Climbing Trad and Surviving Snort in South Africa

It’s somewhere around midnight, and my headlamp lights up a mess of four ropes at my feet.  We’re on the side of a cliff in the middle-of-nowhere South Africa.  Far in the distance are scattered lights of small villages, but I’m surrounded by darkness.  Nine hundred feet up the wall on a quartzite ledge, I’m mesmerized by the sound of cowbells coming from the jungle below.  It’s almost comforting- the dark night, the bells, the soft glow of my headlamp-  until a shrill, “Uprope!” from my partner interrupts my state of trance.  I look down at the mix of blue, red, orange, and pink nylon.  I feel nauseous.

“I hate double ropes,” I mumble to myself.

I try to focus on my only job at the belay:  pull up on the two ropes through the Reverso in auto-lock mode.  Nadine, also on the belay ledge, pulls in the rest of the slack. Normally belaying is a one-person job, but at this point my biceps had locked up and my ability to think waned.

In my punchy state of exhaustion I laugh to myself, picturing camera men at the top of the cliff, waiting to yell, “Surprise!  This is the last test of ‘Surviving Snort’- America’s next reality TV show.”

I had partnered up on the wall with Jenn Flemming, an American, and Richard, or “Squeaks”- a local South African, and we had gotten off-route.  The blocky, lichen-filled walls are tough to read- there’s not a lick of chalk in this land of adventure- and we needed to backtrack to get to familiar ground.  Numerous rappels later, we linked up with South Africans Nadine and Phlip, who were also lost.

Now, our team of five, with all four ropes, had only three pitches to go. We were right on track.  But our tanks were low.  We had been climbing for fifteen hours and still had quite a few hours to go.  And once we topped out, we still had another two hours of tricky descent ahead of us before reaching the relief of our bivy…unless the reality TV show planned to take us off with a helicopter- a dramatic twist.

We were on the big wall of Blouberg, a 1,000 foot wall in the Limpopo Province of Northern South Africa, about a five hour drive from Johannesburg.  Blouberg means “Blue Mountain” in Afrikaans, named for how the range looks from afar, giving off a soft grey-blue hue.  

But climbing gave us a chance to experience its true colors.  The bold red quartzite, covered in fluorescent green lichen reflected in the harsh sun.  Now, in the middle of the night-  the wall is just dark gray, speckled with tiny patches of white where our headlamps light it up.

Two months ago, Chris and I, along with nine other Americans, were part of a two-week climbing exchange with the Mountain Club of South Africa.  We were hosted by a number of locals as part of a trad-exchange.  They’d show us some of their “off the beaten path” trad zones, with the purpose of roping up with new folks, sharing experiences and new cultures.  Next spring we’ll return the favor- hosting about 10 of  them in select climbing areas of Colorado and Utah.

After 40 hours of travel, Chris, Bruce Miller, Maury Birdwell, Jenn Flemming, and I arrived in Cape Town to meet up with the head organizer of the South African end of our trip, Charles Edelstein.  Madaleine Sorkin, Jessa Goebel, Pat Goodman, Austin Siadak, Dylan Johnson and Andy Wyatt would also be a part of the American group.

When Charles picked us up from the airport, it was clear he had a strong demeanor.  At 5’2″, the 58 year-old orthopedic surgeon, husband, and father of three makes up for his lack of height in personality.

“I’m really good at herding cats,” he kept saying, as he ordered us to put our suitcases there, take a seat here, and listen to the plan.

Organizing a trip like this one is no small task.  There were about 20 of us, and Charles didn’t want this trip to be about convenience climbing.  Charles, or “Snort,” as his friends call him due to a post-nasal drip health issue, wanted to take us to the “bad-ass trad” zones.  In other words, he wanted to take us to areas he proudly did the first ascents of years ago, and still at 58 years old, can burn you off of his climbs.

Our first night at his house, Snort put Chris and I up in his 10 year-old daughters room- she was away at camp. It was supposed to rain the next day, so we were excited to sleep in.  After 40 hours of travel and a 9-hour time change, we were exhausted.

Thud, thud thud!!!  Snort bangs on our door.  I’m startled awake from a deep sleep, but even more shocked as he barges into our room without further warning-  I’m in my underwear halfway under the sheets.

“That’s enough!” Snort announces. “You can sleep when you’re dead! How do you take your coffee?”

“Black please,” Chris and I say meekly in unison.

We feel like we’re little kids again.  Yes, sir.  We’ll get up right away.

Chris rolls over in bed.  He looks at me bewildered.  “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

That morning after our breakfast and coffee we hike up to Table Mountain of Cape Town.  It’s blazing hot.  We watch overhead as cable cars carry tourists up the mountain.

“Hey Snort, can we take the cable car next time?”

Snort looks at us Americans like we are the weeniest people on the planet.  He says it takes too much time waiting in line.  The hike is pleasant.  He never takes the cable car.

We started taking the cable car despite Snort’s wishes, and the climbing was super fun- kind of sporty with horizontal gear placements.  I might just survive this trip.

But our Table Mountain life of leisure had quickly come to an end.  Tomorrow we’d be getting up at 4 am to climb at Yellowwood, a big wall about an hour drive from Cape Town. We had to get up early because by the time noon rolls around it will be blazing in the sun.

Snort said not to bring much water.  It’s a big hike, about 2 hours, and there is plenty of water up there.  He said it’s kind of brown, but completely safe to drink.  It’s stored in barrels and he’s never gotten sick in all the years climbing up there.

This is about the time in the trip that I felt like I was part of a reality TV show- picture Survivor-esque. I couldn’t get this visual out of my head.   Each day that passed was like entering through to the next episode.

As I hiked in the dark to Yellowwood, the TV announcer voice filled my head…

“Who will be the last remaining?  Who will be our American champion? Stay tuned for next time on ‘Surviving Snort.'”

I brought my own water.  I wanted to pass on to the next level.  Sure enough, we lost three Americans just like that- they were out of commission for days with diarrhea and chills.

Animosity started to grow among some of the Americans vs Snort.  Some thought he was truly trying to “burn us off.”  The sandbagging of climbs, hikes, and water was getting to them- not to mention the Napoleon personality.

One American put up a fight, one American left the country.  The drama level increased.  And we still had to climb the burliest wall yet.

“On our next episode of ‘Surviving Snort,’ climbing Blouberg!  Who will pass the biggest test yet?”

We piled on our heavy packs and started hiking to our bivy spot- it would take well into the dark to get there- about a 2.5 hour hike.  We were instructed not to bring tents to keep things inconspicuous.  I am horrified at the idea- do you know how many venomous snakes and spiders live in South Africa?

I get over my panic.  Chris says I’ll be too tired to worry about the creepy crawlies anyways.  He’s right.

We reach our bivy- a big flat rocky area that has cascading running water nearby.  I’m exhausted already.  It’s midnight and we have to wake up at 4 am.

Finally settled in my sleeping bag, I look to my left.  Sure enough, there is a scorpion looking at me from a foot away.  I turn to my right, close my eyes, and pretend I never saw it.

After a short sleep, and another 1.5 hour hike, we finally arrive at the base of Blouberg.  I was getting my harness on at the base of the wall and watched as one of the other South Africans, Jean-Paul, started up his first pitch.  He had one piece of gear placed and was about 15 feet off the ground.  He suddenly hesitated, and to my horror he fell, ripped his gear, and tumbled backward into some brush.  It was awful.  I’d never watched someone deck.

Thankfully Jean-Paul was fine, but sprained his ankle badly.  He ended up hiking back without a peep.  South Africans are tough.

The climbing was brilliant- both challenging and adventurous, but about halfway up the wall, I was stopped in my tracks.  I heard a deafening buzz.  Thousands of Africanized bees swarmed in a cyclone next to us.  For a moment I thought, “so this is how I die.” After what felt like an eternity- the buzzing diminished and the peaceful clank of the cowbells returned.

Hours passed quickly on the big wall, until pitch seven when we realized we were lost.  Suddenly we knew we’d be climbing all night, and that’s when time slowed to a painful degree- it felt like we were never going to be done climbing.  The only solace was being in an optimistic group of five, where we could help each other out- even with belaying.

We finally topped out Blouberg about 2am, and were back at our bivy at 4am.  Nadine had stashed some whiskey and we all passed around the bottle.  A swig or two later and we had all crashed in our sleeping bags.

And as for Snort?  He just laughed.  Predictably, he got a kick out of our epic.

But I survived…this American moved on to the next level.  Thanks for tuning in…until next time on “Surviving Snort!”

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The infamous “Snort,” aka Charles Edelstein front and center for coffee time with fellow South Africans Allister and Jimbo.

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The big wall of Blouberg

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Almost there…  PC:  Jenn Flemming

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Questioning the double rope shenanigans at Blouberg.  PC:  Jenn Flemming

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Questing…PC:  Jenn Flemming

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Pooped after a long day at Yellowwood.  PC:  Allister Fenton

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Phlip and the creepy crawlies.  PC:  Damien Schumann

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Jean-Paul getting treated by the Doctor, “Snort.”  PC:  Damien Schumann

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All smiles at Table Mountain  PC:  Nadine Methner

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Beginning the hike to Blouberg from the small village.  PC:  Damien Schumann

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More hiking through the night with the whole crew.  PC:  Damien Schumann

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We survived!  PC:  Damien Schumann

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South Africans and Americans together in Magaliesburg.  PC:  Damien Schumann

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