Table Mountain towers above the ‘Mother City’ of Cape Town, South Africa. Not only is it a beautiful backdrop to busy city life, Table Mountain is also a sanctuary where I can retreat, away from the urban hustle. It is a playground of possibility, almost in my backyard, where I can explore my limits, both physical and metal. And although it is easily accessible and supremely photogenic, the mountain is temperamental and alive and demands complete focus when free solo rock climbing.
Free solo allows complete freedom of movement: climbing freely on the rock without the technical constraints of ropes and gear. I’ve opened a few new routes free solo on Table Mountain: one that stands out is Simplicity (26, 7b), but my most difficult free solo on TM is Synapse Direct (27, 7b+). Before I free solo, I step out of my mind and centre myself deeper in my body. To execute demanding moves, I have to be in tune with my body and the rock. This is possible through meditation and yoga. Often, before I climb, I find space to simply sit, be and observe.
My mind is empty when I climb. The demands of the moment are so high that I don’t have time to think. In free solo, without ropes or gear, my hands and feet are my four points of safety. A route will naturally have places to rest, bigger or less demanding holds that allow the release of an arm. Sometimes there is a ledge to stand on. But my protection lies in finding a balance with the rock; a balance of effort and holding on with surrender and listening. I sometimes feel great doubt and fear before I climb, but I’ve learned to manage that fear by focusing on what is within my control, being present in my body, staying balanced, and responding only to the necessities of the moment.
Africa Arete and Synapse Direct are two of the most difficult free solos I’ve completed on Table Mountain. Africa Arete is a wild space that captured my imagination, a 90º corner that juts out high up above the city. Synapse Direct was opened 12 years ago with a roped ascent extending through the intimidating overhang near the top, and this route remained unrepeated until I free soloed it in December 2014. Soloing through an overhang is mentally demanding because gravity seems to pull so much stronger. There is more weight on the arms and the void feels ever more present.
Gravity is a powerful force. I am constantly aware of how gravity pulls me and adjust myself accordingly. Each move is different, each move is a feeling. Over-thinking the moves doesn’t help and can create danger. It’s all about balance and intuitive feeling. After the most difficult parts of a climb are completed, I remain focused but there is a sense of relaxation and a freer flow to the movement. Knowing that I have done the hardest part, there is a sense of excitement and calm anticipation of the summit.
The feeling of satisfaction after free soloing a new and challenging route is immeasurable. It’s hard to find words for such a feeling. The rewards are intensely personal and fulfilling. Knowing that the risks were calculated and measured, that the training was completed and that I succeeded is a moment of personal attainment that lives with me forever.