Totsiens goeie vriend

Tot ons weer ontmoet in 'n plek waar geen skadu's val.

Obituary: L. Michael Marais died in a climbing accident at Blouberg on 27 April 1997. At the hour of his tragic death Michael had no idea of impending disaster.
He was with a friend in the mountains he so loved, and with him he had just
achieved a first ascent. He had done something worthwhile and he has truly
been filled with a sense of accomplishment and utmost joy for the brief
time he and his friend surveyed the scene spread out before and below them.
What a glorious moment! And in that moment with no sense of pain or danger,
he passed on.

Dis 18 jaar later. Hoe verwerk mens starre realiteit oor so 'n tydperk? Weke na die ongeluk het ek die volgende geskryf en in die Bergklub se nuusbriewe gepubliseer. Dit het ook op een of twee ander klimwebwerwe wat toe nog bestaan het geland.


On the long weekend of 26-28 April 1997 Michael Marais and I went on a climbing trip to Blouberg. The original plan was to climb Maleboch on the North Wall. Missing the turn-off in the clearing, caused another 90 minutes of walking so that we only arrived on top close to 13:00.

I was plagued by an uneasiness. After a discussion we decided not to walk to the top campsite by rather to camp at the potholes and climb a route on the nearby face the next day. We only brought the flysheet of Michael's Backpacker Kite to pitch in case of rain. We pitched the fly at superb setting overlooking the pools below. We had an early supper. Michael was very tired and fell asleep at dusk. I settled into a comfortable sleeping position from where I could look straight at BAPM. I hardly fell asleep when I woke again. I just could not get rid of that bad gut feeling. We moved into the tent - just in case. Morning came without mishap.

We scanned the face and eventually decided on a new line. From the campsite one can see a gray slab sloping from left to right. Some 80m left a clear undercut S-crack can be seen. The route commenced at the vertical crack on the left of this crack.

Michael led the first pitch, a gutsy 16 with committing moves. This was his best lead to date. I followed with a small pack and then went one to lead the second pitch - some 30m of exposed E1 moves to a dance floor. The third pitch was also mine - 25m of 17 grade moves to a small ledge below the big slab. The slab looked a lot easier from below. Except for the lack of protection it also turned out to be pure vertical friction for the last 3m. Since it was already 15:30 and we had planned to climb only until 15:00 we decided to abseil. We traversed around the corner to some large blocks. We rigged a sling on the natural anchor formed by  two blocks. A backup anchor was rigged by an hex in an independent crack. We tested both anchors vigorously. It was ~16:00.

The plan was for Michael to rap first with the gear and for me to take out the backup and follow with the other rope. Due to difficult start I asked Michael if he would not consider using a French Prussik for a backup. He misunderstood me and ironically said "Schalk, as ek val wat sal jy in elk geval vir my kan doen". As I turned around he started his abseil. All I can think what must have happened is that he slipped as he went over the edge and shock loaded the anchors. Suddenly I heard a crashing noise as the anchoring rock shattered and the block the hex was in simply must have sheared off. I could hear his body crash on the ledge below. According to Russ Dodding, who was watching from the camp site, he landed on the one ledge and them tumbled to the lower ledge. When I got to the edge and looked down he looked to be unconscious.

I anxiously rigged double anchors. The rock that broke out created the opportunity to pull slings right down to the base of the blocks. I carefully abseiled down the side to a ledge 3m lower and abseil-crept down the side of the ledge. I left the rope in place and reverse climb down to Michael. As I abseiled I did hear him groan. As I reached him he was lying face down. I could hear him breathing slowly so I took my jacket from the pack and put it over him in case of shock. I examined him for any obvious signs of broken bones on the legs and on his back. I was not to sure whether he had spinal injuries and was very cautious as not to move him. I then realized that Michael has stopped breathing. Slowly I turned him slightly for possible CPR, but as I saw his face and I looked in his eyes I knew he was dead. I tried to find any pulse, but there was none.

At that point Russ Dodding, who was also in the area, managed to scramble up to us. He confirmed my opinion. We knew there was nothing more we could do, but to call a rescue team. Legally we are not allowed to move the body, therefore we decided to leave him there and descend to our tents. We tried to call 112 from my cell phone, but the signal kept on fading in and out.

So it thus happened that at 17:45 I set off through the forest to find a place to call from. Anyone who has walked into Blouberg knows that there are numerous paths and how easy it is to get lost. So I did get lost at a point, and I then it was when I first managed to get a call through to 112. The call was transferred to MRI Pietersburg. I requested that they call out the mountain rescue team based in Pretoria, because they know the area and are geared for the specific kind of rescue. My request was overruled by the coordinating person because he was not sure whether my information regarding the death was positive. He also said that the local teams were trained and had the correct equipment. So they arranged that I should meet the rescue squad at the Blouberg turn-off.

I carried ahead on the footpaths, with only the light of a Petzl to show the way. At each intersection I followed instinct. I made it back to Frans' Kraal at 19:45 and drove off as fast as the road would allow. I met the rescue team at 20:30 - what a relief is was to see the flashing red and blue in the distance! The team consisted of three MRI paramedics, two Pietersburg Fire Brigade members and two constables from the SAPD.

Even with all their specialist training they were not prepared for what lay ahead. The team moved up slowly on the mountain path. Even the use of the local people did not help as they got us lost as well. At a point which I knew should be ~10minutes from the Drip, they took a wrong turn. We ended walking at least an extra hour. We arrived at the lower campsite at 02:30 where we met by Russ. The decision was made to only recover the body in the morning as it was an unnecessary risk to do it at night. I managed to cram six of the rescue team into the tent (a feat on its own), whilst another rescue member and I slept in sleeping bags outside. I provided them with some snacks from our kitty. I also gave some food to the nine black youths who came along.

We slept (or attempted to sleep) until 06:00 whereupon I made some coffee for the rescue team and provided them with some food. I also gave some food to the youths. At 07:00 we moved up to the body. I showed the rescue team, which now consisted of 2 MRI members, one SAPD member and one person of the Fire Brigade, Mr. Ben Venter. The latter was in charge of the rescue. I took them to the body, but I was not prepared to climb the 3m to the body. When the rescue team climbed up to the body, I went down again to break down camp and pack our backpacks. I found it very distressing to pack the backpack of a diseased friend.

By 09:30 the rescue team has managed to lower the body down the face. He was placed in the shade of a tree as the temperature soared in the plain. An SAAF Oryx helicopter arrived at 11:00 to airlift us back to Frans' Kraal. The body was loaded in to the MRI ambulance and transported back to Pietersburg. We drove back to the police station in Pietersburg where I had to make a statement. I left Pietersburg at 15:00 on a solo drive home where the unfortunate task lay ahead of letting his family, girlfriend and friends know.


The autopsy revealed that he died from brain bleeding and multiple neck injuries. This means that he possibly somersaulted backwards when the anchors broke and fell head first on the ledge. This theory was confirmed in discussion with Colin Rawlstone who survived a similar accident on Mount Kenya.

Could we have done anything to prevent the accident? I do not know. Maybe we could have rigged another anchor, but would it have helped? I have in the past abseiled on anchors that have looked less solid. The Lord have given and the Lord have taken. The accident had much in common with the death of Keith Bush, who died under similar circumstances in the Drakensberg many years ago. One of the letters sent to his family was an inspiration to me when I wrote the obituary.

1. James from MRI Pietersburg who called me at home afterwards.
2. Audrey from MTN Emergency Center who tracked my progress and
3. Rob Thomas who came to our house after hearing about the accident.
4. Russ Dodding for checking up on me regularly.
5. Karin, my wife, who immediately set out to gather information after I phoned her from Pietersburg. She was a pillar of strength.
6. My parents, family and in-laws who stood by us.
7. All the many MCSA members and other climbers who called.
Na al hierdie jare het ek dit nie vergeet nie. Ek het kontak met sy ouers verloor - hulle het êrens in die Wes-Transvaal gebly. Sou ek hulle ooit weer sien, weet ek nie eens wat om te sê nie. Dis lank verby, maar dit het my nooit verlaat nie.

No comments: