I sometimes get asked if a mountain-guide is really needed on Platteklip Gorge or Skeleton Gorge – the two most popular routes on Table Mountain. My answer: depends on your experience and fitness level; depends on the weather; depends on what you want from the experience (of hiking up Table Mountain).
Most people of sound heart and limb could safely ascend the Platteklip Gorge route in benign weather-conditions without the expertise of a mountain-guide, but you will learn nothing of the mountain or the environment you pass through. And you will not have the sense of security and peace of mind against contingency: an ankle-sprain, acute illness, a sudden change in weather. You will also have scaled the mountain up the least scenic and exciting route: a route that does not do Table Mountain justice – still better than the cable car, and offering a quick and uncomplicated way to the summit, with some imposing geology along its top sections, it takes in the bare minimum of the mountain and scores low on stimulating hiking and views. Yet, the presence of a competent and knowledgeable mountain-guide turns what often amounts to a dreary slog into a learning experience punctuated with interesting asides that maximizes your experience of the route.
Skeleton Gorge is a more challenging route in terms of route-finding, terrain, elevation gain and length, and it is recommended that you make use of a mountain-guide, more from a safety point of view than for information or entertainment. In misty conditions, it is very easy to go astray and wander around for hours (or even days) on the vast summit area, looking for the way down or to the upper cable station. People often set out when the weather is fine, expecting it to stay like that for the duration of the hike (about 5 hours), not realizing how quickly the wind picks up (closing the cable car) and cloud boils up (complicating route-finding). Making use of a mountain-guide allows you to relax in the knowledge that you are on the right route and that you won’t have to contend with unpleasant surprises.
Hiking Table Mountain is a unique experience, and the way to maximize that experience is by using a competent and experienced mountain-guide, on easy routes and more so on challenging and off-the-beaten-track routes. In its crudest form, mountain-guiding revolves around route-finding; in it’s simplest form, around education. But each route and individual calls forth different aspects of mountain-guiding, and in different degrees. So let go of the notion that a mountain-guide merely serves as a route-guide – that’s just the tip of the iceberg.