No Mountain for Old Men ( aka The Most Exhausting Off-Trail Treks in the Cape Mountains )
22-24 September 2018 Frans Slabber and Greta McMahon
Spoiler Alert: No we did not summit, yes we turned around at 1800m.
My biggest concern going into this trip was water. Most accounts I had researched for Mostertshoek led me to believe that there was practically no water on the mountain. Still I hoped that after a good winter rain in the Cape, especially some snow the weekend before, we will find a stream at least once higher up. However, to play it safe, each of us carried 6 liters of water extra which is always a pain if you are trying to go as light as possible. That extra weight sloshing around on your back. ( Yes, MSR Dromedary, I’m looking at you … ).
The route informaton we had was a second hand, after the fact, from dodge memory, line sketched onto a 50 000 topo map and then sent as a whatsapp photo.1 It gave a very general idea of where to go. Added to that was the usual evenings preceeding the weekend spent examining every detail on google maps/earth, and again with the usual resulting surprise that reality looked nothing like we had imaginend.
Side note here: I have to sadly confess that we had attempted Mostertshoek from the Waaihoek/Hoare Hut approach in April 2018. We made it about a quarter of the way across the traverse from Waaihoek Peak, but then had to turn back due to time constraints. At that time we had speculated that perhaps the Mitchells Pass approach may be easier/shorter.
We parked and started at Blue Sky Cottages at 09h30, on Saturday morning. ( see map , 354m ASL )(I am being fancy here ASL = Above Sea Level ) We opted for a “direct” approach onto the first step of the mountain. Initially there is a path for about 500m, but from then on, its follow your best lines. We picked a kloof which looked promising from the bottom and started up the ever increasing gradient. ( calf burns de lux ) …to eventually walk into rockfaces. There seemed to be a usable ledge going around a rocky ridge to the next kloof, even the rocky ridge in between looked promising, so we started out on the ledges. The mood grew sombre, to put it eloquently. Keep in mind that we were both loaded with full hiking packs and extra water. And as these adventures go, we got to the point with me having to scout, without a pack upwards, so we decide to back off, and try lower down a more promising ledge. ( Memories of Fonteintjiesberg came flooding back to me. ) The bottom ledge proved usable and we scrambled through to the next kloof. An easy line presented itself from there, and we were on top of the initial step with relative ease. Whilst puffing up the last bit, my partner loudly proclaimed that on top of the ridge there will be “a green meadow with running water”. (Kid ye not, verbatim her words. ) The gods listened – she is a practicing Buddhist after all.
All this took time. Too much time and it was already close to 16h00. We were also tired, hot in the boiling afternoon sun and of course there were muggies – hungry stinging muggies, lots of them, with persistence. So, we decide to make camp where a small stream syphoned out of the soil and it was relatively flat. ( photo ) We had been hiking for 7.5 hours and gained 612m, and were now at 934m ASL. I had hoped that we would camp higher, as the next day ( summit day ), was going to be a killer. From 900m to 2000m is not a trifle task when you are off-trail hiking, 53 and overweight.
We slept well that night, it was cold but the tent was snug and maybe too hot even at times. We went to bed at 20h00 I would guess, joking that it was going to be along night. You know, that lying awake with a wee, debating the major logistical operation of going for a wee outside kinda long night. That lying awake, manouvering into all infinite possible positions, none comfortable for more than 5 seconds and the t – i – m – e d – r – a – g – s out in some strange relativistic fashion long night.. Yeah, that one, didn’t happen though. We must have been pooped.
The seeming impossible task of the summit was on my mind as I woke the next morning. In my mind I had already decided that reaching the original base camp location at 1500m ASL and then back would be a good day. Lets just get there and then see what the time is, and how we are doing with energy levels I mused.
We started out at 08h15(928m ASL) heading South along the gently sloping step. We were leaving the tent, sleeping gear and whatever we could behind, going only with lighter packs.2 The idea being to travel faster, summit and return here that evening. The step got progressively steeper, and following our drawn line, we eventually entered the main ascent kloof. What a surprise and delight to hear rushing water. A mood enhancer like none.
We followed this kloof on its Northern side, staying close to the water. At times we had to circumvent ledges and vegetation, but nothing serious or long. The gradient was steep but not like the day before. After 4 hours we reached the location I had originally tagged as base camp. And just for a change, Google Maps was spot on. Beautiful flat area to camp, fantasy views, and running water nearby – the main ingredients for a good camp. It was 12h15(1529m ASL), and we had some lunch.
As we sat having lunch and feeling surprisingly well, we scoped the mountain ahead to try and see a good approach line for the last 500m ascent to the Northern peak(1954m ASL). The peak itself was not in our line of sight, nor the Southern peak(2031m ASL), our final destination. To reach the summit approaching from the Northern side involves first crossing the lower peak, then descending down to an interconnecting saddle, and then up the Southern one.
The infamous map showed a diagonal approach angling to the North first and then across to the lower peak. I have to mention at his point that a direct line to the summit from the lunch break point was not even considered, and in retrospect, that probably would have been a better option. We decided on a cut-off time of 15h00, at which time we had to start heading back. This is always a tricky decision to make. You are so close and had made so much effort to get to this point it seems obscene to just turn around? What made it even harder in this case was the fact that the weather was excellent, terrain not too daunting, an early rising full moon and we had our headlamps with spare batteries, with us. (Standard practice.)
My phone battery was running low and I had to switch my phone and GPS tracking off. I wanted to leave some spare power incase of emergency or if we ran into trouble finding the way back to the tent. Hence no GPS track for this part.
We followed the suggested line up a steep gradient and reached the ridge that would lead to the top of the Northern peak. The ridge had a drop-off on the eastern side and we could start making out the traverse route we had followed in April from Waaihoek Peak. And that was that, 15H00 came and we stopped. We were poked in any case and the ridgeline was getting difficult as well. We had reached 1834m ASL. Whoop Whoop. The snowcapped Groot Winterhoek peaks beckoned to us in the distance. Up North we could make out Sneeukop in the Skurweberge (Kouebokkeveld) that we climbed in November 2016. Kasteelberg near Riebeek Kasteel was an island in a sea of haze.3
We followed the same route back without much noteworthy incident. As a treat to our weary bodies we took a skinny dip in an icy deep mountain pool. Greta laughing at my antics as I was crawling around naked in the reeds, trying not submerge my whole body all at once, convinced that my heart would stop at the shock.
Once you leave the main kloof, there is a big lone standing pine tree. A good landmark to use as one heads back. The muggies were back with vengence, hot and tired I must have zoned out for a while walking on autopilot. Greta was walking 30m in front of me, suddenly I saw her sit down. Only then did I notice that she was infact sitting next to the tent. It was 19h00 and a good time to be back. The almost full moon rose over the Hexrivier mountains as we prepared trusty toppers and polenta.
That night we both were awake more than the previous one. Between itching muggie bites, sunburn, over-exercise, the huge bulb in the sky and strange pig-like snorting sounds in the distance, sleep stayed far away. Rest assured though(pun intended), eventually you do pass out.
The next morning we broke camp and walked back following the step this time, all the way to ****** house, and then along the cement road down. At the bottom it was relatively easy to get back to our parked car at Blue Sky Cottages. There was a unexpected donga, but posed only a minor detour. It took us 3 hours to walk down.
As always, we finished the “uitstappie’ with a hamburger.
Note 1: Off-trail hiking is a lot different to hiking on a trail. Constantly focusing on where to place your feet. Maneuvering around boulders, thorny plants and such. All the time keep an eye on overall progress and looking for appropriate lines. This takes more time and effort than following a trail.
Note 2: We packed for cold weather. Although the nights were cold, summer is definitely here in the Cape mountains. We found one hand-sized piece of ice under a shady overhang near the lunch spot on the second day. From 1800m we could see pockets of ice in crevasses on the Eastern slopes of Mostertshoek.
- Breakfast:- peanutbutter sachet, powdered whole egg, coffee
- Lunch:- raw macadamias, dry sausage, strong cheese
- Supper: Biltong and onion flake casserole with smash / small Italia salamis from Erwins in Stanford.
- Snacks:raw almonds, dried peaches, 2 rehidrate sachets/day
- bfast- coffee and milkpowder,ricecakes with peanut butter and biltong, Raw EarthTM chocolate
- Lunch: ricecakes with biltong, cheese, nuts, droewors
- dinner: polenta with toppers and parmesan cheese powder
- note: replace polenta with couscous
For Next Time:-
- A small amount of insect repellent for muggies/or anything else that wants to feast on my blood.
- Take a power bank, the extra weight is worth it.
- Double sleeping mats really work.
- Try paper 1:50 000 topo maps.- finer contour detail than phone apps?
- No Approach shoes, but proper boots. Footpads took a hammering.
- No powdered egg ever again … EVER!
- Park and leave vehicle safely at Blue Sky Cottages, contact **************. If access is required up cement road (Alt. Start ) then contact *********** for permission.
- There is mobile phone reception most of the time. Definitely at BC1.
- Enjoy a “Wit Els Survivor” double burger at the Winterberg Inn ( delicious verby ); Add extra cheese and you can call it a “Mostertshoek Twins Survivor”.
- Packs: 60l Osprey , 50l Deuter
- Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket + 2 small canisters
- Sleeping: 2 Sleeping mats, IceBreaker, S2S Thermal Liner – Frans; 1 Sleeping mat, BlueWolf, S2S Thermal Liner – Greta.
- Tent: North Face Westwind
- Weather:- Hot and sunny days, light cooling breeze higher up. Nights cold but not freezing.
- Then auther is attempting humour. Gavin, if you ever read this, thanks boet.
- From experience at Keeromsberg, we knew the best way to summit an off-trail 2000er is to camp at around 1500m, and then do a summit attempt from there with light gear, returning to that base camp the same day.
- We had been up there the Sunday before.