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Tornado trio defies death in Drakensberg



Stuck in one of the worst storms the Drakensberg has ever seen, influencer and photographer Chad Nathan (31) said the Shema on a hike in early June, and suggested that he and his fellow hikers write letters to their families in case they didn’t survive. An avid traveller, adventurer, and daredevil, Nathan has been in many harrowing situations, but this one was probably the first where he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it.

Thanks to the advice of two hikers they encountered on the mountain before the storm hit, Nathan, his brother-in-law, Kevin Harrisberg (38), and his friend, Elan Schnider (28), managed to erect their tent inside a stone hut, which probably saved their lives.

“The hut was built around 1930 for travellers and shepherds on the mountain to shelter in if needed,” says Nathan. Ninety-four years after it was built, Nathan watched the corrugated iron roof blow off the hut in gale-force winds, leaving them exposed to the worst of the elements, including icy temperatures, snow, and hail. Not only that, but the heavy rocks they had heaved onto the roof in the middle of the storm to try stop it blowing away began to fly in all directions, including at them.

They survived the falling rocks, but it was at that point that they realised they might not survive without proper shelter. They had to make the difficult decision about what to do next – try to wait out the storm where they were, or hike through it to safety. Both options were hugely risky, especially because after calling for rescue, “we were told no-one was coming”, says Nathan.

It all started when Harrisberg suggested that he and Nathan take a trip to the Drakensberg, and Nathan asked Schnider to join. Though Nathan had been to the Drakensberg before, Harrisberg and Schnider hadn’t.

Having worked with Cape Union Mart, Nathan asked if the company would sponsor their gear, which Nathan would also photograph in use on the mountain. The company agreed, and it was probably because they were so well-kitted out that Nathan and his crew managed the dangerous weather they encountered.

“I said that if we wanted the real Drakensberg experience, we needed to camp and carry our own tents and supplies,” says Nathan. “We planned a route along the northern traverse, rated by National Geographic as one of the top 10 hikes in the world. It would be a 75km long, five-day hike. We would leave early on Friday morning, 31 May. Before we left, we realised we didn’t have all the right tops for our gas canisters, and could take only one gas canister, but we figured we would be fine.” In the end, more gas would have helped them stay warmer for longer.

“We saw that the weather might not be great on the fourth day, but we had good gear and the Drakensberg is a big place, so it was difficult to tell if it would hit us,” Nathan says.

They set off from the Sentinel Hotel car park and hiked the 6km to Tugela Falls, the highest waterfall in the world. “We got to our first stop, and it was 18:00 and pitch dark. We met a man, Ettienne, who told us a big snowstorm was coming and to leave the mountain. We didn’t think it would be that bad, and wanted to continue. In daylight, he pointed to a hut 500m away and said, ‘Go to that hut, it will save your lives when the storm hits.’”

The trio continued their hike, saw breathtaking views, and took incredible videos and photographs. “We met another man, James, who also said there was a storm rolling in. He advised finding a cave to sleep in or to head back. At that point, the weather was still beautiful and we thought, ‘How bad can it be?’” says Nathan. They set up camp, and it was very cold at night, but they remained in high spirits.

“On day three, we woke up to the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen,” says Nathan, who has seen many sunrises all over the world. Yet, as the day and their hike continued, the mist rolled in. “It was eerie and ominous. We decided we would turn around, head back to the hut, shelter there for the night, and then head home on day four, cutting our hike a day short,” recalls Nathan.

In the end, they made it to the hut just in time, as snow, hail, sleet, and cold hit them with full force. They remained positive, joking about their “Airbnb” accommodation, playing in the snow, and setting up their tent in the hut.

“We had a really amazing sleep as we were so sheltered,” he says. However, “at 06:00, we were woken by the sound of the corrugated iron roof flapping and Elan screaming for us to help him keep it down,” says Nathan. “It was so dark and stormy that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. We were in 60km gusts, and we had to protect our shelter. If you’ve got no shelter, you’ve got nothing.”

They began to heave 20kg rocks onto the roof. “At this point, I was scared,” says Nathan. “You can only get one bar of signal on the mountain, and we decided we had to try call for help.” They spread out, within sight of each other and the hut, to make calls. “We spent about 30 minutes out in the elements, trying to make phone calls, but in the end, we realised no-one was coming.”

They huddled together, realising the situation was serious. “Your survival instincts kick in. We decided to pack up our stuff and each pack a small bag with essentials,” says Nathan. “For me, that included my camera! We put more rocks on the roof. As we were huddled, we heard a roar like an earthquake and the roof blew off, with 20kg rocks flying at us. I just screamed, ‘Brace!’”

Miraculously, they were uninjured, but realised it wasn’t safe to be there anymore. They had to make a decision, and Nathan’s instinct was to stay put. However, knowing they couldn’t split up, he agreed to go with the others to try reach safety. “It was [a case of] no man left behind,” he says. Between them and the Sentinel Hotel were 15m and 45m-long ladders that they would have to descend in the worst weather. Leaving most of their stuff in the hut, they set out.

It was then that they experienced a miracle. Two men, Joseph and Walter, who lived on the mountain had heard about their SOS, and came to find them. They guided the trio to safety, including advising which side of the ladders to take. “I’ve never felt hail and wind like when I was going down the ladders,” says Nathan, who managed to shoot a short video while he was descending.

After the ladders, it was a further two-hour walk to the hotel. With hugs, tears, cheers, food, and drink, the trio celebrated their survival and thanked their rescuers. Unfortunately, they were not able to recover their possessions that they left at the hut. “Unbelievably, after we got back, we saw people leaving to go on a hike. We advised them not to, but they went ahead!” says Nathan.

The trio feel exhilarated and grateful to have survived. “We can’t stop talking about what happened,” says Nathan. “It was life-threatening and life-changing. I’ve learned to listen to those who know the terrain better than you. The mountains humble you, and you have to respect them.”

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  1. Annaretha Fourie

    June 22, 2024 at 12:39 am

    I am sorry about your terrible experience. I really hope you will be back again to enjoy some breath taking views in better conditions. Happy Trails brother!

    • Martha

      June 24, 2024 at 8:13 am

      Idiots. Putting their lives at risk and those of their rescuers.

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