50th Anniversary Ascent of the Sentinel

KwaZulu Natal MCSA Section

Peter and Pam Angus-Leppan were no ordinary couple – they have left behind a rich legacy of first ascents. They pioneered many climbs, but the one that is a classic today is the North Face of the Sentinel, known as the ‘Angus Leppan’ route.

The climb was opened in February 1959, in an era when climbers wore canvas anoraks, takkies as climbing boots and relied on hemp ropes and pitons hammered into cracks for safety and protection.

A group of Mountain Club of South Africa members set off to relive a piece of history – the 50th anniversary ascent of the climb, using period climbing equipment, techniques and clothing. The group of five prepared for the climb by rummaging around in elderly mountaineers’ cupboards, resurrecting rusty karabiners and pitons and chasing the moths out of clothing that had not been used for decades.

The team assembled in the Sentinel car park on Saturday evening and set off at dawn on Sunday, the mists swirling around the 300m high cliffs above them. The canvas rucksacks were very uncomfortable and weighed much more than modern ones – climbing gear back then was made of steel.

‘The actual moves on rock felt quite comfortable for me,’ said Gavin Raubenheimer, one of the climbers who works as a professional mountain guide,’ but it was the heavy and clunky gear that I wasn’t used to. Pitons and the hammer – and I couldn’t place many safety points anywhere.’

Hannelie Morris just loved the feeling of true adventure. She led one of the most difficult sections of the climb, her battered takkies not providing much by the way of solid grip on the rock. At more than one point, if she had fallen she would have taken a 40m plunge onto unreliable gear, held only by a rope around her waist. The chances of surviving such a fall are not good. Hannelie kept a very cool head, scaled the pitch and brought the mere men in her party up to the ledge in safety.

“Peter and Pam must have felt very lonely on that wall,’ said Andy Wood, one of the climbers and President of the KZN Section of the Mountain Club.  There was no possibility of rescue and it would have been almost impossible to retreat from the upper sections of the climb. Their commitment was total, safety gear almost useless and they must have felt completely on their own.

‘We are very fortunate to have a rich history of brave mountaineering here in the Drakensberg. Many of the pioneering ascents in the 1950’s and 1960’s were accomplished by couples: Peter and Pam Angus-Leppan and Martin Winter and Gillian Bettle. When one looks at those ascents with modern eyes, I can only admire their toughness, fitness and incredible bravery. ‘

The group reached the summit of the Sentinel at 2.00p.m. and fired up an antique stove to make tea and an antique pipe for the photographs.

The descent involves an abseil – which was done the traditional way, wrapping the rope around the leg and shoulder. It is very painful, but it was the way things were done back then.

‘It was a grand day out,’ said Wood, ‘but we wouldn’t do it every week.’

The team having completed the climb: Andy Wood, Colin McCoy, Hannelie Morris, Gavin Raubenheimer and Cesar de Carvalho

Oceans of Air: Gavin Raubenheimer leading pitch #4. Note the footwear.

Oceans of Air: Gavin Raubenheimer leading pitch #4. Note the footwear.

Hannelie Morris abseiling the way they did 50 years ago: slowly and painfully.

Hannelie Morris abseiling the way they did 50 years ago: slowly and painfully.

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