Abba’s ‘SOS’ leads to self-res­cue from frigid, howl­ing hell in ‘the hills’

Daily Dispatch - - News - Dolores Koan

“Look at me! You are not go­ing to die on this moun­tain,” my daugh­ter told my other daugh­ter.

Mild hys­te­ria had fol­lowed mild hy­pother­mia. We were high up in the Ceder­berg on Mon­day.

This was our an­nual daugh­ters-and-dad hike in “the hills” as climbers like to call th­ese sa­cred, high places.

More pre­cisely we were roughly 700m below the high­est peak in this fas­ci­nat­ing range three hours north-west of Cape Town.

We were not meant to be on the lower flanks of Sneeu­berg.

Our per­fectly planned re­turn to the first hike my daugh­ters, then aged nine and 11, ever did with me, the Tsit­sikamma trail, had turned to ash.

From the fiery gale-fanned mael­strom of the Gar­den Route, where peo­ple died last week, we were now in the eye of an icy, howl­ing Antarc­tic front.

“Look, it’s ice, not rain!” ex­claimed RosaKa­roo as we gaily trekked with our four days’ worth of gear and sup­plies to our next camp­site 8km away over and through a small nek and around tow­er­ing Sneeu­berg peak, now shrouded in a dark grey cloud.

Gusty fists were pum­mel­ing the Mal­tese vlakte, and bar­rel­ing into us. We were pre­pared. We knew the three-day front would drop the tem­per­a­ture to “12°C”, we had a good tent, lots of gas, and dry and wet ther­mal lay­ers and so on. And a damn good Slingsby map. Two ac­tu­ally, in case of snakes.

We’d de­parted from Sneeu­berg hut, a de­light­ful stone-and-zinc live­stock shel­ter, its floor spread with soft sedge grass, with a wonky wooden door and wonkier wooden flaps over two hatchet-like lit­tle win­dows. One wall is the side of one of the mil­lions of gi­gan­tic, twirled and twisted wind-sculpted boul­ders which make up th­ese mu­tant moun­tain slopes.

The girls took one look at it and de­clared it a creepy hovel out of a hor­ror flick.

This would change.

Our trail took us past the turnoff to the Sneeu­berg sum­mit route, which in­volves easy C-grade scram­bling, but with­out climber’s con­fi­dence the step-across and bridg­ing moves would, if cocked up, send one fly­ing and bounc­ing down to a cer­tain death 600m below.

But we were tak­ing a safe, fairly level, con­tour path with one small up­hill through Kok se Poort and we’d be through.

We passed the dreaded sum­mit path cairn and came the mighty cairn for our route more trav­elled.

Up we went. The path was good, but damn, it was steep!

It headed straight up to a dark V and the rest was in cloud.

Fi­nally we hit a notch where a few climb­ing moves were re­quired.

We were sud­denly, as climbers say, “a bit gripped”.

It was darker, the wind was re­ally blus­tery, and it was cold.

But we heaved those packs up, did a fi­nal man­tle shelf move and found our­selves just below the sad­dle of “Kok se Pass”.

One daugh­ter was by now cold. The other said she would do a quick recce of the top.

She van­ished. Dumb move, I told my­self, never split the group.

She re­turned. “It’s re­ally windy up there and the path keeps on go­ing up the hill,” she re­ported.

Well, we’d have to see. We all went up and sud­denly all hell broke loose.

A wall of wind so frigid that our hands im­me­di­ately seemed to stop work­ing prop­erly lit­er­ally tore into us. But no, I would just check one more time, and up I went till a rock band stopped me and the cairns van­ished.

As I told the girls it was done, we were re­treat­ing, the storm be­came a frozen scream, send­ing us to our knees, my stupid pack rain cover was ripped off, and cartwheeled away in front of us and over the steep edge.

We re­grouped below the top of the sad­dle, but the wind sent ice into our bones. We were a few ther­mal lay­ers short and hy­pother­mia was set­ting in. It was at this point that the thinnest of our group wept. And got the speech.

The chance of a bad fall felt real. Every moun­tain ter­ror I’ve known, a friend with a bro­ken back ly­ing blood­ied on a Ma­galies­berg ledge, seemed to stick in my gut – th­ese were my own pre­cious daugh­ters.

I cursed Slingsby and Kok for be­ing cruel sand­bag­gers, I cursed the rag­ing front in Novem­ber, I cursed cli­mate change and I cursed my fat ass and fad­ing pow­ers in this 59th year.

Shouldn’t have both­ered. That weep­ing child be­came a mo­ti­vated young woman and we belted down from whence we had come.

At the lip of the 8m notch there was no hes­i­ta­tion.

They sang Abba’s SOS.

Down she went, all those ba­sic moun­tain skills on dis­play.

Ninety min­utes later, those happy girls threw open the door of the Sneeu­berg shel­ter and de­clared it as good as “Je­sus’ manger”.

The tent went up in­side, the stove was lit and we brewed up.

Later we learnt that snow hit Shadow Peak across the val­ley and campers took the tem­per­a­ture at 2°C.

We three snug­gled deep into many lay­ers of com­fort.

Then, the older child: “Dad, can I see the map?”


“You to­tally took us up Sneeu­berg!”

● We hiked to about 200m below the sum­mit which is 2,027m high.

Pic­tures: MIKE LOEWE

ALL COLD COM­FORT: An an­nual daugh­ters-and-dad hike in ‘the hills’ as climbers like to call th­ese sa­cred, high places, ended on a frosty note.

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