The Molar: the Dragon’s Teeth

In August 2019, when I agreed to relocate to Gauteng for work purposes, I knew my days of being in the Drakensberg every few weeks were about to come to an end. To make up for it, between September and December 2019, I did 13 hikes totaling 339km in the Drakensberg and including 14 passes I hadn’t done before – mostly focusing on those I hadn’t done south of Giants Castle.

I managed to get to the Drakensberg once a month for the first 3 months after the move, until the national lockdown started. It would be months before I would even be allowed to cross provincial borders again, thus ending my 8 year streak of not going more than 6 weeks without a Drakensberg hike (well, aside from the 8 week gap that included my Mauritius, Singapore and Malaysia trip).

After a 3 day Mnweni hike on the September long weekend, I had not been back to the Drakensberg for roughly 6 months – so when Andrew messaged me to see if I was up for joining him on the Molar, I was definitely in.

Soon Andrew, Tony and myself found ourselves in Andrew’s car on the way to Injisuthi. A large truck had been in an accident somewhere between Villiers and Warden, which cost us a lot of time. Some kids blocking the road in an attempt to extort money out of people driving through the Injisuthi area, and the really bad state of the road into Injisuthi cost us some more time – but we soon found ourselves at the offices buying our permits. It was great to be looking at my old Dragon again.

Seeing as I’m the slowest of the three, I set the pace on day 1. The first river crossing was flooded, which cost some time, but Andrew and Tony helped out with getting me across. Anyone who has hiked with me a lot will know that river crossings are not what I do best.

The route was fairly crowded with a lot of other groups around the Marble Baths area this weekend. We had decided to go heavy and carry a tent each. We camped just past the caves. Luckily the hike to Marble Baths is very easy, so a heavy pack after a long absence from the mountains wasn’t bad. Also fortunately acclimatisation wasn’t a factor – seeing as we were camping about 300m above the altitude at which I live.

We got up fairly early on Saturday and began the slog through the notorious approach to Leslies Pass. I have always struggled to follow this route, but the major advantage of hiking with two people who are more experienced than I am is that I could just follow along as they picked out the route.

Leslies Pass is a bit like Mafadi – it is very close to awesome views, and should be really awesome, yet somehow isn’t. The views on either side of the pass are some of the best in the range, yet the pass itself is fairly average in terms of scenery. There was a time I ranked it as one of the best passes in the range, but have since removed it from the list as its appeal is the area it accesses, and not the pass itself. By contrast to Cockade or Ifidi where the entire route is utterly spectacular.

Luckily I proved to be less unfit than I feared – and it proved to be my fastest time up the pass. Tony was just off an 18 month hiking break, and had been getting back into it recently, while Andrew had also not been hiking as much as he would like – so fortunately I wasn’t the only one trying to get back into old rhythms. That being said, I was unquestionably the slowest of the group. Although, to be fair, at the fittest I have ever been, that still would have been true for this team. There is something awesome about hiking with such an experienced team – I could largely just follow along without having to think much. Ok – that sounds awful, I was pulling my weight as a member of the team, for the most part, albeit the slowest member, but there wasn’t much required of me in terms of skill or ability, I just needed to keep on walking.

We hit the escarpment well before midday, and made our way to the river behind The Ape. We stopped for a short break before heading over to The Molar.

The route starts with descending down a steep gully. I had to pass my pack down, but the others got down easily with packs on. It was hard to see the holds from above, and they were wet in places – which didn’t help.

The view was exceptional, with Thin Dog and the Greater Injisuthi Buttress proudly on display.

When we got to pitch 1 of the climb, I was immediately apprehensive. The first sequence could be climbed in one of two ways – a lightly overhanging face on bad rock, or stemming between a pillar and the main face with a massive drop between them. Andrew lead and I belayed. I was attached by two pieces, but was also aware that if he fell off, the primary item of gear was that there was a small ridge between where I was standing and where he would fall, so gravity would be on my side as he would be trying to pull me up a slope. The belay spot is rather exposed, though, with a big drop immediately behind where I was standing.

After Andrew got up, Tony went up. He also took the stemming line, using a solid hold to pull across from the pillar to the main face.

Once he was up, it was my turn. I tried stretching between the two faces, but the gap was fairly significant, and looking down 100m between my legs was not helping. I considered prussiking up the first section, but the rope seemed to tend left towards the big drop, and the edge of the ledge above me was jagged. In my mind, I could see all those videos of a tight rope sliding along a jagged rock edge and being cut by the rock. I tried to climb the face, but the key hold I needed for the first move would almost certainly pull out as it wasn’t even part of the main cliff any more. I managed to get about 30cm off the ground, but there was a 1m gap required to be bridged, I needed to get my left foot where my left hand currently was, and the rest would be easy.

After about 10 minutes of trying to figure this out – by now I had eliminated the stemming move as an option, the gap was too big for me to be able to manage – I realised I had taken too long. By now, even if I get the entire sequence right at good pace, best case scenario, this would be half an hour for me to complete pitch 1. I had had my chance, they just needed two for the summit – so I told them to continue without me.

To some, this may be a failure – but I don’t see it that way. I would have liked to stand on the summit of Molar, but as far as mountain goals I have right now, it wouldn’t crack my top 100. To spend a day out on top of the Drakensberg in perfect weather is always a day well spent. Great company makes it even better.

I went back to the escarpment, finding the gully far easier to get up than it was to get down, and found a great view point where I could watch them make their way down to the chockstone and up to the summit. Unforeseen bonus: I got to take photos of the route from an unusual angle.

Notice the climbers on the summit of this photo:

Their return from the summit proved far more epic than their ascent, and was enough for me to conclude that my decision to bail had actually been the right one. I would not have been comfortable with using their return method, and thus we would have lost considerable time as I figured out an alternative. At best, we would have been down the pass well after dark.

They made their way back to the chockstone, but the opposing face was overhanging. So they used a rope-swing to jump towards the face, catch the holds and climb the final section. On the list of activities I would almost certainly never do, this features rather high! To clarify – I trust Andrew’s judgement on the setup, I know he wouldn’t do something that is unsafe, but I find abseiling scary enough as it is!

It took them a while to make their way across the middle peak, but soon we were a short distance apart. When they reached the chockstone, I moved back to the closest escarpment point from the peak, and filmed their abseil back down pitch 1. I had carried a GoPro all that way, I might as well film a 4k video of the abseil!

We had a short break back at the river, mostly because water was running low, before heading back to Leslies.

Leslies Pass is a slippery pass at the best of times – but at the top of our respective games, it would be easy ground and there is no way any of us would actually take a fall on this pass. But with us out of practice, we all took the odd fall on the way down. I managed to take four separate falls on the way down – something that hasn’t happened for me in years. I am defining a fall as losing control till the point of being on the ground, not a big drop or anything like that. None of these falls were serious in any way, it was just unusual for us to be losing control on such easy ground.

We reached our tents between sunset and last light.

We were walking just before 7 the next morning, and got back to the car just after 9.

Overall a great weekend out. Thanks Andrew and Tony for having me in the team!

Fun statistic – Andrew and Tony feature second and third on my all time most Drakensberg distance hiked list. Despite that, this was the first time I had hiked with both of them at the same time!

One comment

  1. Warren De Villiers · · Reply

    Great story Johnathan

    I was at Injisuthi on the weekend of the 13th March with a group that did marble baths and grindstone caves. We passed a group of 3 guys on our first day around 1pm, that I think may have been you, travelling pretty light and were going to do some climbing. One member had a yellow helmet.
    My hiking experience is nothing like yours and to see where you have gone is really inspiring.

    cheers
    Warren

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