Nine Peaks Challenge – the full story

Tag the highest peak in every province of South Africa. It's a simple enough premise. The tricky bit is runners have to drive themselves over 3,000km across the country from when the clock starts at the foot of the first peak until they summit the final peak. This year two teams of adventurers have broken the record. Here are their stories.

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Something big

Tian Liebenberg had to pause his Seven Summits attempt after being forced off Aconcagua by an infection. He decided to do something locally to get back into it, teaming up with Alex Harris, Adrian Saffy, and Sean Disney.

They achieved the record breaking run of 4 days, 15 hours, 58 minutes.

Tian explains. “I believed that with the ability and skills of the team I put together, we were definitely in with a good chance of setting new record.

“After months of training (admittedly, I was in need of more training than any of the others), we set off on our journey to set a new Nine Peaks Record on 12 July 2017.

Nine Peaks Challenge map of South Africa with elevation TRAIL 25“We chose our midnight start, because Suikerbosrand (containing the highest peak in Gauteng) closes its gates at 3pm.

“Working backwards we estimated how long each peak (and traffic) would take between the Iron Crown (Limpopo) and Suikerbos in order to figure out what time we had to start.

“From the Iron Crown we went to De Berg (Mpumalanga) and on to Nooitgedacht (North West).

“We managed to reach Suikerbosrand just after lunchtime and from there headed on the N3 towards the Drakensberg to climb Namahadi (Free State).

Nine Peaks Challenge Namahadi chain ladders ascent by Erik Vermeulen
The ascent of the Namahadi chain ladders. photo Erik Vermeulen

The first four peaks were all a doddle. It is with Namahadi that the real mountaineering started. We arrived at the Sentinal car park in the early evening, and packed our gear and changed clothes, in preparation for the cold.

“Halfway to the top, you encounter the infamous chain ladders – something I was aware of, but never quite realised how steep it was. That freaked me out a little. Once on the escarpment, we were dealing with strong crosswinds. We managed to summit Namahadi before midnight, having summitted the highest peak of five provinces within 24 hours.

“Once at the chain ladders – on the way down – things got a little hairy. Sean had already descended and Alex was below me on the ladders.

“A gust of wind pulled the chain off the face of the rock, leaving us hanging backwards – holding on for dear life. I screamed like a 13-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert.

[This is where the print article ends, and the web exclusive begins.]

“We made it down safely against the odds and headed to Mafadi (KZN).

We knew that the secret was not necessarily going to be speed, but just the ability to continue going with very little sleep.

Nine Peaks Challenge Mafadi Alex Harris Tian Liebenberg by Erik Vermeulen TRAIL 25
Alex Harris and Tian Liebenberg on their way up Mafadi Peak. photo Erik Vermeulen

“Mafadi was always going to be a long one, being the highest peak in South Africa. We set out in the late afternoon on Thursday 13 July. Once we got to Corner pass, we noticed that the pass was totally iced up.

“We took an alternative route via Judges Pass, which added to our planned route, totalling 57km.

“Just below the Mafadi summit, I managed to twist my entire body to the left without rotating my left foot and felt something pop.

“My concern was that I still had to get down the mountain, and then climb another three! The descent of Mafadi felt like an eternity and I was starting to hallucinate.

“Every so often, I would hear champagne corks pop and beer glasses clanging as people celebrated whatever it was they were celebrating.

“At one point on our descent, we measured the temperature at –11°C. We were hardly dressed for the occasion and found a rocky outcrop where we then huddled together under emergency blankets for about 20 minutes.

“Mafadi was cold, windy and unrelenting. I was absolutely shattered.

“Once we were in an area where I had cell phone reception, I called my doctor and explained what had happened to my knee. Fortunately, my emergency kit had medication in that would assist with the pain.

“The next three mountains was going a chess game where I needed to time the distance to the summit and the effects of the meds to perfection. Ascending was bearable – descending a nightmare.

Adrian Saffy on Kwaduma Nine Peaks Record
Adrian Saffy hiding from the wind on KwaDuma.

“From Mafadi, we made our way to KwaDuma (Eastern Cape). It’s in the middle of nowhere and the weather was more challenging than on Mafadi. It started with persistent rain, developing to sleet. On the escarpment, we were flattened by a gale-force wind.

“We had to turn back down and wait for the wind to subside. It was on KwaDuma that I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen.

“By now, we had wiped out whatever lead we had built up on the record time. My injury meant that we were now going at a snail’s pace.

“Medically, I would have been completely justified to call it quits. On my return to Johannesburg, it was established that I had a sprained knee, iliotibial band syndrome, torn Popliteus tendon in the left knee, and maybe a torn meniscus. Surgery is still a possibility.

“The road to the Northern Cape (Murch Point) was the most frustrating car trip any of us had ever endured.

“What should have taken us about five hours, ended up taking us over nine hours, due to roadworks.

“We were on KwaDuma, I received messages from a number of people saying that there had been storm warnings for Seweweekspoort – the last of our nine peaks. It was forecast to have temperatures of negative 20 degrees, and winds that will blow you into the next province.

“We arrived at Murch Point late on Saturday and made our way to the summit in very cold and windy conditions.

“There was only had one peak left – Seweweekspoort (WC). The challenge now took on some urgency, as we were right on the brink of either breaking the record, or missing it by minutes.

nine peaks record Seweweekspoort final summit
Team elated, victorious, and freezing cold!

“As we approached the mountain from the northern side, the area was white and grey. It took us seven hours to get to the top. We were now running against the clock and hardly took a breath as we machined our way through waist-high snow and ice.

“Four hours and 21 minutes after leaving our car, we stood on the summit of Seweweekspoort, setting a new record with about three hours to spare.

“I was beyond smashed. I had a left leg that was barely functioning. But we made it! I would put the experience right up there with the highest peaks I have climbed in Europe.

“We got back to the car late on Sunday evening, and cracked open a limited edition Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

“In the days that followed, I knew that it would not be long before someone took a crack at our record.

“Mountains don’t discriminate. They don’t care who you are, what you earn, what qualifications you have or what you’ve climbed before. They are the great leveller.

“What better way to be levelled than with three great friends!”

Team Nevarest takes on Nine Peaks Challenge

Come August, a new team decided to not only set a new Nine Peaks Challenge record, but to break the FKT (fastest known time) for each peak along the way.

The dream team comprised Ruan van der MerweGreg Avierinos, and Ryno Griesel.

They set out at 4am on Wednesday, 23 August for the non-stop endurance challenge encompassing a daunting 2,834km of driving (only athletes may drive), 121km of mountain running, navigating over harsh terrain, and 7,888m of vertical ascent.

They also started on Iron Crown (Limpopo). At 2,126m high, this was a quick summit. They dropped the FKT by 10 minutes.

The trio set off to summit De Berg in Mpumalanga, doing a sub-five-minute pace. The previous FKT of 1 hour 4 minutes was smashed in 41 minutes and 18 seconds.

The third summit, Nooitgedacht (NW) is in the Magaliesberg range. Despite some difficult terrain, they managed to set a new FKT by three minutes. Ryno and Greg both rolled their ankles, but spirits remained extremely high.

Just like that, and a third of the Challenge was completed in 8 hours, 50 minutes!

Toringkop was checked off the list next, with a running distance of only 900m (yes, that’s it). The old FKT stood at 6 minutes and 15 seconds. The team managed to pull off 4 minutes 23 seconds!

Things got real in the big mountains, starting with the Free State’s Namahadi. Based at the northern tip of the mighty Drakensberg, it sits at 2,191m with 26km running distance.

Read a complete account of their record-breaking run in TRAIL 25 on page 34.

Follow future attempts on the Nine Peaks Challenge here: ninepeaks.co.za

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