Cathkin Peak

The name “Mdedelelo” is Zulu for “the one that pushes in front” or “the bully”. It is also known as Cathkin, after a region in Scotland. Out of Drakensberg peaks that can only be accessed by technical climbing, it ranks 4th highest and is one of the best known peaks in the range.

When the summit is enshrouded in mist, it has an ominous feeling to it. It is a peak with a lot of history – it was first climbed in 1912 and has had its fair share of horror stories. The best known tragedy on the mountain happened on 20 September 1955, when Keith Bush was tragically took a fatal fall when his abseil anchor failed.

Many experienced Drakensberg climbers have been benighted on this mountain over the years. It is hard to say if I have had a fear of Cathkin, or just a healthy respect for this massive rocky peak – but it has been on my to-do list for years.

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A few weeks ago, while putting on some safety gear to take a tour around a steel mill, I received a whatsapp from Andrew Porter. He told me he was going to have a go at Cathkin as a day trip, and asked me if I was up for it. This wasn’t a tough question – if there is anyone capable of climbing this peak safely, it would be Andrew. But in a day – the peak that had benighted so many other parties.

Andrew and I have hiked over 1000km together, so when he told me the plan was for him to carry everything and lead all the pitches – I knew what he was thinking. I might not be the slowest hiker on the planet, but he is much faster than me. As for the lead climbing – I wasn’t going to argue about that on a notoriously scary route!

So at 3:50am we set off from the Injisuthi chalets up the Shada Ridge route. To be honest, I was pretty tired and don’t really remember much of the approach. We talked about something, but for the life of me I can’t recall. We hit the contour path around sunrise.

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We started up the South East Ridge. Andrew had decided this was the logical approach as it meant traversing into the Cowl Fork River above the vegetation. The ridge was a bit steep in places, but mostly easy. We were making very good progress, but as always, the hard part was still to come, and we knew that.

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We broke left around 2430m along an obvious grassy line. As is common for the Drakensberg, we had to cross a number of side gullies and one very badly eroded wash-away.

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We soon found ourselves in the surprisingly iced up Cowl Fork Riverbed.

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Looking up at Monks Cowl and Cathkin from the gully – the enormity of these peaks was quite something!

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The Cowl Fork gully was fairly straightforward. The occasional scramble up some wet or icy rock was required, with the odd break to the right bank to skip a bad section. But our pace remained strong.

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Around 2600m we finally hit what we were looking – the notorious South Gully of Cathkin. Also known as Cathkin Standard Route. Looking up it, you can’t help but notice how steep it is. It literally takes your breathe away – mostly in the sense of physical exertion!

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The gully was made up of scrambling up the riverbed, or being forced onto the grass on the left to avoid obstacles.

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The problem with these grass ledges was that they were often very narrow and slippery and tended to include potential falls of 50+m if you slipped. With no safe way of roping them up, they proved really challenging at times.

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The following two photos are not an exaggeration, we actually had to cross these ledges (unroped) – done will the full knowledge that a slip would probably be fatal. I like to think I know the Drakensberg well, after a decade of hiking these mountains – but I felt really out of my depth on these.

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The gully was relentless. As we got higher, our pace kept dropping. Despite carrying all our gear, Andrew looked fine. I was struggling, though. Even with a light pack this gully was proving very difficult. In retrospect, I would never have managed it with a heavy pack.

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What most people think is a 45° slope is often not even a 20° degree slope – but this gully was definitely past 45° in places.

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Yet another exposed grass traverse, although this was one of the easier ones.

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Just before pitch 1, we hit a scramble that was a bit tricky. Andrew free soloed a line that suited him better and sent a rope down for me. I was very happy to finally have some protection on this gully. You know a gully is rough when I am happy to be done with grass slopes and finally do some rock climbing – it is usually the other way around for me!

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Pitch 1 is graded C. Andrew lead it, placing extra gear to make me feel safer on the traverse section. While waiting for him to set up the stance, I had something to eat and drink, and decided to take a selfie. If you look at the grass slopes in the valley behind me, it gives some context about how steep the gully actually is.

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Pitch 1 only really has one interesting move, the rest is just very exposed walking. I was happy to be on a rope, though. If you slip on this pitch, the fall probably won’t end so well. Ironically the exposure on this pitch wasn’t as bad as the grass traverses lower down.

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Andrew lead pitch 2 – the crux pitch. The exit of the chimney is surprisingly difficult – and watching Andrew fiddle about looking for a way of doing this was a bit worrying. I knew I was up next, and this was looking far harder than the E grade it has been allocated.

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When it was my turn, I scrambled up to the chimney, hung my pack between my legs from my harness and did the old back-and-feet chimney climb to just above the chock-stone. The exit move proved very tricky, and I knew we were behind schedule, so I pulled on a sling Andrew had placed and got through the move. As it turns out, he had actually placed this extra cam for this exact reason – always awesome climbing with someone who knows you well!

I put my pack back on before attempting the next section of the climb. To avoid watching my pack disappear into the gully, I kept it clipped onto my harness till I had one strap on – which proved rather tricky. Putting a pack on while standing on a tiny sloping ledge most of the way up a pitch is surprisingly difficult!

The sequence above this required a tiny foothold and some dodgy hands (or, more likely, I just didn’t figure it our properly), so I used a prussik to cheat the next move. I was soon up. The summit of Cathkin was only a short distance above, but it was almost 3pm by now – so we were far behind schedule.

The grade of E on this pitch is either too low, or we missed something. Andrew rates it is F2.

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Andrew lead pitch 3. The RD made absolutely no sense compared to what we were looping at, so Andrew looked around a bit and found a fairly easy line with a few hard moves near the top. From the top of the chimney, he walked about 10m left, scrambled up and then traversed right to an obvious break in the cliff. The line was well protected and much easier than pitch 2. I was described as looking like a beached whale at one point – but seeing as I was just below the summit, that really didn’t bother me!

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We got to the top, knowing fully well we needed to get off soon. There was a slight breeze, but the weather couldn’t have been better. We could vaguely make out the peaks around the Amphitheatre, but with all the smoke in the air, visibility wasn’t perfect. But other than that, there is no way we could have had better conditions on the day.

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Andrew completed the summit book while I walked around to have a look towards Monks Cowl.

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We got our summit shot at the main summit before bagging the other two summits just in case. Andrew’s GPS confirmed that the one with the summit book was slightly higher than the others.

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The views from the top were great, and in a perfect world we would have more time to look around – but we had a long way to go, and time was not on our side.

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Looking down the South East Ridge, our descent route. That line of firebreaks in the valley is the Shada Ridge.

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Andrew found the boulder used for the 60m abseil off the summit. The route description says 50m, but it is in fact 60m.

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It is no secret that I am not a fan of abseiling. I had been joking for days that I would have to take a change of underwear for this, and standing on the edge about to clip into that rope I had only one thought in my mind – we don’t have time to mess around, just do it.

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There was quite a nest of access chord around our anchor rock. This is always reassuring as it means the anchor has held for others in the past.

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Andrew went down first, but stopped on the ledge near the bottom to make sure I was fine. To say the abseil was terrifying is like saying that a nice hot cup of soup on a cold evening is very pleasant – it is an absolute understatement! I kept an eye on the end of the rope to avoid abseiling off the end, and found myself below the cliff with less than 20cm of rope left. I didn’t have to remove the rope from my belay device, I just slide the last bit through. Seeing as that was on 60m ropes, the abseil would be exactly 59m! Note in the photo below with Andrew coming down the last bit – the ropes aren’t even touching the ground, with only a bit coiled on the rock.

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It was past 4pm and we were now on our way down the very steep South East Ridge. This ridge is full of steep grass (although nowhere near as bad as the way up) and a lot of exposed scrambling.

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On one of the rock bands, I stood on a rock that decided that it didn’t want to be there any more. Another rock that had been balanced on it decided to follow suit, taking a line over my shin on the way past. It was sore, but I didn’t have time to stop and check it out. Two days later the spot is red and sore to the touch, but nothing serious.

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We were in a rush, so I didn’t get many photos of the way down. We hit two cliffs that we couldn’t see an obvious way down, so we did a 20m abseil and a 30m abseil to get down these.

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By the time we reached 2450m, roughly where we had left the ridge on the way up, we had our headlamps on. My batteries had died, and I didn’t have a spare set (yes, I know, amateur hour) – so I used Andrew’s spares. As it turns out, his spares were either flat or my headlamp is giving up the ghost – because that didn’t help at all. So here we were – two people descending a steep ridge in the dark without a trail and only one headlamp.

We stopped for a short break on hitting the contour path. I decided to use my phone as a torch now that we were on a trail and I didn’t need my hands to hold onto the grass tufts any more.

Shada Ridge, van Heyningen’s Pass and the final trail to Injisuthi Camp dragged on. We covered that section in 2h30, which is actually pretty fast, but it felt like a decade.

Walking into the chalets we were both very relieved. Objective #1 was to avoid adding to the Cathkin fatalities list and objective #2 was to avoid adding to the list of people who have been benighted. To have a hot shower in a chalet on the same day that you summitted Cathkin – could I have asked for anything better?

Our total distance was 28km (incidentally on van Heyningen’s Pass I passed 7000km of Drakensberg hiking), and our time was 17h30. It took 4 pitches of roped climbing, 3 abseils and roughly 6 super sketchy grass scrambles (not counting the easy ones) – but we had done it (well, mostly Andrew, but I was still there). I don’t know how many people have done Cathkin in a day, but I don’t think it has been done by many.

Unquestionably the hardest mountain I have ever climbed.

Comments on the route

This route is very dangerous. In wet or icy conditions it would be a death trap. Well, in perfect conditions it is also kind of a death trap. Even if you ignore the climbing entirely, the grass ledges are very dangerous and could easily end badly, and there isn’t much in the way of options for backing out once you start up the gully. The climbing isn’t the hardest part of the route.

Descending via the South East Ridge is logical – I wouldn’t even consider descending the south gully.

To be honest – this route is far above what I am capable of, if you consider that in most scenarios I would have to carry my share of the climbing gear. Without Andrew carrying all the gear and leading the pitches, I wouldn’t have even managed some of those grass traverses, never mind to the summit. I expected this route to be super hard, and it was far harder than I expected.

Don’t let the grading of E and the fact that it looks like a pass fool you – this route is very serious.

2 comments

  1. Epic! I can very safely add that to places I never want to hike 🙂

  2. Keegan Moore · · Reply

    My adrenaline is pumping just from reading this… But I am now even more determined to do it!

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