FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
Words and Pics by Matthew Holt.
On our first visit to the Drakensberg, Fiona and I lounged on the hotel terrace, casting exaggerated glances up the valley towards Cathedral Peak, making sure all the other guests would know we’d just climbed it. The satisfaction was slightly spoiled, however, by the nagging concern that our summit looked less impressive than the one just to its left which - though slightly lower - was pleasingly symmetrical and thrillingly steep. Taking its name from its shape, the 2930m-high Bell is one of the Berg’s most distinctive peaks and – though beyond our proficiency then – we knew that one day we’d have to come back and climb it. What we didn’t know was just what this would entail.
A couple of years later, we returned in October, hoping to catch the short window after the winter snows and before the summer storms. We were accompanied by Gavin Raubenheimer, who makes his living climbing Berg peaks and looks suitably weathered and worn. Knees buckling under huge packs, we forded the uMlambonja River, slogged up the obscurely-named Orange Peel Gap and aptly-named Bugger Gully, and picked our way over the loose scree neck beneath Cathedral Peak, before traversing round to our overnight accommodation in Bell Cave.
If Bell Cave sounds snug and cosy, it isn’t: with a cramped layout complemented by minimal protection from the elements, plus constant drips and scavenging rodents. Fortunately, it was a glorious evening and we watched the golden glow of the sunset on the peaks across the valley, the sharp fang of Monk’s Cowl sandwiched between the table-tops of Cleft Peak, Cathkin and Champagne. When we awoke the next morning, they’d all gone. In fact, the clouds were so thick and low we could barely see each other. Raindrops pattered on our sleeping bags. ‘Ag! The Bell will be too wet now’, sighed Gavin ‘Let’s have a brew before heading down’.
We made our second attempt the following May, aiming to catch the short window after the summer rains but before the winter snows. Once again we laboured with heavy packs across the uMlambonja River, up Orange Peel Gap and Bugger Gully and over the loose scree neck to Bell Cave. It was a classic autumn day; crisp, clear and short, and we were soon wrapped in our sleeping bags, admiring the alpenglow on the now-familiar peaks opposite. When we awoke the next morning, the peaks were dusted with snow and our sleeping bags were frozen stiff. ‘Ag! The Bell will be too icy now’, sighed Gavin. ‘Let’s have some breakfast before going down’.
Our third attempt, the following year, was admittedly the feeblest. After climbing the nearby Pyramid, Gavin’s suggestion of tackling the Bell was returned with disinterest. We only relented when he suggested hiring a helicopter to ferry us there from Cathedral Peak Hotel. Now, within climbing circles there’s a contentious debate as to what constitutes a proper ascent and even I will accept you can’t hitch a ride to the top. But how far down do you have to start on your own feet? So, after briefly toying with the ethics, we arranged to be dropped just below Bell Cave and then settled on the hotel terrace, listening for the thuk-thuk-thuk of the rotor heading up the valley. In mid-afternoon Gavin’s mobile phone rang. ‘Ag! The chopper’s broken down’, he sighed. ‘Let’s have a beer’.
If we were by now beginning to doubt we’d ever scale the Bell, we weren’t the first to harbour such thoughts. The Bell was identified as a climbing proposition in the 1920s by George Londt, who on a visit to the Drakensberg was intrigued by a peak shaped like ‘the upper half of a bottle’. The maverick Londt was one of South Africa’s more talented if controversial climbers: he made the first ascent of Klein Winterhoek Frontal - considered to be the country’s equivalent of the Eiger North Wall - and he caused an international incident when he took the Kilimanjaro summit book home as a memento. However, he never got to climb the Bell: he was killed in 1927 falling off Table Mountain. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, many of the country’s top climbers did attempt the Bell, but they all foundered at the first of the two steep rock bands encircling the top half of the peak. Accordingly, it acquired the reputation for being impregnable and sensible climbers moved on to more realistic targets.
I’d also dismissed the Bell from my mind, till I went with a friend to Cathedral Peak and there it was: majestic, elegant, taunting. So, this May, Fiona and I returned for another attempt, though this time without Gavin, who was off climbing elsewhere. If several years had passed since we’d last trod the trail, it was still no easier slogging up Bugger Gully with a full pack. As the afternoon wore on, the clouds steadily dropped, till we reached Bell Cave in a murky gloom. There had been no discernible renovations to the accommodation since our last visit and we huddled in our sleeping bags, crunching on half-cooked boil-in-the-bag stew, regarding the drizzle with a gnawing sense of deja-vu.
However, when we awoke the next morning, it was clear and bright, with a white moon lingering in the watery blue sky. From the neck between Cathedral Peak and the Bell, we traversed out on the Bell’s grassy slopes, heading for the upper rock bands. We crawled on up, searching for the ledge that would take us round to the south face. The slope steepened, the drop-off lengthened, my resolve shrank. When you’re up high and off-trail in the Drakensberg, you really appreciate what the pioneering climbers were made of, without route descriptions to guide their way or cell-phones to summon help when things went awry. A piton hammered in the rock indicated we were heading the right way and shortly after that we came to an indent in the rock band, where a couple of half-hearted protrusions offered grudging handholds.
After all the gallant attempts and desperate retreats, the Bell was climbed with minimal fuss in January 1944 by Hans and Else Wongtschowski – or the Wongs as they preferred to be known. Hans Wong’s account of their ascent reads more like a naturalist’s outing, with the technical difficulties dismissed with a cursory mention in between loving descriptions of red hot pokers, everlastings and gladioli, after which he named the route. Mind you, the Wongs were no ordinary couple – having emigrated from Germany to South Africa in the 1930s they’d quickly notched up several bold first ascents. And red gladioli are more commonly known as ‘suicide lilies’.
Craning our necks, we examined Wong’s route. It was steep and exposed, with no obvious fissures to place any protection or enchanting red flowers to lighten the mood. So we carried on along the thin, tapering ledge, with our rock shoes skating on frozen clumps of grass and patches of snow. We were now roped up, though that hadn’t saved a pair of young Durban climbers in 1970, when one of them had tripped, their protection had popped and they’d both plunged into the void below. Some 50m further along the ledge, we came to another notch in the rock face. In April 1944, three months after the Wong’s had bagged the first ascent, Tony Hooper and two companions had stood at this same spot. Hooper had been here before, one year earlier, but unable to progress any higher despite balancing on his rope mate’s head. Clearly disgruntled at having missed out on the first ascent, he was keen to demonstrate his route was better and this time the trio managed to battle their way up. Who ever said climbing isn’t competitive? To cap his achievement, this line is now the preferred way up the Bell.
We checked the route description. This was clearly it: 10m of brittle basalt, cold and shaded, dripping wet and smeared with slimy moss. It was graded F1, which theoretically meant it as easy; as well it might be in a heated gym or on a sunny crag near home. But out here, half-a-day’s hike from the nearest soul, it was quite committing. I generously allowed Fiona to lead it. The next pitch was much the same: another 10m of wet black rock sloping the wrong way, with the few decent grips liable to break off in your hands and the most secure holds offered by tufts of grass. The moves were awkward and required balance: not my sort of climbing at all – though I’m not sure what is. Above this, a short bundu-bash and scramble took us onto the summit block. By now, puffy clouds had collected around the peak, obscuring the view. But that didn’t matter. We had finally got to sign our names in the summit log.
We abseiled off, picked up our gear and hiked down; though in practice it wasn’t as easy as that and we only reached the hotel as the last light drained from the valley. Traversing round from Bugger Gully to Orange Peel Gap, with a panorama of soaring peaks, lush valleys and clear rivers stretched out before me, it struck me how magnificent this place was. Then again, it helped I didn’t have to come back again.
29th June 2012