Climbers follow famous footholds of the ’fifties

2009-03-23 00:00

A brave group of local mountain climbers returned this weekend to the days when intrepid mountaineers of the 1950s wore canvas anoraks, takkies as climbing boots and relied on hemp ropes and pitons (metal spikes) hammered into cracks for their safety.

Andy Wood, president of the KZN Section of the Mountain Club, said the group set off for the famous Angus-Leppan route in the Drakensberg on the 50th anniversary of its opening.

They relived the climb using period equipment, techniques and clothing.

A previous attempt recently was abandoned because of wet weather.

“We prepared for the climb by rummaging around in elderly mountaineers’ cupboards, resurrecting climbing equipment and chasing the moths out of clothing that had not been used for decades.”

The team set off at dawn on Sunday, the mists swirling around the 300m high cliffs above them.

“The actual moves on rock felt quite comfortable for me,” said Gavin Raubenheimer, one of the climbers who works as a professional mountain guide, “but it was the heavy and clunky gear that I wasn’t used to.”

Hannelie Morris said she loved the feeling of true adventure.

Said Wood, “She led one of the most difficult sections of the climb, her battered takkies not providing much by the way of solid grip on the rock. At more than one point, if she had fallen she would have taken a 40m plunge on unreliable gear, held only by a rope around her waist.”

The chances of surviving such a fall are not good, but Morris kept a cool head, scaled the pitch and brought her party to safety.

“We are very fortunate to have a rich history of brave mountaineering here in the Drakensberg. Many of the pioneering ascents in the 1950s and 1960s were accomplished by couples: Peter and Pam Angus-Leppan and Martin Winter and Gillian Bettle. When one looks at those ascents with modern eyes, I can only admire their toughness, fitness and incredible bravery,” said Wood.

The group reached the summit of the Sentinel at 2 pm and fired up an antique stove to make tea and an antique pipe to smoke for the photographs.

The descent involved an abseil, done traditionally by wrapping the rope around the leg and shoulder. Wood described this as “very painful, but it was the way things were done back then”.

“ … a grand day out but we wouldn’t do it every week,” Wood said.

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