Lessons from the Mountain

We had decided to take on Ryan Sandes FKT challenge on Table Mountain one early Saturday morning, and looking out the window in the car on the way to the mountain, the weather was proving to be less than ideal. It was a little windy and overcast, but nothing we couldn’t handle. I actually thought it would be quite nice to run in those conditions up there, as the previous times we had gone up it had often been very hot, making us tire faster. This brings me to our first lesson of the day – never predict the weather on the mountain will be the same as the weather on the ground! We learned this one the hard way.

Besides a minor detour we got off to a fairly good start, feeling strong on the climb, and excited to finally conquer the route. The problem was the closer we got to the top, the heavier the fog began to set in. We couldn’t see anything when we looked down or into the distance except grey cloud, and everything was just wet and slippery enough to slow our movement, keeping things on the safer side (we knew it was a long way down into the eerie fog below).

It took us just over an hour to reach the top of the mountain, 715 meters up. This is when we realised that things were going to be a lot harder than we thought. The first thing was that we were hit by the wind, hard. It was traveling at about 40km per hour, and along with the sudden rain and thick fog, we found ourselves in conditions we had never run in before, on a mountain where many had lost their way, gotten injured, or even lost their lives. So we did what any trail runner would do in these circumstances – we zipped up our gear and headed into the unknown.

Although the circumstances were not ideal, we were still in high spirits, chatting and laughing as we trotted along. However soon afterward we realised we had lost the path as our trails started turning into unfamiliar streams, and eventually (thanks to having scouted the route before) we realised that we had completely veered off course and decided to turn around and head back. This brings me to our second lesson – pay attention! Look where you are going, especially when it is harder to navigate.

On our way back we bumped into two others on the trail, the first life we had seen in almost two hours. They were on the same route and had followed our tracks off the path. However, convinced they were right they continued to run, and we turned around and followed them, for fear of being lost in the fog alone. Our new found company were two male runners, who were clearly a lot more experienced and faster than us, and keeping up proved to be quite challenging; in fact I experienced my much dreaded first fall in the process (something I have been able to avoid for quite some time now). I came out of it completely unscathed and was straight back on my feet as we raced after our new trail guides – as my sister joked, it was a very “successful fall”. Lesson three, throw caution to the wind sometimes, it’s ridiculously fun, the adrenaline is addictive, and if you fall just get back up and run.

As we knew would happen, we eventually had to turn back again, because, as we had told our companions, we were lost. Unfortunately we could not keep up this time and they slowly disappeared into the white blanket in front of us, leaving us alone and starting to get slightly nervous as we kept losing signs of a path. Our next lesson for the day, ALWAYS stick to the path if you want to end up near any civilisation, or avoid running off the side of the mountain. It got to a point where we tried to navigate our way with the GPS on my phone as we could not orientate ourselves inside of the thick cloud around us… unfortunately Google maps is not very helpful in navigating two small girls off one giant mountain, so we gave up on that. Another lesson, if you’re going into a situation that could get you lost, carry some kind of mountain-friendly navigation gadget – needless to say ours was sitting nice and dry in my bedroom at home, not being much help to us at that point.

The wind was howling and we were wet and starting to get very cold, when we came across the two runners we had lost earlier. They had found the right path and were seemingly waiting for us, however as the only thing keeping us warm was constant moving and sticking our hands under our armpits, it was at this point that we decided to try and head back down the way we came instead of trying to go any further. Next lesson learned – layers! The right gear is important and if there’s a chance it could be cold and wet, pack layers and waterproof items, it could literally save your life. We continued heading in the direction we figured out we had come from, but first we took a quick selfie-video to prove to our Mindful Runner coach that we were going back because we could die and not because we were just being sissies!

As soon as we managed to get to the side of the mountain and start heading down again, the weather became a lot more manageable. The wind and rain stopped and we were able to breathe a little easier. We called our lift to meet us where we had started and took a slow climb down, being careful not to slip on the wet rocks down the steep ledge beside us. We reflected on another lesson – the importance of carrying our safety equipment, as we realised that if things had not worked out, our extra food and water, emergency blanket, whistle and cell phone could have all played a part in literally saving our lives.

After 3 hours, over a 1000 meters of climbing and 11 intense kilometres in distance, we reached the bottom, with enough energy for a final sprint and a few woops of delight, a jump and heel-tap may have been thrown in there too. No, we had not completed the FKT… Yes, we had gotten incredibly lost and risked our lives… But our spirits were high and the experience invaluable, and we were already planning our next attempt. Why you ask? Because among the many lessons we had learned that day, the most important was one which I learn every time I am out in the mountains – because trail running is damn hard, but it’s so worth it… every time!

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