Drakensberg Ice Climbs


Route Descriptions by Area


The winter routes in the Drakensberg are are grouped in the following areas (shown from North to South):
  1. Areas North of Giant’s Castle
  2. The Giant’s Castle Massif
  3. The Lotheni Area
  4. Sani Pass and Black Mountain Area
  5. The Rhino Peak Area
  6. Routes Within Lesotho

General Information


Introduction


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. There have to date been no pure dry tooling routes developed.

Water-ice Routes


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.  Because their source of moisture is normal run off from previous rainfall, they tend to form very consistently, year after year.  Of course winter snowmelt in the same catchments, causes more water to run down into the shadows of the southern slopes making the routes even “fatter” for climbing on. Climbs vary in length from a few meters up to several hundred.

Névé-ice Routes


Névé-ice or hardened snow, is usually found in long, deep gullies on the south and east slopes of the range.  During summer they are usually loose, boulder-strewn clefts which are not worth climbing.

Climbing Seasons and Conditions


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.

Rock Quality


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.

Safety


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.

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 know 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.

History


Ice climbing in the Drakensberg was first properly probed by British climber, Jeff Ingman while on a work contract in South Africa. Ingman and various partners made the first ascents of some of the major water-ice routes of the Giant’s Castle area. From that time until the late ‘90s only a handful of enthusiasts continued climbing these routes. Then towards the end of the millennium the shorter and more accessible routes of the Sani Pass area were climbed. This development coupled with the publishing of all the winter routes in an addendum to the Rock Climbs of the Drakensberg, sparked a big interest in the sport. Since about the year 2000 there has been a huge increase in the numbers of winter climbers.

Grades for Ice Climbing


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 organisation and will usually, require a few days’ round trip. Camping or bivvying 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.

Location of the Routes


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 (Godbold’s route). A snow gully has also been climbed just north of Langalibalele Pass but very little is known about it. All these routes seldom form fully and as a result are  seldom climbed.  They tend to be mainly névé snow routes. The Cleft Peak route is probably very good climbing when in condition.

In the last few years a number of water-ice routes have been discovered across the border in Lesotho.  There is most likely much more to be found for the adventurous climber. The Drakensberg south of the Transkei border and in the Rhodes region probably also has much undiscovered ice.