Mountain Club to the rescue

No adventure is 100% safe, and when calamity strikes in a remote area, you need to know who to call. The Mountain Club of South Africa has a wide network of volunteers, each assigned to a mountain area nearby. 

Heloise, her husband Travis, and their friend Jon, were rescued by MCSA members James, Stewart, Sonya, and Paul in the Southern Drakensberg in 2013.

You never know when you may need to call the MCSA for assistance. Are you even a trail runner if you haven’t got lost? Or come across a fellow trail-user in need?

We spoke to three members of the Mountain Club of South Africa about their love for the mountains, safety tips, and their experience with rescues.

Rescue stories

Paul Roth, MCSA Rescue Organiser from Himeville, was part of the team which rescued TRAIL editor Heloise Hunter back in 2013. He has another rescue story to share…

“Once, we received a call to assist a runner who had sent out a request for assistance via satellite with his personal locator beacon (PLB). We were not able to communicate with him directly as he was out of cell signal and the PLB unit did not allow two-way communication, but we had an accurate position fix and knew that he was in trouble and so we launched a rescue. After a few hours of searching the valley that he was supposed to be in without result, we got the call via radio that he had recovered enough and had managed to walk out back to civilisation on his own. Understandably our team felt rather frustrated!

“There are two lessons we can take away from this incident:

  1. Whilst PLBs are really great life saving devices, they should not be used lightly and common sense should determine when they should be activated.
  2. It is very important that once you have successfully sent out a call for help that you stay in one place until the rescue team arrives. Even if your situation changes for the better – if you are unable to communicate this with the outside world after your call for help has gone out, just stay put and wait. Sometimes waiting for rescue can be the hardest part of the whole ordeal.”
Paul Roth indicating the landing zone to a rescue helicopter, with the Giant’s Cup in the background.

Be safe in the mountains

Paul Roth has advice for trail users in the Drakensberg:

“The MCSA rescue team often have problems when folk who are in trouble in the mountains panic, or think they can get a faster response by going away from the accepted mountain rescue emergency notification process protocol and then start phoning multiple agencies to try and get a response. This often leads to confusion, a waste of resources, and can even delay the actual rescue itself.

“If you have an emergency in the Drakensberg then you can phone either:

  • The Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Officer in charge of the area you are in (these contact numbers can be found on the EKZNW entry permits, or obtained from the office at entry)
  • Or, the Provincial Health Operations Centre (24 hours) 0800 00 5133 and state that it is a mountain rescue emergency.

“These agencies will see that a MCSA Rescue Organiser is notified and together they will determine and ensure that an appropriate response is carried out. Once you have successfully notified one of these agencies, do not try and notify other agencies in an effort to speed things up – this will only lead to confusion and may delay the response.”

Brent Jennings at a rescue training exercise in mid-winter. He’s on Waaihoek peak, in the Hex River Mountains.

Brent Jennings, vice-chairman of the MCSA Cape Town section, co-convenor of the Search and Rescue team, and medical scientist by day, wants you to know:

“Heading out solo is always more risky; we advise people to go in a group, even if it’s a small group. That way, if anything should go wrong, there is not only help at hand, but also someone who is able to summon further help if so required. Being alone in wild places can be very invigorating for the soul, but people should be aware of the risks that this imposes. One can never eliminate risks entirely; one can, however, manage or mitigate them.

“It is always a good idea to let someone know when you’re planning on going out into the mountains. If you can’t do that, a simple note left in your vehicle at the parking area is a good idea. For instance, if you are going to run from the Camps Bay side and leave your car at Theresa Avenue, leave a little note on the seat that simply says: Trail running up Kasteelspoort, along the top and down Oudekraal Ravine and back along the pipe track. That way, if you fail to come home, and a search is launched, searchers who gain permission to access your vehicle will find the note, and know where to direct search teams. If you have fallen and are lying unconscious on the trail they can then get to you much quicker than if they had no idea where you may have been planning on running.

“By far the biggest risk for trail runners (as opposed, for example, to hikers) is that they are not carrying much equipment. The weather on Table Mountain can change very rapidly, and very dramatically. Often, for instance, in summer, the temperatures in the city can be in the 30’s, but on top of the mountain, with the south easter blowing cloud in, the temperatures can be extremely low.

“A simple accident like a broken ankle, which will leave you unable to move fast, if at all, can have life-threatening consequences. People have frozen to death overnight in mid-summer on Table Mountain. Lightweight, packable windbreaker jackets are a great idea, and can be easily carried by runners. But they do not offer much protection against the cold.

“Mountain emergencies in the Western Cape are managed by Wilderness Search and Rescue (WSAR). The MCSA works as part of WSAR, and people are urged to contact WSAR in the event of an emergency, on 021 937 0300.”

Find the emergency number for the area you’ll be exploring here, and be sure to save it on your charged cellphone ahead of the adventure.

MCSA mountain rescue emergency numbers

Use the mountain register in the Drakensberg

Kate Quin is a trail runner and MCSA rescue medic based in Underberg. She has important guidelines for using the mountain register: An important communication system and safety tool at each field office in the Drakensberg.

“Mistakes that trail runners can make when filling out mountain registers is to be hurried and supply vague information. Try to:

  • Clearly state your planned route (and adhere to it).
  • Fill out what gear you have with you, especially in the event of sudden inclement weather.
  • Supply the details of your next of kin, with a legible contact number.

“Our team was called to assist with a search in the Monks Cowl area where a lone hiker had not returned from his day hike. Gathering information from the mountain register he had filled out we were able to determine certain areas that he could likely be and concentrated our resources therein. Unfortunately, he had deviated off the route completely which ended up wasting time and exposing him to increased risk. During the information gathering process we consulted and read through all the mountain register entries from that particular day and contacted individuals who might have crossed paths with him.

“Bear in mind that the information you supply in the register is accurate and legible in case there is a need to contact you for information which could potentially be life saving.”

Kate Quin ascending Mashai Pass a Rhino Peak Challenge 2020. photo Marzelle van der Merwe

Her MCSA Drakensberg section teammate Paul Roth adds:

The mountain register is vital! When things go wrong and you cannot communicate with the outside world, the mountain register is your best hope of getting rescuers to find you. In a search for people in the mountains, one of the first things that we as rescuers ask for will be a copy of the register.

“Apart from the obvious fact that it gives a route description, it also allows us to build experience and equipment profiles of the people involved which will in turn determine the urgency of the situation and our appropriate response. An incomplete or non-existent mountain rescue register can make the search a whole lot harder.”

MCSA rescuers in the Drakensberg.
James, Stewart, Paul, and Sonya were able to find and rescue Heloise based on her description of her position over the phone. The only reason she had the emergency number to call was because it is on a removable strip on the side of the mountain register.

For the love of the mountains

Paul’s love of the mountains goes beyond the views. “Apart from their astounding beauty, mountains humble us and bring us down to earth. They are completely indifferent to our human wants, desires and efforts. Though the challenges they present us can either bring us great reward or great suffering, the challenges themselves are simple and without subterfuge and always promote spiritual growth. I like that and it appeals to my nature because I tend to see things in black and white.

Kate is lucky to be able to see the Drakensberg from her home in Underberg. “There is at least one moment every day where I look at the mountains around me and am overwhelmed by their intrigue and beauty. Some days they seem powerful, other days calm, they are alluring yet intimidating. Each day they look different and I am thankful for every opportunity I get to experience their splendour.”

Brent feels like the mountains of the Cape are a part of his being. “Mountains have long held a very special place in my heart. To expand on that would take an entire evening around a camp fire, but for those of us for whom mountains and wild places are vital to our existence, it is always about connection to nature, freedom, and the sense of place in the world and in life.

“I have never felt so alive as when I am mountaineering in general, and rock climbing in particular. The power, and beauty of nature and wild places is a rich and tangible thing and experiencing it is, in my mind, quintessential to my being.”

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