Alone in another world - an ascent of the spectacular ‘A Private Universe’

Words: Garrreth Bird ǀ Photos: Garrreth Bird & Leonard le Roux

Blood pumps thickly through our veins as we balance and thrust our way up the viciously loose boulder field below the base of the wall. In the cavernous silence of this place you can hear the thud of it passing by your ears. We emerge from the dark ravine, where we spent the night, to find ourselves facing a gigantic buttress of bright orange overhanging rock, folded back on itself until it almost touches again: the Western Cape’s Slanghoek Amphitheatre.

Photo credit: Garrreth Bird & Leonard le Roux

I am here with Leo, my climbing partner, a strapping lad in his mid 20s. I am 15 years older than him, but that seems to be a very small difference between us, sharing as we do a temperament, sense of humour, and an unbridled enthusiasm for exploring high and wild places.

We are not the best climbers around, but our general fitness, mutual respect, and love of the game gives our pairing a solid grounding in difficult situations. Each outing together has advanced our symbiosis, and as I stare up at our looming objective, it’s comforting to know that I implicitly trust the person who will watch over the other side of my rope.

The wall’s magnetism has diverted my concentration just as the ground shifts beneath my feet. A big, sharp boulder suddenly ripples in the stack, then stabs sideways into my ankle. Thankfully, it just nicks me. I am reminded that someone had to be rescued from this forbidding venue a few years back after being trapped under just such a boulder. The rescue involved a big chopper, which at one stage descended into this cauldron to deposit those who came to help. The very idea sends a shiver down my spine. It is now just our minds and bodies in a fight against gravity, in a place where one does not easily recover from mistakes.

Excitement now firmly tempered with trepidation, at last we dump our bags at the base of the wall. We must carry everything up with us as we hope not to come back this way: climbing gear, sleeping bags, food, a stove, and 14 litres of water, enough for two days on the wall with a little to spare. This wall did not yield easily to the attentions of those bent on its first ascent. After many attempts by various legends of the South African climbing scene, each petering out midway up the cliff, brothers David and Hilton Davies, along with Mathew Sim eventually committed to the idea, leaving a tent and gear at the base for almost a year before a route through the roofs finally offered itself up in late 2002. Their familiarity with the place must account for the complacency of the route guide, which doesn’t seem to match what we now see in front of us. Things don’t start well. The first three pitches are vegetated and uncertain, and as I head up an unexpectedly tricky grove, pulling out reeds and moss to try and gain better purchase, I realise that I'm off the route.

Everything is loose and slippery and there isn’t much gear. The tiny nuts I wiggle in seem like psychological protection, a fact confirmed when one of them pops out and rattles a long way down the rope to rest at my previous gear. I am now facing a long, potentially damaging fall, and it all feels a little desperate for first thing in the morning. I gather my nerves and push through, treating the creaking holds as little time bombs, to be handled with kid gloves.

A landmark or two gets us back on the route and as the wall steepens the vegetation disappears and rock improves. The route guide, however, still seems to have a mind of its own: move left at the roof along a rail, then up. Errr … ok. Above the rail is a bulge of rock jutting out over exposed ground, a perfect crack formed between it and the wall. As I move up it, it's smooth and steep. Counterbalancing off little nicks in the crack’s façade delivers incredible climbing. The bulge is undercut and even at this relatively low altitude, the exposure is omnipresent. The angle mellows as I crest the crack system, heading out into wildly hanging rock. I feel like I’m floating as I warble down to Leo about how awesome the climbing is.

Analysing the way forward, the rock is smooth and bullet hard, but all the seams close out, making it very hard to climb, let alone protect. Man, that is really awesome … but I ain’t going out there! I call down to Leo, "Where the hell are we? Hallelujah!" The struggles of the route pioneers spring back into mind.
Once again we interrogate the route guide, perturbed by how little there is available to be semantic about. The line probably continues along the lower rail instead, so I reverse the crack, a little spicy heading down, and then continue out left to easier ground.

Photo credit: Garrreth Bird & Leonard le Roux

At the stance, I set about hauling up the bag to my ledge. As Leo starts up to join me, I shout down how sad I am that he won’t get to climb that beautiful feature, but then I check myself. What is one little ripple in this ocean of rock? We aren’t even a third of the way up yet, and looking at the roofs just above me I see that it’s time for the gloves to come off.

It is late afternoon as we complete the exposed traverse that leads to a comfortable ledge and our home for the night. With the height gained, we can now see the farmlands that stretch out beyond. In the beautiful glow of last light we feel blessed to be spending time in a place as incredibly unique as is this. My bed is narrow, with only a small, loose boulder between me and the precipitous drop below, but the ledge is relatively smooth and I feel surprisingly comfortable as I climb into my bivy bag. I still wear my harness and I'm still tied to the wall, just in case I decide to do a little more rolling around in the dark than might be considered best for my health.

My alarm beeps in the gloom. The back of my shoulders and arms bite at me as I move them, a love letter from yesterday's hauling routine. Gingerly, we brew coffee and eat breakfast.

Having acclimatised to the wall somewhat we are now raring to go, and having used a fair bit of water on supper and breakfast the bag should be easier on us today.

The next three pitches are good quality. We use a few points of aid to overcome serious difficulty: a short blank seam and then a bulging off-width roof crack, but otherwise the climbing is stellar and surprisingly mild considering the angle of the wall. We keep up a steady pace as we negotiate the upper sections of the cliff, our minds and bodies focused by the drop in temperature, courtesy of the swirls of cloud slithering down from above.

'A Private Universe' is a brilliant name for a route in this place. Not only is the whole wall secluded from the rest of the world but the size of it, and the silence of its volume, allows one to roam within oneself as you slowly navigate its domain.

You become accustomed to the hundreds of empty metres below. By now, the dinky architecture of the enclosed base of the wall half a kilometre away seems like a trick on the eye. But then you might follow the rope down to make sure it doesn't catch on anything. BOOM, suddenly the chasm jolts something ancient within you and your instincts scold the part of you that allowed you to assume a position as precarious as this. Ho–ly–shee–ut, that’s a long way down!

Stepping outside myself again, I squint up into the light. The unsettled sky is cloudy and bright as I try to watch Leo, as he leads somewhere just out of my line of sight. The tag line he trails momentarily catches on something and like a slow-motion replay, I witness a black football-sized rock emerge from the white. As it hurtles down towards me I take action without conscious thought, swinging on the slings of my hanging belay to make myself flush with the face.

The air throbs as the rock hurtles harmlessly by me, with about a metre to spare. That was pretty close! And it was big enough to do serious damage. There is no use in making a big deal of it, but I take it as yet another reminder that you are only successful on an outing once safely back at home. As always in the mountains, steady concentration and a lack of ego is the best defense against the unpredictable dangers that may lie in store.

As I lead off on the final pitch, our conversation becomes a little incoherent as we channel our fatigue into laughter. Soon we clamber wearily out of the cauldron, escaping the sucking void to become reacquainted with our long lost friend: solid ground.

We both feel a sense of great accomplishment at having safely ascended so magnificent a feature. Our euphoria is tinged with an undeniable feeling of sadness that such an intense adventure has begun to wind down. As the wind whips at our scuffed skin, we are thirsty, hungry and cold, but ordinary life suddenly seems to pale in comparison with the adventure of the past 30 hours in this amazing place.

The route guide’s description of the way down sets us adrift and we do our best to decipher the line as we slide and scuttle through the ragged gorges of yet another awesome Western Cape mountainside. We ponder the possibility of being caught out by darkness as clouds darken the steep valley sides, but eventually we drop down from the final ridge line to safely reconnect with the vegetated river course. We arrive back at our car just as the light begins to fade. Having just enjoyed a well-deserved sip of beer from the first pub we passed on the way home, we hear the sound of rain on the solid thatch roof.

We did well, but luck was also on our side. We give thanks to the universe, both inside and out.