Climbing Table Mountain

Today was the day. I’d been thinking about this since we started planning our trip. I was determined to ascend Table Mountain. I’d done research on various guides—as most tour books discourage people from hiking alone (for good reason, both human and natural dangers loom).

She picked me up at 7:45 a.m. and a young couple was already in the car with her. They were from London, just arrived yesterday and here on their honeymoon. The guide is named Margaret, a petite woman with a strong handshake. I could tell she did a quick initial assessment of my fitness and my attire, to make sure I was capable and meant business.

In my attempt to pack very light, I’d made the very difficult decision not to bring my hiking boots, figuring most any hike I attempted could be serviced by my sneakers that I wear to the gym.

After my pick-up we got another woman, an “African-American” woman from South Carolina.

The hike was described like this: start at Kirschenbosch Botanical Gardens, up Skeleton Gorge to Macleans Beacon (the highest point on Table Mountain) then down the front edge of the mountain and down the front face of it. Most online descriptions I read of these hikes simply say you need to be reasonably fit. I felt ready.

I’ve been battling a cold for a week, which has now parked itself in my nasal passages and the top of my lungs. So I hadn’t worked out this week and I knew that my lung capacity was going to be tested.

So off we go…start at the Gardens, up a paved road to the trailhead. It was similar to the hill climb up to our house in San Francisco, so it was a pretty straightforward warm-up. The honeymooners and I kept up fine. The other woman was out of breath.

Then our guide took her aside and had a very honest and candid discussion. “I don’t think this is for you. This is barely a warm-up for what’s ahead.” They had a bit of a discussion, and the woman was sent on her own back into the gardens to enjoy a more leisurely stroll and catch a cab back to her hotel.

Wow. We hadn’t even started the trip and already one person had been dismissed. I knew our guide meant business. I also know that our safety is paramount and she can’t risk the whole team for someone who simply is not up for it.

So now I was off to prove how fit I was, not to anyone else but to myself. I’ve worked out really hard for the last six months, both for general fitness but also for the ascent of Pico in the Azores.

To compare, Table Mountain is 1,084 meters (3,558 feet) elevation; Pico is 2,351 meters (7,713 feet).

The sign at the trailhead reads (I’ve seen this online but didn’t stop to read it as we forged ahead into the trail):


This path takes you up Table Mountain via Skeleton Gorge. Please take note that it is a DIFFICULT and POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS climb, particularly in wet weather. Sections of the path are:

  • Very steep with ladders and ropes in places
  • Very slippery when wet, and dangerous after heavy rain.

And in cloudy conditions it is easy to lose your way and get into trouble.

Please do not continue up this path in very wet or cloudy weather, or if you are not in good health and reasonably fit, or without a qualified guide or a good map, or without a cellphone.

So we head up Skeleton Gorge. There is an exercise I do in the gym whereby I hold two dumbbells and step up and down on a bench about one and a half feet high. I do that 24 times (about), rest, then do it again. This hike was basically that, but with no breaks between sets and about 200 repetitions. My legs were burning. My lungs were burning. And I got dizzy. I had brought plenty of water, but I was starting to fear whether I’d make it. The dizziness, I think, was an after-affect of the cold and clearly a sign of dehydration. I had brought a packet of a powder they use here called “Re-Hydrate” and poured it into my water bottle. It included electrolytes and other stuff. That, I think, made the difference between making it and not. My dizziness started to clear up and didn’t occur any more after that.

But I was still completely winded and trailing the very-fast guide and honeymooners. There was hardly time to snap off a few pictures, so my photos are limited and cursory.

This was frustrating to me. Although I’ve been working hard, my cardiovascular endurance is still crap. This particularly trail is called the Smuts Track, named for a famous hiker who did this well into his 70s. Arrg.

And then we hit the ladders. That’s right. There are points that are so steep that they have built ladders (about three of them) to navigate up the steep ravine. OK. Time to face fear of heights.

The ladder climb was fine. And then we were in front of a stream-cum-waterfall. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the trail. Now we had to climb up some serious boulders. Here is where I felt my strength came in—my weight training made it fairly easy for me to lift myself up with upper body strength; my balance training gave me ankle strength and confidence that I wasn’t going to slip. I still wish I’d brought my hiking boots, but the sneakers held up well enough.

We took Skeleton Gorge to Macleans Beacon, the official highest point on Table Mountain. You’d think we’d be done. But OH NO.  We still had the flat part of the mountain to reach. By now the winds had kicked in to the point that it was hard to stand up and, by the way, this part of the hike was literally along the edge of the cliff. The good news was the wind was blowing us against the mountain so the likelihood of getting knocked OFF the mountain was slim. Nonetheless, this was the more terrifying part of the hike. The guide said to stick close together (that was for me, obviously, since I was the one lagging behind). And we finally made it to the flat part of the mountain.

We stopped at an area that was a bit sheltered to eat snacks and drink water. Then, from behind the rock, comes along a guy JOGGING…we had no idea where he’d come from, but he started down the path we were about to take. Needless to say, he had the most amazing legs I’d ever seen on a guy close-up. We all looked at each other stunned.

The views, when we occasionally stopped to enjoy them, were breathtaking.

It was so windy that the cable car was not running. So we’d have to hike down. We took Platteklip Gorge, about 800 rock steps going down.

I sadly don’t have great pictures, because it was not a leisurely stroll, but a hustle to do this in five hours. I’m not sure what time we actually started, but it was probably no later than 9 a.m., and we came down to a road where a pre-arranged taxi waited for us around 2:30 p.m. I’d have been willing to make this a full-day (8 hour) hike so we could take more breaks and more pictures. But overall, I have a great sense of accomplishment that I was able to keep up. And I also know some of the things I have to work on for the Pico ascent!

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