Table Mountain hiking routes: What is a Route?

Table Mountain can be climbed from all sides and along routes of varying length, difficulty and character. It’s hard to say exactly how many hiking routes exist on Table Mountain, strange as this might sound. The reason for this is the ambiguity of what constitutes a route.  This has been an issue of perennial debate and discussion among hikers and cragsmen. In this first installment of Table Mountain hiking routes, we will look at the issues that complicate route definition. Future installments will explore some popular as well as unusual routes, interspersed with cautionary, advisory and historical notes. We’ll also discuss route grading (that other favorite bone of contention) and the importance of route choice in making the most of your Table Mountain hike.

The 1952 Table Mountain route book, published by the Mountain Club of South Africa, defines a route as “a climb on the mountain which is complete in itself in so far as from its start to its finish it uses no part of any other climb. It need not begin at the foot of the Mountain nor need it finish at the top, though this is the case more often than not.” It goes on to point out that it is “more logical to speak of a route ‘on’ the Mountain than ‘up’ the Mountain.”

And to drive home their definition, they list examples of four types of routes: (1) routes starting at the base of the mountain and finishing on top (2) routes starting at the base and not finishing on top (3) routes starting high up and finishing on top (4) routes starting high up and not finishing on top.

To further complicate the issue, reference is made to sub-routes, defined as “a climb on the Mountain which takes in one or more sections of another route.” The status “route” is usually given to the climb having “chronological precedence” i.e. the one first climbed / the older of the two. Interestingly, it notes that “open ravines and featureless buttresses offering innumerable separate lines of ascent have been credited in most cases with only one route…”

Confused yet? There’s more: composite routes, defined thus: “…a  route or sub-route adheres fairly closely to its own particular feature or locality, a composite route may wander over many buttresses and ravines and its finish may lie a considerable distance to the right or left of its starting point.”

Pertinent to Table Mountain hiking routes, one could add a further qualification to route definition: the extent of Table Mountain. The MCSA route book includes outlaying areas like the Twelve Apostles, Orange Kloof and the Eastern Buttresses, all of which is generally regarded as part of Table Mountain or the Table Mountain massif (as opposed to just the actual ‘Table’ or summit plateau). But hike up a route like Llandudno Ravine – a recognized route up Table Mountain and one that tops out at the southwestern extremity of the Table Mountain massif, where it is at its lowest (and the ‘Table’ barely visible in the distance), and you somehow struggle to convince yourself that you’ve scaled Table Mountain.

But there’s even more: the popularity of a route. There are routes on Table Mountain that haven’t seen a hiker in 20, 30, even 40 years; routes opened in the early 1900s that for various reasons fell by the wayside (pun intended), now reclaimed by nature: overgrown and erased from memory, with only the odd moss-covered or collapsed cairn bearing testimony to their former existence. Do these routes qualify to be included in a list of Table Mountain routes? When is a route by virtue of its popularity eligible for inclusion in said list: when it sees hikers at least once a year; once every 2 years…?

My own take on this is that some Table Mountain routes should live on in history books only, not in guide books. Only so many routes are required to explore the mountain, savor the views and experience the delights of the landscape. One of the reasons why some routes have lapsed into oblivion is because they are trivial and contrived; they do not add anything to the experiences provided by existing routes.

Whatever route you choose when hiking Table Mountain, make sure it’s compatible with your expectations, fitness level and abilities. Route choice can make or break the experience – the topic of the next installment of Table Mountain hiking routes.