the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the silent, looong belays afford a chance of reflection, a few moments to reminisce.
Sometimes too much.
"Oh, precious ambition that feeds me, I worship your power with emotional violence. I am struck down by watching angels and paralyzed by haunting fear in the final hour. I must go to the wall, driven by anger, by anguish, by anxiety. Oh precious ambition, I just want to die with a smile on my face" Mark Twight: Kiss or Kill
"Uhh....yo! You woke me. Wos'sup?"
"It's Leo. Thought you'd like to know that weatherSA has issued a regional warning for extremely cold, windy and rainy conditions with snow forecast on the high lying peaks out east for tomorrow...where are you?"
"Oh..." my mind is reeling, sleepily slow at processing the information, slower yet to asses the implications.
"uhm, we're above the third aid pitch, in the last big roof. What happened to six days of sunshine? How do they miss something like this...? Actually it doesn't matter, we'll deal...I guess. Thanks for the beta"
I'm doodling on my boss's year planner, mind wandering between 'have done' and 'things to do'. Come on, focus, this shit is important...right lets see...public holiday there – highlight – and there – highlight – and here, oooo and here and here and here. Highlight week. Hang on, and here, and here... highlight looong weekend. Right, that's better...hmmm what to do in April. This really is important, and I've clocked-in already so I'm getting paid to work out when I can't won't be at work. For their sake. Still, what to do in the last week in April? Mini road trip? 'Boven? A route in the 'Berg? Mmm, or maybe.....no. No, no, no, no! I'm not going back. Okay, I'll see if Stuart (Wallis) wants to, surely not...then I don't have to and I can go clip bolts.
The steep walk through the orchards at 7am with a stuffed 95litre pack is a rude reminder that not only was Stu keen, but the world had conspired not to present a tenable excuse to avoid being here, although the intervening 16 months and 11 days have faded the memory, smoothed it just enough. By sundown we are bivying on the Ledge of Forgotten Dreams, four pitches up, with our 'piggy'.
"The advantage of climbing with equal partners is that anyone can lead every pitch. The disadvantage is that everyone wants to!" Scott Semple: Under the Influence
Having been forced to pull straws for the pitches on Children nearly two years ago, I felt it only right that I avoid a repeat of lady luck (or my lack thereof) intervening, so I 'called' the first aid pitch...the one with the ledge to hit on the way down should one choose, or not, to get it wrong. Stu did the math (we would both get an A4 pitch this way, so wasn't fussed) and agreed. It did mean that he got the comfy sleeping spot, I got the hammock – sleep came easily, a novelty, as I looked directly up at the start of my pitch.
Pitch 6: 35 m 'A3': From the highest block nail up a small corner to the roof. Aid right to another corner and up this to where it blanks. Go left and through the roof to a diagonal rail leading up leftwards. Belay on the rail where it levels out. (Zigzags into Infinity Base):
NAIL! Why? I don't know how to nail!
I aid off a secure cam, then a less secure one...and then hook the rail. Aid out right, quite easy in fact. At the corner I'm supposed to nail until able to 'zag left. I aid off a solid nut, then high-step a #1 BD swedge...another small walnut to the break. Where to now? Ah well, if in doubt...hook. Three hook moves left and I confirm that I am, in fact, on track but the rope drag stops me. Arggh. I find a spot for the vulture-clubber (3.5 friend), although it's tipped-out on a ridge within the rail, the best I can do. Stu lowers me off a hook backed up by the tipped-out cam, to clear some drag. Back at my high point, "intricate nailing" is supposed to lead to the belay. I hook to the belay, skip it and steal a bit of Stu's pitch with four hook moves to the next, friable rail. Rail left, and hook to the Horror Crack belay bolts. Haul the pig while Stu cleans the pitch, self belaying.
Pitch 7: 25 m 'A4': Hook up the blocky break going up slightly right to a pocket. Aid right to a thin seam and further right to a bolt belay. (The Cloak of Black Mystery).
Stu starts his pitch, it looks un-appetizing, delicate, loose. With Grigri in hand I prepare for my turn on long belay duty, close my eyes and try to be comfortable hanging in my harness – alternating the weight between standing in my etriers and just sitting in my harness. As the minutes flow to hours, random memories float by alone with a spider's web passing by in a thermal...
It's my turn to rapp first. We've been trying to get off the Frendo (Spur) all day, although the snow has stopped thankfully, and the storm is less aggressive down low. The anchor is shite. We both know it, I just smile as Malcolm (Gowans) unclips from the anchor and the back-up, just as I weight the rope. Pointless us both taking the plunge, and in any event, he's gotta pull the backup if this works...shame...
"Tris, watch me here....". Ohooo, it's starting to get like that then hey, its not often that one hears that from Stu...I guess if it's not hard, then it's not fun, as he is so fond of saying...back to sitting in my harness, too gripped to watch – why is it more gripping to watch a necky lead? Aah, shift the weight...that's better, I have legs again...
I remember overhearing a lad at a crag in Wales saying that he preferred sport climbing. When asked why he responded "Cos I like me crags like I like me women: Low commitment, easy access...".
Looking up from the belay I can see the next pitch disappear above and behind me as it breaks the numerous roofs and bulges, without a bird-like neck I can't see where it ends. I see the commitment gauge head for the red and wonder if I can relate to the lad in Wales. Well, let's see...
Ping, duhf (and a curse from above) Stu is fighting with his pitch, and took a hook to the jaw. His second attempt yields exactly the same result except, to my amusement, I got to witness it. "Aaah, dude, that's gonna leave a mark!" Indead his jaw has sprung a wee leak. He soldiers on.
Where was I? My previous stream-of-conscience eludes me...day 3, Children of the Sky, we are aiding the 'free' rail high on the route, above the aid and on the headwall – commitment is total, we couldn't get off this even if we had quadruple the rope we have - and it sucks us dry of medium cams. I break the pitch into two, haul the pig, Stu leads thru. Shit, we're supposed to be running here! I loose sight as Stu heads up, an eternity later he calls it safe. I lower the pig, clean the rail then jumar. I arrive to find Stu smirking. What's so God-damn funny?
I look around, tearing my eyes from the void lapping at my heels..
"You called this......SAFE?"
A shattered, semi horizontal bulge with a #3 wall nut, and 4 slings draped over the points of crystal-like extrusions...there was nothing else he could have done. Belaying the next morning I clip directly into the pig, using its weight as stability as the belay wouldn't keep me on the mountain should Stu come off.
The resultant spine-shiver shakes me from my reverie in time to see Stu hook to a pocket then hook to the bolts. "Stu. How the bolts? Is there any other kit...I'm not so keen to factor-two some twenty-year-old, quarter-inch hand drills..and there'll be nothing between me and the belay after I've cleaned that top piece. Hey!! W.T.F is that piece doing up there any way? I'm s'posed to clean it and then down hook??"
"Nah, you'll be fine. The cam below is good...clean it off the first hook right...but I'll back this up anyway..."
Thirty minutes later he calls the belay safe. We debate. If he'd said lets go, I would have rapped. Just like last year after I'd managed to fall off the first pitch of Oceans – one minute I'm through the move and the next I am, inexplicably, airborne. The jolt - caught by a cam placed as an after-thought. I mean I'd done this pitch three or four times before, why would I fall off it now? At the Ledge of Forgotten Dreams we stopped, before heading up the Horror crack. I was STRONG, fit too after a very active double season. But the mind, for once, was a hijacked entity. I wanted out, something just didn't feel right, a little voice saying "ruuuuunnn". We run and Stu accepted it all in his good, understanding nature.
I have been brooding for 16 months, and yet I'd still have run now...what's with that? It's become so easy to fail, to give up...
Pitch 8: 40 m 'A4': Climb the wall above to a diagonal seam left below a roof. Aid left and up to the next roof. Move left to a three bolt ladder through the roof. Aid up the blank wall (The Halls of Desolation) to a roof. Hook left to a fixed pin. Go through the next roof and diagonally left up the wall to a rail. Move left to belay in a vague corner. (Afterimages of Pain and Desire).
The pitch is absorbing. Funky. Delicate. Awesome! I gain the peg beneath the three-bolt ladder, place a #2 Zero as a back-up to the 20 year old quarter-inch bolt, reach high to the next...sit on my fifi-hook. "Uhm, dude...I can't see the next bolt! What part of ladder do I misunderstand?" I sit for a long time, eventually using a hook placed blindly, at full stretch...and fifi directly into the hook. From this vantage I can see it, the bolt, sans hanger. But there's no way that I'll reach it from here – bloody hell that's a long way! If in doubt...I hook a creaky, exfoliating, flake, step high and lasso the stub with a wire (the hero loops are at the belay) which is stable provided I keep pressure on it. Mmm, how to get to the rail, meters away, where good kit may, or may not exist? Trying to keep tension on the wire, I ease on to another hook, step high and at full stretch place a good, if blind, hook in the rail...haul up that and stuff a #3 Zero into the rail. Long reach to a fixed peg and then a #00 Quadcam just to the left. I'm now faced with another bulge, another "how-the-fuck-do-I-get-there" question. I fifi the cam directly, step as high in my aiders as possible, and with a little dynamic-body-swing on the second attempt snag the peg. Run to the belay and after a while announce that we have, at our disposal, a palace – as I watch a few bands of cirrus move through high overhead, mmm. Safe as houses (or palaces). Stu cleans and arrives at 3:50pm and we decide to check into the palace, after all, we have another few days of good weather! Three whole pitches today!
< And so we have returned to the phone call >
Ah, that explains the cirrus. A sleepless night ensues, each of us engrossed in the meaning and implications of commitment, where the only realistically feasible way off this thing is up-and-over. And we know what the headwall is like - neither of us gives any thought to imagining the headwall in a storm!
Pitch 9: 35 m 'A3': Aid left along the rail to the big corner. Drop down slightly and move left around the corner into a very steep crack. (Visions of Paradise). Nail up this to a small roof, continue through this and up an immaculate crack to belay at the next roof. (The Downbound Train).
Stu leads off, intent on getting us as high as possible, as fast as possible...the pitch still takes two and a half hours to lead, forty minutes to clean....I wonder
Pop...jangle...ripped from my daydream by the unmistakable sound of things going down, rather than up, I catch a glimpse of Stu falling out of the corner...then stopping abruptly.
"Ahg, smallest swedge, second smallest swedge, hook, hook and then I was trying to get a good wire. The rock crumbled as I weighted it."
"What stopped you, 'cos you not on the rope?"
"Um, actually I fell straight on to the previous hook...with my daisy chain!"
By now we've let the pig loose to the valley floor with our sleeping bags and other now-superfluous-kit, in the hope that we'll be able to move faster on the headwall, so as to at least get onto vaguely easy terrain if or when the weather arrives. The problem with the Winterhoek is that it faces east, and the weather comes from the West, so you don't see it until it hits you. Stu French-free's the next pitch (this is his department, the unnecessarily hard, badly protected free climbing on the headwall) and I jumar to the belay ledge. Yeah baby, a sit-down/stand-on ledge! What a novelty. The next pitch is the famed "gearless 21", on which Colenso is rumored to have had an 'experience' on – urban legend or otherwise, it's the business....some 21's are harder than others...
Pitch 11: 20 m '21': From the ledge traverse left and then diagonally up left to a small block. Further left pull onto a slab below a long roof. Climb up to the rail, go right up into a sloping corner below a layback splitting the roof. Power up this and then continue to a ledge.
Stu heads up to spar with his lead. I need a distraction from the goings-on. After all we've been through, through the years, trust is implicit - I know he'll do good. But I still hate watching – my Optimistic Bias has yet to remove my flight log of Du Toits Peak, it blurs my perception, sometimes, when spectating...
Having successfully negotiated Heathrow customs without TB X-rays and nothing more than £200 to my name, I check my mail – "ya, bet you weren't expecting to get mail outta me. Dude, I wish I could tell you to your face, but I can't, and maybe you've heard already. Roo (Andrew Ward) died in a car accident coming back from Montagu on Sun." I remember driving down Kloof Neck, with more people circling the roof via opposite windows, than were in the car...only with Roo would THAT have seemed normal. Oh man...! The flood gates open. Paging through a Pakistani Ministry of tourism stat on accidents in the Karakoram, which came with the info on a proposed expedition, when my eye catches something that makes me turn back. A flurry of emails...only one returns. "Hello Tristan. I am much sorry to say you are correct. Vladimir was died when serac falls on top of him, by Gashebrum 1..."
The memories run wild, good times in the Crimea. Lots of them, lots of vodka too, I smile at the memories, I've done the crying already.
A few months later another flurry of emails gets a similar response – " Hi Tristan. Yes it is so sad, Jules fell to his death while guiding in the Swiss Alps.
I Jumar, and the terrain has visibly changed...it eases. Yeah, baby, yeah. Stu scampers left, slows, even elicits a "watch me" and then heads up till the rope runs out, I run to the belay (hooking an '18' sequence in the process), grab the sharp end and bail for the jumbo ledge. While re-racking and sorting the anomalies of gear - results of leader improvisation, and a firm, mutual belief that on some pitches its "screw the second" - I realise that I should climb easier, faster stuff...there's less time to ponder the memories, less time to think!
On the summit we add our thoughts to the summit book:
Einstein said something like: "we live life perpetually choosing between the things we want and the things we need".
Barry Blanchard calls it "the calling", this phenomenon of returning to testing arenas. For me it is sometimes an inexplicable need, but sometimes also a want.
Every now and then, I believe, you get to do both!
We climbed the 1st 4 pitches of Oceans the afternoon of our walk-in. Climbed 3 pitches of aid the 2nd day. Tossed our haulbag before starting day 3. Summited that night at 19h20, never found the pig that night, but did the next morning. We were drinking coffee in Malmesbury 56hrs after leaving CT.
Grade: I am un-qualified to offer objective grades. This is my best educated guess. I have tried to adapt the grades to the current system used in Yosemite, tho I have retained the old SA free grading system as I feel that it communicates more of what you are likely to encounter. I.E. G3, tho technically 23ish, is quite serious. I have graded the Aid in C as it is now clean i.e. no hammer needed – I've added a + where the aiding is tricky/delicate but doesn't warrant an increase in seriousness grade.. However it is not a bad idea to a carry a hammer/blades in case. The Roman numerals indicate the "engagement grade" i.e. Multi day route, committing on a scal of I - VII. All the aid routes here are committing due to the, almost unrealistic, difficulty one would face retreating once committed to the overhangs
Final note: It's a special place. Intimidating, most of the time. Gratifying. Personally I find the free pitches on the headwall (i.e. above the aid) the most serious of the pitches. There is NO rapping off from there, they are bold and not obvious. The headwall is a big place, do not expect the going to be straightforward.
Finally, the bolts on W.o.S are 20 years old, and the 3rd bolt of the bolt ladder is missing its hanger. These really should be replaced. Take a hilti, do it properly...if u add bolts, I will be forced to go back (I really don't want to) and chop them.
Imagine drilling the bolts by hand, on lead...by yourself. RESPECT Andy's efforts.
2nd Final Note: Adam gave me a 'mashy' of AdK's that he retrieved during his ascent. It has become a talisman, and is available to any serious takers..provided that it keeps getting passed on from Ascensionist to ascensionist.
The route commences in the same place as 'Oceans of Fear', 1983 Journal, in the middle of the wall on a small ledge above a broken ramp.
Pitch 1. 25 m '18' (G 1): Climb the small corner above, moving left onto the face. Climb a tricky diagonal crack to a sloping ledge. The stance is just above, below a thin roof.
Pitch 2. 45 m '20' (G2): Traverse right past a pin to some hard underclings at the end. Move up to the next roof and undercling right. Climb the corner and the face on the left to a hanging belay at a rail.
Pitch 3. 40 m '17' (F3): Traverse left and climb the flakes on the right-hand side of a long roof. Climb diagonally left to belay below a short corner.
Pitch 4. 40 m '15' (F2): Climb the corner and the easy break above to belay on a ramp below a crack/corner.
Pitch 5. 45 m '18' (GI): Climb the crack to a rail below the roof Traverse left to a ledge next to some blocks. (The Ledge of Forgotten Dreams).
Pitch 6: 45m (C3) - Zig Zags into Infinity Base: Start atop the highest block on the Ledge of Forgotten Dreams. Aid the corner to a rail 4m up. Aid right to a prong, above the right-hand edge of the L.o.F.D. Aid the corner above (4m) to a break. Hook left to a fixed wire, further left until able to hook upward to a leftward-tending exfoliating break. Aid/hook left, belay at the bolts atop the Horror Crack.
Pitch 7: 18m (C3) – The Cloak of Black Mystery: Aid the rightward-tending, blocky break for 6m until able to hook right to a pocket (good friend). Hook further right to a bolt belay. (These bolts are ¼ hand-drills, placed 20yrs ago! Either take a drill and replace the bolts, or continue straight up from the bolts to a rail (ca 3m) where reasonable gear adds to the bolt belay. There is a good wire just left of the bolts.)
Pitch 8: 45m (C3+) – Afterimages of Pain and Desire: From the bolt Belay, hook straight up to a leftward-tending break. Aid the break to a bulge, aid the bulge via a two bolt ladder, hook to the next bolt, hook up to the rail. Aid left to a fixed peg, gain the corner left and above the roof immediately left of the peg. Aid the corner until it blanks, hook to the rail (now at the BIG roof). Aid left to belay in a vague corner.
Pitch 9: 35m (C3+) – The Downbound Train: From the belay, aid left along the rail to a corner where one is able to descend and turn the fin on its left. Small wires and hooks gain a good crack system. Belay in the corner, below a roof.
Pitch 10: 35m (G2): from the belay, move right 4m then up to a good rail (The rail on Children of the Sky), continue through the bulge to a tiny ledge in the middle of nowhere (the Silver hearts bivi)
Pitch 11: 15m (G1): From the ledge traverse right across a sloping ramp (delicate/thin) to a ledge with block on.
Pitch 12: 35m (G2): Go up a few meters until able to make a rising traverse left to a grassy ledge.
Pitch 13: 45m (G1): From the grassy ledge, climb diagonally up and left to beneath the long roof. Rail left (15m) to a ledge beneathe a corner/chimney. Climb the corner breaking out left through the bulge to belay on a wide, long ledge'
Pitch 14: 60m (F1): Run left and up until able to stance on/near the easy angled, good rock reminiscent of the frontal. (Oceans shares this last section)
Pitch 15: 60m (F1): Run to the jumbo ledge, taking the line of least resistance (rightward and up).
Walk left to the frontal. Finish up the last 2 pitches of this route.
Opening Party: A de Klerk (solo). 29 January - 5 February, 1986.
it is possible to step left at the start of P11 and then up, directly to the belay at the end of P12. It is desperate. Also the author has not climbed the 1st 5 pitches as written up here, having always just accessed the Ledge of Forgotten Dreams via Oceans'.
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