Snow Camping in the Western Cape (Part 2)
By: Gerrie Nel
Welcome to Part 2 of this two-part blog series about snow camping, where I share some of the basics to this unique and (potentially) fun activity. Grab your mittens, we're going snow camping!
Choosing a route
It is recommended to do a route that you know well and have done before. Your campsite should be high enough to have snow, but if its too high things might get very icy or require a long day's walk to get there. For the Western Cape, I would recommend aiming for a campsite at approx. 1400 to 1600m altitude. The exact location is up to you.
The reason why I am recommending to camp at approx. 1500m, is that snow at this altitude will melt quickly and not be too deep. It however only snows at altitudes of 1500m or lower after a big storm. It will be possible to camp at 2000m after a smaller cold front but trying to camp at 2000m after a big snow dump would be impossible. The snow would simply be too deep and the rocks covered with ice. You will need skis or snowshoes to travel in deep snow, and you will need ice spikes or crampons to travel on ice.
Predicting the weather conditions
It is important to get good weather forecasts, and to know how to interpret them. The forecasts should be location-specific and altitude-specific. You will need to use apps where you can find specific mountain peaks or location points, like Yr.no, Mountain Weather Forecast and Windy. My favourite is Yr.no. I have also heard good things about Meteoblue. It’s a good idea to check different sites, as they may use different algorithms and hence their predictions differ. This helps to develop a degree of confidence in anticipating the actual conditions.
The forecast should show heavy snowfall for at least a day or two, followed by sunshine and consecutive days of temperatures below zero. If the daytime temperatures remain below zero in the days after the snowfall, it means that there will be snow. That is the time window in which you need to do your trip. If the message was not clear enough - it is recommended to go after the storm, not before or during the storm. That would be too dangerous.
Predicting the mountain conditions
Given that the average South African very rarely encounters the white stuff without trying, the conditions of the route deserve its own discussion. The usual fynbos-and-sandstone scene of the Cape Fold Mountains will be replaced by a wonderland of snow, slush, water, and ice.
Snow happens when it’s cold, and things freeze. The snow can melt during the day and freeze again at night. Or it could snow on top of frozen snow. Rocks can be covered in a thick layer of ice (then its impossible to step on them without crampons). You might be able to walk on top of the snow, or you could sink to your hips with every step.
There might be streams everywhere due to snowmelt, or you might need to melt snow for water as all the streams are frozen. And if things start thawing, expect mud, slush and boggy wetlands. Rock-falls are also more prevalent during and shortly after heavy rains or snowfall. So, you should avoid any type of scrambling, exposure to heights or proximity to high cliffs at all costs. It’s a minefield, really.
And the most fun part of all - you will only find out the conditions in real time. But over time you will get better at assessing the conditions based on your prior experience, interpretation of the map and the weather forecasts.
It is recommended to choose a short, non-technical route that you have done before. Or, more ideally, a route on which you especially did a recce (familiarization outing). It is good to find a campsite, identify the route and determine if there is cell phone signal in the area. These precautions may seem excessive, but if its your first experience in very cold conditions it is wise to be cautious.
Setting up camp
A good first step is to level the intended sleep spot. It might be snow only, or a mix of snow, bush and rock. The official technique to level out a spot is to dance around, stomping like a crazy person, until the fluffy snow has been levelled.
And you need to make special provision for securing tent pegs in the snow, as the normal approach with tent pegs becomes impossible. The guyropes should be anchored in the snow using innovative means. You could find rocks to secure the tent guyropes around and bury the rocks in the snow. Or you could take shopping bags (reusable or plastic), fill them with snow, and bury them in the snow. Another popular option is to make "deadmen" from wood or bamboo. Essentially, you loop the guyrope around a bamboo stick and bury the stick horizontally. The expensive "real" option is buying aluminium snow stakes from a specialist store like Drifters or Mountain Mail Order. With all of these options, the most important thing is to bring a snow shovel (or DIY alternative) to dig out the anchors the next morning. They will be frozen rock solid.
If you have time, you could also use the snow shovel to create a wall of snow next to your tent to protect it from wind. Just bear in mind that, if the wind is very strong and it is snowing, snow could collect on the downwind side of the wall and inundate your tent. But this will only happen during heavy snowfall. You could also use the shovel to build a snowman, snow woman, or snowperson.
Please also remember that things freeze when it’s cold. This means that, any wet clothes that you leave outside your sleeping bag will be frozen solid in the morning. Including your boots. A good workaround is to keep damp things inside your sleeping bag overnight (they strangely and miraculously dry themselves without making you feel wet). You should also put your water bottle and gas canisters inside your sleeping bag. If you really feel superfluous, consider putting your boots inside a dry bag, and putting the dry bag inside your sleeping bag. Putting on frozen boots is unpleasant.
If you have done enough preparation, your tent is solid, you sleep warm, you do an easy route and you have cell-phone reception, it would reduce your risks dramatically. It is always worthwhile to make sure you have the correct numbers to phone in case of an emergency. And you should at least consider your escape route or emergency protocol before you go out.
Snow camping in the Western Cape is a unique experience, as the conditions are so unique. After big cold fronts, snow falls over a night or two and disappears again in a few days. Because snow only falls in the high mountains, chasing snow is also intrinsically dangerous and should be approached with extreme caution. In climates where snow is more common, the people are naturally better equipped and understand the conditions better. But for the average adventurous South African, knowledge, preparation and the gradual building of experience will ensure an unforgettable night on the mountain. Go forth and conquer. Or, rather, get planning and keep an eye on the weather!