Friday, December 2, 2016

Otter African Trail Run: Retto Challlenge 2016 race report.

It has been more than 6 weeks since I completed the Otter African Trail Challenge, but to date I have not been able to get this race report out. Sure this draft has been sitting in my computer for 5 weeks now, but as per usual, I find it incredibly hard to pen down words to aptly describe a life altering experience such as the one that was The Otter. My usual flirtations with the same old three or four adjectives all look shallow and nondescript when I reread this; not at all reflective of what I carried away from this experience. This is also the reason why I couldn't bring myself to write/recite my own wedding vows for our wedding day, and why our sons' birth posts are also still in draft format, some five and three years overdue. My words just don't feel beautiful enough.

But, nevertheless, I will give it a shot. I may not be happy with the final product, but some idea of the experience will at least be shared with those who care to read.

Truth is, my head and my heart still lingers in that Forest. I close my eyes and I am right back there, every time as vivid, with only the sounds of my footsteps and rhythmic breathing, the forest quiet, alert, acutely aware of my passage. Skittish creature eyes watching. A cheeky lone Grey Loerie calling 'kokok! kokok!'

I met a part of myself in that forest that I haven't known before.

The Otter African Trail Run is known as 'The grail of Trail'. It is apparently one of the most popular and toughest marathon distance trails in the world, and also one of the most beautiful and pristine, which is why most people absolutely love the trail, whether it is to hike or to run it. Ryan Sandes, the South African professional trail runner, noted in his book that if he had to choose only one trail to run for the rest of his life, it would be the Otter.

The Race is incredibly well organised by the deeply passionate team from Magnetic South, founded by brothers Mark and John Colins (of Camel Trophy fame... yes, there were Land Rovers!), assisted by South African National Parks (SANPARKS) members and sponsored mainly by Salomon and GU.

We arrived at our cozy little cabin in Stormsrivier Village at mid-morning on the Wednesday, and settled in before we headed over to Storms River Mouth for race registration and mandatory gear check. The vibe at race village was incredible, the setup huge and the organisation really impeccable. I received my yellow and black race bib, my dibber (timing device), an awesome Salomon Otter race shirt and a goody bag to die for! Seriously, I have not received a goody bag of this caliber (yes, we LOVE our race goody bags!) When I saw a travel size of 'Ouma Hanna's Boerseep' I almost wept. I have been importing Ouma Hanna's soap from SA since 2012 for use on my sons' laundry. This goody bag had my name on since day one!

Otter goody bag content to die for! (Source)

After a yummie lunch at the local Park restaurant, it was time for me to get to know what was waiting for me the next day... it was prologue time. All athletes have to complete the prologue the day before the race for seeding purposes. It is a distance of just under 5 km over terrain pretty much representative of the Otter trail itself. I averaged about 10 minutes a kay over the short route of numerous short steep hills, protruding tree roots, rocks, streams and steps. Not your average run in the park! Since I really had no illusion of my fitness levels going into this, I opted to take it real easy and tread carefully, which by no surprise landed me very close to the back of the pack on the seeding list. It was part of my self-preservation strategy, so I was content.

Race day arrived and apparently for the first time the Challenge had beautiful weather. Temperatures were mild and luckily we had no rain. The Abangeni (fastest group of contenders for the podium) set off at 6 am from the beautiful beach of Nature's Valley. I had Nico and the boys there to keep me company until my name came up, which kept my nerves in check. Runners were sent off in groups of 4 according to their seeding times at 30 second intervals to avoid congestion.

Start from Natures's Valley. Terrence Vrugtman. (Source).

The first 2 km was the only flat section on the entire race, following the beach line to the actual start of the Otter trail. People were chatting nervously or just kept quiet, like me, wondering if it would be OK to take the first walk break. I felt chuffed and instantly fitter when I saw the first guy slowing down for a walk, only to later see him sit down and nurse his heavily bandaged ankle. So much for that little victory.

After the beach section we hit the Otter in full brute force, facing the first set of numerous sets of stairs straight out of hell. In my life I have never experienced so much cursing during a race. Thank heavens most of the time I was beyond earshot of anyone. The hills just seem to never ever stop. And once you peak, calves and hamstrings throbbing, the landscape drops straight down again into the pits of the earth's deepest core. And you guessed it. Only to go back up again. And so on and so forth. The Otter bears a trail factor of 2 (i.e. multiply the trail distance by 2 to get the equivalent of the required effort on road), over 2600 m of elevation gain, 4 river crossings and at least 11 significant climbs (depends on who's climbing), according to the website.

Retto trail course and profile (Source).

After about 10 km we hit Bloukrans River, which proved to be a non-event this year as the river and tide was really low. With all the race volunteers and Sanpark rangers there the vibe was very friendly and exciting and I really wanted to stay a while longer when one volunteer offered me some coffee. I was tempted! River entry was via a slide, and very unladylike I sploshed into the waist deep water and sufficiently dunked my entire kit, drowning my 'zip-locked' mobile phone. I crossed the remainder of the river calf-deep and from there had to run with water sloshing from my shoes, but that wasn't as bothersome as I had feared.

Plunge into Bloukrans! ( Source).

The GU munchie point marked half-way, and by that time I was completely knackered. I have enough marathon experience to know not to trust myself and the pain or exhaustion perceived between the 17 and 22 km mark, but MAN, I was dead on my feet at this (the only) aid station. Thank heavens the Munchie point was much less of a spa treatment than what I had thought and hoped for, and more a snack-on-the-go pitstop, becaue I am pretty sure had I sat my tired bum down on a camp chair they may have had to helicopter me out of there. We promptly filled our water bladders, grabbed some fruit, nuts and GU and was gone again in 5 minutes. Only to be faced with 'Jou Ma se Trappe' right after crossing the river. I wish I had a picture of this little sign at this Mother of a Stair Case, as it was SO  apt after that little break, and had me in stitches for a long time after overcoming it.

GU munchie point, half way. (Source).

The route is an incredibly beautiful mix of  scenery and varying terrain. Longer sections of running in the forest is alternated by sections through the fynbos in full sunshine, traversing jagged rocky cliffs, negotiating bouldery beaches or crossing shallow rivers. The only flat (less interesting but immensely beautiful) section was the first 2 km of beach run on the Retto course.

Some photos of the course. Terence Vrugtman did an outstanding job with his photography. (Source).

As planned (dictated by my late application of race training), I stayed pretty much to the back of the pack, power hiking up the stairs, running the flat tops and bottoms and sort of trotting down the stairs and over rocks and boulders at a safe pace. I was determined to finish the race within the allotted time, come hell or high water (and did they both come...). At Scott Hut, the race officials informed me that I was within 10 minutes of the cut-off for that point. I was relieved, but definitely not out of the woods, so to speak. I felt sorry for my fellow runner, a much older gentleman, who was receiving treatment by a medic, and who ended up not completing the remaining 13 km after coming so far.

It was just after Scott that I realised I had GPS issues. According to my Suunto I had about 4 km to go instead of 13. I figured it was due to the dense tree canopy, and because I had set my watch on a less accurate GPS setting in order to extend the battery life (which was totally moot, since my Ambit Peak 3 battery can last easily up to 50 hrs in the most accurate GPS setting). Expensive lesson!

According to the pacing band for a sub-11 hour run one should allow yourself 2 hours for the 5 km from Ngubu hut to the finish. I reached Ngubu with only 1 hr 40 min to spare and no idea about what the route up ahead held in store (it is hectic) and without a trustworthy GPS to guage my progress. I had to seriously haul butt if I wanted that medal!

Passing a fellow runner on a very muddy, slippery section of the trail I slipped and possibly pulled a glute, which really hurt, but I pushed on hard, making the most of the downhills and really dug deep into what I had left. When I thought it could really not get any tougher, the last 5 km on the Retto course really rose up to challenge my limits, but I had already come so far, I couldn't back down.

The last 800m or so was easily the best (possibly fastest) run of my life, finally finding myself on some level ground again with the bright, awesomely beautiful yellow finish line up ahead of me. Hearing some friendly voices calling my name, encouraging me on and to realise they are two fellow Namibians and Rhino Runners was such a treat! A few meters on my handsome Hubs and beautiful boys were waiting to escort me across to the lawn to the finish. We crossed the finish line with 10 minutes to the final cut-off, I made it. I was done. I could rest. Tears of utter relief!

Photo by Deon Braun (Trail Magazine).

After another gear check I was off to an awesome massage, compliments of the Hubs (who was uber relieved that I finished in time... for his own safety, of course). This was by FAR the best birthday present ever, thank you so, so much my dearest Hubs.

PS. Don't you dare do it ever again, Nico Scholtz!
PPS. I know you know I entered myself again for the Otter 2017... I simply can't wait!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

2016 SkyRun 100km race report

Nico's big race, the long awaited SkyRun 100km took place this past weekend. The race started in Lady Grey and crossed a section of the South African Witteberg mountain range to finish at the Wartrail Country Club. The SkyRun is considered by many athletes as the toughest trail run in Africa, as it is a self-navigated, self-supported race in a very remote and rugged setting, with roughly 4500m of altitude gain and loss. There are a number of peaks that need to be crossed with mandatory gear, mandatory medical checkups and strict cutoffs times that apply. Total time cutoff is 32 hours, with a 15 hour cutoff  to the 60km mark, the only place where seconds and supporters could meet and assist their runners.

Unbeknownst to him, the Hubs was entered into the SkyRun as a birthday present from his very loving dear wife (as mentioned here). This is a race that he has some long overdue unfinished business with, as he tried his hand at it a few times some 15 years ago (without proper training or gear) but couldn't pass the 60 km cutoff in time. He bravely accepted the challenge again in April, and started with the gruelling training program.

Now, I have to mention here that this is a man that used to run 3 to 5 k's every second day just to keep fit. His heart actually lies with mountaineering (which actually makes this race the perfect challenge for him), but he barely trains specifically for a summit challenge, he just maintains a very active lifestyle.

He followed the SkyRun 100k training program to the T, running tempo runs, time trials and long runs as he had to, never skipping a day, with strength training in between on top of all his other priorities.

Through the six months of tough training:
  • he never once missed family dinner, bathing the boys as he has done the past 5+ years or reading bedtime stories to our boys for a run. He would rather run hill repeats in Uis after they fell asleep, or run with his reflective vest through the dark, cold streets of Swakop. His family always came first.
  • he would rather start his long runs at 4 am so as to be back early to make me my first coffee and spend our special morning time together as a family, even though he worked on his computer until 12 the previous night (every night). He is that type of father and husband.
  • he would encourage force me to take time off for a nap or a run if I ran low on me-time or if our schedule of alternating run days got mixed up for some reason, he himself forgoing his rest or run time to give me an opportunity to catch up. He is the perfect gentleman like that. And then he would run in the dark again.
  • he would run in very sketchy places while travelling (frequently) for work, such as on treadmills in lonely, stuffy hotel gyms or on dark (after or before long days in the African bush), potholy, central African streets while children chanted his name and he had to dodge trucks and motorbikes and bicycles and just generally find himself on the bottom of the road user food chain.
  • he ran up and down Brandberg Mountain several times while the boys and I camped at the base, always making sure that he stuck to his strict turnaround times for our safety and comfort always putting us first.

During his training he picked up problems with both his ITBs, and we started with physio and additional exercises soonest, but the problem persisted. Nico finished his first road marathon in October in 5 hrs, after he had to walk the entire last 10km due to ITB related pain. He didn't quit his marathon, nor his training program, but he had to scale down on long runs. We hoped for the best.

On our way to the SkyRun 2016 we spent time with dear friends of ours, one of which who happened to by a physiotherapist. Linkie showed us a different way of strapping the ITBs, and also some new exercises that we will both be doing from now on, we are so grateful for her input.

Spending time in Bloemfontein with beautiful friends.

We arrived in Lady Grey on the Friday, well in time for the registration and race briefing. The process was fairly smooth and included a medical examination. We already had dinner and was under the impression that race briefing would be before dinner (so we didn't book a dinner for all of us), but ended up having to wait until after dinner for the briefing. The boys enjoyed the playground though!

Vivi and Daddy.

Waiting for the race briefing. Cold in Lady Grey! (Source)

The race started in Lady Grey town at 4 am, and roll call was at 3.30 am - luckily we stayed in a neat, comfy flat near the start.

Nico called me after the second checkpoint (21 km) and was going steady but strong. His ITBs were holding up, we were so relieved!

The boys and I had a leisurely  morning of breakfast and packing, after which we left for our accommodation near Balloch caves/the finish. At least, we THOUGHT it was near, but since we were driving a very low clearance sedan car and most of the roads were gravel, the going was really, really slow.

On the Balloch Caves road we indirectly caused a 20 care pileup after a courteous lady with a rented Rav 4 pulled off the side of the narrow road to give us way, had her one front wheel fall in an invisible ditch on the side of the road! A gentleman two cars behind her had to pull her out, while all the cars behind me had to pull into a nearby field to let the oncoming traffic past while I, in our Corolla, blocked half the road. Uhm, eish...

The poor lady driver of the Rav which fell in a ditch for our passing's sake!

Athletes were monitored with GPS devices on the Sportrax tracking system which we could follow on the internet (where we had reception, which was few and far in between, but it helped).

Around 30 km Nico called me again. He was experiencing neck pain, which I ascribed to tension, as I have seen the tension in his shoulders on a long run when he starts to take strain. I urged him to relax his shoulders often, and he checked with me if it would be OK to take a Cataflam, which he then did.

Waiting, climbing and playing at Balloch Caves.

The boys and I received a very tired but still strong Hubs at Balloch, the almost 60 km mark, after 14.5 hrs on his feet. For the first time he was well within the allowed time, and we were so, so excited and PROUD of him!

Our boys running to meet their dad.

He downed a few cold drinks and sat down to rest and eat dinner. He also took another Cataflam. After about 30 min of arriving he went for his compulsory medical. They found his pulse to be 120bpm, far over the maximum 100bpm to give him clearance to continue. He rested for another 30 minutes and measured again after 15 min and 30 min (so rested an hour in total), his pulse didn't come down. He couldn't continue his race although he felt strong and able. All of us were very disappointed.

Now, almost a week since SkyRun, we are 99% sure he had another bout of Malaria on the race, since the neck pain is usually his first tell tale signs. His other usual malarial symptoms persisted until the Tuesday after the race, but has cleared up since. The Cataflam suppressed the neck pain but also may have elevated his heart rate, which is why he felt strong to continue but didn't pass the medical. With hindsight, we are very relieved and thankful that he wasn't cleared to continue the race, as nobody knows how things could have turned out had he further pushed his already stressed heart. He was also really concerned about the boys and I having to drive for an hour to our guest farm at night after seeing him off at Balloch. That may also have added to his elevated heart rate, who knows!

Whichever way, he is still determined to finish the SkyRun, and will be back in 2017 to do so.

This was my first round at seconding a runner on an ultra trail, and there are many things I have learned, did wrong and will or will not do again.
Things we will do again/differently next time on the SkyRun:
  • Rent an SUV or car with high clearance. A Toyota Corolla is really not your best bet, even though it got us everywhere, it was very much touch and go and very slow going!
  • Stay again within walking distance from the start. We stayed in a very comfy guest flat that was 3 min's walk from the start, Nico was the first one there.
  • Buy all our supplies at a decent store in Bloemfontein (our point of entry) or at the very least Aliwal Noord. Only the bare essentials are available in Lady Grey.
  • Book dinner for all four of us during race briefing.
  • Stay at or very near Balloch cave or Wartrail CC so you don't have far to drive far after supporting your athlete at Balloch and before receiving him at the finish.
  • Have more food for him (real food such as lasagna or pizza or a chicken stew) - he was still hungry after his complimentary meal at Balloch, and we didn't eat at all.
  • Have his recharge electrolytes there, cold and plenty (Lucozade, Energade or Powerade), they only sell Coke and Sprite or coffee at Balloch. Take cash.
  • Have a ready made Slowmag drink when he gets there. Also take your own 5l of water.
  • Take a spare headlight or torch for the seconders.
  • Have a sleeping bag and pillow for your runner to rest properly for an hour or so.
  • Have lots of batteries for GPS and headlight ready.
  • Have a warm, clean change of clothes and socks, possibly shoes too.
  • Have refills for all his food-and-drink-on-the-go.
  • Send him for medical checkup early, then let him rehydrate, eat, send for physio if needed. Nico was probably dehydrated badly but the medics didn't have drips/ran out of drips. Early detection may have made a difference.

The amazingly talented Kelvin Trautman took some photos of  Nico for his very touching Back Markers Project.

Problem ITBs fixed with strapping! (Source)

So, so proud to receive him after a gruelling 14.5 hr run in the mountains. Thank you Kelvin for capturing the moment. (Source).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Going (sham)poo (and hair) free

It has been a really long time since I started thinking about getting rid of shampoo in our home. Over the years my hair has gotten progressively more oily, requiring more regular washing, aggravated by the fact that I run often and how much I sweat then. I very seldom wash our boys' hair (yes, faint right about now), and we never wash our dogs (double faint), and we see how healthy and CLEAN their heads/scalps and coats are, because they EAT healthily and no harsh chemicals interfere with the natural balance of skin oils. They are not smelly or oily, and with a regular good old rinse with water and the occasional wash with a mild soap (the boys' hair), their hair stays nice and clean.

I have been reading a lot about going shampoo free (like here and here), and about the possibilities of using only products such as bicarbonate of soda, but it was only after I took the decision to stop colouring my hair with harsh, unnatural colourants that I was ready to take the plunge. See, I have been colouring my hair for the best part of 15 years, first lighter and then darker, but I fear the greys have crept in over the years and I felt it was time to take stock of the situation up top. It was time to make peace with either grey roots or biweekly hair treatments, and neither was working for me.

The last time I coloured my hair was about 7 weeks ago, and the last time I washed my hair with conventional shampoo was more than 3 weeks ago. I started to wash my hair with bicarb every 5th day, and it really worked! My hair felt clean for about a day or so, but since my scalp has obviously not found it's balanced, natural state yet, (this apparently takes about 4 to 6 weeks), my hair was greasy for about 3 out of 5 days.

I thought I would be able to out-wait the outgrowth and the grease, but my impatience just got the better of me. Luckily for me my Hubs is a very brave, open minded man, and he didn't hesitate when I asked him if we could shave my head. He poured me a glass of red and jumped right in with the trimmer!

Before and after I took 'the plunge'.

I have to admit I really love this super short style way more than I thought, and waiting out the grease is 100% easier this way! I even have the Hubs now on bicarb-"shampoo" and he doesn't notice the difference in how his hair feels. We have a winner! My short hair doesn't feel (or look) greasy, and although I rinse it with water daily, I can easily go 5 days without a bi-carb wash. No more chemicals and unhappy, unhealthy scalps. And, as a bonus, I can see a huge improvement in my skin (face and neck) since washing my face with bicarb. It acts as a scrub and is mild enough to use daily. Topped off with some coconut oil moisturiser, my skin has never been happier, and virtually oil free. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Pile on the Miles Challenge 2016

After a post and invitation by my fabulous cousin from Kimberley New Zealand(!), I signed up for the free virtual challenge to 'pile on the miles' during the month of November. This challenge is hosted by Monica from Run Eat Repeat with the aim to motivate participants to pick a fitness goal, commit to it and keep them accountable by having them report on it on a daily basis.

 I have signed up for yet another exciting marathon coming up in December, and true to form I am still tired from reminiscent of my most recent event, the Otter African Trail Run (report to follow soon). So between that and lots of other things going on right now I have struggled a bit to commit to a training plan. When I saw this challenge I viewed it as the best opportunity to kick my resting bones into action once again.

My goal is to run for at least 30 minutes every other day during the challenge period. I kicked it off today by dusting off running on the treadmill for 30 minutes tonight, doing 5 k's after the boys were in bed. The treadmill is actually my last resort to running, as late night running is such a chore for me, and I easily chat myself out of it. I'd much prefer fitting in a run during the day by incorporating it as a fun activity with the boys, but that doesn't always go according to plan. This is another goal of mine, actually. Whether the boys join in the stroller, on their bikes, running along with me or play nearby while I do sprints or run laps around the track, it would be great to have an effective running workout that also translates into a positive experience for them. When my Hubs is home I am spoiled with heaps of solo running time, so when he does have to travel for work I get to be a little more creative with my approach to working in my much needed runs. We will get there, I know. We just need to keep reinventing ourselves.

The invitation to Pile on the Miles is open and free for all. Perhaps you need some motivation during this time of year to keep up your fitness while everything and everyone else slows down, or you just want to join and share in the fun (apparently there is free stuff given away daily), pop on over to Run Eat Repeat and join the challenge.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Congratulations! It's a...

Dear friends and fellow countrymen, if you are reading this post then one of a number of unfortunate things may have happened...

A. Someone who doesn't have my best interests at heart hacked into this blog and hit the 'publish' button on this post without any consideration of the dire consequences of making the content hereof (and my current predicament) public;

B. At least one of our boys are even more tech savvy than we anticipated, and managed to navigate the internet to this site and published this post; or

C. I indulged in one too many a glass of Red and, in a fit of overconfidence or overenthusiastic folly, published this to share with you all my upcoming plight and eminent demise, and in so doing, irreversibly committed myself to face said Herculean challenge, because secretly whimping out wouldn't be an option any longer...

I am certain it won't be option C, because I absolutely intend to keep this post in draft format (hopefully indefinitely), only for it to serve as material evidence for insurance purposes during the postmortem investigation that will hopefully follow. 

You see, it all started last year when my dearest, kindest Hubs entered me into the Great Wall Marathon as a present for my birthday at end of August. I was beyond thrilled, and since the Great Wall Marathon was only in May this year, I had plenty time to train, stress, dream and prepare for this grand voyage. What a beautifully stunning gift. My Hubby is so thoughtful.

Rolling along to the Hubs' birthday in April this year, I decided to return the favour (of course! ... or soap-on-a-rope?) and entered him for a teeny tiny race with which he has some (self-admitted) unfinished business: the a 100 km trail Skyrun in the Moloti Mountains (South Africa) in November this year, affording him ample time to train and properly prepare.

You picking up on a trend yet? Well, interestingly, it gained momentum...

A couple of weeks before my birthday (this year), my dear Husband started getting all giddy with excitement, and without any prompting whatsoever it kinda leaked out that he had entered me for another race. It is incredibly hard for him to keep a surprise, and it was with great effort from my side that he managed to make it to my birthday for the Big Reveal (a month before my birthday I found the book that he intended to keep as another prezzie on my car seat, so he was really low on options...) I should have let him spill the beans earlier, now with hindsight...

Birthday morning broke and the Hubs presents me with a hand-made medal. No words, only a grin on his face that was ready to explode, and the medal that was the clue to The Race. My first attempt to name the figure on the medal was Baby Platypus, which I later thought was actually quite apt considering how I see myself faring in this race. 

The birthday medal.

Turns out the cute little animal represented an Otter. Yes, Otter with a capital O, because this race ain't no baby anything, it is the big, big Mama of trail races!  

The Otter African Trail Run is a marathon distance trail ran over the most popular hiking trail in South Africa, the Otter Trail. In an effort to contain my already tattered nerves I will tone this done a tad and just provide the bare minimum detail, but the route includes 11 significant climbs and descents, 2600+ m of elevation gain, a trail factor of 2 (i.e. multiply the trail distance by 2 to get it's equivalent of road running) and 4 river crossings (Bloukrans representing a possible huge swim). And apparently the most amazing, spectacular, breathtaking scenery you can imagine...

Otter (Retto) route and profile. (Source)

This year the trail is run is reverse from the normal route, i.e. from Natures Valley to Stormsrivier, and thus called the Retto (otter spelled backwards).

Crossing the Bloukrans River (Source)

On the trail (Source)
After my initial shock started to subside, the first stage of grieving set in, Denial. For the better part of my birthday I tried to tell myself that six weeks of prep to get myself ready for an epic marathon (make that two!) would be fine. Until it hit me (I hit Google....) Cue the second stage of grieving: Anger! My poor, well meaning, immensely thoughtful and loving Hubs went through an UNTHINKABLE deal of trouble to get me into this race (there are only 220 places for the Challenge with an 11 hour cutoff, and 220 places for the Run with an 8 hour cutoff). Entries for both races fill up within minutes from opening, and he got me into the Challenge.

Knowing that I am never one to shy away from a Challenge (check the pun), no matter how ridiculous it seems, how could he expect THIS of me?

Fast forward through the Depression and Bargaining stages (the Hubs suffered multiple weeks of them all, bless his heart) and on to Acceptance, the last stage of grieving. I started to embrace it. I didn't have time to get ultra ready and really could do only damage control, so I carefully upped my mileage and invested in some sand running and hill training (running Damaraland trails always includes hills and sand).

And then I started to get petrified excited. For years and years I have wanted to hike (HIKE) this trail, but it is such a popular route that you have to book more than a year in advance, and now with kids it would have to wait for many more years. The Hubs and I have a very deep love for and fascination with the Knysna Forest, having  read and reread all of Dalene Matthee's books and after hiking and running short distances within it in the past. I can't imagine anything better than getting to spend time in this forest and along one of the most picturesque coastlines in the world for one whole day. Whether it be running or hiking or swimming or crawling, I bet it is going to be fantastically beautiful (the scenery, not me! ...platypus?) and I will be sure to make the most of every moment of it for as long as I have.

And while I'll be making my peace (pieces) with that 2600m altitude gain, I'll obviously be working on my comeback for the Hubs' next birthday. Do stay tuned...

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A (few) trip(s) to the edge of my comfort zone: Niger.

By Nico.

West Africa. The dark part of our Home Continent. A visit to Niger was my first job as a geological consultant with our own consulting firm, operating out of Namibia. I left home without any idea what to expect (which was probably the best) as I flew with a stopover in Dakar (Senegal) en route to Niger. I had to apply for my visa in Dakar and actually considered staying on board the plane to continue the journey to Washington D.C., where my fellow passengers were heading - I remember their looks of pity before I disembarked - "you have no idea whats out there - put on your dust mask and hold on for the ride into oblivion" - or at least that's what the sleepy stares in the dark looked like. I was slightly freaked out stepping out of the plane into the coastal humidity that was Dakar at midnight.

Travelling has always been part of our itinerary, so I told myself while waiting for my passport (hoping it would bear my Niger visa) for over two days in Dakar "how strange can it be"?

With the wait over (and thankfully with the Francophone visa in my passport) and the flight from Dakar to Niamey (capital of Niger) passing quickly, I found myself in a car travelling from the Niamey International airport to the office of the client. It was dusty, the Harmattan was blowing and although the driver was friendly (and not speaking a word of English) I still felt as if I have just entered another world. The streets were filled with camels, Touregs (not the car) and turban-clad gentlemen. What struck me immediately though was the heat (literally!). We are used to dry heat in Namibia, but this was different. Hotter, windier and very dusty.

Niamey streets.

Niamey was my home for the next couple of days. I wandered the streets, walked along the Niger river and tried my recently learned french on some of the locals... Bonjour! It was during this time that I visited a local market in Niamey. Silver craftsmen abound making swords, jewelry and so much more. I had to refrain from taking photos as it just did not seem apt, but I purposefully drank in the moment with my senses. A grateful and humbling experience.

My Nigerien experience did not end here, I went back to Namibia but was soon back on a flight (this time via France) to Niger to investigate prospective uranium occurrences within central Niger. I arrived, but my field bag, with all of my overnight gear, clothes and geological kit did not... And the next day I had to drive inland to Agadez and from there travel to a small town by the name of In Gall - basically just a speck on the map - a gathering place of nomads, with a central well surrounded by some mud buildings. Needless to say, I was in a spot of bother with only the clothes on my back. I had travel inland and trust that the national carrier of France would somehow manage to bring me my bag in central Niger - on time. I soon had to focus on more pressing matters as we had to travel with military convoy. This involved three armored vehicles (with about 10 Kalashnikov clad soldiers on each) accompanying approximately 20 civilian cars (including our two Land Cruisers). Now the word "driving" is used in the best sense of the word. That was not driving, it was NASCAR at its best.

Armoured convoy.

Armoured convoy.

Everyone in the convoy wanted to keep up with the Soldiers driving in front, probably out of fear for rebel ambushes. I think even the soldiers themselves were scared. So we flew (low level) - the 'leave no one behind' phrase here did not exist, it is every man for himself. Should your vehicle break down or get stuck in the sand, you are left behind and have to do what you can to get back on the road. Its on this road that I started to understand the full meaning of Inshallah. We drove past a couple of land mined vehicles and I asked our local geologist, what is the chance of us hitting a mine - his only reply - Inshallah (if it is Gods will). Fear. Unknown feelings. My Love at home. Our life together. These things flash through your mind at times like this. I was afraid to go on, but afraid to turn back as well and you don't have time to consider your options. You just have to NASCAR ahead - non stop. Through the sand, and dry riverbeds with the army standing guard, 20 mm machine guns loaded and ready, waiting for everyone to pass by. Ever onward. Into the night. Inshallah.

At last we reached our destination after a really terrifying drive. Agadez is a mud built city. Most structures are built from the ochre coloured sand of the region giving the place a really early feeling. It is also home to the oldest mud mosque on the planet. This almost 30 m tall structure has served as a lookout post for enemies and invited caravans to the Tuareg Capital for centuries. It is the mosque of mosques. It is a symbol of Agadez and to me, it symbolically represents the whole of West Africa. The call to prayer by the Imam resounds through my thoughts even though the minaret stood quiet for the day. We were not allowed in as a ceremony was hosted inside.

Mud mosque in Agadez built in 1515.

From Agadez we traveled to In Gall, arriving late at night and booked into the only brick house in town. We had an armed soldier stay with us and from here we drove into the desert on a daily basis to investigate a number of uranium occurrences from a map. The town was sweltering and the desert more so. We drove around a lot, walked some more and took a couple of samples - we even sampled some of the wells after the locals said they were unwell (pun intended) after drinking the water.

Local Toureg assisting with water sampling from a well.

It was an exceptional experience. We drove way off the beaten tracks into areas where I am certain westerners have not been for decades (if ever).

Kids at well.
We helped pull water from wells, spoke to local Toureg people, had lunch in the shade (okay some scanty bush branches) and I got to witness camels helping to pull water from life bringing wells in the Sahara.

Camel pulling water from well.
Nomads in desert.
Of course the visits to the Sahara did not end here. after finishing my third stint in the country, I had to go back to look at some more uranium. This time with another client. On this trip we flew to Agadez (I did not want to go the way of the armoured convoy again), stayed in the same hotel, but from Agadez we had to drive to Arlit, in the heartland of Niger's uranium province. Also much deeper into the Sahara and closer to oblivion it felt.

From Arlit we had to drive still further north to the uranium concessions and its on one of these days that as luck would have it, we first got stuck and then had a flat tyre.

 Stuck in the Sahara.
Getting stuck, or having a flat tyre is normal, it happens all the time. But this felt a bit different. Firstly we were in the middle of nowhere, it was really hot, no shade anywhere and of course no mobile signal. Add onto that, we were in rebel country with visibility up to the Atlantic, so anyone driving within 100 km from our position would spot us in a heartbeat. This is an area where a fellow Geologist has also been hijacked before. So getting the tyre fixed quickly was paramount.

But, TIA. Things never go as you expect. First of all I saw our driver acting strangely as he got out of the car. It is important to note that it was the holy month of Ramadan and our driver was fasting. That means no water, no food and no nothing during the day. Okay, no probs. Lets change the tyre. However, we could not as our spare was flat... How did this happen, I asked? Well, apparently our driver saw the flat spare when we left Arlit that morning, but thought we would not need it..

Fixing our tyre.
We were only one vehicle and without a private military vehicle (basically a land cruiser filled with men holding AKs - which we should have had, but talked our way out of it). All travelers (especially foreign nationals) are obliged to travel with a military vehicle when venturing into the Sahara. This is due to the kidnappings, ambushes etc within the area at that time. In addition, you must have a "pass" letter from the Prefect (this can only be obtained in Agadez) and he will not give you a a letter if you do not travel with a military vehicle. Without this letter, we will not be able to pass from Agadez (where we landed with the domestic flight) to Arlit, further north. But, the military car and soldiers are expensive, so my fellow Geo and I convinced the Prefect to let us travel alone, and very reluctantly, he agreed.

Lying in the shade of the car, waiting for a miracle, I was made starting to face consequences of our decision to travel without a military vehicle. If I was to call the embassy on the Sat phone to come and help us, the Prefect would be super upset (something about a big tall turban clad government man getting angry did not sit well with me). If we did call, we (or at least the driver) could die of thirst...

So I give it time. And we tried and tried but of course our pump (at least we had a pump in the car) was leaking air. Unfortunately at this time, the driver reminded us that Arlit (our base while in the north) has a curfew. No one is allowed to drive into the town after dark. And we could not stay outside of town for a real and eminent fear of rebels. So we continued to try with the retched tyre. I reached my Love on the Satphone, giving her GPS coords and told her to raise hell if I didn't call in at a specific time. We also called the driver's boss and tried to tell him where we were, but that was far easier said than done. We were way off the main road, deep in the Sahara and basically only a dot on the map. I explained that to the Geo, who explained it to the driver who in turn talked to his boss. They know the area well, I told myself, and I presumed the driver would say "hey, we are behind that sand dune to the right of the little bush, you know the one, its where you turn off at the sandy patch from the main road and drive for 100 km into the sand sea". Or something like that...

Eventually, after struggling for hours and unable to fix the tyre, we decided to drive out on the flat tyre. We had to, as no rescue came from the driver's boss (who would have guessed) and by now even our water supplies were getting thin (the driver was fasting still, and if he decided to start drinking out of thirst, we were done for). We pushed onward, eventually reached the main road and was found by the boss (who by the way drove up and down this road all the way to Liberia unable to find that sandy patch turn off...).

Working in the Sahara.
The next day we continued our work (with two spare tyres this time) and after a couple more sandy, uneventful days, we drive back to Agadez to make our flight to Niamey. As we were saying our goodbyes to the driver, I overheard my fellow Geo alking in a stern tone to the driver's boss on the phone. What now, I thought?

Turns out that the 50 % upfront deposit I had to pay the car owner (the one that came to our rescue in the desert) for the car rental (which I paid weeks before while still in Namibia) was never received.

He was demanding from the Geo that we pay the deposit (again) as well as the remaining 50 % to the driver right there or he would call the police to prevent us from flying out. A very unpleasant situation. First of all, the flights don't go every day (if at all). Secondly, I did not have that kind of cash on me. So I pleaded with the guy on the phone (who at least spoke English) to let us go in peace and that I would deposit the other 50 % once I reached Niamey. Eventually he agreed and we took off. Now if you have ever watched the movie Argo (Arrrrr go @@!$ yourself), you will recall the relief of the couple of passengers as they took off from Iran - that is exactly what I felt like when the plane left the runway of Agadez bound for Niamey. Phew...

Back in Niamey I paid him everything as promised, thinking I will never see my money again and left Niger, a bit stressed out. At least three months passed after this last stint into Niger, when I heard from the car owner. He received my 50 % upfront payment and wanted  return the extra money. Unbelievable!

Since my last departure there has been a host of attacks in Niamey, hostage takings and killings of civilians. Some hostages were from the same camp I stayed at in Arlit and only released after three years and probably some ransoms paid.

Brewing tea in In Gall.
I have asked myself many times over whether I would return to this landlocked, windswept part of Africa with all of its bad publicity, severe weather and difficult situations. But when I think back to how I was treated by the people, the smiles in the eyes when I spoke to random strangers, the traditional tea brewing, camels in the streets and friendly waves from kids in the desert, I know what my answer will be.

Friend in Niamey.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Windhoek Light Wild Trail 2016 race report: That time I had to take a nap in a grocery store parking lot.

After running the amazingly fun Avis Xtrail (link) in Windhoek a couple of weeks ago, I decided to enter the Windhoek Light Wild Trail scheduled for Sunday 7 August. My dearest, generous Hubs suggested I take some solo girl time for this trip, while he stayed home with the boys. They are tough like that! (and me a little less so...)

So off I went on my grand mom-venture, sent off by the boys with a flask of tea and a few options of running attire to cater for warm or cold weather. The road to Midgard leads from Uis to Omaruru on about 110 km of very bad gravel road, then on tar to Okahandja, and then another bad gravel section of 60 km up to Midgard. 

Now, I probably didn't think this mom-venture through all the way, but bravery (and denial) prevailed. I almost made it to Omaruru, when calamity struck the first time. 

With Omaruru visible in the distance, I stopped for a bathroom break (so as to avoid the much dreaded public toilet scenario), and with the car running, music playing, I managed to lock myself out of the car. Yes. Right there next to the road. I thought I had unlocked the doors, but in fact I pressed the button that locked the entire car just before slamming the driver's door shut. Awesome, nana-mama!

The door didn't close all the way, so first I tried to pry it open with my bare hands (panic!). I found a toolbox in the back of the car (clever Hubs) so then I tried to pry open the back canopy window that opens into the cab with a screw driver (please don't judge). Didn't work (thankfully!) Only then, as a last resort, after about 10 minutes (yes I pee'ed - it helped to calm down and focus!), I opted to push the driver's door completely shut to see if it happened to unlock itself like that before I smashed a window with a rock... Turns out it worked! Success! 
Side note: Always take the car keys along for a veld pee. Lesson learnt.

The drive from there on was pretty uneventful for the most of it, until I turned on to the gravel at Okahandja. What an incredibly scenic route it is, but over the most brutal humps and bumps and corrugations. Oi! The going was slow and the sun was getting low. Not 20 km in a driver flashed his lights at me in passing. First I thought he warned me of a traffic cop ahead, and then I realised that speeding on that road would be suicide. No cops needed, so it must be a flat tyre. Which, sadly, it was.

Changing a flat tyre on a gravel isn't all that difficult as it is really, really uncomfortable, and this time proved to push for first place in the uncomfortable department. Getting the jack level took me the longest time, and then only to forget the chocks behind the wheels and to see the car roll of my precious, hard-earned, jacked-up jack. Luckily then a kind stranger-family stopped and lent me a hand, so we got the job done a little quicker. Living in beautiful, peaceful (and really remote) Namibia  I never expect anything less than having plenty kind strangers offering to help, which is one of the top things I love about this country. 

 So finally, after about 6 hours of travelling and way after dark I arrived at Midgard. I had a hot shower and some nice dinner. I had to smile, reflecting on my previous visit to Midgard and specifically the dinning room. It was around 20 years ago when a certain cousin of mine joined our family in attending another cousin's wedding. That gorgeous dessert table is still etched in my memory, and Cousin and I probably made three or four trips for more helpings of cake/pastries/sweets. I don't think my metabolism or palate would endure such a spree again, but boy, was it fun!

The race started at 8:30 am, so athletes were able to enjoy an unhurried buffet breakfast and register afterwards as the start/finish was on the lawn outside the dining room. What set out as a freezing cold early morn turned out to be quite toasty by the time we lined up at the start, and I was glad I opted for short pants and shirt sleeves. 

The first section was relatively flat and on sandy jeep track for about 5k’s, after which one mother-of-a-climb started (and seemed to end just before the last 500m to the finish!). Not really. But it sure as hell felt that way! In analysis afterward I found that the Midgard trail was about 350 m altitude gain and 350 m loss, where Avis was 500 m gain and the same amount of loss, but it didn’t feel that way on the course. And it was not only I that suffered – I met up with other runners I ran the Avis with and they felt similarly. On the Midgard there were a lot of really off-road-no-trail sections of loose rocks and gravel, where we really had to watch our step, every single step, where Avis’s single tracks were firmer and mostly cattle paths. But hey, not that we are complaining, trails are all about getting off the beaten path and pushing the limits, chasing after adventure and not a PRs, so Midgard surely fit the bill quite well. The climbs on Midgard may not have been so relentless as they were steep, technical, and FREQUENT. I was also not feeling a 100% as I was fighting a sinus infection that blessed me with a headache lasting for more than two weeks. Thankfully running seemed to relieve the pain (and walk-breaks less so)... so run I did.

Halfway was marked by a well-stocked water (and BEER!) table with the most stunning view on the route, aptly named God’s window. Views like these make all the climbs worth the while, and I soaked it in for a while.

I finished the distance in a slightly better time than the Avis trail (which was 1 km shorter than Midgard), in 2h11. But not before a dramatic sprint to the finish to beat (by 1s) the lady that kept pushing and passing me throughout the second half of the course (I considered dipping over the finish line like my friend Danie... maybe I did!). Only to find out the next day that my competitor was in a different age category than me... not a Veteran, but a MASTER! She sprinted like a champ, and had me digging real deep to push for the win, while she is at least in her 50’s! What an inspiration of a sports lady.

I have to commend OTB once again for really going the distance to present us with a fairly technical, diverse and very well-marked route. It should be a challenge; otherwise, what is the point?! I really enjoyed this race and will recommend it to fellow trail lovers.

After the race I had an awesome hot shower and started my long journey home. Never having an appetite after a race, I didn’t eat anything but felt my sinus headache return in full force so I took two pain tablets on an empty, exhausted stomach. Oi, mistake of the year! By the time I reached half-way I was so nauseous, exhausted and still sporting a mother-headache that I was about to check myself into a roadside lodge. Any place with a bed – I was done!, but really eager to get home to my family too. 

With a lot of grace and slow going I reached Omaruru, with two hours of gravel-from-hell laying between me and my home in Uis. After I filled the car I parked at the local Spar shopping complex, right in front of the entrance, and decided to just lay my head down for a sec to rest. The front seat proved to be less than comfortable so I checked myself in on the back-seat-suite of Casa-Isuzu and promptly fell asleep, napping easily for 15 min with my feet sticking out the open car backdoor. 

When I woke up I felt a hundred times better, and with somewhat of an appetite I managed to eat something and take some proper meds. When I entered the store I saw the Spar manager still VERY nervously fixated on his security cameras monitor, by which he probably kept an eye on the crazy sleeping woman in the parking lot – hey, is there a safer place to nap for an overly-tired lady in a rural town? I think not!

I made it home safely just as the sun was about to set, sooo thankful to be safe and very happy to be with my three guys again. I think I will be taking them along on the next few adventures... some things are just so much better shared!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Rwenzori: Mountains of the Moon. A Mountaineering report.

By Nico.

Images of elusive, jagged, snow-capped peaks towering above a thick jungle canopy flashed through my mind when I first read about this mysterious mountain, strutting the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I have always had a strange attraction to such seldom visited, remote and unrelenting places, and the Rwenzori and one of its host countries the DRC, definitely fits that picture. The DRC is one of the largest countries in Africa and endowed in mineral riches, but also hosts some of the longest lasting, most brutal civil wars on the continent fought by rebels whose hideout is and has been this very mountain range.

Jungles of Rwenzori Mountains.

As early as the times of the Ancient Greeks, there has been rumours of mountains of snow and ice forming the source of the Nile River. Aeschylus talked about "Egypt nurtured by snows" and Aristotle noted "Mountains of Silver", being the source of the Nile in the fourth century B.C. During this time, a number of ancient expeditions failed to reach the mountain until eventually, a merchant with the name of Diogenes stated that he had found the source of the mighty River, reporting that it flowed from a group of massive mountains with a permanent snow-capped peak, which the natives called "The Mountains of the Moon".

It was only in modern times that Europeans resumed their search for the famed source; the most well known of these expedition being led by Speke and Grant, as well as Stanley. While the former failed to reach the Mountain Range, Stanley, the well known and maybe slightly infamous American turned British explorer (yes he of the Famous "Dr Livingstone I presume") finally found the glacier capped mountains in 1889.

Henry Morton Stanley on the Rwenzori Expedition. (Source

Up until recently, the Rwenzori National Park was closed to all visitors due to rebel activity that killed a number of visitors in the region. The Rwenzori has been on many climbers lists as it hosts the third highest peak in Africa. Boasting the biggest glacier on the continent and reaching a height of 5,109 m, Margherita Peak is not that serious a climb, but reaching the base and scrambling through moorland and foggy old mans' beard forests up to the summit glaciers in a pair of rubber boots (surfaces are super wet and muddy) sounded serious enough for me. The added  fear (or maybe the allure - or maybe its both) of rebel activity makes the Rwenzori a peak that is unlike any other. Being located near the Virunga Volcanoes in the DRC this peak is in the middle of one of the greatest biodiversity hot spots on the planet, while also associated with history from Greek explorers to Stanley searching for the source of the Nile. What a story, what a place to visit. I simply had to see it for myself. Climb the mountain, face the fear of rebel activity and set foot on the summit glaciers - I had to go.

Margherita Peak from a distance.

The mountain is different to the other high peaks of Africa in that its not a volcano but rather a fairly large mountain range formed due to upliftment of crystalline rocks such as gneiss and granite. My visit was planned for July 2014 - one of the two season where the rainfall is measured in jugs,not buckets... The other favourable season being January. With that in mind I packed rain gear, an umbrella and more rain gear. I booked my flights and the climbing expedition through Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (one of two groups offering climbs on the mountain) and set off to fly from Namibia to Joburg and from there to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, followed by a short hop on a charter Cessna 210 which would deliver me to Kasese, the small town from the where the climb would start. En route to Joburg I got a familiar feeling in my gut... that little voice that told me not to go, to turn around and go home. I tried to ignore it but it kept pestering me. Its a strange thing - why would you pay the money, go through the trouble of allocating time towards the climb, book (and pay, by the way) the climb, all flights etc. and then actually consider not going, while on your first flight? Was it fear that lingered, or just a nagging thought of how I would miss my understanding, caring and loving wife, my beautiful boys? I don't know - but I do now this: if my mind is not a 100 % focused on a serious climb in a remote area of Africa, then I know I should not do it. Needless to say, when I got off the plane in Joburg I contact my Love and said I am coming home on the next available flight. As always, she understood and wanted to make sure that I was sure and then gave her unwavering support.

Mountains are strange creatures and summits even worse. I don't particularly like summits. They scare me. They allure and inspire to such an extent that it becomes an obsession. And having that obsession is what drives many climbers to excel; they pass the point of normality and enter the dreamlike realm where the climber and the mountain become one. You forget fear, rationality and better judgement. The only thoughts that linger are those of the summit, not of getting back down, just that place where the mountain tip and the sky become one, ever higher. Non stop. I have had those thoughts, I know many that have had them and reached the summit, never to come down again. Their bodies lie buried in the snow or rubble on some remote mountain in an unknown country. I have vowed a long time ago that, although I understand summit fever and know that it is required, I will trust my inner voice, trust my judgement and stick to it. I have turned around on many peaks, sometimes just below the summit and sometimes without even setting foot on the mountain, and for that reason I am still here to write about it. Maybe I am too careful, maybe I need more summit fever or maybe I am just lucky.

So the July window passed and I made plans to visit the Lunar Mountains again in January 2015. Months passed and eventually I packed my bags - again the rain gear, ice axes and crampons and took the first of four flights from Namibia. No voice, no lingering thoughts, but still plenty of fear. Maybe the word fear is not right here, it was apprehension with a tinge of fear. Will I be able to do it? What about the ice work, the altitude and then of course the rebels hiding on the DRC side of the mountain...

After 24 h of traveling I checked into the very colonial Margherita Hotel in Kasese. Beautiful, rustic old place with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and of course the foothills of Mountains of the Moon. I packed, re-packed, met my guides and before I knew it headed for the start of the climb.

View from Margherita Hotel.

The first part of the climb passed through thinly populated, high altitude areas where huts clung to valleys sides and kids waved shyly to the lone Mzungu. The Mountain at this time was covered in cloud and although our hike was dry at this point, I wondered about those dark lingering clouds up ahead.

First part of climb through populated areas near Kasese Town.

We made good progress on this first day and arrived relatively quickly at the first camp. A hut located above the population zone in the so called old mans' beard forests. The jungle was thick and filled with life. We heard chimpanzee calls and saw White Colubus Monkeys (yes, those from Naro Moru River Lodge) roamed in the canopy.

Camp one with Old Mans Beard Forests.

The next couple of days actually blend into one with lots of slogging up steep mountain passes, down vegetated valleys and through moorland bogs.Here we had to wear rubber boots due to mud, water and more mud. It's here where you grasp the full meaning of rainfall measured in buckets. Luckily our days up to that point were still dry, but still very foggy. Some climbers we met on the way down also mentioned that, although they summited, the view was obscured by fog.

Walking in rubber boots.

We slogged ever onwards through some beautiful rocky scenery, in and out of thick forests up to a high point where I could see the peaks. What a sight. It was mesmerizingly beautiful. Snow capped peaks towering above a think high altitude jungle - just as I had imagined. Lets go, I can't wait (summit fever showing its face here...). 

Summit peaks from high point above pass.

The walk from the high point to the last hut was steep, crossing many streams and slugging up a hellish valley to our last camp where it was bitterly cold, windy and still very foggy. I lay down on my mattress and thought of Home. What were my Love and the boys doing at that very moment. My thoughts always cross over to them when I am not climbing. But as before, I knew that I had to focus the next day as we had to get up early (2 am) in order to reach the summit by sunrise and get back down the same day - almost 500 m of vertical ascent, some scrambling, abseiling down valleys, crossing two glaciers and ultimately climbing the last section over scree material to reach Margherita Peak.

Last camp.

Summit day was icy (for lack of a better word). Lots of crampon and ice-ax work up steep, long and unrelenting glaciers. The ice formations were beautiful. Deep, long gulleys leading up to meringues and vertical ice chutes.

Fantastic ice formations on Margherita Glacier.
Crossing Margherita Glacier.

After what felt like hours of scrambling, we reached the last glacier, a steep ominous looking beast leading up to a rocky chimney that would hopefully take us to the summit. I looked down into the valley and saw we were high above the clouds of earlier. As the Mountain Gods slowly opened the gates to the summit, just after sunrise, the summit post stared me right in the face - it was right in front of me! 


I could not believe it, tears of joy streamed down my face and as I looked down the steep slopes of the mountain leading into the ominous DRC. I thought I heard some hushed chanting of rebellious voices rising above the old mans beard forests...

Margherita Glacier.

The climb down was fairly serious, gently creeping down the same way we came, hopping over deep crevasses and ultimately reaching our camp for the evening. The next day we "ran" down to the gate, completing the climb in 8 days, 7 nights. I felt elated. What a tremendous experience on a high altitude peak in a remote part of the Dark Continent.