Mountain Highs and Low Tides

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve climbed in the “barrier of spears” with baboons and swam in the Indian Ocean with dolphins. My head is spinning trying to keep track of all of the adventures. While I’m wrapping up my last few days here in South Africa, I can’t help but think how incredibly lucky I am to have experienced all of this. When an opportunity presents itself, you really must take it!

I am currently living with a family in the valley in exchange for teaching their sons (ages 17, 19, 22) how to climb and move in the mountains. I think in a way, this was also a way to get the family out together to enjoy the ‘berg. It’s been awhile since I’ve played on rock but I really do love to teach and watch people fall in love with the mountains the way I have. It’s funny being in a sort of “guide-mode” and how much more confident I feel in my climbing ability; I’ve surprised myself over the last couple of weeks and think the year off in the desert did me some good. Now that I’m back to playing on rocks, I feel really strong both physically and mentally.

Sentinel Peak: July 17th

M.C.M. is a fully bolted climb that follows the Northwest arête of Sentinel Peak in the Royal Natal region of the Drakensberg mountains. It’s 7 pitches and goes at a 19 (~5.10b). We’d done some sport climbing earlier in the month at crags nearby Durban – Winston Park Crags and Umgeni Valley. We decided to bump up our adventure and tackle a big, multipitch, technical climb. We’d swing leads since D now knew how to lead belay and each of us would take a crux pitch – I would take the first pitch of 19 and he would take the third pitch, also a 19. The rest of the climb was around a 17, or 5.9, so it would keep our attention for sure.

We awoke around 7 AM to drive the 2.5 hours up to Royal Natal. We slightly underestimated the time it would take to get there and immediately had to start making a timeline for the day with bailing times if it was getting late. Luckily with all of the anchors being bolted, we could bail and rappel down at any point if needed. We bumped along the rough 4×4 road that led to the car park at the trailhead. It was nice to be able to drive so high and get most of the elevation done by 4×4. The face of Sentinel loomed in front of us, it was big. D expressed his nervousness which I was thankful for, I was a bit nervous too. But it was a beautiful day, the climb was straight forward, and we had developed a strong climbing partnership – I knew we’d make good decisions and have fun.

We hauled our packs on and marched up the switchbacks to the base of the peak. We had to move quickly to make our first deadline – at the start of the climb by 11:30 AM. We rounded the front of the sheer face and saw the lines of other climbs – the Angus-Leppan Route at F3 (17), trad looked super fun and “Here be the Dragons” at 24 (5.11d), trad looked absolutely insane. Just on time, we reached the start of our climb. Happy to see the bolts and knowing we were in the correct place, we quickly unpacked our bags, loaded up on quickdraws and tied in. I couldn’t help but dance and giggle in excitement, this looked really fun. I’ve never tried to push grades in climbing, haven’t really led many 5.10 climbs outside, but the nervous butterflies that usually visit before a lead climb never came and I felt calm and content. The crux was a thin move left on crimps that would bring you up on a ramp, and further up above, a tricky section involved a bulge without much to haul on so you had to smear and stem your way up and through the corner of it. The rock was cold as it was still in the shade. As I padded up the slab, I looked down to see D fully zipped in his puffy. At the end of the pitch, we’d be in the sun.

The climbing felt fluid and before long I was at the anchors of the first pitch. Already the exposure was incredible! I offered to lead the next pitch as well so he was fresh for his crux pitch. It was a 17 and moved up along an arête then over onto a traverse along another slabby section. Just enough to keep you focused, but all of the moves were there and the climbing was incredibly fun. D soon joined me at the next set of anchors and blasted off onto the next crux pitch. It could go at a 21 if the convenient bolts weren’t used as footholds, but we both ended up using them making it a 19. The last move on this pitch was a strenuous move up through a roof. It was now 1:30 PM, our goal was to be at the summit by 4 PM. With the more difficult pitches out of the way, we continued on our quest up.

We swung leads for the remainder of the climb. At each belay point, we’d take a few minutes to chat about the pitch, some interesting move that we did, the exposure, or why we climb in general. He told me I’m nuts a few times, but with a smile so I knew he felt like he was a little nutty for enjoying this too. Each of us had some wild moves on our leads. He led up a dihedral that had some insane exposure with 4 pitches worth of rock directly below us. On the final pitch, I pulled through two underclings to move through the last roof before the summit block. I let out a howl when I made it to the anchors, we were so high!

We took off our shoes and scrambled up the last section of rock before the summit – right on time at 3:42 PM. We shared a big celebratory hug – we did it! I had baked some rusks for a snack so we pulled those out and relaxed on the summit for a bit. This was a new area of the Drakensberg for me. I could see Devil’s Tooth poking out along the ridgeline and the river that dumps into Tugela Falls below us. The shadow of Sentinel was projected on to the mountains to the South. D pointed out that the mountains looked stained with age as the seepage from rains left long black streak marks down the face. The whole range looks like it’s in a perpetual state of degrading and melting away. The air was hazy from fires but it sort of gave us a sense of being in a lost world away from civilization.

We descended by the standard route, which is rated as an E3 so basically a scramble. We made our way down the mountain barefoot as the sun began to set and peeked over into the valleys and gorges below us. We gathered our packs at the base of the climb just as the sun set and turned the world orange. It reminded me of Utah. We made our way back to the car without need of the headlamps. A rest day was in order before our next big adventure.

Party Scramble up Turret and Amphlett: July 20th

We sought out to find a good first trad lead for D in the Drakensberg Select guidebook. When we had summitted Strekhorn a couple weeks ago, we eyed the two lower satellite peaks: Amphlett and Turret. Both peaks have short, pleasant scrambles to their summits and could be done together in a day. We decided on a mission to get up both of them. After rumors of our plans spread around the house and to respective friends, we soon had a team who was interested in hiking to the base of the climb with us, camping the night, then watching us summit (and maybe joining) the next day.

Six people, including myself, tossed packs into the back of the bakkie late Monday morning. L (23) and her younger brother, A (18), lived on a farm nearby as did S (24). The youngest brother, T (17), joined and we brought an extra harness for him if he felt like joining us on the climb. D and I shouldered all of our climbing gear plus most of the necessities for camping. Despite growing up in the berg, most of the group had either never camped up there or only had a couple of times in their lives.

The park was still officially closed to overnight hikes so we parked at a friend of the family’s just outside of the park. The gully up to the middle berg was incredibly steep and overgrown with forest, our herd moved slowly up. We stopped for a snack at the top now that most of the elevation had been gained. Soon we hauled our packs back on and began to follow the contour trail along the mountains to get to our destination to camp: a flat plateau above the trails and just below the first scramble to get to the climbs. I really enjoy hiking the contour trails – they are exactly that, contours of the mountain. You can cruise along them, almost on autopilot, and wrap around massive swaths of earth, in and out of the valleys, and skirt the far corners of peaks.

By 4 PM we were at our campsite. One big blue dome tent was to hold myself, T, S, and A. D and L would take his smaller tent. I already assumed I’d probably be sleeping outside the tent instead of cramming in with the guys, but decided to wait and see how cold the night got. We made missions for water and reheated a game stew the guys’ mother had cooked for us. It was thick and hearty and tasted amazing on the mountain. After dinner we made hot chocolate and spiked it with cognac, then laid on our backs across the plateau and watched the stars. The milky way shone brightly and shooting stars zipped past every few minutes. At one point a bright flash caught us off guard… 5 seconds later, another big flash. Soon we figured out its trajectory and thought it must be a satellite but perhaps it was spinning and reflecting light off the sun as it spun? Maybe it got knocked by something and was being perpetuated across space out of control? Unclear, but we had our theories.

Most of the party went to bed early; once it gets dark in the mountains there’s not a ton to do besides watching the stars. S, D, and I continued to chat into the night. Then just D and I while the galaxy arm rotated through the sky. We fell asleep for a couple of hours out there before we woke up cold. He returned to his tent. I peeked inside the dome, saw three bodies sprawled across the floor and snoring ripping through the stale air – I decided outside would be best. I moved my pad and sleeping bag between the tents to shelter from the wind, used the climbing rope as a pillow, and stared into the universe until sleep overtook me.

I awoke to a stiff breeze, not too cold but enough to wake me up. Once I started stirring, others did as well. We made coffee and had a hearty breakfast. Everyone was keen to scramble up to the base of the climbs so we packed our bags and moved them between a grassy knoll just below the first ridge we would ascend. D carried my red climbing pack with snacks and the trad gear, and I had the better end of the deal with carrying the rope as a backpack. We gained the first false summit quickly, each of us making our own switchback pattern as the slope steepened. We navigated across a saddle then up through a few loose rock bands. D and I carefully guided everyone along as they had not really done this sort of hiking before.

After breaking through the last cliff band, we were at the saddle between the two satellite peaks. Half the group found a sunny rock and broke out the cheese and crackers for a snack. D, T, and I moved up the North end of the saddle to the base of Amphlett. The peak stands at 2620 meters and was first climbed in 1912 by GT Amphlett. To summit, you follow a grassy ledge up to a nek, then scramble along a top rock band that forms a knife edge ridge to the summit. The climb goes at a D, so basically a scramble, protection optional – which is why we thought it would be an ideal first trad lead (little consequences and good practice to place gear). D took his time moving up the rock poking cams and nuts into cracks in the rock. Eventually he called out that he was on the summit, and he belayed me up while I inspected his gear. The knife edge traverse was exciting and airy. We brought T up next. He was not so much a fan of the traverse but did an awesome job and joined us on the summit. We lowered him down, then disassembled the anchor and down climbed. At the base, T shared with us that mountaineering didn’t bring him joy so he would not be joining us for Turret – all light hearted and though it scared him I think he was happy he joined for Amphlett. But he knew what he wanted and if it’s not fun there is no sense in doing it – not like climbing makes much sense in the first place. T joined the others at the lunch rock and D and I hiked down the saddle and up the other side to summit Turret.

Turret stands at 2670 meters and is rated a C+ (so also a scramble). It was first summitted in July 1933 by a different party than who opened up Amphlett. The route leading to the summit is within a cleft on the West face that gives surprisingly easy access to the summit of the tower. There was much more opportunity for D to place gear in this climb and I heard him laughing and exclaiming on his way up with how fun it was to place cams. Some of them could have been placed deeper, but he was getting the hang of placing gear and extending slings when necessary. We stood at the top of the tower together and waved to the rest of the party who was beginning to pack up. They started their hike down as we descended the gully. We listened to baboons yell and soon spotted the troop on a nearby cliff. One of the larger baboons dislodged a huge rock that was sent cascading and crashing down the gully. We had seen and heard them every time we’ve been up in the berg, common wildlife here. One of the moves to down climb was just above an abyss. D noticed that one wrong step here and you would be lost into the void and disappear down into the deep ravine. He said a few weeks ago he would have been sketched out by scrambling around the mountains like this. We discussed being desensitized to risk and danger in the mountains, and how dangerous it was. I am not one to talk as sometimes I feel like I rarely feel fear at all in the mountains now, and I know that’s not necessarily a good thing. I tried to prove my point of remaining cautious by explaining that most climbing accidents occur on the descent, and that anything can go wrong at any point that is completely out of your control (weather, rock fall). Going up is optional, coming back down is mandatory.

We caught up with the rest of the group as we saw A sprinting to the bags which were discovered by the crows. They had ripped his bag open and ate some his sausages and snacks that he brought up. We salvaged what was left of our lunches, ate, then repacked our bags for the descent. On our slog down, L, D, and T all chimed in – “I can’t wait for the beach!”

Chill Vibes on the Indian Ocean: July 22 – 26

Ramsgate Beach is 140 km South of Durban. A friend of the guys’ has a family beach house minutes from the beach. I was invited to tag along and, though it felt a little awkward to crash a reunion of people who had been friends through grade school, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see and swim in the Indian Ocean. Five of us packed into the Mercedes and drove the 4 hours to the beach. We would have a rotor for cooking meals – I was paired with D and his friend to make Buddha bowls. Other meal plans included pizza, pasta, and burgers. We towed a trailer behind the car with surf boards, snorkeling equipment, fire spinning baton, Frisbees and balls, lawn chairs, and duffels of clothes for the beach. It’s still winter, so a bit chilly but I was told we would for sure swim as the Indian Ocean is warm water.

We arrived late afternoon and after dumping our stuff in the house immediately headed down to the beach. I guess I imagined a beach similar to the East coast of the states with small gentle waves and warm water – as opposed to the West Coast like the cold, big waves in the PNW which I found similar to the beaches in Cape Town. When we arrived at the beach it was high tide… a high tide of nearly 5 meter waves that broke right on the beach. D asked if I had ever swam in waves like this before, I shook my head but followed them in anyway. I did not get the timing right and was soon thrashed, churned, and spit out onto the sand by the waves. My legs were bleeding from being raked along the shore and the tide came in and out with a force I couldn’t believe. I watched as they dove through the waves, something that did not cross my mind as I was gasping for air. I watched on the shore, a little embarrassed about my unwelcomed company in an ocean I was so keen to swim in. I’d figure it out though, next time I would learn the waves at low tide.

The days blended together, we spent five days at the beach house. In the morning we would wake up around 8 AM, make a big breakfast together and sit on the balcony sipping coffee and reading books until around 10 AM. This was low tide and the day would begin to start warming up so we’d head to the beach. We gathered driftwood logs and planted them in the sand making a sort of fort structure. Some of us would play catch with the Frisbee or volleyball, some would read thick books while lounging in the sand, some would swim, and some would walk the coast. I’d bounce between all of the activities. I figured out the waves and the water was truly warm, warmer than the air. Each of us brought colorful sarongs and we must have looked like some strange commune of rebels posting up on the beach. It wasn’t illegal to be on the beach, but you had to be swimming or walking. We stuck out with our fortress and perhaps called attention to ourselves as all eleven of us laid on the beach. But there was no harm in it, and no one seemed to care after all. We were outside, I don’t think you can catch covid from the sea.

The most spectacular part of beach days was watching the humpback whales breach. I’m not sure if it was their migration time or if they were residential whales or what, but every 10 seconds we could see a huge whale breach on the horizon of the sea and send white water rocketing into the sky. The initial big breach was usually followed with smaller splashed from fins slapping on the surface. I was stunned. During my trip to Mexico I remember going to a beach to whale watch and never seeing one. Orcas are always a treat to see  in the Puget Sound but sightings, for me at least, were few and far between. Here, sitting still and simply gazing at the horizon, you could see tons of whales in every direction! It is something I will never forget.

Around lunch time, the wind would pick up and the sand blasting our faces would chase us back to the beach house. Here we would split off and either continue to read our books on the balcony, adventure out on the streets on skateboards, or take an afternoon siesta. Around 3 PM every day, I would go out to explore the intertidal pools. I still value my alone time and found it a bit hectic in the house, so I was thankful for the long empty stretches of the shoreline. I saw small octopus, sea urchins and cucumbers, star fish, a dead (benthic?) shark, and some fish. I’d hop along the rocks, lost in my music plugged in to one ear, and let the sea breeze tangle my hair until it was a sea creature in and of itself. I’d watch the sunset perched on the rock while the whales jumped across the sea, then return to the house. I could usually hear the bass of the music by the time I turned onto the road that led up to the beach house.

The cooking crew for the night would have dinner ready by around 7 PM. We’d all eat together around the long table with a special bouquet picked that day. On my day, we picked some strange leafy plants that brought red, yellow, and green flare to the kitchen table. We would go around the table saying our sunnies (happy thing from the day) and cloudies (sad thing from the day). Then we’d clear out the table, pour some drinks, and put on some music into the night. On some of the evenings, D and I would discuss our next climbing plans but we kept it light – this was supposed to be our chill time. I was usually the first to sleep – being a few years older than the rest and only having the guys as my connection to the friend group. But I didn’t mind – I’d hang out with them til around midnight then crash in a bed downstairs, or at least try to while the bass drummed above me. Some nights they’d stay up until 4 AM and I’d find them in the morning in a heap on some mattresses on the balcony.

This cycle continued through the 4 days, hence how I’ve lost track of each day. We had a photo shoot modeling bucket hats that one of the girls sewed and sold. I learned how to twirl fire on a baton after a couple shots of tequila – it was pretty sweet (I think I’ll actually try to keep learning more tricks – it feels pretty badass). Someone brought henna and I was bestowed a shoulder tattoo, then a sm;)e tattoo on my foot, then a wave on my wrist, and a flower on my other wrist. We played some games and dared each other to do ridiculous things – like eat a raw egg, shower under the tap, or jump in the neighbor’s pool. We had a slackline set up in the backyard. A few people wiped out on the skateboards and got nasty road rash. Two of the guys tried surfing but the wind swamped them in the waves. They caught one fish, named it Marvin, then we ate it. We played Uno. Drank tons of tea. Had sundowners on the beach. Had an awesome time.

On the last morning, I went out to swim in the sea. Huge waves rolled in, gently this time. The water was warm and after swimming out past the break, I floated on my back and let the waves lull me. They carried me high, so high I could see way out into the ocean. I saw a group of dolphins, maybe 50 of them, swimming just past the rocky outcrop near our beach. I saw the whales emerging from the sea like trees growing before they timbered sending up a splash. The wave would drop making my stomach drop a little bit with it, before bringing me back up as if to show off how magnificent its home was, if even for a moment.

One last big one – Monk’s Cowl Ascent: July 28 – 30

“Between Cathkin and Champagne Castle is Monk’s Cowl (3234 m) a peak which has caught the imagination of people to a greater extent, possibly, than any other Drakensberg peak. This is possibly due to its inaccessibility (tucked behind Cathkin it is seldom seen by the ordinary tourist), to the fact that for many years it was listed an unclimbable, and also because it was the scene of the first fatal accident in the Drakensberg. Cathkin is a huge, solid block of a mountain: Champagne is a rounded dome: Monk’s Cowl is sharp and pointed, like an up-thrust fang, and there is something almost sinister and menacing about its lowering precipices. Hans Wong, who finally conquered it in 1942, spoke of its “cold, fascinating beauty.” It was a challenge that few mountaineers could resist.”

– Barrier of Spears, Howard Timmins 1973

Time was running out for our climbing shenanigans, my flight is scheduled to leave on August 3rd. We followed suit with our trend and bumped up the magnitude of our next adventure. The initial scheme was definitely a Kelly plan – trying to squeeze in as much as possible in a last ditch effort to explore the ‘berg. We originally planned for 4 nights in the mountains to summit Cathkin Peak via a scramble, Monk’s Cowl by the Standard Route at F2/5.8ish, then trek along the top of the berg bordering Lesotho and sleep in a cave in a cliff called Roland’s cave before coming back down. We packed lots of food for 5 days in the mountains: couscous, crackers and cheese, biltong, tinned smoked mussels, nuts and dried fruit, oatmeal, tea, and coffee. The monk’s cowl climb required two 50m ropes to descend and a full rack. We packed a tent for the nights that we wouldn’t be sleeping in caves and a bunch of water bottles to fill up before getting too high as it is incredible dry in the berg now. Warm sleeping bags, sleeping pad, and warm clothes for the below 0C nights – all packed tightly into our packs.

We heaved them into the Subaru at 4AM. Henna still marking our skin, we joked that we rushed through the chill vibe we had just attained at the beach to march up into the mountains. His dad dropped us off at the gate, which we climbed over as the park was still closed. D’s sleeve got caught on the barbed wire at the top of the fence and took some shenanigans to release, while trying to be quiet enough not to wake the guard in the hut. His dad tossed over our packs, which sounded like boulders falling as they hit the ground. We never weighed them but it was one of the heaviest loads I’ve carried. We waved goodbye to him and sneaked off into the darkness, behind the light from the hut, and up the Sphinx trail. The bags instantly slowed our pace but we marched steadily up, up, and up to the middle berg. Around 6 AM we rested our packs and took a 20 minute nap at Breakfast Stream. It was too cold to sleep, but my brain picked up from the nightmare I had the night before and soon I twitched to awake.

We carried on to Blindman’s Corner, then turned South onto a new trail I hadn’t been on. We followed the contour trail all the way around the Southeast ridgeline of Cathkin Peak, then dropped down into Cowl Fork Stream. We had hoped to summit Cathkin that day after making the trek up the valley to the saddle between Monk’s Cowl and Cathkin, but seeing how much more gain we had through a valley that would require bushwacking and boulder hopping we became aware that it probably wouldn’t pan out. We made a plan to aim to be at the base of the Cathkin climb by 11:30 AM, or scrap the idea and just continue up to Cowl cave where we would spend the night. After fighting our way through thorny, spiky, prickly bushes, the valley opened up a bit and we followed rock slabs up through the stream. There was some ice built up along the stream and we wondered if our climbs would be icy as both were South facing and never saw the sun. We trudged upwards, it felt like doing one legged squats and we cursed ourselves for such heavy packs. Some of the family would be meeting us at our next campsite the next day, so we could have asked for them to bring some of the food we would need instead of carrying all of it up to the top with us. Our pace slowed as the valley steepened and soon we were using our hands to climb up the rocks and grass ledges as well as pressing up with our legs.

We missed our deadline for the gully up Cathkin. Since there was no rush now, we paused for lunch and filled our bottles and water packs – only making our packs heavier. We crawled up the last section of the valley before finally, slowly, topping out at the saddle. The cave peeked out from the bottom of Champagne Castle to the South and the face we would be climbing up Monk’s Cowl rocketed up to the North. We realized we had hiked 4km up the valley. I checked the photos I took from the guidebook and realized climbers usually took 2 days to make it up to cowl cave – with a stop in the valley on the other side of the peak, Keith’s bush camp (where we would be meeting the family the next day). We underestimated the approach and overestimated our fitness. We had gotten a little cocky with our past climbs and summits coming easily and without too much struggling. It was good to be humbled. We collapsed in the cave at 2 PM and napped until sunset.

We cooked couscous (chili and garlic) and drank tea while we peeked out of the cave at the intimidating wall in front of us. I could see the line we would take – up a right leaning recess to narrow chute of rock, then up easier terrain to a large rock that would likely have abseil slings: second pitch would be the crux moving left around a corner out of a cubbyhole, and across about 8 meters of slab (that looked sheer and scary), then up through some broken rock to a grassy ledge: pitch three continued up through the rock band to the next major ledge: pitch 4/scramble moving left/West over exposed but easy rock to a grass ledge that wrapped around the back side of the mountain. From there we couldn’t see, but the rest of the climb entailed scrambling up through a few more bands of rock before summitting on the cowl (hood) of the mountain. We studied the mountain in silence until darkness fell and the wind picked up. Sheltered by the cave, we listened to a couple Tales of Terror I had downloaded on my phone that sent goosebumps on top of our goosebumps from the cold (though I had already heard them). We used a #1 cam to lodge into the roof of the cave and hang a light. The wind kept us awake through most of the night and sleepy conversations mixed with dreams.

Around 7 AM the next morning the sun reached the cave and warmed our faces. We snacked on nuts and fruit while we waited for the wind to die down. If it were as strong as the night before, there was no way we would be climbing the face. But by 8:30 AM, as if on command, the wind let up. We saw our window of opportunity and began to get ready for the ascent. D would lead the first pitch (E), then I would lead the crux across the slab (F2), and then we’d see how he felt about the third pitch (F1). We racked up; I tied the second rope for abseiling as a backpack. I always liked to climb on his orange rope and carry the purple one so we followed suit for this climb.

We crawled out of the cave, legs stiff from the day before but still mobile. We crossed the saddle then hiked up the grassy ledges to the base of the climb. It was cold, really cold. In the shade, hidden from a sun, with an icy breeze wrapping around the mountain. The face looked intimidating and unwelcoming. We wished we had brought our puffies with, but thought we would warm up once we began climbing and we had our windbreakers stuffed in dry bags and clipped on to our harnesses. D set off up the broken rock bands of the first pitch. It was a 40 meter pitch and soon he was up over a bulge and out of sight and ear shot. The rope began to get yanked up and soon I was following up his lead. My movements were stiff from my muscles aching and the ice cold rock. I lost feeling in my fingers quickly and my feet felt like blocks of ice wedged into my climbing shoes. Soon I joined him at the anchor of the first pitch, inside the cubbyhole. The slab section was out of sight as we stood next to the corner. We acknowledged the cold but that we felt okay to keep moving up.

I took the rest of the gear from D, then stepped out onto the corner. A few moves around the arête and I was on the slab. More angled than it looked from the ground, and a roof above it was filled with cracks so I could easily protect it. With the lack of rain in the mountains, there wasn’t any ice, which would have made the pitch impossible. I smeared my feet onto tiny textured ripples in the rock and looked past my shoes into the nothingness below me. The slab traversed out past the saddle, hundreds, maybe thousands of feet of air was between my shoes and floor of the valley. I moved along the slab, pleased with the friction and gear placements. I wished I had a second #1 cam, then remembered it was lodged in the roof of the cave. The route description suggested to move up off the slab at the anvil-shaped rock… but there were lots of anvil shaped rocks, and whats an anvil anyway? Was it triangular? Or more like a rhombus? I couldn’t be sure I had found this telltale rock but the protection on the slab was running out so I jutted upwards onto the next rock band. Here the rock was completely vertical, 90 degrees, no smearing and all dependent on hand and foot holds. I moved left searching for the ledge that should have two small pitons – no luck. I backtracked, now with the rope I had just pulled from D on belay trailing below me. He was too far away and around the corner to hear to take up slack, and it didn’t matter much anyway with the rope drag he probably wouldn’t be able to take it back in. I moved back right, then upwards, and left again. The rock was less broken here and there were less options for gear placement, let alone an anchor. I realized then that my best hold at the moment was at the base of a tuft of grass. I was clinging to its roots, which itself was clinging to the mountainside. A wave a fear flickered in my stomach but I pushed it down, fear wouldn’t help – this just wasn’t the right way. I backtracked again, moved up some more, then built an anchor in a crack. Surely I was off route, but I didn’t want to take too long exploring the face. D was probably freezing at the belay waiting for me. Had it been 10 minutes? Maybe 15 that I was climbing? Or was it more like 20 or 30? Everything seems to disappear and become unimportant, except the few meters of rock right in front of your face.

I pulled through the slack and put D on belay. I heard some musings about the slab while he navigated his way across it but couldn’t make out the words above the wind. He joined me at the anchor shivering; it was really really cold. I asked if he’d rather lead the next pitch to keep moving or belay. Unfortunately, even if we wanted to bail from the cold, we still had to move up to find the next abseil point (which would be above the third pitch) before we could go back down. He said I could lead the next pitch as his thinking was a little fuzzy from the cold. The next section looked like easy rock. It was, and I only needed to put in a couple pieces of gear before finding the abseil point/anchor. He moved up quickly as well and we figured we sort of made our own route up the mountain by taking a variation of the third pitch. We were both feeling better after getting warmed up on the easy pitch, and decided to press on to the summit. We coiled most of the rope on our shoulders leaving a few meters between us and simul-climbed through the last scramble onto the grassy ledge.

The grass was slippery under our rubber climbing shoes, but wide enough to give us some room to move. We wrapped around the West side of the mountain, as we could see from the cave, then into the sun on the North side. The sun felt amazing and warmed us up quickly. We romped up a few more rock bands that required some scrambling. We must have looked like cartoon characters or something, being roped together scrambling our way up through the chutes in the bands. After one last exposed ledge, we topped out on Monk’s Cowl. We sat at the top of the hood rock feature, our breaths heaving from the effort it took to get up there. Do you hate me yet? – I asked. I’m not sure if I hate or love you – he joked. We were on the highest free standing peak in South Africa. The day was clear and the views were incredible. We looked down the next valley at Keith’s Bush where we would be meeting the family in a few hours, it seemed so small and far away. We reracked at the top and prepared for the descent – we were only half way through the adventure. But the climb was good, really good and just challenging enough to make it exciting. We hugged and high fived at the top. I realized at his age I hadn’t even begun to climb, let alone climb a technical, alpine route up a peak with a reputation.  I’m not sure if that makes me a sketchy mentor or a good one, but I was really proud of him and appreciative of the partnership we had formed in the last couple of weeks.

We retraced our route around the ledge and did two rappels before making it to the base of the climb. It was around 2 PM and we still had a long descent before the next camp. We hoped it wouldn’t be as bad as the valley we ascended the day before. After a quick snack we repacked our bags and skirted around the base of Monk’s Cowl to the saddle between it and Cathkin peak. Now in the sun, I changed to shorts and a tank, astonished at the crazy temperature fluctuations within the day. We tiptoed across the strewn boulders that filled the valley between the peaks. Soon we spotted two tents in the bush camp, and picked up our pace a bit to meet our company. His dad hiked up a ways to meet us along the trail. He was beaming and said he could see the blue from my windbreaker when we were on the summit. Back at camp we swigged whiskey brought up by his dad, brothers, and their friend. We sat around the stove and told the tale of the climb while couscous cooked and darkness fell. We talked about our love of the mountains and the challenges we’re confronted with on them. The half moon rose and lit up the camp as we crawled into our tents.

D and I decided to head back down with them the next day. We had gotten worked the day before, and met our big goal of climbing Monk’s Cowl. The trek across the valleys to sleep in another cave didn’t motivate us and the forecast called for a headwind that we would be hiking straight in to. The six of us worked our way from Keith’s bush camp back to Blindman’s corner, then down to the sphinx, and back to the car. Gear was shed between everyone so with lighter packs it was less of a slog and more of a romp back down through the berg. Squeezed into the Subaru to drive back to the farm, I felt whole and happy and content. I looked back at each of the summits we had tackled in the last two weeks – we had schemed to climb our brains out before I left, and we sure have.

Til the End

I’ve now got three days left in ZA before I board the plane to head back to the states. It feels surreal and sad. I’m excited for what’s next but I know a piece of my heart will be left in the ‘berg and on this farm. I’ve helped with firebreaks, learned how to ride a dirt bike, gotten close to the family – these guys feel like brothers. I’ve played so hard I’m not sure how the adjustment will be once I’m in quarantine back in the states and ease back into real life.

Since the borders are still closed, I’m delaying my journey to Chile. An opportunity opened up to work at Duke University for 6 months through my advisor from the Kalahari. I decided to take it – recoop from drifting, finish up the van, bank some more cash, prepare to drive, etc. I’ll work in NC from September to March, then hopefully the world will be back to some normality. My job at Duke with entail working on noninvasive genotyping to improve the Amboseli (Kenya) baboon pedigree and working on a new protocol for MinION based genotyping in the field. Both of these projects are in line with what I would like to do in Chile, so this experience will be incredibly valuable. I’m looking forward to doing science stuff again – it was really fun to work with my hands on the farm and work my body running up and down the mountains, now my brain is craving some exercise.

We may make one last effort to climb tomorrow at a sport crag called the Wave Cave. I’ve never tried climbing upside down before, I think I’m too dense for that… or maybe it will send.

One thought on “Mountain Highs and Low Tides

  1. I won’t pretend to understand all the mountain climbing jargon, but I can still enjoy your adventures thru the pictures! Awesome pictures by the way. Still waiting to hear if you will make it home in a few days. Love, Aunt Pat


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