TRIP REPORT: Hazel Findlay and Alex Honnold Explore Route Climbing in South Africaby Hazel Findlay Oct/2013
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Here UK Trad star Hazel Findlay describes her time exploring South Africa alongside American climbing legend Alex Honnold. During their trip Hazel and Alex visited the best route climbing destinations South Africa has to offer, and in doing so repeated many of the hardest routes in these areas.
When most people think of climbing in South Africa they think of Rocklands, the world-class bouldering Mecca and might be interested to learn that South Africa also has world-class sport and trad climbing. When most people think of Alex Honnold they think 'soloist' and might be interested to discover that Alex does actually wear a rope on occasion. This is a trip report about Alex and I on a route climbing tour of South Africa.
The trip was born when entrepreneur/budding film-maker/local gym owner Robert Beyer bumped into Alex in Rocklands last year. He invited Alex to dinner and asked him if he wanted to be involved in a film project that highlighted the route climbing of South Africa. Alex readily agreed and the ball started rolling. A few months later I snooped some of Alex's emails from Robert whilst on a North Face trip to Oman, psyched to go to South Africa I was eager to invite myself on the trip alongside Alex.
It all kicked off in Namibia, without me, but word is that the granite area of Spitskop 'exceeded all expectations' and had 'granite as good as Yosemite'. Alex freed Nothing in Moderation a multipitch slab route he gave 7c+, which is now Spitskop's hardest free route and also repeated INXS, a bold 7a similar in style to the Bachar-Yerian in Tuolumne.
I flew into Johannesburg rather jet lagged after a whirlwind 5 day trip to Colorado and was greeted by a very psyched Mr Honnold and number of locals who were busy following him around with a camera. If Alex liked the place then it probably meant it was good, since Alex is one of the most well travelled climbers I know, and the pickiest. Having arrived at night I hadn't really got a glimpse of what the place was like, and in the morning I woke up to find myself in Africa – strange trees, rolling brown hills, orange rock and animal noises that meant I knew I was far from home. Alex was right and the climbing didn't disappoint. Gently over-hanging orange rock with positive holds, a good height and interesting moves – what more can you ask for. I managed to onsight a really good 29 (7c+) called Monster which, given my lack of sleep over the last few days probably means the place is slightly soft touch and Alex grabbed the 8b Godzilla after a few tries.
Waterfall Boven, surprisingly, has some climbing right next to a waterfall and Sorcery, 25 (7a+), is a bold classic. It climbs a soaring arête right next to the crashing water. It would probably be better to call it E6 and although the climbing is a little contrived, you can't beat the position.
Day three and my jet lag/sleeping pill addiction was in full force, as was the African sun. Throughout the trip Alex and I were continually surprised by the random behaviour of the weather; one day it was 37 degrees, the next 6, we wouldn't have a clue what clothes we were supposed to bring to the crag. The day Alex tried Boven's hardest trad route, a finger crack called Boa Rodeo, 8a+, also happened to be the hottest day. It seemed so hot that we tried to blame Alex's double cam-popping incident on the slimy conditions. Alex got it after a few tries and called it 7c+, but he can be known for sand bagging....
We were really impressed with Waterfall Boven, but being the extreme trad climbers that we are – it was time to do some real climbing and tackle South Africa's finest big wall – Blouberg. Blouberg means blue mountain in Afrikaans, but there isn't much blue about this mountain apart from the sky above it. In fact its most characteristic feature is that it's mostly orange. Everyone said that this was South Africa's shining gem, the unsung secret of South African climbing. If you ask me whether the wall lived up to expectations, I'd say nearly and if you ask Alex, he'd say no. Whether you'll like Blouberg or not really depends on what sort of climber you are. Blouberg is characterised by it's adventurous 'face trad'; the routes don't follow obvious cracks like American trad routes do, instead they follow subtle features and lines of weakness, a lot like the trad climbing we have in the UK. Being a lover of 'king lines' like the Salathe Headwall, or the Cobra Crack, Alex wasn't impressed by the wandery, circuitous nature of the climbing, nor was he impressed by the apparent mandatory use of double ropes. I liked it; the rock is amazing, so solid, with ergonomic holds, weird gear placements, and a real adventurous feel. Blouberg also feels remote; it really is in the middle of nowhere, and I don't envy the climber who arrives without local knowledge. Since we were making a film, camera gear, food, water and tents were helicoptered up the mountain for us, which obviously has it's pros and cons: pros were that we had beer, cons were that the place didn't feel quite so peaceful with people bustling around and a helicopter flying overhead.
I teamed up with locals 'Snort and Squeak' (unusual names I know) and climbed the classic Dog Day in Heaven, which could be described as a 14 pitch E5 or 6. The route wanders so much and is so hard to read that it has never been climbed without the first ascentionist (Snort) present to show the way. But it is an amazing route that just about works and in full mist and freezing conditions it felt like a full adventure. Alex teamed up with one of SA's best climbers Clinton Martinengo and managed to free Blouberg's hardest route, Dogs of Thunder, which goes at about 7c+. The history of the wall includes a battle between old and new-school ethics that mostly comes down to the question: should we use bolts on the wall? The harder free routes have a spattering of bolts, and my feeling is that this approach works. With care the local climbers can retain the adventure of the wall with a few bolts in the places where the gear runs out and with this ethic, Blouberg has room for some harder lines.
Cape Town has the most climbers, biggest climbing scene and a lot of climbing close to the city, so apart from the lacking techno scene it's like the Sheffield of SA. The last two weeks of our trip were based here and we had a great time. We started off at Table Mountain, which overlooks the city and is a right tourist trap. A cable car goes to the top, which is perfect for the lazier climber, and once you drop over the edge, the faint hum of tourists chattering above is the only distraction. All the rock we climbed in South Africa (barring Alex's time in Namibia) was some form of sandstone – mostly a type of quartzite and although it often looks like it might be chossy from the ground, when you get up to it you realise that it's about as far from chossy as you could ever get and makes for really good climbing. Table Mountain was no exception and we started our first day in high spirits by warming up on the Jeopardy Wall, which has most of the harder routes. I jumped on Double Jeopardy, our very own Dave Birkett's route and unfortunately I was perhaps a little too psyched resulting in my first proper finger injury. I packed it in for the day but the route was too good to say no and I went back the next day to do it. It's given 8a and is pretty safe, so does that mean E8? Not sure, but either way it has some of the best climbing I've done on a trad line and eats up gear for the most part. Alex tried the line to the left Squid and the Whale which spat him off on his first headpoint attempt and shoddy belaying (I really tried my best) saw him take a massive whip into the rock, which may have potentially cracked his heel (it's not cracked unless you get an X-ray telling you it's cracked). He also came back for more the next day and we polished off our filming and climbing on the mighty TM.
Feeling a wee bit broken, we were in need of some casual sport climbing, so we went to The Mine. It's not the most aesthetically pleasing place to climb but has some fun routes. It didn't turn out to be that casual when I redpointed an 8a bouldery affair and Alex completed a horizontal roof crack called Green Peace, which had only been done previously with the use of a glued on pebble. The route involved cutting loose onto a mono finger lock, and he gave it 31 (8a+) not for me thanks!
We rounded the trip off with a visit to Yellowwood Amphitheatre, which probably turned out to be my favourite place. This is a 400m wall an hour outside Cape Town (lucky bastards) and has amazing clean crimpy yellow rock. It's historically a traditional wall and there has been a lot of controversy regarding the addition of the line we did New Born. New Born is the hardest route on the wall (which is why we chose to do that one) but it's also fully bolted, and I mean fully bolted. It's a tricky situation, but having done the route and had an amazing time, Alex and I were both of the opinion that Yellowwood could have some of the world's best hard multipitch routes with the addition of some bolts. Of course it's up to the local climbers to decide what to do with the wall, but as it stands not many new routes can go up without a few bolts. In some places the rock is gently overhanging with 60 metres between natural features that will take gear, but certainly enough features for free climbing. Anyway enough of ethics... We had a great time. New Born has a pitch of 7c+ and some 7b+, 7b and has some great climbing. Sadly my foot popped on the 7b+ and I narrowly missed an onsight of the route, but we both did it clean and had a grand day out.
The fact that Alex and I are both full time climbers with the ability to travel anywhere in the world and we're already planning a trip back says a lot. The rock in South Africa is really good quality and as it's sandstone it's also unique. The only place I've been with comparable rock is Mt Arapiles and the Grampians in Australia – but they don't have 400m big walls! If you're a trad climber and you love the adventurous nature of UK trad you might very well be in heaven. This coupled with the world-class bouldering (if you're in to it) in Rocklands, crazy wildlife and cheap living costs make South Africa a top notch climbing destination. The only thing to be put off by is the crime over there, which is pretty bad, but if you're careful it's mostly avoidable.
You can follow Hazel's climbing adventures by visiting her blog at Hazelfindlayclimbing.com