Don’t we trail junkies all love a challenge!
If a new route incorporates a combination of peaks to be bagged in a specific order within a time limit, trailsters are hungry to leap to the challenge. And if it involves nasty curveballs like altitude, technical difficulty and unpredictable weather, it’s all the more irresistible.
So when Ryan Sandes threw down the gauntlet of the 13 Peaks Challenge in March this year, it sparked a flurry of excitement in trail circles, not only in the Western Cape but across South Africa.
Back then, being just nine weeks post emergency gut surgery, all I was capable of was dreaming I’d one day be able to do the route, probably only to fast-hike it – such is the nature of unpredictable health scares.
As the months passed, my body grew fit and strong again, and by July I was eyeing the challenge. But I decided that if I took it on, I’d want to achieve it solo – that’s unaccompanied but not unassisted – aiming for the much coveted sub-24hr badge.
When I got back from Europe in early July, I set about recce’ing the peaks I didn’t know so well. I had two failed attempts at tackling Ledges (realising quite happily that my mountain climbing skills were seriously lacking and that I wouldn’t trust myself kissing a cliff-edged rockface, alone, with +85km in my legs), and then began setting a possible date for the running. My initial idea was to first do it as a relaxed 48-hour trot just for fun, breaking the route to sleep at home in Hout Bay halfway through. It would be a sort of extended recce, and then I would do the non-stop challenge a few weeks later. It seemed a logical plan.
The long weekend around Women’s Day (9-10 Aug) was looking a promising weather window, so I set about slaughtering all my work deadlines to be able to take that Friday off, planning for a Fri-Sat jaunt.
But hey, what’s life without spontaneity? The day before my planned run, it dawned on me… why not scrap the 2-day relaxed-run idea and just do it all in one go? And to go all-out, aiming for the sub-24 badge.
Spontaneity and minimal fuss being the way to go, I kept it low key. A few calls to round up a support group of faithful friends to be at various spots along the route with grub and lots of cheer; a strategic safety plan with my buddy, 13 Peaks stalwart Armand du Plessis, asking if he’d mind skipping sleep between 1:30am and 3:30am on the Saturday morning to tail me from a 200m distance up Klein Leeukoppie and Suther Peak (being a woman solo on the mountain in the dead of night and all…); and a chat with Hout Bay’s Community Crime Prevention hero JJ de Villiers, who arranged for two ADT armed response vehicles in the saddle above Sandy Bay to watch my headlamp up Suther Peak (essentially as a security presence in the event of any dodgy dudes lurking on the dunes); and I was ready to go.
I was hellbent on an 8pm start. Craig teased me for being so specific about the start time – after all, being a solo run, I could start at any time, right, so why the precision? But for me it was important. And my logic to the 8pm part, over any other time was that it would allow me to run the Table Mountain section (where I feel safest) in the dark, I had put security measures in place to see me safely through the dunes section, and Craig would be waiting for me at the start of the Chapmans Peak trail to check I was safely along the tar section of Chappies in the dark. And if my timing went as planned, I would be down from the Devil at last light on Saturday, with just the tar section of Tafelberg and Signal Hill roads to face in the dark.
As John ‘Hannibal’ Smith so often said: “I love it when a plan comes together”. (Oblige me as I show my age – only 80s TV fans will get that one!) If 25 years of ultra-running has taught me anything, it’s that you can never expect a run or race to go smoothly. Rather expect it not to, and be fully appreciative when it does. Those times are few and far between, they’re golden moments to be treasured. This 13 Peaks challenge was that for me. Maybe it was my relaxed approach to it, maybe the spontaneity behind when and how to do it played a big part. I think it was a combination of factors: the weather was (mostly) fine; my body felt strong the entire way; my nutrition was spot on (scientific it was not, but diligent it certainly was – my fantastic feeding crew of Craig, Karoline, Filippo, Jana and Prem made sure I ate often and a LOT!). Best of all, I was on a solo mission on my favourite mountains, with a goal to achieve.
Heading up Table Mountain via India Venster rather than Platteklip Gorge. I wasn’t keen to slog up Platteklip on my own in the dark, a single headlamp in full view of whoever might be lurking along the zigzags above. (Ok, call me paranoid but there’ve been some scary happenings of late on our mountains…) Besides, give me the India Venster route over dull Platteklip anyday!
The view along the climb, at one point looking out over Table Bay and the city, and further up and around the corner beneath the upper cable station, the view looking down on Clifton and Camps Bay. My God, what a beautiful city Cape Town is!
Feeling something crawling along my arm as I climbed Suther Peak. A pleasant enough feeling, but I was curious as to what it was. I angled my headtorch down to see what it was and discovered a small scorpion, tail curled up and wagging as it hiked along my forearm. Faaaaaaaak! That little blighter got flicked a good 20m before it even realised I wasn’t fynbos! (I’m relieved to be able to list this in my highlights… if that little guy had been less friendly, he’d have definitely ranked top of my lowlights list!)
Enjoying a pre-dawn cappuccino with Armand and Craig at the 24-hour Seattle Coffee in Hout Bay (yes, Hout Bay has a 24-hr Seattle – we’re a happening place!) bang on schedule at 4:25am.
Being chased by Warren Kent with Blue, his gutsy little Jack Russell in the dark to the top of Chappies!
Watching the sun rise over the Hottentot Hollands as I ran down from Noordhoek Peak.
The incredible smorgasbord of delicious delights Karoline Hanks laid out for me at Silvermine East carpark. She’d covered all possible options, from homemade potato-cheese balls to crackers with freshly made guacamole, various fruits, and even a flask of coffee fresh from Village Roast in Noordhoek. It was hard to tear myself away!
The welcoming cheers of my gang when I hit Constantia Nek and, hours later, Tafelberg Road.
That beautifully bland beacon on Signal Hill – the most arbitrary and unassuming of them all, and yet with 104km in my legs, by far my favourite!
Running the final section (on tar, uurgh!) along Signal Hill Road knowing I was about to break not only 24 hours, but 23.
Hitting mist so thick along the Twelve Apostles path that I could barely see 2m ahead for the light from my headtorch reflecting back at me against the wall of swirling white. There were moments between Grootkop and Judas Peak when I worried I was veering left and was heading towards Orangekloof.
Almost careering to my death off Judas Peak. I know climbing onto and off the level that the beacon is on is tricky, but I know the route well, I’ve tagged the beacon a gazillion times over the years. The mist was thick up there, I couldn’t even make out the lights of Hout Bay below. I bagged the beacon, took my photo and, without giving much thought to the direction I was facing, scrambled down the first ledge from the peak. Suddenly everything looked different, and I couldn’t see where to step next. Everywhere around the ledge was black. I couldn’t jump into nothingness, that would be madness. I turned left and right, desperately looking for where to move, and in my panic slipped on wet rock and landed on my hip, just missing the drop-off by centimetres. I realised I’d jumped down the wrong side of the ledge, and I was now in no-man’s land. I was frustrated with myself for making such a dumb mistake – I’d done it a hundred times in the daylight, and here I was, alone in the dark, wet and cold, not even sure which direction I was facing! I gathered myself together, scrambled back up to the beacon, reoriented myself and began my descent again, this time getting it right.
Hearing distant gunshots from the valley below as I descended the path above Suikerbossie.
Wondering if the climb up Constantiaberg would ever end.
Somersaulting head-over-heels on one of the boulder fields on the contour path before Newlands Ravine. This was a tumble of note – I’ve crossed those boulders hundreds of times and have never slipped, so it didn’t even occur to me to be cautious. Somehow this time I slipped, and in what felt like slow-mo, my feet were flying in the air above my head, and I landed on my butt, straddling a boulder and wondering what I must’ve broken. Miraculously, I was intact, I’d only scored a few grazes.
The never-ending slog up Newlands Ravine, soon followed by Devil’s Peak. It’s fair to state quite openly that I HATED Devil’s Peak that day. To me it was 100% appropriately named. The Devil sucks.
My 13 Peaks turned out to be one of those memorable runs I’ll treasure forever. It was one helluva challenge, yet low key and personal, just as I love my trail runs to be. Finishing in 22:57:15, I managed to achieve the fastest known time for running it solo, but that record won’t hold for long – soon it’ll be smashed, there’s loads to be chopped off that time! I’m happy to have clinched it – and, it has to be said, that it took a woman to do it! 😊
A huge thank-you to my support crew: Craig, Jana, Prem, Armand, Karoline, Filippo and Altie, you guys ROCKED YOUR SOCKS OFF! Thank you!
And to the concept craftsman of the 13 Peaks Challenge, Ryan Sandes: thank you for this challenge, in all its forms. You’re encouraging runners of all levels to push their boundaries, and you’re always leading the way. Keep inspiring us all!