A group of hikers returning in the dark felt the brunt of the bitterly cold, winter conditions of the Drakensberg. Two people died and others were admitted to hospital. The drama unfolded on the road near Mt Aux Sources, leading up to Sentinel Car Park, and once again raises the issue of ill-prepared hikers on this quick access point to the summit of the Drakensberg.
A religious group from Phuthaditjhaba, consisting of 9 young men, went up the Chain Ladders at Sentinel on May 1 in order to pray in the mountains. They descended in darkness and struggled to find the path. Eventually making it back down to Sentinel Car Park they allegedly knocked on the door of the hut in vain, failing to get a response from the guard.
Due to 3 members being in a bad condition the group decided to sleep somewhere along the road. At 5am two walked down to Witsieshoek Mountain Resort to get help and an ambulance was sent to fetch them. Unfortunately two men died and the others were admitted to hospital.
The details in the newspaper reports were but brief and left some important questions unanswered. Several phone calls did not bring any more details to light.
It seems the group left late in the afternoon and possibly were intending to pray through the night on top. Presumably it became too cold causing them to descend in darkness.
There has been no explanation why they were unable to get the attention of the car guard at Sentinel Car Park. Was he soundly asleep? Did he not hear them? Was he not there? This is perhaps the most bizarre event in the whole story.
Reports indicate that the group slept a half hour walk to Witsieshoek Mountain Resort to get help. This indicates that they had intended walking down from the car park in darkness, but since three were in a “bad” condition (probably due to cold and exhaustion) they did not make it all the way down.
The easy access that the Sentinel Car Park and the Chain Ladders provide to the summit of the Amphitheatre continues to draw many tourists. Inevitably many of these are ill-prepared and generally ignorant of mountain conditions when they set out on their walk, albeit just for the day. Tragedies such as this one are nothing new and will probably not be the last either, though they are largely preventable.
My fullest sympathies go out to the people in this group and the family and friends of the two that died. While I was not personally there and do not have all the facts at hand, several aspects of the event stand out to me, ones that indicate important lessons that should be taken to heart when venturing out into the Berg.
- It is hard not to conclude that the group was poorly equipped against the cold and were probably ignorant of the conditions on the summit. Even for a day hike to the escarpment, sufficiently warm clothing should be taken along that can ensure survival through the night. In addition, bivy bags and space blankets can also be taken along. These weigh relatively little and can save your life.
- The group had difficulty descending in the darkness indicating that they did not have torches with them. Never hike in the Berg without a torch (a headlamp preferably) – even for a day hike. Many a hiker has returned in darkness from a day hike for a variety of reasons, myself included.
- They seem to already have been in difficulty by the time they reached the car park. A better alternative to walking on may have been to take refuge in the bathrooms (generally not locked), which would have provided a degree of shelter, especially from the wind.
- An unfortunate decision was made to overnight on the road, which probably was the fatal one. It seems they were so close to Witsieshoek Mountain Resort, and had they pushed on the two lives may have been spared. At the very least, 2-3 people could have continued to get immediate help since only 3 were in a bad way at the time. It is extremely dangerous to sleep in these conditions without shelter and generally better to keep moving.
- It is puzzling that they did not have cell phones on them, or at least did not use them. Again, had they gotten help during the night, the two may not have lost their lives. From the place that they were, friends or family could have arranged for a taxi to pick them up, and even the police could have been contacted. Always take a cell phone with you when hiking and make sure you have relevant emergency numbers.
- Another safety item which should accompany you on every hike is a means to make fire such as matches or a lighter. While making fires in the Drakensberg is prohibited, in a life-and-death situation it is condonable if done responsibly. The group could have made a fire where they rested which would have kept them from freezing.
May the lessons be taken to heart.