If you’re looking for great views without too much strenuous hiking involved, Gray’s Pass is a must. This is probably the best pass to use for a weekend hike in the Drakensberg and it takes the hiker deep into the throat of the Mhlawazini Valley at the base of Cathkin, Champagne Castle and Monk’s Cowl. The pass itself is relatively short which allows for a lot of time to explore the many great escarpment features in the wide valley at the top of Gray’s Pass.


Rating:
* * * * (4/10)
Difficulty of the pass is rated from 1-10 (10 being very difficult, only to be attempted by the fit and experienced). A subjective quality rating is indicated by the number of stars (1 being low, 5 being the highest). Factors such as scenic beauty and overall experience come into play here, which may differ from person to person.

Access:
It’s a 14 km walk-in from the Monk’s Cowl Forest Station to Keith Bush Campsite at the bottom of Gray’s Pass. You can either follow the path up the Sphinx or Keartland’s Pass and then follow the contour path all the way up into the Mhlawazini Valley itself.

Details:
The distance from Keith Bush Campsite to the top of Gray’s Pass is 2.5 km with an altitude gain of 800m.

Route:
Initially, the path is very clear and consists of a logged “staircase” which climbs up a ridge at the head of the valley. As you climb higher, the log steps disappear and the path continues its zigzag course up the ridge. A couple of rock bands are crossed and some easy scrambling must be done to pass these  obstacles. After gaining about 600m in altitude, the path starts contouring to the right (north) under the huge escarpment cliffs. The path seems to disappear at one point but a short steep scramble up the rocky grass slopes to the left of the path will get you back on the path. About 500m past this scramble, there is a path forking to the left marked with a cairn. Take this path as the path going straight leads to some very exposed scrambling. The path contours right below the escarpment cliffs until the steep and rocky Gray’s gully is reached. It’s a surprisingly short (70m in altitude) climb up the scree-filled gully to the cairn marking the top of Gray’s Pass at 3000m.

Finding the pass from the top:
Gray’s Pass is well marked with a cairn and a clear path on the escarpment edge between two prominent buttresses north of Champagne Castle.

Overnight Spots:
Keith Bush Campsite is a perfect campsite with plenty of space right at the base of the Gray’s Pass ridge. The Nkosazana Cave is a good shelter in winter but gets too wet to sleep in comfortably in summer. It is located on the escarpment just across the Nkosazana River in the first rock band opposite from Gray’s Pass when looking up the valley. There is lots of good camping near the Nkosazana River on the escarpment.

Water:
The Mhlawazini River provides a fairly reliable water source at the base of Gray’s Pass. In summer there is usually water gushing down the path in certain sections of the pass but at any other time of the year, the Nkosazana River on the escarpment is the only other water available.

 

Forum Post:

More info on Grays Pass can be found here:

http://www.vertical-endeavour.com/forum/11-drakensberg-passes/55365-gray-s-pass-rd.html

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Stukaman's Avatar
Stukaman replied to: #65067 11 Sep 2015 10:07
We arrived at Dragon Peaks in the dark on Thursday night (3rd Sept) to a cold and overcast Champagne valley for a three day two night hike from Monks Cowl Car park to the top of Gray’s and back. We did not intend to sleep on top as our plan was to use KBC as a base camp. On Friday morning we woke to see the upper reaches of the berg covered in snow.



However all nine of us were in good spirits before starting off at Monks Cowl with the sun shining down on us. Once past breakfast stream the cloud came in and we were hiking in pleasant overcast conditions. Water was in reasonable supply all the way to the Mwhalzini stream crossing. Seven of the hikers were first timers but all were fit enough for the challenge and we kept a fairly good pace.




After Hlatikulu neck it started to drizzle but not hard enough to make it unpleasant. The mood changed a little on the last leg to KBC after crossing the stream as this part is a bit of a slog after the “easy going” path from MCC to Mhwalzini stream. However we arrived at KBC in good time, after missing the path that goes down to KBC and doing a bit of “bush whacking” to find KBC.



The views were stunning with snow covering the tops of most of the mountains surrounding KBC. We found water at KBC so no issues there and the only problem was the un-expected cold. Fortunately there was hardly any wind so it was bearable with the kit we had. All went to bed fairly early but none had a good night’s sleep, although judging by the amount of snoring some people slept better than others.



The next morning the clouds had lifted and the morning started off sunny and bright. Again the views of the snow covered peaks were stunning. Not being experience climbers we were not sure if we could make it through the snow but decided we would go as far as we could and turn back if the snow was a problem. During the early parts of the climb up the ridge above KBC the clouds came and went, so we had some amazing views and then within a few minutes we were climbing in the mist, this continued on and off for most of the day.



When we reached the altitude of the snow the going became a little tricky as some members of the party did not have proper hiking shoes or boots and were in running shoes. We also struggled to find the cutback as the snow was hiding any signs of a path. None the less we found our way to the entrance of the scree gully near the top of Gray’s and apart from a few cold feet all were in good spirits. Two of our fellow hikers suffered from vertigo and I must commend them on keeping going to this point. We also came across our first group of “smugglers” who appeared out of the mist as we were starting to round the corner to the gully. In total we passed three groups of them during the day.



I went ahead to examine and test the conditions in the gully as the snow was quite heavy here. After checking it out three of our group decided they would remain where we were, as conditions in the gully were quite difficult especially for those in running shoes, whilst the others went ahead to summit the gully.



The snow on top was approximately 100-200mm deep on the eastern side (west facing slopes)but fortunately the wind was mild and we were in the sun once on the summit. Unfortunately we could not experience the stunning views owing to the cloud forming in the valleys below and up the face of the Champagne ridge and Dragons back. We did still manage to get some amazing pictures. We reached the top of Gray’s in around 4 hours.



The hike back down was uneventful and ended up being a relay between us and the third bunch of “smugglers”. They would pass us at pace and then stop for a long break and we would pass them, and so it went on until we reached KBC. There were no issues with them at all. The front “runners” of our group made it back in 1hr45 minutes, the stragglers about 40 minutes later.



The third day we again woke to a clear sky and majority of the snow melted except for a fairly deep snow drift in the neck between Monks Cowl and Cathkin Peak. The cloud again came up as we started back and stayed with us all the way to breakfast stream. Most made it back to Monks Cowl feeling a bit wobbly but in good spirits. One of our eager front runners from the day before was feeling the effects and struggled down from breakfast stream with sore knees and ankles.



All in all a very enjoyable hike and everyone has memories that will last a life time. I must also mention that two of our group come from disadvantaged backgrounds and said that this was the highlight of their lives to date.
Smurfatefrog's Avatar
Smurfatefrog replied to: #63312 07 Apr 2015 10:16

ghaznavid wrote: From here the path gradually loses altitude as you approach the Mhlwazini River – the great Sterkhorn towers above you. At some point there is a path that splits to the right which you need to take (not sure where the other path goes to).

The join up about 100m further on, one zig zags & one is more direct going side to the side stream.

This is where the path splits on the way up the pass, as mentioned either path is fine and they meet up at about 2900m
29° 4'26.17"S 29°19'59.06"E at 2722m

This is the spot where you need to go left, there is a false path going right.
29° 4'23.55"S 29°19'37.49"E at 2951m


The gully: it is very loose but I didn't find it too bad. There is a path all the way up, its not always the best line but help avoid some of the bigger rocks.

Tent city at Keith Bush camp. There are 6 tents there and still plenty open space, 3 groups had just left.


View up the pass to the gully


Nkosazana Cave, at the moment a 2 sleeper. The good thing was that it was at least 5 degrees warmer than down by the river which had sheets of ice in


Looking down Gray's from the top
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #57539 03 Jul 2013 14:56
Approach:

You can approach the pass via Keartlands Pass, this route assumes you are taking the easier Sphinx Route.

From the car park you briefly follow the road till you see a large rock with a sign pointing to the left, with, amongst other things, the Sphinx. Take this turnoff.

The path is obvious and easy. It crosses a large stream that I wouldn’t drink from via some large wooden bridges (remember that people do live upstream from here). About 2km in you cross the stream just under Crystal Falls – I usually get water here if necessary. The waterfall is tucked around the corner, but you can hear it and see it without deviating from the path.

Shortly after Crystal Falls you will walk under the Sphinx. The path then turns around sharply and winds up toward the top of the Sphinx.





The path then turns around sharply again and rises toward breakfast stream (another good water spot). Breakfast stream is crossed on the small Berg escarpment. You will have a nice view of Cathkin, Sterkhorn, Turret and Amphlett from here. Old Woman Grinding Corn and Ntunja are clearly visible from around here as well.



Keep following the path as it rises gently toward the contour path. You gain around 150m in this 1km stretch. It’s slightly more tiring than it sounds!

As you reach the contour path the path splits in 2 in almost a triangle shape – while it doesn’t really matter which side you take, the right side is a bit shorter, and on hitting the contour path, turn right. There is a large green sign here that tells you that you have reached Blind Man’s Corner.



The walk from here to Hlathikulu Nek is flat and easy. The path winds in and out of gullies just like what we are all used to on the contour path. 2 of these have good water in them – remember that you will have good water in about 3km, so you don’t need too much here.

To me, explanations of what Hlathikulu Nek is made no sense, but when I saw it it was obvious. The contour path suddenly goes around a corner with a large ridge extending out. There is a turnoff to the left here which is the turnoff you must take. The big giveaway is the view of Intunja straight in front of you (for those who don’t know, Intunja is Zulu for the Eye of the Needle, referring to the large hole clearly visible from Hlathikulu Nek).



Apparently Hlathikulu means a great forest – referring to the large forest on the slopes below the nek on the south side.



From here the path gradually loses altitude as you approach the Mhlwazini River – the great Sterkhorn towers above you. At some point there is a path that splits to the right which you need to take (not sure where the other path goes to).



From there the path relatively steeply drops to the river, which you cross at around 1980m (a bit painful after being at 2150 on the contour path). This is the last water you will have before the escarpment – remember that Gray’s Pass mostly follows a ridge, not a gully.



You now begin to slowly gain altitude again as you walk further and further into the cutback carved out by the Mhlwazini River. The path is still very good and clear.

Keith Bush camp is off to the left near the base of the pass, by a tree near the river. In winter its visible due to the fact that it is a flat grassy patch of different colour to the surrounding grass. It doesn’t look like you could get more than 2 tents in there – but I haven’t been to that spot, so I’m not sure.

The pass

The pass starts by crossing a dry riverbed and ascending a steep eroded bank that will probably collapse in the next 2 or 3 years – much like the official start of Mashai Pass opposite Pillar Cave Annex.



The pass starts off with a sustained altitude gain of roughly 50m in altitude for every 100m covered. The path is very eroded and there are false paths all over the place. Prior to 2500m, if there aren’t erosion barriers, you’re on the wrong route! There is also a 3 rung wooden ladder on the path here.



You continue to follow this steep route for a while, often walking over big rocky areas that look off-route. If you aren’t sure, look back and you can see if you are on the most prominent path or if you are on a false path.

The initial phase of walking steeply up the nose is long and slow, but fortunately it does eventually end! The supposedly easier traverse stage starts around here.



There are 2 paths for the initial phase of the traverse section – we used the high path for the way up and the low path for the way down (I would recommend doing it this way round, it works out easier). The split comes around a large rocky outcrop that you can either traverse under to the right (low path) or climb to the left around (high path). The join up later anyway.

The path is still good, and is rather steep – although slightly less steep than before. Note: slightly!



As you get higher and closer to the gully, the path swivels around in a large S shape to avoid a few rock bands before it eventually swings around to enter the dreaded summit gully.



The entrance to the summit gully doesn’t look or feel exposed, but apparently there have been incidents here in the past – so be careful!

The path soon hits a rock wall – probably a difficulty A or B as far as climbing grades go (for non climbers, A is ah – that’s not climbing, B is Barely Climbing, C is come on that’s not really climbing, D is Darn Easy, E is Easy ….. I is impossible and J is you Joking). Its 2m high, has beautiful holds on it and is only slightly more difficult than a staircase :P



The path continues from here into the final scree gully. Fortunately the gully is short, and no steeper than the similar gully on any other pass. The problem is it’s very lose and a bit like walking on marbles. I set off at least 2 large rock avalanches while climbing it.



Personally (after figuring it out on the way back down), I would stay against the left (true right) wall. Almost climb up the rock (as in use the rock wall for at least one of your footholds), it’s much more stable and considerably easier/less demoralising than climbing up the loose stuff on the right.

From here you soon hit the escarpment and will find the Nkososana River which should have good water.

Don’t forget to take a walk down to Vultures Retreat (about 1km from the top of the pass) – the view is well worth the effort!

DionB's Avatar
DionB replied to: #57163 04 Jun 2013 18:28
Thank you.
Smurfatefrog's Avatar
Smurfatefrog replied to: #57135 04 Jun 2013 07:35
Here we go www.vertical-endeavour.com/blog/38-drakensberg/passes/174-grays-pass.html

There is a link at the bottom of the forum "Info on Berg Passes"
DionB's Avatar
DionB replied to: #57133 04 Jun 2013 07:23
We are planning a 3 night trip next weekend. 15, 16, 17 June. Monks Cowl to Keith bush on 15th, Up and down Grays on the 16th. Back to Blind man's corner on the 17th to explore the area more. There's a small river about 5mins away towards Injasuti. We want to go further up that ravine to see what's there. If i'm still feeling strong, i'd like to go and fix the cross at the top of Sterkhorn but that may be a single day mission on it's own. :D
Home on the 18th.
We have 2 tents. Myself, wife and son (12). My mate and his daughter (14).
I hope we get to meet some of you guys up there. :)

PS. Please can someone give me the link so Stijn's description of Gray's pass. I can't seem to find it.
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #57088 29 May 2013 06:55
Hike cancelled :(

Anyone keen for some hiking this weekend can inbox me.
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #57044 23 May 2013 17:22

intrepid wrote: It can easily be argued that they are too close, and that Cowl View is just an extension of Champagne Castle.


According to GE, by walking distance (i.e. not "jumping over" Ship's Prow north fork) measured from the 3377m Champagne the distances are as follows:
- 900m to Ship's Prow (which is 600m from Bothlolong)
- 1.3km to Cowl View
- 1.5km to other Champagne Castle Peak (3246m)

Cowl View to the other Champagne Castle is 1.7km

So theoretically the highest peak wins and thus Ship's Prow (which looses to Champagne Castle) and Mlwazini (which is overruled by Cowl View) are Khulu Tops, not full khulus. I need to update my list some time...
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #57043 23 May 2013 16:56

ghaznavid wrote: The blue line would be the lower path is very exposed if I have this right?

Yes the blue is roughly where the trail variation is that I was talking about. Both trials have equal exposure which actually isnt't all that bad.

ASL wrote: NB. There is also an exposed section right at the top of the pass where the wind can really whip through from the Lesotho side. A person got blown off an exposed section there just before my party came through and they had a very bad fall down the face.

Did this by any chance happen in the early 1990's? I've been wanting to find out more about that incident. If you wouldn't mind sharing all the details you have?

ghaznavid wrote: If I am correct, when you stand at the top of the pass with the pass behind you, you would have Dragon's Back (3063m) to your right, Mlwazini (3305m) to your left and in front of you would be Nkososana (3318m).

Roughly speaking yes. Though Nkosazana is more accurately at about 11 o'clock from that position, rather than dead ahead...if you walk straight you get to another interesting looking peak that looks over into Vultures Retreat. And beware of the slog up to Mhlwazini, even though its just "on your left".

ghaznavid wrote: I'm trying to figure out how Mlwazini and Cowl View both qualify as khulus, with less than 500m between them (looks like about a 700m walk).

It can easily be argued that they are too close, and that Cowl View is just an extension of Champagne Castle.

diverian wrote: Interestingly enough we did an early descent one morning of the pass, we were waiting at the top of the pass for enough light to find our way down. Another group that had been camping near us had left earlier and started off down the pass in the dark, when we met up with them later in the day we found out they had missed the path out of the gully and continued most of the way down the gully before they found a place to climb out. That must have been pretty hectic.

That has happened to several groups of hikers that I've heard of, and is a critical thing to remember when descending the pass. Its kind of a similar thing with the false Tsteketseke Pass...it catches people out time and again.
brio's Avatar
brio replied to: #57034 22 May 2013 17:17
Our attempt was in 2008. I had slipped and hurt me knee in the rain the previous day to Keith Bush Camp. I could not bend my knee to much so was not going to attempt that scramble on wet rock. The sections up to there was OK using a Monks Cowl wooden stick. Sad to say I missed the opportunity get to the top that day. Attempting it again in September. I know where the mistake happened now, after chatting to others back at the camp. The path turns onto a rocky section which was not apparent to me at the time in the mist, which cleared occasionally.
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #57033 22 May 2013 17:17
Seeing as I will be pushing for a bit of khulu bagging on SA's most densely populated 3300+m khulu ridge - Mlwazini Peak is the peak true right relative to Gray's Pass, right?

If I am correct, when you stand at the top of the pass with the pass behind you, you would have Dragon's Back (3063m) to your right, Mlwazini (3305m) to your left and in front of you would be Nkososana (3318m).

I'm trying to figure out how Mlwazini and Cowl View both qualify as khulus, with less than 500m between them (looks like about a 700m walk).
diverian's Avatar
diverian replied to: #57032 22 May 2013 15:22
@brio yep that looks like a familiar place !!!

Interestingly enough we did an early descent one morning of the pass, we were waiting at the top of the pass for enough light to find our way down. Another group that had been camping near us had left earlier and started off down the pass in the dark, when we met up with them later in the day we found out they had missed the path out of the gully and continued most of the way down the gully before they found a place to climb out. That must have been pretty hectic.
brio's Avatar
brio replied to: #57031 22 May 2013 14:48
If you see the following, you missed the turn to the left (directly to the massive rock wall) near the top, as I did and mentioned previously.
ASL's Avatar
ASL replied to: #57030 22 May 2013 14:02
I concur with that, I once went up that section in the rain and did more face climbing than hiking. It's an easy place to get lost because the path naturally seems to go that way, so be careful at this point.

NB. There is also an exposed section right at the top of the pass where the wind can really whip through from the Lesotho side. A person got blown off an exposed section there just before my party came through and they had a very bad fall down the face. Watch out for the wind and hug the face as much as possible... even drop onto your knee if you hear the wind pick up.
diverian's Avatar
diverian replied to: #57028 22 May 2013 10:12
@Ghaz The zig zag that Stijn is talking about is at S29 04.393 E29 19.625 and the scramble up a little bit of bare rock,(I think may be the result of a slip and erosion of the original path at some stage) doesn't look like the right way to go when there is a clear contour path leading off towards the gully !! But it is much easier than the scrambling trust me I have done it, twice.....

Enjoy the hike.
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #57027 22 May 2013 09:56

Stijn wrote: Enjoy! Gray's Pass was my first Berg pass and still remains the pass I have done most often - there are some spectacular views to be had of Monk's Cowl, Cathkin and Sterkhorn on your way up. :thumbsup:


Thanks, its a pass I have wanted to do for ages.

Incidentally my first unsuccessful attempt at Popple Peak was a replacement hike for what would have been my first attempt on Gray's Pass. Behind Mzimude Pass, it is the pass that I have had the most planned hikes on and it just never has happened (we were even supposed to come down it on the GT training hike last year, but came down Thlanyako instead).
Stijn's Avatar
Stijn replied to: #57026 22 May 2013 09:36
One thing to look out for is a significant zig-zag, to the left and then to the right, just before you traverse along the escarpment cliffs into the final gully. The path swings left just after a steep little scramble (I believe there's a cairn at this spot), but there is a minor path carrying on directly towards the gully which leads to some pretty exposed scrambling.

The reason I mention it is that it's easy to follow the "logical" direction towards the gully and miss the easier zig-zag path around the difficult bits.

Enjoy! Gray's Pass was my first Berg pass and still remains the pass I have done most often - there are some spectacular views to be had of Monk's Cowl, Cathkin and Sterkhorn on your way up. :thumbsup:
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #57023 22 May 2013 08:50
Good to know :thumbsup: I'm not worried about this pass, Stijn has rated it as equal difficulty to Bannerman Pass (4/10), and I have seen plenty of photos from it. It doesn't look any more exposed than Thlanyako Pass, that top bit below the cliffs looks pretty exposed, but the rest of the pass doesn't look exposed or even that steep - statistically its less steep than Sterkhorn (also 2.5km, but 200m less altitude to gain as Keith Bush is around 2350m).
tiska's Avatar
tiska replied to: #57022 22 May 2013 08:42

ghaznavid wrote: The blue line would be the lower path is very exposed if I have this right?


The photo captures a scene which has x,y and z dimensions. If x is width (left to right), y is depth (in and out of the screen) and z is height, then the y dimension is collapsed in the photo and this has the effect of everything looking steeper and more exposed than it is.....
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ghaznavid replied to: #57020 22 May 2013 06:54
I've been looking at my photos from Sterkhorn and spotting the pass line (you can clearly see at least the first km of the pass). If I am correct, the topo of the pass is roughly this:


The blue line would be the lower path is very exposed if I have this right?
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #57002 21 May 2013 14:28
:laugh: I would have thought you would want to "taste and smell" your own way up Grays without any info whatsoever, Thomas!

From what I remember in my limited grey matter, if you are going up the pass, initially the trail is on a ridge. Then it starts angling across (at an incline) towards the traverse that takes you below the cliffs of the 3300m buttress above, towards the throat of the pass. This is very roughly where the split is, and the variation covers approximately 400m of terrain. If I remember correctly it rejoins roughly where there there is the first scrambly section in the trail, after which the gradient eases up somewhat, ie at the start of the contour.
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ghaznavid replied to: #57001 21 May 2013 14:27
I'm kind of replying to questions not directed my way, but anyway :laugh:

Personally I like GPS devices for statistical reasons (e.g. average speed and how long your breaks have been), they also help with pacing. Otherwise I will always trust my eye and Berg knowledge over a device that works out where I am based on random man-made objects floating around in space. That being said, I don't expect I could find a pass summit or cave in thick mist unless I get really lucky - so its a good backup to have.
tiska's Avatar
tiska replied to: #57000 21 May 2013 14:10
Hi Thomas,
I'm writing as one who found all the Berg caves I know without GPS, so I share some of your views. But why, exactly, do you not like GPS? Does objecting to having a map not amount to the same principle?
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thomas replied to: #56995 21 May 2013 13:12
Hi Intrepid

For those of us who enjoy the non-technical aspects of VE for photos, mountain portrayals, trip reports and occasional intelligent discussions on Berg issues, the use of descriptors that are also non GPS related such as the above Gray's Pass alert is much appreciated. Some readers may share my avoidance of GPS tools and data while relishing the more literary depictions of the reasons we go to the Berg in the first place. I certainly dont go to share GPS points(!) I'd prefer to relish the "taste and smell" of what the mountains are about. For each his own but thanks for accommodating all likes.
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #56986 21 May 2013 08:16
There is now a minor variation of trails in the middle section of the pass. I suspect it has formed due to heavy use by the smugglers. Going up the pass, the split is at S29 04.435 E29 19.975, 2745m. The left fork is the original trail.

Nkosazana Stream at the top has always been reliable in my experience, even in the dry months.