Giants Castle via Sherman’s Route: through the fire and the flames

Giants Castle is one of the most recognisable peaks in the Drakensberg. It can be seen from as far away as Harrismith, Ladysmith, Escourt, Hilton and Underberg. It is a peak I have summitted many times, and is one of my favourites.

For many years I have looked at the eastern ridges of the peak and imagined how amazing the views from them would be. The south ridge would naturally be the most scenic option, but is very long and at a grade I am not yet comfortable with. The main peak is split by the Eastern Gully, which is a snow route. On the northern side of this split is Sherman’s Route.

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David van der Veen and I decided that the mid-June long weekend would be perfect to try and complete a few Drakensberg climbing routes, starting with Sherman’s Route. To prepare for this, we climbed a few routes at Monteseel. By coincidence, two of the three routes we climbed were opened by Sherman Ripley after whom Sherman’s Route is named.

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We drove up to Giants Castle on Friday afternoon, and started walking not long before sunset. Being full moon, we didn’t need headlamps. We found a nice flat spot on the contour path and pitched the tent. It was a fairly cold night, but we were both well prepared.

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We woke up on Saturday morning to the smell of smoke. We were up at 4AM and were walking by 5:20 – later than planned, but we had covered more ground than planned the night before – so all was in order. The smoke was coming from the Jarateng Passes.

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At sunrise, around 2500m, we found a spot in the gully where we could leave our packs. Water in the stream was low, but we found a spot to fill up, GPS marked our location and moved all the essentials to our smaller packs. We decided to carry our down jackets up so that we would be prepared if something went wrong. We hid our packs between the rocks and covered them with a ground sheet. We also carried all our food with us to avoid animals smelling our packs.

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The walk up the ridge was slower than anticipated. Even without sleeping gear, climbing packs are very heavy. The ground is also often loose.

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Eventually the steep grass comes to an end and is replaced with an east facing gully. This gully includes some scrambling and is fairly loose in places. We had planned to descend the route after getting up, but considering how loose this was, we agreed that was a bad idea.

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At the top of the second gully, a grass band is reached. This is where Schole’s Route and the notorious Colli Extendenticum start.

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The route passes Giants Nostril Cave and follows a fairly exposed ledge around to the base of the climb.

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We expected pitch 1 to be in the shade, but were quite happy to find it in the sun. From the bottom it looked fairly easy and short. But I knew looks could be misleading, and after having something to eat and drink, I racked up and prepared to lead the pitch.

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At the bottom of pitch 1:

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The pitch starts with an interesting back-and-feet move before the chimney gets too narrow to back-and-feet. There was a lot of gear placement possibilities, which also helps.

The crux move is under a large chockstone right at the top. You can either pull through it (which is what Dave did) or you can do an interesting step across to exit the chimney and walk around (which is what I did). The crux took me a bit of time to figure out – the chockstone didn’t look amazing, so I opted for the exit – which required a foot switch, which was a bit sketchy when you are resting your back against the opposing wall. Once I stuck the foot switch, the rest was easy.

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Dave got up the pitch very quickly. Because of how narrow the chimney was, I opted to haul my pack up rather than climbing with it. Dave climbed most of the pitch with his pack on, but I hauled it past the crux as it was too narrow for him to climb with it on.

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Pitch 2 has two options: either climb a dodge D pitch (that looked fine to me) with an E-move to exit onto the ledge, or climb a friction slab graded E which is recommended in the book Drakensberg Select. Dave wanted to lead the pitch, so I left it to him. The D pitch is in a crack system directly below the summit, while the E pitch is further left and not immediately obvious as the entire lower section is on-balance friction climbing.

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Dave opted for the E-pitch. There was no great anchors at the bottom, and not much obvious gear on the pitch – so I anchored myself off a rock about 4m to the right of the climb. I knew it wasn’t a great anchor, but at least if Dave came off and was pulling me off as well – it should have been sufficient to keep me on the ledge and thus prevent disaster.

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The pitch goes like this: friction up the bottom 3m to a large block that you can grab with both hands. Once you hit the block, the rock is getting steeper, so you have to lean back to stay on. Stand on the block and use the smaller block above it to friction up a bit more before standing on the higher block. Step down on the left side of the block and use undercling holds on the block above you to round the corner. There is a perfect 2 hand crack to layback up above this. At the top of the layback you have to step across on top of the block to the right (crux move) – which is tricky and required a bit of thought to figure out. From here, scramble up the final section to the top.

Dave hadn’t lead in the Drakensberg before, so he did very well to lead this pitch. Friction climbing on bad gear with that much exposure is a tricky game – but he handled it well. He managed to get a bomber nut in just below halfway and got two reasonable cams in higher up.

I was surprised how quickly I got up this pitch – it wasn’t easy and did require thought, but the moves were there.

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Above the pitch, you walk along a very exposed ledge to the corner of the ridge. The ledge disappears here, so you scramble up an easy bit of rock to get on top of the ledge itself. We didn’t rope this top scramble up.

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Dave on the top scramble, described as 10m C-grade on the RD, although it was easier and shorter than that.

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From there to the top, you scramble up a very exposed but spectacular knife ridge to the summit. It was sketchy in places, and a few spots are in the DFU-Zone.

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We reached the summit just before 3PM. There was an icy wind up there – not strong, just cold. We didn’t stay on the top for long, and soon made our way down to Giants Pass.

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We got to our packs around last light. We had hidden them very well, so well that I couldn’t see them. Luckily Dave found them easily enough.

By the time we hit the contour path, it was dark – although full moon did help. Two tents were pitched at the bottom of the pass. Always nice to see a friendly face in the mountains!

We continued along for a bit before deciding to call it a night and just pitch the tent there. The fire had grown a lot, which was a concern.

When the alarm went off at 5AM, there was a lot of smoke about and we agreed to wait to see where the fire was before deciding if we would stick to our plans to do Potterill Arete. When there was enough light for us to see where the fire was (we could see the flames, but we couldn’t see the mountain behind them to provide an exact location) – we realised that the fire crossed the contour path.

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There was a massive amount of smoke in the valley and we were both feeling the effects of this. The fire was between us and the start of our route. It wasn’t windy, so the fire was spreading slowly – but continuing with the climb would mean walking over dry grass towards a massive fire, finding a way through the fire, stashing our packs just past the fire and then climbing a ridge just north of the fire. This seemed like a very bad idea, so despite the perfect weather, we knew we had to bail.

I have often used the scoring system from one of the wargaming rulesets to define a trip result. The outcomes can be a major win, minor win, draw, minor loss or major loss. Saturday had been a major win, so we decided to keep the overall trip on the win side of the equation and head down early.

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We got a good look at Potterill Arete on the way out – the route looks amazing. We also saw at least 20 EKZN workers walking up Middle Ridge to deal with the fire. We bumped into a worker on Giants Ridge who told us that the fire was started on top, so it was not a controlled fire.

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Aside from four eland in the distance on the way out, and the massive fire raging behind us – the walk out was uneventful.

We reached the offices at 10:15 to find our page of the mountain register full of other people’s names. I have no clue what route they were doing, but I seriously doubt they were planning on doing the same route as us. Not the first time this has happened – it is rather annoying.

Nonetheless – I rate Sherman’s Route to be one of the most spectacular lines I have done in the Drakensberg. I would absolutely recommend this line to a team looking to walk 35km with heavy packs in order to do about 30m of climbing. Ok, that sounded far too sarcastic – it is genuinely worth doing, provided you are in it for the route and not just looking for some good climbing.

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