Pins Pass/South Saddle Pass: T’is but a scratch

My slow progress of loading my old hike reports here continues! This was a 4 day hike in March 2016 which remains one of my most memorable hikes. 2016 was the year where I trained the hardest, with the Double Grand Traverse being the end goal. I hiked 1375km in the Drakensberg that year, by far the most I have ever done, and a personal record I am unlikely to break. It is also a hike with one of my biggest regrets in the Drakensberg – I had done half the scramble on North Saddle, I really should have bagged that khulu that day.

Fun fact: the name of this report is reference to the number of scratches we got from thorn bushes on South Saddle Pass, while referencing a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a tradition I still have with certain friends, where if either of us ever says “t’is”, the other has to say “but a scratch” before the other finishes what they are saying.

Day 1: Pins and Needles

Mnweni has always been a tricky spot for me to hike in. The combinations of long walkins and passes that aren’t exactly easy makes for a rather substantial time requirement. Having done quite a bit of fast-and-light hiking with Mike (Hobbit), I decided it was time to have a go at one of the harder passes on my to-do list.

We set off from the Cultural Centre at 4:25AM. I don’t know the small Berg at Mnweni very well, so I loaded a GPS track of the walkin. As it turns out, my GPS decided this was a good day to not be able to read that particular track.

So in the light of the moon, we set off – with my hope being that my memory of the area is as good as I expect. As we hit the bridge that marks the turnoff for the walkin to Mweni Pass, we encountered our first problem – dogs.

We took wide lines around houses with dogs, before bumping into a large group walking home after a night of drinking – they showed us the trail to take, so we took it. The next house had some dogs, but the owner came out to keep them quite. We were now past the houses, so we could make some proper progress.

Clouds had come over, the world looked ominous and grey as first light came. We sat and had something to eat. I was watching our altitude – it seemed we were gaining too much altitude.

As the sun rose, the clouds disappeared, and it turned into a beautiful, but hot, day. We continued to climb, which rewarded us with some great views.

Eventually we hit a spot where I could see the trail we were supposed to be on below. Fortunately I know what the route should look like, so even though we took a monstrous detour, at least I knew where we were supposed to be!

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After a massive drop down to the river (250m vertical), we were back on the correct trail. We took the lower trail from here. The day was getting hot, and time was slowly slipping by. At the Fangs junction we had a chat about whether or not we would push for Pins Cave, but we decided to push on.

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We followed the Mnweni Pass trail further than we should have, having to scramble back to the river just below a rather epic cascade/waterfall. We followed the riverbed, right through to the base of the pass. We continued up the riverbed till we saw our first viable exit.

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We knew there would be no water, so we filled our bottles up at the base of the pass. The first side gully we crossed was full of water, so we stocked up again. The second once again was full of water. Oh how times have changed since we did that GT a few months ago!

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The reason I say we should have stayed in the bed for longer is that there didn’t appear to be any major obstacles lower down, but the grass on the slopes lower down was generally loose and unstable. This cost us a lot of time with little benefit.

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By the time we reached the spot where one would usually leave the gully, we were about 200m above the gully. By now, the grass ledge was a standard foot killer, but not steep enough for altitude to be gained quickly. This caused very slow progress indeed!

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The views throughout the pass are exceptional, definitely one of the most scenic passes I have ever done.

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As the pass neared the corner, we knew time was not on our side. Much like the walkin track, my GPS wouldn’t read the track for the pass, so I had no co-ordinate for the cave. Finding this in the dark could be tough. As we continued to climb, the gradient got steeper, and thus Mike and I were in our standard terrain, and progress became quicker.

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As we hit the scree field where the pass takes a sharp turn, I started to keep an eye on the main gully, just to be sure we don’t find a cliff between us and the gully. As it turns out, if you just stick to the left cliff (true right), the grass slope eventually joins the gully.

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As light faded, I was watching the left hand cliff for Pins Cave. Finding it in the dark with no co-ordinate could be tricky. I soon noticed a cave above a scramble, so I left my pack with Mike and scrambled up to it. The light was so minimal that I could only see an entrance – it looked right, so I told him to come up. He offered to bring my pack up for me, an offer I wasn’t about to refuse!

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When he reached the cave, I took out my headlamp, and immediately realised that this was not Pins Cave. However, it was an entirely adequate 4 sleeper with a low roof. The rock is particularly crumbly, which made reorganisation of rocks into a flat floor into easy work. We found what we thought was a lamb skull on the floor. In retrospect, this makes no sense, as a lamb couldn’t get there (carried by a predator?) – so, presumably it was actually a bird skull. Nonetheless we named it “Lamb Skull Cave”.

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There was a good solid drip near the entrance, enough to fill a 750ml water bottle in an hour. So, as it turns out, we really didn’t need to carry so much water up the pass.

Day 2: Cutting Back

Day 2 was more of a reserve day than a day with a plan – we only needed to reach Mponjwane Cave, which we could do quite quickly if we took the cutback highway. So no alarm was set, and we woke up with the sun.

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Seeing as we were so close to the Pins/Escarpment saddle, I suggested that we eat our breakfast there. So we set off down the pass, and sat at a rather windy spot right by the cliff of the inner Pinnacle. There were some beautiful fang-link rock formations below Black and Tan wall, and as always, it was great to have a rocky spire towering above us.

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After breakfast and some photos, we returned to the cave, and by 9:30 we were ready to start the day. Amazing how time just disappears sometimes!

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The top of the pass was quite a slog, with the pass topping out above 3100m. We decided to skip the cutback highway in favour of a long slow walk around the cutback itself – how often do you get perfect weather with time available to do something like that?

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From reaching the top till around 2:30PM can be summed up as follows: we slowly walked for 8 minutes before sitting down for a 15 minute break. Sounds odd, but it was really awesome, we eyed out every little spire we could see, noted which had summit cairns and which didn’t, looked at a lot of passes that probably will go, and even noticed a clearly used cave near the Mnweni Outer Buttress – aka Tony’s Mystery Khulu, so should we refer to this as Tony’s Mystery Cave?

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We upped our pace a bit to ensure we would reach Mponjwane Cave before 2032, collecting water near an empty Leger’s Cave. Upon reaching Mponjwane Cave, we found both caves were already taken. Carl (Viking) and co were occupying one half, and I didn’t know the team in the Annex Cave. Carl’s team made room for us, so no return down to Leger’s Cave was required – thanks Carl!

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Day 3: The thorny saddle

Day 3 was going to be a big day – it was the day that I had come here for. The Saddle Rise khulus were the only non-technical khulus I had left between Ifidi and Ndumeni Dome. We also knew that North Saddle Peak may be on the cards. AndrewP had provided some useful info on them, so we knew the odds of getting up were low, but we would still check it out.

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We started the day by looking at the large flat topped summit near Mponjwane Cave. Mike scrambled up it, but I wasn’t comfortable with the downclimb, so I waited back on the escarpment. As it turned out, my guess of 35m prominence was off by exactly 1m, and thus it remains an arbitrary minor summit.

We returned to the cave, packed up, and decided to take a wide line towards the Rockeries. As it turns out, you can actually take an easy scramble to get out onto the ledge that leads to them. We followed this ledge for roughly 1km before reaching the spot where the world falls away and massive spectacular pinnacles of rock rise up above you from the abyss below. I understand talk of the Cutback being beautiful, but I have always found the Rockeries to be far more impressive – perhaps that’s just me.

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We returned to our packs, and made the rather substantial descent down to the top of Rockeries Pass. On my first GT back in 2012, I found the Nguza Ridge to be a real killer, but going up it again (my 3rd time, the 2nd being on the 5 day GT last year), I found it to be quite easy. Perhaps the light packs helped – both of our packs were now below 10kg.

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We bagged Nguza Pass Peak, before meeting some locals at the top of Nguza Pass. We then traversed to the middle of the Saddle, before stashing our packs and heading up to North Saddle Rise Peak. This anti-climax of a khulu was bagged before we took a short walk to the infamous North Saddle Scramble.

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First things first – the scramble isn’t more than 5m high, and the exposure is not 300m as is often stated. That being said, the crux move requires pushing on a hold, and if you slip, you may go head first down about 20m. The route is in the shade, so it is a bit wet. We both took our shoes off (to get better purchase on the rock), and had a go at it. I could easily do the crux move, but no ways I could downclimb it. Having been told that there is no viable abseil back down, we didn’t have a rope or harness, so after a long discussion, we agreed it wasn’t safe to proceed. Mike did actually climb above the crux move, but decided that he wasn’t willing to downclimb the move immediately above it, and proceeded to spend 10 minutes trying to figure out how to downclimb the crux. He probably could have continued up and bagged the khulu – but I suspect he felt bad about leaving me behind.

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Moderately disappointed, but happy not to have taken a stupid risk – especially seeing as my phone was in my pack, so if something went wrong, calling for help may have been tricky – we dropped back to our packs.

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We then proceeded up South Saddle Rise Peak – which has a great view. It is funny how close the South Saddle Peak looks to the rise peak. The chasm between the peaks only becomes apparent when you get closer to it.

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We had lunch at the top of South Saddle Pass. We basically reached this spot, I mentioned what it was, we kind of looked at eachother and agreed to go for it. We had stated Christmas Pass in the mountain register, but my GPS wasn’t reading that track, so I was wary of trying to find the route. We had agreed to switch to Ntonjelana Pass instead, but if we were going off-register, this pass would be as good as any.

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Above 2600m, South Saddle Pass is easily one of the most beautiful passes I have ever done. Before scree is reached, there is even a trail, although it dies around 2800m. From 2600m down, it is comfortably the worst. When you first hit vegetation, you stay to the true right to avoid it – but sooner or later a cliff forces you through it. Mike called the plants “asthma trees” – they seem to try and choke you. Not fun at all. After a short distance in these, we both stopped and downed about a litre of water to try and clear the dry throat and coughing.

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We followed the grassy sides, and the watercourse itself where we could, keeping to the vegetation as little as possible.

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Around 2350m the pass has a wider grassy side, so we followed this, till we were faced with the choice of trying to drop about 50m down a cliff into the water course, or scrambling up a side gully and traversing on the grass slope next to the gully. Easy choice, only, as it turns out, it wasn’t grass after all.

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What followed was easily one of the most unpleasant sections of a pass I have ever done. Every type of thorn bush imaginable was thrown at us, unavoidable dense plantations of thorns. My pants zip around the knee (to convert them into shorts) on one side had failed, so only the zipper was actually holding the bottom half of the pants in place. This resulted in my right knee looking like an angry cat had had a go at it.

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This thorny torture lasted for far longer than Mike’s sense of humour. Admittedly mine was mostly used up as well. But what can you do? Sunset wasn’t far off, and we were on a steep thorny side slope making very slow progress.

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Some people are critical of our choice of not carrying tents on a trip such as this one – personally, I can’t see how a tent would have helped if we had been stuck on this ledge for a night. It would have slowed us down though, and that wouldn’t have helped.

We eventually made it around the corner to a side river, which we had to drop steeply down to, before traversing onto the Ntonjelana Pass trail at about 2250m.

This trail was very crumbly and eroded, but it was like walking on a tarred road compared to what we had just come down. Where the trail splits at the river, we took the low (left) route, before taking the steep trail up to Waterfall Cave. We skipped the shelters on the approach, going for the cave behind the falls. The walkin from the true right is in an appalling state. The sand traverse is exposed, with no purchase off the surface – you just bury your feet and hope that holds. If you slip, you have nothing to stop you from falling down the steep wet rocky slide into the pool. I guess 15m vertically at a roughly forty-five degree angle, into water, probably won’t injure you, but it will wet all your gear.

We both made it safely to the dusty sloping sleeping area. I am not sure how you are supposed to get 12 people into this cave – I guess the other 2 caves of the approach are included in that stat. The cave is beautiful, but not comfortable. You are forced to collect water from drips (unless you want to take a massive detour down to the river).

Nonetheless, in failing light we were happy to have accommodation for the night.

Day 4: No title required

We got up with the sun once again, it was nice to only need an alarm on day 1. We were in no rush, this day was easy.

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We eventually packed up, walked out via the other side (which has no trail), and proceeded to spend the first hour of our walking trying to get onto the actual trail. The walkout was very hot, and as always, walking along a road for close to two hours doesn’t make for an ideal end to a hike, we even ran the last 500m to get it over with – but at 12:20 we had reached Mnweni Cultural Centre and were most certainly glad we did the trip.

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In summary

Total distance: my GPS thinks 85km, but seeing as it thought we took 5km to get from Lamb Skull Cave to the escarpment, I’m going to go with 70km.

Gross altitude gain: 4400m
Khulus bagged: 5
Non-khulus bagged: 2 for me, 3 for Mike. Not counting arbitrary small summits we just walked over.

Thoughts on the passes:

Pins Pass: exceptionally beautiful, but very long and steep. I rate 9/10***** would be fair under Stijn’s rating system. Definitely the hardest pass I have ever done [2019 update: probably about 5th now].

South Saddle Pass: There are only 3 reasons to do this pass, 1) you want to bag all the passes in the area 2) you are running out of Berg passes to do 3) you are a masochist. The pass difficulty is probably only about a 4 or 5 out of 10, scenery gets 5/5. As for route quality, is -1000/5 a valid score?

Thoughts on the caves:

Lamb Skull Cave: if you have a group of 4, it will work, but might be a bit cramped – but it is far more sheltered than Pins Cave, and is actually quite a nice cave in general. The view is pretty good too.

Mponjwane Cave: great if it isn’t windy

Waterfall Cave: dusty and unpleasant, but with a great view. Best to visit while passing through, I wouldn’t rush to use it again, though.

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