What happens when a crew of top climbers travels halfway around the world to visit the boulders of South Africa’s famed Rocklands? Read on. …
‘If Salvador Dali and Dr. Seuss got together to make a bouldering area, it would look something like this,’ I think as I caress a wild, extruding chickenhead. Suddenly, from around the edge of a sandstone block, a huge baboon leaps into view, lets loose a soul-shattering scream, and then dynos 15 feet up and sideways to the lip of an exposed roof. Hanging from one hand over a death fall, it shakes a fist in our direction, and then mantles out of view. I’ve just witnessed a V17 dyno.
Welcome to the Rocklands, the internationally famous, world-class bouldering destination that most Americans have heard of, but few have visited. This could very well be the world’s best — and biggest — bouldering area. It is but a miniscule chunk of the greater Cederberg mountain range, which stretches along the western coast of South Africa for nearly 50 miles and is strewn with bullet-hard sandstone blocks for its entire length. It is a land of infinite bouldering possibilities — a land of orange groves, Rooibos tea, and Pinotage vineyards, where you’ll find a grape that grows only in South Africa. When I was invited to spend two months here, in the summer of 2006, with a crew of North America’s best boulderers, I just couldn’t say no.
I arrive solo, a week later than the rest of the crew. In a daze, I navigate my rattly beater of a rental car (the “White Lightning,” or the “Mazdaratti” as one friend comes to call it) through hectic Capetown traffic. I wheeze and putt my way to our converted farmhouse rental and am greeted by the “full two-month commitment” posse: Andy Raether, filmmaker Chuck Fryberger, cook and soundman Andy Mann, and photographer Keith Ladzinski. Lisa Rands (with her husband, Wills Young) and Daniel Woods are to arrive a few weeks later, along with the talented boulderers Sarah Marvez and Steph Foster. The next day I wander, developing an immediate infatuation with the stone. The rock is a vibrant orange with aesthetic gray and black streaks, and through the magic of erosion forms totally bugged-out chickenheads, laser-cut arêtes, wave-like overhangs, surprisingly solid wafer-thin flakes, and natural arches. The texture is friendly, and the moves gymnastic and unique. Best of all, while I had heard much about the V-impossibles developed by the likes of Fred Nicole, Klem Loskot, and Bernd Zangerl, I find that for every V13 there are a hundred V3s. I will happily spend entire days climbing V0s and doing moderate highballs. Though many climbers stay in the local campground, we opt for a roof over our heads, and by the sheer randomness of good fortune end up at the Travelers Rest. With tips from the friendly and knowledgeable caretaker, Lafranz, and his charming wife, Morayca, and an invaluable 4WD tour, we discover one of the best, most concentrated areas in the Rocklands — the Sassies, named after our vacation rental. We spend more than two weeks here, at the back of the huge Strauss Farm, picking plums left and right. We even show it to Nicole, who puts up a new V14 — in a day. Soon, word has spread to the campground, and in a matter of weeks the area has more than a hundred problems. This is not a puritan’s pursuit, however — some evenings the wine flows freely, and often we don’t reach the boulders until noon. I rally the White Lightning hard, practicing e-brake slides and other stunt maneuvers on the dirt roads that snake through the Rocklands. Indeed, good times are plentiful. On one rest day we roll over to nearby Lamberts Bay and just stare at the ocean. Another time, we visit a game reserve and go into the cage with a baby lion. We explore rock-art sites and generally enjoy ourselves. And we boulder — a lot.
I haven’t met Daniel prior to the trip and am a little dubious about hanging out with a 17-year-old, but he ends up as my partner in crime. I’d like to say that the maturity of my 30 years rubs off on him, but, actually, Daniel brings out the mischievous, shit-talking teenage bastard in me. As a climber, though, Daniel is well beyond his years — talented enough that strongmen like Andy and Chuck hold his abilities in high esteem. Watching Daniel crank the V13 Armed Response in three tries is impressive; seeing him bust one-arm pull-ups off the matchstick-sized doorjamb in our rental house is mind blowing. One evening, Daniel and I sit on a boulder, watching the sun crawl below the horizon, when the conversation turns to climbing. I wonder what makes Daniel tick. Sure, his fingers are phenomenally strong and he can recover overnight from the most heinous of bouldering sessions, but something beyond these attributes gives Daniel his edge. It is his passion. “When I get on a problem, everything else just disappears,” says Daniel. “And for that moment, I put all of my heart and soul into the moves.” Passion — it’s what makes everyone on this trip so strong and it’s what gets me out of bed and on the rocks even if I’m sick or having a bad day. I feel a wave of energy rush through me. “I am so psyched to climb tomorrow,” I say as I stare at my fingers, seeing them as if for the first time. “Yeah, me too,” says Daniel. “We’re going to rage!”
Lisa climbs harder than most women — and men. With gritstone ticks up to E8 (R-rated 5.12+/5.13-) and boulder problems up to V12, she has become a climbing icon, but you wouldn’t get that impression from meeting her. Lisa is a humble, friendly, and refreshingly eccentric person who has not let fame and success go to her head. In the Rocklands, she is every bit as concerned with my projects as her own, doling out crucial advice on focus, technique, and breathing. And I’m all ears, because Lisa has honed the mind-body-spirit package. Her technique is excellent, her fingers are stronger than bat hooks, her core strength is that of a gymnast, and her passion runs deep. Sometimes, though, it takes a moment to decipher what she’s saying. She spends several months in England each year with her husband, Wills, and, as a result, speaks in an oddball So-Cal/British patois. “That’s a minging crimp,” she’ll say, or, “I almost had a whitey up there,” or, “That problem is well-hard.” One well-hard Lisa tick has to be her first ascent of Pinotage, a perfect V11 highball and perhaps the best line at the Sassies. Pinotage climbs ultra-thin crimps to a dynamic finish on the proudest face of the showpiece Ongo Boulder, in the heart of the boulder field. Still, for all her composure on this mighty FA, she’s petrified of riding in the Lightning. In fact, she probably expends more adrenaline white-knuckling to the boulders with me than headpointing fearsome gritstone routes.
Raether mid-crux on Nutsa (V12).Photo by Keith Ladzinski
It would be hard to talk about the best American sport climbers without bringing up Andy. He’s motivated, talented, sick strong, and obsessed. When not climbing, Andy fondles anything that resembles a climbing hold (e.g., doorjambs, raw potatoes, lampshades, etc.). As our bouldering adventures progress, I watch Andy religiously log every problem he climbs, from V0 to V13. Often, after a day of climbing, Andy administers electrotherapy to his guns to aid recovery or spends a half-hour working his Gripmaster training device “to get ready for routes.” Another peculiar habit of Andy’s is his hand-massage routine, which involves briskly rubbing his knuckles together, and then interlinking them to massage his thrashed tendons. This ritual gives him the look of a twitchy methhead, but, according to Andy, “At least my fingers are healthy.”
A group shot at dusk.Photo by Keith Ladzinski
My first day there, out at the Roadside Boulders, I catch Andy shoeing up for his project of the morning. “What are you working on?” I ask. “I think it’s called Nutsa,” says Andy. “Nutsack?” I ask, feigning shock. “No, Nutsa — it’s like V12 or something.” “Wow, what a weird name — Nutsack,” I reply, continuing with the joke. “It does kind of look like a nutsack, now that you mention it,” he responds with a thoughtful look. Andy takes his climbing seriously, but at heart he’s a goofball joker, like the rest of us. And so, we set the bar nice and low, where it will remain for the rest of the trip.
Contributing Editor Cedar Wright has traveled to Africa, Baffin Island, India, Nepal, Spain, and South America to climb the big stones. After his recent trip to the Rocklands, he’s become a devout boulderer, as well.