Ice Climbing, Giants Castle, 4-11 July 2005

Pictures by Chris Ladler & Emily Garlough

Anyone can go ice climbing, provided you have some ice that is. You’ll also need a partner with the right equipment who knows how to use it – make sure you have the adequate protection though. A couple of ice screws will make you feel much better! It’s generally best to start at the bottom and work you way up, slowly at first, especially if it’s your first time. It’s not just about ramming your tool in as hard as you can, technique and body position are important. Experience helps in negotiating the cracks, curves and bulges. It’s also advisable to warn your partner if you are about to loose control, so he/she can keep it tight. Increase your tempo as needed, particularly when it gets really hard. If it doesn’t come initially, work at it – perhaps use your hands more or try a different partner. Overall it’s wild, physical, exhilarating and wet – highly recommended!

With this in mind, 6 of us headed for Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve in ‘Berg as part of a UCT Mountain and Ski Club trip. It really is giant. Arrive at Giant’s Castle, walk up Giant’s ridge (by-passing Giant’s hut), sukkel up Giant’s pass and camp on the vlaktes below Giant’s peak and about 100m from the giant ice bowl. The later is essentially a frozen waterfall on the edge of the main amphitheatre in the Makaza region: say 20-25m high, mostly near vertical (with some ramps) and really wide. Since our combined experience on ice was pretty minimal (mine was zero), our plan was to spend 4 days mainly top-roping various lines in this area.

Richard gearing up for the ice dyno, well kinda.

Now for many climbers the phrase ‘top-rope’ is an immediate turn-off, conjuring up several equally un-heroic images: working a sport route you are still to chicken to lead or offering a cute girl at the crag the safe option so you can get a good view. For most of us the thrill lies in punting the boat and the envelope into the unknown – can you fight your flaming forearms to get your hardest ever onsight, or can you keep your head cool perched precariously way above a micro-nut you just know won’t hold? It’s all about the adrenaline and the moment isn’t it? So why travel all that way to go top-roping? Well, no one is born wearing a pair of Five Tens, and as a kid, learning to climb chossy grade 13s on top-rope in worn out tennis takkies was pretty darn exciting! So years later I was that kid again, and after demystifying the crampon strapping system, top-roping the lines of ice at the amphitheatre was pretty damn exhilarating! Another allure of climbing is getting out into amazing locations, and in this regard we were certainly in the pound seat.

I also found the whole physical process quite refreshing. As apposed to puzzling your way around how to use existing holds (or trying to find them for that matter) as one does on rock, you pretty much alter the playing field to suit yourself, even to the extent of sculpting little steps in the ice with the adze if needed. The auditory component was also something novel – listening for a good axe placement and the cacophony of a dislodged ‘dinner plate’ smashing far below you. Not to mention the mandatory “TAKE!” when you get that uneasy feeling that you and the ice are about to part company. Apart from being aesthetic, fully fused icicles (about the diameter of a deodorant can) can easy support your weight and make for interesting axe hooking moves.

Having ranted earlier somewhat about top-roping, Jon Sinclair did bring some ice screws along and lead some easy ramps lower down the couloir leading up to ice bowl. Vertical ice is another matter all together, and I still can’t get my mind around trusting my life to a hollow metal tube screwed into some frozen H 2 O, for now at least. For experienced ice climbers there are several recognized routes in the Giants Castle area, notably the 6 pitch Makaza (WI 3-4) itself, the Main Loteni Couloir (WI 3-4) and Future X : roughly 300m of steep pillars and slabs that sometimes forms to completion, just East of Main Event. As far as I am aware, the final 50m sheer ice pillar (WI 6+?), which is less than 5m wide, has never been lead. So there is certainly something for everyone.

Emily showing the guys how its done – Viva girl power!

When we arrived at Giants Castle, a very helpful lady at reception informed us that there had been no snow that season, so we were quite impressed with the amount and quality of ice we found, although it was not as good as reported in previous years. She also told us that in March this year a group of hikers had been mugged by Basotho at the top of Giant’ Pass. Dave Davies and Richard Slater (of Mountain Mail Order) kindly offered us the use of a set of their ice gear (crampons, ice axes, rope) and non-perishable food that they had stashed near their campsite last year. Alas, it had been ‘redistributed’ or eaten by the locals in the intervening period, although they were kind enough to leave the now-rusting cans and wrappers strewn around. Fortunately we had no run-ins with these ‘opportunists’ from across the Lesotho border. Being one set of gear short wasn’t actually a big problem; there are a number of scenic walks in the area to keep those not climbing entertained. I would recommend exploring this area in any event, even if you have ample gear.

Without further waffle, it was definitely another tough week in Africa , with a 4 day learning curve of wicked ice climbing in a truly beautiful setting. I’ll certainly be back for more!

Chris on the way up – much huffing and puffing to follow.

Some potentially useful info – mostly common sense

•  Don’t go in summer! July seems to be when most groups plan trips, but obviously it is difficult to predict optimum ice conditions in advance.

•  Directions for the hike, maps and permit fees/camping costs can be obtained from Nature Reserve. You can easily do the full walk-in within a day, but the Pass is a bit of a beast.

•  It gets pretty cold, the only time we actually measured the temperature was at 7pm one evening and it was already -9ºC. So a good tent, winter sleeping bag, warm clothes and soup/tea are in order. Best take a liquid fuel stove. It also gets dark real early, so you have a LOT of time to kill in the evenings. Bring books, cards, booze or significant other along. Some of these are easier to bring up the mountain than others…

•  Per climbing pair (at the amphitheatre) you will need two 60m ropes (either half or single). One for setting up an anchor and one for climbing. Setting up top-ropes requires some ingenuity: you only have feature-less knee-high boulders (mainly smaller) to work with – all some way from the edge of the ice fall. A few 120cm slings are useful but two 5m lengths of webbing are really useful. A few old nuts do come in handy. For climbing you can double a 60m rope up (so a half rope is fine) since routes at the ice bowl are less than 30m high. Initially we just climbed on one stand of rope – BAD idea, it’s easier than you think to put an ice axe through a top-rope!!

•  If you are renting/borrowing ice gear, make sure the crampons fit the boots (beforehand!) Lightweight and waterproof pants/jacket are essential.

•  We didn’t bother with a sentry system at night, but just be aware that the Basotho are around and don’t leave the campsite unattended or go wondering off alone. On this note the larger the size of the group the better.

•  As soon as the sun sets everything freezes, including ropes, socks and your mates – don’t leave them outside at night.

If you look really carefully you can see our two Isodomes to the left of the ice bowl.

Emily topping out, not out of her top unfortunately.

The playground!

Colin tends to an itch en-route.


One Response to Ice Climbing, Giants Castle, 4-11 July 2005

  1. Victoria Feb 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    It rllaey doesn’t compress. Because of the semi-rigid strap attachment points, the side straps rllaey do not serve as compression straps. I don’t rllaey mind the lack of compression, but I some may find this annoying.

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