Story by Andrew Porter (with edits from Hector Pringle)
Photos by Andrew and Hector.
My foothold has just broken off. The resulting shock load has broken off the twig I had for my left hand. Above me is a band of grass that does not inspire confidence. Life is not good right now, and I have clearly tugged on one grass tuft and trusted one dodgy piece of weetbix too many. I slowly reach down to my last piece of gear and hope it is good as I load it as a means of retreat. I am halfway up the 5th peak of the day in the high Drakensberg and things are not going well…
Hector had come up with the idea a year or two before: to climb all the peaks along the Eastern Buttress ridge, starting on the outside up Lion Ridge and working inwards as close to the skyline as possible (Lionheart Pinnacle, Eastern Buttress, Devils Tooth, Toothpick, North, Central and finally South Inner Towers). We would then climb onto the escarpment and descend via the peaks on the other side of the Amphitheatre (Beacon Buttress and Sentinel) to complete the traverse. The rules of the game were simple: to do the entire thing on foot, in a single, alpine-style push. In order to do this, we would have to take all our gear across most of the peaks (9 summits in total).
In August 2011, we had our first attempt – on that occasion, a heavy snow fall made it impossible, but we had a great time out, and vowed to come back. The key lesson was that we could hike Lion Ridge in the dark.
A revised and improved strategy said we should go fast and super-light. We would attempt the impossible, over just 2 days. To cut down weight for the climbing, we would take no stove, no tents, and no tea bags. We would however take a few grass stakes, and lots of accessory cord.
After a normal day in the office on Friday, we left Johannesburg and drove down to Tendele hutted camp. We parked the car here at 22:00, and set off up Lion Ridge. Lack of moon, and a poor choice of route finding took us a long way off from the planned route.
A dodgy scramble saw us through the final rock bands and onto the ridge line itself. We found out later that we had been about 2km off our mark. Not a great start, especially as we only had to hike about 7km that night, but we were now committed, and up we went. The ridge itself is mostly easy, and before too long, we had reached the bivi spot. Hector went over to the next gulley and took a while to collect water from a puddle with a thin tube. Meanwhile it took me a whole 2 minutes to set up camp. After all, all I had to do was to lay out 2 sleeping bags.
Next morning, we woke at 5am, and set off to the base of the first route: Lionheart. This climbs the proud Northern arête of a stand-alone pinnacle on Eastern Buttress. Along the way, we stopped off to collect 2 grass stakes we had used to retreat from our snowy attempt the previous year. After a few minutes of searching, we gave up, only to find that I had literally put my pack down on top of them. Just as well it wasn’t a snake…
A round of Ching-Chong-Cha decided the leads. Hector would take the first, and we would alternate from there on. The first 3 pitches of Lionheart are mostly scrambles. We placed 1 piece of gear in 3 x 40m pitches, and that was only to protect the second, who had the heavy bag to climb with.
The final 2 pitches are where the reputation comes from. The moves may be easy for the grade (20), but the lack of solid rock, for both gear or holds, makes for a serious lead. Seconding is slightly better, but for the most part, you spend quality time in the DFU (Don’t Fuck Up) zone.
This is indeed a proud line, and mega respect to Paul and Russ for the opening ascent. Our only incident was a poor choice of route by me while seconding the semi-hand traverse on the final pitch. I paid for that with a swing into space when some grass pulled. Shortly after 10am, I joined Hector at the summit. All indications are that this is the second ascent of the route, exactly 20 years and 1 month after the first ascent. We enlarged the summit cairn, and placed a summit book. And of course, took a whole lot of summit pics.
It turned out to be easier to cross onto Eastern Buttress than expected – a simple abseil off a grass stake, followed by a short scramble. We raced up Eastern Buttress proper, to take yet another set of summit pics. We then descended the standard route into Tooth Gully.
At this point, things were going well, so we decided to push on, instead of scrambling down Tooth Gully to find more water. In retrospect this decision was very important – we risked getting very thirsty because the next water would only be on the escarpment. But to mission a long way down Tooth Gulley at that stage would have killed the psyche.
Devils Tooth went smoothly. The route finding on pitch 1 had me confused for a while, but numerous pegs urged me on. Hector cruised the next pitch, and we then soloed the final 50m to the summit. We were both disappointed to find that the summit book was missing. The down solo went smoothly, and 2 abseils took us to the ground.
The Toothpick went quickly via a simple scramble up and down. Our 4th set of summit pics.
For the Inner Tower, we had 2 options. We could open a likely looking new route up the North summit from its neck with the Toothpick. Or, we could traverse along the base and use the standard route. The later option won in favour of a revised strategy that said if we hit the escarpment before dark, we could do the whole thing in a day. The traverse went well, until just before the gully separating the South and Middle summits. Here we poorly chose to climb directly up the Middle summit as being the faster option. Long runouts, poor quality grass and rock, and a head that can only take DFU terrain for so long resulted in the crumbling foot hold and broken twig. I pulled the ejector cord and down climbed 30m back to the ground.
Spirits were low. Hector took over for a slightly different line, and forced his way through on horrible weetbix and crispy grass tufts. He ran out of rope before finding a stance, so I started simul-climbing. This did not go well: we couldn’t hear each other properly, so when Hector finally built a stance and had me on belay I did not know it. I climbed the tricky moves with a heavy pack, convinced we were still simul-climbing and that if I fell off it would bring on a bad bout of death for both of us. Two shattered wrecks finally reached a grassy slope 60m up. We then traversed right into the gully between the North and Middle summits. A bit of scrambling, and some simple roped stuff got us up the North summit at sunset.
Hector did us proud and raced up to the middle summit, reversing the route that the guide suggests you should leave a fixed line for. At this point, darkness set in. Common sense dictated that we bivi for 12 long hours on the Middle summit, rather than try route-find in the dark. It was a good decision. This was peak number 6.
Next morning, we slept until the sun rose, and then set off for the South summit. It turned out to be easier than expected, and soon we were racing down. So enthusiastically, in fact, that we missed the turn off for Rose’s route, and abseiled all the way down the gully to the level originally taken by Kelly on his first ascent of the Inner Tower. We could see the previous days’ death pitch a short distance away. We quickly turned our backs on it, only to be greeted by a scary grass-tuft-island-hopping traverse into the Inner Tower Gulley. The key beta we eventually discovered was to crawl on your hands and knees for the crux sections. Somewhere along this Hector noted that “there are not many sports where your life depends on a grass tuft”.
Tired legs took us up to the escarpment. Now all we had to do was suck up the pain for the long grind back home. We hiked across to Beacon Buttress at speed. A quick descent down the gully followed, and we raced up the standard route of the Sentinel. We decided that this would be a good place to document our adventure, and wrote a suitable entry in the summit book. It was now 11:20am.
A long road and path lay ahead of us, so we ran more than walked to get down via Witsieshoek, back to the car at Tendele, arriving at 15h30. All the way, we kept being drawn back to the arête followed by Lionheart – it is an impressive line up an impressive feature. I will never be able to look at it again without thinking – wow, I have done that!
As we were buying a welcome beer at Tendele we were asked by a tourist, obviously impressed by our state of disarray: “which hike did you guys do today?” Hector and I looked at each other, and then Hector told him. His eyes went big and then he asked “did you at least have a tent?” When we told him no, we didn’t even have tea with us, he seemed satisfied that we were, in fact, mad and walked off shaking his head.
The entire round trip was 53km with a total altitude gain of 2,700m
13/04 22h00 – Park at Tendele and start hike up Lion Ridge
14/04 01h30 – Go to sleep
05h00 – Wake up and scramble to Lionheart
07h00 – Start Lionheart
10h00 – Top out Lionheart
10h50 – Top out Eastern Buttress
13h50 – Top out Devils Tooth
14h30 – Top out Toothpick
17h30 – Top out N Inner Tower
18h00 – Top out Middle Inner Tower and go to sleep
15/04 06h00 – Wake up and get moving
07h00 – Top out S Inner Tower
09h00 – Top out escarpment
10h30 – Top out Beacon Buttress
11h20 – Top out Sentinel
15h30 – Back at the car at Tendele
The whole thing can be done in a day if you have the right strategy and don’t make too many route finding errors. You will want to be fairly fit.