Monday, June 16, 2014

Night on the Drakensberg

Our group of four had just completed a fairly challenging hike to the top of Cathedral Peak in the Drakensberg mountain range and we were making our way back down the mountain.  I love climbing mountains, but my inherent fear of heights causes me to disdain descending them for the simple fact that you must look down.  The unparalleled sense of accomplishment and panoramic views achieved at the peak are always counterbalanced on the journey back to the base by a crippling sense of how little earth, grass, or stone is actually keeping your feet suspended in the atmosphere at such a great height.  I gave my eyes a break from watching my shoes as I turned back to observe Julian, a young German guy who was about to navigate a dodgy portion of the decent.  He was the last in our group to cross a difficult gap in the trail across a very steep and slick rock face with the slimmest of footholds.  Being the tallest and subsequently the heaviest of all of us, he decided to take a much less technical approach and use the slanted rock face as inverted runway.  I half expected him to come careening into me as he launched himself off of the grassy ledge.  His first foot hit the sloping wet rock but it provided him about as much traction as a sheet of ice and he began to tumble down the gap.  His rolling increased to a sickeningly accelerated pace as his flailing arms reached in vain for something to grab onto.  I watched like a petrified tree as he fell beyond the last visible ledge and completely out of site.  I braced for the sound of some sort of impact, but heard none.

Cathedral Peak looms in the distance

All of us had met each other the day before at a hostel near the mountain range. Julian, Marius, and Leoni were each students from Germany who were on separate solo backpacking adventures through the country. The four of us decided on a whim that we all wanted to climb to the summit of Cathedral peak so we set out early on a Friday morning expecting to return back to the lodge sometime time in the early evening.    Shouts from all of us went unanswered for the longest 45 seconds I've ever lived through.  In the devastating silence I pictured having to explain what I saw happen to his family.  Those grim visions were mercifully interrupted by a forlorn echoing voice from bellow.   I've never been happier to hear someone shouting in a goofy German accent.

The Drakensberg mountain range runs along the border of South Africa and Lesotho and is renown for it's spectacular scenery and millennia old cave paintings.  It is certainly a beautiful place, but it can also be a deadly one. Temperatures are severely dynamic and hikers are advised to be prepared to experience the extremes of all four seasons during a single day.  One minute it will be a perfect summer afternoon and in the blink of an eye you can be smacked with freezing temperatures, howling wind, and snow!

View from the peak
It was now 4:00 and it would be dark in less than two hours.  Miraculously Julian had survived the accident without imediate signs of broken bones or spinal injuries, but he was white as a ghost and we were worried he may have had internal bleeding from from his fall. after a mixture of tumbling and falling for about thirty meters he had hit hard on a ledge that stopped him within inches from free-falling another hundred meters or so.  Getting to the bottom would take at least 3 hours on healthy legs so hiking all the way back down with him was not an option.  After navigating Julian down to a grassy plateau, I checked my Nokia pay as you go phone (Which is the exact same model that someone in your family probably owned in the late 90's and has "Snake" the game loaded on it) and by some luck I had cell-service nearly three thousand meters above sea-level so I quickly phoned the Mountain Ranger and I explained our predicament.  The Ranger instructed us to leave one member of the group with Julian and a helicopter would arrive to lift him and Leonie off the mountain within a half hour.  We decided Leonie would stay with Julian while Marius and I would try to make it back to the base before it got to dark.

Marius and I left our extra sweatshirts and pants with Julian and Leonie just in case the weather went severe before the helicopter arrived.  We wished our soon to be airlifted friends well and set down the mountain. I had nothing with me but the t-shirt and shorts I was wearing and an empty pack which made the hiking way easier. We made great time down path and we were an hour or so from the base as the sun ducked behind the mountains to backs.  This is about the time that Marius asked me an important question I should have been asking myself more than hour ago.

"Did you ever hear a helicopter?"

I had this sinking feeling as I turned to observe the silhouette of Cathedral peak in the distance and realized that even though we had traveled a great distance away from our friends, we still certainly would have heard if a helicopter had flown anywhere in the vicinity of these mountains.  I quickly phoned the ranger and received the news I was afraid of:

The helicopter now wasn't going to arrive until the morning!

There was a rescue team being assembled to check on him but they weren't even going to arrive at the base of the mountain for another 5 hours and by the time that they hiked to where he was it would basically be dawn.  I tried phoning Leonie but the calls were going straight to voice mail so we had no way to let them know what was happening.  The temperatures on the mountain had dropped well bellow freezing the past few nights.  We couldn't just leave them hanging alone up there, we had to go back.  

But we had no food, no water, waning cellphone battery, and most importantly no warm clothing!

While Marius and I were exasperatedly discussing our options, a figure emerged from the shadows in the hill above and started traveling towards us. We hadn't seen or heard another human for hours and I would've been more startled if I wasn't distracted with trying to decide what to do about our situation. 

"Do you have some friends stuck on the mountain?"

We were asked by the mysterious walking-pole clad hiker.  We reiterated our dilemma to him and almost as if he was following the script of a made-for-television drama (No serious writer would include a plot twist this unlikely), guided us around the corner to a cave where he and a group of twenty or so hikers were staying for the final night of a week long expedition through the mountains.  At the mystery hiker's command, they began loading our packs with hundreds of dollars supplies. It was a scene reminiscent of the "Lord of the Rings" when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli each offer their weapons at the Council of Elrond in service of Frodo's adventure. Each of the hikers came forward and announced what they would be they would be contributing towards our journey back up the mountain. One by one they handed us everything they could part with: fleece jackets, space blankets, LED headlamps, boxes and boxes of energy bars and other snacks, hats and gloves.

Marius and I thanked our benefactors, flipped on our new headlamps, and began the trek back to the top. Time moves a whole lot more slowly on a hike when there is no visible scenery to take in along the way. As the adrenaline from our surprise encounter wore my pack began to feel like it was stuffed with a medium sized elephant.  Fortunately, the path was well marked and we could just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.  When we finally made it back to our stranded friends it was like Christmas in May when we emptied our packs to reveal a multitude of goods. We had a small feast on all of energy bars, crackers, and biscuits.  In hindsight this may have complicated things if Julian had needed surgery that night, but we were fortunate that wasn't the case.  Our stomachs were full and we had enough clothes with us to stay warm until the rescue team could get to us. While the others attempted to sleep, I tried to pass the time by appreciating the stars. Even with the extra winter clothing, the sub-freezing temperatures were enough to rob all the enjoyment out of viewing a virtually light pollution free nighttime sky.

Eventually the rescue team arrived and was able to thoroughly look over Julian.  When I learned that the team was made up of volunteers, some of whom lived more than 3 hours away from the mountain, I felt bad for being so cynical of the rescue efforts.  But, I don't feel bad for being angry at the ranger who was a good 12 hours off with his prediction of when the helicopter would arrive.

The rescue team braces for the landing winds
Boarding the helicopter;  better late than never.
Marius and I were able to weasel our way onto the helicopter for a ride back to the base before they lifted Julian to a hospital in Durban.  Amazingly, Julian was released from the hospital with no serious injuries and I was able to pick him up the very next day.  Julian became a celebrity of sorts in the area for the next week because his story was featured on the front page of nearly every local newspaper.  (Check out one of the write-ups here: hiker-describes-30m-drakensberg-fall)

Happy to be back on flat ground (New style provided by the mystery hikers).

Leaving the hospital


  1. I really enjoy these stories Mike! They sound like devotionals! Praise God everyone is well and for those "angels" encamped all about :-)

  2. Thanks Norman, glad they bring encouragement! Hope I can come to visit you down there sometime when I'm back on that side of the ocean.