The mother of all Table Mountain cliffs: Fernwood Precipice
For me, a mountain isn’t a mountain if it doesn’t contain cliffs. Just like a real ocean must have waves, so a real mountain needs cliffs – sheer, august sheets of rock fraught with danger and charged with energy. What lover of nature does not experience a quickening of heartbeat or a tingle of apprehension when confronted by a lofty cliff or approaching the edge of one? And to the climber, a cliff extends a specious invitation, offering him or her a pathway to glory, a proving ground, a challenge that exhilarates as much as it intimidates.
Table Mountain is amply endowed with cliffs of all shapes and sizes. And you don’t have to climb them to enjoy their presence, as I was reminded the other day on a hike up to the highest cliff on Table Mountain: Fernwood Precipice. Located on the east side of Table Mountain, Fernwood Precipice rises sheer for about 350 meters (1150 feet) from the middle reaches of Fernwood Gully, a prominent gully that slices up that part of the mountain. Getting to the base of the precipice involves some tricky scrambling up the mossy and often wet bed of the gully, but nothing that requires ropes or climbing experience (in dry conditions). Few people venture up Fernwood Gully, as it does not offer access to the summit of Table Mountain – at least not to a hiker.
As far as climbing goes, the precipice was first climbed in 1963, but the route avoids the overhanging middle section by scuttling up the less steep left side of the main cliff. A direct variation, one that tackles the cliff head-on by penetrating the severe middle section, was opened in 1976 and involved aid-climbing on three pitches. In those days, climbers resorted to aid / mechanical climbing (a style of climbing in which standing on or pulling oneself up via devices attached to fixed or placed protection) to forge a way through sections too hard to climb at the time. The route, aptly named Fernwood Precipice Direct, went free in the 1980s at grade 24 – a very respectable grade, especially on the dodgy rock found in that part of the mountain.
Standing at the foot of Fernwood Precipice is an experience in itself , humbling and invigorating at the same time. Dwarfed by an expanse of vertical rock in a forest setting in a remote part of the mountain, the stillness broken only by the chirping of frogs and the burble of a stream, can only be described as communion with nature. So many years of hiking Table Mountain and yet again she had me enraptured.
The joys and rewards of hiking Table Mountain are manifold, just take the time and make the effort to seek them out. Even if you’re not into cliffs, there are always the meadows, marshes and mounds of the upper and lower plateau to explore.