Seeking a Blizzard
In June 2021 we had the bright idea of overwintering in Underberg. Having been nomadic and living out of the "Viking" (our trusty double cab 2006 Toyota Hilux) for the previous six months, we thought settling with a roof over our heads for the colder months of the year would probably be a good idea... Our previous winter had been spent in Clarens but apparently that wasn’t cold enough, so Underberg it was!
We arrived with the first snowfall of the season and before our boxes were even unpacked we’d been invited to join on a southern berg snow mission. Unable to say no to an adventure, the following weekend found us knee-deep in snow and ascending towards the Devil’s Knuckles via Tarn Cave. But despite the white sludge around our lower limbs, we could not have asked for a more perfect day and we had to shield our eyes from the glare of the sun off the snow. Once we’d summited the escarpment our route traversed northwards behind the knuckles before dropping us down into Lesotho. Determined not to be limited in our descending speed through thick snow by a lack of skis, we all promptly took to our bums for several hundred meters of “snow chuting.” The exhilaration of this means of travel was mildly dampened by several pairs of torn waterproof pants, but completely destroyed by the 3km slush-sludge back up to the top of Thamathu Pass. The first real running of the day happened only once we hit the snow line again (which we were as ecstatic to see as we had been on the way up 8 hours earlier!) and carried us back down to our starting point at Bushman’s Nek. ( You can read my full blog post on this Drakensberg mission HERE.)
As far as snow days go, the Devil's Knuckles round-trip had been absolutely perfect… But I needed more. I wanted more! I wanted to understand the weather patterns before a blizzard. I wanted to experience the onset of a snow storm. I wanted to be consumed, engulfed, completely obliterated by the white out…
As mountain guides we are extremely weather-conscious - a necessity in ensuring the safety of clients. But our Devil’s Knuckles trip had enlightened us to a whole new world of moving in snow (an uncommon requirement in South Africa) and we were keen to grow our mountaineering skills and ascertain the type of gear needed to move more comfortably in such conditions. In order to achieve this we decided we needed to experience a true Drakensberg blizzard and spend a night above 3000m in proper weather!
We monitored forecasts closely and in late August, our last weekend in Underberg, we were in luck! We selected Mashai Pass for our ascent as we knew the trail well and would be able to use Mashai Shelter (actually just a slight overhang for one to two people in fair weather) to overnight on the escarpment near the mouth of the pass. Should conditions permit, we also had the option to traverse further south along the escarpment to the more spacious Mzimude Cave and descend Mzimude Pass the following day.
We embarked from Hermits Wood Campsite at the tardy hour of 11:30am with the worst of the weather predicted to hit just after midday. We were well dressed and moved comfortably for the initial few kilometers. As predicted, the first snowflakes began to make landfall soon after lunch at about 2000m, but we continued upwards without delay. As we approached 2500m, about half way up Rhino pass, the conditions intensified and within minutes we were surrounded by whiteness. With toes and fingers numbing but minds still sharp, we pushed on more rapidly. We knew that keeping core temperatures up was the key to survival. Route finding became progressively more tricky as the upper reaches of the pass were choked with black ice - a transparent and slippery frozen layer coating both the river and rocks - and made for slow and treacherous movement.
Upon reaching the summit of Mashai Pass we wasted no time on discussion. With the deteriorating conditions and our falling temperatures we recognised that we might not make it safely across the escarpment to Mzimude Cave. We quickly sought the modest but much appreciated protection of Mashai Shelter and set up our meagre bivvy sleeping systems. Finally, with hot water brewing and the scent of hot chocolate in the air, we could relax just a tad and settle down for the long, cold night ahead.
While we busied ourselves with the tasks of cooking, snow-dusting, staying warm and documenting our experience, the Lesotho skies gradually started to clear. At around 10pm that night we were treated to the most magnificent full moon view. The 180 degrees of vision that our shelter afforded revealed the iconic Rhino Peak (a small but prominent silhouette protruding from the escarpment edge) 2km to our right, and the mighty white wonderland of Lesotho, Kingdom of the Mountains, to our left.
With not a soul in sight nor a whisper of wind, this frozen moment in time is one of the most memorable of my 31 years of life…
The remainder of the dark hours were spent tossing, turning, shivering, waking frequently to knock snow drift off our sleeping bags and gazing out into the icy but starry night sky. In our true minimalist and purist way we did not carry a tent, but the gear we did have was good and we comfortably endured the night. At the break of dawn we were treated to a spectacular sunrise with shades of purple, pink and orange reflecting off the stalactites that had formed above our heads overnight.
Under a crystal clear sky but solidly frozen shoes we set off on our descent of Mashai Pass, thinking we’d merely retrace our footsteps of the previous day. But it was astonishing to discover just how much snow had fallen in the previous 18 hours! Our trail was practically invisible and again we had to move with extreme caution across steep terrain. Eventually, with patience and determination, we exited the gully onto the lower and more forgiving slopes of a white-specked grassy green valley.
The early morning sunshine was blissfully warm on our faces and before long we found ourselves trotting into the Garden Castle campsite, shoes only just thawed out. As I was signing the mountain register and informing the ranger of our safe return I couldn’t help but wonder and laugh at what we’d just done… For there in the campsite, 10 meters from the office, were families playing in the snow - kids tossing snowballs and overgrown adults tobogganing down the road. Why did we have to climb over a thousand meters to the top of the highest mountain range in South Africa just to experience some snow and ice?
Well, the answer is not really straight forward and I don’t have time to delve into it now. But this is what we do. This is our mountain life and I much prefer to choose the circumstances under which I broaden my horizons and learn new skills than be caught off guard and be found wanting in the wilderness...
Perhaps the take home message from my story is simple. You can experience the Drakensberg and the splendour of its winter snowfall in any way you choose, and you do not necessarily have to venture far and high to enjoy the magnificence of the Dragon! But remember, never head up into the mountains unprepared or oblivious to what the elements of nature can throw your way, for you may just come off worse than the Dragon, or even not come off at all…
Stay tuned for a follow-up article where we put our skills and lessons learned on this adventure to the real test...
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