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Chasing Vapour Trails

Trying to tell someone you climb ice in South Africa is like explaining to foreign soccer supporters why the vuvuzela is necessary at local soccer games. The concept of ice climbing in South Africa is just not something that the average South African mind can comfortably conceive.
Most of the climbers who make their annual pilgrimage to the few ice crags in South Africa and Lesotho, rather save their breath to bargain with their families for a weekend off during winter to climb ice in the frozen gullies of the Drakensberg and Malutis, than argue their point.

If, like many “marginalised” climbers, you are on a one climbing weekend a month allowance you are in for a rough time when it comes to getting your annual fix of ice. June is often too soon for good ice to form whilst August might be too late if spring starts warming up things a bit too early. All you can do is book a weekend in June, July and August, regularly buy some flowers, do your chores and hope for the best for your allotted three winter climbing weekends.

Location of Vapour trail viewed from the road

Location of Vapour trail viewed from the road

Two months ago the long-term forecast of the SA Weather Service predicted a wetter than usual winter but was less optimistic about it being a colder season. With Lesotho and the Drakensberg being a summer rainfall area some late autumn / early winter precipitation is essential for good ice to form but too much might wash away the ice and if it is not cold enough, sufficient ice may not form. That is however the gamble of planning ice climbing trips on the Southern tip of Africa long in advance. This is especially true for the ice crags near Gauteng (Oxbow and Bokong in Lesotho) which are less consistent than the traditional Drakensberg ice climbing areas around Giants Castle and Sani pass. Be that as it may, the die were cast when accommodation bookings for the Gauteng die-hard ice climbers and were made for weekend of 27-28 June.

Mid June the e-mails started flying and hopes for a good ice season got high when a number of small storms dumped some late season rain and snow on the ‘Berg and elsewhere (including very unseasonably late June rain in Gauteng). Just imagine the excitement when come Tuesday before the ice weekend when severe weather warnings were on newspaper posters on lamp posts in the streets and the temperatures (and snow) started falling.

Early Saturday morning we drove up the Mafika Lisiu Pass, which leads to the Katse Dam in Lesotho, on the way to the Bokong Nature Reserve at the top of the pass. We knew the Moteng pass to Oxbow (which is further north) was still closed after the heavy snow and we unsure of the state of the Mafika Lisiu pass that we were headed up. We got quite anxious when an official at the police check-point, at the bottom of the Mafika Lisiu pass, refused to let us go through due to treacherous road conditions at the top of the pass.
After some careful negotiation we managed to get though.

With a good bit of snow on the mountain tops, the view was spectacular but from afar an ice feature on the cliffs near the top hair pin bend caught our eye. Fed by the snow on the ridge, a 100m long and several meter wide, fat smear of ice unfamiliar to us, stood out appealingly against the stark rock face. Some of us have travelled this route for nearly 10 seasons and this was the first time that this feature had attracted our attention. Not even bothering to go to take a look at the main Bokong falls (which turned out not to be formed due to all the water rushing down the river), we stopped at a lay-by, grabbed our kit and puffed up the 200m steep slope to the bottom of the fall.

Approaching the bottom of the cliff

Approaching the bottom of the cliff

From below it was clear that the bottom 30m of ice was going to be the test piece of the route: it was steep and protection might be difficult to place on lead. Gareth did not hesitate to start leading. It was no mean feat to tackle this WI4 as the first lead of the season after nearly a year’s waiting for the return of the ice season. Soon enough Gareth’s distinctive “off-belay” call reverberated success at completing the first pitch. What an awesome start to the season!

The first belay stance was small and sloped down and could not accommodate the whole group (6 in total) so with others following the first pitch, Gareth started leading the second to make space at the first stance. With the stance coming into the sun after noon, the ice screws started meting out and necessitated re-tapped at least one of the ice screws in the stance after every climber got up just to make sure the stance was not compromised.

Then disaster struck: “ice below” came the call from above and before Jacques (who was climbing 6m below the first stance) could dodge, a fist sized chunk of ice slammed into his face. Blood was oozing out of a 2cm cut under his right eye he was lowered to the bottom where Peet attended with some emergency first-aid. Luckily there was plenty of ice at the bottom to put on the swelling wound. Unfortunately this is one of the hazards of ice climbing, especially in a larger party but Jacques recovered and climbed the follow day.

After finding one’s ice feet on the strenuous first pitch, the second pitch was simply stunning: a WI 3 pitch with the pass below providing a sense of exposure and the out-of-the-sun ice being a whole lot more solid. Beautiful formations of mushroom-shaped icicles with dreadlock looking features dangled above us at the stance. The sunlit ice glistened around us and created a real pleasure to be in these temporary surroundings. Sweet!

Gareth leading the bottom pitch

Gareth leading the bottom pitch

Jacques was hit by a fist sized piece of ice

Jacques was hit by a fist sized piece of ice

Graciously, Gareth handed the lead for the last and easiest pitch to Dean. This pitch was in the sun again and the plastic ice made for good axe placements. Although axe placements were good, the ice was soft and a bit thin for the screws and some had to be tied off short as they bottomed out. In these conditions placing protection was probably just wasting energy. The most notable feature of the pitch was the rime ice formations on the patch of grass and shrubs on the lip of the cliff. Thick, rounded, upward pointing icicles had formed round the vegetation. These were very reminiscent of the kind of “blou bul balle” on display by those ardent Blue Bulls supporters back in Pretoria and gave us a good few chuckles.

A set of Blou Bul Balle!

A set of Blou Bul Balle!

We descended the ridge later in the afternoon and adjacent gulley to the North with the ice covered ground necessitating a short abseil from a boulder. Since midday, the sound of ice crashing down from the more sunward cliffs lower down the valley and the water gushing below the snow below our feet made it clear that this route will not last much longer than the vapour trails left by the jetliners criss-crossing the skies above but such is the tenuous nature of ice on the Southern tip of Africa.

As the sun set over the snowy hills the only dampener on the jovial banter about the stunning early season climb was for some the thought having to wait for another couple of weeks to return to this wintery landscape and for others the explanation they had to conjure up to their wives why they were only arriving back after the sunset curfew.

Vapour Trail (90m WI4)

Approach:

45min from the car park

On the right hand side of the Mafika Lisiu pass (going up to Bokong), a few kilometres before the pass summit, a sheer west facing rock wall can be seen on the hill directly above the road with a distinctive gully breaking the wall to the right of the northern arête. To the right of this gully an ice fall occasionally forms on the face. This route climbs this ice formation. Park the car at a lay-by below the steep slope that leads up to the wall. An easy start to the slope can be made at a point next to the road down hill from the ice wall (really obvious). Ascend the slope to the base of the climb.

Pitch 1 (30m WI4) – The Blood Pitch
Climb from the base of the ice fall, taking the less steep left hand route up to a small sloping stance that breaks the climbing into manageable portions.

Pitch 2 (32m WI3) – The Lekker Pitch
Continue up on easier terrain until an obvious stance on a sloping ledge.

Pitch 3 (30m WI2) – The Blou Bul Balle Pitch
Continue up, tending rightwards from the stance to follow the easier, natural line then directly up to a stance below the higher, avoidable upper section.

Descent:

From the top of the route, traverse leftwards to the ridge and arête of the buttress. Descend into the gully following the slopes on the right hand side that lead into the gully proper. Take care on potential loose ground where a short abseil from a boulder may be required to safely descend a steep section midway down. Keep left (looking down) where the gully opens up to traverse leftwards around the arête back to the base of the climb.

Notes: This was the first time we had seen this formation and is surely does not occur often. Perhaps the raining summer and significant snow fall with cold temperature the week prior to the ascent made this route climbable. The route is best climbed in the morning shade as the sun falls on it in the afternoon.

FA: Gareth Frost, Dean van der Merwe, Darryl Margetts, Phillip Welchman, Peet Badenhorst. 2009/06/27

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