On 11 July, Ben Louw (18) and Jason Van Straaten (17) summited The Column in the Drakensberg together, making them the youngest team to summit the peak.
I have always had a great love of the berg, so when I got a new set of shiny cams for my 18th birthday the obvious next step was to put two and two together and try and summit one of the notorious peaks of the Drakensberg. The Column immediately came to mind, not only because of its history and proud line, but because I already knew the Tseketseke valley pretty well and thought that the chance of success was the greatest – this being my first Berg peak. Now only one problem remained, getting a suitable partner, not an easy feat in today’s day and age. Young people are unfortunately not that interested in trad (from what I have seen, might be wrong), not even starting on mountaineering. But in the end, I recruited a keen individual – my friend Jason van Straten (18) (unfortunately with no multipitch, twin rope belaying or trad experience but he was exited) and so we were off.
We were super prepared. Clothing for all weather conditions, heaps of gear and an abundance of food, but one thing was missing. The route guide! In our excitement to get to the hut we were going to use as a base camp, we forgot the neatly folded piece of paper in the driver’s side door compartment, right where I put it to be remembered. This mistake was only realized on the day we started climbing, but by this stage we were so eager to get going that we thought ‘stuff that – we will find the way’.
The hike to the base of the route went smoothly, we miraculously guessed the correct gully to venture up, and got to the start in 3 hours, after starting the hike just before 6am. After a quick early lunch of sliced salami and bread, we racked up and set off for pitch 1, which I could recall started at the top of the neck. This pitch went without any trouble, and I was at the stance within 20 minutes. Jason, being little less than a weekend warrior and not having climbed in 4 months, took a little longer, but with my motivation of ‘if you don’t climb faster the snow is gonna catch us’ and his will power he got to the stance in just over an hour. I linked pitches 2 and 3 in one massive rope draggy pitch, and just a little later Jason joined me at the 2nd set of rap anchors. Clouds started to envelop us at this stage and light snow, which was more like hail started falling. (Is this what they call sleet?)
So far, I managed to follow the route almost exactly as the route guide for the Escarpment Arete states, only venturing a little off line on pitch 1, but our pitch 3 is where that changed. I thought I followed what looked like the most obvious line, a fairly steep open book with a grassy crack running at the back, but after pulling out 2 toaster sized rocks, and taking a big fall nearly hitting the grassy ledge, I came to the conclusion that I was off route. Summit fever was high though, and I set of again still thinking that the line was possible. Next attempt went down with a bit of a fight (free grade of about 21 I think), and Jason seconded pulling on the gear and joined me on the last stance before the top.
We reached the summit at 3:30pm, and although a little behind schedule we still thought we were in a good position. After writing our accent into the summit book (which is the coolest thing Jason and I think we have ever seen) we set up to go down, no use sticking around if you couldn’t see 20 metres.
Descending is where things got a little bit dangerous. We managed to get our rope stuck into a crack when a big boulder dislodged beneath our rope, opening up a crack and wedging our rope into it. This happened as we were pulling the ropes so the one end was already about 5 meters off the abseil ledge. I had to tie into the other end and solo up to where the two ends of the ropes where (the rope only stopping me from falling all the way off the mountain). Long dangerous stupid story later we got our ropes free after about an hour and a half of struggles, and reached the base just after night fall in the pitch dark.
At least the very dangerous part was over now. All we had to do was find our way back to the hut with a uselessly dim headlamp (buying a new one as soon as possible), and a cell phone light with a battery of 9 %. This was probably the most successful part of the day. We didn’t get lost, which as hikers and climbers know is very easy in the Drakensberg, we followed the ‘trail’ all the way to the hut arriving there at a neat time of 9 o’clock.
After this taxing 15-hour day we drank some hot chocolate, ate pasta and had a very lekke night’s sleep. We couldn’t have asked for a better first time climbing experience in the wonderful Drakensberg!
By Ben Louw and Jason van Straten