A Fine Time on Prime Time Direct E5 6a (25) by two not-so-tired and wanked out TATWOCians.
I was thrashing down the Yellowwood scree with Stewart Middlemiss yesterday in the gloom of descending night fall feeling exhilarated by doing a free ascent of Prime Time Direct. I was also wondering how come I had managed to do one of the hardest routes of my climbing career at age 51. Stewart reckons that it is because trad climbing takes so many years of experience to learn – something like 10,000 hours are needed to do an activity like trad well. He mentioned that the average age of the top amateur participants of a sport called ski-skating is around 40 to 50.
Well, I felt extremely gratified and privileged to be able to have such a feeling of empowerment and success given the way so many people my age are in deep trouble with their physical health. 99% of 50 year old people consulting with me with their sore hips, backs and knees are overweight, look 10 years or more older than me, are on cholesterol, diabetic or high blood pressure medication and are by and large un-healthy.
So to force home the point, if you want to have a sense of physical well being in later life, trad climbing is definitely right up there as a life style activity to keep you inspired, fit and healthy and your weight under control. As a doctor I feel two of my greatest medical successes are getting two mates trad climbing and it is worth mentioning their names. One is Mark Straughan, literally known as Jelly Belly by his kids. He, a year ago did his first trad route, Arrow Final and recently did his second trad route Slack Time on Yellowwood. He has lost 20kg in the last year! My friend Hugh Willis also needs a mention. Although he has always dabbling in trad climbing since University days, it is only since climbing Mt Kenya and doing routes like Milner Frontal in a day from Cape Town that he has lost the Michelin Tyre round his waist and now is a lean and keen athlete in anything that comes along.
But enough propaganda and to the day.
Stewart is one of the few South African climbers that has on-sighted Technicolor Darkness a route that I still have to lead clean. He has also climbed Automatic for the People and was on the finishing ascent of Dog of Thunder. He has lived in Salt Lake City for the last decade where he regularly climbs grades in the high 20’s. Like the rest of us his fitness has been hampered by age related injuries and ailments but he is always bok to do a big route with me when visiting here.
So after a little training on Africa Edge – a route he grades 23 and he rates as being the best route he has done on TM – we did the 04h30 start to Du Toits. 90min walk up, tea and climb. We took 7 litres of fluid. It was going to be a hot day.
The first thing I noticed when I got there is that Stewart clearly has done his 10,000 hours in trad climbing because he was pro-active and efficient in flaking the ropes and getting ready to climb. From setting off from Cape Town and starting the climb, including having the mandatory cup of tea was just 3 hours!
Stewart led the 1st pitch of Prime Time Direct. The first crux involves a very awkward and tenuous lay-back and stemming sequence up a left facing corner. At least the gear is bomber. He waxed it and then found the second awkward crux equally hard. I followed and for the second time found the first crux at my limit and very difficult to read. Although there is bomber gear for the leader I was happy to be on a top rope.
The second pitch is the monster pitch of the route. I find it as hard as any of the modern 25 pitches on TM that I have done. I set off up the first run out bit that Stewart also thought could do better with a bolt and then into the corner above with the no hands body tension rest. I placed the 2 RP’s and then wobbled round left onto the face and up to the tiny hold that seemed to have shrunk since my last sojourn there. I shook placing the shallow blue alien and then really struggled to get the tiny purple alien past my left hand that was in the way. I snatched a glance to see if the placements were OK and rocketed up to the next juglet. Again time had eroded measurements. The RP 2 placement was much higher than I remembered and I was already beginning to wither. I fiddled it in and went for the move. My strength was draining fast and I cocked up the move by using the wrong left foot hold – same as the last time. I stretch out my left toe to the sloper and gingerly stemmed up with my right leg trembling and found the micro-edge. I could not move or bounce my hand up so instead, extremely tenuously, crossed over with my right hand and grabbed the crimp above.
The next section flowed well and I got to the stance unscathed. I felt the same as the previous time, that the route should end here. If these two pitches were on any crag anywhere in South Africa they would make for a great stand-alone route.
Stewart followed and impressed me by freeing the pitch. We agreed that the best way to grade the pitch would be E5 6a which translates to grade 25 even though the technical aspect of the crux was only 23 which is probably its grade if it were bolted.
Stewart following pitch 3; 22:
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I then raced up the 22 pitch and Stewart climbed the long 55m 21 pitch to the halfway ledge. The sun was beginning to peak out and Stewart did a fine ascent of the next 22 pitch which is only 22 if you have the beta to lay back up it. This is not obvious and I remember falling off it on my first attempt about 2 years ago.
I then led the next 21 pitch to the hanging stance. We had, as I always now do on Yellowwood, been hauling the pack with water, food, torches etc, with a separate rope. While Stewart was climbing and trailing the rope, the pack fell of the ledge and plummeted about 25m down to land on a lower ledge. Little did we know at the time but a small nuclear explosion took place in the pack involving and old apple, a can of coke and a large bag of Salt and Vinegar potato chips. Needless to say the bag was filled with a sticky mess that pervaded everything in it. Our water bottles were intact which was fortunate indeed because we needed all of the water and more.
I climbed the next crux pitch past the Damocles flake with relative ease and was surprised that I did not cramp or get pumped at all. I must be the fittest I have ever been for this type of climbing. Stewart followed but like so many of us before him, blew out at the crux and that was the end of his energy for the day. He was disappointed of course but as an old Prime Time vet I was not surprised at all and hence my challenge to anyone who does a beta-free on-sight of this route. The steepness of the route, the hot sun, the position of this crux high up on the route, the intimidation factor all make it one of the most difficult pitches on any route to on-sight at this grade. In its context it is undoubtedly also an E5 pitch but technically only 5b or 5c. He then led the next 20 pitch but the sun, and sore feet were now becoming almost intolerable. I led the run-out grade 21 pitch with some temerity thinking my feet would slide off the little sloper holds in the hot sun but found it surprisingly easy and then combined the not-so-trivial top pitch to finish.
What a blast, what a place and how great to share it with one of my old mates.
We rapped down and almost got a rope stuck on the last point. And then down the hill to my van stumbling the last 20 minutes in the dark. I got Stewart to carry down some spare gear that I did not need up there as retribution for putting a rock in Tini’s rucksack on a trip to Milner some 3 years ago. He did it with some misgivings but I whined about my neck saying I could not carry it. Fair is fair, I sort of convinced him, because he had the benefit of a full rack and ropes stashed at the base.
And of course the day was consummated by the Windhoek lager stop at the Du Toit’s kloof lodge.