Exposure Kick-Starts Connection

Louise Walton shares her ascent of Roulette (21) and the hard-won lessons learnt at the start of pitch two.

By Louise Walton

Louise Walton and Riaan Bosman on Roulette (21). Photo by Gareth Bird.

Recently, I chatted to two twenty-somethings at City Rock who were both telling me that the world doesn’t reward honesty.

Roulette, a five-pitch 21 on Table Mountain, taught me that honesty is essential to my wellbeing.

I was in my first year of learning how to trad climb, and despite the fact that I was reluctant to pour over heaps of trad literature and practice basic rope climbing skills, I wanted to follow on hard trad routes.

Usually I had climbed in a party of three, but on this particular Saturday, I was following alone on Roulette. I came off at the start of the second pitch, failing to sustain my grip on that overhang (largely due to my ‘bum-out’ technique and the after-effects of having clung too tightly to the traverse on the first pitch).  Frightened doesn’t begin to describe the feeling I experienced when I fell beyond that ledge into the exposed abyss and then tried unsuccessfully, at first, to swing back onto the ledge. After swinging and pointing my long toes in order to ‘monkey’ my way back to the ledge (because my hands couldn’t reach it, or the crag); I tried that arch-like, angled climb again, already in trepidation about my next fall into that lonely space that I wasn’t sure I could escape. My prophecy came true. My achingly pumped arms, racing heart and grasping fingers could not get me through the overhang. I slipped off again, terrified and back to nowhere.

Despite the fact that I had a walkie-talkie and I could also hear two other climbers around the corner from me, on Jacob’s Ladder (16); I really believed that the only way to get out of there was on my own steam. I hadn’t communicated properly with my belayer; somehow, in my panic, the idea of asking for guidance and admitting that I felt desperate never crossed my mind.

Thinking you can’t be honest and believing there’s no way out feels traumatic. By now, my fingers were not to be trusted and my arm muscles screeched a falsetto NO. I can’t remember what my breathing was like, but I do remember the vibration of my heart going berserk in my chest. 

For the third time, I took on the rock. My thrashing and unconscious ignorance blocked my ability to see that there were places for me to place a sling and ‘bank’ my progress. Not knowing how to jam my fist, I clutched at the pinches, but failed, sliding off again, back to scary space and square one! This time, I had nothing left in my tank!

Apparently, that’s the amount of pain that I needed to experience before learning my lesson. Eventually, I remembered that I could ask for help. My super-experienced climbing partner, and by now the whole climbing gang (that were also assembled at the top of the climb), had me out of there in no time.

Honesty is crucial on the mountain, and a responsibility we all have toward ourselves and one another in order to keep safe on adventures. Showing vulnerability builds powerful bonds, and this is made possible when we let go of pretence and martyrdom.

Instead of waiting to be better at climbing, there’s magic in showing up just the way I am, with my unique strengths and weaknesses. The bond with the rope and the intimate connection of trusting in one another is a priceless gift that only appears when the real Louise makes an appearance. Yes, there are many situations in which the material world does not reward honesty, but it brings its own rewards that extend beyond my wildest dreams.I recognise now that this was purely an epic in my mind. My belayer had me safe all along, the walkie-talkie was there for my convenience and, of course, my rope had my back because I was safely tied in the whole time!

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