The day the Dragon fought back

Seeing as it has been four years to the day since the hike that ended with a rescue team coming to pick us up – it seemed fitting to post this old writeup. The text was written 4 years ago, with the occasional change added now.

One of the first lessons that the Dragon taught me was this: no matter how many times you fight the Dragon, you will never defeat it – all you can do is live to fight another day.

So this is a story of how a hike can go from being exactly according to plan to being stuck on a ledge doing an overnight bivy in the space of around 5 minutes.Slide1.JPG

Our plan was pretty straightforward – head to Garden Castle on Friday around midday, hike up Bollard Pass on Saturday morning, traverse to the top of Mashai Pass with bagging Wilson, Matebeng and Mlambonja on the way. Sunday morning we would bag Rhino and cross the Verkyker Ridge with the goal of dropping down Verkyker Pass and traversing back to the car park. On paper it’s an easy route, no long days or extreme passes, I had done all of the route (aside from Bollard Pass) before, had GPS tracks for the entire route – I was confident this was going to go well.Slide2.JPG

Myself, Simon and Mike left the car park and made our way up past the Monk and Sleeping Beauty Cave. For the first time I actually knew where the trail went from the waterfall behind Sleeping Beauty Cave to Engagement Cave (after coming down this way when we did Wilson’s Pass in December). We checked out Engagement Cave along the way. It was very hot, so we were finding ourselves to be pretty drained – but it was an easy day.Slide3.JPG

We pitched tents near the base of the pass around 2450m.Slide4.JPG

Slide5.JPGSlide6.JPGSlide7.JPGSlide8.JPGThe weather forecast had shown rain from around midday on Saturday, so we wanted to at least be above the crux by then. Having read reports written by others and looked at every photo on hand a few times before the hike, I knew that the hard part was getting to Stealth Cave. We also knew that the pass would be unsafe if wet – so the goal was to reach the cave before the area got wet.

We packed everything up and began walking around 6AM. The weather was perfect – there was some mist around 2200m, but we were well above that. We filled our bottles and began the slog. We hoped to be on top by midday, but it’s always hard to judge how long a pass will take.

Slide9.JPGSlide10.JPGOur goal was to stay near the river on the flattest ground available until we neared the lower waterfall. We wanted our feet to be in good order for the tricky middle of the pass. This was done by carefully choosing which side of the river to stay on and crossing where necessary.Slide11.JPG

The weather was perfect, the surrounding grass was dry, although more on the crumbly side – but one way or another, I thought to myself that the odds of me ever getting better conditions to do this pass are slim.

Slide12.JPGAs we approached the first waterfall we identified our line to avoid it by taking the south slope. This bank was very steep and often exposed, but didn’t seem too bad. We hit a spot probably around 2800m where I was unsure of a line, so I dropped my pack, went ahead and found the higher less exposed line to be good enough. I needed to down climb it to get my pack, but half way down I realised how exposed it was. No problem, Simon tied in the pack, threw the end of the rope up and I hauled it up. This is probably the steepest grass ledge I have ever ascended.

Slide13.JPGIn retrospect this was the point where we had really committed to ascent. I imagine at least half of the readers of the report right now are internally criticising me for this, but the reality is that we were repeating a pass that has seen quite a few ascents, weather was perfect and we had no reason to think we wouldn’t reach the summit. On a first ascent of a pass one should never get into a committed position that they cannot reverse, but this was not a first ascent, nor was it a climb up a pass that we knew nothing about. It was by no means the first time I have committed to a pass knowing that the safest way out of the pass is through the summit – and it won’t be the last. If you wish to never be committed to a route, you should never go anywhere without phone signal (so that includes most of Giant’s Castle) and you probably shouldn’t ever be more than 3km from the nearest car park. In cricket the batsman who doesn’t commit to the shot usually bats around number 11, the soldier who doesn’t commit to the commands on the battlefield is likely to have a few extra holes in his body. We all know the old saying about rugby and half-hearted tackles.Slide14.JPG

Above this grass scramble I could see the roof of Stealth Cave and could see the open book. The good news was that the open book was short and looked easy enough. We grass-scrambled up to it. We dropped our packs, I took out my 10m 6mm access chord, and climbed it. Slide15.JPG

I hauled the packs up, then Simon soloed it. I threw a sling down with the chord for Mike so that he could use a sling harness to protect the climb. He probably needed it less than either of us, and was up in no time.Slide16.JPG

Slide17.JPGWe all sat down in Stealth Cave for an hour. I knew the worst of the pass was over. From Stealth Cave it’s a doddle, I knew we had this one.

Slide19.JPGSlide20.JPGDuring our hour long break I walked around the ledge at altitude with the cave, there was a rocky ledge that looked unsafe between us and the gully, so I made a call that we should take the lower ledge (just above the Open Book cliff line).

Slide22.JPGWhen we eventually started walking again, we followed the lower ledge, but we saw it practically disappeared just before the pass gully. It didn’t look safe and had over 20m of exposure (or so it seemed from where I was standing). We agreed that it wasn’t worth chancing it, and the ledge that we had been aiming for was a short scramble up what looked like good rock. So we did the scramble. I looked at the pass gully and noticed that there was quite a drop off between us and the gully. I told the guys to sit and wait while I looked around. I scrambled the grass slope above us, it was very exposed and we would have to haul packs again, but the grass slope above it wasn’t any closer to the gully, and the cliff between the gully and the slope was just getting bigger, and the grass slope more exposed. With the mist that had rolled in, I couldn’t see if we could connect this grass bank to the top. I was of the opinion that we probably could – but fortunately Simon was the voice of reason on this occasion. He basically pointed out that once our packs are up there, we won’t get back down to this level, and there is no guarantee that it won’t be more exposed the higher we get.Slide23.JPG

So I looked to see if you could make use of the rope, slings, belay device and biners that I was carrying to get down into the gully. I eventually came to the conclusion that the only option would be to jump. But I could only get to about 2m from where the rock disappears, and from there it would be another 3m. I also couldn’t see what I would land on and it was right next to a large waterfall. So to summarise – I was not willing to jump 5m onto what might have been sharp pointy rocks or loose/slippery ground that could have ended in me falling down a waterfall. We knew we couldn’t down climb the bank to get back to Stealth Cave, and even if we could get back to the cave, it would just be nicer accommodation, we would have needed a full length rope to get from the cave to the bottom of the pass. This meant, quite simply, we were stuck.

So after spending an hour trying to figure this one out, I tried phoning anyone whose number I had that had done the pass. No luck. So I phoned the mountain rescue number – as Simon pointed out, that was our only way off the mountain. Now what most people probably won’t know is that when you phone mountain rescue you get the department of health. After hanging up and trying again they put me through to the right people. Eventually Gavin tried to phone me back, and after a few calls not working very well we started to communicate via sms. I told him we would be able to survive the night, and he told me to expect a rescue team on Sunday morning.

We gave them our altitude, GPS co-ords, how we got to where we were, a description of where we were, colour of tent, who was in the team etc.

We knew we had to survive the night, and the biggest risk was hypothermia, and possibly dehydration – but that unlikely as we did still have about 2 litres between the 3 of us.

It was starting to drizzle, so we took my tent outer and used some pegs to attach it near the rock wall (pegs bashed into gaps in the rock by Mike – he has become very good at handling these kind of situations in recent years). Simon and I made sure that the structure wouldn’t blow away, we used our trekking poles to hold the roof up, and climbed under with our packs.

Slide24.JPGIt rained for a while. When it stopped for a short while, myself and Simon jumped out, got out my tent outer and used the snow flap loops to connect the 2 outers together. Thus allowed us to move the packs to the lower cover (which was also heavily pegged as we were quite vulnerable to wind), and we were able to sit through the next round of rain with a much greater degree of comfort.

But as time wore on the rock behind us was becoming more of a stream. Water was pooling on the outer, we managed to collect more than 2 litres from this. So the next break in rain, myself and Simon scouted out the flattest spot we could find (about a 15 degree slope) and pitched a tent as quickly as we could. We then got everything into the tents as it began to rain again. It was cramped and the tent was getting pulled at funny angles. The frame was also under great strain.Slide25.JPG

When the rain stopped the next time, we got out and adjusted the outer a second time, but this break in rain lasted about 2 minutes, so we were soon back in the tent, and watching the rain drip through the one window that would normally not be pointing straight up.

The next gap in rain must have been close to 7PM, it was getting dark quickly. The tent had already moved a lot, we agreed that it probably wouldn’t slide the 5 metres that would get us to the top of the nearby cliff, but we knew we couldn’t move much in the tent if we wanted this to work. The ground was very soft and the pegs weren’t really helpful. So for this final rain break we tied the outer to the inner, re-pegged all the guys and poles, the corners that kept coming out had guys attached to them and we built a stone wall at the bottom of the tent to stop it from moving as much. We also put rocks on some of the pegs.

We were now back in the tent, 3 people squashed in a 2 man tent on a steep slope. If I lay down with my head near the top of the tent, it felt like I was sitting in a Lazy-Boy chair.

I knew we wouldn’t sleep well, so the MP3 player came out and I listened to a few chapters of Children of Hurin – incidentally the really boring chapters about Mîm the Dwarf.

I think I slept quite well considering, but it was a long night. Even with the water dripping in and the inner frame doors not closing due to the disfiguration caused by the slope, the tent was nice and toasty. I had lost my food in the tent and was quite badly dehydrated.

Around 6AM I sms-ed Gavin with an update about the team (I’m sure he wanted to sleep on this Sunday morning) – he replied that the team was on their way. We didn’t know if they were heading up Mashai and coming down or if they were approaching from above. Around 7AM, Paul Roth (the leader of the rescue team) smsed me that they were on their way. I smsed him with an update on how we were doing and that we would use a space blanket to increase our visibility.

It was very cold and wet outside, where we had taken shelter at first was now a waterfall, so a good thing we moved!

We got out of the tent around 9AM and packed our packs, but we didn’t take the tent down in case it started raining again. Unfortunately our spot didn’t have great visibility from the pass – so we used rocks to put 2 space blankets on the cliff above us.

Around 10:30 we heard what was clearly human whistling (we heard plenty of human sounding whistles, but these where probably birds – we did reply to every human sounding whistle we heard). I now realise that a whistle is better than a person whistling as it sounds quite different.

As they began to shout and we could hear them, we put a 3rd space blanket on a trekking pole and began to wave it around – they saw it. As it turned out they were at Stealth Cave.

We packed up the tent and prepared to leave. My food bag that had gone missing was literally under the middle of the tent – that is how much the tent had moved! Credit has to be given to the designer of these tents, the fact that we only had a few leaks when the entire frame was being held out of shape is actually really impressive. Can’t fault the manufacturers when you pitch a tent in such a spot.

The rescue team set up a double rope for a front and back belay and each of us went around the corner we had declined the previous day. In retrospect this was a great call as the rock was loose and the exposure was bad. Paul joked that Mike was trying to show us all up – he did the traverse very quickly and without hesitation.

At the end of this section we sat in Stealth Cave and considered our options. We thought it would be quickest to head up the pass and down Mashai Pass, the rescue team disagreed (and in the end turned out to be correct). We were all lowered down the open book. First 1 rescue team member, then all the packs, then everyone else. While I was being lowered I heard a sound and turned around to watch my backpack rolling for a few hundred metres (probably about 60m vertical) before it fell into the riverbed. My camera and GPS would probably be broken, but as long as we could all get out without injury – this would be a small price to pay. (For the record – the only casualties of the fall in the end were my plastic plate and some carabiners I was carrying)

We down-climbed the steep grassy bank, and Mike (a member of the rescue team, not to be confused with the 13 year old in my team) collected my pack for me – it was surprisingly dry for something that had sat in a riverbed for close to an hour by that point. All looked ok, and I didn’t have the time to see if it was ok inside.

We entered the riverbed between the 2 waterfalls, and then abseiled down the lower waterfall. The team suggested that we go ahead – it had been drizzling for hours and we were all rather wet, more so after having to abseil down a waterfall (we took the grass slope to the right for the top main section, but had to cross the river and go down the river course for the final few metres). We were cold and wet, but had agreed to keep going till the car park without a break. None of us had had more than a few biscuits to eat during the entire day.

So the 3 of us slowly walked down the rock bed before the ground became grassy and easy once more. We did not stop, eventually passing the spot where we had camped on Friday night. Simon reminded me that I had remarked that we would be camping on better ground on Saturday night when we left this spot – how ironic life is sometimes!

We eventually picked up the trail, the river had swelled substantially making the section behind Sleeping Beauty Cave an interesting experience. By now water was already in all our shoes, so we really didn’t care.

As we passed Sleeping Beauty Cave the rescue team caught up with us. We kept going until we reached the car park just after 6PM.

It had been a hectic day, but we had safely returned.  Words cannot describe the degree of gratitude we have for everyone who was involved in the rescue. There was no safe way out of the situation we had been in.

Paul (the leader of the rescue) is a professional mountain guide who specialises in the Southern Berg. He didn’t think this pass is safe for use and would be better classified as a climbing route.

A few thoughts written 4 years later:

I have since returned and done this pass twice. The section above where we were rescued is incredibly exposed, and could be very dangerous in wet conditions. It is a spectacular pass, but definitely one for experienced teams only.

I think in many ways this experience was a good one – you can’t always win, and sometimes you need a reminder that you won’t always be in control. Going back and doing the pass with Dillon a year later, and then again with Mike a few weeks later was great.

People like to talk about their success, but sometimes it is necessary to talk about all the times that didn’t go so well. At the end of the day, we all got out of this without any injury – nothing more than the occasional scratch that is common on the mountains.

As to to the question of whether or not rescue was the correct call – this is the drop we would have been hiking above on slippery ground, so I guess the answer is pretty obvious!Drop.jpg

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