This is undoubtedly the most popular and heavily-used trail to the escarpment in the entire Drakensberg. The path is very well defined and usually quite crowded during weekends and holidays. The only obstacle on the way to the top is the chain ladder itself which ascends the final 30m of cliff face in two sections. The ladder should only pose a problem to those with a fear of heights.

Rating:
* * (1/10)
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:
The Chain Ladder route is accessed via the Sentinel Car Park which is just up the road from the Witzieshoek Mountain Resort.

Details:
The distance from the Sentinel Car Park to the top of the chain ladders is 3km with an altitude gain of 400m.

Route:
The initial concrete path fortunately only lasts for the first 500m or so before the well-defined path zigzags up the northern slopes of the Sentinel. Most of the 400m gain in altitude is climbed in this section. After about 1km, there is an optional detour to a wonderful viewpoint over the Amphitheatre, Devil’s Tooth and the Inner Tower. This slight deviation off the path is highly recommended on a clear day. There are a number of paths which continue around the Sentinel to the right. Some of them are dead-ends but climbing a little higher up the slope usually gets you on the right track. From this point on, the path contours around the western side of the Sentinel and after passing Beacon Buttress Gully (see below), contours along the escarpment cliffs until the chain ladders are reached on the edge of a large gully. All that remains is to make your way up either of the ladders (the newer one is a lot more stable) and climb the short, steep slope to the 3 enormous cairns that mark the top of the pass.

Finding the pass from the top:
Follow the clear path from the ranger’s hut along to the west of the Beacon Buttress where the 3 huge cairns marking the top of the chain ladders will be found.

Overnight Spots:
There is a hiker’s hut at the Sentinel Car Park which sleeps 12 people. Sentinel cave is situated in one of the side gullies when contouring below the escarpment about 500m before the chain ladders. It is, however, not a very pleasant cave to sleep in. The escarpment, as always, has plenty of flat space for camping but robberies by Basothos are very frequent in the amphitheatre area. Rather hike across past Ifidi Pass before camping or alternatively, arrange a night-watch system. The hut near the top of the Tugela Falls is a ranger’s hut and may only be used in emergencies.

Water:
There is water available at the Sentinel Car Park but from there, the next available water is the Tugela River on the escarpment.

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ivan's Avatar
ivan replied to: #77119 30 Aug 2021 17:11
a great job. Thanks so much 

 
mike_crom's Avatar
mike_crom replied to: #77117 26 Aug 2021 15:44
This is amazing, thank you so much guys!
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #77115 25 Aug 2021 18:08
A big thank you to everyone who has contributed towards the maintenance of the ladders!
Dillon's Avatar
Dillon replied to: #77112 23 Aug 2021 10:19

We were there shortly after the new ladders had been installed.  The person who did the installation was there as it had just been completed and he was monitoring its use.  That would have been the late 80's so it is not all that old.

Sounds about right. The first time I did the chain ladders in about '88 or early '89, there was only one ladder on each pitch (the ones WITHOUT the big loops). When I went back a couple years later the new ones WITH big loops had been installed.
riaan300's Avatar
riaan300 replied to: #77111 23 Aug 2021 06:33
this is great news!!!
a Big THANK YOU to everyone involved 

Good Job!
:)

 
DesPorter's Avatar
DesPorter replied to: #77110 22 Aug 2021 09:59
We were there shortly after the new ladders had been installed.  The person who did the installation was there as it had just been completed and he was monitoring its use.  That would have been the late 80's so it is not all that old.
tonymarshall's Avatar
tonymarshall replied to: #77109 21 Aug 2021 21:10
Once the chain with the broken anchor bolt was finished, we repeated the process on the chain on the other side. In the photo below I cut off the new chain with a bolt cutter at the correct length. We decided to carry the bolt cutter with us to the ladders so that each chain could be individually cut to length to suit the best bolting positions on the rock, rather than use pre cut fixed length chains. This also allowed us to space the expansion anchor bolts far enough apart that they would not interfere with each other in terms of being too close together and concentrating the load into a small area of rock.  

 

The ladder suspended on the new anchors with the other chain ladder in background.  

 

The photos below show the completed installation with the stainless steel components.  


 

We spray painted the shiny silver stainless steel components with grey paint to make them blend in more with the chain ladder and rock.  


 

The lower left chain ladder (the older one) had noticeable looseness in the one anchor bolt, so we used some spare components to strengthen this anchor as well.  

 

The repairs were complete at about midday, and we headed off to the top of the Tugela Falls for lunch. Although it was misty and there wasn't much view, Wisdom had the opportunity to see and walk in and play with snow for the first time. 

There have been some comments about worn chain links on the chain ladders, but this is only on the two older ladders with the smaller chain, and on the lower section of these ladders where the mass of the ladder to support is lowest. The newer chain ladders with the larger chain have very little wear on the chain links, and with the anchor repair to the lower newer chain ladder this ladder will be serviceable for many years. It should also be pointed out that the chains used on the chain ladders are much larger than required to support the combined mass of the chain and other ladder components, and people on the ladders, so the amount of wear on the chain links is not necessarily dangerous. It would be wise though for the relevant authorities to have someone perform an inspection of all the chain ladders, and to repair or replace components as necessary before another break occurs, which may have more serious consequences than when the anchor on the newer lower ladder broke. There are people (like Neil and I and others) in the mountaineering community who are competent and would be happy to do these sort of things with just having our costs covered, and would act in the best interest of safety and practicality without purely having a commercial or financial interest in the matter. 

It was a privilege to be able to be part of the chain ladder repair, and to do this so that other hikers and mountain users can continue to enjoy using the chain ladders. 
tonymarshall's Avatar
tonymarshall replied to: #77108 21 Aug 2021 21:02
After being prematurely closed in April 2018 to be replaced, and that never happening, and the one anchor bolt of the newer lower ladder breaking in September 2019, the broken chain ladder anchor bolt has been repaired, and all four chain ladders are usable again. 

Neil Margetts and I had looked at the broken anchor bolt on the newer lower ladder earlier this year when we had gone up the chain ladders for the abseil down the Tugela Falls that Neil and his team did, when I led their support team. We were quite horrified at the delay at the chain ladders with a lot of day hikers and only one ladder open. We thought it was quite straightforward to do a repair of the broken anchor bolt, and discussed repairing it. Neil also discussed repairing it with some other well known climbers, but we never got as far as getting the necessary permissions from the various involved parties/authorities to do the repair. Recently an interested party contacted Gavin Raubenheimer about repairing the broken anchor bolt, and Gavin referred them to Neil, and so finally the wheels were set in motion to do the repair. The interested party arranged all the necessary permissions for Neil and I to do the repair. 

We were at Witsieshoek last Saturday morning, to do the repair, but we were unable to drive up to the Sentinel car park as the overnight snow was too thick on the road. We also assumed there would be more snow higher up which would make it more difficult and slower going to walk to the chain ladders, and when conditions on Sunday were pretty much the same, we left and decided to come back later in the week once the snow had melted to do the repair. 

The photos below show the broken off anchor bolt, and the newer lower chain ladder (this is the lower chain ladder on the right as one stands at the bottom looking up) hanging on just one anchor bolt with the no entry sign at the top of the ladder to warn hikers not to use this ladder.  

 
 

We could determine from examination of the broken off anchor bolt, that corrosion of the mild steel had led to weakening of the bolt and the breaking of the bolt due to this weakening. We don't know exactly when this chain ladder was installed, but believe that it was in the late 1970's, so the ladders had worked for about forty years, and the breaking of the bolt was thus not unusual for the age and conditions in which it operated, and the design life that it would have been designed for. It would of course have been better if the relevant authority had been doing proper inspections and had identified the corrosion problem and replaced the anchor bolts before one broke. This also made it apparent to Neil and I that the repair we planned to do should allow for a greater degree of redundancy, and should not just be a single anchor bolt again that could result in the failure of the anchor and closure of the ladder if it broke again in the future. So I did a design incorporating four stainless steel expansion bolts and hangers (the type that Neil uses for bolting climbing routes), and chains attached to the main chain, so if one of these failed in future, there would still be three holding. At the same time as repairing the broken anchor bolt, we would place the same new anchor system on the unbroken anchor bolt on the other side, but also leave this anchor bolt in place as back up, so both chains of the ladder would be on new anchors. The interested party who requested us to do the repair was happy with this proposal, and also that as a Registered Civil Engineer I could perform the design and installation. 

The photos below show the materials used in the repair, stainless steel chain, expansion bolts, hangers, D shackles and quick links. Stainless steel is significantly stronger than mild steel, and is also much more resistant to corrosion.  

 
 

So last Friday we were again at Witsieshoek, and could drive up to the Sentinel car park, and walk to the chain ladders to do the repair. Neil and I had Wisdom Chilanga, one of Neil's employees who has worked with Neil on ladders and bolting, and who has also worked with me, with us, to help to carry the tools and equipment and do the work, and make his first visit to the Drakensberg and hopefully see and feel snow for the first time. 

I secured the chain with the broken anchor with a chain block, and pulled it back up to the correct height, and Wisdom and I removed the old D shackle and broken piece of anchor bolt from the chain.  

 

We then secured two new chains to the chain of the ladder with a D shackle, and marked out the holes for the expansion anchor bolts on the rock. In the photo below Neil drills the first hole while Wisdom holds the new chains with the hangers attached.  

 

We used an epoxy to seal off the top of the anchor bolts at the rock face, and applied epoxy to all threaded fastenings to prevent loosening. In the photo below Wisdom applies epoxy to the threads of the four anchor bolts to prevent them from being loosened and removed.  

ridr's Avatar
ridr replied to: #76358 07 Dec 2020 13:59
Hi, I'm planning on doing the hike tomorrow (8 December 2020) with my 10 year old daughter. Hopefully the weather permits it! What is the safety like now camping at the top of the Tugela falls / by the ranger's hut? Or where would be best to pitch our tent that doesn't add too much distance to the hike? (We'll probably go up the ladders and possibly down the gully.)
Smurfatefrog's Avatar
Smurfatefrog replied to: #75950 17 Aug 2020 21:14

Is there an update in respect of the Chain Ladders replacement project? Are both ladders safe to use?

Bottom right ladder is still unsafe.
Not sure on the status, Witsieshoek would be the ones to ask
HikerParsons's Avatar
HikerParsons replied to: #75949 17 Aug 2020 17:59
Is there an update in respect of the Chain Ladders replacement project? Are both ladders safe to use?
Smurfatefrog's Avatar
Smurfatefrog replied to: #75353 26 Sep 2019 10:43
It happened sometime during Saturday, I had gone up the same right ladder on Saturday morning!


This is the latest

Chain Ladders to the Amphitheatre: Update

A meeting was held at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge between the Dept of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and their Implementing Agent on Wednesday 25th September.  DEA confirmed that they have allocated funds for access projects in the area, and are in the process of submitting plans to include the complete replacement of the Chain Ladders in that project.   In the interim the lower ladder on the right remains closed to hikers.  Management of Witsieshoek are currently getting experts to assess repair and stabilization options pending the full replacement of the ladders.
On Saturday one of the shackles that bolts the bottom, right-hand chain ladder to the rocks on the Amphitheatre sheared off at the rockface, and has compromised the structure of that ladder.  The left-hand ladder has no problems. These ladders are accessed from the Sentinel Peak Car Park by hikers who are hiking to the top of the Amphitheatre and on to Tugela Falls and Mont-aux-Sources.  No-one was injured, and the ladder is still attached to the rockface. Temporary nylon rope has been used to reduce the movement of the ladder, but that ladder is unquestionably not safe for use.
The Sentinel Peak Hike is still open and hikers can either use the ladder on the left, which is open, or the Gully. 

www.witsieshoek.co.za/blog/chain-ladders-to-the-amphitheatre-update
Herman's Avatar
Herman replied to: #75352 26 Sep 2019 10:14
On Sunday morning one of the two anchors on the right-hand bottom ladder sheared off(!) Upon inspection, it was found that it was rusted halfway through. The other anchor looks much the same, apparently. I.e. that ladder is very unsafe. Don't use it!
GriffBaker's Avatar
GriffBaker replied to: #74920 23 Apr 2019 11:57
The ladders are open. No construction has occurred on them. Just follow the grey brick road(trail)
Peter Hattingh's Avatar
Peter Hattingh replied to: #74916 22 Apr 2019 18:20
Is the construction at the chain ladders complete? In other words, are the ladders "open"?
Colan's Avatar
Colan replied to: #73385 04 May 2018 17:32
We descended via the chain ladders on Sunday, only to run into a Witsieshoek Guide escorting some others up :laugh: . So to confirm - they are operable.
AdrianT's Avatar
AdrianT replied to: #73325 30 Apr 2018 10:04
Correction. There is a sign, but people still use the ladders. Hopefully when the real work begins no one tries to go up :silly:

ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #73319 29 Apr 2018 08:14
On Thursday we were told that the contractor hasn't arrived yet, so we used them.

And no - me posting this less than 100 hours after using the chain ladders doesn't mean I've finally done a sub-100h GT. I'll post the story soon, but Mike got sick and we had to bail at Thuthumi Pass.
AdrianT's Avatar
AdrianT replied to: #73318 28 Apr 2018 19:33
I saw on Instagram people using the chain ladders a day ago. My father in law was there today (28 April 2018) and he went up them no problem. There was no sign or warning not to use them, nor any signs to use the gulley.

So work has obviously not started at all. TIA :silly:
Herman's Avatar
Herman replied to: #73135 06 Apr 2018 18:53
I'm sorry if this has been posted elsewhere on VE and I didn't see it, but it seems as though the chain ladders will be replaced and are closed until the end of May 2018. The gully will still be open.

www.witsieshoek.co.za/blog/amphitheater-chain-ladders-being-replaced

EDIT: My apologies - I see it has been discussed elsewhere. Missed it!
andrew r's Avatar
andrew r replied to: #66275 04 Jan 2016 21:45
Hi Myriam

Welcome to VE.

At Sentinel Carpark there is only one large dormitory with about 12 bunk beds (no matresses), no electricity and no water. I may be wrong but it seems to be standard practice to just book when you arrive; if the hut is full then you may have to camp in the carpark.

A more comfortable option is to stay at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge www.witsieshoek.co.za/ which is about 8km before Sentinel Carpark. If required they can also arrange transport from the Lodge to the Carpark.
myriam's Avatar
myriam replied to: #66274 04 Jan 2016 19:04
Hi,
It is Myriam from Spain. I am organizing 15 days hiking in the Drakensberg with colleagues of my mountain club (www.montanapegaso.com). Do you know how I can rent a hut in Sentinel Car Park?
Regards,
Myriam
SeriousTribe2's Avatar
SeriousTribe2 replied to: #55764 17 Dec 2012 14:48

I never drink from the Tugela...way too much traffic up there for my liking! Most other parts of the KZN Berg, yes.


Ditto that Sir!

Just wouldn't have referred to what we had to dodge - stepping in - last time as 'traffic' !
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #55760 13 Dec 2012 21:32
I never drink from the Tugela...way too much traffic up there for my liking! Most other parts of the KZN Berg, yes.
ChrisPatient's Avatar
ChrisPatient replied to: #55758 13 Dec 2012 10:44
Thanks. I allways remember bergwater as being some of the purest water in the world and I look forward to sampling it again on the top of the Tugela falls.