On Biting Off More Than You Can Chew…

07 May 2015 19:57 #63672 by andrew r
In the light of our experiences planning and executing this hike, here follow some tips and observations that may help others in their hiking & preparation:
  • As well as being knowledgeable, the hikers on VE are by-and-large also well prepared in terms of the physical & mental conditioning specific to hiking at altitude, as well as in terms of using/taking the appropriate gear.
  • These two key areas of preparation (mental & physical conditioning and gear), when augmented with the knowledge that is available on VE, are sort of taken for granted. What I mean by that is that they are assume to be present, and so the key measure when, for example, rating a pass or route difficulty is therefore ability/skill level, so a grade 6/10 pass like Cockade Pass is harder technically and requires greater skills than a grade 4/10 pass; but the bottom line is there are very few ways to get up onto the Escarpment that do not require considerable effort.
  • Safety and Environmental Awareness are non-negotiable prerequisites, and are primarily a mind-set, combined with appropriate gear and knowledge.
  • When it comes to how much you can do and how quickly, pack weight is of utmost importance. Experienced hikers know exactly what to take and nothing extra, and they have, over time, found their acceptable compromise between weight and usability/comfort. It’s worth noting that what works for one hiker may not suit another, but there are some universal truths:
    -There is not one individual item that will deliver huge weight savings, so look to shave a bit off every item you take; and be ruthless with what stays behind, except for a few critical safety items which hopefully you won’t need but may save your life if you do.
    -Having said that, your pack, sleeping system (bag+mat) & tent are key areas for weight savings.
  • The most important item you have with you in terms of survival is your sleeping bag; you need to make sure it is up to Berg conditions and that you keep it dry at all costs: wrap it in a dry-sack or plastic bag, and stow it deep inside your pack.
  • The most important items in terms of ensuring you have a comfortable hike are appropriate footwear and backpack. The next is to dress in layers.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. While there is satisfaction to be had from achieving prodigious feats within limited time-frames, the real reward is just savouring being in such an amazing and unique environment. Allow time, as intrepid says, not just for getting into the mountains, but for the mountains to get into you.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and the floor is open to other more (and less) experienced hikers to share what they perceive to be important in optimising their time in the mountains. :)

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The following user(s) said Thank You: intrepid, diverian, JonWells, ghaznavid, tonymarshall, Grandeur, Richard Hunt

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08 May 2015 11:15 #63677 by ghaznavid
For me this trip also highlighted the value of having other experienced Berg hikers in the group. When we were through the top waterfall my concentration was already suffering - it had taken a lot to get everyone through the upper waterfall, by the time we reached the lower waterfall my mind was really finished for the day.

I would also normally have taken a photo of the waterfall so that I could look over it after the fact and evaluate my decision in order to learn from it (we all think clearer when we look at our computer screens). I rate that the true right slope probably did have an answer for avoiding the waterfall, but I didn't feel like scouting it out further than I did (and the ledge I was on seemed unlikely to provide the answer). To downclimb it may have been an option, but as previously mentioned, we didn't have the time to get the entire team down before dark - and no one wants to boulder hop in the dark.

We were fortunate in how everything turned out in the end - but a group of exhausted hikers clinging to a loose thorn and grass slope in the dark isn't a good idea. Admittedly the wise move would probably have been to bivy in the river as we had no guarantee that we would find anything suitable in the dark - perhaps tackling the waterfall the next morning when we were reasonably fresh.

But really the correct move would have been to take Mlambonja Pass over Tseke, and fundamentally I should have pushed for that ahead of Tseke. Admittedly when it was discussed I jumped at the idea of Tseke. I knew the team struggled on Cockade, and that Tseke was harder than Cockade. Intrepid once told me that one must evaluate the group when making or modifying plans - advice that I should have heeded in this particular case.

Stats at Didima say a lot about difficulty vs popularity. To the best of my knowledge, Didima has had more rescues than anywhere else in the Berg, and is second only to RNNP for fatalities. It is a very popular area with a high difficulty level. IMHO Mnweni is the only region of the Berg where it is more difficult to get to the top, and Garden Castle not far behind Didima, although much less popular. Giants Castle and Bushman's Nek provide easy access to the top (although the latter is generally not very high), and logically should get more use than they do.

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08 May 2015 12:37 #63678 by andrew r
Thanks ghaz, we will heed you advice and any similar trips in future will involve grade 4/10 passes in the Giants Castle & Bushman's Nek areas. When looking at routes I was swayed by the recent thread on 'awesome three-day hike routes', and to be honest I do not really have the requisite experience to be making such calls.

We were jointly responsible for how things panned out; Yes, on several occasions we were in over our heads but there were no rash actions and together we found safe alternatives. All's well that ends well, especially as we all learned something from it for next time.

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08 May 2015 13:49 - 08 May 2015 14:01 #63680 by tonymarshall
As an experienced hiker and leader, I think you guys did pretty well, and you have summed things up nicely in your last post Andrew; no rash actions were taken and everything was safe, and you have learned in the process.

It surprises me a bit that you both seem quite (unnecessarily) critical of yourselves, totally independently from anyone else raising any criticisms, but at the same time have done excellent analyses of what you did and found your own answers. This to me is very positive, especially your willingness to learn from what happened and recognition of the learnings achieved.

The only other comment I would think relevant to make, was touched on earlier in another thread by you Andrew, and that is to plan for a plan B on longer escarpment trips. Study and be aware of the entire route area, not only including your planned route or passes etc, but other possible escape routes or alternatives. This could be necessary for various reasons - weather, illness, injury, etc and even as in your case the title of this thread (which you have already included as a tip in your own analysis). This could have been valuable in you being aware of the Tseketseke waterfalls and adjusting any decision making appropriately, be it selecting of another pass (Mlambonja) or a different approach to Tseke, allowing more time, starting earlier or whatever. Again no criticism meant or implied, just an additional suggestion.
Last edit: 08 May 2015 14:01 by tonymarshall.
The following user(s) said Thank You: DeonS, ghaznavid, HFc, Drakensbergie, andrew r

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