Rainbow Glen Climber Profile: Jeremy Colenso

Dave Webster of Rainbow Glen chats to climbing legend Jeremy Colenso...
I have often heard the name “Jeremy Colenso” spoken about with much respect and from reading guidebooks I knew that he had done a lot of significant climbing in South Africa.  So, when he came to stay at Rainbow Glen last month, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

Jeremy is currently 54 years old and lives in Scarborough, Cape Town, together with his wife Rachel and their two children.

Jeremy started climbing at age 14 together with Bobby Woods of “3 Peaks Challenge” fame and John Cheesmond brother of Cape climbing legend, Dave Cheesmond. If you want to know more about who Bobby Woods was, then watch this

“3rd ascent of Oceans of Fear – 1986”   
“Children of the Sky (22) – Klen Winterhoek”   

Jeremy matriculated from Rondebosch Boys High School in 1987 where he was at school with another well-known Cape Town climber Jeremy Wilse-Samson.  The two Jeremy’s were good friends and climbing partners and in their teens they opened a lot of routes together with probably their most notable being “Children of the Sky” a grade 22 (A3) on Klein Winterhoek Peak above Tulbagh.

After school Jeremy went to UCT to study Psychology and Anthropology while also running a rope access company with Jeremy Wilse-Samson.  Winning the South African Sport Climbing Championships in ‘93, ‘94 and 1997 and representing South Africa at the Sport Climbing World Cup in Laval in France in 1993 earned him a sports scholarship to Rhodes University in Grahamstown where he studied  “Law”  between 1995 and 1997.

That’s where he met Shannon Law, his then girlfriend.  Together they worked on and Jeremy opened many of the Western Cape’s hardest routes, including El Nino, which was the first grade 30 route at Oudtshoorn and Short Circuit (31) in 1997.

During his time in Grahamstown, Colenso also spent some time climbing together with and learning from the “Grand Master” of Eastern Cape climbing, Keith James.  They bolted and opened “Fat Boys Aerobic Workout” a grade 29 test piece at Howie’s-Poort outside of Grahamstown.

After graduating from Rhodes, Jeremy qualified as an Advocate and practised for a short while before moving to England in 1999 where he also qualified as a Solicitor in 2002.

From his base in London, he continued to climb extensively throughout  England  and Scotland and also did many climbing trips into the European Alps.  Enjoying winter mixed, snow and ice climbing Jeremy has done many notable “Big, Cold and Scary” routes including the Central Pillar of Freney on Mt Blanc and 3 of the great North faces of the Alps.

Alongside his legal career Jeremy is a UIMLA, (that’s a lot of letters), International Mountain Leader and he often combines the two areas of expertise when advising on health and safety standards at indoor climbing gyms in the UK.

“1st place – Rockmaster – 1994”.
“Short Circuit (31) – 1997”         

“The love of my life, Rachel, in the French Alps.”

Rachel “Kelsey” Colenso met Jeremy in 2003 in England and they climbed together in the USA and Europe and maybe most significantly in the Swiss Alps where Rachel hit world headlines when they were stranded on a sheer face at 3000m during an extreme blizzard.  After two nights on a tiny ledge with 1000 metre drops each side, they were evacuated by helicopter.  Rachel wrote a book called ‘In a High and Desperate Place’ which provides useful information for business and life on how to survive and succeed in times of extreme adversity! Rachel probably deserves her own profile feature as she has done many extreme sporting events including hiking the length of the Cape Peninsula with a baby on her back to raise money to feed underprivileged babies together with ADK’s wife, Charlotte Nobel.


Dave:  Jeremy, you are a “Barrister”, does that mean you can make an excellent cup of coffee?

Jeremy:  Absolutely, my friends will tell you I need at least 4 to get going in the morning!

Dave:  There seems to be a bit of a tradition of strong climbers coming from Rondebosch Boys School.  How did you and Jeremy Samson get introduced to climbing?

Jeremy:  I was taken for my first climb by Bob Woods. I was in Standard 6 and he was in Matric at Bishops. We hitched a lift to the lower cable way did Frasers and then walked up further and did Arrow Final. When we got to the top, he said the queue was too long to catch the Cable Car down and it would be quicker to walk home to Rondebosch.  So, we walked back home via Ledges Route and Newlands Ravine. I sat at my school desk staring out the window at TM buzzing for a week afterwards. I have been totally hooked since.

Dave:  You did the second ascents of a lot of the hard ADK routes at The Lost World in Montagu, including Technicolour Darkness (26) and Night Fright (24R).

Jeremy: Partly the case. This would have been around 1986. I think Jonathan Fisher might have done the second ascent of TD and I did the 3rd or 4th but, yes, Night Fright was kind of no choice really. Before the bolt was put in you were looking at hitting the deck if you fell high on the head wall. So, it was a case of either trying to down climb or just keep going until the next piece of gear near the top. After doing the route I lowered off expecting to be congratulated, instead, I remember Ed February giving me a telling off for being irresponsible!  I’d only been climbing 3 years. I was physically capable but not mentally prepared for such a bold lead and made a complete hash of it scaring a lot of spectators in the process.

“One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (30) TM – first ascent 1991..”

Dave:  You were at the forefront of the free climbing revolution on Table Mountain, freeing old hard previously only aided routes like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at grade 30 in 1991.

Jeremy: That’s right. It was the high point of our trad climbing development before the sport climbing and competition waves hit SA.  Embracing this new ethic was partly out of wanting a new challenge and partly out of financial necessity as it was the best route to sponsorship at that time. In retrospect I personally regret not keeping the trad ethic going myself because arguably given our rock type it’s the most viable way to develop all the untapped potential we have. There are just life times worth of tradding potential in the Western Cape mountains and beyond. Luckily a couple of BMC exchanges have helped get us back on track again.

Magnetic Wall (20) – Table Mountain.” 
“Dream Street Rose (27) – Elsies Peak”.

Dave:  Jeremy, you were one of the first people to bolt routes in Montagu in Badkloof in the very early 90’s, together with Guy Holwill.

Jeremy: That’s right, as there is so much rock to choose from in Montagu. Our idea of sport climbing was to walk along decent paths and look for rock rather than look for rock and try and make a path up to it. The second criteria was that the routes had to get their grade from being steep, athletic and with comfy holds that you could have many goes on.

I bolted and opened Voices (23), Yankee Rose (29) and Delete Button (26) at Worlds Apart in Badkloof in ‘91, ‘92 and ’93 respectively and Guy opened Daze of Thunder (27).

We then moved up to Donkerkloof and I bolted and opened Switchbitch (31) in 1993 whilst Guy focussed on his routes at The Scoop in particular the classic “Cool like that” (29).

Dave:  Nic “Moose” Good of “Fresh Air Crew” fame casually mentioned to me that you basically helped save his fingers/life by helping to keep him warm during a storm on a climbing trip in the Alps? 

“Moose & Jeremy – frozen, wet gear.” 
“Moose on bivvy on Mt Blanc before storm”.

Jeremy:  Yes. Back in 1990 “Moose” and I summited Mt Blanc in a fierce storm after climbing it from the Italian side via the Kuffner Route. On the epic descent on the French side I somehow found us a snow bridge inside a crevasse that could support our weight, whilst the heavy snow fall closed in the roof. With soaked equipment from the night before, but relatively shielded from the elements we huddled there for a day or so, in sub-zero temperatures, until the storm abated. We then continued descending to the valley to the “Vietnam movie” sound of helicopters picking off climbers, some tragically frozen to death, from various climbs in the massif.

Dave:  I have done some research and know that “Colenso” is a small town in KZN that had a lot to do with the Anglo-Boer War, named after then Anglican Bishop of Natal, John William Colenso

Was he a family member of yours?

Jeremy: Yes, he is a Great Great Uncle. He was a public supporter of Charles Darwin and his theories in the 1800’s. He was ex communicated by Bishop Gray of Cape Town for the heresy of writing a theological treatise questioning whether certain sections of the first five books of the Old Testament and the Book of Joshua should be understood as literally or historically accurate.

This was in the light of palaeontology and geological evidence suggesting the earth was billions not thousands of years old. He was reinstated after he appealed to the Privy Council on a jurisdictional point but it led to a split in the Church of England that still exists in this country to this day.
Dave:  Jeepers, ask a lawyer a question! Yes or No would also have been fine!
“Training facilities – Mid 1980s.”

Dave: You obviously took your training seriously when you were young and climbing at your peak.  Tell us a little bit about that and do you still train for climbing?

Jeremy:  So, I have always been into training as I believe luck in climbing is at the cross roads of preparation and opportunity.  Sometimes I wonder if I enjoy it for its own sake.

In the ‘80s training focussed on endurance and doing laps backward and forwards on Newlands Bridge and various buildings on the UCT Campus.  This was mixed with a bit of bouldering on the Silvermine Boulder, as believe it or not, that was the only boulder, because back then it just wasn’t a thing to go and do in its own right.

We also had small home built climbing walls called “Woodys” in the 90s. From memory mine was about 4.5m in height with roughly 6m of climbing length by 4m wide with a kick-board at about 35 degrees. I would make my own boulder problems with friends and then once I had them ‘wired’, I would try to link them in a circuit of up to about 40 hand movements. This generally meant I developed good base power followed by power endurance through the training cycle. This was enough for the type of ‘90s routes I was doing and competitions. 

Yes, I still try to do some sort of climbing related training every day, whether it be walking, stretching, bouldering, climbing routes (or learning French on Duolingo)!  My goal now is just to keep climbing and avoid injury so I can enjoy it with the kids and Rachel.

Dave:  Thanks so much for sharing this with us Jeremy, you are obviously a top achiever  and have done some amazing things in the mountains.

“Teaching the next generation.”

Jeremy:  Thank you to you for the opportunity to chat. You have an amazing set up at Rainbow Glen and I’ve already spotted a couple of unclimbed lines across the river so we will be back soon.

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