Cape Trip days 9 to 11: Hex Mountains

I have found comparisons between mountains in the Cape and the Drakensberg to be unfair. The appeal of both is very different – the Drakensberg is always going to win on scale and altitude, while the Cape has better quality rock for climbing, as well as the peaks being more separate and thus generally more topographically prominent.

However, a range in the Cape that can compete with the Drakensberg in terms of scale is the Hex Mountains. There may be others in the area, such as the Groot Winterhoek Mountains, but I am yet to hike in a range in the Cape that is more dramatic than the Hex.

I had been very fortunate with finding people to hike with so far on the trip – aside from Saronsberg, I had had someone to team up with on every hike. This time, however, I would mostly be on my own.

Two other groups would be starting at the same time as me. Hendrick – one of the most knowledgeable hikers with regards to the Hex these days – would be setting out at the same time as me. He was there to climb Audensberg, a mountain I knew little of at the time. His route would be the same as mine most of the way up to Fonteinjies, where he would go east to Meiring’s Plateau. The second group was a group of twelve from MCSA Worcester Section – including two kids and four teens – as part of the club’s initiative to get more young hikers out into the mountains. I think initiatives like that are great.

I set off at the same time as Hendrick, but he is a lot faster than me and soon disappeared into the distance. There would be phone signal for a lot of the hike, and I had two power banks to recharge my phone for emergencies – so I wasn’t too concerned about being on my own.

I have generally tried to avoid solo hiking over the years. In recent times I have realised that the danger of solo hiking is often severely overstated. For example, the “if you hit your head and pass out” scenario is often cited – however I do not know of a single incident of this happening while hiking solo or in a team, or at least not in a way where having an additional person would help. To be clear – I don’t recommend solo hiking for people who don’t have significant amounts of hiking experience, or in areas where crime is a concern. I have been actively hiking in the mountains for the past 12 years and have completed over 10 000km in 7 different countries – and most importantly know when I am in over my head and need to bail.

Solo hiking is a different headspace. It was only my third time in the Hex Mountains and almost my entire route would be on new ground for me. On the other side of the scales, however, the weather forecast for the long weekend was perfect, and I knew I would never be too far from other groups of experienced hikers or phone signal. So if something went wrong, I would likely be able to get out alive. I also knew the route I was taking to Perry Refuge is done fairly often and would be well cairned, in addition to the fact that I had a GPS track for the entire route with my phone as a backup if the device failed, and I had studied the route in advance.

Not wanting to take any chances, though, I would carry a full four season tent, a -7C down sleeping bag, a down jacket and a full set of thermals. Put differently, I was hedging my bets in favour of my survival no matter what the weather throws at me, rather than trying to ensure I would get up the mountain or be able to get out quickly. I generally prefer to go ultra-light, but on unfamiliar ground, I decided that was unwise, especially when hiking solo. As Ed Viesturs always says “the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory”.

The trail starts by following an easy slope alongside the river, before it becomes a long series of zig-zags up the slopes of Brandwag Peak. This section is relentless, although not particularly difficult. Starting at approximately 450m in altitude, you gain roughly 1000m in elevation to reach the hut.

The initial views are of Brandwag Peak – a subsidiary summit of Fonteinjies – which would be the highlight in terms of scenery in many mountain ranges, but is average at best by Hex standards. The route then flattens out and starts traversing till you finally see Audensberg (the peak Hendrick would be climbing).

To say I was impressed by Audensberg is an understatement. A jagged pointy peak with the twisted cliffs is the epitome of what I enjoy about the Hex – it is a very hostile looking mountain range, and the true meaning of fold mountains. While a dragon’s lair describes the Drakensberg well, I can see how a legend of these mountains being haunted by the ghost of Eliza Meiring came to be.

By the end of the hike, I would go on to post on Facebook that Audensberg may be the most beautiful mountain in South Africa. I had also been playing with an idea for a while: if you take the ratio of topographic isolation to topographic prominence, the lower the number, the more spectacular the peak should be. Shortly after this trip I would change that to the distance between the key saddle and the summit instead of topographic isolation, which means I could easily calculate this ratio off data I already possess. I ran this on every mountain in South Africa, and when the result arose I had to laugh – Audensberg come up on top!

Translation for those who don’t speak Afrikaans: On Monday 11 May 1981, absolutely nothing happened here.

Once Audensberg comes into sight, the trail gradient drops off significantly as you start to contour to Thomas Hut. When I had attempted the Waaihoek-Thomas Traverse in November 2020, we had planned to spend the last night in Thomas Hut, but the team decided to turn around at Mount Brodie, just after Perry Refuge, so it was nice to finally see the hut.

Hendrick was leaving the hut as I arrived. I had a look inside – there was a map hanging on the wall, so I got a photo of it. I had not been able to source a proper topo map of the area, which I would really have liked to have with me. Having this on my phone would at least provide a bit of a backup if I needed a map, although still not first prize. Notably I do have the SA topographic maps loaded on my GPS.

Hendrick had warned me that there wouldn’t be water between Thomas Hut and Perry Refuge, so I filled up before continuing.

To my surprise, there was actually a trail past the hut. I had assumed I would be off trail from here onward. This greatly improved my pace.

Using my definition of a mountain, where anything below 2857m is a mountain if it has over 200m topographic prominence and has a summit above 500m in altitude, Fonteinjies is one of the 24 mountains of the Hex. At 1989m, Fontienjies is one of the higher peaks of the range. I had seen the peak from near the Jan du Toit Pinnacles previously and it looks very impressive from that side. From the Thomas Hut side, it is a much more gradual ridge.

The trail died once I reached the top of the ridge. Vegetation was low, so going was still easy. I did see the odd cairn and even bits of faint trail, but I knew I basically just had to follow the top of the ridge.

The view across to the Jan du Toit Pinnacles was exceptional. My expectations were high, and the Hex was delivering!

As I got higher, I finally saw Buffelshoek – the peak in this region with over 1000m topographic prominence, and the primary objective for the hike. I was surprised how much snow was on top, seeing as it had been over a month since the last snowfall. I was also surprised to be able to see Saronsberg, the Wintershoek Mountains and even Table Mountain.

I tagged the summit – mountain number 5 for the trip – and took a bit of a break to enjoy the view. Fonteinjies is unquestionably one of the most spectacular mountain summits I have ever stood on.

I knew I was about to reach the crux section of the route I was using – Fonteinjies to Mount Brodie is notoriously rough ground. I wasn’t certain that the summit with the trig beacon was the highest, so I went up the north summit as well – although my GPS agreed with the surveyors as to which was higher. Not the first time on this trip that I doubted the surveyor’s judgement and would find that they were in fact correct.

On one side of the coin, the Hex is really beautiful. But the other side of the jagged rocky mountain coin is that the ground can be very difficult at times. Descending from Fonteinjies to Pulpit Nek was unquestionably the hardest ground I have ever covered in the Cape.

There are frequent cairns, which does make navigation a lot easier. The route starts by descending a steep rocky gully to reach a large grassy ledge. It then follows a different steep rocky gully. The process of switching gaps in cliffs between cliff bands repeats itself consistently. These gullies would vary in terms of difficulty, exposure, how loose they were – but the key was to make sure you could always see the next cairn.

The ground did occasionally relent, but it was overall very tricky ground. A few moves did require a more committed scramble – definitely not a route for beginners!

The views more than made up for the effort required!

There are a number of spots on this route where careful movement is required. A fall of consequence is real danger in places.

I soon found myself looking down at Pulpit Nek, but having a fair amount of cliff between me and it. There were cairns leading away from the nek, which I followed – but quickly realised they were leading me the wrong way. I decided to trust my judgement and find a spot as close to the nek as possible, where the cliff was the lowest – and soon I found cairns there as well.

The final step is a short scramble and soon I found myself on the grassy slopes near Pulpit Nek. I was down.

The next step would be a long ankle crushing side-slope to get around Horseshoe Peak to reach Mount Brodie and thereafter the main escarpment. Horseshoe Peak has over 300m topographic prominence and is therefore a mountain by my definition. It is also a steep rocky peak in an ocean of cliffs and would be guaranteed to have an exceptional view – so it was on my to-do list. However time was against me, and I would be coming back this way tomorrow, so I opted to skip it and keep moving.

I bumped into a group of four people just below Pulpit Nek. The group included Claire, who was one of the UCT students on my 2020 attempt at a Waaihoek-Thomas Traverse. The 2020 attempt wasn’t her first attempt, so the fact that she had made it this far means she would likely complete it this time – which is always great. They warned me that I wouldn’t see water for a long time. They then very kindly gave me a litre of water that they had been carrying since Perry Refuge – I only had about half a litre left at the time. It had taken them 6 hours to get from Perry Refuge to this point – a distance of only around 4km. It was already 3PM, so I only had around 3 hours of daylight to play with.

I backed myself to cover the final 4km at a pace of at least 1.5km/h – I knew most of my vertical for the day was already done – Perry Refuge is below 1600m and I was just above 1600m. I would have to cross Mount Brodie – this terrain I was moving onto is very similar to what I am used to in the Drakensberg. In situations like this, you have to back yourself and keep going. What was the alternative? Heading back up Fonteinjies would take longer and be considerably harder – so I knew I needed to keep going.

Looking back at Fonteinjies – the descent route follows the line to the left. It looks far easier in this photo than it actually is.

There is a large rock formation below Horseshoe Peak called the Woolworths Building. It is rather impressive, although scale is hard to capture in a photo.

The other group had advised me to traverse higher rather than lower. There wasn’t much in the way of cairns on this section – and I had put my GPS away. The initial section of the traverse below Horseshoe was on a large grassy slope – I knew I could go up or down as required if I ran into any obstacles.

As I rounded the corner, I got a good view of Mount Brodie. The other team’s advice was good, and my higher line actually lined up perfectly with the ledge that leads to the saddle between Horseshoe and Brodie.

While the Fonteinjies side of Horseshoe had been relatively easy ground, the Brodie side was loose rock between cliffs with a large drop on the side. Fortunately I have crossed this type of terrain many times, and knew how to pick a good line. I also know that you never rush on ground like this – a poor foot placement can lead to anything from a twisted ankle to gravity reminding you which way is down.

As the ground became harder, the cairns appeared again, so I knew I was in the right place. While I had a GPS track, I made a point of primarily focusing on what I could see – a cairn doesn’t suffer from signal bouncing off a cliff! One nice feature of the Hex is that the rock is often different colours – a fact that cairn builders seem to use to make their cairns more clearly visible. A red cairn on white rock is visible from a fair distance.

At the nek you go around a corner on a spectacular (by that I mean exposed) ledge, before heading up the Brodie Gully. I had been warned not to take the wrong gully – and between my GPS having a co-ordinate labelled “don’t go here” and the large number of cairns, I knew well which gully to take. From below it was obvious – although the traverse is usually done the other way around, and I guess it is less obvious from above.

The gully itself was easy – it was basically a miniature version of almost any Drakensberg pass. Once again – home-ground advantage, even if I wasn’t actually on my home-ground.

There was a bit of snow in the gully. I had been worried that snow at a key point could be a problem, and there was actually snow directly below one of the scrambles – but it was fairly soft and thus a non-issue.

The crux of the gully requires a proper scramble. It took me a bit of time to figure out and then execute the sequence. I was aware that it would be tricky to reverse, but there was no exposure on it, so the odds of any serious injury on it was low.

The gully was shorter and lower than expected. Mount Brodie tops out at 1851m and has 150m topographic prominence – with Horseshoe Peak being its parent peak. The route goes through that key saddle, so you cover the full prominence of the peak from that side. Due to the layout of the cliffs, you have to go over the summit.

What goes up must come down, although getting down the other side of Mount Brodie is just a case of walking down a steep grassy slope.

Sentinel Peak

Looking up at Sentinel Peak, I knew I would soon see Perry Refuge below me. I had climbed Sentinel on my previous trip – and while I had been doing that, the rest of the team had gone to the Brodie Gully and decided to bail, which is why I was not part of that decision a year earlier. While I think the Brodie Gully was fine, I am not sure the entire team would have coped with the Fonteinjies Ridge – so the specific reason may have been wrong, but overall decision was likely the correct one.

I had forgotten how steep the descent to Perry Refuge was. Descending steep slopes on rocks between the size of golf balls and soccer balls is never easy. It takes time and care. It is very easy to get injured at the end of the day when the end is in sight and energy levels are low.

No one else in sight, I would have the hut to myself. I wasn’t concerned about it being occupied – I did have a tent – but it was nice to be able to just go into the hut.

I filled up my bottles and then washed off in the river. It was a beautiful clear afternoon, and I had arrived an hour before sunset – so I sat on the rocks looking towards Waaihoek and had my supper.

Flying with a gas canister is obviously not an option, so I hadn’t brought my gas stove with me. Supper was biltong, chips and some dried fruit.

As it began to get dark, I set up my sleeping bag and air mattress in the hut, put my phone on to charge from a power bank, and listened to Tommy Caldwell’s The Push on audiobook. It was a still night. The river was the only notable sound I could hear.

Day 1 had been 19km with 1927m elevation gain and 796m elevation loss. It had been a tough day, but it could not have gone any better than it did.

I was up early the next morning. I had tried to find route information on the traverse to Buffelshoek, but the best I could find was a GPS track from someone I don’t know. It had looked good on Google Earth, so I decided to use it.

I left all my overnight equipment in the hut and began the slog up the saddle behind the hut. I had to get past Sentinel to reach Buffelshoek. I had walked up the lower section of this gully in November 2020 to climb Sentinel, so it wasn’t new ground. The gully itself is steep and a bit overgrown, but not difficult.

As I reached the saddle, I finally got a good look at Buffelshoek. Just as I had wondered a year ago – I was wondering how on earth I was going to get up that. First things first – get to the saddle between them. Sentinel has over 260m prominence, and its key saddle was the one I was about to hike through.

My GPS track said I needed to drop a bit and then traverse below a cliff. This seemed logical, so I started this.

I will need to go to the service where I downloaded the track and report it as a poor route choice/dangerous line. The ledge was very exposed in places and surprisingly loose. While crossing it, on more than one occasion I considered backtracking and either trying to find an easier line or not being able to get up the peak on this trip.

However, after a while the ground became easier and I found myself on the ledge between Sentinel and Buffelshoek. There was a nice easy ridge to walk on. Looking back I could see that I could simply go above the cliff band on Sentinel to get through that section. It would be far easier and safer than the route I had used. I decided to get a good look from the other side and make a call before I head back.

My concerns about the cliffs on the Buffelshoek side were soon dismissed as I saw an obvious gully to a ledge with a second gully to the left. I had a good look down Buffelshoek Kloof – which would be a spectacular line to hike.

The route I used on the way out goes below the large cliff on the left. The route I used on the way back goes above it. From this angle it is clear why one was far easier and safer than the other.

Once above the lower cliff bands, the rest was a simple grassy slope to ascend – nothing particularly difficult. The wind was cold and reasonably strong, though.

The view from the summit was amazing – I could see Table Mountain, Sneeuberg (Cederberg) and even Sebrakop was visible in the distance. Including Buffelshoek itself, I could see 10 out of SA’s 24 most prominent mountains from this summit. This was my eighth summit on the list, a third of them done, and all eight were visible from here. I could also see Keeromsberg and Groot Winterhoek Mountain, which I am yet to do. There were peaks visible in the direction of Misty Point and Pilaarkop, so it is possible that I could see other peaks from the list, but I can’t say for certain.

As I had seen the day before, there was a fair amount of snow near the summit.

I found a spot out of the wind and sat to eat some lunch and enjoy the view.

I had considered heading to Milner’s Peak, but the hike up Buffelshoek had taken much longer than expected, and Milner’s was still far away. I knew the odds of this being my last Hex hike were low, so I took the logical option and didn’t go for Milner’s.

Table Mountain visible in the distance

The descent proved easy. Having just done the route up, I knew exactly where to go.

This time I went across from the saddle, then up a fairly easy scramble to access the wide grassy ledge on Sentinel. This is definitely the better line.

My line on the way out was below the black and orange cliff band. My line on the way back was above it.
The grassy slope I used to get back around Sentinel
Buffelshoek is a spectacular peak from the slopes of Sentinel

At the saddle I dropped to the gully I had used on the way up, and from there the walk back to Perry Refuge was easy.

I sat in the hut and had something to eat. My gear was untouched – as expected. The door is designed to be baboon-proof, and there weren’t likely to be any hikers nearby. It was already after 10, so my ascent of Buffelshoek had taken about an hour longer than expected, but it was the primary goal for the trip, and I knew I could always spend the night at Perry Refuge again if required. I also knew that I had started out from Fair Glen the day before around 9 and got here with an hour daylight to spare – so the return hike to Fonteinjies Campsite (a flat spot near water just below the summit) would likely be fine. I also knew that Fonteinjies was ahead of me, and I would sleep better knowing it was behind me.

Seeing as I had to go over Mount Brodie anyway, I decided to go and tag the summit. Then I discovered the actual summit would require a long walk across the top, and opted not to.

The Brodie Gully proved a bit harder than expected to descend. Easy scrambles on the way up are always harder on the way down. The crux did take a while to do. It required either a jump or a gradual lowering to a small hold. I was not going to jump down on a solo hike far from help, especially since I would be jumping onto small loose rocks. Getting the lowering move right too a solid 10 minutes – or maybe it was one minute and it felt like 10.

Looking up the Brodie Gully, the crux is clearly visible near the top

I had wanted to climb Horseshoe Peak, so I decided to traverse higher than I had on the way out. If I was going to do the extra vertical, I may as well save some distance along the way.

I eventually saw a gully through the cliffs, dropped my pack, GPS marked the spot to ensure I would find it on the way down, and then started up.

My GPS had the peak marked as 1962m, so when my GPS said 1885m, I assumed I had climbed the wrong peak. My GPS pointed 100m in front of me and thus also had a different location. I looked at what it was pointing at, it looked higher and I thus considered this a failed attempt at a summit. I didn’t have time to go up the other peak.

I got my summit shot and headed back down to my pack. The following day in Thomas Hut I looked at the map. Horseshoe Peak is actually 1881m (even with those 81m deducted off its prominence, it would still have 250m and thus be a mountain), and the peak I had thought was higher is Cleft Ridge Peak, which is 16m lower. So it turns out my ascent was actually successful, even if I didn’t think so at the time.

I continued along to Pulpit Nek, energy levels lower than I would like, but knowing that would be my last major obstacle of the hike.

It was very windy, something that I wasn’t happy about seeing as I would soon be on exposed ground. At the nek I saw a small rock wall – and immediately knew there would be a cave back there.

I decided to spend the night in the cave. I had good signal just around the corner, and it was out of the wind. I sat on a spot around the corner enjoying the view and having something to eat. Then I crawled into the tiny cave, realised I could barely even sit up at the point with the highest roof, and that the floor included so many large rocks that I would have to sleep in a funny position just to be able to lie down.

I quickly came to my senses – I only had 500ml water left, and there was no water nearby. I would not sleep well here. While this option would not likely have severe consequences for me, it would be an unpleasant night.

Taking a good break before starting up Fonteinjies was probably a good idea, but it had put me a bit behind. I knew I needed to follow the cairns. I took it slow – I was tired and it was not easy ground. I knew that I just had to get to the summit of Fonteinjies, and then could walk another 1km on easy ground and I would be done for the day.

I didn’t walk to the summit beacon itself, but I had to walk over the summit ridge, so missing the summit saved me 20m in elevation at most. I had stood on the summit the day before, no reason to arbitrarily walk to the summit beacon again.

I had been in touch with Hendrick all afternoon – if something went wrong, I wanted to ensure someone knew where I was. He informed me that the MCSA group was at Meirings Plateau and gave me a brief summary of how to get there – largely go left when you can.

I stayed on the left side of the ridge to watch out of the plateau. When I saw the ridge, I was looking out for potential rivers. The first one I saw seemed worth checking out, I detoured to take a look, and there was a large number of tents.

I dropped down to where they had camped and asked if they were happy for me to join. After almost 33 hours on my own, it was nice to have some company again. It was also great to meet some mountain enthusiasts. The team ranged from beginners to very experienced, and was a very friendly group of people.

After enjoying a beautiful sunrise, the MCSA team told me they would be heading up Fonteinjies. Seeing as I had only climbed it twice in the last two days, I decided to join them. In my defense – the views from the summit are exceptional, and it was another very clear day. I could have raced to get back to my car, but I didn’t have a reason to do that – and I don’t really need an excuse to spend a few extra hours in the Hex!

It wasn’t as clear as it had been for the last two days, but the view was still the same expansive view – just with Table Mountain hidden by some clouds.

I hiked down to Thomas Hut with the MCSA team and had lunch at the hut with them. To be fair – I could sit and stare at Audensberg for hours without any difficulty.

Audensberg from near Thomas Hut

I eventually decided it was time for me to head off – I needed to get to Stellenbosch ahead of my final hike of the trip. The MCSA team was still sorting their things out, so I went off ahead of them.

The descent went off without any issues. It is an easy trail to follow, and is contoured well enough that it isn’t too tough on the knees.

I soon found myself back at my car and making my way out. Whenever I leave my favourite mountains, I always find myself wanting to stop and look at them a bit longer. Luckily I knew the drive ahead of me would be a spectacular one.

Overall it was a great way to spend the long weekend. While I haven’t completed the Waaihoek-Thomas Traverse in a single push, I have now done the entire route in both directions. If I lived near the Hex I would go back to complete that in its standard configuration, but to me, the real traverse in the Hex would be from Mitchell’s Pass to just beyond Matroosberg. As far as the 1000m prominent goal goes – I am done with the Hex. I will likely return for Milner’s, Mostertshoek and Audensberg, though. Any excuse to go back to the Hex!

Thanks to Erika from MCSA Worcester Section for arranging access for me.

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