Cape Trip day 1 – Du Toit’s Peak

In 2003, I visited the Western Cape for the first time. The trip was roughly two weeks long, and included driving down, spending a day in Cape Town, roughly a week in Stilbaai and then driving back. Along the way, we went up the Table Mountain Cableway, and hiked to MacLear’s Beacon, visited Cape Point, the Cango Caves and Knysna. A very memorable trip indeed.

For the 17 years that followed, I did not return to the Western Cape. No particular reason, it was just very far away. In my mind, though, I knew that South Africa only has two ultra prominence mountains – Du Toit’s Peak and Seweweekspoort, both in the Western Cape – and climbing these was something I would eventually do.

So when I had a look at my leave, and realised the only way I could use my leave for the year before it expires would be to take a week off in either October or November, I decided to plan a trip to Ladismith in the Western Cape to complete the Seweweekspoort Traverse. But when the friends I planned on teaming up had to back out, I decided to modify plans and proceed nonetheless.

There are two major problems with a Seweweekspoort traverse in November – one is that water tends to be an issue due to it being the dry season, the other is the heat. A rather nasty combination! Considering I would likely be soloing the hike, this seemed like a really bad idea, and I switched my plans to a Cape Town region trip.

After a lot of complications, I found myself on an Airlink flight from JHB to CT – my first flight in roughly 17 months. The flight was about half-full, with me taking my customary emergency exit window seat. Free bonus legroom!

The flight itself went smoothly enough, and I soon found myself driving out of the airport in a small Suzuki Celerio. I immediately leaving the city and aiming to do some shopping in Paarl. I knew I would be shopping for two day-hikes and a three-day traverse before I would be available during daylight again – so it was important that I didn’t miss anything.

After a rib burger at the local Spur and some shopping, I was off again.

I had been planning to take Du Toits Pass rather than the tunnel – but as it turns out, the tunnel was closed, so the decision had been made for me in any case. The downside of this, was that the roads were very contested with trucks.

Luckily there is an area to stop roughly every 1km, so I pulled over regularly and waited for a gap in traffic before starting again. Extra views and less traffic – a win win!

My rental car performed admirably, handling the steep roads surprisingly well.

The views from the pass were exceptional. At the top of the pass, Table Mountain could be seen in the distance.

On the way down, traffic was much faster, and there wasn’t much in the way of spaces to stop on my side of the road.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to Du Toit’s Hut, so I just hoped the Google Maps directions would take me to the right place. As I was nearing the hut, with my phone battery dying, the bank decided it was a good time to phone about a few work related issues. I pulled into a driveway, and after the call, realised this might be the driveway for the hut.

I had been told there was a combination on the gate, but this was a padlock – so probably not the right place. I tried the key, and – well, either there happens to be a gate with the same lock, or I was in the right place.

I drove up a road that was far rougher than my little car would like – but was very happy not to be in my usual car.

The hut is a short walk from the car park, and has a spectacular view of the mountains on the other side of the N1 – Witteberg, as far as I know. At first, I couldn’t get the combination lock to work. I phoned Arno, who confirmed the combination I was trying. After a few minutes of worry, I realised that the combination goes at the top and not the middle, and the lock popped open.

Tony arrived later that evening, and Arno arrived early the next morning. We had decided to delay our start when we learned that there would be a gate that only opens at 7.

Du Toits Peak is considered fairly arbitrary by many – but it is in fact South Africa’s most prominent mountain. Topographical prominence is a scientific measure of a mountain’s effective base-to-top height. If prominence exceeds 1500m, the peak is an ultra. There are roughly 1600 ultras on earth, of which I have now done 4 (Thabana Ntlenyana, Kilimanjaro, Kinabalu and Du Toits). Du Toits Peak has 1730m prominence and a height of 1995m, which is surprising considering how many mountains are nearby, and that it isn’t the highest peak in the general area.

South Africa’s only other ultra is Seweweekspoort, the highest point in the Western Cape.

In my mind, prominence matters more than height, at least for low to moderate altitude mountains. The effects of altitude on energy levels are exponential as you get higher, so while there is a difference between sea level, 1500m and 3000m; altitude makes relatively little difference below 4000m. So in many ways, Du Toits is more relevant than Mafadi. Don’t get me wrong, the Drakensberg is amazing, but statistically Mafadi is only relevant because of an imaginary line drawn by some politicians – and is a subsidiary summit of Makheka in Lesotho, and not a mountain in its own right (at least by the 7% prominence on height definition of a mountain). Technically, the highest summit in South Africa that qualifies as a mountain is actually Champagne Castle.

Anyway – enough rambling about measurements of mountains! It’s wisest to climb them all, just to be safe…

The trail starts around 450m in altitude, with a steep climb up to the road. After a short section on the road, we found ourselves at a locked gate that had a sign saying it would be opened at 7:30. Time for second breakfast, I guess. We had hoped it would open by 7, as indicated in the hut, but the sign on the wall in the hut must be out of date.

At 7:40, presumably on a timer, the gate opened and we could start moving forward again.

We were heading up the Pinnacle Route, which meant we had to turn off almost immediately after the gate.

The route started as a dirt road, but soon we noticed the GPS track said we had to turn off. In true Ghaznavid style, we didn’t find the trail and ended up bashing our way through thick overgrowth.

We eventually made our way to the firebreak, which meant progress could at least pick up again.

We did find the trail again fairly soon thereafter. It was a clear trail, we just hadn’t seen it earlier.

We soon found ourselves traversing below the Pinnacle Crag. The reason for such a good trail to this point is that this area includes a lot of climbing routes. From here onward, the trail would be less clear, or completely non-existent.

As amazing as the Pinnacle Route is, it is a shame how close it is to the N1 Highway. For most of the route, you can see and hear vehicles making their way through the valley. I guess the fact that it is a narrow valley amplifies the sound further.

The route winds its way around the Pinnacle before ascending to the saddle between it and the main peak. This route is also known as the Gendarme Route, which makes sense due to this.

The crux of the route is what follows this saddle. The route becomes far more scrambly and exposed over the next section.

Arno and Tony went to explore the Pinnacle a bit while I enjoyed some chips and the accompanying view from the slopes of the mountain.

The scrambling was generally easy, but very exposed in places.

I struggled a bit with one of the scrambles – the combination of unfamiliar rock and trail shoes on relatively small holds being the main issues. To be clear, the holds would have been massive in climbing shoes – but when your sole is a flexible trail shoe sole, a large hold feels like it has shrunk dramatically!

Above this, the route suddenly became much more gentle. My GPS said we had a lot of altitude to gain still, but it looked relatively easy from here. We stopped for a snack break and enjoyed the spectacular views.

As mountains tend to do, it gradually became steeper, and the easy section proved to be harder than it looked.

Soon we were faced with a very dramatic angle. Arno decided to head out to a ledge to add scale to the photo, although he is barely visible in this shot – which seems about right for the scale of the mountain!

This section was followed by what I call the never-ending slope. Not steep, but relentless. A gradient that is too steep to race up, but too gentle to make any real progress in altitude either. This section came to an end with an easy scramble.

Our altitude was slowly getting there, although I noted that I was only about 200m higher than my home at this point, and below many Drakensberg car parks! The bonus of the Western Cape mountains is that you have a surprising amount of energy for that high up the mountain. Joys of low altitude [relatively] big mountains!

There was a cave high up the route. I wondered why it didn’t seem to feature in other people’s reports – then I realised that there was no water anywhere near it. There’s no point saving 2kg by leaving a tent at home, but carrying 2 litres of extra water instead – well for most people anyway. The joy of waking up in a cave and being in your sleeping bag with that view will almost always beat the advantages of a tent, in my opinion.

The mountain decided to give us one last test to prove ourselves worthy to summit. So as a final major obstacle, we had to cross a narrow exposed ledge to access the summit plateau.

The final ascent and scramble proved easy, and soon we were on top of the peak.

Summit shot taken by Arno.

It was misty as we arrived, but luckily we had gaps in the cloud to enjoy the view.

The amount of junk on the summit really annoyed me. One of the solar arrays had been torn off its anchors, with the base plate actually ripped and the galv angle also torn. It says something about how strong the winds can be up there. Although it wasn’t even particularly breezy while we were on top.

We decided to use the Puddings Route as a descent route. We were surprised to find good water fairly close to the summit. It was the typical Cape red water – drinkable, but full of nutrients from the fynbos. I was hesitant to drink it at first, but after my team mates assured me it was normal, I gave it a try. By the end of the trip, I had grown to like this mountain iced-rooibos tea.

The Pinnacle Route tops out close to the summit, but the Pudding Route tops out on the other side of the ridge. We didn’t find a trail, and progress was slow.

Luckily Arno had done the route before and knew what to look for.

Mist had been coming and going since we were on the summit. With 3 GPS devices tracking our progress, the occasional cairn and Arno’s route knowledge, we knew we were heading in the right direction.

The Pudding Route follows a ridge. It starts out fairly steep and rough, but not exceptionally exposed and no scrambling of note till near the end.

The hard part starts when you hit the saddle between the Pudding and the main peak.

Common sense dictates that you follow the gully between the Pudding and the peak down, but Arno knew from his previous ascent that you actually had to traverse to the front and descend there.

This line was exposed, and included a questionable traverse below an overhang – but was clearly better than the other option.

Once you are through this section, its just a case of following the line of least resistance down till you hit the jeep track, and thereafter the road.

The walk out along the road was long, but we had plenty of time available before the gate would be locked, and sunset in November in the Cape is fortunately very late.

Finding the turnoff back to the hut was entertaining. We knew the trail was between a boulder and a tree – which is a bit like saying “look for the grassy area” on a golf course. After thinking we had missed it, we eventually found it, and found ourselves back at Du Toits Hut before dark.

Overall an epic day out!

Some notes on the route:
1) Access is very restricted. If you are an MCSA member, it is easy enough to arrange. If not, I understand it is very difficult to arrange access.
2) Route finding is tricky. There is a general lack of route guides or GPS tracks available online. It is generally a good idea to have at least one member in the group who knows the route.
3) There are a number of places where a fall could end badly. If you are uncomfortable scrambling or around heights, this peak is best avoided.

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