Drakensberg Mountains, Monk's Cowl (3,224m), Janschek-Mackenzie-Manson. The Drakensberg Mountains (Quathamba in Zulu, translated: “the barrier of spears”) are not very frequented by climbers. Interest in this area has waned more and more as the attention of local climbers has moved in other directions. The escarpment stretches for 250km along the eastern boarder of Lesotho, with its adjacent freestanding spires. The entire length of the Drakensberg is wilderness and has been declared a World Heritage Site. The basalt escarpment is extremely beautiful and hosts a large variety of fauna and flora unique to this area. It is nearly free of development, and the only way to access these mountains is on foot. Various passes give natural passage to the Lesotho highlands, which on average are above 3,000m altitude.
Monk’s Cowl is a very prominent freestanding spire that had caught my attention many years before. The 400- meter north wall is where Ian Manson and I focused our attention in the winter of 2000. At the base of the wall we looked for an appropriate place to start. There was no obvious line so we looked for a place that had enough features to climb on. Adjacent to where the route starts is a little overhang shelter. It was very convenient and we made much use of it later. The first four pitches climb a slab then lead into a faint dihedral system. Pitch 6 is the crux (5.12b), a memorable pitch to savor. It is a mixture of face, crack, stemming a dihedral, and a very awkward mantle: sustained high quality climbing. From then on the difficulty eases to 5.10-5.11. In August 2000, Ian and I reached our highpoint at pitch 9. Running out of bolts and time, we had to postpone the completion of this route.
It was not until April 2003 that I could visit South Africa and this wonderful mountain range again. This time, however, Ian could not join me to continue working on this route. Luckily, my good friend Tom Mackenzie had time and enthusiasm.
We had stashed gear in the shelter at the base of the wall, long awaiting our return. It was mid April when we returned to the mountains. After fixing four of the pitches, we returned to the shelter. The weather had been very unstable, and that night we were given a spectacular thunderstorm display. Lightning bolts struck into the mountain directly above us. The typical summer weather pattern was still prevalent, with a daily thunderstorm. It was too dangerous to consider a bivi on the wall, which we logistically needed. At least we had all the gear at the base of the route and could try again at a later stage. With the changing seasons a turning point in the weather usually happens. When the adjacent plains cool and days become shorter with the approaching winter, thermal activity ceases and hence the thunderstorm clouds no longer form.
At the end of April we managed to get the timing right with the changing seasons. We climbed to our highpoint of three years ago and continued on for one more pitch. A typical alpine bivy, and the next day we reached the summit. The upper part of the wall is featured with bulging prows that we had to find our way through. Route finding was the difficult part, and having to drill on lead also slowed our progress. At 2 o’clock we were on the summit of this beautiful peak.
Peter Janschek, Austria