Wagon Train to the Stars

In 2013 I opened a little line at Kirk Falls. It was only the third line I have ever opened and so the prospect of another first ascent caught my attention. It’s a steep little 23, the crux being particularly unforgiving if not read well. I’ve watched people duff attempts with angry thrashing. The holds are reminiscent of the sloping holds of our long-gone Wave Cave, but, the angle is a little gentler and it doesn’t quite make that exact part of your forearms burn that the Cave does. You won’t forget the crux move easily if this grade is a bit above your normal crushing level.

Roger (Nattrass), myself and Mikey (Van Der Ham) had done a fair amount of bug weed bashing the weekend before to clear a usable path through the stinging nettle. At that stage the access to the crag involved abandoning your car in the safety of the sugar cane and finding a break in the cliff line to wind your way steeply down to the Kirk Falls crag. My first impression of the cave was: it’s like Wave Cave but better. (Note: the new path seems to have a safer parking spot – best find a local who knows the beta. It’s not the easiest crag to source info on and the wiki list is not comprehensive)

Bolting routes is a challenging thing for anyone. Using a drill for the first time was of course a practical part of wanting to make sport FAs and very little to do with my domestic DIY desires. When I opened the Magic Faraway Tree at Umgeni a few years prior to that, I hadn’t even picked up a drill. I had to learn where to switch it on and that spinning the drill in the wrong direction doesn’t achieve much save from blunting your drill bit. Abbing into Kirk Falls the day I bolted Wagon Train was another learning curve, by that stage I was feeling a little more drilling-fit having recently built a gym, but that wall is still steep and my core took a beating. Roger was the ever-present mentor. Being my actual employer at the time, he knew my work schedule and it was practically contractual that one of the staff members would be available on a Thursday to go climbing with him. With a new crag on the cards, we were rearing to go when Thursday arrived.

We were testing a new batch of glue-ins that RAM Mountaineering had given us at landed cost along with some awesome new glue that dries ridiculously quickly and rock hard.  The guys in Cape Town had switched to them and we thought they made sense from a longevity perspective. Our corrosion rates were perhaps not quite what is experienced by the Cape peninsula South Easter but it was a good call given the generally humid conditions of the area. Giving us the bolts at the rate that RAM did is a kind of community service that should be commended – a corporate social responsibility like that goes a long way to making me spend a little extra on a chalk-bag next time around.

So the drill-wielding began. The good doctor bolted the line next door to mine in much the same time as it took me to put the chains in. He is a bolting machine. He even placed the last few bolts near the ground for me just so we had enough time to let the glue set before climbing.

I named my route Wagon Train to the Stars, a slightly far fetched name and one that requires some explaining. Roger decided that since the waterfall (Kirk Falls) already had a Trekky theme, we would name the routes at the crag accordingly. Bearing in mind that I still have to google the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek, you’ll understand that I had to do some research before coming up with something fitting. What I discovered was that when proposing the name of the series to the broadcasters, the writer pitched the series as a western in the sky, comparing it to the popular western show of the time Wagon Train. It later became the title of Diane Carey’s fiction series Wagon Train to the Stars. But this name is also particularly fitting considering the nature of the crag perched above the railway. The sound of trains racing through the hillside tunnel reverberates across the amphitheater every forty minutes or so and is such a distinct feature of the crag.

Both of these lines were gems in the end and I recommend them on your next trip to the East Coast of Mzansi. They both went at around grade 23 and make for fun warm ups for the rest of the steep cave or an excellent project for your first 23.

Insecure in Discomfort

Sometimes routes do not have to be difficult or on immaculate rock in order to be perfect. Neither do they always require weeks of preparation and mulling over. At the absolute last minute I agreed to join Richard, Kate and Sam on an exploratory mission in the Cederberg. Geelberg is not unclimbed but still relatively unknown spot. The result was a weekend of productivity in the mountains, working on my thesis and opening a memorable new line with Richard and Sam.

Kate was as much part of the sending team and even more of an inspiration for me. I broke the days up into one day of route climbing and one day of thesis work. Life is always about juggling my passion with both my personal and professional life.  An internet-free spot is often a great place to sit down, read some papers or write but the excitement of potential things to climb can be a distraction in its own right. With her determination and dedication to recovery, Kate inspired me to work hard on the non-climbing day. She is recovering from a pretty serious motorcycle accident and it was great having company in the cosy mountain cabin while I worked.

However, the main reason we were here was to explore. The climbing was exciting, as it always is with Richard. He is always up for looking for new lines in exciting, relatively unclimbed places. So we looked at the mountain, picked a line and up we went!

Exploring which way up the hillside to go was a combination of Richard and Sam racking their brains from previous trips and aiming for the base of the section we hoped to climb. A spot of silliness and snapping pictures of the orchards on the way up was also necessary.

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We ummed and aahed about where the route should start but eventually settled on an obvious feature, right of the arete on the left-hand pillar which sits near the centre of the picture below.  I lead the first pitch, which had a rather exciting move off the bat. The crux pitch was taken by Richard who described it as climbing on broken eggshells, at this stage we were feeling a little insecure but it turned out to be quite a spectacular pitch of climbing following an excellent feature.

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My last minute plans were a great lesson in seizing opportunities  The wall was named the Payback Wall, a reflection of a politically charged nation disatisfied by the greed of their leader. We were not Secure in Comfort as our wonderful president is. All of us were going through some interesting life phases and transitions out of what seemed comfortable so the name seemed apt given the insecure appearance of the crux pitch. Thus Insecure in Discomfort was born!

In a moment at the top where Richard and Sam abseiled down to investigate a new line I collected my thoughts. The time in these hills was precious. It was not infinite despite the seeming endlessness of our pursuits outside. To be fortunate enough to have a glimpse at these spaces and sample sweet mountain water is something that has value far beyond that of wealth or grandeur (or firepools). It is a hunger and greed for these places that keeps me coming back for more.

An aside: Richard can turn a phrase. For a scientist, he has a way with words that inspires me as a writer. Do take a look at his blog:richclimbing

South African climbing gyms and how to get the most out of gym climbing

Beautiful sunset.

 

Climbing walls have made massive progress in the past 10 years in South Africa. The days of being crammed into the broom cupboard of the uni sports centre, sipping on R5 cans of beer between send attempts are for most people long gone. A new era of commercial gyms is taking centre stage.

I’m not saying that the industry has exploded to a point where it is able to sustainably support all of these gyms, but there is certainly a notable industry growth and additionally an almost untapped market of people that haven’t even heard of climbing. Many of these individuals may not be opening the next version of Mary Poppins anytime soon but they probably do want an alternative to keep their children busy. It’s not just children who have cottoned on though. Climbing is a lifestyle for some but gym climbing is an incredible complement to a busy schedule for others. Naureen Bretherick, a well known South African rock-climber, explained that being a new mom means her time is more valuable than ever. Popping in to the gym for 2 hours is an efficient way of going climbing between her role in the corporate world and changing diapers. As compared to driving out to Bronkies for a few hours, the convenience of a city bound gym outweighs the old mantra that climbing in a gym is not ‘pure’ nor that fun. In contrast, climbing gyms are a source of social interaction, an awful lot of entertainment and a way to get you stronger than you believed imaginable. After all, what’s a boulder problem without a bit of peanut-gallery banter?

Cape Town’s very centre has arguably the world’s most convenient multipitch trad routes that are absolutely world class. Yet there are five existing climbing walls that are all doing exceptionally well. Currently it could be said that the abundant rock near the CBD makes this city a climber’s haven. And it is partly (but not exclusively) because of this and the resultant climbing community that the climbing industry is doing so well. The other reason is that these business owners created a demand by supplying the city with the facilities and marketing them to the general populace. Three of these are commercial gyms, with a strong membership base. They are not even in competitition with one another. They service a completely different client base. While the other two, club walls, usually reserved for the student or traffic bound, offer a way into the climbing lifestyle. The gyms have the advantage that they provide someone who has no existing connections to the climbing world the opportunity to try out something active that doesn’t (have to) involve a weight room whose sole (read soulless) purpose is to give you a better reflection in the mirror lined walls. People want to be fit, strong and active without the pretence attached to standard exercise gyms. So next time you are queuing for the warm up routes, remember that we all have to start somewhere and that a thousand top-ropers are better than a single team of rugby jocks 😉

How do we avoid these crowds if we are serious about training? The delight of good route rotation means that the non-gym walls are almost a dusty relic. Home walls are a nice thought but inevitably end up getting you the fittest they ever will during the construction phase. New, clean holds and freshly folded towels make that few hundred rand worth it. Provided the gyms keep up with the metaphorical Joneses, of course. There is nothing worse than arriving at a gym with the same tired old routes week after week. Nor is it acceptable for them to be impossibly or poorly set. Good routes make a gym average. Poor routes make them unclimbable except for birthday party madness. But if the gym in question gets this all right, all the 8B boulderers AND those notorious top ropers will turn out in their 1000s, week after week, printing money for the gym owners.

But it isn’t a case of five loaves and two fish. Only so many people can climb at once in a gym so how do we deal with the crowds? Here are some ideas to optimise your gym climbing experience.

Find out the schedule of the coaching clinics in your area. When a large team of climbers is doing laps on your project, you might start feeling perturbed. But if you know it is the week before the lead comp circuit, you can pretty much bet that this will happen. So periodise your own training so it doesn’t synch up with the existing comp circuit training.

Attempt to schedule your rest days around busy gym days. If you are lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, make use of the gyms’ down times. I’m yet to see an absurdly busy gym on a Tuesday lunchtime for example.

Pick the other gym! There is always that one gym that has either been there longer and going there has just become a habit, or, somehow they got the location-to-route-rotation ratio of the recipe right. If you are taking a beginner climbing, don’t take them to the gym that has the best forty degree wall but not a slab in sight. Make date night at the quieter, more vertical alternative.  Chances are you will avoid bumping into your ex too! Suck it up and pay the day-pass rate for once in your life. You might even find that the other gym suits you better traffic-wise and gives you less hives from drama-encounters.

Avoid birthday party times on rainy weekends. These and corporate events are often the lifeblood of a gym. They are vital to keeping the gym open. So rather than having to worry about squashing a child when they stray off into the boulder sector, have a look on the gym’s website, notice board or facebook page to see when the party bookings are. Most well designed gyms keep a separate area for birthday parties but smaller gyms may have no chance but to squeeze all the cake and merriment into the boulder cave. Accept this as part of the experience and do your best to go before or after such a booking.

Speak to your gym staff about what you want to see at the gym. Don’t complain under your breath about “that shitty purple 23 with the massive reach”. Find the route setter and talk to them about it or write it up on the feedback board and then tell someone you did so. Give constructive feedback about how friendly the front desk staff is or that the mens urinal doesn’t flush. Be kind about it though. Working at a climbing gym can feel like a thankless task. Gym staff pour their hearts into the gym to make it great for you. Yes, it is a service industry but imagine being locked in your favourite place in the world, everyday for eight hours a day without being able to enjoy its fruits. It is easy to overlook things so feedback is usually welcomed. Maybe you could brighten up the manager’s day by bringing them their favourite latte before hounding them about the terrible systems board set up that has been there for months. Remember they are probably at the mercy of their superior but most climbing gym owners will listen to suggestions from their staff if it means their business is better run.

While we are on the topic of being kind to gym staff, you will find your gripes will probably be taken more seriously if you leave timeously. Staff cannot be expected to stay an hour late because you are the last one in the shower EVERY day. Go home and shower if you need to have a final burn on that route before closing time.  The graveyard shift is a great way to avoid the high traffic times. It is probably the best time for projecting and using the training equipment. However you do need to be considerate on exit. Making friends with the staff will make your time at the gym much more pleasant.

Do yoga. If the climbing wall really is too busy, why not buy a pass to the yoga studio for an alternative workout? Check the class times and make use of your gym’s other facilities on the busy climbing nights. You can always end off with a conditioning session after the class.

I have climbed at, coached at and worked with many of the country’s gyms from construction through to managerial roles. These strategies really do work to improve your gym climbing experience. Give them a bash, and be nice, always.

MCSA/BMC Trad Climbing Exchange: Preparation begins!

The SA team preparing for the BMC/MCSA trad climbing exchange which will be in Cape Town at the end of Feb 2016

Last Night Anthony Hall, Clinton Martinengo, Warren Gans, Richard Halsey (aka Squeaky), Julia wakeling, Sarel Janse Van Rensberg, Micky Wiswedel, Gosia Lipinska and myself met in Cape Town to discuss the upcoming South African leg of the UK/SA trad climbing exchange. The exchange has been organised by the BMC (British Mountaineering Council) and the MCSA (Mountain Club of South Africa).

The exchange will take place firstly in South Africa at the end of February and will then move on to the UK. In the Southern Hemisphere we will be visiting Wolfberg, Yellowwood, Table Mountain and Blouberg. Thus the South African leg promises some long sweeping lines on bullet hard red sandstone and there will be a bit of hill walking involved. No doubt we will draw on previous (and current) ties with the Queen to sip on the odd cup of tea between pitch swinging.

The British team has some pretty big names coming over including Steve McClure, Emma Twyford and Pete Robbins. And the South African team is nothing to snark at either. I foresee some serious psyche being generated by this little endeavour. Big ups to the MCSA, BMC and all the relevant individuals (esp Julia Wakeling) for having such an inspired brainchild.