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Chronicles of the Column

    The Column (2926 m a.s.l.) is a free-standing pillar in the South African Northern Drakensberg, overlooking the deep and narrow Tseketseke Valley. The valley can be accessed following a trail used chiefly by smugglers carrying dagga (cannabis) from Lesotho into South Africa and only occasionally by hikers. The only visible human trace in the valley is Tseketseke hut, a convenient shack of corrugated iron with a dirt floor covered with hay, located on an islet in the Tseketseke riverbed. Like many of the Drakensberg’s climbing objectives, the Column is cloaked with lore. George Thompson famously solo-climbed the Column on its first ascent in 1945, taking a tumble while climbing down and luckily managing to stop his fall by grabbing a bush.

    My first attempt at climbing the Column was with Graeme Bruschi following the Escarpment route, established in 1970 by C. Shuttleworth and D. Pullen and graded F3 A1 (or about 19, or 6a+, if climbed all free). Despite having perfect weather, Graeme and I somehow managed to turn our attempt into an Abbott and Costello sketch (although it felt as if we were both Costello): first we failed to find our way to Tseketseke hut, spending the night in a meadow instead; once on the climb, Graeme got lost and took a whipper on pitch one; I made us turn back one pitch below the end of the route, thinking that we were still far and that it was too late to finish the climb; after rappelling off the route we could not find a safe way to descend the steep grassy slopes at the base of the mountain in the dim light of dusk, so we ended up spending a cold night on a grassy ledge, shivering under an emergency blanket. To top it all off, Graeme’s friend Wayne had been waiting for us at the hut, and, worried by our delay, left to find phone signal and call a rescue at first light. Luckily we managed to call the rescue off, but the whole experience felt both comical and frustrating.

    Pictures from the previous attempt with Graeme

    That was on October 2019. The Column was on my mind for the following year and a half: meanwhile the pandemic struck, life and the world kept turning, but the Column was still there. In May 2021 I finally got to give the Column another shot. I made plans with Daven Stroh, a 20-something year old young gun who lives at the foot of the ‘Berg and, in the year or so since I had known him, had been grinding his way through much vertical terrain in the Drakensberg. This time around, everything went smoothly: there were a couple of “I want my mum” moments, but all in all we managed to keep our composure, whether we were pulling tufts of grass on the meandering first pitch, or huffing and puffing up the short off-width crack on the fourth pitch. We climbed quickly and efficiently, we both freed all the pitches, and we were on the false summit by 14:20. From there, an easy scramble to a rocky col and through a wormhole took us to the true summit. We were the first to sign the summit book since 2018. The weather was perfect. The views were crystal-clear. Cape vultures were gliding in the distance.
    We were at the base of the route before dusk, smiling through lips cracked by sun and dehydration.

    A short video of the ascent: