Yes it is true; South Africa has some of the best ice climbing in the world. Each winter, certain gullies in the Drakensberg freeze over and create stunning waterfall ice offering superb climbing.
There are 2 main ice climbing areas in the Drakensberg namely Sani pass and Giants Castle. However other areas can develop including the Rhino area and some of the waterfalls in the Northern Berg. The main ingredients are a South Facing Gully, water, cold weather preferably with snow.
Having spent 2 weekends at Sani Pass and fallen in love with the sport, I managed to convince my fellow ESSAnite Tanya – T to come try the ice out at Giants Castle. KZN MCSA ran a national ice climbing meet there from 12 – 16 July. In total there were about 24 people on Top. The trip begins with a leisurely stroll up Giants Pass carrying 25kg packs each. T and I did it over 2 days and it was fantastic. We laughed a lot, cursed our packs, took long breaks and arrived at the top, relaxed and ready to climb!
Giants Castle has by far the most superb ice in the entire Drakensberg. There are over 6 different routes of multi pitch waterfalls in the area. In addition the main amphitheatre of Makaza has numerous exit lines so you never get tired of climbing here. The Makaza top pitch is about 25m; you can scramble to the bottom and it probably the best training ground. The basic equipment you need is a harness, helmet (essential!), ice axes, crampons and stiff boots – Plastics work best.
Day one saw us setting up Top Rope systems at various points around Makaza. Gavin Raubenheimer' who spent 2 weeks ice climbing in Scotland last year and is one of South Africa's top ice climbers, spent the morning showing novices the art of ice climbing. Tom and I skipped the intro and went to climb!!!!!! Axe placements are good; you kick your crampons in, stand up and just walk your way up the ice. T learnt quickly and with a few exclamations she made it up in fine style.
The afternoon saw Thomas, Gavin and I shoot down to the bottom of Makaza which is a 5 pitch climb in total. The first pitch was lead in true style by Gavin with Thomas and I hopping up behind. It is vertical ice for 20m, but really enjoyable. The 3 rd pitch looked way too easy for Gavin who informed us mere mortals that we could just solo it! Ok, let's see I have climbed ice only twice this season, I love mountaineering and really don't want to give it up now, so solo???? Mmmm the look of terror on my face made Gavin ask if I want a top rope, but I have too much pride for that. The guys could do this so, so could I. And yes I did it! Soloing is fantastic, beautiful and you place your axes far more carefully! Honestly it was great!
The next day we learnt the art of leading – totally addictive! How to place ice screws, how to belay on ice etc etc. Then it was off to play. Thomas, T, Jo and I found a lovely waterfall to climb further from Makaza. Thomas went down first and climbed in fine style but decided a route to the left looked far easier. On descending myself, I saw that the line to the left entailed a swing if I popped ( i.e. came off the ice) so being terrified of falling and swinging I saw no alternative but to go straight up! Up through a chandeliered overhanging maze. Legs and axes spread apart saw me ascend this beautiful ice – with a few "tight rope please Tom!" T come up after me with her gold plated ice axes and seemed to have enjoyed it.
Unfortunately we got back to realise there had been an accident. Hansie had knocked off a chunk of ice and poor Mark Johnston took it on his upper leg. We were not sure if it was broken but he was in a large amount of pain. I really felt for him. He knew this was the end of his climbing for the weekend and possibly a few weeks. But he lay bravely in the tent all strapped up.
Saturday, I woke up feeling either brave or stupid and decided to abandon my friends and go climb the Main Loteni Couloir with the big boys. Gavin and Ceasar are seasoned ice climbers, so natural, so unfazed and this was a grade 4/5 water ice. It is probably the best climb there in my opinion. The first pitch is the most difficult and Gavin lead it in fine style. At one point he sent down an entire ice berg (or so it felt). But in general the climb wonderful. There were huge stalactites of Ice, looking a bit like organ pipes. Bubble ice that is well very bubbly. Very rarely do you find just plain sheer ice. I took my time on the last pitch, enjoying the view of sculptures formed all around. The photo attached is taken on the top pitch of Main Loteni couloir.
We finished off the day with a lovely traverse climb that I completed by head lamp. No one else was around; it was silent, beautiful, pure and very special.
Then for the best part! Mark, poor guy, had to be flown off the mountain. Now why let him go all alone when we can go with to keep him company. So very gratefully we packed up, jumped aboard and descended Giants in 10mins. It was a great flight and we were at the restaurant tucking into eggs and bacon by 9am on Sunday morning.
The axe you use makes all the difference in the world, there are a lot on the market but the Aztar from Chalet Moser far out ranks all others. It is the lightest on the market weighing in at 600g and of course it is used by the Ice Bunny herself! But you can rent gear instead of buying it and go give it a try – it's awesome!
So what is it like at the top? It's cold! It blows constantly! The nearest loo spot is a good 15 min walk away; Alcohol is limited due to the packs weight. But the ice is beautiful, stunning! 100 different shades of blues. You have to make the pilgrimage at least once in your life. For me I will be back there every year.
Lorna a.k.a Ice Bunny