A shattered plain of golden boulders rolls out from under the wheels of our 4WD vehicle as they churn up sandy dust. I can sense the eyes of pro climbers James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini scanning the formations for hidden treasure.
The South African sun has only just risen, casting its winter rays onto a landscape dotted with sprays of the indigenous rooibos tea plant — one of around 9,000 plant species found here. Rocklands, in the Western Cape, is as biodiverse as a rainforest.
It’s already a mecca for low-rise climbing (aka bouldering), but James and Caroline are here for a different challenge — to find the hardest trad line in the world.
Trad climbing trades the explosive immediacy of bouldering for the more considered, yet equally hair-raising, thrills of longer-roped climbs, placing your own temporary protection as you go.
“It’s a bit crazy trad climbing here,” says Caroline. “Heavy gear, miles from everywhere, with snakes, long walk-ins and world-class bouldering just by the road.” So why bother?
“What I love about trad climbing,” James says, “is being able to find yourself in what would normally be a very intimidating, scary situation and turn off that side of the brain because the climbing is so intense. If you were to take a step back, you’d ask, ‘God what am I doing here?’ But when you go into the situation and start climbing, you forget everything. It’s you, the rock, the moves, and it’s so totally freeing.”
A surprisingly short distance from the Rocklands bouldering hub of De Pakhuys campsite is the mobile-phone dead zone that is the Moravian Church’s Biedouw Youth Camp. We hike in through knee-high grass and as the ground rises an amazing site appears.
Approximately 1,640ft of unclimbed, overhanging hard sandstone banded with orange and black streaks and dusted with blooms of green, orange and red lichen. It almost looks corroded but it’s an enriching kind of rust that seems to charge the rock as the crag glows in the morning light. Anywhere else in the world this place would be swarming with climbers but it’s as if it’s stranded somewhere in time, long ago.
A flock of starlings wheels and dips under the overhang and it’s quiet enough to hear the wings whirr past. Wisps of white cloud curve across the blue sky, echoing the hunting bows depicted in ancient San people rock paintings nearby. Suddenly a huge, rare black eagle sweeps into view over the edge of the cliff, her large flight feathers feeling for thermals lifting off the sun-struck rock as she scans it for dassies (rock rabbits).
Caro spots an impressive, bold line up an obvious prow of rock that juts out into the face of the sun, like a massive awoken reptile. She abseils off the top to inspect it. The process of finding a line and then seeing if it ‘works’ is like a slow-mo version of a freeride skier or backcountry mountain biker, reading the rock and visualising the moves it will take to ascend. But one hold in the wrong place and the whole thing is rendered impossible. This time-consuming process is the hardest thing about finding new trad lines.
“It’s frustrating and inefficient in terms of routes climbed but this is the place I’ve seen with the most potential,” says James. “Here fits in really well with my style — it’s often bouldery with big moves between horizontal breaks, with good protection. The search itself is rewarding.”
Finding a line
Caroline’s pure, direct line up the prow has a series of blocks separated by horizontal breaks. It entails a series of long, powerful moves using crimps and jams for the hands, as well as heelhooks and “not much else” for the feet.
“The line of The First Dance is just so perfect and really continuous,” she says. “From the moment you set off from the floor you don’t have any resting on ledges or anything. You have gear everywhere so it’s not dangerous but it’s still a bit spicy with some good run-outs.”
The kind of rock that makes good lines is formed by three things — water, gravity and wind. Climbing is a game where you mimic the action of water running down rock, but in reverse. You defy gravity, like a rising wind.
It is, perhaps, this sense of freedom that James and Caroline are chasing as much as anything else. And they’re not blind to its effect on others either. On their first trip to Rocklands last year they saw the impact of the Rocklands Climbing School on local school kids, many of whom live in dire poverty.
Former conflict zone reporter James and Tanya have spent the past four years in Rocklands living off a combination of farming, renting tent pitches and selling homemade soap, made from local olives. He saw first-hand the benefits of the school and now gives up every Saturday to run it after stepping in to prevent it closing. Inspired by this, James and Caroline ran a SPOT and Urban Uprising campaign to buy bouldering mats and equipment to deliver on this return trip.
“We have one kid here who was in in all sorts of trouble with alcohol and petty crime, but climbing saved him from that — and bouldering taught him to fail and try again, so his problem-solving and maths grades are improving too.”
This fits well into the explorer-climber ethos. “You need to enter a route with humility and think it’s going to be hard,” says Caroline. “If you enter a route with too much confidence it shuts you down because you’re not paying enough attention.”
As the orange rock of the Cederberg mountains burns in the mellow fire of the pink and red sunset, James’s ultimate line remains elusive. But the experience of being high up on a headwall, making delicate, fingertip moves on tiny crimps facing a guaranteed 65ft fall is etched into his mind.
“Trad is much more emotional than other types of climbing because you get so involved in the process — and emotional memories are the ones that last,” James says. “What’s beautiful about climbing, and different from a lot of sports, is that you can get the same experience as a professional or as an amateur — we’re ultimately doing the same thing.”
As the muscular aches of the day are smoothed away by the heat of a South African braai (barbecue) and high-altitude Cederberg shiraz, James and Caroline’s search for ‘big climbing game’ seems less like a restless quest and more like spreading the word. Amen to that.