Mnweni Cutback Abseil

05 Apr 2018 17:06 #73122 by AndrewP
Ever since doing Hanging Valley’s Pass, I have wanted to explore the gully at the very back of the Mnweni Cutback. The opportunity finally presented itself when I had ropes and climbing rack (including hammer and pitons) from a planned attempt at the Mnweni Pinnacles. Bad weather stopped play on the Pinnacles. The same bad weather provided a very memorable experience down the gully.

This is the most technical and involved descent I have done in the Drakensberg. It is NOT a pass by any measure, and can only be done by a group with solid experience at setting abseils on ‘berg rock. It is a considerable step up from something like Hanging Valleys Pass or Inner Tower Gully.

We had camped at the top of Mnweni Pass, and shortly before the gully I was aiming for, found a side gully that seemed promising.

We started heading down at 10:20 am. Soon, we hit the first obstacle. Roger went all the way down and Tony stopped midway on a chockstone and I stayed on top to start passing down the bags. Several easier scrambles saw us get as far down as a side stream / waterfall. By now, mist had rolled in to give an eerie feel to things. Almost immediately, we hit a waterfall. A quick look down it suggested we might have been able to scramble up it with light packs in the dry. But, as we failed those criteria with 3 out of 3, we decided on an abseil. Roger found a nifty bollard and down I went. I intentionally strayed into the waterfall to ensure that the pull on the ropes did not weaken the bollard. Tony unintentionally strayed into the pool at the base of the waterfall and Roger styled his way down and then calmly flicked the rope to recover the ab cord. We recovered the next set of ab cord as well as I felt comfortable down climbing after having lowered the packs on the rope and having watched Tony and Roger abseil down.

More scrambles and another abseil, this time into a pool, brought us into the main gully. We encountered a lot of loose rock along the way. The photos make it out to be worse than I remember, I suppose this is due to the level of concentration we all put into the effort to not mess things up. We also got a thorough drenching from all the water as the gully is narrow enough in places to force you to down climb rapids or to step through pools.

We had hoped to stop for lunch in the main gully. Almost immediately we realised that we had hit the jackpot. A 25m abseil down yet another waterfall took us into a very narrow piece of kloof for lunch. Roger came down last and spent what felt to Tony and I ages to rig the abseil (it turned out he was worried the tat might slip off the rock now that nobody was on top to keep an eye on it) Standing still when wet is not a warm experience. Darkness descended as none of us has ever seen during the day before. This should have warned us of the approaching storm. Light rain fell, but we could shelter under an overhanging wall and we enjoyed our lunch.

The next few hours can be summed up as a few more abseils, several awkward scrambles, a few pack lowers and a really good bucketing of hail and rain. The stream rapidly became a raging torrent. This made things a little tricky in a narrow gorge with waterfalls all over the place. A healthy desire to stay alive kept up the composure. At one point, we were able to escape into thickets and grass tufts onto the right hand wall. We kept this up for a while and finally managed to abseil down into the gully used by Hanging Valleys Pass. From here, I was at least on known ground. Well, sort of – things always look different from above, and of course the raging river meant the slabs next the river that Stijn and I had walked up were now out of bounds.

Luck was on our side and we rocketed through miscellaneous vegetation until the base of Manxome Pass. Amazingly, 2 parties had headed up the pass earlier during the weekend, so we had a fairly decent path to help us through the steep grass slopes that dodge the cascades between Manxome and Pins Pass. Well, in the last moments of fading light, even that only helped so much.

We stopped for only our 2nd sit down break at the base of Pins Pass and immediately dug out our headlamps. A few munchies followed. Both crossings of the Mnweni provided some entertainment and by 9pm had finally reached Five Start Cave for the night.

If anyone does want to repeat the experience:
- Please re-read the disclaimer above!
- It should be easier in dry conditions. I doubt though that it is ever completely dry. Expect to get wet.
- We used a single 60m rope, which is long enough to get down any of the abseils once doubled up. You would be stupid to do this with only a single rope though, because there are a few abseils where the rope could get stuck if you are not careful.
- Expect to use between 10 – 20m of tat for settings up abseils. You may have to leave a few biners to reduce drag. Obviously include a knife to cut tat or the rope if required.
- Each abseil needs that delicate balance between being a big enough rock to not move, small enough to not use up all your tat, close enough to the edge to be able to pull the rope yet strong enough to hold the pull. You need a lot of prior experience at setting abseils in the berg to pull this off without dying, getting your rope stuck or running out of tat.
- You could get up the gully instead if you do not mind climbing a 50m pitch of grade F-something to avoid the main abseil.
- We think we did 7 abseils and lowered packs for a similar number of scrambles. After a while though, it became a blur.

Red arrow - planned gully, Green arrow - actual gully. We felt afterwards this was more fun as it was the wettest of the gullies.

Tony looking down into the gully

About to head down

Tony on the chockstone with Roger below

Its pretty narrow down there

Its more interesting below the side gully / waterfall

The first abseil. Starting to get wet

Heading into the mist, still in the side gully

Tony about to do the 2nd abseil

Lots of loose rock

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05 Apr 2018 17:08 #73123 by AndrewP
Replied by AndrewP on topic Mnweni Cutback Abseil
Looking up, from near the junction with the main gully

Yet another compulsory dipping

Roger on the main abseil

Dodging the torrent after the storm

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06 Sep 2020 09:30 - 06 Sep 2020 09:37 #76025 by tonymarshall
Replied by tonymarshall on topic Mnweni Cutback Abseil
It’s taken me a long time to add my write up and photos to Andrew’s write up above, but hopefully better late than never.

On the 2018 Easter weekend, a large group, mainly MCSA members (and I was very pleased to chat and catch up with legendary berg climber Anthony van Tonder), did a hike at Mnweni, with the main plan being for AndrewP, Neil Margetts and Roger Diamond to climb one of the Mnweni Pinnacles on the Sunday. It was a wet and miserable weekend, and we changed our plans from ascending Rwanqa Pass or one of the Black and Tan Wall Passes to going up Mnweni Pass, and tenting on the summit near the top of Mnweni Pass. Plans for the climb were abandoned, and instead we all did a day hike down the Senqu River, and up a tributary to reach the escarpment near Nguza Pass, actually a pleasant day as the weather was clear and much drier away from the escarpment. As planned, on the Monday, Andrew, Roger and I descended the gully at the back of the Mnweni Cutback, while everyone else walked out down Rockeries Pass.

Andrew has described everything, and the adventure was a lot more difficult than we had anticipated. We had 7 abseils, the longest about 25 m, numerous hectic downclimbs, and a few places where we passed our packs down because it was too easy to need to abseil, but too dangerous to downclimb with packs. The river was quite high from the rain, and of course we got wet, and more so when it rained for about 3 hours in the afternoon with a shorter shower of hail, which had us a bit concerned being in a narrow gully with rapids and waterfalls everywhere. The water level of the river rose considerably, and what should have been easier going downstream also became pretty tricky with all the water. We got to the bottom end of the gully and the path at Chichi Bush Camp just after dark, and got to Five Star Cave to overnight at 21h00. A long, exhausting, but awesome day.

Andrew at the top of the gully we went down.

Roger on the descent at the top of the gully.

Andrew and I below the chockstone obstacle. We had passed our packs down to Roger, and he had taken them a short way further down where there was place to put them out of the water.

Mist was coming and going, and with everything damp and an element of darkness in the narrow gully, the descent was quite eerie.

The scenery in the gully was beautiful, even in the mist and semi darkness, like the sidestream waterfall in the photo below.

Descending steep, slippery, rocky slopes was the norm.

Andrew and Roger rigging the first abseil. As a ‘part time’ climber I learnt a lot during this day with an expert climber and kloofing expert.

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Last edit: 06 Sep 2020 09:37 by tonymarshall.
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06 Sep 2020 09:35 #76026 by tonymarshall
Replied by tonymarshall on topic Mnweni Cutback Abseil
Andrew about to go down the first abseil, with the anchor being the nifty bollard Roger had spotted.

I went down next.

Roger came down last, deftly crossing to the other side of the waterfall, showing his kloofing experience.

Another abseil in the eerie gloom. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to go through any of the waterfalls while abseiling down, so we didn’t get totally drenched.

Roger at the top of the main abseil, while Andrew was going down.

The anchor and tat we used for the main abseil.

Andrew in the narrow gorge beneath the main abseil.

A view of the main abseil from below, with me on the ledge at the top about to abseil down, just before it started to hail.

We had lunch in the gorge below the abseil, sheltering from the rain and hail under the overhanging rocks. Unfortunately my camera had had enough of getting wet, and I didn’t get any more photos of the rest of the afternoon’s descent, which as Andrew described involved a lot of rain, lots of water in the stream and no letting up from the mornings effort.

This was one of the hardest and longest days I have ever had in the berg, and the other two guys also thought the same. We all felt exhausted that night, probably from the massive concentration we had to apply during the cutback descent, as Andrew also indicated in his write up. In spite of this, it was an awesome day out and one of the best berg adventures I have had.

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15 May 2023 20:21 - 15 May 2023 20:22 #78525 by tonymarshall
Replied by tonymarshall on topic Mnweni Cutback Abseil
I had never had a look at the gully we abseiled down in 2018 from the opposite side, so in September 2022 after my ascent of Rwanqa North (Tata Ma Chance) Pass, and before I went down Mnweni Buttress Pass the next day, I took the opportunity to go to look down this gully while in the right area, as I was tenting in the Mnweni cutback near the top of Hanging Valleys Pass, a convenient spot to do this from. 

Please read the previous posts for details of the 2018 epic. 

The photos below show the gully we abseiled down, from top to bottom in three photos, as I couldn’t fit it into one photo. In the top photo, the peak on the left is Mnweni Buttress, and the peak at the right (on the edge of the photo) is Cutback Highway.  


Unfortunately some of the gully is obscured by the terrain, and the lighting isn’t great (and a better photographer could have got this better), but it gives a good impression of the steepness of the gully. I couldn’t make out the individual abseils, except for the main abseil at the bottom of the gully where the two tributaries of the Mnweni cutback join. I have marked this abseil on the photo below, which is the third of the above photos zoomed in a bit.  

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Last edit: 15 May 2023 20:22 by tonymarshall. Reason: Correct formatting
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