SUNDAY TIMES - High adventure on Table Mountain
Sunday Times STLive By Claire Keeton & Marianne Schwankhart, 2012-03-18 00:16:52.0

High adventure on Table Mountain

Claire Keeton and Marianne Schwankhart explore the adventure options on Cape Town's most famous landmark

Everyone knows Table Mountain. Capetonians live in its shadow, tourists take the cableway to the top, hikers tramp through its fynbos and climbers hang off its sandstone cliffs.

It's a world heritage site, a natural wonder and an adventure playground.

After climbing on Table Mountain for years, Marianne and I find its magnetism as enduring as the rock, which is millions of years old. At the end of a day out, we always want to go back.

Earlier this year, we ended up back on a route where I had one of my scariest falls - though mostly you're in no danger - soon after I had started climbing in 1994.

On that day, I was stepping along a narrow ledge on the Cableway Crag route, when I swung off and almost hit my head. Even now I can get intimidated by traversing (climbing sideways), and I wear a helmet.

Ironically, we climbed the traverse this time round as an easy option - once I had persuaded Marianne and a friend of ours, Mark Seuring, to break up the hard routes with gentler pitches within my ability. They are both top, sponsored climbers and out of my league.

Despite fearing the traverse, which Mark had led in 1994, I found enough holds to feel solid and enjoy it.

With Marianne leading stylishly - the leader takes all the risk - we did ascents that were demanding and spectacular.

Marianne climbs with a grace and control that men stronger than her envy. Nevertheless, she had to exert herself on crux pitches, particularly when she couldn't reach holds that taller climbers can.

But not all "TM climbing" is exposed and difficult. The mountain has beautiful climbs that are easy enough for a beginner to have fun, like the classics Staircase and Jacob's Ladder.

I have taken friends who have never climbed before up these routes.

Once, I took a friend's brother up an easy route below the cableway at twilight, planning to sleep on the top overnight.

Our torch fell while we were climbing and we had to wait for the floodlights to finish the ascent. The next morning, we walked down Platteklip Gorge at dawn, passing people on their way up.

For people who prefer to keep their feet on the ground, Table Mountain has a range of hikes from the marked paths at the top, to a few hours of hiking and full-day outings.

I was a teenager the first time I did a hike up the mountain with a friend's family.

Even though I grew up in Cape Town, my family didn't hang out on the mountain. My dad was a doctor who often worked weekends and my brothers played rugby and cricket.

I loved that first hike up Skeleton Gorge via Maclear's Beacon to the top, and my legs were shaking by the time we got down to the cableway station, via a more technical route known as India Venster. Now, we often go up or down India Venster as it's the closest access to the climbing.

When I was pregnant and no longer felt safe to climb, my sister agreed to hike up India Venster with me. She was one of the first women to run the Puffer - an 80km trail run from Cape Point to Table Mountain - but still she didn't like some of the steep drops on the way.

The hikes on Table Mountain are safe, however, as long as you follow the guidelines for hiking (see box).

Weather conditions on the mountain can change swiftly if the tablecloth comes down, shrouding it in cold clouds, or the wind picks up.

One of the world's best base jumpers, Jeb Corliss, did successful flights off the top in a wingsuit in January, following which he said: "My programme is overcoming fear and this place scared me.

"Now, all of a sudden, it's like I'm not scared of Table Mountain anymore. It's become my playground."

But then, Corliss flew very low between the boulders with inches to spare. He crashed at about 160km/ph, possibly from a gust, surviving with multiple injuries.

"I took the risk and paid the price for pushing way too hard," he said of his accident. But, like most visitors, he intends to go back.