Not shying away – on the face of Hellfire

You don’t visit Hellfire if you feel half-hearted about your climbing. If you don’t believe in yourself, Hellfire will devour all traces of your confidence.

Safety in numbers

The walk-in tells you the story that this territory has survived and flourished despite savage conditions. Looking back across the Du Toit’s Kloof we could see the threatening rain clouds. Those who’d had past experiences of how quickly this solid and smooth sandstone can turn into a suicidal slip-and-slide were not going to hesitate to call it a day or just wait until the rain had moved.

On ‘Wounded warrior’ in the mist [Photo: Anton]

Anton was quick to get started while it was still dry, knowing there are bolts on the top of the first pitch in case we needed to lower ourselves. ‘Wounded warrior’ is always harder than you imagine it might be, even if you use the opposite crag to stem.

Karl suggested we wait a while and watch what the weather had in store for us. This gave me great faith in his leadership and commitment to keeping himself and us safe. I could see that he’d obviously had some past experiences of how quickly a climb can turn into a nightmare, if you don’t pay attention to warning signals from the weather.

Riaan was leading Burning Ambition in a protected overhanging part of the Hellfire crag and had a brainwave to set up a top rope and return to the dry ledge. We all gathered at the sheltered corner. I watched as team members whose usual focus is efficiency – shifted their attention to innovation in order to maximise climbing challenges in the dry zone of the area to which we would be restricted.

Finding the flow on Burning Ambition

Marie’s Hellfire baptism was on Burnout, lead by Riaan. It enticed the usual expletives but just added to her ‘jouies de vivre’! Next Marie took on the never ending Burning Ambition crack, as if it was a fascinating puzzle. She calmly dealt with it, one section at a time. Her consideration toward the other climbers resulted in her taking a break and then completing it with her usual measured and stylish movements that conserve energy and maximise flow.

In complete contrast, I was not trusting pebbles or smears, so in order to find big enough feet for my ‘pantoffels’, I took giant steps that resulted in lots of strain on my fingers and arms.

Riaan ‘takkeling”BlueByYou’ [Photo: Anton]

Riaan was working his new route right next to me. This gave me confidence to start. He was standing on ridiculously small pebbles and using a miniature crack to work his hands up. When I reached the traverse I went right with my arms using high feet to push me in that direction. Riaan pointed out a foot miles away from me and a side-pull that would help. I took a ‘Holy Hellfire’ swing and used half a finger to pull myself out of the splits.

Next up was a traverse into a narrow dassie crawl. What a scary feeling balancing my entire body into that small cavity… what if I slipped and fell head first?

Riaan reminded me of where to go next after he did a mother of a roof above me. I had seen Louis traverse across there and it took some upside down horizontal climbing where one lifts one’s belly close to the crag ceiling in an effort to transfer some of one’s weight to one’s high legs.

I took the easier low route and would’ve struggled had he not pointed out the undercling that would help me balance enough to stand up.

Attempting that overhang with the heel hook was huge victory for me and I delighted in the praise from my fellow climbers who’d all been supporting on the ledge. They knew how much courage it requires for me to face that type of challenge and helped to make it possible by witnessing my determined albeit awkward progress.

On a mission [Photo: Marie]

If one doesn’t venture into uncertainty you cannot change your existing landscape… being stuck has proven more excruciating than starting something uncomfortable – I have learnt that the hard way.

I suspect that the roof Riaan and Louis dealt with, is only frequented by ‘Fallen Angels’, a route in the same vicinity.

Anton played on the run-out face just left of the crack while supporting Marie. After Burning Ambition, Karl went on to Warm Up when the drizzle dried up. He lead with Louis on belay and was surprised to see myself and Marie topping out instead. Riaan and Anton did their usual gymnastics on Burn Out next to us.

Burn out wall in all its glory [photo: Louis]

 What a beautiful way to end a glorious day! Marie summed it up well by saying that ‘God must’ve paused for a day or two when he created the mountains in the Du Toit’s Kloof’. We left the pretty caves and the Black Eagles behind and I was thinking about how savage Hellfire could be and how it’s partly that, that allows it to survive devastating conditions.

Anton the sensei

There are those who go to Hellfire to eradicate alien vegetation… they are the unsung heroes… the real angels of Hellfire!

Touch and Go – ‘What you most fear is what you most need to do’

When you feel like you don’t know whether you are coming or going you probably just need to touch and go!

Double Direct’s starting roof lived up to it’s reputation. Riaan dared me to climb last and stop looking for attention but I shamelessly went in the middle and benefited from being taught about the bucket for a left hand before reaching for that horn above that ‘toilet seat-like’ slab of crag that one needs to jam one’s self into.

You’ve got to love this roof [Photo: Riaan]
Anton had done the acrobatics quite effortlessly on lead… and could probably have managed it in the dark. Riaan did the hard straight-up ‘Quake’ route.

Real trad territory [Photo: Anton]
Next up, was that Touch and Go traverse under the overhang. With a seemingly effortless match of high hands and pull up – Riaan started and aimed for that far right foot pebble which would get him to the rail. With feet smearing along the cavity and one arm dealing with pro, he swung under the roof to the corner. I watched with hyper-focus as his foot felt for that low heel hook around the corner, all while Anton was ensuring no rope crossing etc.

I was following OK until I removed the cam that was protecting my and Anton’s ropes on separate quickdraws. As if it wasn’t hard enough to support my weight on that rail; the cam also decided that it was the perfect time for me to do a dance with it. As I wrestled with the sneaky cam that was wrapping itself around me and my rope; I was also reprimanding myself for removing Anton’s pro and racking my brain to find a way to redeem myself as a team member.

Anton selflessly and firmly mentioned the only logical action that was possible, given that I’d already expended my last drop of strength – ‘forget about the pro and secure yourself first’! Disappointment in self can be more disabling than fear. On the mountain you must be present at all times and accepting one’s mistakes, is step one to deciding what next to do. Correcting an error immediately is not always the best way to be a team player. It should be safety first given immediate risks and then think about the future imaginary ones.

Genuine test [Photo: Anton]
I made it to the corner with Anton reminding me to lower my heel hook just in time. I was relieved that I could clip Anton into a directional at that point! When I looked up for something to assist my ascent – everything looked terribly smooth. I was starting to shake with exertion. Riaan helpfully called ‘leave the cleaning to Anton and go for 1 ‘o clock’… which was all I needed to find the position of a useful jug but my stressed-brain was thinking – where the hell is 1 o’ clock!

Who you gonna call… [Photo: Anton]
I took and then it wasn’t far to get to the anchors, panting like a steam train.

Now I understand what Tony Lourens’ book is referring to when it says ‘This is a genuine test for tradsters who want to take the next step.’ I felt like it had required a giant leap and I was just following.

Anton leading [Photo: Riaan]
Next up was ‘Farewell to Arms’ because according to Riaan it was the fastest way up. I was mesmorised by this awe-inspiring crag that was framed by two overhangs… thinking, this is trad territory at its finest!

I held my breath for Riaan’s lead of this pitch and my parched throat helped me keep my concerns to myself. I watched as Riaan used the slopey, little side-pulls and wide feet. He pointed out the high crimp one must reach up to before the rail. Next, he moved right, like a ninja by cupping his left fingers, so that a slippery looking handle became the jam that allowed him to hoist himself up from a layback smear.

Farewell to Arms at its best [Photo: Anton]

He used body parts to describe what we should look out for on the parts of the route that were invisible to us. My fingers lasted for a fraction of a second on that side pull. I gave the rest of the route one look and decided that a rope climb would be a sensible way to ensure I had something left for the final traverse over the roof.

Anton supported me and Riaan had to ‘take’ while I left him in the dark about my course of action.

I promised myself, I’d train overhangs, laybacks and jams and communicate better next time. Anton managed to maneuver through those two overhangs efficiently and without a hitch.

Finally, I realised the end was near. I saw a luminous yellow rope, speckled with black and wedged in a rail. I remember thinking that nobody would put pro there. Just before I reacted to the thought that it might be a snake, I spotted a leg! The long skinny gecko was more frightened than me. I was the trespasser.

Grateful [Photo: Anton]
It was boiling because of the berg wind, I was fantasizing about water after my challenging climb. The loud whirring sound of the wind through the cables made me so thankful we’d been protected from it around the corner.

My sense of humour returned as I sipped from the strategically placed water bottle, it was a perfect day and I suddenly had nothing to complain about!

It feels possible to accept how far one still needs to go when you’re able to appreciate just how far you have come!

Note: Title quote from Mosswood Hollow by Robert Moss