South Africa becomes a bouldering mecca

CDevotees from all over the world arrive with foam crash pads – and no safety ropes.

The locals started noticing them about a decade ago – the groups of lean, suntanned men (sometimes women, too) with powerful forearms and callused fingers. They came from overseas – from Europe and the US and Latin America – and stayed for months, making camp at the rocky wilderness reserve or renting rooms from farmers down the mountain pass. Almost every day, they would walk toward the rocks, wearing mattresses like backpacks.

These, the locals learned, were the boulderers. They were rock climbers, but of a special sort – they didn't have ropes, or harnesses, or any sort of protective gear short of the "crash pad" mattress that made falls slightly softer. They pulled themselves up meters-high rock with the strength of their fingers; they used rock-climbing techniques and their own power to hang upside down, propel themselves from one tiny hold to another, and finally "solve the problem," reaching the top of their boulders.

As the years went by, residents of the sparsely populated Cedarberg region started to realize what the boulderers had already discovered: This rocky, remote land of sandstone mountains and lush valleys was one of the best places in the world for their unique form of climbing.

"It's just amazing," says Nick Faso, who came recently from upstate New York to dust his hands in chalk and climb the boulders here. "It's the aesthetic, the colors ... all the climbs here are perfect."

• • •

The four Austrians leave mid-morning, crash pads on their backs, spring in their step. They walk from their guest cottage, which they've rented for five weeks, across a field of wildflowers, over a stream, and up pinkish-red rocks piled around the scrubby landscape; the remnants of some careless giant's game of marbles.

They are climbing friends – a crew that bonded in Vienna in climbing gyms and then on climbing trips throughout Europe. They shifted to bouldering a few years back after visiting Fontainebleau near Paris – widely considered the mecca of the sport. This year, they decided to spend their climbing vacation (they take at least a month for this sport every year) in The Cedarberg.

"This area is really famous in Austria," says Flo Murnig, who works in information technology when he's not climbing. He's already skilled enough at bouldering that he gets some free gear from Austrian sponsors, but he hopes one day he'll be able to go full-time pro, like Klem Loskot, the famous Austrian climber.

Soon, the Austrians have crossed into the neighboring farm, called De Pakhuys, and they drop their mattresses by a few well-traveled boulders with telltale patches of white chalk left by the hands of other climbers. These are the practice "problems" – the term they use for routes up the boulders.

Peter Putz, a graduate student in Vienna, puts on his tight climbing shoes and scrambles up one large rock face, probably 20 feet high. The flexing muscles in his calves and biceps suggest effort, but he goes up quickly and skips down the boulder's sloping backside.

"You can walk up the back of the boulders, but we like to go the hard way," says Mr. Faso, the American climber, who is also warming up.

Later, Mr. Putz and Mr. Murnig start on more difficult problems, including one where they cling to the rock face and then jump to try to grasp another hold that is only a few centimeters deep. Boulderers say this sort of jumping move, where the climber is completely in the air for a few milliseconds, is "to dyno."

Clinging with all fours to a rock about six feet high and at a 45-degree angle to the ground, Putz lunges for a new hold and misses. He lands on his feet safely but gives a quick wince – his fingertips were scraped in the attempted grab.

He gives a grin – part sheepish, part tough, and says, "It happens ever day."

"We're no hand models," says Barbara Schifer, another one of the Austrian boulderers.

• • •

Bouldering has been around for more than a hundred years. It was largely considered training for traditional climbers, a way to build power. But with the advent of foam crash pads about 10 years ago, the sport came into its own.

"Bouldering moved past training into a sport when you had the pads," says Guy Holwill, a South African who has been climbing and bouldering for more than 20 years. "You got more people involved with it. It's safer and a bit more fun – a spine crushing fall each time is not OK."

As its popularity grew, a number of longtime climbers started shifting to full-time bouldering.

"It's a peculiar sport – to try to convey what it's about to somebody who hasn't climbed is a challenging thing," says Evan Wiercz, a Cape Town climber who created www.bouldering.co.za, a South African bouldering website. "It's the very big and the very small. You can spend so much time on such a small piece of rock, but it's like an artistic canvass – it evolves. You find more and more in such a small piece of space. I get the same out of this as I did out of the 50-meter rock face."

Soon, boulderers were flocking to hot spots across the world – to Fontainebleau, but also to places such as Castle Hill, New Zealand, and Waco, Texas. The terrain for bouldering is different than for traditional climbing: Instead of steep rock faces and high mountains, bouldering regions have lower, individual rocks with possible, but still challenging, ways up. Not too many places in the world fit the bill.

Then, in 1995, legendary climber Todd Skinner, an American, visited South Africa. During his travels, Mr. Wiercz says, Mr. Skinner drove through The Cedarberg and saw fields of boulders. He vowed to return. The next year, he did just that, bringing other climbers – including Fred Nicole, one of the top rated climbers on the international bouldering scene – to an area called "Rocklands" along a mountain pass in one of the provincial wilderness areas.

"They developed the area and it just took off," Wiercz says, meaning that they started to map out ways up the various boulders and naming the individual rocks and climbs.

Soon, others followed. A few years later, climbers recognized even more boulders on the nearby De Pakhuys farm. The reputation of The Cedarberg grew. Last year, an American documentary film about bouldering, "Specimen," was set in Rocklands. Now, most climbers consider it one of the top places for the sport in the world.

"I didn't even know about bouldering until I got here," says Lizzie du Toit, who runs the Alpha Excelsior Guest Farm near Clanwilliam with her husband. "Now we're filled with boulderers this time of year. They like it when it's cooler as opposed to hotter – they sweat less, so it's easier to climb."

Unlike most bouldering spots, which have limited numbers of climbs, Rocklands and De Pakhuys have a landscape filled with pinkish-red boulders for the taking.

"There are just lifetimes and lifetimes of rocks there," says Mr. Holwill.

• • •

The Austrians climb for hours. Their hands are bleeding. Their friend Harald Panasso has his hands and his shoes patched together with white first-aid tape. Ms. Schifer's arms are shaking from repeated attempts at a climb where she needed to hang upside down, holding herself to the rock with her feet and hands.

Mr. Panasso lies back on his crash pad, catching the last of the afternoon sun.

"This is the thing with bouldering, you always have something to lie on," he says.

Murnig looks over the landscape of green brush and red rocks.

"This," he says, "is magic."

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