“I counted myself dead. For sure I thought I would die. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness. Thank God Almighty, I’m alive.”
As he said these words, tears streamed down the cheeks of Kanana Tupa, 39, the telephone technician who was trapped waist-deep in snow on the Katberg’s highest peak for part of Tuesday.
The day began for portly Tupa and his slim colleague David Kweni, 40, when they were dispatched to refill a standby generator at a key telephone transmission tower on the top of the 1726-metre peak.
"When we left East London at around 7am on Tuesday it was drizzling but we saw no snow.
The electricity had been down at the telephone tower for about three days and the system was running off a back-up generator.
"We had to get that generator refilled otherwise there could be a huge blackout for telephone users and the telephone companies could lose lots of money," said Tupa, who has worked for TFMC, a company contracted to Telkom, for 20 years.
"When we got to the bottom of the mountain there was some snow on the ground but it was not snowing.
"We started to drive up the mountain but our 4×4 got stuck about halfway. It was about 10am. We were out of telephone contact and could not call for help.
"The weather was okay, not snowing or raining, so we decided to take a chance and go to the top on foot.
"We started walking and the weather changed. Suddenly. Just like that. And we were waist-deep in snow.
"I started struggling to walk. I decided to crawl. We still had a long way to go to the top. It felt like it got dark and within seconds I was struggling to breathe.
"The snow was falling heavily and a really strong wind was blowing. It felt like it was going at about 180km/h."
At this point Tupa stopped speaking, overcome by emotion.
"I am the breadwinner not only for my wife and three kids, but for my whole extended family. How would they have survived if I had passed away," he said, weeping again.
After a calming drink of water he continued his account:
"After I had crawled for about 60 metres I could feel my chest burning and couldn’t breathe any more. I started to panic and tried to call for help on my cellphone but couldn’t get the network.
"I couldn’t see David, but I called out to him to try to climb to the top. He is so thin. I was worried that snow would kill him.
"I was starting to become unconscious ? The weather was so bad that it was pitch black. I couldn’t see anything.
"I did not feel cold any more although I was freezing. I was just praying and praying telling myself: ‘Today, I’m gone’.
"My cellphone was dead and I was fumbling in the dark. I even wet myself."
After about four hours Tupa "suddenly felt the wire fence of the tower. I saw David; he was alive. I thought I was dreaming. I don’t know how I got there.
"Then I looked at my phone and could not believe it, I saw three bars of power on it. I quickly called a friend who is a nurse and she called my boss to tell him to rescue us."
Then the pair waited in the tower, unable to get warm as night started to fall.
Their spirits were boosted when they heard helicopters, but they were unable to land.
A little while later, the men heard voices and saw the lights of police and emergency personnel, accompanied by their superiors at TFMC, who had climbed up the mountain to rescue them.
"I couldn’t believe it. I felt so relieved that I felt my body get warm. They gave us gloves and warm clothes and also some tranquillisers," Tupa said.
A bulldozer cleared the snow so that the men could be transported down by vehicle.
They were taken to a hotel for the night but Tupa said he did not sleep properly. ?I was having nightmares about what happened on that mountain."
On Wednesday, they saw a doctor.
"The doctor said my throat is damaged because of the long time in the snow. My voice sounds terrible today. But I am so glad that I am alive," Tupa said.
" Wednesday was a day I will never, ever, forget. One thing for sure, God was with us that day."
Four other telephone technicians went up the mountain to help their colleagues and also got stuck.
Police spokesperson Captain John Fobian said they had remained in their vehicles and had been brought to safety.