The deafening flapping from the rain jacket hood had grown so loud it muted the sting of the icy sleet against my left cheek. The ghosted runner just 10m ahead of me was swaying like a drunk man, except that drunk men don’t walk with a 45-degree sideways lean. The last gust of wind and ice had nearly stopped everyone in their tracks. Just a little harder and we would have been bowled over like skittles.
I wondered: how much longer until this does happen? And what would the treacherous crossing of the narrow Dragon’s Back be like? I turned around in time to see my girlfriend Tori being blown into the barbed wire fence we were skirting.
To say she wasn’t having a good time was an understatement. Just a week prior she had been running on pancake-flat ground in 35 degree heat in the Dubai desert. Now the temperature was close to zero, without the wind chill. She’d also been tormented by a runny tummy from 10km and knew six of the best bushes en route intimately. The hug gave us both a flicker of comfort but then it was time to face the 70-80km/h wind demon again.
A minute before, looking ahead from the high point, we could see it howling over the saddle. It dragged a giant Everest-like plume of moisture cascading like a waterfall down the leeside.
We were standing immersed in this icy waterfall on the exposed saddle of a series of 2,700m high ridges that snake 60km along the Witteberg Mountains in the northern Eastern Cape region of South Africa. To the north, often on the race course, lay the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, the only country in the world entirely above 1,000m elevation. The Wittebergs were the siblings of the imposing Drakensberg range that runs for 1,125km and peaks at Thabana Ntlenyana (3,482m) in Lesotho, the highest point in southern Africa.
If you’re wondering, we weren’t up here for a picnic or the scenery. We were competing in the 16th Salomon Skyrun presented by Red Bull and the intention had been to run and hike the 65km from Lady Grey to Balloch Cave. I’d done the shorter 65km Lite (a misnomer if there’s ever been one) once before. And in 2012 I’d completed the 100km Skyrun in 26 hours, mostly at fast hike pace. Skyrunners often call the event the SkyHike or the CryRun. The terrain is rocky, rugged and often there is no path. The grassy sections near the end are lush and may have evolved solely to torture human ankles. Fast hiking is the order of the day for most competitors. Navigation is key. Getting lost is not an option.
And that is where several people got into serious difficulty and meeting requests from the Grim Reaper. One woman had to be carried off the mountain in a sleeping bag after being lost on the mountain for hours. Getting her cell coordinates to race organiser Adrian Saffy after hours of calls and SMSes no doubt saved her life. Others had to wait for up to four hours in cold wet tents before being led down the mountain. Then their guides got lost. It was chaos. Would a fatality happen for the first time?
As darkness descended, the howling demon’s pitch raised to a scream on the mountain tops, tasting blood and lusting for the slaughter. At the lower altitudes of the 100km race finish at Wartrail, co-organiser Michael de Haast went through his own hell co-ordinating other rescues. Saffy did as he did every race: sweeping the back of the field to get ‘his’ runners home. But today they’d been blind-sided by the demon’s battering ram crews. Never before had the odds been so stacked against the humans. The cracks in the ramparts started to show. Boom. Boom. BOOM. BOO-OOOM!
The castle walls were starting to crumble. People were weakening: falling, slipping and tripping. Some were lying on the cold ground, going into the final stages of hypothermia. One woman had to hold another to prevent her slipping into unconsciousness. She was one of several who had thoughts of making peace for their dying on the mountain.
Our best got beaten too
Even race leader Iain Don-Wauchope, a seasoned mountain runner, was finally pulled from the course at the turn with less than 17km to go. Hypothermic. The race was cancelled at this point. Afterwards, he told a film crew: “We were in survival mode; you don’t worry about times, wins, money… nothing… you just gotta get yourself to help because that’s how bad it was. It was serious.”
To understand how even a champion runner can come unstuck, I need to start from the beginning to tell this story from every angle.
Race day started early. As we lay in bed at 2am, I could hear the rain gushing out of the downpipes at the Mountain View Country Inn. Most people got up before 3am to make roll call at 3:30am, held sardine-style in the Inn’s eating hall. Nearly everyone seemed dressed to the nines on top but there were still a lot of bare legs. My decision on clothing was also based on the current conditions, which had subsided to a medium to light drizzle, with not much wind (that I recall). I rarely run in fleece tights and although mine were packed, I was fairly certain within myself that I would not need them today. Just after 4am, standing outside in the dark with an intermittent light drizzle falling, there was no way of knowing what conditions were like on the mountains nearly 2,000m above us. There had been no kit checks to enforce the compulsory gear list. Basically, it was up to competitors to accept responsibility and carry everything needed.
But there’s a problem with this laissez faire good cop approach. Without an impartial expert judging just what a proper waterproof is, nothing stopped a competitor bringing along a 20-year-old moth-eaten ‘rain jacket’ and thinking that would suffice. Or how about this thin non-technical fleece top that a clueless sales clerk had sold as adequate for mountain conditions? Experience has shown that it should always be checked against a proper check list. Sometimes we just forget to pack stuff and it’s good to have someone double-checking for us. It could save a life. It could save your life. Or your soul mate’s.
Although it is a reasonable punitive measure to do a kit check at the end and penalise runners, there’s no safety value to the runner when they should have been carrying the kit from the beginning.
Battle clouds build
It was only after two hours that conditions started worsening. At three hours, we started passing into the raging maw of the storm, walking into its slimy gullet. Not far from the fourth checkpoint at Avoca, I saw the horrible instant that Tori rolled her ankle in thick grass. She had to hobble from then on. When we clambered our way up the rain-soaked footpaths to reach the small two-man tent at Avoca, even being in the lee of the giant cliffs above us that rose to 2,756m didn’t help. The wind was pummeling the poor tent and the stoic but out of their league crew there. Worse, temperatures were only doing one thing: plummeting. It was a tough call for Tori: “I think I need to bail here darling, even though I’ve never DNFed before,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I want to go on but it’s just not fun anymore and my ankle is so sore.” The crew said she’d be able to hike 7km down to the bottom where there would be a vehicle to take them away. “But we can only take you down at 4pm when the backmarkers have come through.” It was just after 1pm. So it was going to be a long cold wait in the tent. She had on a base layer, one windbreaker, an outer rainproof and 3/4 leggings, but she’d been soaked before putting on the rain jacket. I had a warm dry fleece which I said she should put on after taking off her clothes and putting the rain jacket over on top again. A few minutes later, photographer Kelvin Trautman’s girlfriend Sabrina Chesterman would join her, shivering uncontrollably and ice-cold. They had to hug each other to keep warm. Leaving a loved one, even in the hands of those there to help, is a hugely emotional decision. I ran for 200m with TRAIL mag reader Gerhard Weich and stopped in my tracks. Should I go back and stay with her? Would that make it easier for her? Yes. But I also had come here to face this beast, to conquer my own humanity, to survive – not conquer – these mountains. No-one could conquer these mountains. If they’d been conquered, it would be easy to do them again. But multiple runs here have taught me that each run is a new challenge. No resting on laurels.
Long story short, Gerhard used his Suunto Ambit to good effect and we met up with another group. We reached Dragon’s Back with its precipitous drops on both sides. The wind was moving with the ferocity of a freight train, left to right. I’ll never forget scurrying bottom down on all fours in the trench to the right of the barbed wire fence, thinking “If this gale blows someone over the edge today, it’s the end. And I must do everything not to be that person.” Finally I got to the steep shelf that entrants slide down using the fence as a hold. My heart sank when I looked down the scary slide. There was only a single main wire left. Would it hold or would it snap midway? It didn’t bear thinking about. I stopped, my eyes glazed and scenarios flashed through my mind like the flickering end of a film reel. Earlier, Alana Jane Doyle had been hooked on the barbed wire on the 60-degree slope and had frozen tearfully for two minutes until her companions convinced her to keep moving.
Luckily there was a rock scramble to the left, tricky and potentially an ankle breaker but with some bum sliding and delicate foot placing on the wet rock, we got down in one piece.
I won’t bore you with the remaining 15 kilometres to the 65km finish. They were a long slog through magnificent grassed and often marshy landscapes. There were many fences to jump or squeeze through. It seemed to take an eternity, but we made it. Everyone’s thoughts were on finishing but also on those still trapped on the mountain.
To fully appreciate the conditions, Sean Wisedale, an experienced mountaineer who was the first African to summit all seven of the planet’s highest peaks and a seasoned mountain runner, became hypothermic.
He told me in an email afterwards: “My brother-in-law Anthony Rowan says ‘You may love the mountains but the mountains don’t necessarily love you.’
And that sums it up succinctly. The mountains bear no grudge against us. We are just brave and foolish enough to venture into their domain where winter cold splits rocks the size of VW Beetles and the wind cuts holes into stone as hard as steel.
What other outcome should we expect?
In my mind, there’s a chain of responsibility, inextricably linked in a perfect circle of understanding and enlightenment. Both organisers and runners need to communicate and listen better.
1. When organisers say “It’s going to be hectic up there”, we should believe them and have all the gear, and not think about travelling light for a five minute advantage over a rival. It’s selfish needing to rely on a fellow runner because you couldn’t be bothered to take your headlamp or enough food or a beanie.
2. There need to be escape routes. Everyone has a bad day, even people running right at the front.
For example, if you start feeling ill at check point 1, you can easily get back by turning around, but by CP2, it is a long way to go back on your own. I saw that well-considered evacuation plans were not in place at critical places. There need to be protocols to extract injured or battling runners off at various points along the route. Could there be an escape route down the side of the mountain, to a waiting rescue vehicle with properly trained medical staff? This needs to be discussed.
3. Better comms. There are ways (read: satellite phones) to communicate with marshals to prevent runners from proceeding to heights that are being bombed by the wind and cold.
4. Bigger crews on the route. There also need to be enough mountain rescue crews trained in this on a regular basis. The crews this year were wonderfully accommodating and friendly but were not properly trained or prepared at crucial times and places. Other events like Otter African Trail Run team up with the Mountain Club of South Africa for this assistance.
5. More medical help. There also needs to be more medical crew en route. At the finish, there needs to be proper lighting for the doctors. A doctor we spoke to said there was inadequate lighting and if there’d been several emergencies he would have been out of his league.
What I learned
Overall, Skyrun 2013 was a remarkable journey that I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced. I would not trade it for anything. But it was dangerous and in in the opinions of some should not have started at all. Hopefully for 2014 we’ll have both better weather and more escape and medical options should things go pear-shaped.
The official Skyrun website
Tori’s version of events
Through the lens of Kelvin Trautman’s camera
When the mountains win
Mountain search and rescue
Ryno Griesel on his Skyrun experience
What they said
The only bad race is a race you don’t learn anything from. So I got taught a good hard lesson today
I truly hope they get some kind of strategy going forward, even if they do like the paddling races. If the weather is bad, only let ‘A’ batch runners start. That means you’ve either have done Skyrun or Mutter or other similar races before… and have the correct gear! No gear, no bib, no race! Simple….
Dr Grant Harper, Durban
You can only grow mentally if you push yourself. If there are clouds on top of the mountains, the conditions up there will be hectic.
Ugene Nel (event organiser, trail runner, adventurer. He was not present, but commented via telephone afterwards)
Men 100km Skyrun – positions at cancellation point
- Iain Don-Wauchope
- Hylton Dunn
- Andrew Erasmus
Women 100km Skyrun – positions at cancellation point
- Annemien Ganzevoort
- Su Don-Wauchope
- Tatum Prins
- Chris Cronje
- Murray Sanders
- Justin Short
- Laura O’ Donoghue
- Taryn Mc Donald
- Janneke Laesk