The First Ascent of South Africa’s Biggest Wall – by Hilton Davies
In the late 1970s the great South African climber Dave Cheesmond had written about the three great and unclimbed amphitheatres of the Cape –Klein Winterhoek Amphitheatre, Upper Milner Amphitheatre and Slanghoek Amphitheatre. Dave was a climbing god to the whole world (well, about twenty of us) and my teenage brothers -David and John -and I were captivated.
Brother David and I had failed in making the first ascent of Klein Winterhoek Amphitheatre in 1980. In a stupendous heatwave we had packed up our nuts, hexes and slings, high up at the great roofs and retreated to await milder conditions and the invention of cams.
The enormous overhanging amphitheatre of Slanghoek –the biggest in South Africa -had repelled some very good teams. Tony Dick, Jonathan Fisher and others had all turned at the same highpoint six pitches up. In May 1998 David, Alan Ross and I had our first crack at the daunting wall. We got to the same highpoint and began to understand the magnitude and the dread.
In 2002 Matthew Sim joined David and I in our quest to get up this huge and improbable cliff that appeared intent on collapsing into its undercut belly. We began by hacking a way through the dense forest and constructing a platform at the base of the wall for a campsite. We pitched a tent and it remained there for a year. Many of our great friends helped by ferrying in loads of gear and supplies.
2002 was a busy year for all of us. David’s business –Mountain Mail Order –kept him on the trot. Matthew and I had our own demands. None of us could afford a spell away, and so the big project was chewed in two-and three-day weekend trips. We would speed out to Slanghoek, charge up the huge approach, jumar fixed ropes, climb new ground, place some bolts and fix new ropes, descend, go home, repeat. It was hard and we had many incidents and accidents. Over the course of the year we made 13 trips to get the job done.
Somewhere along the line Matthew had broken a leg on another mountain and was out for a bit. David and I did a trip where about 15 pitches up we got ourselves into deep space trouble. We had overhanging loose rock, poor gear, and a belay stance that consisted of a handjam. A series of scary manoeuvres and then some tricky abseils off a wire nut here and there got us back to sanity.
Even though there are not that many lead bolts (excluding belay bolts), placing them while on lead using the heavy Hilti TE6 drill was no easy thing. Sometimes a whole trip only achieved one pitch. But that is not how we started. We began with a hand drill kit where the drill bit is a cylinder with teeth, and it is part of the final bolt placement. It was a nightmare. The red and orange Slanghoek rock is immensely hard and one hand-drilled bolt would take a couple of hours of hammering. The purchase of the TE6 was critical to getting up the wall.