Let’s get on a plane, fly to Cape Town, explore Table Mountain, meet up with a legend on the cover of a book, get a badge and fly back. Sounds like fun?
In short, ultra-running legend and Cape Town resident, Ryan Sandes, started the 13 Peaks Challenge which he described as “the idea of me wanting to link up some of my favorite peaks on Table Mountain and in the Cape Peninsula area”. Ryan sketched his favorite peaks out on a notepad and linked them up in what he believed was a logical route that would make for a great adventure. Clearly, the logic in Cape Town was a bit over the top that day and it seems that no one questioned the straight lines between the peaks on that notepad. Nevertheless, an idea was born and it turned out to be something pretty special. It’s not a race, the rules are as limited as “don’t be a chop”, and the aim is camaraderie instead of competitiveness.
OK, let’s just get something straight from the onset, that notepad sketch of Ryan turned out to be something spectacular, something beyond words. As the proverb goes, “A picture is worth more than a thousand words.” I thought I’d go a step further and create a little video to explain where we’ve been;
In summary, the route is approximately 109 kilometers with 6400 meters of vertical ascent and descent. It is enough to raise some eyebrows, enough to shatter some legs, and enough to spend some proper time with genuine people. I gave some 135,000 steps, burned 8914 Calories and moaned for 23 hours straight.
I’m not going to try and hide the fact that this is not an ordinary challenge, especially if you want to get it done in a group within 24 hours. To try and find people with similar abilities, similar characters, and similar senses of humor is a challenge all on its own, but it’s an important one. It is not the kind of challenge you can just “wing”, and that is exactly what we did.
Pieter Conradie, a particularly pale human being that touches on the side of becoming invisible when he exercises. He is known for starting all his races way too fast, no matter the distance. Pieter flourishes on very little training and believes that coffee (Gegrond Coffee) has special enhancement properties. Pieter is your suit and tie kind of guy, not your typical outdoor junky. I also have first-hand experience of Pieter’s navigational skills, and yes, it is that bad. Pieter was the instigator for our 13 Peaks attempt, he nagged us for several months and when no-one bothered to take it seriously, he played the “I’m emigrating” card. This left us with only one remaining and suitable weekend and no real time to prepare, but we just knew we had to join in on this farewell party.
Iain Peterkin, probably the most stubborn person I know, wouldn’t miss this for the world. He has a triathlon background and occasionally needs to be reminded to not be a chop. Iain judges people by the way they wear their hats, and apparently, the correct way to wear it is always in the aerodynamic position with the peak to the back. Stubborn? Yes, but when attempting the 13 Peaks Challenge you need to be a little bit mad. Iain is a friend that rarely says no to an adventure, so when Pieter suggested the 13 Peaks idea, he was ready to pour some fuel on the fire.
Jacques Buys, a fast feet speedster with the ability to sidestep any stick snake that comes his way. Although the youngest in the group, Jacques had some adventure racing experience in his artillery and knew how to operate on minimal sleep whilst navigating far away from the obvious routes. Secretly, we all hoped he would cramp somewhere and slow down, but it never happened. A real workhorse, a get-the-job-done kind of person and a real team player.
Myself, well uh yes, I have the ability to complain for excessive periods of time. Heaven knows why they even asked me to join in the first place.
It all started as an idea by Pieter, probably the one person I know that can dream up ideas bolder than mine. “We can fly down on a Friday, use an Uber to the start, and fly back once we’re done”. At first, we didn’t pay much attention to Pieter’s constant nagging, but when he said “Listen, guys, I’m moving to Ireland”, our excuses dried up. Pieter was adamant, picked a weekend and lured us into joining him with this massive emigration sympathy card.
Retracting from the initial fly-in-on-the-day idea, my three compatriots flew to Cape Town on Thursday, one day before our attempt was bound to start, to “check out some logistical stuff”. Heaven knows what they checked out but I have a pretty good idea it had something to do with Clifton 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. I was stuck in Gauteng for another day with a flight to Cape Town only scheduled to arrive at 8 PM on Friday evening. “When were you planning to start?” you might ask. Well, on that same Friday evening, at 9 PM.
Upon touching down in Cape Town I was expecting to be welcomed by some idiots holding a signboard with my name on it, but it wasn’t to be. My three compatriots were late before we even started. Eventually, a Golf arrived and I saw people in running clothes peeling out the doors and windows with excitement painted all over their faces. Those faces of excitement were however quickly wiped out into faces of flabbergast when they realized I was still in civvy clothes, not quite sticking to the plan. I was convinced that sitting in particularly short running shorts next to the wrong person on an airplane could potentially create a drop in cabin pressure and I wasn’t ready for an emergency landing in Bloemfontein. So, I opted to face the music and do a quick change once we got to Signal Hill. Escorted by two legendary supporters, Wian and Liezel, the six of us crammed into Wian’s Golf and headed for Signal Hill.
I did face the music, but so did everyone else. Iain’s dark and sophisticated music versus Pieter’s “Afrikaans Treffers” was quite something to behold. Rumor has it that, to this day, Jacques’ mind is still stuck on those songs.
We reached Signal Hill just after 9 PM.
We tagged Signal Hill within the first second of our attempt and were confident that we were on record pace. “Let’s go for it”. Scrambling into the direction where we thought the path would be, we got lost. “We ran here when we did UTCT, the path must be here!” echoed into the darkness as we searched for the little path like a bunch of headless chickens. “Let’s just head for the tar road”, “Should we start over?”. We didn’t start over but headed for the tar road and, with this tiny bit of calmness, reality struck. This was not as straight forward as we thought it would be.
We settled in, sticking to Iain’s plan of taking it easy on the uphills, and climbed steadily to the top of Lions Head, the second peak. We found ourselves on the non-recommended route, probably the faster route, but we didn’t know any better so just carried on with some sheer drops lurking around us. The Mother City at night was quite something to behold, lights everywhere, cordoned off by the ocean to the left and the mountain to the right.
We made our way down to Tafelberg Road, got restocked and refueled by our awesome supporters, and headed for Platteklip Gorge on the face of Table Mountain. We somehow forgot our easy-on-the-uphills plan altogether and created some gaps among ourselves going up the gorge before regrouping at the top for a quick bite. All of a sudden, the Cape Town weather was ready to give us a proper run for our money. Misty and miserable conditions made visibility quite awful, but we soon discovered Jacques’ hidden talents. He sailed through the mist, shifted his mind into night mode and miraculously got us to the third peak, Maclear’s Beacon, before we could even make sense of where we were going.
We continued on the mountain, night mode engaged, with mist flying into our faces. The art of dodging stick-snakes was Jacques’ biggest concern with the rest of us following his footsteps, but disaster was about to strike. With the safety on the mountain being something we’ve heavily overlooked we were in for quite a surprise. No, it wasn’t a mugger, for crying out loud, no idiot of any sort would be hiding on top of a mountain hoping that some random people will pass in the middle of the night. Disaster struck in the form of Iain’s music. Yes, we were carrying a Bluetooth speaker and the party was about to get real, or so we thought. Slow music, probably good music, but particularly slow music, were being rumbled over the mountain. I was falling asleep. Kilometers and time passed as we slowly ticked over those songs. In fact, I was so asleep that I can’t even recall when the music stopped, but it did stop, thankfully.
Peaks four and five came in quick succession, Grootkop- and Judas Peaks. The conditions were still horrible on the mountain as we tried to hide behind the rocks for some shelter against the howling wind. We couldn’t really take in any of the views that this part of the mountain had to offer and decided to head down as quickly as possible to find some water.
Now, imagine sitting in a guardhouse around two o’clock in the morning and you see a particularly pale human being knocking on your window asking for some water. I wouldn’t have been as calm as that guard. But, in true South-African spirit, he did us a massive favor. He took all our flasks, went to the kitchen, and filled it with ice-cold water from the fridge. What a life-saver of a guy.
Klein Leeu Koppie, peak number six, is only a small speckle on a map. We started climbing it and scrambled for some time before reaching the top. I was surprised by this climb. In my mind it was insignificant but in reality, it wasn’t. We chose to go straight over Klein Leeu Koppie directly towards Suther Peak and, although we had a GPS track of where to go, it wasn’t all as easy as we thought. With Jacques leading the way like a true adventure racer we managed to get Pieter stuck on a fence. Sophisticated movements got him loose. On second thought, maybe there was an easier way and maybe Jacques just got it horribly wrong. We’ll never know.
We anticipated Suther Peak, peak number seven, to be a monster. Three of us had a history with this climb whilst facing it in the middle of the day just over the halfway mark on the Ultra-Trail Cape Town route. It was somewhat less of a monster than we’d expected, not easy, but not as memory recalled. It’s funny how a race situation combined with different weather elements can create such fear that you’re almost dumbstruck when you do it out of competition. Why was it that bad that half of the field pulled the plug on that particular UTCT day? Perspective is everything.
It was at this point where I decided to pull the plug on the 13 Peaks Challenge myself. I banged my knee against a rock a little earlier and the downhill running became a bit of an issue. I couldn’t move fast and combined with our take-it-easy-on-the-uphills strategy, this meant we were moving slowly all the time. I didn’t want to risk long term injury and also didn’t want to slow the others down. I didn’t really care too much about proving a point, I mean the mountains were not going anywhere. Luckily, being the stubborn friends that they were, everyone just ignored me and Pieter told me that I’m carrying on. That was it, end of discussion. I carried on.
Back in Houtbay dawn started to break and we were a bit worried. The first thirty kilometers took us more than seven hours and we couldn’t really figure out where the time had gone. I was a bit slower on the downhills but relatively speaking only a few minutes, not hours. We had underestimated the conditions on top of the mountain coupled with what the weather had thrown at us. Like hobos, we had a bit of a breather on the pavement outside a filling station, stuffing our stomachs with anything we could find in the small little shop whilst gathering our thoughts.
Chapmans Peak Drive, one of the few world-class roads in our country. A few cyclists were making their way up to the top of the roadway and that triggered our competitive instincts. Iain was convinced he could catch them. The small little Bluetooth speaker re-emerged, but this time the sleepy music was something of the past. We ticked over some easy kilometers on the road before making our way onto the trails again. As luck would have it, there were some hikers up the path which gave us a bit of a target to aim at. When we reached Chapmans Peak, peak number eight, we realized we were just about halfway. Oh, bummer.
As we ascended towards Noordhoek Peak, peak number nine, I remember thinking we were somehow turning the screws on this thing. For the first time in so many hours, we were starting to change direction. The smell of the finish was ever so close, but yet so far. It was actually still bloody far. Noordhoek Peak gave us some splendor views of where we came from. Wrapped up in 180 degrees we could glance from the 12 Apostles right around to Chapman’s Peak, with Suther Peak keeping an eye on Houtbay below. We have basically done most of the significant mountain peaks around Houtbay, Ryan’s home town.
We knew that we’d see some familiar faces on our way to Muizenberg as our supporters were awake and making their way to the Ou-Kaapseweg crossing. Tourists started clogging the trails but it kind of gave us that extra boost, especially the encouragements from the ones that knew what we were doing. We reached Ou-Kaapseweg to be greeted by a familiar face, a face that you often see in magazines, a face that’s on the cover of the Ryan Sandes book. A legend of the sport, that created the idea we were busy with, made some time to see how we were doing. Yes, he was also part of a relay team doing the challenge in sections on that day, but I don’t accept that as an excuse for him being there.
Let’s just pause there for a second. A special thank you needs to go out right here to Wian, Liezel, Esme’ and Corneli, our self-proclaimed supporting crew. They took time out of their own lives to see what we were up to and on top of that presented us with a picnic lunch from the script of Masterchef.
Fast forward a couple of hours. With peaks ten and eleven and the long descent towards Constantia Kloof now behind us, we saw a gazebo in the distance. At first glance, we thought it was a student party as we misread Mates for Maties. But, as we came closer, we saw that they looked a bit too odd to be students. They were fellow runners and were so happy to see us as they’d been waiting since very early that morning for someone, anyone, to visit their beer station. Some were as exhausted as we were as they were “keeping the beer cold” from who knows when, but their friendliness wasn’t lacking any enthusiasm. Offering beer, shooters, soft drinks, snacks, food and encouragement, they helped us a lot.
After we found our own supporters, with more food, we had to start the trek to tag the final two peaks. We were still confident that we’d make the end within 24 hours, but we didn’t want to have to trigger race pace at any point. We were going into the unknown, having climbed more than any of us had ever done in a single effort before. If something went pear-shaped, we needed a bit of a buffer.
Oh, how we loved going up to Klassenkop, peak number twelve. There is just nothing like overgrown paths with prickly bushes to tickle my taste buds. The taste of agonizing anger grew as I became the hulk of hulks, man I just hated it. We climbed through a tree to reach the top, gathered some sanity and went back down that overgrown path.
With a big shortcut looming the wind was picking up and before we could really decide which route to take, Iain was already halfway down the mountain. He was having none of our scrambling ledges ideas. Rather safe than sorry, I guess. We haven’t done that sketchy part before and didn’t know what to expect. We could’ve saved a big chunk of time but could’ve lost an even bigger chunk. We followed Iain down Nursery Ravine as we made our way towards Newlands Forest.
One last climb, up Newlands Forest, towards the final peak, Devil’s Peak. It was a silent slog, everyone taking in the moment, everyone taking some strain, but we just kept moving. Jacques and Iain reached a beacon, almost having a moment of relief before they realized they were at the wrong one. A strong wind blew us right to the top of the devil, peak number thirteen done and dusted. We only had to complete the loop by returning to the very first peak, Signal Hill.
The relay team full of Cape Town champions flew past us on the final stretch as we approached our victory parade on Table Mountain road. We knew we had this one in the bag. Our supporting crew followed us, blasting loud music from the car, man they were a “jol”. Up came another unknown individual from the Cape Town trail community, offering us some milkshakes. A few more cars came back from Signal Hill with people cheering out the windows. “Who are these people?” we thought. In these final moments, we realized that the Cape Town trail community is something the rest of the country can only dream of. They didn’t know us, but they showed true camaraderie and brought us home.
The clock stopped at 22 hours and 53 minutes.
Ryan waited for us at the finish and awarded us with our one-day badges, our farewell badges to Pieter.
As part of what will someday be a large number of badges’ stories, this was my one-day badge’s story.