South Africa trad climbing renaissance

09 August, 2016
Pete Robins on the 11-pitch Dream of White Dogs (26/E6 6b), Blouberg, South Africa. Ph: Charles (Snort)

Earlier this year Pete Robins visited South Africa as part of the BMC/Mountain Club of South Africa trad climbing exchange. An initiative that first took place in 1998. Having spent the last five years mainly bolt clipping and bouldering it was a trad renaissance for Pete. In this long-read he shares his experience of the exchange and perspective on UK and South African trad climbing.

In the UK — the so-called birthplace of traditional rock climbing — we now take for granted the apparent resilience of our ‘sport’. But it has taken two centuries of development, where ethics have reformed time and time again.

We’ve pioneered technological breakthroughs, and we’ve spearheaded new standards in style and difficulty. Despite the best efforts from aid climbers in the ‘70’s, the bolting revolution of the ‘80’s, and the climbing wall generation after that, trad climbing in the UK is arguably as strong today as it ever was, guarded by a large community that is hell-bent on protecting it. But why do we bother?

Lets face it, it’s wet and dark for seven months of the year, and midgey the rest of the time. We’d get a lot more done if it was all bolted. When questioned on this topic, one Saffer [South African] explained to me, “it’s because of the history, Peeeet — your little routes have become legendary — because of their history.”

Indeed, our little epic tales on mossy mountain crags, bird-infested sea cliffs and innocuous moorland outcrops, have been exaggerated out of all proportion and jotted down on paper for the world to read and aspire to.

South Africa also has a strong trad climbing history, but it’s hanging on by a thread, or at least that’s what some say. They have some of the very best trad climbing crags in the world, almost perfectly sculptured for trad; immaculate sandstone and quartzite that’s easy to protect (lots of cams), and steep enough that falling-off is as safe a proposition as it would be if it were bolted. There’s flippin’ stacks of it too — seemingly endless new routing potential. Plus, the weather is great and there are no bugs — as near to perfect as I’ve seen, that’s for sure.

But the South African trad climbing community is small, 200 climbers in the Cape area perhaps, and there is a real threat that future development will be mostly bolted sport routes. There are only about 20 active climbers putting up new trad lines. Now I think that, if all their virgin rock were to be bolted, this would be an absolute travesty. In my opinion, and in many others it seems, good quality and well-protected trad climbing is rare, and offers so much more than sport climbing could. I’m all for bolting where bolts make sense, but this South African sandstone is the business, as I’ve experienced…

I’ve been slowly coming back down to Earth, after the latest UK-South Africa trad climbing exchange; a programme funded by the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) and the British Mountaineering Council, with a clear objective to embellish the long lasting passion for trad climbing in South Africa. The driving force behind the exchange has been members of the MCSA’s old guard like Charles ‘Snort’ Edlestein and Ed February.

Atop the Letter-box, Tafelberg, South Africa. Ph: Steve McClure
Snort has to be experienced to be believed. He’s loud, shockingly direct, and a devoted fan of himself and every word he transmits. Passionate doesn’t come close to describing Snort’s love for trad climbing in his country. He’d do anything for the cause, including initiating and helping to fund this exchange programme.

Achieving the objective of the exchange was not difficult, in the short term, at least. Stick ten enthusiastic Poms on a plane to Cape Town, team them up with ten like-minded Saffers. Drag everyone around some of the very best crags in the world for ten jam-packed days and psyche up all the locals in the process.

Then repeat the procedure in the UK, for an altogether different and ‘British’ take on trad climbing. However, the real challenge comes now, after the dust has settled. When everyone has gone home... will the cams stay out or will the drills return?

The first MCSA-BMC exchange was held in 1998. Then as an unknown 17-year-old, I was very lucky to be selected, based on the strength of my eager application letter and sneaky set of references.

The South Africans came over to the UK first, and Alard Hufner was the first of them I met, in the bar at Plas y Brenin, charging towards me hand-shake-first, desperate to take everything in. Alard is a special guy, vivacious and warm, with a real passion for the real Africa.

The 1998 exchange was indeed a spectacular success. It sparked a decade of excitement for the crags around the Cape with trad new routing aplenty. We did loads of new routing and the Saffers, especially Tinnie and Snort, really caught the bug afterwards.

Dave Birkett liked the place so much he married their golden girl, Mary, just so he could go back every year and do new routes. Trad was in, and classic cliffs like Wolfberg were saved from the bolters.

On the back of the 1998 exchange, Alard, fellow Saffer, Mark Seuring, and our own Dave Turnbull organised an expedition in 2000 to the unclimbed granite domes of northern Mozambique, which was to be my second African adventure.
Emma Twyford Out to Lunch (24/E4), Table Mountain, S.Africa. Ph: Charles (Snort)

Nine of us, including Ben Bransby and Leo Houlding, spent six days driving pot-hole infested dirt roads north into one of the remotest parts of Africa, negotiating bribes with the corrupt border controllers of Zimbabwe, tackling flooded rivers and landslides, and fixing an endless stream of roadside breakdowns. Oh, and we did some climbing too, but this seemed like a small part of the trip.

Recently, the spark for trad in South Africa has apparently faded and needed re-igniting. The 2016 exchange held the same objective as before: to get the locals raving about trad climbing, get out there and get developing.

The ten lucky Brits were: Ben Heason, Sophie Whyte, Emma Twyford, Jimmy Marjot, Steve McClure, Becca Lorriner, Mikey Goldthorp, Tess Fryer, George North, and myself. The mix of ages and abilities matched our hosts perfectly. We all seemed to gel instantly and get straight on with the trad climbing, camping, fooling around and not thinking about our hectic lives back home... bliss!

I’d spent the last five years mainly sport climbing and bouldering, so I'd forgotten what makes trad climbing so special — it’s all the faffing around.

It’s not about climbing hard; sport and bouldering do that better. It’s not about being fast and efficient, because then it becomes calculated and arbitrary — as does the weird sub-sport of head-pointing, which is not trad climbing. It’s not primarily about being in beautiful places, because we sometimes climb in Lancashire.

To my mind, it’s about falling back into a slower pace of life, and focusing on the here and now. It’s got a fancy name these days — mindfulness.

Getting a few decisions wrong and having a small epic is a good thing, this naturally gets ‘bigged-up’ into a major epic by the time you’ve arrived back at the campsite. Usually it’s okay to call in the sandbag card here, as this is perfect communal material for the several hours of ‘bulling’ that follows. And if the backdrop to all this faffing is the jaw-dropping South African countryside and its unbeatable red sandstone, then all the better.

We climbed around the Cape for the first week, heading to the stunning Cederberg Nature Reserve, about three hours north of Cape Town. Whilst famous for the bouldering mecca, Rocklands, it’s the trad cliffs of Tafelberg, Wolfberg and Krakadouw that are truly world class. So good in fact that I almost don’t want to mention them.
Mike Goldthorp in a wild position on The Crow (E5 6b), Tafelberg, South Africa. Ph: Pete Robins

Having been before in ’98, and being generally obsessed by new routing, I lost no time looking for potential new routes at Wolfberg. I’d sneakily brought some binoculars, keen to find a hidden unclimbed face or something. But I didn’t need them; a large section of the main face, containing a striking slim corner, was unchartered territory!

So Clinton and I headed up there for a look. Clinton Martinengo is one of the best and nicest climbers based in Cape Town - they are all extremely nice, but Clinton is especially so. After some deep breaths, long run-outs, and big rock-overs, I arrived on a perfect ledge below the slim groove we spotted from below, in a state of maximum exhilaration after the intense experience.

The perfect groove went down easily for Clinton, and then we giddily raced up pitches four and five to complete what became The Wolf of Wall Street, at about E6. On-sight new-routing, as close to my limit as I dare, has to be one of my most rewarding experiences as a rock climber, and one which is so rare in the UK. I’m so jealous of all that amazing unclimbed rock the Saffers have. Mikey then jumped on the bandwagon and led the first ascent, on-sight, of Pippy’s Bulge at E5.

Back in Cape Town, we were eager to sample the incredible routes on Table Mountain. Steve McClure showed us all what he’s made of, by nipping up Jimbo’s grade 30 (8a on trad) test piece, Triple Jeopardy, first go. But the Saffers wanted to push us to the max, and they had a trick up their sleeve: huge steep hills.

A week in, and having averaged two hours steep up/downhill walking per day, and obviously climbing at our limits each day, day seven was a killer. It was a 3.30 a.m. start for the two hour slog up to Yellowood, which is a sensational 11-pitch wall of utterly perfect hard quartzite.

In a sleep-deprived daze and five pitches up one of Snort’s E5 test pieces, with Steve off to our right on-sighting 7c+ pitches seemingly unaffected by the lack of sleep, Clinton and I decided we needed to step it up a gear. So we headed off on another new-routing jaunt, through some spectacular roofs and El Cap-esque swaths of smooth intimidation, coming away with an unbelievably brilliant E6 rock-over thing, and a bag full of future projects.

Our final destination was Blouberg; five hours drive from Johannesburg into the wilderness. Three painful hours of uphill jungle-walking brings you to a 12 pitch mini big wall in amongst the monkeys and vultures of the real and remote Africa. This was the big gamble that paid off; bad weather, or any kind of epic, on such a big, hard and remote cliff would have quite likely been utterly disastrous.

But it all went swimmingly, resulting in one of the most magical experiences of my life. On the last day of the trip, we finally sat down and chilled, most of us too knackered or with feet so swollen we couldn’t face rock shoes any more. We sunbathed in rock pools and actually got to know one another, and psyched ourselves up for the return leg… in sunny Blighty!
George North on the bolted but serious Poetry Pink (E5 6b), Rainbow Slab, Wales, UK. Ph: Becca Lorriner

As a reality check, what we Brits don’t often realise, is that foreigners think our climbing is a joke — they’ve been told it’s really shit! So we were out to prove them wrong.

The Saffers arrived to a typical dreary and freezing February morning in Manchester. Only it was now April. Our promises of sunshine were, embarrassingly, empty truths. It was Jimbo’s first ever sight of snow falling. But nothing was going to stop us getting out on the grit, so off we went in search of dry holds.

Our reconnaissance paid off at Curbar, where we ignored the biting wind and climbed the evening out on L’Horla buttress. After another day of torturous fun at Millstone, Mikey had an idea to celebrate his 27th year with a curry and rave until the wee hours, in Sheffield’s Wicker Archers, giving the Saffers a real taste of Sheffield culture, or something like that. Whilst we couldn’t sleep-deprive them with early starts for steep crag approaches, we could keep them up all night partying and drinking hard!

We headed to Wales for some better weather, as is usually the case. And the Saffers soon got into their stride, trad climbing British-style. All they do back home is place cams in perfect horizontal breaks. But in the UK, you have to be more creative; clusters of wires working as a team, off-route runners needing good rope work, ignoring rotten pegs and loose blocks, interpreting cryptic route descriptions and picking out dead-end grooves, avoiding damp zawns or exposed headlands, stuff like that. But they embraced all our quirky little crags and went home knackered, and psyched out of their minds, admittedly having climbed some of their very best routes ever. Who’d have thought it!

So I think the exchange worked. Climbers in the Cape will read about our trip and how much fun we had. The Saffers on the exchange will go up to Tafelberg next summer and put up a bunch of new routes. But there simply aren’t enough trad climbers in South Africa to safeguard all the crags, especially the newly developed ones. So they’re going to do it all over again, maybe bi-annually, and maybe with other countries like the US.

Right now, I’m at home on Anglesey. Outside, it’s boring with rain. I’m putting up with it, but at the same time, I’m indulgently dreaming of Africa... where the skies are warm and blue, and the fiery red sandstone boasts the very best climbing in the world. A ten-hour flight away and a 40-minute approach, I’d be amidst Table Mountain’s climbing paradise. Think I’ll book my next flight now...