I woke up with my face full of canvas. Opening my eyes I saw that the one side of the tent was collapsing on us. My first instinct was to reach an arm to each of my sides where our boys lay sleeping, trying to protect their faces from the heavy canvas threatening to smother them. I checked my watch. It was 12:30 am. Nico, always a man of action, was already out the tent door. Assisted by the bright full moon he was searching for his hammer and some ropes to secure the tent. A gale force bergwind was wreaking havoc on our campsite.
A few meters down, none of the athletes were getting some much needed shuteye either. Gazebos were flying around and tent poles were snapping. Only the guide, John Taniseb, who prefers to spread his sleep roll next to the fire beneath the stars, reported that he slept like a baby.
A Rough Start
Our little race village was but a small gaggle of tiny specks in the shadow of the mighty Brandberg. Earlier that evening we welcomed a small, select group of experienced athletes to base camp. After gear check and a race briefing, we were treated to a special voice recording from Ryan Sandes, the world class South African trail warrior. He reminded athletes to focus on the micro goals, one step at a time. He also praised them for supporting the FKT Challenge in aid of Save the Rhino Trust, a cause near to his own heart.
Just before 6 am, the seven athletes started to appear quietly from their wind-battered camping spots. Despite a rough night with little to no sleep, they were all smiling, not about to be put off from the mammoth task that lay ahead. They were eager to get started.
“We stood at the starting line, the mood light yet apprehensive, all of us ready to attempt to beat the FKT”, recalls Danie Joubert. “After a few photographs by the official race photographer, Karl Terblanche, and a short countdown we were off!”
Danie continues: “Four of us started running, as this is what we are used to. The other half of the field, including John, the guide, were walking and soon far behind. We were unsure if we should carry on with the pace, but trusting our guts we decided to push on. Not familiar with the route and solely relying on our GPSs, we were offtrack pretty soon and John caught up with us. The gradient also kicked up a few notches and we started to ascend rapidly. Soon the vistas of the desert below was flooded with red-orange light as the sun began to rise, an amazing scene to experience. By that time the pack at the front had broken away and was out of sight. I managed to scale the first 6 km and 1200 m of ascent in 01:30 and was still well on target to break the previous FKT.”
The Yardstick and the Challenge
After Fred Zalokar from the USA established the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Ga’aseb route on Brandberg in 2015, the team of Touch and Go started toying with the idea of a Brandberg FKT Challenge. The annual Brandberg Rhino Run and Ride was already established and successful in luring trail runners and mountain bikers to Damaraland in an endeavour to raise funds for Save the Rhino Trust. Would anybody have the nerve to attempt the Brandberg? Zalokar’s FKT of 08:06:00 to Königstein and back was a tall order to beat. Would it be possible to complete the 30 km distance with 4200 m altitude gain and loss any faster?
With very short notice the challenge was put out there. Potential competitors had to submit a running CV that was carefully evaluated before admission. The first pair of athletes that made the cut was Tobias Verwey and his wife Corné. Tobias had just completed the 250 km Four Deserts Sahara (Namibia) Race and finished in an overall tenth place. “From the first moment I heard about the event I was very excited about it. Ever since I read about Fred’s FKT I always thought about attempting it. This was an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands!” exclaimed Tobias.
Athletes were required to be fully self-supportive and to have excellent navigation skills. The route is mostly unmarked and even with the help the provided GPS track, there are considerable chance of deviating from the track and losing vast amounts of time. Of the the 30 km total distance, roughly 2 km covers a clear trail. The rest is mostly navigated by GPS track, scrambling and boulder hopping.
When they reached the plateau, Wim Steenkamp increased the lead on the two-man pack of Tobias and Laurie van Zyl, with Danie following. “We were grateful for the strong wind on the mountain that kept us cool”, Tobias remembers. “At the 8 km mark we filled up our water from the rock pools. Once we left the pools there were a few shorter climbs combined with some nice flat areas where you could actually run at a nice pace up to the last climb to Königstein. On our way up we passed Wim who was already on his way down. Laurie and I spent some time at the Königstein summit, the highest peak in Namibia, soaking it all in. What an absolutely amazing view it was!”
The Brandberg is a National Monument Area managed by the Namibian Heritage Commission (NHC). More than 45 000 rock paintings within the more than 1000 rock shelters have been recorded on the Mountain. It also harbours a unique habitat of fauna and flora. Due to its fragile natural and anthropological heritage, and also the logistics of such an event in such a remote setting, the race organisers decided on a maximum of ten participants. The NHC requires an official Brandberg guide to accompany climbers on the Mountain, and the very skilled John Taniseb was eager to fill the role.
John has been guiding on Brandberg many years and visits the Königstein summit roughly four times a month. Although they were all experienced in his or her own right, none of the participants have summited Brandberg before the day of the FKT Challenge. It was very comforting to know that someone as levelheaded, fit and experienced as John would be of assistance on the route. Nico, also an experienced mountaineer that often climbs Brandberg, acted as the sweeper of the event. He was tasked with seeing the last athlete down and reporting to base camp via VHF radio and satellite phone.
For Danie this was his first attempt at ‘big mountain running’. The distance wasn’t new to him, but the altitude gain and loss certainly was. “From the water pools, the remaining 9 km to the summit was a combination of loose rocks, bare rock faces and grassy plains. This extraordinary mountain has more variation in terrain, vegetation and views than a Swiss army knife. This was truly a unique and unrivaled experience. I passed Martin and Nora, the medical doctor duo from Switzerland, on my way down. They were maintaining a more conservative approach, like John, by power hiking at a consistent but fast pace. Their vast experience in the Swiss, French and Italian Alps were showing. They move like mountain goats!” exclaims Danie.
Adversity at altitude
Still up ahead in second place and making good time, Tobias and Laurie started their descent. Tobias was keeping an eye out for his wife, Corné, whom he expected to pass on her way up. “Diverting my eyes for a brief moment from the terrain immediately in front of my, it happened. I fell and sprained my left ankle! The pain was instant and severe. I still had 11 km to go over very treacherous terrain to get down and back to base camp, and I couldn’t step on my foot. I also knew that no one was going to carry me down, so the only way was to carry on under own steam”
Even though they were in a comfortable second place and making very good time to break the FKT, it never occurred to Laurie to leave his partner behind. Laurie, a pharmacist from Windhoek, knew he had to see that Tobias get down safely. “After making sure he didn’t break any bones I had him swallow a few anti-inflammatory capsules and strapped his ankle tightly. Then started the long trek down, hopping along the very steep ridges, Tobias gritting his teeth with each and every step we took. When the pain didn’t abate, I sat him down and strapped the ankle even tighter. Later on my “imaginary sprained ankle” was hurting on his behalf!” chuckles Laurie.
Besides his painful ankle, Tobias had a growing concern for the safety of his wife. Meeting up with Nico, the sweeper, it was confirmed that no one had passed Corné at any time. With cellular reception extremely sparse and the VHF radio only working with line of site, Nico couldn’t contact base camp and embarked on a solo search for Corné.
At Base camp, the easterly wind was still not settling. Everyone were scurrying to recover all that was lost or broken while trying to protect that which was still standing. Nobody expected the athletes back before at least seven hours after they started, so when Corné appeared over the ridge after just four hours the crew was very surprised. It was clear that she took a fall and the paramedics treated the wounds to her face.
“I was looking forward to the toughest, most satisfying race of my life”, recalls Corné. “Instead, what I got was my most disappointing race ever and my first DNF! I was humbled by the Brandberg.”
Corné says there were three factors that heavily outweighed her own stubbornness and drive to finish the course. “When I couldn’t see the leaders or the guide any longer I turned on my GPS, just to find that it didn’t depict the route to Königstein but a straight line to it instead. Without any other option, I tried to follow the straight line, but after an hour of scrambling and stumbling, I realised that I had made virtually no progress. The turning point came when I took a tumble and literally fell on my face. I knew that I didn’t break anything, but it was quite a scare, I must admit. Without the correct GPS route I realised that I wouldn’t find the pools to refill my water, and that was critical. I had to turn back. The disappointment was great, but the only thing I kept telling myself was that I WILL come back next year and finish.”
Late morning the wind calmed to some extent and the crew at base camp could start to prepare for the arrival of the first athletes. With only the benchmark of 08:06:00 to go by, everyone was relaxed and in no hurry to put up the banners for the finish line, in apprehension that the wind would just blow it over anyway.
Shortly before noon, Wim Steenkamp caught everyone off guard by his arrival back at basecamp. He completed the race in an unimaginable 05:57:00, beating the previous FKT by 2 hours and 9 minutes! After he had a few moments of rest and something cold he was promptly requested to stage his victorious finish again, and this time with a proper finish line ribbon and the photographer at hand. Poor Corné was put to task as banner-holder-cheerleader!
“Running up and down the Brandberg in a single day has been a bucket list item for me”, recalls Wim. “I’ve never been on the mountain and didn’t know the route or the terrain, so it was difficult to predict if the FKT could in fact be beaten. Self-navigation and the unsupported race format required careful preparation and planning by each athlete. It is only once you are on the mountain that you really get a sense of it’s magnitude and the value of the mountain as heritage site.”
All accounted for
Shortly after Wim’s arrival Nico was able to make contact with base camp. He was more than relieved to learn that Corné was indeed safe and soundly down from the mountain. He had been searching for her for quite a while, contemplating the endlessness of the possibility to get hurt or lost on that forsaken mountain and the inconceivability of an emergency evacuation.
The doctor duo from Switzerland, Martin Leitl and Nora Bienz, finished in joint second place in a time of 07:40:32 without running a single step. “We are mountaineers, not trail runners. The FKT Challenge was my first 30 km!” smiled Nora when she received her finishers medal.
The couple was travelling through Namibia when they learned of the FKT Challenge. Martin, also an alpine mountaineering guide, was keen for them to trade the snowy peaks for a brief moment in exchange for the heat and the desolate plains of the pro-Namib. Martin says “The steep rocky route, the orientation, the temperatures and the tough competitors made it a real challenge but also to an unforgettable highlight of our adventures throughout Namibia.”
After Laurie made made sure that Tobias was off the mountain and safely in the care of John, he oiled the hinges made a dash for the finish. He completed the route in a total time of 07:55:45, still well below the previous FKT.
Danie, who had also had GPS troubles lost time on the descent when he had to wait for John to show him the route. Nevertheless, he also beat the previous FKT when he finished in 07:59:58.
Having to hobble a third of the entire route on a badly sprained ankle, Tobias missed the previous FKT by a mere two minutes and finished in 08:08:45. What a fighter!
Laurie reflected on their collective experience:
“The Brandberg is harsh, yet breathtakingly beautiful. Before the FKT Challenge a friend of mine told me: “You are going to break that mountain”. My humble reply was that no-one can ever break a mighty mountain that has stood the test of time and has seen many centuries of climbers and walkers. We all came as strangers and we left as friends, THAT is what a mountain like this will do to you.”