MONK'S COWL

Posted on: September 1, 2003


The remote and seldom-visited north face of the Monk's Cowl in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. The Standard Route (IV 5.8, Botha-Hooper-Rhule-Wongtschowski, 1942) and Barry's Route (IV 5.9 [Barry-Gebhardt, to Pitch 3, 1938], Makowski-Moore-Winter, 1963) are out of this photograph on the south and west faces respectively. The north face route, Not So Auto (V 5.12b, 460m, Janschek-Mackenzie, 2003) is shown. [Photo] Peter Janschek

The Drakensberg Mountains (Kathlamba, meaning "The Barrier of Spears," in Zulu) are not frequented by climbers. Not even the local South African climbers, with a few exceptions, are regular "Berg" climbers. The interest in this area has waned more and more as the communal awareness has tended toward bouldering, sport climbing and other ranges.

The escarpment stretches for 250 kilometers along the eastern border of Lesotho as a series of adjacent freestanding spires. The entire length of the Drakensberg, which has been declared a World Heritage Site, hosts a large variety of fauna and flora unique to the area. It is virtually free of any 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 3000 meters in altitude.

advertisement

Monk's Cowl (3224m) is a very prominent freestanding spire that caught my attention many years before. The four-hundred-meter north wall is where Ian Manson and I focused our attention in the winter of 2000. There was no obvious line, so we looked for a part of the wall featured enough for face climbing. The first four pitches climb a slab that leads into a faint dihedral system. Pitch 6 (5.12b), the crux, features sustained, high-quality climbing: a mixture of face and crack, stemming a dihedral and a very awkward mantel. From there the difficulty eased to 5.10 and 5.11. On our first attempt, Ian and I reached our high point 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 return to South Africa and this wonderful mountain range. This time, however, Ian could not join me; luckily, a good friend, Tom Mackenzie, had both the time and enthusiasm.

Using gear we had stashed at the base of the wall, we fixed four pitches before returning to the base. The weather had been very unstable, and that night lightning bolts struck the mountain directly above us. The typical summer weather pattern prevailed; we could expect daily thunderstorms. It was too dangerous to consider a bivy on the wall, which was logistically necessary; we would have to return.

With the changing seasons there is usually a change in the weather. When the adjacent plains cool and the days become shorter with the approaching winter, thermal activity ceases, and hence the thunderstorms no longer form.

At the end of April we took advantage of the changing seasons. We climbed to our high point of three years ago and continued for one more pitch. After a typical alpine bivy, we had to find our way through the bulging prows that characterize the upper part of the wall. Route finding was difficult, and having to drill on lead also slowed progress. At 2 p.m. on May 1 we arrived at the summit of this beautiful peak, having finished Not So Auto (V 5.12b, 460m).

— Peter Janschek, Innsbruck, Austria

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.