06 June 2011

SUMMITING CATHEDRAL PEAK for the 3rd time ... with a near miss experience
My birthday gift this year was a 7-night stay at Cathedral Peak Hotel in the Drakensberg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa - spoilt I know. Arriving, we were not sure whether we will attempt the Cathedral Peak Summit hike again, but Friday morning we decided we will give it a go for the third time as we have enjoyed the previous two summit experiences. After a disasterous experience this time round, Conroy thought it his duty to report our experience to the Mountain Club of South Africa {MCSA - KZN}.


Below is the covering letter to the MCSA:
A few weeks ago my wife and I spend some time at the Cathedral Peak Hotel. And as we have done in the past, we booked ourselves on their ‘signature’ hike – the Cathedral Peak walk. We have done this hike before successfully two times plus we arranged a guided hike to Cleft Peak (for only my wife and I) about two years ago which we also completed no problem at the time.
This time around however we were disappointed about our experience and we are left concerned about the safety precautions taken by the Hotel in arranging and executing this particular hike.
We feel so strongly about this that we have put together the attached account of our experience along with some key questions we are still left with that we outline in this document.
Although we did give the Cathedral Peak Hotel GM feedback after the incident substantially in line with what is outlined in this document, we are left with a feeling that this incident should be recorded with the appropriate independent governing office for such issues – if indeed such oversight mechanisms exist – and then ideally followed up with the Hotel in terms of ensuring they have appropriate management systems in place for such potentially dangerous activities apart from their “indemnity” clearance forms they require guest hikers to sign. I don’t know of any such oversight and governing bodies apart from knowing about the Mountain Club of South Africa – hence this Email to you as the KZN representative of the MCSA.
This hike ended “well” but it could just as well have ended very badly in a number of ways – in safety terms I think this was a serious “near miss” incident (Per Wikipedia: “A near miss is an unplanned event that did not result in injury, illness, or damage – but had the potential to do so. Only a fortunate break in the chain of events prevented an injury, fatality or damage.”)
Please would you be so kind as to read the attached and give me your advice? I look forward to your response.


Below a detailed account of the events leading up to a near miss experience:

Cathedral Peak Hike: 23 April 2011 General Notes This is an account of our hike to the top of Cathedral Peak from the Cathedral Peak Hotel and back – a guided hike offered by the Cathedral Peak Hotel – on Saturday 23 April 2011. There were 6 hikers in the party along with our Hotel Guide Daniel. The 6 hikers were 4 hotel guests (my wife and I plus two other hotel guests) and a couple that stayed at another hotel in the Drakensberg area. The attached profile is a copy of my Polar Heart Rate Monitor information. The information pictured shows two pieces of important information for the purpose of this document (1) Time on the route (“Time: 0:00:00”) – this is also the horizontal axis and (2) Altitude (“Altitude: 1473m”) – this is the right hand side vertical axis. Note on altitude – although the altitude is reasonably accurate, Polar uses a barometric altitude calculation so it is out by a couple of metres of altitude to the exactly measured altitude. On the first graph (next page) the left side time is noted as 0:00:00 and time of day (when we started the hike) as 07:30:28. Our altitude at the start was 1473m. Before the hike: The 4 Cathedral Peak Hotel guests were ready to go at just about 07h00, which was the scheduled start per the Hotel plan. When we got to the Sundial (the start point) the hotel representative (Kate) told us we were waiting for two other hikers from the outside. After a few more minutes she asked us if this was ok (to wait). What do we say? The pressure was on us as hikers to make a call; we looked at one another and indicated that it was fine to wait. I made a comment that as long as we could still get to the top by the Hotel-specified cut-off for summiting – which was 12h30 in winter. Kate noted with words to the effect that that “It is not quite winter maybe we can summit a bit later”. While waiting we read the safety cards handed around by the hotel. My wife pointed out then that the card noted that the guide was carrying torches, headlamps, safety kits, radio, etc. and we were advised to carry something warm, water, etc. After waiting a while the other couple arrived and we started just after 07h30.


We reached the first water point (+- 1900m altitude) after about 90 minutes of walking. This is more than the average amount of time for hikers to reach the first water point. Bearing in mind that we started 30 minutes later than the Hotel scheduled start (walking time plus delay time = 120 minutes), this milestone should have been a first checkpoint in terms of how the overall hike was going to go.

After the first water point we started a steeper ascend (than the first part of the route) and about 20 minutes or so later we took a quick breather. Here Daniel I thought did a great thing. It was apparent that three of the hikers and one in particular (incidentally, this lady was wearing ‘tackies’, not hiking boots) was struggling. Daniel re-arranged the walking order to ensure the slower hikers were sandwiched between him (leading) and the quicker ones - my wife, me, and another hotel guest - at the back. From here we walked to Orange Peel Gap, took a break, and went on to Buggers Gully. On our way to Buggers Gully I reflected on the hike and came to the conclusion that we probably won’t summit today, my reasoning being that we started late and the walking was slow going because of the limitation of the slower hikers. Although the weather was fine at that point, there were some cloud and signs of possible poorer weather around. Not summiting did not bother me too much as my wife and I hiked this route twice before so summiting was not at all a major objective and safety first would have to take priority. Up to this point the group hiked together. About 10 minutes or so into the section up Buggers Gully my wife and I kept our walking rhythm and broke away from the other hikers. We reached the top of Buggers Gully about 15 minutes ahead of the rest of the group at about 11h29 (+-4 hours into the hike) - altitude +- 2691m. The rest of the hikers arrived at about 11h45. The top of Buggers Gully is indicated by the vertical line that cuts into the Altitude graph line at 2691m. See graphs on the next pages. Almost immediately that the rest of the group arrived Daniel called us together and indicated we were going to ascend Cathedral Peak. I was surprised and with hindsight should have questioned this decision with Daniel. I however at the time said nothing. I don’t recall Daniel checking in with the Hotel control room about this decision, although I can’t be sure about this. Leaving at about 11h50 to summit gave us +- 40 minutes to the winter cut-off of 12h30 to do +- 300 vertical metres of climbing up some tricky bits for novices. It was also known that some of the steep section in the last 300m ascend were wet and slippery because of quite a wet season the preceding months. Up to this point we did an ascent of +- 1200m in 4 hours. A bit of maths to get a baseline means we did each 300m vertical climb from the start of the hike up to this point in about an hour each. Now, 4 hours later, a bit more tired, and with the steepest and trickiest sections waiting we give ourselves 40 minutes for this 300m vertical section.


Eventually my wife and I walked ahead of the third member of the fast group – he had a recurring knee injury that slowed him down – and we got to just below the first water point (as per on the way up) where darkness overtook us at about 18h00 – a bit early but the overcast conditions caused darkness to be earlier than usual. This was the most terrible moment in our +- 18 years or so of hiking. Wet, cold, miserable, no torch etc. Well, we said to ourselves, we will wait for Daniel as he had the torches (per the safety card specification). Just after we sat down to wait other hikers came past us from the hotel – they were a group of University of the OFS students that were going on a multiday hike into the berg. They asked us if we were ok, we said we were fine because we were just waiting for our guide, they have torches then we will continue back to the hotel. The students continued on their hike. After a ten minute wait in the cold – still luckily on the path – the third quick hiker (with the knee injury) caught up with us as he was able to walk in the dark because he brought his own (handheld) torch. We then walked slowly with him – very difficult going as although he had a torch it provided very little light for us at the back to walk properly. After a while Daniel and the slow ones caught up with us. They had two torches. What we did not know until much later into the night hike was that they got these torches from the University of the OFS hikers. Daniel did not have his specified torches in his backpack. So we were just very fortunate that these OFS students came past us when they did. Otherwise we would have been stranded. In fact, the one young student took it upon himself to accompany us back to the hotel because of his concern about the group’s safety. Walking back in the dark with limited light was a nightmare – then was no organisation of the group and we walked apart too far in my view. The guide took no leadership to group us together for better visibility and safety. We eventually got back to the golf course – we took a detour to be able to bypass the river which was flowing quite strongly therefore the route to the golf course and not straight back to the hotel – at about 20h20.


The summit hike was a struggle for the slower hikers. There were some tricky parts and for some of the steep areas a safety rope had to be used. There were anchor points so it was obvious that at times they were used. We were somewhat surprised that the guide was at first reluctant to use the rope going up some of the tricky bits – bearing in mind we were mostly novices for such ascents. The faster group (my wife, me, and the other Cathedral Peak Hotel guest) broke away from the rest after the trickiest part of the ascent where rope had to be used. This was just before the chain ladder. We went on and reached the summit about 12 minutes before Daniel arrived with the three slowest hikers. We arrived on the summit (3004m – 2990/2994 on my graphs) +- 13H19 (5hrs49m elapsed time from the start of the hike, and the final section taking us 1hr30 minutes approximately). The slower bunch took about 1hr45minues for the summit section and they arrived about 13h31 or so. It was extremely cold and windy on the peak and there were some cloud around. I was worried about the weather. I don’t recall Daniel checking in with the Hotel control room at this point, although I can’t be sure about this. We (being the three ‘fastest’ hikers) left the summit at about 13h40 with Daniel the guide and the three slowest hikers following about 5 minutes or so later. On the way down the “fast” group waited for a long time at the bottleneck areas – where we needed Daniel and the rope to assist us – the slow inexperienced hikers took very long to negotiate the descent particularly the tricky parts - and there were huge sections of waiting time by the fast group as they reached the next section where we needed Daniel and the rope as the slow bunch still negotiated the descent higher up. For interest two of the major waiting sections are noted in separate graphs below. The one waiting period was at least 20 minutes and the other at least 16 minutes – where the fast group waited for the slow group in ‘freezing’ conditions. On the way down we were surprised again that at first Daniel was reluctant to use the rope as extra safety at some of the trickiest parts. Bearing in mind we are talking novices here, and some of the hikers, notably one of the Cathedral Peak guests – the lady hiker – was poorly kitted (i.e. wearing tackies not hiking boots) a small mistake could have meant a twisted ankle at 2800-2900 metres altitude! Not in a shelter but on an exposed mountain side in the cold etc. etc.!! A jacket, which we all had, was fine, but the cold on the mountain at that point needed more than a simple jacket. After the last point where we needed Daniel’s rope, the fast group broke away again and said to Daniel we will walk ahead so long, he said we should wait at Orange Peel Gap. We got to the top of Buggers Gully at about 15h26 (7hrs 56min elapsed time). We knew we had a challenge ahead to get to the Hotel before dark. We suspected Daniel and the slower ones got to this point at least 15 minutes later (i.e. about 15h45). Just after descending through Buggers Gully we took a short break and it started raining softly with some thunder audible in the distance. It was very cold and miserable. We got to the top of Orange Peel Gap at about 16h45 and decided to push on and not to wait for Daniel and the slow group. We are left with many questions and a sense of anger and disappointment around this and of the way the Hotel dealt with this hike from the start through to after we gave feedback to the Hotel GM the day after our ordeal. What makes it worse is that this (Cathedral Peak Hotel) was our favourite stay in the Drakensberg for years. While we accept that we signed the Hotel indemnity form before going on the hike – as not so subtly pointed out by the Hotel GM when we gave him feedback the day after our experience - that certainly does not give the Hotel permission to act negligently and contrary to good practice from a mountain climbing/hiking/safety/common sense point of view: • We felt the sense of urgency around this hike from the hotel’s side was questionable. For most people hiking this hike it is a difficult hike with some key challenging sections and for most novices, some parts are even technical in nature (i.e. steep slopes, ropes advisable). Therefore the Hotel has a duty of care and needs to display a sense of urgency which we felt was absent. To ground this statement we referred to the sequence of events as outlined above and also the next points. •Why be so lax around the cut-off point in winter? See comment on first page above: “It is not quite winter maybe we can summit a bit later” •Why start the hike way beyond the scheduled start waiting for other hikers that are late? This is unacceptable and also this was disrespectful to those that were on time for the hike. •Why allow hikers to hike with tackies if the Hotel specify in their advertisement for the hike that boots are advisable because of the terrain? •Why proceed to summit if it should have been clear based on all reasonable indications that the summit should not be attempted? Speaking to the “slow lady with the tackies” later on she was told by Daniel during the hike (Daniel spend most of his attention on her as she was struggling so much) that he took pride in getting his hikers to the top of the peak. Did Daniel’s pride (ego) get in the way of good judgement? Is this another good reason why on such a guided hike the guide should check-in with the Hotel Control Room to ensure decision support? It should not be about the guide’s pride it should be about the safety of the hikers. •Why, once it was decided to summit, and it became clear the group took a long time to ascend, was the summit attempt not aborted ‘halfway’ up? •Why the reluctance from the guide to use rope as assistance at the difficult points? •Speaking to the “slow lady with the tackies” afterwards she said that she was also concerned about the time issue but from what she said to me I gathered she trusted the guide’s judgement. However she said on the way back – I think it was just below the summit around the top of Buggers Gully on the way down – which was around 15h45pm – she asked Daniel whether he should contact the Hotel to tell them that there was a problem. Daniel did not want to do this/was reluctant to do this. She had her Cell phone with her and phoned her husband/partner at this point and he went to I think the “Entertainment” manager or someone else in authority to tell them about the problem. I am not clear what was done when this information was shared by the lady’s husband/partner to the Hotel people. Why the lack of communication between the guide and the Hotel Control Room? •Why no torches in the back-pack of the guide as ‘promised’ in the pre-departure safety card that we read? What else might have been missing in the backpack that we don’t know about? E.g. safety medical kit? •Afterwards (on the 24th when I gave the Hotel GM feedback on our experience) I asked the Hotel GM what time he was made aware of the problem. He said that sometime around 18H30pm on the day was the first time he knew about it. My comment and question around this to him was that knowing the nature of the hike, the time of year – being early winter – etc. when Daniel got to the top of Buggers Gully at say 15h45 on the way back – why on earth was this not the latest point at which the cavalry is called? There was no way that the slowest group was going to get to the Hotel before dark given the limitations of the hikers. Did Daniel know early on he did not have torches? •It is also instructive for us that the lack of sense of urgency was also indicated by the fact that when we arrived back at the Hotel after we were transported back to the hotel from the golf course – around 20h35 that evening – we were met not by the Hotel GM (who by then knew about the problem), but by the Food & Beverage GM. The Hotel GM “went home”. We feel this indicates a lack of sensitivity from the Hotel GM regarding the seriousness and potential tragedy that could have played out were it not for some fortunate co-incidences/circumstances – e.g. the total random event of the University of the OFS students passing the point they did at the time they did and the student’s willingness to assist and that one of the hikers had a torch. Our understanding is that hypothermia can kill the best quickly….never mind the potential of missing a step in the dark and falling down the side of a path. •There appears to have been a complete lack of communication between the guide and the Hotel Control room. No decision support; i.e. a decision to summit for all Hotel Guest Summit hike groups should be confirmed with the Hotel control room and there should be regular Control Room check-ins by the guide to report on progress with the hike at key milestones during the hike and at other points when circumstances require such communication. •We were left with the impression that the Hotel Control room people in charge may not have done this hike before so they may not have any idea of the challenging nature of the route. When asked, the Hotel GM and his assistant both said that they (the GM’s) have not done the hike before. •On the message boards where hikes and activities are advertised (hotel lobby area) it is noted that the Hotel guides are trained by an outside specialist Outdoors operator – I think it is “Wildways”. When we gave the Hotel GM feedback regarding our experience he mentioned that Daniel, our guide, was trained and passed fit for being a guide, by one of their other guides (Moses). We feel this is not right. While we have done guided hikes with Moses before and found him highly competent as a guide, is he a specialist trainer? What about independent opinion and certification? We are talking a key safety issue here. By the way, Daniel’s training and being passed “fit” for being a guide took place recently so Daniel, although obviously physically very able to hike the route, was an inexperienced guide at the Hotel. •When we gave then feedback – to the Hotel GM and his assistant – the Hotel GM on a few occasions referred to the Assistant GM saying we have to go back to the controls we had in the past. This was highly concerning to us. Why not stick to controls that work? •We emphasised in our feedback to the Hotel GM that this – the feedback - was not about nailing Daniel or even Kate the Entertainment Co-ordinator. It was however in our view pointing to a failure from Hotel Management to have an appropriate management system in place – or apparently so based on our experience during this hike – and unfortunately Kate and Daniel were actors only in the bigger mess up. Unfortunately the whole mess-up and the apparent cavalier approach by the Hotel before, during, and after the incident leaves us with a sour taste and we won’t be back soon.






  1. What an experience. Hopefuly you wil get some kind of answer.

  2. WOW...what an amazing adventure ~ you go girl! and those photos are breathtaking!

    hugz xoxo

  3. great photos, I like this place too!

  4. I see you are still taking beautiful photos - creating beautiful things & living life to the full!! Thanks for your bloggy visits this weekend :) Keep well!


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