The Ships Prow hike that turned into an impromptu Giants Castle hike

07 Jun 2021 15:48 - 07 Jun 2021 17:48 #76959 by Riaang
How did that happen I hear you ask? Well, it's really simple. We planned to do a lekker up Ships and down Grays pass hike for this past weekend (3 Jun 2021). However, as we got to Bergville we saw that Giants Castle was properly covered with snow - even down to just above contour path level, while Ships had only a smidgen of white in comparison. And so Sanet said: "Why don't we rather do a Giants hike"? Seeing that it's been a while since we did a proper snow hike, we did a quick round-robin check and when nobody objected, Van turned the car into the direction of Winterton. And thus the Up Giants down Langies hike was born :-)The closer we got to Giants Castle, the more we liked what we saw. The lady at the gate was quite concerned that we wanted to go up the mountain today, but we assured her we would be ok. Fortunately she believed us and opened the boom gate. This change of destination messed up our arrival time a bit, and the latest curfew times didn't help either. Leaving my house in Centurion at 4am meant that we would have a late start. Thrown in lots of roadworks and a very busy N3 and things were not looking good. We wanted to get up the mountain before all the ice melted!!!All kitted up we only left Giants Castle office at around 11am. This meant we only had six hours and thirty minutes of sunlight to get to the top. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but we had no idea of the conditions higher up on the mountain. This is how she looked from afar: 
 

The going was good in the lower berg and fortunately it wasn't too hot. I much prefer walking in colder weather, and the snow on the mountain cooled the air around us down to a very comfortable level. We got off the contour path and headed straight up the gully. Initially it was easy going as the snow was only about ankle deep, but the higher up we went, the deeper our steps sank into the snow. This made forward progress much slower than anticipated, and much harder too. On the sections where the snow had melted and then iced up again we had to go carefully so as to avoid slipping. Normally Giants Castle pass is a doddle, but covered in snow and especially ice, she was a completely different animal. Where normally you could either follow the footpath or hop up on the grass, now much of it was covered with snow. We quickly gave up trying to find the footpath - it was now non-existent. The grass were quite slippery and I had to get down on all fours on a number of occasions, else I couldn't get up the pass. We adapted our route finding process to try and jump from rock to rock. Thinking about this now it would normally not make sense, but in the hard snow this was not only the fastest way up, but also the safest. The melted ice froze the rocks like cement into firm stepping stones. Problem is, some of them were quite far apart. Not so difficult for me, but Sanet had a much harder time with her shorter legs. 
 

The snow was getting deeper by the upwards meter, and then we got to a critical section. We got rocked out, and all that was left was smooth, hard crusted ice at an angle of about 55 degrees or more upwards. I started up it by kicking steps into the hard snow. About 7 meters up I realized this wasn't going to work. The snow had turned into ice and my Solomon GTX 3's were not made for kicking steps in ice. In fact, they weren't made for snow either. My new Lowa snow boots would have been up for the task, but since we were originally planning to do the Ships hike I left them home, as the distances on that hike with brand new 3mm leather boots were not foot friendly. Ian suggested we cross the "glacier" horizontally, to which we all agreed. He traversed out and I down climbed to his level. I think the distance was no more than 30m across to a stable rocky section, but it took us a good 45 minutes as the snow was compacted and hard, making sideways progress a real mission. Again, not having ice axes or snow boots made the going much slower. One slip here would have resulted in a slide, terminating 100m or more lower down on some big rocks. By the grace of God we all made it safely across. 

By now we realized that we might not make it to the top before dark. The decision was therefore taken to sleep in the main caves at 2900m ASL. We arrived there at around 16H30. At this level the snow was around 40cm deep in most places, and the furthest cave was partially covered in snow. Here Ian and Van are busy excavating some snow to make a level sleeping area:
 

It was already cold by the time we arrived at the cave, but as we were working hard to get through the snow our bodies was warm. Sitting still in the cave we quickly realised that the night was going to be rather cold. By the time we were ready to wipe ourselves down the wind had picked up, dropping the temperatures even further. This only meant one thing: No proper cleaning tonight. The wet wipes might just get stuck somewhere sensitive! Our bivvies helped to keep the wind off our bodies and soon after 7pm we were all in bed. This has to be a record for an early berg evening for us.

Saturday morning arrived and I only woke up at around 7am. Wow, this was the first time I've managed to sleep on a thin Thermarest Ridge Rest mat for over 11 hours without my body being sore. Another record :-) I am normally on coffee duty in the morning, but as Sanet's bladder was forcing her out of bed, I decided to sleep in for a few more minutes so that the wife could experience the joyous experience of making coffee early in the morning ;-)
For her trouble, she was rewarded with this amazing sunrise:
 

All the drips froze in the cave, and we had to be careful when exiting the cave as they were quite sharp at the thin ends. Today was supposed to be an easy day, exploring the top of Giants, walking around to Makaza, maybe poke down Lotheni pass head perhaps? However, we all agreed that none of us wanted to go down Giants pass as there was likely to be more iced up sections, and the traverse accross the glacier section would be super dodgy later during the day. Also, the amount of snow on the footpath towards Makaza was ridiculous. It was over 1m dep for long sections - you couldn't even see any boulders on the lower slopes above where the footpath was buried. Ok, so that option was out. Going down Elandshoek pass was also going to be risky as it would surely be iced up. Going down Giants was not an option either, so we decided to hike towards Bannermans cave and descend via Langies on Sunday. On the walk-in I noticed that Langies only had a marginal amount of snow right at the top, so looking at all our options this was by far the safest and fastest way out.

Again, we took our time to get going on Saturday morning and we only stood on the escarpment at 10H30. The sight into Lesotho was something to behold. The entire escarpment was covered in a white blanket. I've never seen this much snow spread over such a large area in the berg before. We turned right (NE) and headed up the Long Wall:
 

The Long wall took quite a bit of effort to get up on. Ghee wizz, this walking in snow thing is tiring. Especially in deeper snow. It's nice when it's only about 20cm's thick. It really makes for a soft walking as it compresses below your feet and decelerates your momentum so that you softly touch the ground. Just be careful of the hidden boulders as they are out to hurt your ankles. When you do slip, the fall is also soft and cushioned, unless you are unfortunate enough to land on a rock. We did a number of splits in the snow as well, when your front foot touches some grass and slides forward. Uncomfortable, but again, the landing is soft and you touch snow long before you tear your inner thigh muscles. The worst type of snow (besides the iced up type), is where the crust is hard and the snow is deep. I'm talking about more than knee-deep (for me). You place your foot on the snow, take a huge step upwards and just as your back foot starts to lift off the ground, your front foot breaks through the snow and you sink back down to the ground. Lots of effort, very little forward progress. Very tiring as well.

After what felt like ages we all stood atop the Long Wall. The contrast between Lesotho and Natal was stark indeed. Below it was lush and green, and probably warm as well. Up here it was white and freezing cold. But also amazingly spectacularly beautiful. What goes up must come down, and so we headed down to the bottom of Durnford Ridge. For the uninitiated, Durnford ridge involves a good bit of effort to get over, but in the snow it was an entirely different kind of animal altogether. Sanet wasn't feeling well at this stage, so she and Van took it slower. Ian and myself bolted straight up to Durnford gap at a snails pace. Wow, so much effort, so little forward progress! The Gap was entirely covered with snow and ice about 1,5m deep. Absolutely no ways we could get down that without an ice ax and crampons. We backtracked a bit and indicated to Sanet and Van to take a very lazy angle to a point about 400m further down the ridge, where I had crossed over Durnford ridge on an earlier hike. I went ahead to scout out the area while Ian stayed behind a s a reference point for S&V. Looking down this broad gully it looked entirely doable. I went back and guided everyone to this point. As I didn't bring gaitors, the snow that had collected on my socks had melted and the water was sloshing around in my shoes. The rest went down and Sanet and myself first took off our shoes and dried out our socks a bit. I wrung out a good amount of water - my feet were still a bit wet but at least my socks were now only damp, not covered in water. Out in the wind my wet feet and hands became super cold. Well, the best way to get the blood pumping is to keep on walking, which is what we then did. I put my shell gloves on, but it took nearly 40 minutes before my hands were feeling responsive again. Pic below the start of Durnford ridge. 
 

As we descended Durnford Ridge, the sun disappeared beyond the northern ridges. I took a different route down to the valley floor, as described in my previous Giants hiking trip. It's more to the north and stays high on the ridge, i.e. I don't go through Durnford Gap and drop down into the valley, I stay more west and then drop down to where 3 streams meet, basically near the junction with Durnford and Bannermans' ridge. I just like this route better. It's a bit steeper than the typical valley approach, but you get to the top faster. As we descended this section, the sun set in the West. Oops, we need to hurry up as we still have a fair bit of distance to go to the cave, through snow. fortunately the NW side of Durnford wasn't covered in deep snow and our progress was faster. Untill we hit the valley floor. Eish, more deep snow. I could feel my boots becoming sloshy again. I asked Ian to walk in front of me as he was wise enough to pack his gaitors and hence his feet were nice and toasty. I could then walk in the footprints he left in the snow.

Not knowing if there would be flowing water upstream, we stopped at the low point where the 3 streams meet and decided to fill up and clean up a bit while the air was still warm. Well, maybe not warm, but definitely warmer than in 20 minutes time when it would be completely dark. Besides this spot most of the rivers were completely frozen over. I showed Van a few minutes earlier how to break the ice with a sharp, pointed rock. Mmmhh, it didn't work. The ice was way too thick to break through easily. It would take quite a bit of effort to break through to the water below. Which was also why we decided to fill up at this spot, even though it would mean carrying an extra 3kgs up the hill. We realised there was no way we would get to the cave before darkness fell. We agreed that Ian and myself would walk ahead to find the cave, and Van and Sanet would follow our tracks. Sanet was starting to take a bit of strain (short legs, deep snow) and Van agreed to walk with her. He had the coordinates of the cave on his watch, so even if they somehow missed us, they would still find the cave. 

I took us up the easiest way, which was next to the river. This way you could completely miss the rock layers below the cave. We headed up to about 300m from the cave when Ian switched on his navigation mode, and it was a fairly simple task then to just climb up through the rocks to the cave. We got to within about 20m of the cave, and incorrectly walked  south below the rockband, i.e. away from the cave. We quickly realised ou mistake and turned around. It was quite a relief to find the cave at 7pm, I can tell you that. Ian got settled in the cave and I walked back to guide Sanet and Van to our shelter. About 10 minutes later we were all assembled in the cave, and could settle into a warm and less windy spot for a good nights rest. We kuiered for a while and at 22H30 I got into bed. It had been quite a long and taxing day, and it felt good to be able to crawl into my warm sleeping bag.

For a change the wind didn't blow much, and Sunday morning was quite pleasant. We woke up, had coffee and rusks, packed and by 7H45 we headed out the cave. On the way down towards Langies we stopped to build a snow man. It looked more like a frozen cucumber to me, but it was cute none the less. Amazing views over Durnford Ridge and Giants Castle further to the SE. The top part of Langies contained a surprising amount of snow in places. All too soon it was behind us and the descent in the hot sun started. It never fails to amaze me how quickly one can acclimatize to the cold. It wasn't hot outside, but is was way warmer than on the escarpment. Fortunately a cool breeze started blowing, making the descent into the valley much more bearable. We got back to camp, showered, signed out the mountain register and drove home.

The only question left to answer is this: when will we get to do Ships Prow again?

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Last edit: 07 Jun 2021 17:48 by Riaang.
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07 Jun 2021 16:32 #76960 by ghaznavid
Great photos, thanks for sharing

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It was great seeing you guys yesterday on Langies Ridge. I'm not sure how you managed that much ground without crampons - we were very happy to have crampons on the way back down the pass.
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07 Jun 2021 16:33 #76961 by ivan
Hi Riaan
well  written  account   and  seriously  hard core  stuff!

you guys showed real determination .
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07 Jun 2021 17:52 - 07 Jun 2021 17:58 #76962 by Riaang
A couple more pics from our adventure below.
It was good chatting with you guys as well Jonathan. I reckon by the time we left the snow behind we were well adapted to skiing, rolling, falling, slipping and sliding around on snow and ice :-)

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Last edit: 07 Jun 2021 17:58 by Riaang.
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09 Jun 2021 13:24 - 09 Jun 2021 13:27 #76969 by ASL
This is how... 'old style' kicking!
 
Last edit: 09 Jun 2021 13:27 by ASL. Reason: action clip added

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10 Jun 2021 14:11 #76975 by Bigsnake
A great report ASL! 
Much appreciated.

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10 Jun 2021 17:15 #76977 by riaan300

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