George Thompson of the Drakensberg

Newcomer to the Berg

Only a wagon track ran up the Mlambonja Valley back in the day, and everything one needed for the building had to be carried up from the railhead at Winterton. While the first stone buildings were being laid, the Second World War broke out. 

©Roger de la Harpe
Cathedral Peak (R), The Bell (C) and the outer and Inner Horns (L) peaks of the Drakensberg.

A young New Zealand bricklayer, who had been rejected for military service because of a heart condition, arrived seeking work. Skilled labour was hard to come by in those years, so Albert Van der Riet took him on. The man's name was George Thompson and for many readers, the rest is history. However, his story is an interesting one.

From the moment he set his bags down at the new hotel site, Thompson spent every spare moment hiking the hill slopes and valleys of the area, even though he had never before so much as set foot on a mountain. But whatever heart condition had kept him out of the war seemed to hinder him not a bit, for he proved an indefatigable person and would easily climb several peaks in a day, eat a lusty dinner and dance into the night.

Climbing Peaks

The first real peak George Thompson climbed was the Pyramid, one of a twin of towers standing in the shadow of mighty Cleft peak (3 281 metres) high up in the Tseketseke Valley. Pyramid is a scary D-and E-grade scramble of unnervingly steep grass slopes and friable basalt in the Drakensberg.

Few climbers today would attempt it without a rope; George Thompson knew nothing of ropes at the time. In 1945 he decided that the adjoining twin, Column, would be a nice challenge and persuaded a young hotel guest to join him in the quest. At the base of the terrifying rock tower the younger man surrendered, so Thompson (in his mid-40s) pushed on alone.

Today Column is graded a reasonable F3, or 18, but such grades are misleading in the Drakensberg, where dizzying exposure and poor rock push the grade way upwards in terms of the commitment needed. The climb up was tricky enough, along toenail traverses, around overhangs, even up chimneys, but nothing compared with trying to down-climb the precipices. He got stuck on a narrow ledge with no way up, or down. Well, there was one way so he took it - he jumped.

He hit a ledge three and a half metres below, too narrow to land on but enough to break his fall, grabbed a tuft of grass and managed to swing into a chimney below, where, by bracing his arms and legs against the walls, he was able to slow down enough to stop his fall by grabbing small bushes growing in the chimney. That would put most people off ever touching vertical rock again, but not George. From this opening solo ascent of the Column, he went on to record opening ascents of numerous other hard Berg routes including Mponjwane and the Outer Mnweni Pinnacle.

And then there was the time he was leading a route up Cathkin Peak. He found an old rope and began shinning up. Needless to say the frayed rope broke and George went plummeting. Concussed, and with a broken ankle, he resumed climbing and led his two companions to the summit.

But then, for once in his remarkable life, he asked them to go for help. They arrived at Champagne Castle Hotel in the middle of the Christmas Eve festivities. A mounted party set out at first light and came upon Thompson, who had down-climbed Cathkin in the dark, crawling along the Contour Path on hands and knees.

By David Bristow