About 40 hiking routes lead up Table Mountain, all offering a unique set of challenges. Some routes start out tame, only assuming its true character midway up the mountain. Others pack a full complement of challenges that test you physically, mentally and technically. Table Mountain hikes range from neat rock-steps along a manicured path to exposed scrambling interspersed with bush and loose rock. In order to inform hikers what they’re letting themselves in for on a particular route, routes are graded according to their technical difficulty only – basically, the hardest movement required to get up it. The grade does not factor in how strenuous the route is (elevation gain and distance), nor the severity of the terrain (bush / loose rock). It also doesn’t factor in exposure to heights, quality of rock and degree of route-finding required.
Routes are grade A, A+, B, B+, C and C+ – an A-grade being the easiest and involving walking only, a C+ involving tricky scrambling verging on rock-climbing and necessitating the use of a rope. A B-grade route can seem harder physically than a C-grade by virtue of its terrain, exposure factor or distance. Some routes are more sustained than others: one B-grade might have a single non-exposed B-grade bit, while another have several exposed B-grade stretches – both the same technical difficulty, but the latter more severe.
Table Mountain hiking does not offer much signage, making route-finding a real factor. You might set out to do an A-grade, but it’s only an A if you manage to find the route. Straying onto a harder route could spell disaster. At best, it’s a sobering experience that will likely detract from the enjoyment of the hike. Table Mountain is much bigger than it looks from below, its topography more complex and terrain more unforgiving. Contemplating the mountain from a plush hotel room or snug café sets you up for disillusionment. The mountain’s proximity to the city makes it easy to underestimate.
Some routes are more tough mentally than physically, either through being tedious or terrifying. I know mountaineers who would find the easiest hiking route up Table Mountain tougher mentally than the severest C-grade. Adding to all the variables is, of course, the weather. Even a straightforward route can become mean and dangerous in bad weather, when the wind picks up and dark cloud spills over the mountain. Conditions can turn from benign to forbidding in a matter of 30 minutes.
Most people hike Table Mountain for the sheer enjoyment, not to pit themselves against nature. It therefore makes sense to pay due regard to the grades. And if you’re not sure, go with someone who knows the mountain and who can provide safety when the going gets tough.