Climbing the stalactites of a frozen waterfall is not for the faint-hearted. But don’t let appearances put you off - it’s not as tricky as it looks.
Look at the pictures - where do you think we are? The French or Swiss Alps, perhaps? Scotland or Scandinavia? Well, they were shot in the Drakensberg, on the southern face of Giant’s Castle. Here, for up to four months every year, there is ice climbing that will test even the most seasoned Alpine mountaineer. Not that you have to be an expert climber to enjoy the fun and games. When I slogged up to Makaza, the frozen amphitheatre that is South Africa’s best-known ice climbing area, I’d never been on ice before. Along with 20 other brave initiates I was captivated by the idea of climbing icicles with only a couple of axes and the razor-sharp front points of crampons – evil looking spiked platforms that you strap to your plastic or rigid soled climbing boots.
The views and the exhilaration of tiptoeing up a delicate curtain of frozen water, trying not to dislodge any major chunks or knock off any icy pinnacles are compulsive. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll be smitten.
So what does it involve? Well, there are two options. You can do an ice climbing course with Peak High Mountaineering in the Sentinel or Rhino Peak area (pricey if you’re not sure about the sport, but private tuition is guaranteed). Or you can join the Mountain Club of South Africa and go on one of their ice meets to the Mecca of South African ice climbing: the back of the Giant. If that sounds intimidating, wait until you see the walk-in. It involves a 20km slog up Giant’s Ridge and Giant’s Pass that will take the best part of a day. It’s not just that it’s steep and rocky. Very steep and rocky. You’ll also be carrying a pack weighing around 25kg. Inside are a tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, food, warm clothing, and of course, all your heavy climbing gear. You can rent the technical gear like crampons, boots and axes, but you still have to carry it in on your back.
Of course you don’t have to climb. To see this winter wonderland is quite something in itself. So even if you’ve no intention of setting a foot on the ice it’s a cool place to chill for a few days hiking up the peaks and generally soaking in the Drakensberg scenery. But really, if you hike up that far, you might as well give the ice climbing a try.
The little frozen campsite at the top of Makaza was quite a spectacle of brightly coloured tents and improvised kraals providing some shelter from the bitter wind. The assembled crew donned down jackets, broke the ice covering the surface of the stream to get a pot of hot water going, and then checked each other out. The seasoned mountaineers sipped from their hip flasks, quietly amused at the big bottles of sherry and wine that had seen us unsuspecting novices bowing under the weight of our packs earlier in the day. But we figured we really couldn’t go on such a big trip without something to warm the cockles at night. I don’t know if it was the wine or exhaustion, but neither my cold bed nor the tent flapping in the wind kept me from my sleep.
Morning dawned bright and clear. And cold. The amphitheatre maintains its ice for one simple reason: the sun never hits it. The more experienced climbers set up ropes to abseil down and we hooked in, teetering on our crampon spikes to the edge of the cliff. Stepping over the slippery, rounded mound at the top of the precipitous frozen falls was scary stuff, but lowering myself gently down the shimmering ice was breathtaking. Climbing back up was even more fun.
We started on the not quite vertical slopes, clumsily banging in our axes and skittering on the tiny points of our spikes. There was little danger. As we were on tight ropes, falls (of which there were many) were quickly arrested, but it was still high adrenalin stuff. Within a couple of days we were proficient at the basics and it was time to try the hard-core stuff – lead climbing, without the security of the rope from the top. We watched the pros scampering up the great icicles, so nimble that it looked as if they were playing a xylophone as they quickly gained the top. Our attempts may have been more ungainly - we were fledglings learning to fly. One by one we made it, breathless, soaked through and with aching limbs. We stood on the top screaming triumphantly into the wind. When you reach the top of your first frozen waterfall, believe me you feel like you can soar.
On the last evening the few climbers who weren’t worn to their souls headed up to the top of the Giant for a panoramic view over the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands as the sun set. The fine bottle of vino dragged from the belly of a heavy pack was chilled with ice chipped from the gullies. We saluted South African ice, a sundowner never to be forgotten.