What is the hardest route up Table Mountain?

Jul 28, 2023

Table Mountain aficionados enjoy nothing more than gnawing on this particular bone of contention. In my humble opinion, and drawing on the experience and knowledge I have gained ascending all the hiking and scrambling routes on Table Mountain, I have the following to say on the subject: For an accurate answer, we need to define “hard”, “route” and “Table Mountain”.

What defines how hard a route is? Four things:

  1. Physicality: the distance and elevation gain combine to tells us how strenuous the route is. Terrain also plays a role: off-trail hiking usually requires more energy to negotiate bush and loose rock.
  2. Terrain: while the average hiker might not despair when a route turns out to be longer than expected, rough terrain could bring him to his knees as well as to tears. Dense vegetation and loose rock are the two main ingredients that complicates terrain. Another is verticality (dealt with separately under Technicality).
  3. Technicality: this refers to the degree of climbing skill required to negotiate vertical sections. Getting it wrong on technical difficulty carries considerable drama-potential. Table Mountain routes are graded according to the most difficult climbing encountered along the way. An ‘A’ route involves walking only, with perhaps the occasional use of hands to negotiate steeper sections; a ‘B’ route calls for some elementary climbing (scrambling), sometimes necessitating the use of a rope; a ‘C’ route involves more serious scrambling, often requiring a rope. Upwards from ‘C’ is regarded as proper rock-climbing.
  4. Exposure to heights: although only a mental strain, it should not be discounted, as it can sap your energy as much as an uphill slog. And if you don’t have a head for heights, an exposed ‘B’ route can feel more like a ‘C’ or even a ‘D’. Incompetence or negligence on an exposed route could spell disaster.

Does a route’s gradient affect its difficulty?

Not as much as you might think. To gain 1000 meters in elevation along a straight route with a 45-degree gradient, you would cover 1400 meters. To gain the same elevation along a route half that gradient extends the route to 2400 meters. That’s a 1-kilometre difference.

Many variables come into play when putting this into practice: the gentler route might be bushy, while the steeper route follows an open path – which one you are you going to take? Or the steeper one gets summertime shade most of the day, while the other bakes in the sun the whole way. Best not to fret too much about a route’s gradient, or distance; there are more important factors to consider when hiking Table Mountain.

What qualifies as a route on Table Mountain?

For the purposes of this discussion, we will only consider current routes – routes that are still in existence. There are quite a few hiking routes on Table Mountain that has fallen into oblivion; trails long since overgrown and faded from memory, with only the occasional moss-covered cairn as evidence to their erstwhile existence.

A route like Slangolie Face on the Twelve Apostles has likely not seen mountaineers in decades. Opened in 1922 by Ken Cameron and party, you’d be lucky to even find a crumbling cairn on it, let alone a hint of a path. So, we’re not going to count Slangolie Face as a route, apologies to Cameron.

What are the Table Mountain routes?

For many people, Table Mountain comprises only the famous tabletop: the part you see from the city center. But there’s much more hidden behind its iconic façade:

  1. the Twelve Apostles peaks, the undulations leading down to the Back Table,
  2. the Back Table itself, a plateau about two-thirds the height of Table Mountain’s summit,
  3. and the forested buttresses on the Suburban side.

All these areas are considered part of Table Mountain. Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak are not included.

We will consider routes leading up all sides of Table Mountain, not only those terminating on the tabletop summit. Bear in mind that some routes do not lead all the way to the summit but latches onto another route for the remainder of the way. An example would be Kloof Corner (C), a route (not a sub-route or variation) that terminates about 150 meters below the summit. From there, hikers traverse Fountain Ledge to gain the summit.

It’s tempting to assume that a C-grade route would hold the distinction as the hardest Table Mountain route. But the grade only factors in technicality – only one of the four factors that determine overall difficulty. The reality is that an exposed B-grade route leading up bushy and brittle rock feels much harder than a C-grade route involving clean and short C-grade pitches on sound rock. Hiking Table Mountain is a multi-faceted activity characterized by diversity.

What are the Table Mountain route names?

Time to line up the candidates:

  1. Starting on the east side of the mountain, the first candidate is Ferny Dell. Weighing in at a B+ grade, it is technical, bushy in places, long and exposed with some loose slope thrown in for good measure. Bonus points given for the fact that it involves complex route-finding.
  2. Our second contestant is Silverstream Ravine, a C-grade that leads up the north (front) face of Table Mountain. Although fairly tame for three-quarters of the way, it makes up for the tedium with a vertical top-section that involves tricky and exposed climbing.
  3. Third up is Kloof Corner Pinnacle, a souped-up version of Kloof Corner. Both are C-grade, but the Pinnacle route involves more scrambling, and if strictly adhering to the original route, more exposure. Awkward scrambling over considerable drops makes technical and unforgiving, rather than unpleasant and strenuous due to bush and loose rock.
  4. On the western side of the mountain, we have the Grotto-Fountain-Cairn Traverse, a sensational route with ample exposure, bushy stretches and tricky route-finding.
  5. Victoria Gully, along with its non-official approach, Pimple Traverse, makes for a worthy addition to the above candidates. Long and bushy, it involves tricky and exposed scrambling in its latter stages. Graded B, but not to be sneered at.
  6. Other candidates include Valken Ravine, Spring Buttress and Finsteraar Crack, all challenging, and dangerous, in their own way. However, the verdict on the hard Table Mountain hiking route (which includes scrambling) goes to – all the above! It is impossible to single out a route.

The issue is also subjective:

As far as difficult routes go, one person deals better with exposure to heights while another experiences less anxiety scrambling up friable rock. Some are better with route-finding; others romp up technical pitches with consummate ease. If I was pressed to pick a winner, I would go with Silverstream Ravine or Finsteraar Crack.

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