It was already pushing 4 p.m. on the cool May afternoon when I arrived for the first time in Waterval Boven, the small South African railway town near the “Restaurant at the End of the Universe” crags. Eager to climb after a four-month hiatus, my partner and I checked into our dorm room at the Chateau d’Escalade and raced up the road to the closest crag for a sundowner.
Despite losing our way on the overgrown trail, we found the crag with less than an hour’s light left in the day and promptly set off on a five-star sport route.
I advanced steadily through the opening moves, focusing on the sequences ahead. As I readied myself to pull through the crux roof, a cacophony erupted to my left.
“What was that?” Chris yelled up.
“Umm,” I said. “We’ve got an audience.”
Not 20 feet away on a thick tree branch, a large male baboon glared at me as I interrupted his evening. The rest of his troop, perhaps expecting a fight, began to cheer. My concentration drifted to my host brother’s story about a friend who was rushed to a hospital after a baboon slashed him in the chest and back. He was found unconscious in the trail after losing several pints of blood. Fortunately for me, this particular baboon chose not to test his substantial strength advantage as I hurriedly lowered to an abrupt escape.
AT THE BEGINNING of February 2009, I had left behind my family, friends, career, short weekends at the New and long weekends at the Red, and no fewer than seven local climbing gyms to join the U.S. Peace Corps. Although I had been satisfied with the direction my life was taking after finishing graduate school, I felt that I needed to “pay it forward” for all of the opportunities that others had made possible for me—even if it meant giving up climbing for more than two years.
As fortune would have it, I ended up boarding a plane not for my original assignment in The Gambia (maximum elevation: 150 feet) but for South Africa, land of Rocklands and the majestic Drakensberg.
Unfortunately, Marapyane, the training village where I spent my first two months in South Africa, was more reminiscent of the Great Plains than the Appalachians. I cranked pull-ups on tree branches, ran, and carried 25-liter buckets of water to stay fit while hoping for a two-year placement in the mountains.
At the end of March, I got my wish. After I rode for hours through the Highveld plains north of Pretoria, the silhouette of the Styrdpoortberg, the northern arm of the Drakensberg range, rose in the distance as we approached Ga-Mathabatha, the village I’d be living in. Gazing at the long bands of quartzite cliffs in the distance, I suddenly felt at home.
WITHIN A MONTH, THOSE in my village who knew anything about me besides my skin color were able to tell you three things: my local name, “Malope,” that I volunteered with Fanang Diatla Self-Help Project, and “O rata go namela dithaba.” (He likes to climb mountains.) Alas, knowledge of my interest in climbing did not translate into interest in joining me in my boulder-hunting excursions in the mountains surrounding the village. My requests would be met unfailingly with fear: “But there are snakes. They will bite me.”
For the first three months, we Peace Corps volunteers were expected to travel no further than the nearest town to buy groceries. After five weeks at site, however, I had to find a way to get back on the rock. I had just received a copy of the guidebook for the restaurant at the End of the Universe crags from another Peace Corps volunteer, who was returning to the United States. Within a week, the pages were dog-eared. A few text messages and e-mails later, I had found a fellow volunteer willing to play hooky.
THAT FIRST TASTE of climbing in my new home rekindled my obsession. I did whatever it took to return to the vertical as often as my meager Peace Corps stipend and dwindling savings would allow. Weekends of multi-pitch trad and sport climbing near my shopping town of Polokwane, single-pitch sport and bouldering with friends on official visits to Pretoria, and long weekends at Boven. I even had the luck to be invited as a guest, along with South Africa’s top-ranked sport climbers, to the 2009 Petzl Rock & Road competition in the Eastern Cape Province. The only other international guest climber was Adam Ondra; I was in good company.
Rob, my climbing partner at home, joked in an e-mail, “Aren’t you supposed to be saving lives over there? How are you getting to climb more than I do?”
But the costs of my climbing trips were not merely financial. As Peace Corps volunteers, we’re expected not only to use whatever skills we have but to become full members of our host communities. After nearly a year in my village, I’d missed all but one of my group’s soccer games. I’d been to one wedding and no funerals, equally common in an AIDS-ravaged society. When I walked or ran through parts of my community, children still yelled, “Lekgowa!” at the top of their lungs to alert their brothers and sisters to the presence of a strange white man. Adults frequently greeted me in Afrikaans, the language of nearly all whites living in the province, and asked if I’d come to reopen the local andalusite mine. And outside of my host family and coworkers, I had formed few friendships.
Returning home one Sunday to find me in my room, my host brother, Vynand, asked, “Why were you not at the funeral today?”
“I did not know there was a funeral today,” I said. “Anyway, I get the impression that people don’t really want me there.”
“But you must go. You must show the people that you will be there in sad times and not just in happy times, or they will think you don’t want to be one of us.”
I realized I could not remember the last time I’d spent consecutive weekends in my village. The longer I dwelled on the issue, the more my sporadic pangs of guilt grew into a full-blown existential crisis. Was I failing as a volunteer? Were volunteerism and climbing, an inherently selfish pursuit, at all compatible?
To suppress my concerns, I organized a youth climbing trip for orphaned and vulnerable teens in my community. Despite the trip being, by most measures, a great success, my doubts persisted.
I BEGAN TO TAKE solitary late-afternoon walks along the derelict mining roads running into the mountains north of my village. On one such stroll in November, Thanksgiving memories of family and friends brought to mind just how much I’d sacrificed to join the Peace Corps.
“Do I really have to give up everything,” I wondered, “to be an effective volunteer?”
In choosing to spend my free time away climbing instead of in my host community, I had to let go of my goal of emulating the great humanitarian feats of Greg Mortensen. But that didn’t mean, I decided, that I couldn’t make a positive difference in the lives of the local people.
I finally understood that those attempting to pursue both volunteerism and climbing must accept a trade-off.
When I joined the Peace Corps, I believed I was willing and able to sacrifice almost everything for the sake of doing good. I was mistaken. Like many of us who have tried cutting back or even giving up climbing, I discovered that it is more than just a sport. At least at this stage of my life, it’s a raison d’être.
Yet just as climbing is more fulfilling when we push beyond our comfort zone, the same is true for volunteerism. Too often, until we have made the effort, we underestimate the incredible satisfaction of making a difference in another person’s life. We owe it to ourselves and as a community to do what we can.
Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we should nothing. Maybe we just need to think of better ways to spend our rest days.
The author, a Peace Corp volunteer working on HIV/AIDs research in South Africa, has spent nine years balancing climbing with volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, river cleanups, and political campaigns.