Gray’s Pass: The Smoking Dragon

10 Jun 2013 14:05 - 10 Jun 2013 14:33 #57227 by ghaznavid
My interest in Gray’s Pass predates my interest in Popple Peak. Back in 2011 I had a hike planned for Gray’s, but due to cancelations we switched the route to what turned out to be my first failed attempt on Popple Peak.

So, after about 2 and a half years that included hikes such as one where we set out to descend Gray’s, but instead descended Thlanyako, as well as many hikes that never happened – Ian (ASL) contacted me and said let’s do the route.

It seems to be convention that Gray’s is a 3 dayer. I can’t justify spending 3 days covering a mere 32km – well, unless it’s a really tough pass, there is climbing or exploration involved.

So on Friday night Ian and I met at Monk’s Cowl carpark. We planned to camp somewhere between Breakfast Stream and Blind Man’s Corner, but the EKZN guys told us that we are not allowed to leave the carpark after dark. It’s probably fair to say that annoying the guys who call mountain rescue if you don’t return is probably a bad idea, so we camped at the EKZN campsite.



Saturday morning about 10 minutes after first light we were off. We reached the Sphinx by sunrise and really motored it to Keith Bush Camp. Along the way – hmmm, what’s a nice way to put it – I was feeling rather sick, including nausea and some other ugly stuff. My training for this hike was messed by me getting the flu twice in quick succession followed by a stomach bug. Bear in mind that I usually don’t get sick. Ok, enough excuses about my lack of energy on the day…

We saw 2 animals near Blind Man’s Corner, but weren’t sure what they are. From looking at my photos afterward they look like foxes. Definitely some form of canine, but grey in colour.


The animals we saw at Blind Man's Corner, excuse the poor quality

It was very windy, but otherwise good weather. The traverse on the contour path from Blind Man’s Corner to Hlathikulu Nek was quick and relatively uninteresting, aside from the views of Sterkhorn, Turret and Amphlett towering above us.



From Hlathikulu Nek the views switch from monotonous to the stuff of legends. One by one the sweep of peaks that make up the Cowl range come into view. The view looking straight on at Intunja is particularly spectacular.



We hit the crossing of the Mhlwazini River at 11:30 and stoppedthere for lunch. After my morning issues I was feeling ok. We set off for Gray’s Pass at 12, expecting to top out by 3.

The first section of the pass is incredibly steep, the altitude gain is sustained at roughly 1m in altitude for 2m flat distance for around the first 400m of altitude gain. Ian knows the route well and we make descent progress.



However, progressively I am feeling worse and worse. Breaks become more frequent and I have more and more difficulty getting going. The wind is gusting off and on.



As we progressively get higher I can see the route is no steeper than slopes I would normally push through with a fair degree of pace. Ian tells me how close the top of the pass is and that the maps, write-ups etc are wrong, the top is actually close. I know he is just trying to get me to push harder, but I try to tell my brain he is correct.





While I wasn’t in the greatest state of mind going up the pass, I did get a few photos and can summarise how to do the pass in a few simple steps – 1) keep looking down the pass to make sure you are on the right track, 2) for the first half of the pass there are erosion barriers on the correct route – if you don’t see any, you are off route, 3) you are frequently walking over rocks, this is normal and isn’t an indication of being off route and 4) if you appear to be about to climb a technical rock face, you are in the wrong place.

We eventually hit the famous “rock climb” on the pass – a 2m B-grade that would be difficult if you suffered from rock-phobia. There are basically steps on the route, not even in my tired and worn out state did I find this tricky.

However this leads to the section that makes me wonder whether or not I’ll be in a rush to do this incredibly scenic pass again – the summit gully is a scree avalanche waiting to happen. By the time I entered the gully Ian was already around half way up it.

This scree field is horrible – on a few occasions I was watching massive rocks roll down the gully, small marbles, large boulders, all unstable and shifting with every move I made. By now I was feeling really bad – both for the fact that I was making Ian stand around in an icy wind at the top of the pass, and because my lack of speed was making me feel progressively colder.

I hit the summit at about 5:30, 5 and a half hours to get up a grade 4 difficulty pass – shocking stuff. We quickly found a camping spot, I would have usually said we cannot camp that close to such a defined path, but I just wanted to get into a tent and defrost.

My jaw felt frozen shut and whenever I tried to talk it sounded like I was mumbling. In the wind – gusting and then slowing – I doubt he could hear what I was trying to say anyway.

Soon the tent was up and I was lying in my sleeping bag shivering violently. Nowhere near as bad as I felt on top of Isicutula Pass on GT last year, but still not feeling good. Ian asked if I was ok and I told him I would be within an hour or so.

Slowly I stopped shivering. We chatted about various things – Ian has had vast experience in many of the great ranges and has numerous interesting stories to tell.

Slowly we get everything in order, we have some soup and eat a nice filing supper – some Mexican variety of Back Country food. And thus my first night of sleeping on the escarpment in winter begins…

The wind keeps gusting throughout the night – my 360 degree cool mountain shrugs it off without complaining. We hear jackals calling twice during the night, I don’t think either of us had a great night sleep, but it was nowhere near the worst night of sleep I have ever had in the Berg.



5AM my alarm clock goes off. Ian jokes that my 2 hours to pack up camp figure is way too long. 8AM we are all packed up and ready to go…



In the meanwhile I took numerous photos of the sunrise, the iced up river (that wasn’t iced up the night before) and I took a walk down to Vultures Retreat.

Now I don’t know how many of you out there have stood on top of this little round dome – but to those who haven’t, this is one of the best look out points I have ever stood on. The view looking at Nkososana Falls and Fourth Cigar does not even feature on my reasoning for enjoying this spot. Standing there I was looking at basically ever peak between Didima and RNNP. I could clearly see Sentinel poking its head over the escarpment edge, the Eastern Buttress was its usual prominent self, Pyramid and Column stashed away in the corner. What a vantage point this is!



I reach the campsite at 7:30, Ian is still packing away after a less than pleasant experience while washing his hands in the icy river. We look at the ominous grey clouds coming our way and agree that any khulu bagging is out of the question. A steep eroded exposed pass on rain/snow is not something either of us are up for, so at 8AM we set off for the summit of the pass.

We agree that the scree field would be dangerous with both of us being near to each other, I head off 10 minutes ahead of Ian. I decide that the true left side was horrible, so I shoot for the true right side this time. It’s nowhere near as bad as the other side, but still slow and messy. For a fairly long section I stay right against the rock wall, following the line of grass and solid rock as a safer means of descending. This plan works well and soon Ian has caught up with me and we are on the path that leads away from the summit gully.

The “rock wall” is easy for Ian, but somehow I get caught in 2 minds and decide I need to pass my pack down. As I am passing it I realise that my balance is too far forward and I begin to fall. I immediately throw my weight against the rock and somehow stay attached – I wish all rock walls had a massive step in the middle! Ian grabs my pack and, now with mobility on my side, the traverse to the staircase in the middle of the slope is easy. 2 easy moves and I’m on a normal path again.

As we descend mist comes up and cover the route, but quickly clears. At no stage are we walking in the mist, but the mist does waft up and engulf the cliffs of Mhlwazini.





We agree that we need to motor the route. We aim to be at the car park by 1. Route finding when going down Gray’s is easy, you can always see the real path over false paths by simply looking a few metres ahead.

We decide to take the low path when the main path splits – we took the high path on the way up and are looking for some variety. The low path turns out to be much easier and quicker as a descent route. But it is steeper, so maybe not a good option for use in ascending the pass.

Before long we are sitting at the river. The time is 11 – I think to myself how odd it is that we were here 23 hours before. How much had happened in between!

Ian does some litter clean-up, something that I wish all hikers (including myself) would do. I actually do not have a good answer for why I merely complain about the eyesore of litter, yet never do anything about it.

We take the walk up the hill to Hlathikulu Nek at a fair speed and before we know it we are on the contour path again. What looks like tiny hail stones start hitting us, I decide to put my splash cover and raincoat on. Ian keeps going – I’m feeling perfectly fine today and easily catch him up within 500m by walking at just over 5km/h on the nice flat stretch of contour path.



When I catch up to him, I point out that it seems that a hail storm is coming, he soon corrects me – this is the snow that was forecast. Yr.no said snow at 12, and they were on the money, out by mere minutes (ok, they said between 12 and 2, but still).

Ian puts his poncho on and we keep going. The sleet picks up – spots on the ground show the white that we are all familiar with. The high peaks are all hidden by mist, the sleet is melting quickly. My camera is buried away in my bag, the ground is beginning to get muddy, but soon we reach Blind Man’s Corner.

Without having taken a proper break since the Mhlwaziniriver, we continue on. The more altitude we lose, the more the sleet becomes rain. By breakfast stream the path is completely soaked, we push on, considerably slowed down by slippery path.

The end of the route seems further and further away, but we keep motoring it.

At 2:34 we reach our cars. 6h34 after leaving our camp above the pass. Bearing in mind that it took me over 5 hours to get up the pass on its own in my sick state the previous day (possibly the speed record for the slowest ascent of Gray’s:laugh:).

Overall it was a great trip, 279 photos, 32km (incidentally Blind Man’s Corner marked my 900th km hiked in the Berg), not a bad way to spend a weekend!

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Last edit: 10 Jun 2013 14:33 by ghaznavid.
The following user(s) said Thank You: diverian, Stijn, JonWells, Bigsnake, brio, Smurfatefrog, tonymarshall, ASL, Emma Lee, andrew r

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10 Jun 2013 14:41 #57230 by Smurfatefrog
Ghaz, I reckon that tent of yours either did really well or your gusts were a lot less than at Bannerman Hut, a few times I was expecting the roof to fly off!
We also had a canine at the hut... a random stray dog, didn't look like a Basotho dog but seemed trained to follow behind the last person, she followed us back to camp like well a mannered child who always joined in at the back!

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10 Jun 2013 14:50 #57233 by ghaznavid
I know what you mean, I have also often felt that in Bannerman Hut! Its placement on top of a ridge really doesn't help.

The spot we camped at was fairly well sheltered, but the wind was still substantial. By no means the worst wind I have ever experienced, but the worst I have pitched my current tent in.

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11 Jun 2013 14:07 #57246 by ASL
My previous time at the top of Greys I was chilling out in my tent bell contemplating and evening hot chocolate when I heard a "russle" from my tent door which was unsecured.

Seconds later I hear a high pitched "whoooo..." followed by a loud "wuump!" I peeked out my tent door to see the shapes of my neighbours prone bodies under the now flattened fabric of their tent (a Hikelite I believe). At this site I offered them a cramped but secure alternative.

They declined and managed to reconstruct their tent with about 15 minutes, although it limped a bit after that thrashing! Now that was some wind...

This was also the hike on which we came across a party that had one of it's members blown off the path near the top of Greys.

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11 Jun 2013 14:26 - 11 Jun 2013 17:12 #57247 by ASL
let's add Ghaz to his own story - he's the orange spec on the right

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Last edit: 11 Jun 2013 17:12 by intrepid. Reason: Fixed duplicate image attachment
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11 Jun 2013 17:14 #57248 by intrepid

ASL wrote: This was also the hike on which we came across a party that had one of it's members blown off the path near the top of Greys.

You mentioned that in the Gray's Pass thread and you missed my comment on it :P Did that incident happen early to mid 1990's? I'd like to hear all the info you have on that.

Take nothing but litter, leave nothing but a cleaner Drakensberg.

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12 Jun 2013 05:27 #57252 by Serious tribe
Some good shots Ghaz. The shot that is bordered by the darker valley -v shape is nice and also the last one hi-nek. Some good contrasty scenes. Keep it up.

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12 Jun 2013 07:41 #57253 by ASL
oh sorry, it was later than that - in 99 or 2000 I think but I will go back and check my old photo albums tonight and let you know. I don't have much info about the accident because it had happened just before my group came through and there wasn't much we could do. Their group told us they had or were in process of calling Mountain Rescue (I can't quite remember but they insisted we couldn't help). I had a group of quite inexperienced hikers with me and needed to get them off the mountain so we moved off. It felt quite uncomfortable leaving the area not knowing what was happening to the person.

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09 Nov 2013 15:30 - 09 Nov 2013 16:00 #58995 by brio
A view from a person of average fitness who needs to exercise more. :P

I did Gray's Pass over the September long weekend with a friend, Garret and my nephew, Daniel. This is my first Spring hike.

We decided to start on the Sunday 22nd as Saturday's weather did not look good. This turned out to be a good idea as Saturday was completely misty during the day with rain in the evening. There was even a report of snow on the escarpment the night before. This info was gathered from different groups we encountered on the trail coming down from Gray's.

We left the car park at Monks Cowl at 8:30 for Blindman's Corner via the Sphinx path after paying and updating the hiking register. Weather forecasts say one thing which turns out to be much different. We have been caught out on many occasions before in the mountains. We were prepared for rain. From the weather forecast, gathered off several sites, I interpreted Sunday morning was going to be misty and maybe some rain in the morning, clearing up in the afternoon. This was how it was.

It was also a little cool at Blindman's Corner. About 5 Degrees C. For me, this is still better than walking in the heat of direct sunlight. :P


Just before Blindmans Corner.

The path from Breakfast Stream to Blindman's Corner has been well maintained since January. January is when I had a failed attempt at Sterkhorn due to bad weather. The ruts were filled in with sand and grass. Some sections could be muddy when wet, making it slippery. Not so now. I am a little slow and was the last to arrive at Blindman's Corner at 10:30. We pushed on to Hlatikhulu Nek.


Some dragon's smoke between Blindmans Corner and Hlatikhulu Nek.

The patchy mist provides a bit of drama and depth to the counrtyside.
The grass on this section was very short next to the path so there was no issue of wet legs and feet. :laugh:
Below the contour path the burnt grass was turning a richer green than the grass above the path.

After having lunch just over the ridge of the Mhlwazini River valley, we arrived at Keith Bush camp at about 14:00. It was empty. We pitched our tents. We looked in the river and only found rocks up and down the river. Except for a very shallow flow that was just enough to maybe use a teaspoon as a scoop. We were not that desperate yet. :) I had expected there to be more water. I know Winter it is dry. Another group coming down Gray's Pass continued down the valley, after checking Keith's, informed us there was water at the top in the Nkosazana River.
The fluid I had started with was about 3 litres in my water bladder and 500ml of cola of which half the cola was consumed at lunch. The bladder usually lasts me about a day and a half. Garret offered water. Daniel and I said we were OK. We were not thirsty. Rather save it for the pass the next day. I had expected to fill a 1.5 litre bottle. So no coffee that night. Just some soup, biltong and tuc biscuits.


Gap between Cathkin and Monks Cowl

The sun was out and warm and the grass was dry. We lazed around for the rest of the afternoon watching the mist come and go around the peaks above us.


Cloud halo over Sterkhorn.

Two groups of two joined us later in the afternoon at Keith's. After the sun dipped behind Dragons Back it cooled down rather quickly so we moved into the tents. About 5 degrees C. The air also became damp. There was no mist or clouds. The stars were plentiful and we played spot the satellite.



Gray's Pass view from Keith's Bush.

We descided to be up early and leave as soon as there was enough light to see. So 5:00 we were up, got prepared and were walking at 6:00.

Keith Bush Camp is high up the Mhlwazini river valley on the river bank (true left), before the gully between Cathkin and Monks Cowl peaks (true right), passed a large S-bend in the river which hugs the slope of Cathkin Peak.

The path up to Gray's Pass starts by following the ridge (true left) closest to the river. Keith Bush Camp is between the river and this ridge.
The path is very well defined and easy to follow with a fair amoung of zig-zaging. It generally takes a south-west direction up the left side of the ridge which works its way gently to the right of the ridge in a westerly direction to top out of the gully in the centre right of the above scene.


Morning sunrays between Sterkhorn and Cathkin peaks.


Path near the top.

The path exits the above scene at the top right. A false path is just above this.


From what I recall the false path in red.

Turning right (westward towards the gully), seems the right way to go (red line). There is a small cairn on the left indicating the correct route. Green line correct way to go.

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Last edit: 09 Nov 2013 16:00 by brio.

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09 Nov 2013 16:14 #58996 by brio
The path continues into the gully in the centre of the above scene below the massive rock wall. A 2 meter "rock wall" around the corner into the gully is next. It is just there, in the way and easy to negotiate. There is no other way to go as it is quiet narrow here. The massive wall on the left and a sleep drop off on the right. Climbing up and down this ledge was not difficult as there is foot and hand holds.


The path into the rock gully at the large rock.

A short gully of rocks and stones, mostly loose, is the last obstacle before the top of the escarpment. This gully extends a long way down to the valley below. The path connect near the top of this gully (true right).
I took a 10 minute break and sat in the shade and finished the last of my cola admiring the view and silence.


Looking back down the pass from the gully.


Rocky gully.

I ascended the gully in the shade on the right (true left). You have to be careful as some section are loose. Testing each foot hold was necessary.


The top of Grays looking across the Nkosasana valley towards Vultures Retreat

I reached the escarpment at about 10:30. About 40 minutes behind Garret and Daniel.
Garret was exploring Vultures Retreat and Daniel having something to eat by the river.

Water flowing in the river was a welcome sight and promptly had a cool drink from the river as the water I was carring was finished.
Even though there was no clouds and the shining sun, it was not too hot on the escarpment. A cool breeze would be felt on occasion.



Nkosasana River

After something to eat and drink we explored the valley and Vultures Retreat a bit. I could not locate the cave.



Top of Gray's Pass from Vultures Retreat.

The views in the distance were very hazy and could just make out the shape of the peaks of the Cathedral range.


Looking down the gully of Gray's Pass

After filling up with water, we descended down the right of the gully as the path down tended to favour that side. It did seem more stable that the other side.

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