It is interesting to ponder what makes people tick. I don’t mean in the universal puzzle of the philosophy of life, I mean in simple terms – what makes us want to hike, scramble and climb? I say this in the mountaineering sense, as I just love being high. Apart from the fact being ‘high’ is now legal in SA; at least in one sense.
As we grow, especially in our formative years around the end of our school period and maybe a bit into the college years – I think we are looking for a place or a way to go; a way to satisfy our souls.
We need to earn a living…..yes, but also, we are looking for a way to scratch an itch. To do something – often by way of a sport – that does indeed seem to most satisfactorily scratch that itch. If you get good enough at the sport to both earn a living by, and to play the sport; then you are lucky indeed.
I was never good enough to earn a full time living from climbing. Though during some 45 years of climbing I worked in some 200+ first ascents of good standard rock and ice routes, 19 years in MR – five as Face Rescue Coordinator, plus a good few alpine north faces and mountain first ascents in the arctic. But my goals were held in check by a certain awkwardness. Yes, I led to SA grade 22 and ice 5 at one time, but then I climbed with very good climbers, and I was lucky enough to do so on many occasions.
I would always admire the grace and simplicity with which they made the hard look almost easy. And I knew that no matter how hard I trained; I would never reach their level of mastery. Did that bother me? No not really, it was a fact of life, and besides which I was pretty good at mountain survival. On more than one occasion, we would finish a winter or alpine route in a raging storm and my harder climbing partner would say “Steve, get us off and down alive!’.
So, some 52 years from when I started climbing on UK Stanage grit, I find myself living in Somerset West, and taking part in hectic hikes in the area. A mail is received via the SAMC from Frans Slabber to say he and Hagen are taking a group up Sneeuberg – ‘Who wants to come?’
A quick google appraises me of a certain degree of climbing and exposure issues near the summit. Could I do it, mentally and or physically? Maybe not, but I could get ‘high’ again and see some great scenery.
Thursday 21st March 2019
Thus, it was that two Bakkies filled with seven stalwarts and gear set off at the ‘crack of sparrows’ on the N7 north. I’m sure many of you know the way well, but every time I do it, when you take that road right from the N7 to Algeria, and you cross the high Nieuwoudtspas, it is almost as if you are looking down on another world.
Far away distant vehicles churn up dust such that you see the plumes of airborne sand long before you actually see a vehicle. Algeria beckons – I wonder how it got that name? A check in with the folk there confirms that they had rains the previous weekend, so the hill streams will be running with liquid refreshment.
Onwards along the dusty road to find Eikeboom. Blink and you miss it. We did and had to retrace our wheels back a few kms. There, standing dusty and lonely are three oaks. Two are straggly and are on their last legs, or roots. But will probably outlast me. The third stands proud and upright, nourished by the water it finds deep down, from the near flowing Sederhoutkloof river. It gives us shade as we load up our sacks for the three-day sojourn into the hills.
The way follows the old logging trail that winds its way up the Kloof. One can only wonder at the skill and hard labour of the workmen who built the road, often creating high rock wall banks to take in a steep turn or scarp. Onwards it goes, with a thankfully not to hot sun behind wisps of cloud, with water in every stream to drink, as we gained height. There are two useful short cuts, especially the second, that takes a great kink out of the trail and finally brings you out to the high flat plane that ends when you reach the Sneeuberg hut at 1,250m.
You see pictures of it, but nothing quite prepares you for the incongruous way it suddenly appears, nestling up against a huge boulder. Built apparently for the animal herders who would graze their animals on the meadows that spread out below the hut, nurtured as it is by a sparkling stream that flows just down from the hut.
We reached it in 2 ½ hours, and there is some temptation to stay, but we needed to be higher and closer to our goal. So, after brief refuel stop, we went onwards over the next Nek and along towards the Maltese Cross. We constantly checked for water as we need to be as high as possible yet have water to drink. Hagen and I, somewhat in front, went on to take in the cross. So amazing, sitting as it does on a high flat area of ground, just kind of sticking up out of the ground. Way bigger that I had anticipated.
No water, so we two retraced our steps to find that Frans, Liza, Chris, Greta and Johan had found a perfect flat piece of sandy ground, near a flowing stream, on which to spend the night.
We spread out our mats and sleeping bags on the ground, fed ourselves, gathered to tell a few stories, then lay down to take in the panoply of stars above our heads, and to sleep. It was a bit cold, with a breeze blowing, But I snuggled down and pulled my bags hood over my head and drifted off.
Friday 22nd March 2019
We all slept pretty well and as the horizon turned from dark to dawn, we divested ourselves reluctantly from our cocoons of warmth, and made our various breakfasts.
At least we could now travel light. Overnight gear was stowed surreptitiously away behind boulders. We had slept out at about 1,400m and Sneeuberg is 2,027 – the maths was easy, but how easy was the climb?
Some 50m up from our bivy spot, the path to Sneeuberg turns right. Pretty obvious really and hard to miss. The way is up but not too stiff at first, until you reach the gully that gives access to the Nek below the summit. Even here it zigs its way cleverly up, taking the line of least resistance, with one easy rock step to negotiate, until it lays back to a saddle at about 1,800m, where you can take a rest and onboard fuel.
Now we turned right and headed straight up the ridge at first, following cairns until an alcove is reached that requires a few climbing moves to get up. From above this, the way trends right, around the flank of the mountain. A tenuous trail but still marked by cairns. At one point you cross an exposed but large enough ledge not to intimidate you. This leads on to the start of the climbing. Facing you on your left is a chimney requiring some foot and back work. It is possible to exit right via an exposed ledge half way up the chimney. But easier to press on up the chimney to exit right via a tunnel.
At 73 years old, my knee replacement was not going to give me the flexibly to back and foot the chimney, so I opted regretfully to forgo the rest of the climb, and the A team of six went on.
I had been waiting for this moment the whole trip. Last year Greta and I had turned around at this point, demotivated and exhausted after approaching through snow and balancing on slippery ice-covered rock. This chimney signalled the start of the “scramble” section, the last vertical hundred meters or so to the top. Chris and Johan took the lead and popped out the short chimney onto the exposed ledge – that’s where the cairns were anyway. Determined the make it all the way I followed suit. A hunch made me squeeze myself deeper into the chimney, to be pleasantly surprised by an accessible crawl space situated at the top, which led out to the right and meant that I could avoid the exposed ledge. Everyone followed up with relative ease.
Thereafter a real team effort ensued scrambling up solid blocks, hunting the next cairn and debating whether the cairns were a good route choice or not. The sense of height became more apparent as the summit ridge narrowed. The second chimney of 3-4 meters in height, was slightly more challenging as the walls were further apart, and a huge boulder at the top of one side made for awkward yoga moves near the top. This took a little more time, but everyone made it up.
At this point, with the summit so near, the cairns followed exposed ledges. Hagen, Greta, Liza and Johan decided to look for an easier way by following a less exposed path round the left-hand side (facing the summit), whilst Chris and I worked out a way to minimize some of the risk on the exposed ledges. The only way up was via a narrow ledge with big drop-offs and very little to hold on to. After this ledge another short chimney presented itself which I squeezed into with amazing agility – happy to get away from the small ledge. That feeling of security wedging yourself into a large crack is completely underrated. We found a faded red arrow in this crack and new we were almost there. And yes, a few more moves, and we found ourselves standing next to the survey beacon enjoying the view. The other group were visible below us, a mere 5 meters or so, but without gear, there was no way up from where they were.
The scramble back to where Steve was waiting went smoothly, the confidence coming from the familiar route now. We were happy though to be out of the chimneys and blocks.
As I sunbathed on the platform below the chimney, I caught occasional glimpses of some of the team as they neared the top, and more of them as they descended towards me. Once reunited, we went on down to the Nek, and on down to our previous night’s bivy spot.
We were pretty much on schedule, so we packed our sacks and headed off across the trail back to Sneeuberg hut. Here a comfortable night was had by all, as it was slightly warmer during the night and there was no wind.
More crack, tales of hills gone before, and again a night under the stars. Except for me as I opted to share the hut with the notorious Sneeuberg hut mice. I hung up my food on the hooks and slept like a rock. Mice or no mice.
Saturday 23rd March 2019
The forecast was for a hot 30 degrees for that day, so we had incentive to get up, eat, pack and get down before the heat of the day made itself felt. As we set off down, two hill runners came padding lightly up the track. They must have left the roadside around dawn and looked disgustingly bright eyed, fresh and bushy tailed. They did travel light, with just a bum bag and a bottle of water. Impressive though.
On and onwards down. Always a little sad to leave the mountains and go back to reality. Though a good shower was going to be nice – there are some good bits to civilisation!
We stopped for a meal at Kromrivier, nice place, then onto Tweerivier campsite to stay for the night. A cold cider, or two or four never tasted so good.
I felt great after the trip. A bit of new country for me, plus I lost 4Kgs, though it only took me five days to put it back on.
Thanks to Frans and Hagen for organising the trip.
Life goes on. What next!
Steve Chadwick & Frans Slabber