The 48hr Day
By Damien Schumann
It was 23h30 when I pulled into Checkpoint 10, after completing another 17-hour straight slog. I had about 4 hours of sleep to look forward to, but before I could get some much-needed rest I still had to pack my fastpack with all the gear I would need for the first overnight bivy stage. I eventually climbed into my sleeping bag at 02h00 and as I waited to fall asleep my mind drifted off into thoughts of the infamous Langeberg mountain range. I had always known it was going to be the crux of the trip, and now I was in the midst of it. I just had to play ignorant to what lay ahead and take it one step at a time.
This relentless dragon-tail-shaped range within the Cape Fold Mountain range separates the dry arid Karoo from the coast. The only route is across the top where sheer rock faces meet with thick bush for those with a stubborn imagination that want to tame this beast. The prize for the few that get here is to walk with the gods on top of the world.
Razor sharp ridges aren’t very conducive to collecting water, which brought in the next problem. I’d have to carry all of my own water for the duration of the ridge-line. My decision to travel fast and light meant that I could move quick enough to get across the ridge-line before I turned into a prune, but this also meant I had to push hydration limits to get there. Eventually, I opted to carry 4 litres of water which I hoped would see me through a steamy day until I dropped down to the first river. The plan was to bivy at the river and then do the final push through unknown terrain the following day. According to the maps, there was a path there which would hopefully speed things up.
So I loaded up my Ultimate Direction FastPack35 with 4 litres of water, Dripdrop hydration, 1.5 days worth of food, sleeping bag, wet and cold Patagonia protective wear, camera, and 3x 1:50 000 maps. I estimate it weighed about 8kg, which is the limit I would feel comfortable to run with. Any more weight and you might as well take it slow and be fully prepared. It’s heavy on the shoulders in the beginning, but having a waist strap helped a lot, and within the first hour the water and snacks are slowly being consumed which starts to ease the load.
I wanted the purest line possible so I went straight up the start of the ridge. It’s more climbing than necessary but damn it is exciting. Crimpy, slopey holds with just enough footing to let a running shoe smear their way up, and enough exposure to let you know you don’t want to screw up. The downside is that it is very slow going. By now I was used to the false summits of the Langeberg so I patiently pushed on over the rolling peaks until I reached the ridge.
Coming up from the Karoo side I finally got a 360’ view of where I was. With only a narrow skyway dictating my path this must be the closest thing to flying one can come within the limitations of the human body. Fluid skips propelled me over the technical terrain as I came to grips with when to lean into the gusts of wind and when to relax to keep on line and balance. As the terrain steepened into a climb my arms took over and I gained rapid altitude. Few if any people come up here so the rock is quite unstable. On numerous occasions, I found myself on a face with a 15-20m drop when a hold broke off in my hand. Just high enough to make a mission abort rather difficult if I fell.
With each break, my response evolved from one of panic to one of frustration. The frustration was good. It meant I was expecting what could happen and was angry I had misread the quality of the rock. It also meant I was ready for the unexpected. This became an ongoing process of evaluation with the terrain – learning how the stability of the rock changed so drastically with each passing kilometer and how the vegetation adjusted with it. In the end, it was all about piecing the puzzle together so I could find the most efficient way forward.
I began to realise pretty quickly that things were not going according to plan, still fatigued from the day before, I decided to escape the strengthening wind and call it a day as darkness began to fall. Short of my initial goal I found a little cave and hunkered down. My thinking was that with daylight and a good nights sleep I’d be quicker on my feet. I ate my pasta leftovers with a glorious display of stars above me. In the warmth and safety of my shelter, I listened to the wind pummeling against the other side of the mountain and felt a unique pleasure from my situation. After numerous days of bullying from the land and elements, I was now getting the better of them. It was a mere chess move that could be countered at any moment. But for now I had the upper hand and that's how I fell asleep.
When I awoke at 05h00 it was still pitch dark, the wind had settled marginally and gusted every now then as if to let me know it was still there. After a quick breakfast, I let the ridge guide me through the darkness as the horizon slowly slipped to purple. I had 1lt of water left and that was my biggest concern. With the highest peak behind me, it was progressively downhill from here, but the bush covering the ridge slowly rose in height as well as density, and with lots of loose rock hiding beneath its canopy it was hard to make good time. The morning came and went without me reaching the river.
My last sip of water celebrated what I thought was the start of the final descent… only to realise I was horribly wrong. Three mini peaks later and I was where I hoped to be by nightfall the previous day. It was 14h00 and I had drunk 4lt of water in 30 hours. Pretty parched, it was also becoming a reality that I may not finish the alloted distance in sunlight. Food rationing commenced and I funneled down as much water as I could stomach after filling up all the water bottles and bladder.
From here, the theory I deduced (after a recce that taught me why you should recce), was to follow a dead-end path through a valley and then solo climb up to a ridge-line where I could join another path, and then follow that all the way to the exit point. I found what resembled a path and pushed on as the sun dropped like a lead weight towards the horizon. I was trusting the maps guidance as valleys in this area are usually overgrown with protea trees, and are exceptionally hard to push through. As I got deeper my worst fear came true and the path started disappearing. It weaved in and out of some small kloofs that were so dense in bush I was wading through their canopies with my feet hovering a few meters off the ground.
Each step would drop me waist deep in an entanglement of vines, sticks and scrub. Then I’d have to roll my legs out and press down a few centimeters further across. It was agonizing moving so slowly. On the other side of it all, it would take a while to find the ‘path’ again but there was no turning back at this point. Eventually, I made it through the dense vegetation and towering up into the sky in front of me was a 600m wall of rock and scree.
I noticed a break that looked like the safest route up and kicked into action. I had one tuna sandwich left and promised myself it would be my prize for reaching a safe place to sleep. Surrendering to the night I could settle into a rhythm and just keep pushing upwards until I hit the elevation where I knew I had to start traversing around the summit, which was now hidden in a thick blanket of darkness that gently enveloped me into its embrace.
Navigation at night is an imperfect science of trusting entirely in a map, and then having to re-evaluate as you learn what’s not in print. It was one of those nights in a blasting gale, with barely enough visibility to see the rocks below my feet. The steeper sections involved a little scrambling and each face brought a worry that it was higher than anticipated. I got to the first 300m contour line and spontaneously swung left. If the plan worked it wasn’t far now. The drop off to the left was pretty steep but I soon found a rock face which at the base had just enough ground to get level footing. Feeling my way forward I hoped that this face was a ridge that dropped down to the path on the map that I need to get to.
Eventually, a break revealed the lights of a nearby town. But this still didn't help. I checked the map again, re-calibrated the GPS, I should be there. A few more steps. Bingo. A one-foot-wide path under some overgrown grass. It was about 22h00 and I was feeling a bit drained only having eaten a sandwich, a few cashews, dates, and biltong during the last 15-hour slog. It was too exposed to bivy here but felt it was time to treat myself to the last tuna sandwich. This was a gamble as I didn't know how much longer I’d be out here for.
This was roughly my 20th tuna sandwich of the trip and it still felt like the biggest luxury. It’s amazing where one can find pleasure when the going is tough. A light drizzle started to fall and I got the engine going again, with marginally more energy in the tank. It was fruitless. The supposed trail hadn’t been used in years and was little help. As I dropped deeper into the neighboring valley the grasslands of the ridge turned back to protea trees and before I knew it I was in over my head again, literally. My torch bounced off the thicket and allowed me to see as far as my hand could reach to push into the abyss.
Raindrops turned to glitter as they shot through the beam of my headlamp. This did little to bring a sparkle to my demeanour though. I felt like a fly treading through thick porridge. The effort just didn't equate to progress. Every few minutes I’d check the map to ensure I was on the ‘path’. At least if I followed this guidance I would eventually arrive on what had to be a primary route. As luck would have it, I did. Right next to a sign saying that the path I was on was impassable. Well, thanks for the warning. With space to move again, I managed to find a shelter and bunked out of the wind and rain. It was almost 01h00 by now and the adrenaline had kicked in leaving me feeling wired to the max. I lay restless in my sleeping bag, feeling relieved to be off my feet and out of the elements. I was past hungry, over sleep, and oblivious to pain. It just felt so good not to have to move or think.
Not much had changed when I woke 4 hours later. It was still cold and dark. My body nauseous from the lack of sleep and food. I packed my rather light bag by now and headed east down the descent path. It was 8kms to the foot of the mountain where my support crew would be waiting. The path begged my legs to open stride but they couldn't. There was nothing left in the system. My head bobbed as my body threatened to fall asleep. ‘Stumble’ would be the accurate term for this athletic discipline, and one I hadn’t practiced since my misspent youth.
I detached from my surroundings as all effort and focus were placed on moving. Leaning forwards to maintain momentum, but desperately trying not to fall over. It was just a matter of enduring now. One more step. One more step. Think about how far you’ve come. Then in the blink of an eye, the checkpoint was insight. Almost exactly 48 hours after leaving Checkpoint 10 I was on the outskirts of Checkpoint 13 refueling and preparing for the next day.
About the gear:
Travelling ‘fast and light’ requires very strategic preparation, particularly when you know you’re going to be off trail. I chose to run my overnight legs with the Ultimate Direction Fastpack35 for a number of reasons.
1. Its minimal design. It has no zippers that can break, no gimmicky add on bits n bobs that can get snagged, and even the mesh pockets are uber durable. This makes for a bag that you know will not fail on you midway through a big mission. It’s perfect for pushing through off trail terrain. Minimal design also plays into its box shape. This makes every cubic mm useful and means it’s as compact as possible in comparison to its weight. Perfect for maneuverability and squeezing through small places.
2. It fits well. I originally wanted a FastPack25 but the FastPack35 fitted me better so I went for that. I was later thankful as I needed the extra space. The FastPack35 also comes with a waist strap that took a lot of weight off my shoulders and held the bag snug against my back. I had no issues running with a bag up to 8kgs. 6kgs was ideal though. This also helped with scrambly sections where you want your center of gravity as close to normal as possible, else its tumble time. I found the pack distributed the weight really well.
3. The pockets make sense. Everything I would need regular access to was close at hand. For me this included a compact camera; GoPro, food for a couple of hours, 500ml soft flask with Dripdrop, and a bladder tube feeding in from the back for extra water. In the large mesh pocket I kept my maps which didn't get crumpled, as well as a rain jacket/windbreaker. Bananas and extra water went in the side pockets. It was inevitable that every couple of hours I had to open the main compartment to restock all the small pockets based on the changing conditions.
4. The roll up top loader is pretty damn clever. The strapping system means that you can compress the bag to a tight fit regardless of the contents. At times I’ve pulled it right down to about a 10lt bag size and haven’t had issues with things bouncing around. The roll up top also means that you can over pack the bag if the extra space is needed. This, in addition to the stretchy mesh pockets give the bag a much larger capacity than 35lt in my opinion. That said I wouldn't want to carry too much weight even if it can carry a lot. The one downside is that the roll up top is slow to get into but you shouldn’t be opening bags every 10mins, so I didn't find this an issue.
5. For its durability its unbelievably light. Its got the strength of a hiking pack but the weight and fit of a hydration vest. The perfect combo for alpine running. It’s water resistant, but I would recommend putting your gear in a dry bag if you’re expecting to be in heavy rain.
On a run where almost all of my gear broke or failed me, this was one of the few products that stood up to the challenge. I was well impressed and definitely taking it on future 24-72 hour alpine missions.
This account from Damien is just 48 hours of a 30-day scramble across the entire Cape Fold mountain range in South Africa. Covering a distance of 1150km, with very little actual built-up trails, across some of the countries roughest terrain. Damien is unofficially the only known person to complete the entire route, thereby setting a very solid FKT for others to try beat.