Drakensberg Winter Mountaineering – Part 1

Guided Trip 2017 & 2018

Top of Thukela Falls – Second highest in the world

Mont-Aux Sources hike (3282m) – Once thought to be the highest point in South Africa

Sentinel Peak (3165m) – The most frequently climbed peak in the Drakensberg

Giant’s Castle Massif (3315m) – Home of the range’s best water-ice routes

Mashai Pass & Rhino Peak (3051m) – Winter mixed climbs

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1. Saturday: Durban to Royal Natal National Park Office [3h, 283km]

Optional Thukela Gorge walk [5h]

Night at the Mont Aux Sources Hotel or Camp in the RNNP (Mahai Rest Camp, Thendele Upper Camp)

2. Sunday: Top of Thukela Falls & Mont-Aux Sources hike (3282m) [16km, 6h]

Alternative Amphitheatre hike [7h]

Night at Tugela Falls Hut

3. Monday: Sentinel Peak climb (3165m)

Possible routes: North Face Route (also known as the Angus Leppan Route, 6 pitches, grade 14),

Standard Route (very easy climb, one pitch followed by scrambling), MCM (7 pitch sport climb, grade 18-22)

Night at Tugela Falls Hut

4. Tuesday: Drive to Maloti-Drakensberg Park [2.5h, 169km]

Night at Giant’s Castle Camp

5. Wednesday: Giant’s Castle Massif

Possible routes: South face ice routes, Frontal Winter Route (Sherman’s Route, grade II, 2 F3), Schole’s Route (F2, 7 pitches)

Night at Giant’s Hut or Makaza Camp

6. Thursday: Giant’s Castle Massif

Possible routes: South face ice routes, Frontal Winter Route (Sherman’s Route, grade II, 2 F3), Schole’s Route (F2, 7 pitches)

Night at Giant’s Hut or Makaza Camp

7. Friday: Drive to Garden Castle Nature Reserve [3.5h, 174km]

Night at Drakensberg Gardens hotel or Hermits Wood Campsite

8. Saturday: Mashai Pass & Rhino Peak (3051m) [10h, 25k]

Possible routes: Mashai Pass (2980m), Eastern Arete Route (E, 4h, 3 pitches), ‘S’ Route (F1, 6h, 5 pitches)

Night at Mashai Shelter or Pillar Cave

9. Sunday: Drive to Durban [3h, 245km]

End of trip

Possible Extensions:

  • Mafadi (3450m) – Highest Peak in South Africa
  • Thabana Ntlenyana (3482 m) – Highest Peak south of Kilimanjaro
  • Maloti-Drakensberg Heritage Route
  • Sani Pass ice and Black Mountain pass (3240m)


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Trip Description:

The Drakensberg forms the border between the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho in the west and lower lying province of KwaZulu-Natal in the east. The range runs more or less north – south for about 180 km and consists of a deeply incised escarpment with an average altitude of about 3000 m. The name Drakensberg derives from the Dutch name the Mountain of Dragons. The Zulu people call these mountains Quathlamba – the Barrier of Spears.

Information for International Climbers

Before your trip, do the usual thing and buy a copy of the “Lonely Planet” guide to South Africa from your local bookshop! This guide contains most of the general information that you will need to know about visiting South Africa.

If you are planning to climb in the Drakensberg then Durban will be the most practical starting point. If you have flown into the country via Cape Town or Johannesburg International Airports, then you will need to catch a connecting flight to Durban. We can accommodate the program to start from Johannesburg at an additional cost, in which case the trip will finish in Durban.

Winter climbing in the Drakensberg

The Natal Drakensberg is southern Africa’s highest and most spectacular mountain range. It also holds the region’s only consistently forming ice and snow routes. Most documented routes are either pure water-ice or pure névé snow, but there are a few routes which require mixed climbing.

The water-ice routes form mainly as a result of summer streams and seepages icing up on south facing slopes. Most catchments and drainages start to freeze from late May and remain in that state till at least late August, however in the recent years the conditions have become quite variable, therefore we plan for alternative classic alpine climbs in absence of proper winter climbing conditions. 

Most of the consistently forming routes occur in the Central or Southern area of the range. Indeed, the only documented routes north of Giant’s Castle are the South Gully of Champagne Castle, the South Gully of Cathkin Peak and the Cleft Peak Frontal Route. In the last few years a number of water-ice routes have been discovered across the border in Lesotho, especially around Rhino Peak in the Garden Castle Nature Reserve.  There is most likely much more to be found for the adventurous climber.

Royal Natal National Park

Royal Natal National Park has some of the best mountain scenery in Africa. The main feature is the world-famous Amphitheater, a rock wall approximately that is approximately five km in length, and approximately 500m high. On top of the amphitheater is the Mont-aux-Sources peak where the Orange river begins its long journey to the Atlantic Ocean and Tugela river cascades down the face of the amphitheater, in the second highest waterfall in the world, on its way to the Indian ocean.

After 3h drive from Durban, we have plenty of time to rest and prepare for climbing at the Thendele or Mahai Rest camps is situated in some of the most picturesque settings in South Africa, with breathtaking views of the Amphitheater. Alternative accommodation can be arranged at the Mont Aux Sources Hotel.

An optional 5h Thukela Gorge walk can be done as preparation for the coming adventures.

Top of Thukela Falls – Second highest in the world

The 2km drop over a series of falls and cascades and through the gorge to the valley floor makes the Thukela Falls one of the most breathtaking features of the Drakensberg. One sheer drop of 614m is the highest in South Africa, while the combined drop of 948m makes it the second highest falls in the world.

This is the first of our hikes in the Royal Natal National Park combined with an ascent to Mont-Aux Sources.

Mont-Aux Sources hike (3282m) – Once thought to be the highest point in South Africa

Mont-Aux-Sources 3282m is the highest peak in the area, a non-technical trekking ascent using the chain ladders to gain access to the Mont-Aux-Sources Plateau & the Amphitheatre.

Combined with a hike to the Top of Thukela Falls, it will take us around 6h to return to Tugela Falls Hut where we’ll spend the first night outside the camping facilities.

Sentinel Peak (3165m) – The most frequently climbed peak in the Drakensberg

The Zulu name for this impressive peak is Ntabamnyama – the Black One. It is the most frequently climbed peak in the Drakensberg, and a perfect introduction to Berg climbing.

We approach the Sentinel from the Tugela Falls Hut to climb the North Face Route (also known as the Angus Leppan Route, 6 pitches, grade 14) or the easier Standard Route (very easy climb, one pitch followed by scrambling). Experienced and strong climbers have the option to climb the MCM route (7 pitch sport climb, grade 18-22).

We return to Tugela Falls Hut after a long day climbing, where we spend our last night in the Royal Natal National Park.

Maloti-Drakensberg Park

The Maloti-Drakensberg Park, is a transboundary UNESCO World Heritage site composed of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho. The site has exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts as well as visually spectacular sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools. The Park boasts the highest concentrations of rock art south of the Sahara, spectacular mountain peaks, rich biodiversity and rare fossils.

After driving 2.5h from the RNNP, we’ll have plenty of time for provisioning and exploring the area before we set of the following morning searching for the best ice routes in the Giant’s Castle Massif. We spend the night in the Giant’s Castle Camp which has a restaurant among other facilities.

Giant’s Castle Massif (3315m) – Home of the range’s best water-ice routes

They are located on the south side of the massif. Ice forms from late May, right through to late August. The ice is very consistent, even if there has been no snow since almost all the routes form from streams and seepages. They are best approached from the Giant’s Castle Camp where we spent our first night in the Maloti-Drakensberg Park.

An eight-hour hike with full kit over the Giant’s Castle Pass gives access to the upper reaches of the mountain’s south face. Unlike most other winter-climbing areas of the world, these climbs are usually accessed from the top. The lip of the south face has numerous flat areas to camp, from where the climbs are then reached either by abseiling or scrambling down to the beginnings of the icefalls. The top of “Makaza” is the usual base camp and we might use the Giant’s Hut as an alternative shelter to spend the next two nights while we explore the area.

Currently, several major climbs have been done on this peak and numerous others still await first ascents. Most of the unclimbed falls are steep, multi-pitch routes that will require more skill and determination than the present generation of local climbers can deal with.

In this trip we are looking at climbing some of the most accessible, yet stunning classic climbs, such as the South Face ice routes, Frontal Winter Route (Sherman’s Route, grade II, 2 F3) or Schole’s Route (F2).

Garden Castle Nature Reserve

After two full days negotiating some routes in the Giant’s Castle Massif, we drive for about 3.5h to the Garden Castle Nature Reserve, where we spend the first night at the Hermits Wood Campsite with the option of staying at the Drakensberg Gardens hotel.

Garden Castle is the southernmost part of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and incorporates the beautiful Bushman’s Nek Valley. Dominated by the Rhino a 3051m Peak which extends about 2km from the main escarpment, the area is characterized by many unusual sandstone buttresses and other formations.

Mashai Pass & Rhino Peak (3051m) – Winter mixed climbs

The Rhino Peak S-Route climbs a long arête on the peak’s south face (F1, 6h, 5 pitches). The hardest pitch is grade 13. The Rhino Peak Eastern Arête is shorter route suitable for climbers with limited experience (E, 4h, 3 pitches). We approach both routes thorugh the Mashai Pass (2980m) which should offer excellent snow walking conditions this time of the year.

We’ll improvise a camp in the Mashai Shelter or Pillar Cave.

After spending our last night in the Drakensberg, we’ll drive back to Durban for about 3h, leaving enough time to catch a late flight, although we strongly recommend having a spare day for any possible eventuality.


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Guides

This trip has been designed to be conducted on a 1:1 guide to client ratio, however the guiding company can accommodate ratios of 1:2 based on the difficulty of routes selected by the clients.

The trip can also be offered as Leaded, for clients looking to climb independently but requiring logistic support and route finding, as well as Consulted, where the guiding company is in charge of all logistic support up to the various camps detailed in the program, but no other guiding services are provided.

All guides in this trip are IFMGA registered or hold a valid National Qualification as a Mountaineering Guide which can be provided to customers upon request.

Fitness and prior experience required

Physical Difficulty and Technical Grade

All our trips have a physical difficulty rating. Our expeditions range from relaxing to hardcore, requiring a lot of pre-trip training. When grading an expedition, we take into account time per day moving, number of physically demanding days in a row, and any other influences such as altitude.

The Drakensberg Winter Mountaineering trip is considered a reasonably technical trip with a difficult level of commitment. Selected routes vary from Moderate to Difficult grades, so clients wishing to participate in this trip must have the right experience and fitness.

The program has been designed with an increasing level of difficulty and commitment, and guides will be able to adapt the route to both your expectations and capabilities. The route options provided in this program include the relative grade based on information published with the Mountain Club of South Africa.

The Drakensberg uses a modified and shortened version of the system used in the Canadian Rockies. Here three aspects of a route are covered. The commitment grade given in Roman numerals gives an indication of the difficulty of the approach and descent as well as how sustained the climbing will be. The technical grade is simply how hard any single section of climbing is likely to be under average conditions. Grades range from 1-6. Pitches that normally take place on water-ice are prefixed by WI.
Technical rock grades are included if mixed ground is likely to be encountered. This is shown in the old South African system. Note that in keeping with international trends the rock grade is given in “how it feels” to climb a section of rock in heavy boots, crampons etc. It is not given as how difficult it is if climbed with summer rock shoes and warm hands!

Commitment Grades
Roman Numerals I to III.

I – A route with an easy walk-in of less than 3 hours and easy navigation to and from the route. Descent by walking off and with escape routes from the pitches. Characteristically these routes would seldom be more than 2 pitches in length. 
II – Routes which could have walk-ins of several hours in remote areas. Descent could be by abseil or down unmarked routes. A good degree of mountain experience will be needed for the approach climb and descent.
III – Routes which will demand small expedition organization and will usually, require a few days’ round trip. Camping or bivying at high altitude in a remote wilderness area is required. Climbing will usually involve multi-pitch, sustained climbing. Descent or retreat will most likely be by abseil from rock or ice “V” thread belays (Abalakov Sandwich).

Technical Grades
This grade denotes the hardest section of climbing during an average winter. If climbing is on water-ice the grade carries the acronym WI.

Grade 1 – Easy, walkable slopes with perhaps short steeper sections.
Grade 2 – Easy angled front pointing, short sections of 80 degrees with good protection.
Grade 3 – Sustained climbing up to 80 degrees between rests. Could have short sections of steeper ground. Good resting places and requires ability to place protection while on front points.
Grade 4 – Sustained full pitch of off-vertical ice or shorter sections of dead vertical ground.
Grade 5 – Long sustained pitch of near-vertical ice with few or no resting spots. Areas of chandeliers, bulges or featureless ice could be encountered.
Grade 6 – A pitch of dead vertical ice or near vertical with sections of thin highly technical ice or other obstacles such as overhangs or bulges. Protection will be scarce and placed while in very precarious positions. To date no climbs of this grade have been opened in the Berg.

Comfort level
This trip has a relative good level of comfort and most nights will be spent in well stablished camps including a variety of facilities which in some cases include restaurants and showers. However, due to the alpine nature of this trip, some nights will be done in improvised camps close to the routes we plan for climbing.

Each client is provided with a light tunnel style 1 person tent (e.g Ferrino Lightent 2, Msr Freelite 2) or 2 person dome tent for couples (e.g. MSR Advance Pro 2). It’s highly advisable for each client to bring their own weather-resistant biby sack which can serve better in caves and huts with wet conditions.

Clients wanting to have a luxury experience in between nights sleeping up in the mountains, can be provided with that option at an additional cost (e.g. Drakensberg Gardens Golf & Spa Resort)


Documentation

The following documents are provided to clients before, during and after the trip:

  • Trip flyer and detailed program description
  • Application form
  • Detailed customized program, with amendments to the standard program and clear instructions for meet and greet procedures. It also includes a definition of Individually Guided, Leaded and Consulted trips, with a clear description of the scope and limits of the guiding services.
  • Visa invitation letter if required by international clients
  • Kit list and contact numbers to be used once in the country (including emergencies)
  • Indemnity form
  • Feedback form

Costs

Cost to each client: excluding flights, accommodation in Durban, insurance, permits, food and beverages – Refer to the about section in this website to request a quote for this trip


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