Welcome to the world of tropical ice-climbing !
This page contains the most comprehensive and up to date information available and has been compiled by Gavin Raubenheimer, the owner and guide of Peak High Mountaineering.
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.
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 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. 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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
Areas north of Giant’s Castle
The following routes are seldom in condition and therefore not often climbed. Not very much is known of what they are actually like. That said they probably give very good climbing for a few weeks every year. Good snowfalls would be essential. All are normally rock routes.
Cleft Peak: Frontal Route (Godbold’s Route)
Grade: III WI 3 F3 not confirmed.
First ascent: B. Godbold, A. Millard and N. Millard (née Bokenham). July 1946.
Time: A full day.
This route may be approached in various ways – none of them easy. Route finding is simplest if you follow the crest of the ridge leading up from near
Tseke Hut. This approach has a lot of thick bush in the lower stages and requires bypassing rocky knolls higher up – not recommended. The easiest approach is to cut across the spurs starting near the stream at the sharp bend in the contour path between junctions C7 and C8. One can also traverse from Camel Pass along below the main wall. Whichever approach you use ends up near the base of the huge rock wall to the left (east) of the massive cleft. Walk to the right and scramble up a couple of short grassy/icy gullies to reach a large nose of rock some 100m left of a point directly below the start of the cleft. Climb up on broken rock and grass/snow on the right of the nose. This involves about 60m of exposed, unpleasant scrambling which leads to a chimney on the right. From the top, walk across a good ledge leading to the right. There is a small bivvy cave midway along this ledge. Follow the ledge further to the right and around into the cleft. The cleft itself is then climbed. This simply involves a series of icy chimneys, separated by easy snow slopes. The final chimney is short and overhanging with two good cracks. It is at least F3 but may be bypassed by
making a few moves out of the main cleft on the right wall and then around and up an easy gully, parallel to the main cleft, to reach the top.
Ref: MCSA Journal 1946, pg 35.
Champagne Castle South Gully Route
Grade III 2 E
First ascent: D. Watkins, P. Richards, J. B. Anderson and R. Denny. July 1955.
Time: About 3 hours to the top.
From Keith Bush Camp walk upstream for about one hour to a major fork. The gully on the left leads up to the Monk’s Cowl – Champagne Castle nek and the gully on the right leads straight up the north west face of Champagne Castle. Climb the snow gully, with a couple of E grade rock pitches, to reach the top of the escarpment about 500m from the highest point of Champagne Castle.
Descend via Grey’s Pass.
Ref: MCSA Journal 1955, pg 39.
Cathkin South Gully (Standard Route)
Grade: III 2 E
First ascent: G.T. Amphlett, W.C. West, Father A.D. Kelly, T. Casement, Tobias and Melatu. 12 September 1912.
Time: 7 hours from Keith Bush Camp.
From Keith Bush, walk up to the nek between Cowl and Cathkin and descend some 150m on the Injasuti side. Traverse into the gully just above the large wash away. Do not try to take a shortcut on the small higher ledge.
The first rock band on the left of the gully is broken by a grass gully, which is followed up and right to the next main ledge. Snow and ice could be encountered from top to bottom on this entire route. Where grass or rock is mentioned, it could in fact be covered by ice at times.
A narrow grass ramp then leads up and left to open grass slopes, until a small rock band forces one into the gully itself via an exposed traverse.
Continue up avoiding the waterfalls until a large recess is reached. Scramble up the centre, past a small cave on your left hand side, and then traverse 15m leftwards above the cave (C+) to reach a knife edge or arête. This can be very tricky in winter. Follow this to the base of a chimney.
Climb this chimney to a small grassy stance (crux, E if dry). This pitch could prove very difficult in icy conditions. Climb another short crack and traverse left across sloping rocks until a steep but easy face is reached. Climb to the top. Note: The following variation is often used when the chimney is wet or iced up. (Opened by Mervyn Gans 1977). Start at the same level as the foot of the chimney and 10m to the right.
1) F1 10m. There is a short crack with a block sticking out of it about 2m above the ground. Climb the crack to a cubbyhole; move left, then up, using high handholds. Scramble up to the foot of the next sheer face.
2) F1 40m. Traverse right for about 3m, moving around a delicate corner. Climb straight up a recessed face (open book), continue to the top.
Descend via the same route, with the number of abseils depending on conditions. An alternative descent is via the south east ridge.
Ref.: MCSA Journal 1913, pg 79; 1937, pg 77; 1986, pg 51.
Giant’s Castle massif
This is the 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 best time is usually mid to late July. The ice is very consistent, even if there has been no snow. Almost all the routes form from streams and seepages. They are best approached from the Giant’s Castle Camp. 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.
Giant’s Castle holds the best conditions for ice climbing because, in this area, the escarpment edge runs from east to west for about four kilometres.
This then forms a long, cold and shady cliff-edge where temperatures seldom rise above freezing point for the entire winter. Furthermore, a long grass slope running up towards the main summit stretches above the cliff edge. This acts as a huge catchment for snow and rain, which later runs down over the edge and provides the moisture to cause “fat” conditions. There are also numerous easy-angled gullies, which fill with deep snow in this area.
These do not become hard water-ice, but slowly consolidate over time to become ‘névé ice’ or very hard snow.
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.
Grade: II, 2
Time: 6 hours from hut to summit.
Approach the Eastern Gully from Giant’s Hut. This gully starts from the top of the narrow valley below which the hut is located. The climb consists of easy angled névé-ice. There is a small waterfall at the start, which can sometimes be awkward. The climb consists of a superb gully running all the way to the top of the escarpment. The exit is just south of the summit of the peak. Reliant on good snow falls. The Giant’s Hut is an ideal base camp.
Giant’s Frontal in Winter (Sherman’s Route)
Grade: II, 2 F3
First winter ascent: G. Raubenheimer, G. Stewart. July 1996.
This route is the winter version of the original rock climb.
If approaching from Giant’s hut, walk up the amphitheatre below the summit, heading for a nek on the right. From this nek, traverse right to an obvious rocky gully that leads to the upper grass ledge. This gully can also be reached from directly below. When on the upper grass band, walk left (south) past the start of Schole’s Route and the Giant’s Nostrils caves until below a short cliff with a chimney. The main head wall of the Giant is now directly above. The chimney is the first pitch. This route will only be snowed up after major snow falls and prolonged cold weather.
1) WI 2 F3 15m. Ascend the short icy chimney to near the top, then break out onto the right hand wall and up.
Move up broken ground and then left about 20 meters to the next rock band.
2) F3 15m. Start below an overhang with a left facing open book on the left of the overhang. Ascend via a slab and layback to a large ledge with an abseil point. This pitch is free of snow.
From the abseil point traverse left all the way to the main ridge.
Scramble up onto the ridge crest then scramble to the summit, usually in snow.
Descent: Scramble all the way back to the top of pitch 2 and a bolted abseil point. Then scramble down to the top of pitch one to more abseil chains just right (south) of the top of the chimney.
About 15 minutes walk east of Makaza amphitheatre is another smaller but very steep gully of ice. This has only been top-roped on the upper section. It probably consists of about three steep pitches.
Shisa is the Zulu word for hot.
Shisa Coulior Area – TOPO
About 15 minutes walk east of Makaza amphitheatre is another smaller but very steep gully of ice. Two routes are located here.
She’s a Man Eater
Grade: III WI 4
First asecent: G. Frost, M. Sporen 13 July 2006
Descend the route by multiple abseils . The climb begins at the bottom of a long steep section (50m) with an overhang in the face about 40m above the ground.
Pitch 1 (50m WI 4)
Climb on the right hand side of the ice fall avoiding the overhanging section on the left then move leftwards with the ramp to a stance on a flat section.
Pitch 2 (30m WI 2)
Continue up the ramp on easy ground to a stance on a flat spot below a rocky scramble dividing the climbing pitches.
Pitch 3 (walk)
Walk along the rocky section to below the next ice pitch.
Pitch 4 (60m WI 2)
Continue climbing up to belay at a large boulder in the ice on the right hand side of the gully below the ice chimney that leads up to the upper section of the climb.
Pitch 5 (20m WI 3)
Climb up the face to a ledge below the overhangs above.
Pitch 6 (35m WI 3+)
Climb the break on the right up to a large ledge and belay at the back of the cave section (protection from ice falling from above).
Pitch 7 (40m WI 2)
Traverse leftwards on ramps and ledges to below the centre portion of the face and belay on a small ledge just to the right of the central ice pillar.
Pitch 8 (25m WI 4)
Climb up from the stance then tend leftwards to the pillar. Climb the pillar directly to the top and belay behind a rock to the left of the top-out.
This route needs a good season to form completely. Pitches 5 and 6 can be combined.
This is a fairly consistently forming 40m “pencil” of ice that forms on the eastern side of the Shisa gully. It has only been top-roped so far.
Grade: III WI 4
First ascent: J. Ingman, R. Guest, R. Pocock. 1985.
Time: 4 hours of actual climbing.
Makaza is a long, 300m icefall running over the south escarpment edge of Giant’s Castle. The climbing is not sustained and harder sections can be scrambled around. From the top of Giant’s Pass walk down towards the south escarpment edge and then eastwards to the first major river which runs over the edge. Map co-ordinates 29° 21’ 00’ S, 29° 28’ 20’’ E. There is a level patch of ground at the lip of the icefall where most parties camp while climbing in the area. A circular stone wall for wind protection is also located here. From the edge, abseil and scramble down to the start some 300m
below in the gully.
1) WI 3 50m. Start in a narrow amphitheatre of ice some 300m from the top. Take the middle line up steep ice for 20m. The angle then slackens off into an easier 30m ramp.
2) WI 2 150m. Continue up the drainage, climbing several easy smears until the final 25m wall is reached. Many lines exist up this huge amphitheatre.
3) WI 3 The classic line goes slightly right of centre up some pleasant slabs. Or left of centre there is a chandeliered curtain at half height. Start under the right edge of this curtain, climb up to it, traverse under it to the left and exit straight up. WI 3.
On the extreme right on steep slabs is a line named “Return To Fear”. (WI 4) First ascent by G. Raubenheimer 1996.
On the extreme left is a steeper wall of about WI 5.
Makaza is the Zulu word for cold.
This route has never been properly climbed. It can be located by following the stream from the summit of the pass till where it flows over the southern escarpment edge, ie. just east of the Main Event. In good winters this forms into about 5 long pitches ending in a fall 50m, plumb vertical pillar.
When it is lead one day, it will probably be the most serious and longest route in the whole of Africa (considering that most of east Africa’s big ice routes no longer exist). The upper half of this pillar has been top-roped by G. Raubenheimer.
Grade: III, WI 4
First ascent: J. Ingman, R. Guest, R. Pocock. 1985.
Time: 3 hours of actual climbing.
From the top of Giant’s Pass, walk straight down to the escarpment edge to the south. The top of the icefall is then located a few hundred metres west, in the corner formed by a long spit of land jutting out over the Lotheni Pass. Map co-ordinates 29° 21’ 4’’ S , 29° 27’ 28’’ E. It is a huge 150m icefall with several climbable lines possible. Abseil to the start. Belays at the top are hard to find. Some grass pitons can be useful.
1) WI 3, 40m. From the middle of the gully, climb steep, compact ice until the angle eases below a large bulge of rock. Move right and up to a belay 40m above the starting point.
2) WI 2, 35m. Continue up until under the main head wall.
3) WI 4-5, 50m. Climb any number of variations on the huge wall above.
4) Tight Screws Cold Hands
Grade : III WI 4
First ascent: H. Esterhuyse, H. Weight, R. Zipplies. July 2006
Half an hour’s walk from the camp site at Makaza towards Main Lotheni Couloir. Pass the top of the Main Event and keep walking towards the massive Main Lotheni gully to the west. About 5minutes walk. Tight Screws… is a broad, west facing gully which is a subsiduary of the Lotheni river.
Approach the first belay by carefully scrambling down the right hand side (looking down the gully) to a grassy ledge which offers good abseil-anchors in the corner using a large cam, nuts and/or pitons.
The first abseil takes you 40m to a grassy bank directly below the abseil anchors. Place ice screws and abseil another 20m to the bottom of the first pitch.
There is a third pitch lower down the gully. Access this by scrambling down a further 50m and then abseiling about 20m.
Pitch 1 (20m WI 3) This is generally a well formed ice wall and less chandeliered than the second pitch. Climb straight up the middle up steep ice.
Pitch 2 (45m WI 4) The second pitch is quite spectacular with beautiful chandeliered Ice. Climb up the middle to the top (vertical crux) and exit by traversing to the left where the anchors are set up.
Grade: II WI 2
First ascent: Colin McCoy, Ce deCarvalho, G. Raubenheimer.
Approuch as for Tight Screws… Carry on walking with the main gully on your left till the next gully runs up from the bottom at an acute angle. Abseil off the edge to where ever the ice starts. Climb 2 or 3 easy pitches of ice. The top section onto the escarpment is the steepest section.
Pigs Can Fly
Grade: II WI 4
First ascent: T.Mann, I.Bailey 14 July 2006.
Approach and abseil as for Walkie Talkie. At the top of the Walkie Talkie gully climb the steep ice on the left just before the final section.
Big Foot Little Step
Grade: III W2
First ascent: C. de Carvalho, M. Robertson, D. Robertson. 1991
This route is located in the next gully immediately east of the final pitch of the Main Lotheni Couloir. The route is usually approached via abseiling down the route. It is also possible to abseil down the upper pitch of the Main Loteni Couloirs in order to get to the start.
Climb the gully usually on névé and patches of water-ice. In sparse years the gully is loose and rocky. Exit the gully by a 35m pitch onto the escarpment.
Note: This route may have first been climbed by Jeff Ingman and party.
Main Lotheni Couloir
Grade: III, WI 4/5
First ascent: J. Ingman, R. Guest, R. Pocock. 1985
Time: 4 hours climbing.
The climb forms in the upper reaches of the Lotheni River. This climb was described by Jeff Ingman as the “plum” of the Loteni valley. It is a Drakensberg Classic of world quality.
It may be approached from Giant’s Pass and by abseiling to the start. Scramble down to where the river drainage runs over the escarpment edge.
Co-ordinates 29° 21’ 00’’ S, 29° 27’ 15’’ E. Abseil and scramble down three separate ice pitches to the start. It is usually possible to scramble around the short middle pitch when getting to the start. The distance between the second and third pitches is about 150 metres.
1) WI 3 45m. This pitch starts in a deep and remote section of the gully a few hundred meters down from the edge of the escarpment. A long sustained pitch followed by walking. WI 3 if keeping to the right or WI 4 if straight up the middle. Scramble for 150m to below the short middle pitch.
2) WI 2 15m. Climb easy ice to below the final pitch.
3) WI 3 35m. This final pitch is usually climbed on the left until large icicles are encountered hanging from above. Traverse out right on often chandeliered ice. Exit straight up. (WI 3/4, 45m). A very spectacular pitch.
Comments: If always taking the easiest line, this climb usually goes at no more than WI 3. In very sparse years some sections may be WI 5.
This is a short “boulder problem” at the top of the Main Loteni Couloir. The river flows over a 5m drop-off some 30 meters back from the final pitch of the main route.
This is an ice smear high on the easy-angled slopes of the Loteni river above the two above-mentioned routes.
Lotheni Pass area
This area has no routes as such at this stage. There are two major icefalls which occur on the south face of Redi Peak. There is another route in the gully just north of “The Passage”, a pass on the south side of Redi Peak. This has been seen by Gavin Raubenheimer in 1997 when it formed into a 60m fall, but consisted of fine chandeliers for the entire route. Raubenheimer has twice been to the other two falls and never found them to be properly formed. It does remain a place of good potential. One pitch of grade W1 was climbed low down in the valley.
Sani Pass and Black Mountain Area
This area gives the most accessible ice climbing in the Drakensberg. The easiest way to get to the falls is by driving up to the top of Sani Pass and using the Sani Top Chalet as a base. From the chalet the ice is approximately one hour’s walk away, while Black Mountain is thirty minutes drive. There are three grades of accommodation at the chalet. Choose either DB&B (R300p/p) or the cheaper back-packer dormitory (R85p/p) or camp in the grounds (R45p/p). The pub located here is also a major attraction after a good day on the ice!
Valid passports are needed as an international border-post must be crossed. Take note that both border posts open at 8am and then have different closing times. The Lesotho side closes for down-traffic at 4pm and at 5pm for up-traffic while the South African side closes at 4pm for both up and down-traffic. In recent years the Sani Pass road surface has been upgraded to allow two-wheel-drive traffic. However it is still advisable to at least travel it in a bakkie (van) with lots of ground clearance and a low first gear. If the surface is wet or snowy it is likely that two-wheel-drive bakkies will find things impossible. Luckily, during the winter when the ice is good, the road is in fact usually dry; that is between cold fronts.
Sani Pass Ice Bouldering
Located on the road edge in the upper reaches of the pass are several long slabs of ice with steeper sections of a few metres in height on the roadside. These are well worth playing around on to develop good technique.
Grade: II WI 3
First ascent: G. Raubenheimer, C. de Carvalho, D. Gramkow, J. Bentley, S. Roberts. August 2001.
A very pleasant route that is not committing and usually on very good ice. It is reliant on good snowfalls. Walk along the Apostles for 3.5 kilometres in the direction of “Phinong”. The route lies in the first of two major cutbacks in the escarpment edge. Two abseil bolts are located at the top of the gully.
Do one abseil down into the cutback then scramble down next to the ice to the start. (It is best to leave the abseil rope in place to aide in the event of a retreat.) Scramble a few hundred meters down the gully to where the ice ends. The route consists of four to five easy ramps of ice. The gully then narrows just below the top and where the abseil is. Climb a narrow ramp to a platform in the small deep gully. Either exit out the back of the gully or up the easy, but loose rock and grass on the right. In 2001 the ice extended some 300 metres below the escarpment.
Note: On the 8th August 2003 well known local climber, Greig Stewart suffered a heart attack, and fell to his death while leading the first pitch. He will always be remembered for his great companionship, on and off the hill.
II WI 3 F3.
First ascent: G. Raubenheimer, C. deCarvalho, J. Benson. July 2002.
This route is a variation of Cool Bananas and has the same approach and abseil. It splits off to the right (east) of the main route just before the final pitch.
Climb a short steep section to a large ledge (WI 3). Continue over the ledge and up a recess consisting of easy ice and rock at the top. Bolts are located just back from the edge of the escarpment.
Grade: II WI 4
First ascent: G. Raubenheimer, M. Maxfield, J. Farquharson , C. de Carvalho, I. Bailey. August 1997.
Approach as for Cool Bananas but carry on for another ten minutes in the direction of “Phinong” to the second large cutback. Scramble down 30 metres at the very back of the gully to the top of the last pitch, which is located in a narrowing of the main drainage. Bolted abseil point located just back from the top pitch. Abseil down a 15 metre pitch to a platform, then down another full-length abseil or to wherever the ice extends.
The first section consists of easy angles and sometimes thin ice until the final pitch is reached. This pitch consists of steep overlaps and chandeliers at grade WI 4.
NOTE: On both French Wench and Cool Bananas there is a danger of falling ice on the lower pitches. This danger is from slabs of ice located on the eastern sides of the respective gullies. It is particularly bad in the late afternoon when they receive direct sun.
Black Satin Couloir
Grade: I WI 4
First Ascent: G. Raubenheimer, D. Marshall. July 2001.
From Sani Top drive for approximately twenty kilometres into Lesotho and over Black Mountain Pass. On the other side of the pass a large corrugated iron wool shed is located on the right. Turn off here and drive up a track for 500 metres to near a hut. Park there, cross the river and proceed up the far slope. The ice is located in the drainage above and about 30 minutes walk away.
The route consists of four distinct steps of steep and often thin ice. When this route was opened the ice was thin and involved delicate leading.
However, in better conditions the climbing should be no more than grade WI 3. It is possible to walk off between pitches.
Mashai pass can make a good winter walk after good snow. Crampons and a walking axe are needed. An interesting exit can be done by keeping in the main gully of the pass and taking a right hand side gully about 100m before the final rock band. Up this till it narrows, pass underneath a chock stone and mantelshelf onto the top.
Rutting Rhino Route
Grade: I WI 3
First accent G. Raubenheimer, C. de Carvalho, and I. Bailey. August 1996.
About 1.5 hours past Pillar Cave up Mashai Pass, a water fall is located on the left side just before the path zig zags up the left side of the valley.
Walk up the smear to below a thin ramp of ice (belay stance). Follow the ramp to a rock pillar, passing it on the right and, exit straight up to belay from a huge block on the ledge above. 50 meter pitch. Walk off to the right (north).
This route only forms after very cold and snowy conditions. It is prone to melting due to it being on a north-facing slope. The icefall forms in the shadow of Rhino Peak while the upper reaches of the drainage receive direct sun.
Ref: MCSA journal 1996
Half Pint and Quarter Cadaver
Two other ice smears occur in the area. Some 50 meters up the pass from the Rutting Rhino, an easy smear forms with a steep step at the top. This iscalled Half-Pint. Further up the pass on the north side is another easy smear named Quarter Cadaver. Both first climbed by G. Raubenheimer and C. deCarvalho.
Grade: II 2 F2
First accent: G. Raubenheimer, J. Farquharson. July 1990.
This is a snow gully route with a mixed section at the start. In years of very heavy snow this section is ramped over with snow.
From Pillar Cave hike over into the next valley south of Mashai Pass. This very quiet and beautiful valley runs up to between Mlambonja and Wilson’s peaks. At a point below the two peaks it is split into two distinct gullies with “Panic Pile” standing between them.
Take the right hand gully. After the fork about 500m of boulder hopping brings one to a very narrow section at the base of the mountain. There are two huge chock stones with ice in between. Climb straight up and to the right of these blockages. Continue up the gully to the top. Easy snow/ice plod.
Crampons and at least one axe are needed. Take a small selection of rock gear for the mixed pitch. Descent via the route or Mashai Pass.
The left hand fork of the valley has been climbed several times as far as the final rock band but never completed to the summit. Both these gullies commonly give lovely winter conditions well into September.
Ref: MCSA journal 1993
Mashai South Face
Grade: II 2 F2
First ascent: D. Watkins, D. Quaife, J. de Groote. July 1988.
This mixed climb is located on the south side of Mashai peak and is a snow gully with mixed sections along the way. To approach, hike up past Sleeping Beauty cave. When this valley starts to steepen towards the main wall of the Berg, about 1,5km after the cave, walk left into the next valley south.
About one kilometre up this valley the route starts up a very long reverse “S” shaped gully. It runs from near the valley bottom continuously to the escarpment (see map).
Head up the gully avoiding a chocked chimney by going left. Carry on up the gully with easy mixed ground. Avoid a blockage by traversing onto the right hand-face for 10 meters, then up under an overhang. (F2) The gully becomes very narrow towards the top, up a series of icy chimneys.
Climbing time: Half a day.
Ref: MCSA journal 1988
This area is located near the A1 road in the western area of the Maluti range of Lesotho. Most of the climbing is in the valley near the New Oxbow Lodge. A few falls also exit near the road on the Moteng Pass area. Most areas can be spotted from the road and are accessible by car followed by a short walk.
To get to the area drive into Lesotho at Caledonspoort border post. A short way after the border, Butha-Buthe town is reached. Turn left onto the A1 and drive towards Oxbow, Afriski and the Moteng Pass. The drive to Oxbow is along a good tar road which winds up through spectacular mountain scenery.
On the pass a steep ice waterfall is passed, which is unnamed and unclimbed as yet. Oxbow is marked by the lodge of the same name and is on the other side of the pass. The drive from the border to the lodge will take about 1,5 hours.
Oxbow valley routes
Grade : WI 3 60m
First ascent: Unknown.
The climbing in this area is found in the river valley after the New Oxbow Lodge. Pass the lodge until the river and the sharp right hand bend in the road. Park just before the bridge on the right hand side of the road. Cross the road and follow the path up the river on the right hand bank. The icefall can be seen up the hill on the left hand side of the river. This is about a 40minute walk from the car park. Cross the river then ascend the slopes to below the icefall.
1) WI 3 30m. Climb directly up the easy slabs to where it steepens, then ascend the right hand side to a small ledge next to the rock face.
2) WI 2 30m. Climb leftwards up from the stance then continue up the easy but somewhat grassy slope to the top.
Descent: Walk rightwards from the top of the route to the start of a valley. Descend this valley. Can be fun when it is snowed up.
Note: This route forms most seasons and makes a pleasant area for beginners to try out a 2-pitch route. There are also some icy slabs to climb in the valley to the right of the main icefall.
Main Oxbow Falls
Grade: I WI 4
First ascent: Unknown.
A few kilometers further on from the New Oxbow Lodge an “A” frame building is passed on the right, which is the Maluti Ski Club hut. The route is on the opposite side of the road from the hut. Park near the hut and cross the road and then walk up to the waterfall.
It consists of steep water-ice and is 20 metres in length with a steep chandeliered section at the top. There are good belays at the top if the route is top-roped. Rock protection is also possible on the face on the right before the steeper section.
Note: The icy slab below the falls makes for an excellent training area for beginners. There are also some great boulder problems up on the left of the main icefall.
Approach this small amphitheater formation in the valley to the right of the Main Oxbow icefall. It needs a good season to form but can produce some great climbing. Park the car just off the road and walk up the valley to the icefall.
The routes are 10-15m in height and range from grades WI3 to WI5+ and mixed climbing also.
Note: This area has not formed in the past four years due to above average winter temperatures and below average winter snowfall.
Oxbow ice-bouldering crag
To approach this area drive past the Maluti Ski Hut and up the long hill. After a few kilometers you will get to the Afriski entrance. Continue alongthe road for a short distance (less than 5km) until a small parking area is visible on the right hand side. Walk down from the parking to a rocky outcrop that gets covered in ice. There are many possibilities for short boulder problems and easy slabs for beginners.
Note: A good spot for training and trying out some mixed climbing. Forms up in most seasons and generally has ice when the other areas are dry.
Bokong Nature Reserve, Central Maluti Mountains, Lesotho. This area is located in the Central range of the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho. It has perhaps the most sustained ice route opened in southern Africa. To get there enter Lesotho at the Ficksburg border post. Turn left onto the A1 to Leribe, then right onto the A25 for Katse Dam. Drive up the Pitseng Pass. A short drive beyond the summit (2,5km) turn off the road to the Bokong Nature Reserve Visitor Centre. Park here and take the 20 minute walk to the main falls.
The main icefall is the obvious choice for climbing but is not ideal for inexperienced climbers. There is easier climbing available at the bottom and to the left of the icefall and another area over the ridge to the northeast
Climbing description: The Lepaqoa waterfall is a continuous 60m vertical drop, which can form well to produce a spectacular and demanding climb.
Unfortunately it can be very fickle and has been known to collapse, making it a very hazardous route. In a good winter season with low temperatures the icefall forms more solidly. Take care on this route if it appears to be very wet with lots of ice chunks coming off.
Accommodation: Bokong NR allows climbers to sleep on the floor in the visitors centre or there are hikers huts available at the falls. The visitors centre has toilets but no shower and there is a partially equipped kitchen with a sink and gas cooker. The views across the valley are quite spectacular through the large windows in the centre.
Bokong Falls (The Lepaqoa waterfall)
Grade: II WI 5
First ascent: I. McMaster, C. Loubser. July 2003.
Follow the hiking trail that leads from the parking area above the visitors centre to the hikers huts at the falls. This is a 20 minute hike. Either abseil from the bolt anchors at the top of the falls or descend to the bottom of the falls via the steep valley on the right of the falls. Then cross over the river and climb the short hill turning rightwards at the top to approach the start of the valley. Descend the valley keeping rightwards to avoid the rock band. Scramble down on the right hand side of the steep spur and traverse across to the falls. This is quite a fun route when there is some snow.
1) WI 4+ 30m. Start at the ramp below the icefall then climb up directly through steeper ice to gain a small sloping ledge to make a semi-hanging stance.
2) WI 5 30m. From the stance, climb up tending leftwards to a thin pillar. Climb the pillar pulling through the small overhang to gain a ledge.
Continue up passing a series of steep steps to the bolt anchors on the rock ledge on the left of the top of the falls.
OR: WI 4+ 30m. From the stance, climb up tending rightwards to a section of chandeliers. Climb up moving leftwards higher, then continue up directly passing a series of steep steps to the bolt anchors on the rock ledge on the left of the top of the falls.
The Siberian Enema
Grade II WI 5 F3 15m
First ascent: G. Frost, A. Grant. July 2003.
This is the short icicle that forms at the top of the cliff to the right of the Lepaqoa falls. It can be approached by abseiling down from the top, using some boulders for anchor points or climbing up the right hand gully from the bottom of the falls. The climb up the gully is only recommended when there is some snow in the gully to help ascend the short rock band.
Climb from the ledge at the bottom of the icicle starting on the left hand side. Climb up then move rightwards higher onto the front of the icicle to gain the second section. Continue up to the top of the ice and into the niche. Exit the overhang on the right hand side using placements in the rock and grass to gain the top of the route.
Grade II WI 2 – WI 4 10m.
First ascent: G. Frost, M. Niewoudt. 23 July 2005.
Time: 20 min from the Lepaqoa falls
Follow the stream, from the top of the falls, up the valley for a few hundred meters then turn right and walk to the top of the ridge. A section of ice forming at the top of a small rock band can be seen a bit further down in the valley below.