Hazards - Precautions and Rescue

Copyright: MCSA-KZN 1998 ©


Important Note

Rock climbing in the Natal Drakensberg is a serious undertaking. Long, strenuous walk-ins are typical and weather conditions may become extreme within a short space of time. Because of the remoteness of many peaks, even relatively minor problems may assume life-threatening proportions. Almost every year people die in the Drakensberg. Most of these deaths are ultimately attributable to human error.

The information provided at this site is not intended as a substitute for the experience that may be vital to your survival. If you are unfamiliar with the Drakensberg it is strongly recommended that you are accompanied by an experienced guide, or join one of the regular trips arranged by the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA).

 

General Precautions

  • The mountain rescue register should be completed in detail before each trip.
  • Make sure that the party is fully equipped with the necessary gear, maps, food, tents and clothing for all possible weather conditions.
  • The minimum size of a party should be at least three and preferably four.
  • The party should include at least one and preferably two or more members who are experienced in high altitude wilderness backpacking and at least one who is reasonably familiar with the area, carries the appropriate maps and has the necessary map reading skills.
  • The party should include at least one person who is both equipped for and capable of handling basic medical emergencies.
  • The party should never split up except, in the event of an emergency, when it may be necessary to send someone to get help.
  • Due to steadily improving coverage, cell phones are becoming increasingly useful in the event of an emergency. Treat cell phones as a possible means of summoning help quickly but do not rely on them as the basis of your safety. Due to the very rugged nature of the terrain there are many areas that will never be amenable to cell phone reception.

Personal Responsibility

It is every climber's personal responsibility to take the appropriate steps to ensure his or her own safety. Apart from briefly mentioning some of the possible hazards and precautions, no attempt will be made to go into further detail. This is not a safety manual - one way or another, make certain you have the necessary knowledge and equipment to deal with any of the following situations before venturing into the 'Berg:

Bad Weather

At any time of the year, changes in the weather may be both extreme and very sudden. Keep a constant lookout for any sign of deteriorating weather conditions.

A five day forecast for the 'Berg may be obtained phoning 082 231 1602 . This forecast is updated daily.

Thick mist is the initial cause of more epics in the 'Berg than anything else. Mist may sweep across the escarpment, reducing the visibility to a few metres within a matter of minutes. It may occur at any time of the year.

Snowfalls occur several times each winter. These falls are occasionally very heavy and blizzard conditions are not unknown. Snowfalls in summer are unusual, but not unheard of.

Thunderstorms and lightning are common on summer afternoons. Flooding occurs regularly during summer because of the thunderstorms. Do not pitch tents too close to mountain streams. Do not attempt dangerous river crossings - rather wait an hour or two - flood levels usually subside very quickly. 

Some of the weather conditions mentioned above may lead to hypothermia. Make sure you can recognise and treat this condition. During summer, the unwary may fall victim to dehydration and heat stroke. In all these cases, prevention is obviously better than cure.

See additional information on weather conditions under General Information.

Security

In some areas on top of the escarpment and near well used passes, impoverished Basotho are inclined to remove boots and packs etc from your tent at night. Standing guard during the night or setting a trip wire attached to a can of stones are the usual low-tech solutions to this occasional problem. Light weight motion detectors combined with alarm systems are becoming more popular. The chances of being physically attacked are extremely remote. Packs of hunting dogs can be an occasional problem, but as long as you are in a party of three or four, then the chances of suffering any form of attack will be minimised.

On a less serious note, baboons and ravens are likely to demolish any food that is not securely packed away. The ravens at Bell Cave have leaned to undo the zips on packs (I kid you not), so turn packs upside down if you leave them in the cave. The ravens at Giant's Castle amuse themselves by tearing the rubber strips off windscreen wipers, so you might want to remove the wipers and store them in your car before setting off on a hike.

Snakes

The only poisonous snake that occurs at high altitude in the Berg is the 'Berg adder. They are surprising scarce and their loud hissing is usually heard before they are seen. No fatality has ever been reported from a 'Berg adder bite, although recovery from a bite is usually long and painful. At lower altitudes a couple of other poisonous species occur, but you will then generally be much closer to the nearest help. Only one death from snakebite has ever been recorded in the 'Berg.

Rock Quality, etc.

The quality of the rock may change significantly within a matter of metres. Most routes do not get enough ascents to adequately clear all loose rock. Check all holds carefully before committing to them. See additional information in the section of General Information.

Getting Lost!

Make sure that at least one member of your party is familiar with the area, that you have the necessary compass and maps and that you know how to use them under all conditions. Do not press on in heavy mist unless you are absolutely certain of your route. It is vital that you stick to the itinerary that you outlined in the mountain rescue register.

First Aid

Because of the remoteness of many areas, even relatively minor accidents/problems may assume life-threatening proportions. For this reason it is essential that each party is equipped with an adequate first aid kit and someone who knows how to use it.

Rescue

In the event of an emergency, serious accident or death in the Drakensberg the usual procedure is to contact the nearest Nature Conservation Service (NCS) ranger as soon as possible. They will then initiate the necessary rescue arrangements.

The general emergency phone number for anywhere in Natal is 10177.

Before reporting the accident, the reporting party should note:

  • the time and the exact location of the accident
  • details of the patient's injuries
  • the patient's name, sex and age.
  • the physical and mental state of the patient when last seen
  • what equipment and clothing the patient has with them
  • whether technical gear would be needed to reach the patient
  • any particular medical problems - check for Medic Alert bracelets etc
  • what First Aid has already been administered
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