Climbing in the 80s
There were no climbing specialists in the 1980s. If you considered yourself a climber you aspired to climb everything. Cracks, faces, dihedrals (corners) and arêtes. Hard trad lines at the local crag and big walls were all on the menu – all training to one day bash your way to the summit of a snow-covered alpine peak. You trained on buildings or stone-retaining walls and when winter arrived you donned man-sized packs, bristling with sharp spikey objects and walked for ten hours up the Loteni Valley in the Drakensberg to climb ice.
This was the climbing world that I was inducted into. It was hugely exciting as it was considered an exotic fringe undertaking that was by its nature both varied and a little dangerous. The gear and the standards were advancing at a whipping pace. Every year there were new products and every six months you seemed to climb the hardest grade ever envisaged by man … You trained and dreamed about climbing with the elite of the time, with both eyes on the goal – to one day climb grade 23. In my case it was the two Umhlabatini classics in the Magaliesberg, Crystal Fire and Egowhip. I eventually climbed both but not without bending the stem of a Friend 1.5 on Crystal Fire and, I kid you not, protecting the top crux on Egowhip with the cord from my chalk bag.
Ethics and style ruled the way you climbed. Ground up was everything. Once at Monteseel I was lambasted for running round to the top of the crag to lie on my stomach and leer over the edge to check out just how bad the final sloper on Tears of a Clown was. I kept a journal with carefully drawn topos that indicated what gear went where. To this day I can tell you what gear you will need on some of those period testpieces. Once you fell your belayer wasted no time in lowering you down to the ground. No hanging around or scoping allowed. You were, however, allowed to leave your ropes clipped through your gear. At the end of the day, if you were unsuccessful, you left your ropes at your highpoint overnight. It was such a battle to inch your way up uncharted and unprotected ground that on occasion I even left them up for the week between weekends.
It was always exciting to walk into the crag and see your ropes as a visual testament to the progress with your endeavor. Yes the goal was to get up the route but there was a more important subplot – how many falls did you take. This was how we measured ourselves against our peers. Newsletters reported how often you crashed to the end of the rope. White Rider (the first 26 in SA) even had a tree at the base with the initials of Andrew de Klerk, Kevin Smith and Steve Bradshaw plus their fall counts carved into it. If there was no tree you simply scratched your count into the wall. Bolts were uncool but graffiti acceptable – weird.
We were pushing the boundaries on trad from the ground up. It was pretty scary and not without danger. My partner Mike Cartwright once took three ground falls in three consecutive weekends. With eyes bulging and forearms screaming you would fiddle in dodgy wires and scream ‘TAKE!’, and as the rope pulled tight you would shield your face with your arms. Inevitably the fear-fuelled hopeless placement would fail and the biner, bristling with nuts with frayed cables would catapult at you and lacerate your face. We bled quite a bit and a fractured ankle in those days seemed like a rite of passage.
I don’t know how we even got off the ground considering the weight of the gear. Steel biners, Hexes and T-Chocks (known as Vulture Killers) hung from a bandolier draped over your shoulder (i.e., round your neck). As soon as the routes got overhanging all this gear would swing behind your back making it impossible to find anything in a hurry and with trad climbing you were always in a hurry. This all added to the drama, risk and the sense of occasion.
EBs were my first pair of climbing shoes. They were clad in super-hard rubber that may have originated from conveyer belts. I remember the excitement of my first pair of Boreals – with their all-new sticky rubber – arriving. My Mom bought them in Europe and sized then as a Mom would. I had to wear thick red ‘Berg’ socks to get them to fit. That made an interesting fashion statement as neon-coloured lycra was also the order of the day. And oh did that lycra feel so good on your skin … My favourite pair of lycras had a babe in a bikini down my right leg. I used to rub her butt for luck when things got sketchy. My mates knew it was a tough lead when I arrived back on the ground with chalk all over her derrière.
We read Mountain magazine from cover to cover. Bolts were drilled by hand and it took one day per bolt in the Magaliesberg quartzite. I open the first route in the then Transvaal that had two bolts. It seemed so extravagant. We had no sewn quick draws either. All our slings were fashioned from knotted webbing. This seemed uncool to me when looking at the glossy photos of my heroes in Mountain magazine. I needed glam equipment – so I hand sewed my own draws. Amazingly they held numerous falls.
The routes back then had an aura about them, with grand names such as Canyons of Oblivion, Dive Bomber, Glory Road or Wall of Silence. Strong names that filled you with a sense of awe. A good name was enough to instill fear in any up-and-coming upstart. And upstarts we were … It was quite a privilege to have a goal to be the best. Anyone could succeed with such a lofty ambition. You just had to believe and go for it. Not like today when you have to train like a machine and have a genetic edge. We led a charmed youth – charging around with long hair, headbands and luminescent tights – champions of our world. This kind of happiness will never again come so easily.