Unshifting our Paradigm

Stormed and Stoned off of Paradigm Shift
July 30, 2023

Inevitably time with Tristan includes at least one discussion about climbing gear, or a story-for-the-campfire.

Now I have only been climbing two-odd years so its not that I can write about fifteen years of hard climbing and have gear related opinions with tht, but as my climbing friends will happily remind me: I am an exciting climber to watch. I wish they meant that in a Chris Sharma kind of way, but they don’t. They mean it in a watch-watch-he’s-about-to-whip-again kind of way and so rather than getting to write about how sticky the shoe rubber is, I get to regale more upside-down antics on a rope, and so it is lucky for you, dear reader, that the day that was about to unfold as Tristan and I walked into the Drakensberg was going to get interesting.

Our plan was an easy hour of hiking from the parking lot to the base of Sentinel, then climb Paradigm Shift: the bolted 6 pitch climb on the north face that goes at a reasonable-sounding SA grade 22, abseil back down and hike back to the parking lot in time to make dinner. In theory all we needed was fourteen quick draws, two 50m ropes and a little mental fortitude to deal with a route that has a reputation for scaring gentle folk despite being well bolted.

The day started out well enough with a good breakfast and clear blue skies. Tristan noted a front gathering in the distance, but it seemed doubtful it would reach us in time to affect the day’s climbing. We hiked in at an easy pace and as we got to the base of the climb we watched in amusement as a troop of baboons barked at us for a few moments before casually soloing the crack immediately to the right of our route. We sorted out gear, hung our backpacks from the 1st bolt and Tristan started up the 1st pitch with me on belay. A little while later I was enjoying the peace of the mountains when a stone clicked down next to me, so I moved a little to the side to get out of the obvious fall line. A few second later another stone pinged off my helmet. I looked up just in time to see a rock whistle past a few meters to my right and hear Tristan shout, “%#$^ baboons are throwing rocks at us.”  Being under attack from above certainly sped up Tristan’s rate of ascent and a few moments later he was at the chains, and I followed him up to the belay stance while rocks continued to come flying past at regular intervals.

The baboons were clearly unsatisfied with the results of their first barrage and as we huddled at the belay stance looking nervously upwards we heard a whining sound from above that would have had an Afgani farmer running for the nearest cave. Moments later a head-sized boulder flashed past us and thudded into the ground below with an impact that would have shattered both helmet and head effortlessly. We decided it was time to get out of the line of fire, and I headed up the 2nd pitch while Tristan peered out from beneath the small backpack he had hung above his head as defense against further baboon missile launches.

The crux on pitch 2 is a very awkward open-book crack into a roof. After clipping another ‘draw I summoned my courage and started working my feet up on smears until I could reach over the roof. Desperately hoping to find a jug, I instead found an ugly rounded side-pull for my right hand and an even more awful sloping pinch for my left. Taking a moment to look down at the draw which was now some way beneath my feet, I shouted to Tristan: “This is heinous, watch me!” and started to stand up on the smears for a long reach through to what seemed a good hold. I didn’t get to find out how good the hold was as my foot popped off the smear and I found my self dangling back under the roof.

The second attempt was more successful and some climbing later I got to what I really, really hoped was the last bolt as I was all but out of draws. Getting to the bolt involved an intimidating mantle with feet above my last clip onto a small ledge, then balancing up to stand and clip the bolt. Whew! From there I took the obvious line upwards before reaching some easy ledges that were more scrambling than climbing, but disturbingly no chains were to be found! I scrambled a little higher, getting increasingly nervous by what was now a good five meters since I clipped a bolt, and finally decided that I had to have missed the chains. I scouted left and right before eventually spotting the chains about three meters below and to the left. Some careful down climbing and I was very relieved to establish the belay stance.

Tristan followed me up and we were pleased to note that the baboons had descended to the base of the cliff, but we were less pleased to note that the weather had changed considerably, and we were now surrounded by mist. To make matters worse, funny icicle things were floating down around us. Tristan put it quite succinctly: “fuck dude, it’s snowing!”

The weather still seemed relatively stable and the snow was more a source of entertainment than hindrance, so Tristan headed up the 3rd pitch. Apart from a few key holds coming in the form of tufts of grass, he dispatched it with little effort and soon I was following him up. My own ascent was going well until I got to the crux and lay’d back against a jug to reach the grass-tuft-holds, but the jug - which by all appearance was part of the mountain - decided that it chose freedom and detached itself from said mountain. I ended up hanging upside down from the rope, which proved an interesting angle from which to watch the large block I had just dislodged accelerate to the grass far below. Some will see it as good news, others as bad, but there is now a small sit-down rest mid-crux on the 3rd pitch. I think the pitch may be a little easier now.

By the time I started the 4th pitch it was snowing fairly hard but we were keen to press on. The 4th pitch starts off on thin holds, most of which crumbled to still smaller hold if I, actually, hauled on them. Some balance-y climbing took me to another tricky mantle onto a ledge and I was horrified to discover that the ledge and everything above it was dripping wet! The climbing that remained to the chains was an exposed and run-out traverse of on small feet followed by 3 or 4 bolts of friction climbing through to the chains.

The traverse would have been intimidating in the dry but with the holds now soaked and glassy it took a few “toughen the %$^ up” talks to myself before I stepped out onto the traverse and made my way across to the last vertical section. From there I made a few attempts to climb the face, but found it impossible to get off the ledge as I couldn’t smear against the wet rock. Eventually I clipped a ‘draw and aided off it, going bolt-to-bolt like this until I made it to the chains.

A quick look up at the 5th pitch showed it was also soaked and it was an easy, though very disappointing, decision to abandon the remaining pitches and abseil off the route. We reached the bottom of the route in 3 long raps to discover that the baboons had climbed up to our backpacks, raided them and then left a soggy turd on my pack as a memento.

Even worse, before emptying his bowels, the baboon had unzipped my pack’s top pouch and thrown away everything in there that he found. Route guides, head torch, sun block and most importantly car keys were all lost among the grass on the slope below! We eventually found the keys after twenty minutes of searching, but not before the snow had changed to drenching rain which soaked us all the way back to the car park.

Postscript: We met two young girls (sisters I think) on our walk back to the car park and one of them pointed out in a teenagers-know-everything kind of way that we had gone to all that effort just to climb a wall and we hadn’t even got that right. We laughed and pointed out that she, to, was walking in the rain for no apparent reason and I enquired as to her greater purpose for being in the mountains. She replied that she had come with her family to scatter the ashes of her deceased sister, a reply which directly ended any debate of whose purpose was the greater that day. I thought it was a beautiful gesture and a quiet reminder of all that life is.