The month of June 2015 was one for record breakers, and setters, in the Drakensberg. On the first of the month when Andrew Porter set the second fastest time for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, which he ran solo and unassisted.
Clocking in at around 45 hours 8 minutes, Andrew ran the course south to north, unlike the ‘traditional’ north-to-south route on which other records have been set.
This incredible feat is something to be admired, not only for the fact that it was completed solo and unaided, but also for the work and time that goes into preparing for such an arduous task. For those runners who wish to write their names in the Drakensberg FKT record books, the Grand Traverse is the Grand Daddy – but it is also no weekend jaunt.
SA Trail Champion Johardt van Heerden, a former track star, decided to set off a new FKT movement in the Drakensberg after his brother Cornel introduced him to the concept.
“The whole FKT movement is still quite new in South Africa,” Johardt explains after setting the bench-mark FKT up the Sterkhorn peak in the Champagne valley at 2 hours 18 minutes.
“My older brother, Cornel, introduced me to it. He regularly travels to the Drakensberg and during a hiking trip, we jogged up Sterkhorn one afternoon. He told me that he was looking at ways to start establishing FKTs on the prominent peaks in the Drakensberg. He started researching whether there was any established records, however there were only records that would take a serious amount of preparation and logistics – something not all of us have the time for.
“We started thinking that we have all these amazing and prominent peaks in the Drakensberg and that we could start establishing some FKTs on them. By doing this, we could get more people involved in living an adventurous lifestyle, and experience the just how amazing the Drakensberg is.
“I decided that we should give Sterkhorn a go as it was a prominent peak in a very popular area of the Berg, and is a recognised, but tough, day hike.
“I had not traveled to the Champagne Valley area before, and I was under the impression that it was only a big hill and laughed it off when he told me that Sterkhorn isn’t runnable. How wrong was I? The route is 16.73km long with just 1,500 m of climbing in the first 8km, starting at 1,481m above sea level and topping out at around 2,830m.
“I do not know of anyone specific who is planning on challenging my bench-mark, but I think after this first effort it is going to happen more regularly, as there were a quite a few questions after the run.
“It is such an awesome challenge and I would love to see people giving it a go. However, this is a massive mountain and the blurred lines between trail running and mountaineering become apparent .When you tackle Sterkhorn, it is a scramble to the top.
“I would advise people to first scout the route and mentally prepare themselves for this FKT because it is really hard and technical with some dangerous cliffs close to you. It is treacherous coming down, and extreme caution needs to be taken when running, however if you practice safe protocols, and do not take chances, you will be fine.
“The goal of this FKT was to get people involved and start challenging themselves. The Drakensberg is out there, waiting to get explored, but remember to respect the mountain, it will humble you if you go in overconfident.
“I was really nervous before my FKT. It actually felt like the night before a big event, only difference is that this was a race against time and myself and not against competitors.
“We went up the day before to scout the route and even though we were walking, it was still really hard. We took around five hours and I was quite tired after that. My brother and I decided that it was best to attempt the FKT with walking sticks (a very popular racing accessory in Europe), so the night before we cut some cut some bamboo as lightweight, homemade sticks. I think the walking sticks were the key to success.
“I started at 8am at the boom gate right by the mountain register at Monks Cowl, as this is easily identified, and will not move about. The first part is an awesome hiking trail all the way up to the Little Berg onto the plateau with about 700m accent in about 6.5km. Although the walking sticks slowed me down a bit on this section, it didn’t really bother me, because I knew that I was going to make up a massive amount of time on the mountain with them.
“Keep in mind that it is prohibited to go and stash anything beforehand on a FKT attempt – you have to be self sufficient and carry all that you will need. It was a beautiful sunny morning with a light cold breeze. I started quite fast and knew that it was going to be very hard and brutal when I started to taste blood after around four minutes into the attempt. I got to Blind Man’s Corner in about 38 minutes of continuous climbing. The next 50 minutes to the top was incredibly difficult.
“It climbs about 800m in less than 2km and the terrain is very steep with no clear path. The altitude also starts to take its toll after 2,500m above sea level. I kept a steady tempo on the climb and was pushing myself all the time. It was really painful, but the views made it worth it.
“I got to the top and touched the cross at 1 hour 27 minutes. One quick look down and the scary downhill started. The downhill from the summit to Blind Man’s Corner is very steep and quite dangerous, with one or two slightly exposed bits. This part forced me to be on top of my senses and extremely focused. There are one or two place where one wrong step on this section could be fatal, however if you take it easy and be careful you will be fine.
“I fell a few times on this section, because it is very slippery, but I didn’t took any chances near the cliffs. I took some water at Blind Man’s Corner and ran as hard as I could down to Monks Cowl. By this time there were many hikers on the trail and I had to dodge them. I started to cramp with around 2km to go, so I had to slow down and it went away.
“Overall, I am really happy about my time and think this served as very good preparation for World Champs. I have to admit that this was an almost all-out effort and my legs were very sore afterwards. I am looking forward to some new FKT routes and want to encourage people to get out there and challenge themselves.
“My next FKT targets are Cathedral peak, and then Rhino Peak. However, that is probably not going to happen before the end of the year. So if anyone is able to go and set up the route, we would love it!”
Since Johardt set his FKT, the month of record breakers continued with Matt Kretzmann setting the bench-mark at 3 hours 15 minutes for Rhino Peak.
Matt, like Johardt, also had ideas of setting some records on the more recognisable peaks in the Berg, but it was when he saw Johardt’s impressive effort on social media that he decided to join the movement.
“I have run/hiked a number of peaks in the Drakensberg and South Africa, my friends and I have often talked of starting an FKT roster or website to document the records of the numerous peaks around. So now that it is finally happening it is not surprising,” Matt said about his own reasons for running up Rhino Peak.
“The FKT movement has been going on for a while in Europe so it is great that it is coming to South Africa.
“I saw Johardt’s Sterkhorn effort on social media and decided to add my backing to the movement, choosing the most prominent free standing peaks in the Drakensberg at 3,051m above sea level.”
“I set off just before 7am in the bitter cold (-6°C). From the Drakensberg Gardens office, where you sign the mountain register.
“The going was good until about 6km when I hit some snow which had iced over and became very slippery. (If you are doing Rhino in winter keep to the left of the gulley, I learned the hard way.)
“After getting through Mashai Pass there are still a few kilometres along the escarpment to the peak itself. I got to the peak in just under 2 hours and after the mandatory selfie and a bite to eat I headed back. A bit of snowy bum sliding later and I was back in 3 hours 15 minutes.
“I think that this movement is very exciting and will no doubt get competitive with time, however anyone attempting a summit should take all necessary safety precautions as there is an element of danger. When you combine extremely steep gradient with loose rocks, high altitude, variable weather and fatigue you quickly become very vulnerable.”
Matt is also keen to continue pushing the FKT movement with a number of other peaks ready and waiting for a time to be put on them, He even predicts that Iain Don-Wauchope, who recently represented South Africa in the Trail World Champs in France, will try to break Johardt’s Sterkhorn effort.
“I plan on climbing more summits in the Berg, as are a number of my trail running friends,” Matt continues.
“It will not be long before all the major peaks and passes have FKTs, which is great because it will give us a yardstick with which to measure any future efforts. Summits such as Sterkhorn, Rhino, Cathedral Peak, and Giant’s Castle are perfect to start with as they are clearly defined in terms of where to start and where the peak is.
“I am sure that Ian Don-Wauchope will have a crack at Johardt’s effort soon as he lives very close to Sterkhorn.
The FKT movement is a fantastic way for runners to build up some friendly competition in some challenging circumstances, which can only be good for the sport. Summiting a peak in the Berg can be done over a weekend with less preparation than would be required for some of the bigger FKTs.
It seems like South Africa may well be picking up the FKT bug, so expect the peaks and passes of the mountain ranges in the Republic to be staked with some impressive times in the near future.
If you are attempting, or know of someone who is going to attempt to break or set a short FKT, please email firstname.lastname@example.org