Drakensberg Winter Mountaineering – Part 2

Expedition Logistics

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


Getting There & Around

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.

Transport from Durban to the different camps within the Drakensberg will be provided by the guide in the form of 4×4 vehicle

Durban to Royal Natal National Park Office [3h, 283km] > Durban to Royal Natal National Park Office [3h, 283km] > Garden Castle Nature Reserve [3.5h, 174km]

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Accommodation

A range of campsites and mountain huts have been selected based on proximity to the routes planned for winter climbing. Alternatives have been identified in each park including the option for hotels.

These are all open in winter although reservations need to be made well in advance. The trip is planned off peak holiday times.

Bookings can be made over the telephone, although it is also increasingly possible to book over the Internet.

Fuel Cash and Permits

There are different points to fill up the fuel tank before leaving the N3 in the first part of this trip taking place in the Royal Natal National Park. When moving from there to the Maloti-Drakensberg Park and Garden Castle Nature Reserve we pass by major towns where refueling is possible (see map).

Some camps, park entrances, shops and restaurants only take cash payments. This means carrying a significant sum.

Each client will need R40 per day for park permit, although rates might vary from area to area. Wildcards might be accepted in some of these parks, providing that a valid form of identification is presented. Permits are available to the park entrance gates during normal working hours (usually 8am to 4pm, often closed for lunch).

Remember to complete the mountain rescue register at the time of buying the permits.

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The Climate

The Drakensberg and Lesotho have their winters from June till August. The air is mainly very dry and is only interrupted by wet cold fronts every 10 days or so. Not all cold fronts bring snow or rain. Water-ice: The water-ice routes tend to be very consistent, especially in the Giant’s Castle area, but less so at Sani Pass, Garden Castle and eastern Lesotho. Note that for many water-ice routes to form, very little snow has to occur. In fact, in many instances the mountains will be devoid of any snow cover. The ice is only seen when actually looking into the gully where the route is located. Snowfalls, especially during May and June simply enhance the size and thickness of the water-ice. At Giant’s Castle climbable ice is usually formed from early June or even late May and remains so till mid August. The other areas mentioned above tend to be more fickle and will be in season only from late June to mid August. Good snow early in the season can change all this and “sparse” areas like Black Mountain can become excellent routes.

Névé-ice: Névé-ice is dependant on good snowfalls, particularly in June and early July. If this occurs with several heavy falls, these routes can often stay in condition well into September. It is in fact possible to spend the night before the climb in semi-humid conditions below. Then climb for several hours in sub zero temperatures in the gully concerned, and then to top-out into tropical sunshine!

In order for it to change from soft snow to ice, there is a waiting period of at least 10 days, while the snow goes through a daily melting and re-freezing pattern, which causes the individual flakes to bind together. Take note that when these routes are in condition there can often be very little snow cover on the surrounding slopes.

Note these two points:

(A) Do not be put off by the relatively high temperatures in June or July that can be experienced in the foothills or nearby towns and cities to the Drakensberg. The temperatures deep in gullies at the top of the mountains are mostly far below freezing all day long.

(B) In late August and early September there can be heavy, widespread snowfalls. Sadly these do not cause routes to form, as the ambient temperature is already too high, and the snow never hardens and simply melts away.

A five-day forecast for the ‘Berg may be obtained phoning 082 231 1602. The impending arrival of a cold front is usually heralded by high, wispy cirrus clouds moving in from the south west. These clouds become thicker and lower as the front advances. Although the snowfalls are usually light, heavy snowfalls are fairly common and blizzard conditions are not unknown.

Maps of the area

KNZ Wildlife uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park Hiking maps 1, 3 and 6. Available at the park gates, and also at CitiRock in Cape Town. Availability is not warrantied, so better to have them in advance.

Site conditions and route descriptions

Links to details information provided by the Kwazulu-Natal section of the Mountain Club of South Africa are included below. Guidebooks are available for purchase at CitiRock in Cape Town.

Sentinel Peak climb

  • 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)
  • Optional Thukela Gorge walk [5h]
  • Alternative Amphitheatre hike [7h]

Giant’s Castle Massif

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

Mashai Pass & Rhino Peak

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

Rock and quality and protection for mixed conditions

The upper layers of the Drakensberg are formed from “Storm Berg Basalt” and is volcanic in origin. It is usually very friable, especially at lower altitudes. The higher one goes, the better the rock becomes generally. The best protection methods are usually spring-loaded cams, as these seem to work better than wedges and hexentrics. It is also well worth taking a small selection of pitons.

For climbing on ice and mixed conditions, a set of ice screws should be added. A snow stake might come useful, although the complete absence of crevasses and the basic winter climbing conditions might make it unnecessary. Showel, probe and avalanche transceiver are completely unnecessary. Ice Axes and Crampons are required for each client, as well Helmet and Harness suitable for winter mountaineering. Classic walking ice axes and crampons are not ideal for ice and mixed climbing conditions. 50m half or twin ropes must be used provided that they include sharp edge and dry cover features.

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Hazards

All the above areas are not prone to snowfalls as experienced in many other mountain areas of the world. There is virtually no avalanche danger except in exceptional years.  In these times there can be small powder slides in steep gullies or small soft cornices for a few days. These conditions seldom pose any real hazard.  Rock falls do occur but are very sporadic and do not occur in regular patterns or areas. Generally the climbing takes place in very stable, safe conditions as experienced nowhere else in the world.

At any time of the year, changes in the weather may be both extreme and very sudden. Keep a constant lookout for any sign of deteriorating weather conditions.

A five day forecast for the ‘Berg may be obtained phoning 082 231 1602 . This forecast is updated daily.

Thick mist is the initial cause of more epics in the ‘Berg than anything else. Mist may sweep across the escarpment, reducing the visibility to a few meters within a matter of minutes. It may occur at any time of the year.

Some of the weather conditions mentioned above may lead to hypothermia. Make sure you can recognise and treat this condition.

The only poisonous snake that occurs at high altitude in the Berg is the ‘Berg adder. They are surprising scarce and their loud hissing is usually heard before they are seen. No fatality has ever been reported from a ‘Berg adder bite, although recovery from a bite is usually long and painful. At lower altitudes a couple of other poisonous species occur, but you will then generally be much closer to the nearest help. Only one death from snakebite has ever been recorded in the ‘Berg.

Security

In some areas on top of the escarpment and near well used passes, impoverished Basotho are inclined to remove boots and packs etc from your tent at night. Standing guard during the night or setting a trip wire attached to a can of stones are the usual low-tech solutions to this occasional problem. Light weight motion detectors combined with alarm systems are becoming more popular. The chances of being physically attacked are extremely remote. Packs of hunting dogs can be an occasional problem, but as long as you are in a party of three or four, then the chances of suffering any form of attack will be minimised.

On a less serious note, baboons and ravens are likely to demolish any food that is not securely packed away. The ravens at Bell Cave have leaned to undo the zips on packs (I kid you not), so turn packs upside down if you leave them in the cave. The ravens at Giant’s Castle amuse themselves by tearing the rubber strips off windscreen wipers, so you might want to remove the wipers and store them in your car before setting off on a hike.

Rescue

Medical emergencies in the Drakensberg fall under the authority of the Provincial Emergency Medical Rescue Service (EMRS). However, due to the hazards and technical difficulties encountered in the Berg, rescues are carried out by the Kwa-Zulu Natal Section of the Mountain Club of South Africa. This is a highly efficient and well-equipped volunteer rescue team and is supported by helicopters from the South African Air Force. In the event of a known death or missing person the rescue team falls under the authority of the South African Police and is supported by that department’s aircraft.

In the event of an accident or death, the nearest ranger or police station should be notified as soon as possible. The rescue call will be made by them. Phone 10177 anywhere in KwaZulu-Natal.

Before reporting the accident, the reporting party should note:

  • The exact location
  • Any patient injuries
  • The time when the accident occurred
  • The state of the patient when last seen
  • What equipment and clothing the patient has with them
  • Whether technical gear would be needed to reach the patient
  • Any particular medical problems
  • What First Aid has already been administered
  • What the present weather conditions are
  • Patient’s name, sex and age.

Group Kit

Following is an example of the group kit required by both clients and guides considering the type of activities proposed and site conditions this time of the year

  • Tents. For this trip, a light tunnel style 1 person tent will be provided per client (e.g Ferrino Lightent 2, Msr Freelite 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
  • Group First Aid Kit
  • Emergency Shelter
  • Stove x2
  • Gas canisters 1x8oz x pax
  • 1x Cook set
  • 2x 50m Beal Cobra II 8.6mm half ropes
  • 1x Trad Rack and leader kit
    • 1x set of BD cams C4, sizes 0.5 to 3, two pieces per size, each with a wiregate carabiner
    • 1x set of Metolious micro cams, sizes 00 and 0, one piece per size, each with a wiregate carabiner
    • 1x set of BD stoppers, sizes 1 to 13, one piece each, all split in two wiregate carabiners
    • 7x locking gate carabiners (1x pear shape, 3x oval, 3x asymmetric D shape)
    • 2x wiregate carabiners
    • 6x 18cm wiregate quickdraws (alpine draw)
    • 8x 10mmx60cm dyneema slings, each with a wiregate carabiner
    • 1x 10mmx240cm dyneema sling
    • 2x 13mmx120cm dyneema slings
    • 2x prusik loops
    • 1x Triblock
    • 1x Reverso
    • 1x Micro Traxion
    • 1x Pulley
    • 2m 7mm Cordelette
    • 1x 7mm maillon
    • 1x Nut Tool
    • 1x gear sling
    • 1x PAS lanyard

Personal kit

Following is an example of the personal kit required by both clients and guides considering the type of activities proposed and site conditions this time of the year

Climbing Kit

  • 1x Petzl Lynx modular crampons for mixed climbing
  • 2x Petzl Aztarex ice axe + Climbing Technology elastic leash
  • 1x BD Couloir light alpine climbing harness
  • 1x PAS lanyard
  • 2x oval shaped light locking carabiners
  • 1x wire gate carabiner
  • 1x Petzl Reverso + 1x HMS carabiner
  • 1x Tribloc
  • 2x prusiks

Jackets

  • 1x NF Foehn Gore Tex jacket
  • 2x NF Summit Series PrimaLoft hoddies
  • 1x Rain poncho

Shirts & Tops

  • 1x NF Summit Series light polar fleece
  • 2x NF T-shirt
  • 1x Haglofs merino baselayer underwear long-sleeve
  • 1x NF synthetic baselayer long-sleeve

Pants & Shorts

  • 1x NF Summit Series softshell ice climbing pants
  • 1x NF Hyvent rain pants
  • 1x TrangoWorld Cordura light hiking pants
  • 1x NF light hiking shorts
  • 1x Haglofs merino baselayer underwear leggings
  • 1x NF synthetic baselayer leggings
  • 2x Haglofs boxers
  • 1x NF Summit Series heavy baselayer tights

Shoes

  • 1x Salewa Men’s Pro Gaiter Performance mountaineering boot
  • 1x La Sportiva Boulder X Mid GTX hiking boots
  • 1x Salomon Speedcross trail running shoes
  • 1x Boreal Joker rock climbing shoes

Accessories

  • 2x technical socks (summit), 1x merino socks, 4x hiking socks, 1x compression socks (long flight)
  • 1x polartec Windstopper globes, 1 NF advance mountaineering globes, 1 Mountain Hardwear ice climbing globes
  • 2x glacier glasses, antifog wipes
  • 1x Sun Hat
  • 1x Windstopper Buff, 1 light Buff
  • 1x Wool hat

Additional Equipment

  • 1x NF waterproof XL duffle bag
  • 1x NF Summit Series Verto 32l ligt pack
  • 1x NF Summit Series Prophet 65l pack
  • 4x compression bags
  • 1x NF Superlight 0C 650DF sleeping bag
  • 1x TrangoWorld biby sack
  • 1x Therm-a-Rest NeoAir inflatable mattress, 1x Therm-a-rest Z-Lite mat
  • 1x inflatable seat/pillow
  • 2x 1l Nalgene bottles, 1x 500ml Nalgene bottle
  • 1x Thermal mug, 1x spoon
  • 1x Soft colapsable pee bottle
  • 1x First aid kit
  • 2x Petzl headlamp, 1x spare AAA battery set
  • 1x Leatherman multi-tool knife
  • 5x Zip ties
  • 1x Duct tape
  • 2x Light large plastic dry bags
  • 1x Quick dry towel, 1x micro towel
  • Tolettries

Additional Guide Equipment

  • Compass and map
  • GPS with topo loaded and spare batteries
  • 1x Spot tracker (sat beacon) with spare batteries
  • 2x VHF Radio (if more than two Guides)

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Food and other supplies

On this trip, clients are invited to bring food meeting their own requirements. International clients can bring some items of their preference, such as expedition food ration packs, bar, gels & hydration, etc.

At the beginning of the trip we’ll stop at a local supermarket to stock on supplies, and as we move between all three different National Parks, there will be opportunities for resupplying. Some of the camps selected have facilities such as coffee shops, bars and restaurants, and we’ll find some of these together with small supermarkets as we move between all three different areas. 

Clients also have the option to have ration packs pre-arranged by the guiding company. These are some of the options that can be provided:

EXPEDITION MENU

Breakfast

  • Porridge with Sultanas (fruit)
  • Swiss Muesli with Milk Powder
  • Hot Cereal Start
  • Fruitloaf / Maltloaf

Lunch

  • Digestive Biscuits
  • Primula Cheese Spread
  • Krackawheat (salted cracker biscuits)
  • Processed Cheese
  • Hob-Nobs (sweet oat biscuits)
  • Oat Biscuits
  • Tartex Vegetarian Pate
  • Cheese Biscuits (Cheddars)
  • Tinned Tuna, Sweetcorn and Mayonnaise
  • Tinned Tuna, Mediterrranean Style
  • Tinned Tomato Mackeral
  • Pepperami Salami
  • Instant Cup a Soups

Evening Meal

  • Beef Stew
  • Chicken Curry
  • Pasta Bolognaise
  • Beef and Potato Casserole
  • Cod and Potato Casserole
  • Chicken in Sweet and Sour Sauce
  • Vegetarian Pasta
  • Vegetable Casserole
  • Bean & Vegetable Curry
  • Vegetable Tikka

Dessert

  • Apple and Custard
  • Rice Pudding
  • Chocolate Chip Pudding
  • Mixed Fruit Pudding
  • Fruit Cake
  • Shortbread

Brew Kit / Drinks

  • Tea / Earl Grey Tea
  • Coffee & Milk Powder
  • Lemon Tea
  • Hot Chocolate
  • Refresh Orange (powdered)
  • Hi-Energy Electrolyte drinks (blackcurrant, lemon & Lime, strawberry)
  • Sugar

Extras

  • Dried Fruit and Nuts
  • Dried Apricots
  • Cashew Nuts
  • Salt & Vinegar Peanuts
  • Beef Jerkey
  • Tortillas

Chocolate / Sweets

  • Various Chocolate Bars:-Mars, Snicker, Twix, Topic, Toffee Crisp,Lion Bar, Double Decker, Fruit n Nut,Whole Nut, Bournville, Galaxy
  • Roasted Nut Tracker Bar
  • Starburst sweets
  • Mini-pack Biscuits

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