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