Little Saddle to Sterkhorn

Copyright: MCSA-KZN 1998 ©

Note: All the climbs from the Little Saddle to the Litter are accessible from the upper Didima valley - this is also known as Eastman's Fork. To get there, drive to the top of Mike's Pass (Map #2 : AO:48) then walk across to junction C11 at the bottom of Organ Pipes Pass (Map #2 : AO:52). Continue down Phillip's Folly (AP:53) to reach the start of the upper Didima valley.

LITTLE SADDLE: South Peak: Frontal Route (F2)

(Map #2 : AM:55 : 3073m)

Opening Party: Gavin Peckham, Bruce Sobey and Richard Groenewegen.

Date: 29 August 1999.

Time: 5 hours climbing.

The Little Saddle is located about midway between the tops of Organ Pipes and Tlanyaku Passes. The route is clearly visible as a striking profile against the skyline when looking south from Organ Pipes Pass in the vicinity of the old fire lookout hut.

Approach: Either walk up Organ Pipes Pass and then walk south to the top of the route. Three 50 m abs from the top should take you to the bottom of the route. There is a good ab block at the top, but since we did not ab down the route ourselves, we cannot be certain that suitable ab points will be found lower down. Anyone trying this approach should take prussik loops and pegs.

Alternatively, the route may be approached from below by walking up the long grass ridge that leads up from Schoongezicht Cave in the upper Didima valley. This ridge ends in a series of rocky knolls that guard the approach to the base of the peak. The knolls are probably best bypassed on the north side. This will probably require some C grade scrambling. Bypassing the knolls on the south side requires finding a way through a complex series of very steep rock and grass ledges. Note: We cannot comment firsthand on these possible approaches as we had the great fortune to be the beneficiaries of a free helicopter ride!

From the topmost knoll, walk along a horizontal ridge towards the base of the peak. Scramble up a short grass gully to reach the highest grass ledge at the base of the peak. Start on the far right hand side of the grass ledge.

  1. 45m E. Climb more or less straight up on mixed rock and grass following the line of least resistance until you get to a steep, narrow grass ledge. A steep, grassy chute about 20 m long, leads straight up from this grass ledge. The only belay found was a couple of cracks under a somewhat suspect looking boulder in the middle of the steep grass ledge and a couple of metres to the left of the base of the grassy chute.
  2. 40m F2 Climb the steep, grassy chute sticking mainly to the rock on its right hand edge. From the top of the chute move up diagonally left to reach a broad, but steep grass ledge. Gear placings for a belay will be found high up in the rock at the back of the grass ledge.
  3. 40m F1. Start just left of the belay and scramble up a steep, narrow grass ramp that rises diagonally to the right. At the top of the ramp, move up diagonally left, to reach the left hand side of a large recess in the rock. There is a fixed peg at the base of this rock. Move diagonally to the right, across the left face of the recess, heading for the crack at the top. Exit the recess via the crack onto a broad, steep grass ledge. Belay in a small cubby hole where it is possible to sit in a very well braced position. A sling around two large but slightly loose boulders in the cubbyhole, provides some extra security to the belay. Just left of the cubbyhole is flat area at the base of the rock. Climbers following the leader can wait safely here whilst the next pitch is climbed.
  4. 30m F2. From the right of the cubbyhole, move up 5m diagonally right to a 2m flake leaning against the base of a short vertical wall. Climb onto the flake and then directly up the short wall above. From here, climb up diagonally left on easy rock for about 15m to an excellent, airy stance formed by three small, stepped rock ledges with good cracks for a textbook belay.
  5. 30m F1. Clip a shaky fixed peg about 2 m above the leftmost belay ledge and then move out delicately left around the exposed corner. From here move up diagonally left for a couple of metres to reach easier ground and then scramble to the summit.

Descent: Depending on your approach, you can either abseil down the front of the peak or walk off via Organ Pipes Pass.

Comments: On all pitches the protection is good, and adequate without being abundant. The amount of grass detracts somewhat from the appeal of the line. Regarding the somewhat lengthy time taken to open this climb, we quote Peter Angus-Leppan who said, ". . .much of the time was spent route finding and on one of the most pressing problems of Drakensberg rock climbing - finding sound belays."

Ref: MCSA Journal 1999, pg 163.



(Map#2 : AN:56 : 2723m)

Opening Party: Gavin Peckham and Anthony van Tonder.

Date: 19 September 1999.

Walk up the narrow grass ridge leading up to the Sugar Loaf. This ridge is the one adjacent to the south side of the strong stream that runs down between the south peak of the Little Saddle and the Sugar Loaf. There are several horizontal steps on this ridge that make convenient campsites. Water is always available in the stream mentioned above. Follow the ridge up to within about 50m of the start of the north east arete of the Sugar Loaf and then traverse off to the right across the grass slopes below the sheer north face. This traverse gives access to an easy grass gully that leads up to the nek between the Sugar Loaf and the adjacent buttress on the escarpment.

From the nek a groove leads up into a cleft in the peak. Climb the excellent rock just right of the groove for about 10m (D). Avoid some loose rocks at the top by moving a couple of metres to the right, then up, then back left to reach a grassy step below a chockstone in the cleft. The chockstone is clearly visible from the nek. Straddle up to gain the gully above the chockstone (3m E). Belay in the gully. Continue up the gully, climbing three small rock steps (D) then scramble up a grassy chute and walk across to the summit.

Descent: Scramble down the grassy chute then move out left (facing out) onto the rock above the highest rock step in the gully. Here there is a good block from which a 45m abseil reaches the nek.

Comments: The MCSA Journal, 1935, pg 76 and Pat Irwin's "The Natal Drakensberg", 2nd edition, pg E5 make reference to previous ascents of the 'Sugar Loaf'. It is clear, however, that these texts actually refer to the adjacent buttress attached to the escarpment (2949m) and not to the freestander (2723m) in front of and below it, that is now known as the Sugar Loaf.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1999, pg 167.



(Map #2 : AT:56 : 2581m)

Opening Party: H A 'Grandpa' Eastman and party.

Date: July1935.

From the bottom of Phillip's Folly, follow the contour path parallel to Eastman's Ridge via junctions C12 to C15. There are several possible approaches. The quickest is to continue along the contour path for about a kilometre past junction C15. Then, walk up a grass ridge that leads up to the top of the gully that starts on the north face, immediately below the summit cone. Where this gully abuts onto the main north face, walk up diagonally to the right along a grass ledge to reach a flat step on the crest of the main north west ridge. Scramble up the first small nose of rock (exposed C grade). Climb the next rock step (15m D) on good rock with adequate protection. Scramble up the ridge to the summit. The spectacular 360 degree view from the summit is sufficient reason to climb this well-known peak.

Descent: From the top of the D pitch a 20m abseil down the north face reaches a broad grass ledge. A 40m abseil from a block on this ledge reaches the grass ledge that runs across the base of the north face. This area is often quite dry, but water may usually be found in the stream that runs down from the north face, at a point just below the contour path.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1935, pg 73.


SKONKWANE (The Beacon) (D)

(Map #2 : AQ:59)

Opening Party: Brian Clark and Andrew Gruft.

Date: July 1960.

Although it was originally approached from below, it is probably easier to walk up Tlanyaku Pass and then head south to Didima Cave (AP:60). The nek between Skonkwane and the escarpment may be reached by a C grade scramble down a gully on the escarpment or much more strenuously from below. Do not be misled by the original and subsequent RDs that refer to a suitable campsite 'at the bifurcation of the Didima River.' The bifurcation referred to is actually halfway up Tlanyaku Pass.

If approaching from below, a two hour slog leads to the base of the pinnacle. The Skonkwane - escarpment gully runs down from the nek and then ends in an unclimbable, overhanging groove. The trick is to get into the gully above this groove. Do this by scrambling up easy broken rock and grass on the right of the Skonkwane - escarpment gully, starting from a small saddle behind two pinnacles that are clearly visible from below. Gain height by scrambling up a few B grade pitches to reach a level at which it is possible to traverse left into the gully at a height above the overhanging groove in the gully.

Traverse left - a few meters of exposed D grade - to a grass ledge that leads left and across some slabs towards the gully. A few more D grade moves lead into the gully just above the groove. The gully itself is a very deep chasm with huge rock walls towering over it on both sides. Continue upwards climbing a series of C/D pitches to the nek.

Drop down about 15m on the other (east) side of the nek and traverse along a narrow, heather-covered ledge for about 30m. Another 30m D pitch leads around a sort of rock bollard and up onto the summit ridge. A scramble leads to the top.

Descent: A short abseil reaches the nek. Scramble up a gully onto the escarpment and descend via Tlanyaku Pass.

Comment: In the original Journal article the name of this peak is given variously as Skonkwaan and Skonkwan. It seems that the name derives from the Zulu word for a beacon, namely 'isiKhonkwane'.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1960, pg 130 and photo facing pg 128.



(Map #2 : AQ:59)

Opening Party: Brian Godbold, Colin Inglis and Elsie Esterhuizen.

Date: 1950.

This fang is located immediately in front (north) of Skonkwane. It is graded E but no other details are available.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1960, pg 130 and photo facing pg 128.


UNWABU (The Chameleon) (D)

(Map #2 : AR:59)

Opening Party: Gavin Peckham, Carl Fatti and Tristan Firman.

Date: 27 September 1997.

Walk up the path along the upper Didima River (Eastman's Fork). At its most south eastern extremity the path makes a sharp turn, crosses the upper Didima River and then zig-zags up the side of Eastman's Ridge. At the river crossing a broad grass ridge sweeps up to the south. Walk up the ridge, bypass a rocky knoll and then continue up the ridge to the rock face above. There is a large, narrow, rocky ridge on the left-hand side of the main rock face. This narrow ridge slopes up to, and abuts onto the main rock face.

By one of various routes, scramble up onto the ridge - grade C or D depending on your choice. Continue carefully up the ridge to the point where it abuts onto the main rock face. From here scramble along a ledge of mixed rock and grass which rises diagonally to the right in a series of steps. This ledge crosses the entire frontal face and requires some D grade moves. From the end of the ledge, turn to the left and scramble up the obvious line to the summit. Descend by the same route.

Comments: The peak comes within a hair's breadth of being a free-stander, but is unfortunately connected to the escarpment by curving knife-edge of rotten rock. When viewed from the valley below, the peak blends so completely with the escarpment that it is not possible to discern its existence. For this reason the Zulu name for a chameleon, 'Unwabu' was thought be appropriate

Ref: MCSA Journal 1998, pg 137.


ISIKHOVA (The Owl): Frontal Route (E)

(Map #2 : AS:59)

Opening Route: Malcolm Griffin, Henri Snijders and party.

Date: 19 July 1960.

Isikhova is a conical free standing peak close to the escarpment. To reach the peak, walk up the grass ridge to the east of the one that leads up to Unwabu - see previous RD. At the base of the rock, walk left to a point about 30m before the left hand skyline. The rock is of reasonably good quality.

  1. 35m D. Climb the C/D grassy gully to a broken ledge.
  2. 15m E. Climb a black recess for 5m, traverse 3m round a nose to the left and then climb a 90 degree recess to a sloping ledge.
  3. 30m D. Traverse diagonally up to the left for 10m and then climb up a rib of rock to a comfortable stance.
  4. 100m D. There is a C/D scramble along an exposed knife-edge to the top.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1961, pg 66.


ISIKHOVA (The Owl): Gully Route (E)

(Map #2 : AS:59)

Opening Party: Ernst Lotz and party.

Date: 19 July 1960.

Use the same approach described for the previous route. From the base of the rock, traverse around to the right and climb up the first gully to the nek. Halfway up, this gully is blocked by a chockstone, necessitating a short E grade deviation on its left hand side. From the nek, the western arete is gained by a short section of D grade climbing. The arete is followed to the summit. From the nek the escarpment can be easily reached. Copyright: MCSA-KZN 1998 ©

Ref: MCSA Journal 1961, pg 66.



(Map #2 : AU:58)

Opening Party: Doyle Liebenberg, Doc Ripley, Harry Barker, Stanley Rose, Mary Lear and Rene Hodson.

Date: 1935.

The south eastern end of Eastman's Ridge sweeps up to join the main escarpment. The last kilometre or so of the ridge is known as The Litter. The Litter ridge lies parallel to, and about 1½ km west of, the Dragon's Back Ridge - see next RD. The Litter ends in a series of rock 'fingers' connected by narrow 'shoulders' (neks?). The original RD is extremely vague, but it seems that you simply scramble up the crest of the ridge. The only section of relevance is, "The rock climb proved fairly easy and the summit confronted us with a vast cascade of black krantzes : for the wrinkled brow of the berg frowned at us across a profound chasm about 150 feet (50m) wide." Because of this chasm, it is apparently not possible to continue up the ridge onto the escarpment. If you can make anything of this RD you deserve a medal.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1935, pg 83.



(Map #2 : AW:58)

Opening Party: Probably F E 'Tom' Ellis, Brian Godbold and party in July 1933. Possibly Des Watkins, Gillian Bettle and Lionel Ashley in May 1952.

The Dragon's Back is a jagged ridge leading down from the escarpment. It starts just north of the top of Grey's Pass and runs down to end at Intunja (AY:57). At the top, the ridge starts with four flat-topped buttresses and then descends in a series of jagged peaklets. The first three flat-topped buttresses are attached to the escarpment, but the fourth is a freestander. It's name derives from the fact that the Dragon's Back was formerly know as Cigar Ridge. The reason for the name change is unknown.

The start of this climb is badly described, but "a left hand descent of the (Inkosazana) falls leads to an obvious C traverse." and by "getting lost in the mist" the start of the climb was reached.

From the start (wtmb), "climb to the right of a large block up some 30 feet (10m), and 120 feet (40m) of D. A right hand traverse leads to 20 feet (6m) of E and an obvious 80 foot (25m) E chimney to the summit." People who write RDs like this should be sentenced to sit on committees for the rest of their lives.

An article in the 1933 Journal describes an ascent of various pinnacles along this ridge and although there is no specific reference to the 'Fourth Cigar', it is most probable that Ellis' party climbed this peak almost 20 years before Watkins' party.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1933, pg 76; 1953, pg 66 and photo facing pg 66.



(Map #2 : AZ:58 : 2620m)

Probably first climbed by the Stocker brothers in 1888 or by G T Amphlett in 1912. The first recorded ascent was in July 1933 by Mr and Mrs Cameron and Mr Gild. It is clear from the reference (see below) that this party was well aware of previous ascents and thus made no claim to an opening ascent.

The peak may be approached in various ways. The easiest is probably to walk along the contour path, heading north from Blind Man's Corner (junction M13). Just before (south) of junction M2, a steep grassy gully leads up to a nek. Walk up to the nek and then traverse around behind Amphlett working your way up across the western slopes. A major rock band encircles the peak above these lower grass slopes. Continue along the grass ledge and around to the south west side of the peak where an easy grass gully leads through the rock band. Scramble up to the rock on the right hand side (south) of the summit. Follow a line of weakness that leads up diagonally to the right (away from the summit) and up onto the summit ridge. Scramble up this knife-edge ridge to the summit. Two pitches of C grade climbing with the odd D move on good rock are involved. The faint of heart may find the security of a rope desirable.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1933, pg 78.



(Map #2 : AZ:58 : 2670m)

Opening Party: F E 'Tom' Ellis, Brian Godbold and party.

Date: July 1933.

Approach as for Amphlett and then scramble across to the nek between Amphlett and Turret. Walk around the base of the Turret to the west side. Here a cleft in the west face gives surprisingly easy access to the summit. Various single pitch routes have been opened on the other faces.

 Ref: MCSA Journal 1933, pg 78.



(Map #2 : AZ:59 : 2973m)

Sterkhorn has three summits. The north and south and summits are reasonably large with the south summit being the highest. The middle summit is very small and is about the same height as the north summit. Access to the north summit is by way of an easy and well-worn path. The other two summits require more serious climbing. From the path up the north summit, a grass ledge below the north summit gives access to the other two summits. The ascent of Sterkhorn was the first recorded rock climb of a serious nature in the Drakensberg. Over the years it seems that there have been numerous ascents of the peak by a wide variety of differing and unrecorded routes. The RDs of the recorded routes are generally so vague as to be hardly worth repeating - common sense and a smattering of route finding ability should suffice.


STERKHORN: North Summit (C)

Opening Party: Rev A H and F R Stocker.

Date: May 1888.

The Stocker bother's original route to the top of the north summit was a very indirect line resulting from a failed attempt on the south summit. The Alpine Journal 1889, pg 399 apparently gives a detailed RD of the route, but copy of this Journal was not readily available. Nowadays, this peak is easily ascended by a good path, starting from the contour path and leading up the east ridge. Some unexposed C grade scrambling through rock bands and an interesting 'worm hole' near the top are involved. The use of a rope is quite unnecessary.

Ref: Reg Pearse, 'Barrier of Spears' 2nd ed. pg 69.


STERKHORN: Middle Summit (F1)

One pitch of F1 grade on the east ridge provides pleasant climbing to the top. No details of the first ascent have been found.


STERKHORN: South Summit: South East Chimney (F)

Opening Party : Rev A H and F R Stocker.

Date : July 1888.

This route is not easy and involves two chimneys, one with a difficult chockstone, a tricky traverse on the east buttress and back onto the south east ridge, under an overhanging rock, up one final chimney and onto the top. Abseil down the west face. The Alpine Journal 1889, pg 400 apparently gives a detailed RD, but copy of this Journal was not readily available.

Ref: Reg Pearse, 'Barrier of Spears' 2nd ed. pg 70.


STERKHORN: South Summit: West Face (E)

Opening Party: Mark Frank, Brian Godbold, and F E 'Tom' Ellis.

Date: July 1935.

It seems that this route starts up the north west ridge and traverses at a fairly high level left on the Mhlwazine side. The first pitch consists of an F standard overhang. Traverse around to the right and into a gully and climb for about 20m. Traverse left up to a grassy ledge and then climb a difficult chimney for 10m up onto a ridge. Descend the other side and traverse to avoid the difficult rocks above. Climb to the top.

Ref: MCSA Journal 1935, pg 77.


STERKHORN: South Summit: North West Corner (E)

Doyle Liebenberg's 'The Drakensberg of Natal', pg 158 lists the opening party as: Jack Drake, Ronald Butcher, E 'Bill' Barclay and Laura Kelsall and cites the MCSA Journal of 1933, pg 79. This Journal, however, makes no reference to the said party. Instead it indicates that F E 'Tom' Ellis, Mr Gild and Mark Frank climbed the route in July 1933.

Unrecorded earlier ascents of the south summit were made by Ronald Butcher, a party led by Tom Wood and a party led by Tom Ellis. Ref: MCSA Journal 1935, pg 78.