Remember the story of the cheese-making course we held at the farm with a group of boys from the valley – that after I guided on a horseback riding trip and laughed until I couldn’t breathe? I didn’t realize then, but those wild guys would end up being like a pack of brothers I never had. Ranging from 14 – 22, the six of them quickly adopted me into their crew. It began with an invitation to join them for pizza night and a horror movie. It was a Friday night and with nothing else to do anyway, I agreed. I was picked up at the end of the drive in a truck and thrown into a bustling kitchen with knives and food flying around while the pizzas were being prepped. After the pizzas were demolished, we moved to the mini theater they had built on their farm. I was smashed between them in a dogpile on the sofa. We watched Infinity, a South African horror movie, and I again was supplied with endless entertainment as they shrieked and shouted at the screen. I stayed in the guest house that night and joined the family for a “park run” 5k race the next day. I wasn’t sure when I was invited for pizza night if I’d be hanging with the parents and adults or with the guys. After clearly being put into the kid category, I followed suit for the race. The boys took off and I found myself racing after them to keep up and avoid being left behind in the adult group. We ran zigzags around the farm fields, through the forest, around the dam, and back to the farmhouse. I tailed them close behind but was convinced I was going to puke the whole way. After finishing the race the mother of three of the boys exclaimed that she thought I said I wasn’t a runner (a discussion we had during the cheese making activity) and that I had beaten her personal record for the race. Hoping I didn’t step on any toes on my first real social gathering post “year-in-the-desert” I offered I was afraid I’d get lost so ran harder than I planned in order to keep up.
After the race, we did a polar plunge swim in the dam since it was the equinox. If I had thought I was doing to die in the race, that seemed like nothing compared to the ice-cold water I swam 80 meters in. Buoys were set up around the dam for us to swim a lap around. My first stroke in I sucked in a bunch of water as my body reacted to the shock of the cold. It was like ice! But as my body continued to lose feeling and I kept swimming stroke after stroke, I made it around the course and hauled myself out of the dam. We shared a big breakfast and stood around a campfire to warm up. Lots of new faces and small talk made me a bit nervous. After resorting to playing with the dogs for a while, I decided I maxed out and needed to leave. I dipped out into the woods and walked down the valley back to the farm. The mother messaged me later saying she hadn’t seen me leave to say goodbye but hoped I had fun. I certainly did but am still in sort of a shell shock for readjusting to the real world again. Of course I didn’t say that, I just said I couldn’t find her before I left. Unsure if I had botched my connection with the family by my awkwardness, I waited to see if I’d get another invitation back.
Scramble up Sterkhorn
That afternoon, after my retreat, the middle son, Daven, messaged me asking if I wanted to do a hike or scramble in Monk’s Cowl area the next day. I had spoken with him a bit about climbing and he said he was keen to learn anything and everything I could teach him. We settled for a scramble up Sterkhorn, a 2973 meter peak in the ‘berg that is usually done in 2 days but was possible in a day. Two small satellite peaks lie at the foot of Sterkhorn, so we planned to scout those out for a scramble/easy trad climb for another time. We spoke to the parks manager for permission (parks are still closed) and he said our mission could be to check the status of the cross at the summit. The peak had priorly been named Mt. Memory for fallen soldiers of WWI, but the cross had been dismantled and down for years.
Daven is 19 with boundless energy. He’s the type of guy that runs 20 kilometers for fun. He insisted on carrying up a rope for training weight on the hike up Sterkhorn. I was wondering if I was about to get smoked on the hike up, just as I had by him in the race. But we set off at a quick, comfortable pace and soon were weaving up the switchbacks. I had done this hike earlier when I hiked to Blindman’s Corner. We ascended via the gorge I had gone down that day, it was more efficient and quicker to gain the elevation according to Daven. We took a quick snack break at Blindman’s Corner and refilled our water before we began the slog up to the scramble. I remembered tracing the ridgeline up Sterkhorn with my eyes, not knowing what the peak was called or if it was a trail at the time. The elevation gain was drastic and soon we were above the satellite peaks. A few exposed moves on the scramble before we were squeezing through a chimney to the summit. The cross was still down, but all the pieces were there. The views were simply stunning and it was a crystal clear day. He pointed out some of the other peaks I had been reading about in the books and I shared what I knew about the routes up them. We eyed the two climbs we wanted to do on the lower peaks and promised to come back for them soon. Daven hauled up a tin lunch box with snacks and sandwiches packed inside (his snack game is way better than mine). He phoned his youngest brother to look outside of their farmhouse down in the valley and flashed his lunch tin to make a light signal. Tate was able to see it from so far away, I thought that was pretty cool.
On our way down we exchanged stories. Him and his brothers had been homeschooled and after metric, he lived in Banff for 6 months skiing and waiting tables to fund the fun. He is planning to go back to get better at skiing and I told him he must go to Squamish to climb sometime, maybe I’d meet him there. Finally, he asked my age. I told him to guess… 25? Nope. 23? Nah. 21? Nope! 26? No. 28?! Got it! Well you have the spirit of a 21 year old – he said. I told him I took that as a compliment and we romped down the trail back to the car while plotting our next adventures in the valley.
How I learned the Pumba
The next weekend, the boys invited me to go sport climbing with them. Well rather, they wanted to learn how to sport climb so they could go without their dad. The two older brothers and their dad picked me up Sunday morning. The dad told me to keep them safe, I promised I would, and he switched out of the seat with the youngest son who met us in a parkinglot with a truck he had borrowed to go to a party. We drove the hour and half down to Howick where I learned we would be meeting up with more people to go climbing – 3 girls who had never climbed before. I was feeling a bit stressed about the responsibility to watch everyone and keep them safe, but I figured all would be fine. We caravanned down to Umgeni Valley, a game reserve with a big cliff band above a valley. On the way in we saw zebra! I read in the guidebook that it was a good omen if you could spot a giraffe in the valley below the cliffs, though we did not. Daven and I discussed first setting up a top rope with one of the ropes from above to get the beginners started with climbing while we found something he could try leading. Keane, the eldest, flew their drone out over the cliff to do some scouting and told me I was on the edge of a very, very tall cliff where I was peaking over to try to find anchors. We didn’t find any, so decided to do the hike down the gully and lead everything, then leave the rope set up for toproping. Daven’s first ever sport lead was a climb called Zulu Lulu, a grade 17 which would be about a 5.9. He crushed it with confidence and was beaming as I lowered him down. I climbed it next to check the anchors for toproping and then the send train began – first Keane, then 2 of the girls Jax and Jenna (the third, Ana, decided she didn’t want to climb after all), and then the youngest, Tate (who was quite nervous but sent). Meanwhile, Dav and I looked for his next climb. He didn’t know how to lead belay yet so he would be rope gun on this trip.
We found a 19 (5.10b) called Woza Xhosa which involved face climbing on crisp edges to a tricky roof finish. He worked his way gingerly up the first 3 bolts, then took a fall just before the 4th bolt. Pumped and excited from his first flight, he came down for a break. I climbed up to the crux and wished I could give it a shot, but realized it would not be great to teach him how to lead belay on something I’d possibly fall on. So I came down, he went back up, fell a couple more times, then stuck the move and finished the route after pushing through the roof! Everyone cheered – he did a great job and an impressive lead. Jax and Keane tried it on toprope and got stuck at the third bolt as well. Then Tate, with some new confidence after the first climb, tried it out. He moved to the third bolt, then quickly kicked his right leg out sideways and up to near his head, lifted onto it, and moved past the crux. I call that the Pumba! – he shouted down. He moved up to the roof but was pumped at that point. After everyone had their go at it, it was my turn – I had to get to the top after all to clean the anchors. I felt some pressure on my performance with 6 pairs of eyes on me. I’ll keep you safe – Tate said solemly as he was belaying me (even though it was toprope). I moved up the face, the positive edges were so good! Usually face climbing isn’t my favorite style but the moves were so fluid and it just felt so good to be back on rock. I worked my way through the crux and over the roof, my audience cheered. I talked them through how to clean the anchors as I hung on my personal anchor from the top bolts. Then I taught Dav how to lead belay by climbing Zulu Lulu again with Keane belaying me on top-rope and mock leading the route being lead belayed by Daven. I talked him through giving me slack to clip the bolts and told him I’d take a fall at the top. Once I got to the roof above one of the last bolts before the anchor, I told Keane to give me a bunch of slack and for Dav to be ready to catch me by braking the rope on his ATC device. I let go of the lip of the roof and jumped back away from the rock. As I was caught, I looked down to find the boys laughing – Keane ended up catching my fall on toprope since not enough slack was given (my bad). Finally, Daven cleaned the anchors of Zulu Lulu while talking me through everything he was doing. It was a successful day of climbing and listening to the commentary among the brothers again left me with sore abs from laughing.
Getting High on Cathedral Peak
We amped up our next adventure by planning to climb a big mountain – one of the biggest, Cathedral peak at 3005 meters. The Cathedral Park was open for day hiking and climbing. It would take between 8-10 hours car to car if we decided to do it in a day – we figured we could do it. Dav picked me up after I was done with the horses on Thursday. We sorted gear, he practiced knots, and we discussed the approach and the route. I slept on a futon under his bunkbed, and though he slept talked all night, I was able to get some sleep. We set off from the farm at 6 AM and arrived at the park by 7 AM. I tied the rope around my small day pack full of my harness, shoes, puff, and snacks, and he carried the trad gear with his personal stuff and of course, his tin lunchbox. We set out at a healthy pace; we crossed the river that leads out of the dam then started winding our way up to the contour path along the upper berg. We both chatted excitedly about how strong we felt and ready for the day. The steepening gradient slowed us but we clipped on and soon found ourselves at Orange Peel Gap. Unclear why it was called this we offered up possible explanations, but settled on that it was a silly name for a pass and they could have been more creative. We popped over the other side and skirted around the last obstruction before Cathedral Peak. We saw a gully run up the side of the Northeast ridge at a low gradient and assumed that would be our route. But upon inspecting the photo I took of the guidebook, our route went straight up the ridge, which from our perspective looked incredibly steep and long.
The route was rated as an “E” which is a 13, or maybe like a 5.5. I thought it would be a good introduction for a trad route being easy, but a long day to get up there. It required a light rack, but we brought everything we could find between his dad’s gear (standard berg rack, almost) and what Karl had loaned me (#1 cam and #3 cam). We stopped for lunch just before Bugger Gully and I briefed Dav on what would happen when we got to the base of the climb and onwards from there. I told him ideally I would be able to talk to him the whole time, but if it was windy or the route wandered he may not be able to hear me – my voice doesn’t get very loud anyway. We slogged up the gully then cut right across a grassy field to the start of the scramble. We had been hiking for about 4 hours at this point and it felt good to start using our arms up the scramble to give our legs a bit of a break. We romped up the broken ridgeline to a point where the rock ramped up on a slabby black slope – this would be the start of the roped section. I had not realized how incredibly exposed the climb was. While we were hiking up we could see the East side of the mountain, which was tiered with some grass ledges. Meanwhile we found out the opposite side of the ridge we would be climbing was a sheer cliff, nothing but air for 100s maybe 1000s of meters. Cape vultures circled above us; they nested on this incredible cliff. Dav inspected the climb and raised his excitement but also nervousness – this was big. I wondered if I had rushed him into this, but after seeing how big his smile was being up there, I knew he’d be just fine.
I tied in to one end of the rope, he tied into the other. I couldn’t help the happiness bubble out and he told me I was some strange type of mountain creature – probably true. I explained how I like to rack gear on my harness – small sized cams in the front and larger ones in the back, nuts in the back because I rarely use them, personal anchor system swung through my legs and clipped on the back of my harness to stay out of my way, and a few slings across my chest for extensions. It would be over a year since my last trad climb but everything felt as if I had just climbed the day before. I checked his knots and belay device and ventured up the ridge.
Though it is one of the more popular routes in the ‘berg, it still doesn’t get climbed often – especially during lockdown. The rock quality wasn’t awesome, but it wasn’t as bad as I had been warned. Some rocks were loose and on the less steep section some dirt and vegetation seemed to barely be hanging on to the rock. But it was easy to find stable rock, though places to put gear was basically non-existent. The first pitch in fact I didn’t place anything, but it was more of just an exposed scramble anyway. I found a large horn to sling for an anchor to bring Dav up. As he popped over the last bulge, I apologized for not placing anything since I was hoping he could practice cleaning gear himself. He expressed the discomfort of climbing with a pack and I couldn’t agree more. I explained my anchor set up to him and how I was belaying him from above with my ATC guide. I then flopped the rope over onto him and prepared to set off for the next pitch.
The gradient steeped and I found some of the class 5 moves. There were more cracks and breaks in the rock to place some gear. The exposure continued to get more impressive. I was now above the cape vultures; never had I been able to watch birds from above. I felt like something inside me was reawakening that had been laying dormant for the last year buried in the sand. Maybe Dav was right, maybe I am some sort of mountain creature. I’m certainly my happiest up there. I climbed up the last steep section and found a good place to make an anchor with a perfect perch of rock jutting over the cliff. It took Dav a little while longer to climb this pitch since he cleaned the gear, his first to that as well. I saw a similar creature coming to life in him as he joined me at the anchor wild eyed and grinning.
The last section we did unroped – it was a class C scramble to the summit, just as exposed as the climbing was but easy moves and quicker to do independently. I waited for him a few meters below the summit block so we could reach it together. At the top on a large, flat platform was a cairn and small rock wall built for a bivy. We dropped our packs and gave each other a high-five followed by a big hug. It was a beautiful day, an amazing ridgeline to climb, and incredible company.
We hung around the summit watching the cape vultures and a peregrine falcon dive and swoop below us. He busted out his tin lunchbox for, again, a much better lunch than mine. We enjoyed the views for around an hour and discussed other peaks and future plans to climb them. Nearby there is a cave called Rolland’s Cave near Cleft Peak. The cave is half way up a sheer cliff and can only be reached by a sketchy traverse. We agreed it would be pretty sweet to sleep in there and plan a climb nearby for the next day. To the North was Devil’s Tooth which looked fun and to the South we could see Monk’s Cowl, which would likely be a good next step up in our climbing partnership. It is rated an F2 which is like a 13 or 5.8, 4 pitches, and a cool cave to bivy in at the base. Realizing the sun was sinking we wrapped up our climbing talk, finished our lunch and headed down.
We would be descending a different way than we had come up. The Standard Route is more popular and strictly a scramble, no climbing equipment needed. We left the summit and the Northeast ridge behind as we turned South and followed a well worn trail down the grassy ledges. We descended a bolt ladder, then scrambled down some slick black faces (there were bolts for rappels if needed). Back in bugger gully, our legs began to shake and we had a few wipe outs. We reined them in though and soon it felt like my legs were detached from the rest of my body and on auto pilot as we retraced the trail back around the contour to Orange Peel Gap. Back on the other side of the pass, we saw the full moon brightening and the sky turning pink. A slight warm breeze felt like the last exhales of the day. Soon we were back across the creek, walking along the road, and finally at the car just as the last light faded. One more huge hug to culminate the adventure and we slumped into the car, happy to sit down.
I’m not quite ready to give up being a rope-gun just yet. But I do really enjoy teaching Dav how to climb and move in the mountains. Being a climbing mentor is actually really cool and I know we’ll make the next few weeks here count, and we’ll share leads 😉
Human (not monkey) Updates
My body sort of hates me lately and is demanding a break but I think I can push it for the last few weeks I am here. Weekdays are workdays (except for the Friday I asked off for Cathedral) and we have been busy with fire-breaks and horse training. Fire-breaks take about 4-5 hours in the morning. I am trusted to drive the big McCormick tractor as back up now! On my first day driving it, I pulled out the old green tractor after it got stuck in the mud. In the afternoons I work with the horses. As much as I thought I was bonding with Mulan, I had a bad fall off of her on Wednesday. The first hour I was riding her on the trails, she was fine, then in the fields on the way home she bolted and went into a bucking frenzy. I stayed on for awhile (apparent by the bruises I have on the insides of my legs from slamming into the saddle as she bucked). But then as she neared the tarred road, I maybe subconsciously half bailed while I could still fall on grass. I landed on my shoulder, then my head (was wearing a brain bucket), and rolled out of the way of her hooves. I hopped up immediately, almost as if to convince myself I was alright even though I couldn’t breathe with the wind knocked out of me. Nathi dismounted his horse and checked the movement of my shoulder to make sure nothing was broken. I landed right in the burn area we had worked on a few days before and was covered in char. My shirt was ripped and shoulder was sore but I could still move it. On the walk back to the farm I decided I wasn’t going to try to ride Mulan anymore. She had put 2 volunteers in the hospital with concussions before me and I’d be leaving in a few weeks anyway. It wasn’t worth the risk to keep slamming my head on the ground – I sort of need my brain. So between general exhaustion from the work, a messed up back and shoulder from the fall, and then climbing on it anyway… my body is not so happy with me, but it’s strong so it will be fine.
I’m continuing to try to find a way to study in Chile. Last week I submitted a proposal to the Rufford Conservation Fund. The Rufford Conservation Fund is based in the UK and provides startup funding for nature conservation projects in developing countries. The funding process is staged so I will be applying for the “small grant” which is funding for up to £6000. I had to adapt my proposal quite a bit but I think I really like where it ended up. We also gained a new potential team member who specializes in assessing methodological and theoretical approaches that can bridge the gap between ecological systems and human society. He specialized in remote sensing and advanced modeling techniques to create information that can help managers to make science-based decisions to protect the environment – including developing apps, so that’s pretty cool! Now I’m working on a letter of inquiry to see if I can apply for funding through a non-profit organization affiliated with the University of Magallanes, the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, to the Weeden Foundation. This foundation specialized in funding conservation projects in Chilean Patagonia, so it seems like a perfect fit. After feedback from the letter of inquiry, if it is positive, I will apply for it before I leave here at the end of July.
I attended a July 4th party yesterday and was the only American there. I’m not much of a patriot and wore black – but only because it was the only shirt that didn’t have holes in it. It wasn’t actually to celebrate independence day, but a winter party held by the family I ran the 5k race with. The eldest has a band and it was so fun to watch them perform. They did a cover of one of my favorite songs, Electric Love by Borns, and I think I actually like their cover better than the original. They definitely have a new fan! I spoke with their dad for awhile and he expressed how excited Dav was to learn how to climb and that he would like to go climbing with his son but it helped to have someone else, outside of the family teach him before they started their own partnership. He offered for me to leave my WorkAway on the farm a couple of weeks early to stay with them and climb my brains out with Dav. I don’t like quitting something, though I guess I wouldn’t be quitting if I’m volunteering in the first place, without a contract. I told him if I did, I would pay rent or work on the farm for them or cook a few nights a week or something. He told me there are opportunities that come up in life that if you don’t take, you’ll regret. I know it’s true and I like to think I always say Fuck Yes! to any opportunity that presents itself. Spending my last two weeks in South Africa climbing peaks and crags and hanging out with a cool family seems like something I won’t be able to pass up. More to come on this soon…