Amphitheatre, 1969

2014-01-08 00:00

IT was close to midnight on July 19, 1969. A gale-force wind tore at the rock face of the Amphitheatre, clawing at the tiny figure bracing itself against the gusts.

Then came a moment of sudden light as a window opened in the wall of clouds to reveal a sliver of brightness from the four-day-old moon. The world was watching, waiting for Neil Armstrong to take his first small step for mankind, and Dad was watching too, the same moon, from his precarious perch, a sloping 1,2 by 0,6 metre ledge, 386 242 kilometres below.

The window closed and the rain began — again.

This is the story of my father’s brush with death 54 years ago. It is a story of courage and endurance, and of the resilience of the human spirit. It is also a story of the potentially fatal consequences of overweening self-confidence.

How did it all happen?

After an absence of 24 years, Dad determined to return to the top of the Amphitheatre, to experience again the brooding beauty of the Sentinel and the thrill of standing on the summit of Mont-aux-Sources, the highest mountain in the Natal Drakensberg. His elder son, David, then 15, accompanied him on the drive to Witsies­hoek, where the car park squats beneath the zigzag that leads to the foot of the chain ladder.

From the outset, things did not go well.

By the time they reached the chain ladder, Dad and David were being buffeted by a gale-force wind. The ladder is set right against the rock, so to scale it in such conditions was dangerous, and David agreed to Dad’s suggestion that he wait at the base while his father proceeded alone. Via the chain ladder, Dad estimated that he would reach his objective in about an hour.

He was wrong.

On the plateau, he was met by the full force of the wind and became temporarily disorientated. He had to fight every inch of the way and was running severely behind time when he reached the beacon on the peak of the mountain. Pausing only to take two photographs, he opted for a shorter route down.

Now the real trouble started: the landmarks seemed to have moved. Yes, there was the mountain hut, but surely it should be somewhere else? Running and walking alternately, he changed course, heading, he thought, for the chain ladder. But what had happened to the fence that had formerly indicated its location? Where was he?

Dad realised he could only check his position by peering over the edge of the escarpment, but he dare not venture too close. This entailed a further 2,4 kilometres of walking, only to reveal that he had seriously misjudged his direction: the chain ladder must be behind him. The height, the wind and the unforgiving terrain were beginning to take their toll. Dad was now close to exhaustion.

Four further unsuccessful attempts to find the path led him eventually to the river. Ah, at last. If he followed the river bed it might lead him to a route up to the ridge between the Witches and the Sentinel, and thus to the path he sought.

By now the late afternoon light was fading fast and the danger of a bad fall was increasing. Fighting off rising panic, Dad determined on a strategy to negotiate the 460 metre climb out of the valley. He would walk 50 paces and then rest, and repeat the procedure for as long as was necessary. It sounded simple, but soon the 50 paces became 45, then 40, and after an hour he was face to face with a solid wall of rock six metres high. It was too dark to continue; the ledge on which he was standing would have to serve as his bed for the night.

Even to think of sleep was impossible. Hugging his sleeveless pullover to his chest and pulling up his long socks to cover his knees provided scant protection from the slash of the wind and rain knifing in from the Malutis. Dad knew he would have to do two things if he were to survive the night: keep awake and keep moving. He would rest for 20 minutes and then massage his whole body before doing vigorous exercises for 10 minutes, and maintain this schedule until morning.

As his first rest period began, his thoughts turned to the family waiting anxiously at the Mont-aux-Sources Hotel, and to David. What would he have done when his father failed to return? And the temperature must now be down to freezing. Had David found shelter? Dad’s bouts of shivering became long spells of trembling and then shaking, and the periods of rest became shorter. His only experience of warmth coming when the moon gleamed momentarily towards midnight and he felt a brief kinship with the astronauts, isolated, like him, from the rest of humankind.

The rain returned after the interlude, and brought with it an ominous freshening of the wind and billowing clouds. Soon Dad had a further task: shaking the snow off his clothes to prevent the moisture penetrating.

Time passed slowly. The rain stopped, but the snow continued, and the exercise routine became automatic. Again, Dad’s thoughts drifted, this time to Cairo, where he was stationed during World War 2. A favourite pastime of the soldiers on leave was to seek out the soothsayers in the bazaars, their first question, naturally, being whether or not they would survive the War. Dad had been told that he would marry and have four children; this had proved accurate. But it was the second prophecy that seemed chillingly ominous now, in his snow-covered eyrie: that he would die when he was 56. In 1969, Dad was 56.

He massaged his limbs with renewed determination.

With the dawn came a measure of relief. The snow eased temporarily, long enough for him to identify the dark mass above as the Sentinel. He knew where he was. The main path was just below him and he must have crossed it unwittingly in the dark. Slowly, he made his way down.

David was not at the base of the chain ladder and Dad’s shouts rebounded mockingly from the rock face. He stumbled through the still-falling snow and along the icy road to the car park. No David. The car started immediately, thanks to the anti-freeze in the radiator, and … wait … was that not the growl of a second engine? A police jeep, with David in the back seat, rounded the corner. The door jerked open and a constable strode over to Dad — only to draw back with a horrified “Hawu!”.

The face confronting him was a rich puce in colour and the hair surrounding it, a startling white.

So Dad, unlike many luckless mountaineers, lived to tell the tale.

The following Saturday, his friends at the Berea Tennis Club were incredulous: how could he, a seasoned walker, have elected to hike alone in blatant violation of the cardinal rule of mountain survival?

Dad’s response, in his own words: “The fact was that, as far as I was concerned, I was confident and knew the route because I had walked it three or four times before, with ease … But what I had to accept was that the situation could alter within minutes in the mountains, in adverse conditions.”

Dad passed away peacefully in his bed at home some years later, at the age of 82.

• The True Stories winners have been announced and we are now publishing the remainder of the semi-finalists’ tales.

BORN and educated in KwaZulu-Natal, Vivienne Thorpe taught English at high schools in South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland and Greece.

Now that she has retired to Howick with her husband, she has more time for writing and enjoys experimenting with different genres — her favourites being poetry, humorous anecdotes and, more recently, stories for her granddaughters, Emily and Sarah.

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