I first looked down Hilton Pass in 1997, I have recorded it in my notes of that hike, and have a photo in my album (yes, a printed photo from 35 mm film in a photo album with pages covered with plastic) captioned “eNjesuthi Triplets from top of Hilton Pass”, although it doesn’t show anything of the pass, but the end of the ledge where Hilton Cave is, is visible. Even then we were aware that the Pass was south of the Lesser Injisuthi Buttress, and not between the Greater and Lesser Buttresses as marked on the Slingsby maps we used back then, and I vaguely recall more experienced members of the group telling how difficult Hilton Pass is. On that same day I summited both Injisuthi Butresses, and the highest and second highest peaks in South Africa, so I had already commenced with khulu summiting in 1997, although the concept of khulus (kulus) had already been published by Murch, the name only caught on much later.
I have a copy of Bill Barnes’ book (Bill Barnes: GIANTS CASTLE A Personal History) in my extensive collection, and quote from his Chapter 20 dealing with place names, page 270:
“Lesser and Greater Injasuti Buttresses, and Hilton Pass
These two prominent peaks look directly south and into the Red Wall and the Western Injasuti Triplet. Between these two buttresses lies a steep pass negotiable only on foot. In fact, a small amount of rock climbing is involved, and waterfalls keep one’s feet perpetually wet. I climbed this pass with Dave Cook and Des Craib in 1963, together with a party of Hilton College schoolboys. On reaching the top we pronounced its name to be Hilton Pass.”
I believe that Barnes does not mean Hilton Pass is between the Greater and Lesser Buttresses when he says “Between these two buttresses”, but that he is referring to it being between the Lesser Injisuthi Buttress and Red Wall, mentioned in his previous sentence, and that this part is just poorly worded. His reference to a small amount of rock climbing and waterfalls also leads me to believe he is referring to the route as described by Gollum and co, as the gully up between the Greater and Lesser Injisuthi Buttresses would involve extensive rock climbing at the top, and has no waterfalls. In keeping with Barnes’ name, I will refer to the pass as Hilton Pass, although ironically I choose not to use his spelling of Injasuti, opting for the grammatically correct Injisuthi instead.
So I was arranging a hike for a group of friends to ascend Injisuthi Pass, and it wasn’t difficult from a geographic and logisitics perspective to decide to use Hilton Pass as a descent, and some added adventure (as opposed to Leslies and Corner Passes which we had all done several times). A lot of research led to the conclusion that this could be done on the grass slopes on the true right with some scrambling, and that we would not need to go anywhere near the dreaded waterfalls in the gully, much to the relief of some of the group. The climbing gear we would take with to ascend Injisuthi Pass would also be suitable to use for the descent of Hilton Pass, if required, and expert climber Neil Margetts was part of the group.
See the “Injisuthi Pass” thread for my write up of the ascent of Injisuthi Pass, and Elinda’s trip write up on the “Tough! – Injasuti Pass and Hilton Pass “ thread.
After tenting overnight on the summit next to the stream between the two passes, our group of seven – Neil Margetts, Elinda, Thora, Lorinda, Stephan, Christine and tonymarshall - left camp at 6h30 and did the short walk to the top of Hilton Pass. The weather was clear, and we would be able to select a good line down the pass and could see the bottom of the pass far below. The photo below, taken at the top of Hilton Pass in 2016, shows the grass slopes we would descend on the right, with the area in shadow showing some potential scramble areas, and the waterfalls we would avoid at all costs at the centre of the photo.
I started leading the descent, and was amazed to discover that the top section of the pass had a clear trail, as seen in the photo below.
The group descending on the trail near the top of the pass. The ‘dome’ referred to in Gollum’s write up and photo is at the right of the photo below.
We then descended a bit and the trail took us onto a grass ledge traverse to the right, with good views to the Triplets although the sun wasn’t at the right place to capture this properly in a photo.
The group spread out along the grass ledge traverse, again with the clear trail visible. We would descend the gully just behind me (the person at the left of the photo below) and experience our first scramble on Hilton Pass. Photo courtesy of Elinda.
A view back along the grass ledge traverse, with the gully and waterfalls below in the background. The ‘dome’ is near the top centre of the photo below, and the grass ledge we are on is more or less where Gollum’s group would have exited from the waterfalls and gully onto the grass slopes.
The group descending a steep section still on the trail. Photo courtesy of Christine.
We then had a low rock band to scramble down, which the trail took us to, and the trail continued at the bottom of the scramble. In the photo below I am down climbing the scramble, which had good hand and foot holds and is about 3 m high. Photo courtesy of Christine.
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Lower down the slope the trail petered out, and we weren’t sure whether to descend or continue along the grass ledge to the right. In the photo below the front of the group is at the end of the trail. The grass slope below is negotiable, but there is a substantial cliff just below that. I investigated the faint trail along the grass ledge to the right, but it dead ended when the grass ledge ended at a cliff.
We decided to go a little way right along the grass ledge, and then descend steeply down a narrow diagonal grass band going through the rock band below. We needed steep ground protection, and Neil anchored a safety rope and took it down while the group waited above. I followed Neil about half way, and then returned to get the second rope to join onto the first one, as there was a tricky narrow, exposed ledge just where the first rope ended. In the photo below, Lorinda is holding the safety rope in place (a knot in the rope anchored it into a crack in the rock), while I take the second rope down to Neil. Photo courtesy of Elinda.
The group then descended the steep slope, some anxious moments, although the rope was hardly used except at the narrow, exposed ledge mentioned above, while excitement mounted as we were almost through the tricky part and only one rock band remained between us and the riverbed below.
The photo below gives a good impression of the steep terrain we were on, as Stephan and Christine prepare to negotiate the narrow exposed ledge, with the safety rope visible in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Elinda.
Neil had descended without his pack to place the steep ground protection, and I had recommended that Elinda would find the descent easier without her pack, so I ferried the two packs down, and used the rope as a zip line to send them down the steepest part to Neil below. I then descended with my pack, and Neil ascended to retrieve the rope and returned down, to where the rest of the group were waiting. I had found a relatively easy way through the lower rock band, with a convenient block/flake above to attach the rope to. In the photo below Neil has attached the rope and waits as the group prepare to descend.
The descent was not difficult, just some steep grass leading to the steep slab below, but the rope would make the descent safer, easier and faster. We had adopted a minimalistic approach for the ropework on this hike, preferring to use just the rope without gear, and to use steep ground protection rather than abseiling. This was quite an interesting experience waiting at the base of the descent as rocks loosened by the people descending came whizzing past. The whole group descended, holding onto the rope, while Neil waited above, and in the photo below I ascend using the rope to get Neil’s pack and bring it down, to make his descent easier without the rope which he would retrieve before he descended. Photo courtesy of Elinda.
While all this was going on, Stephan and Thora had scouted ahead and found a very convenient grass ramp descent to the riverbed below. We descended it into the riverbed, and went downstream a short way to a convenient spot to sit for our morning break. Neil had a buddy Coke which was shared in celebration of our ascent of Injisuthi Pass, and descent of Hilton Pass using the grass slopes, although we still a long day ahead with the walk out through some very rough terrain. This may be a first recorded descent of Hilton Pass, as all uses of Hilton Pass we are aware of are ascents. In the photo below the group takes a break, while in the background the gully and top of the waterfalls can be seen, while the grass slopes we descended are to the left out of the picture.
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I have used intrepid’s photo of Hilton Pass to draw in the approximate route of our descent.
A long, long slog down river with a mix of boulder hopping and grass, and still no sign of water. During the descent we had grand views of the Western Injisuthi Triplet and Red Wall, although the light wasn’t great for photography and my photo below doesn’t do justice to this magnificent view.
After the junction of the riverbed coming down from Hilton Pass with the riverbed from Red Wall, we exited onto the true right grass slope for a while which was easier going than the riverbed.
We again descended into the riverbed, and still no sign of water, and we had used all of our water. The group exited the riverbed again on the true right, while Neil and I continued in the riverbed in the hope of finding water and taking some to the thirsty group. We succeeded, finding some water below 2200 m where there was a short section with water bubbling out under a boulder into a pool before the water again disappeared underground, and after each having a good drink, rushed to catch up and share water with everyone. Lunch was had where three streams joined, with plenty water, and we took a good break. The photo below shows the view from our lunch spot back to the escarpment with the Injisuthi Triplets and Buttresses dominating the skyline.
After lunch we followed an animal track on the true left of the river for a long way, then a bit more grass slope and boulders downstream before we exited onto the ridge on the true right and followed a rough animal path along the ridge. This was quite easy going, and speeded up progress, and the group on the path on the ridge can be seen in the photo below.
We then descended the path along the nose of the ridge back into the river near Lower Injisuthi Cave. The cave is in the rock band at the base of the ridge to the left of the ridge in the photo below.
What a relief to be on the path after the sustained boulders and bush section, although the pace was quite slow with the after effects of dehydration affecting many of the group, and we continued downstream past Battle Cave and to join the main path back to Injisuthi Camp. We arrived back at the cars at about 18h15, so it was a long day.
Special thanks to: Neil Margetts for doing all the steep ground protection, AndrewP and ghaznavid for providing information of Hilton Pass, and not least, the group for again all making it a wonderful experience.
A tough, but worthwhile weekend out, doing two of the most difficult passes in the Central Berg.
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What do you make of the trail near the top of the pass? I would be surprised if other members of the VE community had ascended Hilton Pass without writing anything on this thread. Most of those who have been up the pass have done so via the direct route in the gully and therefore not using the trail. We probably account for at least 60% of the 'leisure' traffic on a pass like that. Likely 90%.
Possibilities are that it has been checked out or used for smuggling? Or that trails on those steep slopes just last a very long time and develop with infrequent traffic.
Nice and detailed write up as always, also good images to describe it. I never ended up doing Hilton Pass, mainly due to time constraints. Still on the bucket list though, however an ascent, not a descent. Down climbing does not look like fun on those steep sections.
As Richard has noted, animals probably contribute a bit to the trail, although I am not an expert on animals behaviour, I would consider it strange if the section below the 3 m scramble got any animal traffic. The other possibilities are locals, smugglers and hikers just checking the pass out out of curiosity, and turning around and going back up when they reach a point where it becomes apparent that continuing down would be a serious mission, which would account for the trail ending more or less where the going gets tough. I'm sure word would have got out if a hiking group had recently used the grass slopes of Hilton Pass, so I don't think this has happened. I wouldn't rule out locals or smugglers having used the pass, but it is unlikely with that long tedious lower section that this would be happening regularly or repeatedly.
Hilton Pass is a tough pass, although now that we have descended it on the grass slopes, and the write up with photos is done, I assume other hikers will be encouraged to try it, either ascent or descent. For the hardcore hiker, it is a worthwhile pass to do, so I hope you will get to do it someday ST, and get much better photos of the awesome scenery than I got.
TM, would you have taken the line that you did onto the grassy slopes at the top of the pass if the trail were not there?
Was the line out of the gully onto the grassy slopes easier to spot from below or above? Normally it is from below.
tiska wrote: Many thanks for the write-up TM.
What do you make of the trail near the top of the pass? I would be surprised if other members of the VE community had ascended Hilton Pass without writing anything on this thread. Most of those who have been up the pass have done so via the direct route in the gully and therefore not using the trail. We probably account for at least 60% of the 'leisure' traffic on a pass like that. Likely 90%..
I have to disagree here. There is a fairly large berg user group of experienced hikers and climbers that don't use nor have ever been on VE.
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