Trad and Sport Climbing
There are two main areas of climbing in KwaZulu-Natal. The main arena of activity is at Monteseel crag, Shongweni and Kloof Gorge. These are mainly steep single-pitch crag routes on high quality sandstone. The other area of activity is the Drakensberg, and this is very much in the realm of wilderness mountaineering. The Drakensberg is a mountain chain running along the western border of KZN province and forms the international boundary between South Africa and the small landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho. A small amount of ice and snow climbing also occurs in the Drakensberg. In addition to these main areas, there is a crag located in northern KZN or Zululand called White Umfolozi. This is an exceptionally good crag of both trad and sport routes.
In KZN there is both Traditional climbing (trad or naturally protected) and Sport climbing (bolt protected). Crags in the province tend to remain either trad protected or purely sport climbing. That said, there is not an absolute rule about styles of climbing in the area and many crags do have both styles of climbing represented.
The climbing community in KZN has always been a very small group of enthusiasts. Most climbers are members of the Mountain Club. The Club has regular meets to the various local crags and further afield. Non members are most welcome to join in on any of these meets.
Monteseel, situated halfway between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg has long been the local home of crag climbing and is almost totally a trad area. Most routes are single pitch in length, with a few two-pitch lines and one three-pitch. There are approximately 320 individual climbs. Access is very easy with either walk-in access or abseils from bolted abseil points. In particular, Monteseel has an abundance of high quality moderate climbs in the grade 16 to 19 range.
Shongweni crags are situated just thirty minutes inland of Durban and this is mainly a sport climbing area. The area consists of several cliffs and are all single pitch in length and fully equipped. Of note is the “Wave Cave” which is very steep (overhanging) area and home to some of South Africa’s hardest lines.
Kloof Gorge area is also a collection of several cliffs all situated in the Kranskloof Nature Reserve. The best known crags are Boot Hill, Rumdoodle, The Lab, The Power House and the Boneyard. The latter three are almost exclusively sport crags. The first two areas mentioned are both sport and trad.
White Umfolozi takes its name from the river that has cut a small gorge and this has formed the climbing area. It has been the main area of new trad route development in the province over the last ten years. In the new millenium there have also been many high quality moderate to easy sport routes put up.
The “Berg” as it is often referred to, consists of a high 180km long escarpment incut by deep valleys that run in an easterly direction toward the Indian Ocean. Between these valleys peaks rising to 3300m are found. In addition several peaks stand free from the escarpment forming serrated ridges and massifs. To the west of the escarpment lie large rolling mountains inhabited by Basotho herdsmen.
It must be said, first of all, that climbing in the Drakensberg is different! This is mainly due to the abundance of grass tufts, as well as sometimes crumbly rock formations.
The upper Berg was formed by the outpouring of molten lava, giving rise to what is today called Stormberg Basalt. Many climbs tend to have rock located between broad grass ledges. The rock is also formed into rounded overhangs, blocks and gullies, making the climbing often quite awkward.
However, when reading the guide book Rock and Ice Climbs of the Drakensberg, it will become clearer which climbs are the best and can give excellent mountaineering.
The main Classic Berg routes are:
- The North Face Route on Sentinel Peak (also called the Angus-Leppan Route).
- Devil’s Tooth.
- Mponjwana, Standard Route.
- The Bell, Hooper’s Route.
- The Pyramid, Standard Route.
- The Column, Escarpment Arête.
- The Monk’s Cowl, Standard and Barry’s Route.
- The Injasuti Western Triplet, North West Ridge Route.
- Giant’s Castle, Schole’s Route.
- Giant’s Castle, Makaza and the Main Loteni Couloir (ice routes).The would-be Berg cragsman must also bear in mind that, in addition to the general hazards of rock climbing, these are large mountains with the usual dangers of rain, snow, lightning and rockfalls. Climbers should be equipped physically, mentally and technically for the challenges they could encounter.
Winter Climbing in the Drakensberg (Ice Climbing)
Winter conditions can usually be experienced from mid-June until mid-September. Water icefalls develop during this time and stay climbable throughout. Snow gullies are of course dependant on good snowfalls. A waiting period of at least 15 days should be had after the fall to allow the snow-pack to harden. Good snowfalls also help to fatten out the water ice as long as it is also given about 10 days to melt into the drainage systems.
The main areas for water ice are the south face of Giant’s Castle and, to a lesser extent, the Sani Pass area and Rhino Peak area.
Climbing started happening in the province in the late 19th centuray and early 20th century and was concentrated in the northern Drakenberg. When the Natal Mountain Club was formed in 1919 (now called the KwaZulu-Natal Section of the Mountain Club of SA) many more climbers started to look at the Drakensberg, and to slowly tick off the still numerous unclimbed peaks. In 1921 the first annual July Camp was held, and thus began a long tradition of Drakensberg peak bagging.
Most of the Drakensberg remained fairly inaccessible to most climbers till the early sixties. This was mainly due to bad access roads, slower modes of transport and fewer highways. Before this time the idea of driving up to climb a peak over a weekend was not really practical, as it is today. The July Camp was, till the sixties, the only real time climbers were able to spend climbing. The MCSA Journals each year listed the many climbs done during the two week camp. A study of the old Journals or newer route discriptions show the first ascents of many peaks and routes occurring in this month.
Then, in the fifties and sixties Crag climbing started to develop as a sport on its own. Crags like Craiglea and Monteseel began to be developed.
In the late eighties sport climbing arrived in the area and many new crags were developed as a result. Today Trad and Sport routes often exist side by side. By general consensis, Monteseel remains an almost pure trad area.
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