In some ways, Table Mountain can be likened to a caged lion. Hemmed in by urban sprawl and crowned with a cable station, it appears tame and subdued as far as mountains go. But despite its accessibility, Table Mountain retains much of her primal ‘instincts’. Let’s take a look at the 4 main factors that make hiking on Table Mountain more than a petty proposition.
1. Size: Table Mountain is much bigger and higher than it appears from below. It’s difficult to get a sense of its dimensions until you’re halfway up, only by then you might already be out of your depth. Features like cliffs and buttresses are often foreshortened and obscured by other features, creating an optical illusion and giving a false impression of the distance and terrain still to be covered. A good example many can relate to is that sinking feeling you get when reaching a skyline or pinnacle thought to be the summit, only to find more slope and cliffs between you and the summit.
2. Weather: Table Mountain’s proximity to the sea creates microclimates with capricious and unpredictable weather conditions. Many hikers sally forth with little or no idea of the extreme climatic conditions often occurring on the mountain. Dehydration and its ugly offspring, hyperthermia, is a real issue in summer that can spell disaster: a hiker, not acclimatized to hot conditions and carrying little water, setting out late on a windless summer’s day on a route exposed to the sun is courting disaster. Mist and cloud often engulf the mountain in the time it takes to tighten your bootlaces, restricting visibility and complicating route finding. Rain and wind each bring their own set of challenges.
3. Terrain: Often overlooked as a real issue, Table Mountain’s terrain is not to be trifled with. Rugged, bushy and riddled with cliffs, you don’t really want to stray from the path. But it happens: some paths peter out in the middle of nowhere, at which point our unwary hiker – unwilling to cut his or her losses and backtrack – presses on into denser vegetation and across more exposed terrain, ever hopeful that things will improve or that a trail will present itself. Taking shortcuts is another way hikers lose the trail – not recommended. In Table Mountain’s typical heathland shrub, you can pass within spitting distance of a trail without seeing it. Off-trail hiking is a lot harder than along a trail: it takes more time, saps more energy, requires impeccable route-finding, lacerates your skin, and then often leaves you marooned on the edge of a cliff at the bottom end of a steep slope or yawning ravine.
4. Trails: More specifically, the overabundance of trails. Not all trails on the mountain are meant for hikers; some are used by rock-climbers to gain the foot of a cliff, from where they climb to the summit. To the hiker, these trails are decoys and they snare many an unsuspecting and heedless hiker. Adding to this is the presence of many scramble routes; classed as hiking routes, they involve bits of easy climbing (scrambling) at certain points along the way. Beware – be very aware. Blindly and doggedly following a route up ever-steepening terrain with little or no knowledge of its nature is the leading cause of accidents on the mountain. Such is the nature of Table Mountain trails that it’s easy to be led ‘up the garden path’.
To sum up, hikers underestimate Table Mountain because of its nearness to a big city – to civilization. Not bothering to acquaint themselves with the above factors, they head up the mountain with the misconception that hiking Table Mountain is a walk in the park, often to be rudely disillusioned.