Devil’s Tooth: Third Time Lucky

Blood streamed down my face, over my neck and turned my shirt red. “What is going on” Deon shouted from above, no idea that a falling thumb size rock slid my middle finger open to the bone.  Moments before, as he shouted “below” I put my hand on my head for cover an instant before the projectile hit me. We were forcing our way up Tooth Gully to the base of one of the most inspiring and difficult peaks to climb in the Drakensberg of South Africa. Devils Tooth.

Infmous Tooth Gully leading up to Devils Tooth in the northern Drakensberg of South Africa.

At 2,913 m above sealevel, Devils Tooth is not of great height, the climb of approx 150 m is not that long either. But the peak is guarded by the infamous slog up Tooth Gully, which starts out gently enough and is beautiful in many respects, passing around impressive waterfalls and provides magnificent views of the Sentinel Peak. But all that is soon forgotten as you cling on to grass blades and tussocks on a nearly 70 degree slope with the Tooth glaring down upon you.

View of sentinel peak form Tooth gully.

 With big hearts, bigger aspirations and fail-safe attitudes Deon and I set out in early 2002. Ill prepared for the high mountain, we did not overthink it and just felt “how hard can it be?”. An attribute which is the root of many successful climbs, but also the reason for as many failures. In our case, the lack of preparation probably save us from serious injury (on this day) as reaching the summit of the Tooth itself requires much more than willpower alone.

About halfway up the almost vertical Tooth Gully, while puling ourselves up on tussocks of grass, sweating away the fear of vast chasms below us, the mountain stopped us in our tracks. The small boulder fell from only meters above, but split open my finger to an extent that a translucent bony colour was clearly visible. There was no pain and very little fear, only the fact that I knew I was hurt. I bled to such an extent that I had no idea where the blood came from. Needless to say, we were forced out of Tooth Gully and back to the world. For a while, at least.

Fast forward 6 months and into the dead of winter, we (now three climbers) decided (again without putting too much thought into it) that we should not wait. We have a window of opportunity and need to go right now (no matter that it was in the middle of winter). This time we are going to do it easily, we thought. We reached tooth cave fairly quickly and our spirits soared.

Tooth cave near the start of the climb up Devils Tooth.

The morning of the climb I was feeling restless. My down cocoon was great a comfort zone, but I knew I had to get up. “Small steps” I told myself. Eventually we got going and made it to the base of the Tooth at around 9 am. From here the start of the climb is protected by a 1 km drop on the southern side. And in the winter time in the southern hemisphere, southern slopes at >2,500 m means only one thing. Ice. And lots of it. My heart sank in my chest. No ice gear and little idea of how to maneuver on ice, we still decided to give it a go. But crampons is your best friend on ice and without it you are basically climbing blind.

Kobus and Deon trying to break through the ice on Devils Tooth.

After trying for an hour, we were down on our luck. Emotions were high, we were getting tired and we (at least me) were really scared as well. The ice was slippery (remember the 1 km drop below us) and no matter how we tried, we could not reach the base of the climb. I slumped down, feeling utterly defeated.

Without hesitation we decided to go down. We were fed up and needed to get off the mountain. But by the time we reached Tooth Cave, it was midday and very late for three climbers to still navigate the numerous waterfalls inside the vertical Tooth Gully. Of course what we should have done is spent the night at Tooth Cave, but not us, we wanted out. Immediately.

The top part of Tooth Gully is impossibly steep and requires numerous abseils down a number of waterfalls. Around sunset we were still high up on the mountain and a long way from Tunnel Cave at the base of the gully. I gazed down the black basalt through what felt like thousands of meters to the Clarens Sandstone Formation down below us signaling the end of the gully. Safety felt eons away.

Deon abseiling alongside one of the numerous waterfalls in Tooth gully.

At some point our only abseil anchor was a half inserted piton in flowing water above another treacherous waterfall. We used another rope to tie off a rock located about 50 m away and used that for the first two guys’ abseils. But not wanting to leave the 50 m climbing rope, I decided to untie that and abseil off the piton only. It held, but I think barely. By now we were actually running on reserves, and did everything robot-like. I believe that its in moments like these that the most accidents happen.

I know we zigzagged the gully in the dark many times and at one point had to go through an icy pool of water pulling backpacks along a fixed line above our heads. I think it must have been around 11 pm when Deon asked me “where are the car keys”? Without waiting for an answer he mentioned that he think it fell out of his backpack somewhere up the gully. And that he needed to go back and find it.

“What? No – that is out of the question” I insisted. But it fell on deaf ears. Knowing Deon, he does not take no for an answer and once he made up his mind, there is no stopping him. Luckily the sane person accompanying us, Kobus, felt that unpacking our bags may yield the lost key. So we unpacked, re packed and unpacked again looking for the key just before Deon set off on an adventure which may have been his last. And he found the key. Inside an inner pocket of his backpack. Relieved is an understatement.

We reached Tunnel Cave after midnight. Fed up, beaten and depressed we went back to civilization the next day and tried not to think about the Tooth. 

About halfway up Devils Tooth with the infamous gully below us.

But we could not leave it there. So we planned a bit (for the first time) and got our dates right (April – longer sunny days and small chance of ice and thunderstorms). This time it was only Deon and me. We slogged back up the gully.

We again slept in the roomy Tooth Cave, this time got up out of our cocoons before sunrise and started on the climbing route early enough to see the sun rise over Kwazulu Natal on the neck between Devils Tooth and Outer Buttress. And what a climbing route it was. Sheer drops of > 1,000 m over basaltic flows covered with green grass and shrubs. The rock was not bad, the sun shone bright and the climbing was strenuous and hair raising (okay, very hair raising), but before long we reached the final pitch and there was no more mountain to climb. The summit beckoned. The moment was stark and slightly surreal. I can’t really recall what it looked like from the top, only that it was beautiful and felt very exposed..

Me on the summit of Devils Tooth.
Deon, elated after abseiling off the Tooth.

But we did not linger long. Summits are places where we are graciously allowed, only for a fleeting moment to become one with the sky and the tip of mountain. We soon started our abseils down to the base of the Tooth, back to the cave and hurried on to scramble down tooth gully and back to civilization and normality.

Deon and me later on the summit of the Sentinel with the Tooth behind us.