Sunday, December 19, 1993

A long way up

Woke up at 04:00 so that we could get a really early start on the day, we're not the fastest climbers so we are going to need all the time we could get. The descent down from Mponjwane cave to the nek between Mponjwane and the escarpment and then further on down to where we would start the climb was pretty easy and passed without incident. We were intending on following the route pioneered by George Thomsen in 1947 but as usual the route map and what one actually finds on a mountain leaves a lot to be desired. The route guide said 'water worn gullies' which we found quite easily and took a deep breath as we started what would undoubtedly be the most arduous climb we had attempted to date. All three of us were quite close in climbing ability although Rob was undoubtedly the strongest physically. I might have had a small edge on climbing ability but it was a 'might' and definitely not a given.

I led the first pitch up the water worn gullies and then Rob and I took it in turns to lead thereafter, pitch by pitch and there were an awful lot of them. The climb is quite nice because it alternates shorter more difficult climbs with relatively easy steep scrambles.
The route guide mentioned an awkward chimney which really was awkward but it was nice to know that we were still on the route. Losing the route is one of the difficulties in climbing that can get one into all sorts of dire straits and it was one of the factors which we were very aware of. Rob managed to get a hold with one hand and then levered himself up and over where after Tim and I both struggled up leaving us wondering how Rob had done it.
Traversing around the corner of the mountain on a sloping slab with undercut handholds was interesting and our first taste of real exposure. If one looked between one's your legs as one traversed the sloping rock there was absolutely nothing for close on 1000m straight down. Fortunately none of us suffer from a fear of heights as this would not have been a good time to suddenly find that one suffers from vertigo. Shortly after this a rainstorm blew over us and besides the rain there was a bit of hail so we took the opportunity to have a bite to eat in a shallow overhang.

It was about 13:00 by now and we were becoming a little concerned about the time since we were hoping to have summited by 14:00 and we clearly weren't going to do that and it was going to be a lot of pitches of abseiling to get off the peak. Fortunately it only really got dark after 19:00 so we decided to push on, we'd come this far and the summit felt like it was so close. I clearly remember watching Tim pick his way carefully up a grassy slope which really looked like a simple scramble and fretting about the time. We reached the last chimney which I led up and onto the summit. I have to admit that I didn't climb the pitch cleanly, at one point there was a very conveniently placed piece of protection left behind by a previous climber which I used. Not very ethical but what the hell, now wasn't the time to start worrying about ethics. By the time we had arrived at the summit it was 16:00 and a scant 20 minutes later we were on the descent after signing the climbers register under the cairn on the peak. Quite awesome views from the top, it really feels like one is on the top of the world. All that work for a mere 20 minutes on top but there was a real sense of accomplishment, now all we had to do was get back down.

The first abseil was from a large chock stone which must have been used by just about every climber, there must have been at least 20 slings of varying ages left behind. We used our own sling as a backup and used about 5 of the existing slings to check the strength of the purchase before we were off and on our way down. I don't know what it is about wet rope but they just don't behave very well when abseiling, they tend to tie themselves in knots and get caught on everything so we spent a lot of time retrieving rope and unknotting them. Within the first couple of abseils the rope had caught itself really badly around a chock stone and I had to climb back up the 9 or so metres to untangle it. I remember quite clearly getting to the chock stone and marvelling at how the rope had fallen. If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed that a rope could tangle itself up like it had. I untied the rope and then down climbed back to the stance. It was about 18:30 and we were still very high up on the mountain with a long, long way to go and climbing in the dark slows things right down and we were already very slow.

We had had sporadic showers with a small amount of hail all day but nothing really worrisome, the showers were gone almost as quickly as they came but after nightfall the weather took a definite turn for the worse and at one stage we considered stopping and weathering the night out and continuing in the morning but since we were already drenched and freezing we decided to carry on worried that we could develop hypothermia, especially since there really wasn't any shelter for us to use to even partially get out of the weather in. Tim and Rob cope much better with cold than I do, my teeth were chattering away as fresh storms lashed us and the thunder and lightening rolled around the peak. At the one stance a gust of wind struck just as I finished my abseil and blew me right off my feet and out off the ledge and into the dark void before the pendulum formed by the rope swung me back in and I regained the stance. Tricky stuff so we made absolutely sure we were roped in to protection at all times.

Some time later we had all finished yet another abseil and tied ourselves into a chock stone about the size of a small football when yet again, the rope caught somewhere in the darkness above us. There was no choice but to go up and fetch it, I was starting to fade and I'm not sure what condition Tim was in after 18 hours of continuous climbing. Rob was also pretty wasted but I think in the best condition of the three of us so it was up to him. It might have been his turn in any case so off he went climbing carefully upwards in the darkness hoping that the cliff was climbable. As it turned out, it was and we heard Rob calling from above in between the howls and sighs of the wind. He was worried about the purchase from which he was going to abseil and asked us to test it with our weight which we did and it held firm. Just as Rob was about to start the abseil I had a very bad premonition, as I think did Tim, and quickly tied the rope Rob was abseiling down into my harness. There was so little rope to tie the knot with that it barely deserved to be called a knot and we were still actually tying the knot when Rob said he was starting and at this point things went spectacularly awry.

The next thing we heard was an “I'm falling, aaaaargh”, thump and then both of us were pulled along the ledge towards the edge by the flying Rob. One moment we were both trying to burrow into the crack where the chock stone was to avoid Robs boots (size 14) and any odd boulders and the next we were flat on the ledge pinned under the rope. It happened so fast, it was like a train tried to pull us off the cliff.

No sounds from anyone as I'm sure all of us were thinking “Oh %&*, this is it!”, they say that your life flashes before you but it didn't for me nor for Rob. We must have been a little disorientated because Tim and I were discussing whether Rob was above or below us and after a couple of unanswered calls to Rob in the darkness we were starting to wonder whether this really was the end. Then a moan floated up out of the darkness but we couldn't tell it it was above or below but a moan is a moan and it means that he was alive at least and after a few more moans and an coherent “I'm below you” some hope started to return. The feeling that one of your close friends has just died is something one can only experience, not imagine. Our predicament was that Robs weight was pinning us both to the ground and had given Tim quite a nasty rope burn which we only found later. I had escaped with absolutely no injuries whatsoever.

After a bit of time while Rob thrashed around and tried to assess what was wrong with him and shouting up that he thought his femur was broken he found that he was in a cave of sorts. How on earth he managed to fall into a cave was, and still is, beyond me but he had ended up lying about 30mm above the floor of the cave so he manoeuvred himself as far into the cave as he could and untied himself, no easy feat, and dropped onto the cave floor. He had managed to take a 44m fall, the full length of the rope from 22m above our stance to 22m below our stance. To put this into perspective, it's like jumping off a 15 storey building and free falling all the way to the ground where the rope stops you. It is nothing like a 44m bungee jump at all.
We were in a bit of a muddle above Rob with the ropes in total spaghetti mode. Tim got right out of his harness in order to firstly talk to Rob and secondly to help with unravelling the spaghetti. After what seemed an age we were ready to go again and abseiled over the edge dreading what we would find in the cave somewhere down below us. We talked and shouted to Rob as we went down letting his voice guide us in to where he was lying. I think Tim went down first and stood on the one and only foothold next to the cave while I came down. The cave was about 10m above the next stance so we couldn't hang around outside the cave for very long before we had to decide what to do.

It didn't take us long to realise that we couldn't leave someone with Rob even though that is what we wanted and should've done according to the books we had all read. In order to get help, someone was going to have to walk all the way to the Isandlwana Police Station, this being in the days before cell phones, and someone else was going to have to climb back up to Rob with food, warm clothing and what medical kit we had. We decided that since Tim can easily outpace me, him being about 4/5ths legs that he would go for help and I would return to Rob as soon as possible.

Rob wasn't too happy with this but since he was the one with the broken femur, hands and missing teeth and a headache from hell to boot, he wasn't the one to be calling the shots at that particular moment in time. We left Rob, this lonely voice in the darkness and continued our descent and to make things just a little bit worse, our petzl headlamps started to fail so we were climbing almost totally in the dark.

It felt terrible leaving a friend knowing that this could very well be the last time that either of us speak to him. I think it was at this stage that Rob confessed that he had proposed to Vivette the previous evening and that we were to tell her that he loved her. What a way to spend what should be a highlight in one's life.

No comments: