The Mnweni Needles are one of the more striking features of the Drakensberg. For some reason, they are often overlooked, and are rarely climbed. In 2017 I attempted to climb them, but a combination of heavy climbing packs and underestimating how slow the approach would be resulted in a 3 day hike to the saddle between them, and a hike back out. We didn’t even attempt pitch 1 on the Inner Needle, despite reaching the start of it.
For the Freedom Day weekend, myself and Graeme B decided to team up to give them a proper go. The plan was simple – follow the ridge above Mnweni Cultural Centre the entire way to the base of the Outer Needle, spend the night there. Sunday would be allocated to climbing the Outer Needle, then moving the camp to the valley south of there. Monday would be a climb of the Inner Needle and Tuesday we would walk back out.
For the first time on my many visits to Mnweni, we didn’t start by walking one of the main roads – we crossed the road and started up the rough jeep track that climbs the hill opposite the Centre. I had known we would be able to find trails most of the way, so I used Google Earth to prepare a planned GPS track of where to go – which worked perfectly.
It was a hot day, and we did struggle to find a good path up the main hill, but the ground was easy and progress was fairly fast.
It was strange to be hiking up a valley I’d never seen before in the area. Plenty of livestock around, but I doubt hikers often use these trails, which form part of the daily life of many who live in the area.
We eventually ended up climbing a steep slope to gain the nose of the ridge. As you can see in the photo above, there was a viable trail nearby which we also could have used, but we opted to stick with the track plan as it would connect with other trails higher up. With a bit of scouting, this loop could be made into a standard lower range hiking trail in the area, which would rival the likes of Mushroom Rock for the best sandstone range day hiking routes.
Once we hit the top of the ridge, we could see everything from Eastern Buttress to Cathedral Peak. To say the views from the top of this ridge were exceptional is an understatement!
A number of cows were grazing on top of the ridge. From here onwards we were were on a good trail for the rest of the day.
As the ridge narrowed, we got a great view into the valley below the Outer Mnweni Needle.
The narrow ridge had large drops on the side, but we were on a very good trail, so this wasn’t an issue.
We pitched the tent on the flat spot below the North East Ridge of the Outer Needle. It is hard for me to think of a more scenic camping spot I have used in the past – to the south was Cathedral Peak, to the north, Eastern Buttress to Fangs, and to the west, the mighty Outer Needle towered above us. The views by moonlight were even better!
We were packed up and moving by sunrise. We stashed our packs about 150m vertically above the trail, and started making our way up the north east ridge.
As we walked up the ridge, terrain became more difficult, and the cliffs above became more ominous. But the views on this clear day were well worth the effort!
We soon reached the main cliffs – we walked around the cliffs to the right, and found a gully that cut two thirds of the way through the cliff. Pitch 1 was a dirty chimney that looked much easier than it turned out to be. Graeme did a great job of leading it, despite the lack of good gear. I was very nervous while belaying him – there was no stance gear, and the start was fairly hard. His first placement was about 4m up, and I was aware that if he fell, he could roll down the gully and we could both end up going over the cliff below us. The photo above makes it look far flatter than it actually is.
Because pitch 1 had taken longer than expected, I decided to avoid seconding the route by climbing it, and instead prussiked up the rope. The only time I had climbed a rope in the past had been with jumars, so I took longer than I would like, but it was still faster than if I had tried to climb the pitch. The route was absolutely filthy, and a lot of what I touched on the way up broke off. This pitch was roughly 20m – based on where the mid rope markers landed when we later abseiled back down. Graeme (who has lead 20+ on trad) rated it one of the most desperate pitches he has ever done.
On the ledge above the pitch, I took a walk south to see if I could find anything easier than the long pitch above us. I found a little grassy cliff that looked fairly easy. In the photo above, you can see the grassy ledge above this, if we could reach that, most of what was left was just a simple case of walking to the top. Graeme decided to go up first. There was nothing to anchor a belay off, so we didn’t rope up – being above a steep slope to a large cliff, a rope becomes more of a suicide pact than a safety device, so roping up in such situations isn’t wise.
After what turned out to be far more loose than it looked, Graeme got up the scramble to hit a dead end – a steep slab without any gear for a stance and no obvious gear on the way up, to climb this would be Russian Roulette. As Ed Viesturs famously said “getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory”. And this was well out of what I would consider acceptable risk.
Graeme now had to downclimb the scramble. He secured a rope around a small tuft of grass and then used it for a bit of support, without pulling on it too hard. It was a similar setup to what I had used in Mauritius back in 2018 when I had to get down Pieter Both Mountain but could only find a bush to anchor my rope off. Fortunately he made it back to the ledge safely.
We discussed the route above pitch 1, but we both noted that what we were seeing did not remotely match the route description of exposed D-grade scrambling, and looking at photos we had taken from below, the cliff above us was possibly well above a rope-length. We discussed leaving the rope in place and coming up again the next day to try the pitch, but we had to factor in that wind could disrupt our anchor making prussiking back up the rope dangerous. Not to mention that it meant we had no option but to come back the next day, even if it was too wet to climb.
Sometimes everything that can go right does go right, and yet you still don’t get the summit. This was one of those times. The views had been epic, it had not been a waste of a long weekend by any means – but we had to concede that the Dragon had won this round. Now to ensure that it was simply a minor victory and neither of us would be injured or worse – after all, 70% of mountain accidents happen on the way down.
It was already around 2PM, so we knew we would be pitching tents after sunset – meaning that moving the camp for Inner Needle would be tricky at best, but realistically was not an option. The sad reality was that we were not getting either peak this weekend.
When it comes to mountains, I believe safety is your first priority, while summitting is probably about 6th on the list of priorities – I would rather turn around ten times in marginal circumstances than push too hard once and have a serious injury in the team, or worse. And worse was entirely possible here.
As anyone who has done anything height related with me will know, abseiling is not something I enjoy. I decided to go down first, the anchor was solid, but had one edge I didn’t like, so Graeme backed it up with a cam just in case. The rope was anchored a good 10m from the lip of the rock, so we extended the anchor with ab chord to avoid a rope pull issue. I took a while to get started on the abseil, as I often do, but managed to get down fast once I was moving. We knew it was less than 25m, but decided to ab on joined ropes so we could reverse the scrambles below the climb faster. This was a good call – walking backwards on a rope on steep ground is far easier! I tested the rope pull before Graeme abseiled down.
We found a cave that could sleep roughly 3 people just below the first pitch. Interestingly it had grass on the floor, so it has clearly been used before. Based on the remains of what seems to be a ritual nearby, it is probably used by the local community. Being so far from water, I doubt hikers would use it. Graeme also found a bread packet around 2400m on the ridge on the way up, and there were traces of a trail in places too – so the local community clearly does head up from time to time. Further down the peak we heard people on the south east ridge, and later even heard a Sangoma singing. A group of two people with their dogs were below us on the north east ridge around 2400m while we were descending. Surprisingly large amount of traffic on this peak!
We reached our packs after sunset, but before last light. We walked to the river, filled our bottles and then followed the trail back to the saddle. We found a flatter spot to pitch the tent on this time, and had the tent up before moonlight overtook the sunlight. Another spectacularly clear night was to follow – we ate our supper outside and enjoyed the views.
We started walking just after 7 on Monday. We hoped the walk out would be relatively easy, but we knew the day would get hot. I had a GPS track of trails to get us to the next valley, but I had no action plan for walking out from here directly – so we looked for trails heading down the valley, and switched trails where necessary.
We probably spent about 15% of the time off trail, and the rest was just following the trails the locals use in the area. Dropping off the ridge meant we lost our views north, but we could still see from Cathedral Peak to Mponjwane, and naturally the Outer Needle – so not exactly a bad view! We hit the road just after the bridge below Dlamini’s Kraal, and did the last 5km on the road. This was the first time we were on ground I had done before for the entire hike – 33km, 28km of which was new ground to me – not something I often get in the Drakensberg any more.
The loop of heading up the ridge to the saddle and then dropping down the valley is well worth the effort. If someone was to mark it properly, and recce the trails to get it entirely on trails, it would be a great route to rival the best of the lower range classics. To be honest, it is far more scenic than Blind Mans Corner, and is definitely up there with the Mushroom Rock route.
Since completing the hike, I have done further research and have revised my views on this a bit. In 2017 on my first attempt, we were planning on traversing the south slopes around 2600m to gain the south east ridge, which is what I interpreted as the standard route. A friend who had climbed the north east ridge then pointed out that I had the wrong east ridge – with the route description just stating “prominent east ridge”, when there is a north east ridge and a south east ridge, but no actual east ridge. This attempt of the north east ridge doesn’t vaguely match the route description, and the route description suggest approaching this from the valley south of the peak, which would be hard to use to access the north east ridge. Looking at photos I have taken from various angles, the south east ridge does look a lot easier – so I suspect my friend did an accidental first ascent of the north east ridge. Naturally this means I need to head back and attempt the south east ridge to see if it is in fact the correct route. Below is a line of what we did on this trip, the high point is roughly 150m vertically below the summit. The south east ridge is on the left.