Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

The article that follows describes an ascent of the Angus-Leppan route on the Sentinel, one of the classic multi-pitch rock climbs in the Drakensberg. It was first published in Southern Rock #2 March 1991.

The Attraction of Climbing, by Cathy O’Dowd

I walk up the path, cocooned in the dark, grey mist of early morning. Muscles stretch protesting after weeks of inactivity but slowly come alive with the warmth of exercise, moving easily up the slope. Snow falls lightly, frosting my jacket and the ground around me. Straws and knife blades of ice encase the grass to either side. The air is heavy and still, pregnant with the possibility of storm. My face tingles with the cold and my hand are aching. The sensations are painful but also invigorating. I enjoy the acute responses of my body to my environment. I feel intensely alive.

I trudge up the gully above the first pitch, kicking steps in the snow in my rock-boots, feet numb, hands protesting sharply when I touch the snow to steady myself. Below me Linda is a dark shadow in the mist. I emerge into brilliant sunshine and slump gratefully onto the grass, hands jammed in my armpits, feeling the warmth gradually penetrate my body.

Below me a sea of clouds extends to every horizon, broken only in the west when the snow scattered peaks of the Drakensberg rise like a distant shore. Above me is a vast dome of clear blue sky. Before me the orange rock rears up like the wall of an immense castle, imposing in its immensity. I reach out to touch it, fingers sensitive to the warm rough texture. I begin to lead, awkwardly at first until, infused with warmth, I move fluidly, muscles stretching and contracting easily in response to the demands of the rock.

A lammergeyer passes close below me, wings winder than I am tall. It glides, seemingly motionless, then with a surge of power turns sharply and soars upwards. I reach up, fingers clinging to the rock’s contour, muscle moving to take my weight, feet placed carefully on the bumps and edges. Mind and body work in harmony to move ever higher. I feel an affinity with the bird, lone living element in a vast inanimate world, each responding to our environment, turning its demands to meet our own ends.

Linda follows quickly. Laughter and chirps are exchanged as she takes the rack and moves on. She poses on the arête for a photo, set against the clouds. Then she is gone and I am along again. We climb with the ease of friendship, with mutual confidence born of familiarity. We climb alone but united by the experience we are sharing.

A moment of tension while following the crux until the sequence becomes clear, an awkward lead up a chimney and than an easy walk to the summit cairn. The Berg stretches south into misty distance, a coast of cloud filled fjords. We share a chocolate, take photos, relax in the satisfaction of a long planned goal attained.

We descend laughing through drifts of snow, its coldness pleasant beneath the midday sun. Then comes the return into the mist, again cocooned in cloud and my own thoughts. Food and drink wait at the hut below, with the promise of rest and company. I savour this in anticipation. It seems to me then that this is the attraction of climbing.

It is an amazing way of experiencing being alive.

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