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A Mountain Abandoned...

For many mountain lovers a Grand Traverse is the pinnacle of Drakensberg hiking. But traversing more than 200km of remote, high-altitude wilderness is not a journey to embark upon without intense preparation and training…

In November 2022 the inaugural DGT Run event will see a blurring of the lines between hiking, trail running and adventure racing, as teams of two take on the full DGT route in a non-stop and mostly self-supported effort. All participants of the race are required to prove their mountain capabilities before the event and so the 21st to 22nd May was scheduled as an official DGT Run training camp. Pierre and I were to join on the mission in a guiding capacity, and I planned to take with our DSLR Canon to capture the highlights.

In the week leading up to the training camp the weather forecast for the weekend was dismal. We liaised closely with the race organisers, adjusting the original route from an A to B track from Monk’s Cowl to Giant’s Castle via the escarpment, to a circular route from Monk’s Cowl instead. Predictions of snow, extreme temperatures and lower Berg rainfall brought about serious discussions of postponing the weekend completely. With some participants flying up from Cape Town, however, the decision was eventually made to go ahead. But the group knew and accepted that safety would be the top priority and route choice would be assessed and adjusted as necessary on the mountain.

Hikers setting off into the Drakensberg mountains

At around 9am on Saturday 21 May our group of eleven signed out from the Monk’s Cowl Rest Camp. We were two guides, one DGT Run race organiser in the form of Graham Bird, and eight competent athletes. On the team for this weekend we had established female ultra runners Jo Keppler and Amri Williamson; a mountain friend of Amri's by the name of Chris; good friend of ours Colin van den Bergh without his DGT partner, Matt Boucher, who'd come down with COVID just that week; 12-time Otter runner Banie Erasmus and his determined adventure partner Conrad van den Berg, and super-couple Lance and Sue Chapman from Pietermaritzburg.

The weather seemed surprisingly stable and as we ascended the Sphinx waterproof layers were shed and stashed. It was smiles and chatter all round as for once it seemed that the forecast had over-predicted. Conditions permitting, our 24 to 30 hour non-stop route would take us up Gray’s Pass and south along the escarpment to Mafadi Peak, where we planned to take a coffee and dinner break in the shelter of Upper Injisuthi Cave. From there we would descend Judge’s Pass and make our way back to Monk’s Cowl via the contour path. We also had the option of adding Injisuthi Camp into the mix as a shelter if need be, knowing that the Shada Ridge return route was another viable alternative.

We made good time to the base of Gray’s Pass and although we could now see that the peaks were snow-capped and the escarpment dusted white, we were still optimistic about the circular route. A light drizzle had accompanied us from Hlathikulu Nek up the valley, but conditions were still relatively calm with little wind and decent visibility. We ascended the lower section of Gray’s at a consistent pace, the group moving well. Occasionally we would stop to wait for one or two members who had fallen back, but as we gained altitude we began to lose core temperature rapidly each time we stopped moving. The rain gradually became heavier, the drops falling more slowly and gaining opacity… And then it was snowing. A beautiful, dense and very wet snow-fall!

In true South African style it was immediately tongue-out flake catching and laughter as we continued happily upwards. But as with all good things, this was soon to come to an end, and I don't refer to the snow... Before long a cold, dark silence began to descend upon our small party, both outside and in. The sky above was an ominous shade of grey, the snow was falling thicker by the minute and our already faint trail was rapidly fading, only visible by the “trench” sections which were now icy, flowing streams in which we were forced to walk. Only one word could accurately describe the conditions we were experiencing and it was “blizzard.”

Hikers moving along the trail in the mountains during a snow storm

Shortly before the second scramble on the upper reaches of Gray’s Pierre halted the group. He asked Sue, “How’s the feet?” and she responded that she hadn’t been able to feel them for a while… He looked back at the rest of the group. Jo and Amri stood quietly with heads down, hands buried. Colin looked questioningly at Pierre and the daunting summit gully beyond. Banie and Conrad conversed in hushed tones. I finally lowered the camera, acknowledging that the risk-reward of drowning our Canon was now too high and hoping I'd captured some good shots. I turned towards Graham who was bringing up the rear. He shook his head. It was unanimous, really.

A few more minutes were wasted on discussion. The decision to turn back is never an easy one, but Pierre and I knew it was for the best. The rock scrambles would be slower and more difficult to descend than ascend; the trail would be indiscernible if we didn’t retrace our footsteps as soon as possible; Nkosazana cave wouldn't be big enough or protective enough for the whole group to escape the elements, and conditions were certainly not going to improve on the exposed summit. The three factors that place hikers at risk of hyperthermia - wet, cold and wind - were teaming up and it was time to implement our “safety first” rule.

Relief was the overwhelming emotion as ten little specks in a world of black rock and white ice began to descend Gray’s. Despite trying to keep the group together, some members retreated at a phenomenal pace, proving just how cold they really were and how strong the lure of lower altitude and warmer temperatures.

By the time we reached Keith Bush Camp everyone had regrouped and a quick snack was in order. Although spirits were higher, core temperatures were still low and the valley floor seemed to sap any remaining warmth and motivation from the team. The option to complete a lower Berg circuit via Stable Cave and Jacobs ladder was proposed, but consistent waves of mist and drizzle eventually pushed the group firmly in the direction of Monk’s Cowl.

At exactly 5pm we descended the last steps to camp and broke through the forest margin. The sight that greeted us was breath-taking. Murky rays of sun penetrated the clouds and lit the escarpment in a soft golden-pink glow. Behind us a full rainbow stretched across a dark blue sky. Cameras were dug from the depths of dry bags to capture this one last spectacle of the day.

I want to say that the mountains give and take. They take away all your plans, your ambitions, your hopes, and then they give you a little sunlight as a reward and to restore your faith. But in reality, the mountains really only give. They give beauty and harshness, extreme conditions and an abundance of colour, life and light. They give the opportunity for success and the opportunity for failure. And above all, they give experiences of a lifetime to anyone who dares to abandon their fears and embrace the mountains.

Beautiful Mountain sunset after big storms

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