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.


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john mark 1's Avatar
john mark 1 replied to: #52917 17 Jan 2012 19:11
Thanks Intrepid! As you say they are working fine now. Great job.
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #52916 17 Jan 2012 17:36
Thanks for reporting this, the links have all been fixed now. The broken links were as a result of the different generations of software used on this site over the years. Sometimes after an upgrade the URL structure for any particular page is unavoidably different. I do run queries in the database to fix this sometimes but it doesn't always cover it 100%.

Members can help by actively reporting broken links. In the forums you can click on "Report to moderator" which appears on each message. The galleries and downloads have something similar. Else just send me a PM. :thumbsup:
john mark 1's Avatar
john mark 1 replied to: #52915 17 Jan 2012 16:42
Hmmm, I see what you mean. Some of the links give an error message while others say that I don't have permission to view the link. :unsure:
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Smurfatefrog replied to: #52914 17 Jan 2012 16:29
None of these links work, are the stories still around somewhere?
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #231 19 Nov 2008 12:13
Thought I'd start a thread to list all the tragedies that have happened in the Berg this year.

This serves as a memorial to those who have lost their lives, and to extend condolences to their loved ones.

* Michael Hetherington, a 73-year old Scottish tourist, who was a seasoned hiker, goes missing in the Cathedral Peak area around 2-3 Feb, and his body was never found again.

* Two day hikers freeze to death on May 1, after spending the night on the road between Sentinel Car Park and Witsieshoek Resort.

* Luan Carter, aged 19, slipped on the ice on the edge of the Tugela Fallse and fell to his death on 23 July.

* Luciano Colombo, a 68-year old seasoned hiker slipped and fell to his death on the Camel Route of Organ Pipes Pass, 26 October.

Please feel free to add any details.
bergbees's Avatar
bergbees replied to: #216 11 Nov 2008 12:55
Very sad to hear about the loss of life in the berg.

We hiked up the Camel Route in September. And even though it had not rained for bit, that section around Castle Butress is not good, being on the south side it stays damp. It would be the most likely place to slip. if I remember there are 2 places where extream coution needs to be taken. I was walking behind my wife and there were a few tense moments as we crossed those sections.
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domsmooth replied to: #208 03 Nov 2008 21:51
Hi Christine.

As Vertical Endeavour we sympathise with your loss. Not so long ago (just over a month) I lost a friend who worked with me at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. He was a brilliant ecologist who died in an aeroplane crash on the coast of Mozambique. It was a very hard time for us all as James was also very similar to how you describe Luciano. Always smiling, always apparently happy, although the weight of the world might be on his shoulders, he still found time to find a smile. It seems so insane that the world should be robbed of people like that, and yet, the challenge is there for us who remember them, and who remain, to emulate something of the rich deposit they left in us as people, and pass that on to the world around us, so that in some way they may be remembered for the impact they had on us, whether by living or dying.

Again, our desire is for no further loss of life in the Berg, and yet, at least Luciano was doing something he loved! Our thoughts and prayers are with you and his family as you all deal with this loss.
Christine's Avatar
Christine replied to: #206 29 Oct 2008 14:15
I am a member of the Mountain Backpackers Club and have hiked on a number of occasions with Luciano, including completing the last 2 Grand Traverses with him. There will be a tribute to him tomorrow evening at the Whirling Wheels Clubhouse in Durban. His funeral takes place in Amanzimtoti on Friday at 2pm. Luciano was a wonderful man; an experienced hiker and exceptionally knowledgeable of the Berg. He will be remembered for his kindness, endearing personality, sense of humour, his incredible strength and stamina and most of all for the constant smile he wore on his face.
He will be sorely missed.
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #204 28 Oct 2008 16:34
Yes it's grim...

Some more details from The Witness:

Luciano Colombo (68) was hiking with five other experienced hikers when the accident happened at about 7 am on Sunday, police said.

According to Andy Wood of the Mountain Club of South Africa, the six hikers ascended Organ Pipes Pass on Saturday and spent the night on the top. On Sunday morning, they continued hiking and ascended Camels Pass above Cathedral Peak, where Colombo is said to have slipped “for about 40 metres” and plunged to his death.

I guess that should read "descended Camels Pass" rather than "ascended".

I think I know which place you are referring to fatshark, and it could very well have been there.

It's always a sobering reminder of the inherent danger of these mountains, especially scrambling up passes.
fatshark's Avatar
fatshark replied to: #202 28 Oct 2008 14:09
That's pretty grim news.

I'd hazard a guess as to where it happened - that bit where the path washed away years ago and you have to inch along hoping your soles have enough grip.

I'm taking rope with next time I do Camel Pass...

Did anyone here know Mr Colombo? My condolences to you and the family.
Magan's Avatar
Magan replied to: #201 28 Oct 2008 11:21
Hiker dies on Drakensberg
27/10/2008 17:39 - (SA)

Durban - A 68-year old man was killed when he fell while hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains, KwaZulu-Natal police said on Monday.

Police spokesperson Captain Charmain Struwig said Luciano Colombo was hiking with a group through Camel Pass when he slipped and fell several metres.

She said Colombo, who was an experienced hiker from Durban's Amanzimtoti suburb, died on impact. A helicopter retrieved Colombo's body on Sunday afternoon. Police have opened an inquest docket.
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #99 09 Jun 2008 12:18
Funny how stubborn we can get when it comes to turning back! We always think it's too time consuming and that it will eventually come right if we carry on. Prudence and lack of blinding ambition are two good virtues to have in the mountains.
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Oneye replied to: #98 04 Jun 2008 13:09
This thread discusses the Content article: Hiker rescued from fall at Monk's Cowl

I have concluded that these kinds of avoidable accidents happen when errors are allowed to accumulate.

1. The pair went hiking in an area they did not know, possibly unprepared to spend the night if they had to. They certainly did not have a rescue plan in case of an emergency. Did they have a torch?
2. They stayed until dark
3. They lost the path

Now they had a choice of turning back to find the path or downclimbing an unknown cliff in the dark without a rope where a fall might be fatal.

There are TWO clues why turning back is the proper choice. The first is that are about to pile a possible fourth mistake upon the 3 they already made KNOWINGLY. The second is that the worst consequences of climbing down an unknown cliff in the dark without a rope are not acceptable, while backing up may be tiresome, it is not life threatening. The worst case is that they will have to wait for light to find the path.

The second scenario becomes potentially life-threatening if it begins to rain or snow, and they are unprepared for it. However, that does not change the reason not to downclimb an unknown cliff in the dark without a rope. It also is a matter of risk evaluation. The chances of rain or snow are less than 100%, and in this case, probably quite low, else the pair whould have turned back earlier. Further, there is something you can do about bad weather - find a cave - while nothing can be done about a broken leg.

Once in the Rockies at 4500m, I paced back and forth all night on a ledge in temps well below freezing because I got trapped by the dark and knew to sleep was fatal. I only had one hard section to the path to my tent, I tried a number of times to go down an icy cliff in the dark, and luckily failed. It was quite a battle not to sleep. I did get some sleep once the sun rose, because I had to wait until 10am until the ice melted and I could downclimb again.

The story does not tell of the actions or fate of the companion. I assume he had no clue what to do. Did he sit it out until light? Was he rescued?
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #93 13 May 2008 23:54
This thread discusses the Content article: Hikers freeze to death near Sentinel Car Park

A little more detail is provided in this newspaper article , which includes a response from the Universal Church of God in Phuthaditjhaba to which the group belonged.

The group set out from Sentinel Car Park at 5.30pm, the guard not suspecting that they would hike to the escarpment.
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #66 04 Mar 2008 10:48
He has sadly still not been found and the search is officially over. See this article . One wishes that there could be closure for his family.

It's quite possible that he got swept away by the Mlambonja River whilst trying to cross....it does become a raging torrent at times. A hiker got swept away at Ndedema in 1995 - they never found his body.
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #58 18 Feb 2008 14:02
Unfortunately he is still missing and there still are not any clues really as to what happened to him. The initial search and rescue has obviously been called off, but the SAPS is still actively searching and investigating.
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intrepid replied to: #56 11 Feb 2008 11:18
Just phoned the guys at Cathedral. Unfortunately the guy is still missing. Apparently he did sign back in on the 2nd but they suspect he went for a walk again after that. His car and belongings are obviously still there.