Pyramid Standard Route

The Pyramid is a large, well, pyramid shaped peak at Didima Nature Reserve in the Northern KZN Drakensberg. I first saw it in person on a hike in 2010. For many years I admired it knowing I would never stand on its summit, I would never take up rock climbing for a number of reasons, mostly my fear of heights – and even if I did, I knew it was out of my league.

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The Pyramid (left) and Column (right) as seen from near the top of Tseketseke Pass

2018 started with a failed attempt on Rhino Eastern Arete route, which served as a bit of a wake-up call. It’s easy to talk a big game, but if you can’t get up fairly simple routes – you are doing something wrong. So in 2018 I began to train harder, and significantly upped my hardest climbing grade. I also completed three different Drakensberg rock climbing routes during the year – including Rhino S-Route, which was my first F1 graded rock climb in the Drakensberg.

One problem with my ascent of Rhino S-Route – although I did make it up, I had to aid the F1 pitches, meaning that I pulled on gear or the rope rather than the rock to get through the hardest sections. I can defend aid climbing as a part of mountaineering, but it is still a bit disappointing to not manage to pull off the route without doing something that could be argued to be cheating.

Anyway – bring on 2019. For my first Drakensberg rock climb of the year, myself and Marco teamed up to climb Pyramid. The basic agreement was that Marco would lead the hard pitches and I would lead the easy ones if I was up to it on the day. The trip was rained out and turned out to be rather unpleasant.

So in late May I received a whatsapp from Marco asking if I still wanted to do Pyramid, and a few days later we found ourselves filling in the mountain register at Didima.

We were greeted by a chameleon on the trail right near the start.

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We walked past the Mushroom as we had before. There was a surprising amount of water on the route considering it is almost winter, and the route is notoriously dry.

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Photo by Marco Plebani

From the top of the ridge, the route is clearly visible. Pitch 1 marked in yellow, the walk marked in blue, pitch 2 (crux) in red, pitch 3 in yellow and pitch 4 in purple. The Window is the spot where the chains for the second abseil are found.Slide3.JPG

The walk went smoothly enough, with us reaching Tseketseke Hut in 4h30.

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Photo by Marco Plebani

I had been to Tseketseke Hut a few times before, but this was my first time in good weather. I have to say that this valley is spectacular.

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We set the alarm for 4AM, hoping to be well along the traverse to the start of the route before sunrise. But the alarm had other plans, and at 6AM I woke up on account of the amount of light. We were moving about 20 minutes later. This meant that we got sunrise over Cleft Peak, which isn’t exactly a bad thing!

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Our comedy of errors continued as our navigator (aka me) was unsure which of the two gullies to take, and picked the far one – which meant slogging through some bad overgrowth before realising the mistake.

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We made our way to the correct gully only to realise another error I had made – I had forgotten to fill my water bottles before leaving the river. The route has no water on it, so I had no choice but to drop back down the river with our bottles and fill them up. This cost us another 20 minutes – this was starting to add up.

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The gully wasn’t too bad, just yet another steep Drakensberg grass gully like I have done so many times before. We stopped at the top for a second breakfast and enjoyed the view for a bit.

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The traverse was slow and not particularly enjoyable – but we knew this would be the case, so we were prepared for it. We noted that you can drop straight down to the contour path from here, with some careful cliff dodging – and decided we would use that descent later.

At the far end of the traverse, just above the dry riverbed marked “Pyramid Water Point” on the GPS track we were using, I stashed my pack. Marco hadn’t brought a good small pack, so he took his sleeping gear out and put it in my pack, and offered to carry my share of the gear in his pack as he had space. It seemed a bit unfair to get him to do all the work, but I most certainly wasn’t about to start arguing!

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From the saddle at the far end of the traverse, you have to do a number of scrambles. Some of them are actually a bit intimidating, and there is a lot of exposure. While I don’t claim to be a particularly good climber, I am no stranger to this terrain and was surprisingly comfortable on it.

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We eventually reached pitch 1, graded C. I don’t know who graded it that, and maybe we had the start slightly wrong, although I don’t see how – but it definitely wasn’t a light scramble as advertised! The first gear was above the crux of the pitch, which was the first 4m. While belaying Marco, I was aware that if he came off, he wouldn’t stop on the ledge I was standing on, and the two gear placements that I was anchored to would decide whether or not I took a nasty fall as he pulled me off. Luckily he got through it safely and made it to the top of the pitch just fine.

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This pitch is genuinely very long, we used 60m ropes and only had about 5m to spare.

Ready to climb, I turned my new action camera on and started the pitch. The lower section was fairly tough, but being on top rope makes life a lot easier.

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I got up the pitch in 12 minutes (time courtesy of the completely useless video taken by my action camera), and soon we had the ropes coiled and started the walk to pitch 2, the crux pitch.

I always say that asking what a grade of a Drakensberg climb is is an indication that you have missed the point. The Drakensberg doesn’t generally offer much quality climbing – mostly very exposed easy moves on bad rock with limited gear. Probably best described as terrifying roped scrambling. But what it is about is the location – and Pyramid Standard Route follows the spectacular east skyline of a very proud peak. The views did not disappoint!

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Pitch 2 looked fairly doable from below. Gear was good, mostly due to the crack system right through the route. Marco racked up and got to the crux sequence pretty quickly. With some acrobatics that were interesting to watch, he made it through nicely and was soon up.

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My ascent of it went like this – first blocky section to below a small overhang was fun, I like big moves on good holds. I went right under the overhang on the slab, which went better than any Berg slab I had done before. I found myself a bit too far right and moved back towards the crack to reach the crux move.

The description of this crux sequence will seem rather over the top, but this is how it felt to me – there was a good crack on the left with bomber hands, a reasonable left hand above and a ledge I needed to get my foot on roughly 1.5m above where I was standing. The rock below the foothold I needed to reach was slightly overhanging and lacked features to step up on – so I used a small ripple in the rock on the right to stand up, but couldn’t get my left foot to that hold. I tried this a few times without success. We were already running late and I knew we had to hurry, so I decided to aid the move, but by this point I was far too pumped and even pulling on a prussik on one of the climbing ropes wasn’t working.

My action camera mount to my helmet had also snapped at some point when I hit my helmet against a rock. It was being held on by the rubber locker designed to stop the clip from coming undone. Luckily I noticed this before it fell off, and managed to get it into my pocket in time. I have to admit – these action cameras really get in the way while climbing.

I got through the move eventually, but couldn’t do the very basic moves above the crux due to how pumped I was. I have to give Marco credit here for keeping as calm as he did, I had put him in a very tough position and he kept his cool very well.

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I had wanted to lead pitches 3 and 4, but time was against us, and Marco would be faster. I scrambled halfway up the slope above pitch 2 before realising it was actually pitch 3. I set up a stance and Marco took over the lead. Pitch 3 has one exposed move that is well protected. It is a traverse pitch, but the rope is mostly there because it is very exposed and well protected – you probably won’t fall on this pitch.

Pitch 4 is also fairly straightforward and has adequate protection, although not as much as pitches 2 and 3.

By the time we reached the summit, it was already after 3PM, and we knew we would be heading down in the dark. Weather was perfect, slightly breezy and clear, but not hot.

Marco prepped the abseil while I wrote in the summit book.

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Photo by Marco Plebani

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I took off my climbing shoes and got into my trail shoes – I don’t like abseiling in climbing shoes as they don’t grip well on grass. I would later discover that one of my climbing shoes has remained on the summit of the peak (or possibly fell out of my pack on the way down).

All the abseils are bolted, although there are suitable natural anchors for all of the points. It is an interesting ethical question as to what is worse – litter in the form of decaying ab chord or a rusted chain on a bolt.

Marco did the first abseil ahead of me. It is marked as 50m, but isn’t even 30m. We stayed on the rope right till the chains at the Window for safety reasons. We clipped into the next chains before coming off the rope.

I am not a fan of abseiling – I find it terrifying, so I was happy to be through the first one. I decided to go first on the second one as it wasn’t a simple straight down abseil. You reach a ledge a short distance down, and then walk across it, hook the rope around a rock so you don’t get pulled straight down, and then drop to a ledge which isn’t directly below you. The last 5m of the abseil is best described as fighting gravity, which wants to pull you over to the middle of a cliff above nothing. I was relieved to have this behind me.

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This abseil also isn’t 50m as advertised, probably closer to 40m. It puts you right by the bottom of the crux pitch, although none of this abseil is on the climbing route.

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Photo by Marco Plebani

We coiled the ropes before making our way down to the final abseil. The chains on the last abseil are supposed to be marked by a cairn according to the RD, but we looked near every cairn we could find with no luck. I eventually saw them because someone had tied some ab chord to them.

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The final abseil was by far the longest and scariest. The final section of it includes about 4m of hanging in space.

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Photo by Marco Plebani

By this time the sun had already set – the late alarm and series of errors in the morning were proving costly. I was also very aware of the time wasted as I struggled with the crux. To make matters worse, the rope wasn’t coming loose.

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Note Ghaz being super helpful by taking a photo rather than helping Marco get the rope down

The rope eventually came loose and we began our descent. We accidentally took the wrong line and missed the hardest of the scrambles by going 50m too far left. I soon realised the mistake and we traverse back to the right line.

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It was fully dark by the time we reached the last two small cliff bands above the saddle where we would be able to start the drop to my pack. Marco mentioned that we could bivy here if our safety margin wasn’t sufficient for descending further in the dark.

Somehow we both safely made it down to the saddle, and then dropped further to my pack. In retrospect I am happy we made the next decision, but it could easily have gone wrong: we decided that rather than trying to reverse our traverse line from the morning (which we had a GPS track for), we would try the new line and drop straight down to the contour path. Seemed like a good idea – neither of us had ever done this stretch of contour path, we had both only seen this section from above earlier in the day and were unsure if anyone else had ever done that line. Seemed like a good plan.

The next few hours are best described as a cycle of: we found a cliff, so we use Marco’s super bright headlamp to find where it ended, went to a gap, scrambled down and then hit another cliff. After 3 hours (1.5km) of this, we reached the contour path.

I was tired, it was almost 10PM and I had come to terms with the fact that I was going into work late on Monday – so I suggested that we bivy on the contour path before it drops down to the Tseketseke River. I wasn’t up for boulder hopping up that valley to the hut in the dark, and there was no point in reaching the car at 2AM – especially since we would end up having to sleep in the car.

So we found some flat ground and got into our sleeping bags on a beautiful clear night. The starts were beautiful, until the moon came out and it became very bright.

At 4AM my alarm went off, and soon we were up and walking again. We decided to take the route past Ribbon Falls. We stopped for breakfast and to watch the sunrise just before it drops steeply from the top of the Small Berg.

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Photo by Marco Plebani

We got to the car at 7:40AM, just early enough for me to phone my client and inform them that I would be coming in late.

Overall it was most certainly an epic! The route is spectacular, but the crux is not to be underestimated. Marco rates F1 is fair, I think it is harder than that. But it is a lot of effort for very little climbing. So for those who want to do it – make sure you are doing it for the position, not the climbing.

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