Four local athletes coped with injury, adverse weather conditions and dangerous wildlife to set a new record for climbing the highest mountain in each South African province in the shortest time ever. 9 Peaks Record is the story of their adventure.

In 9 Peaks Record, first and only on Showmax, we see how four athletes broke the record to climb the highest mountain in each province in July 2017 in the shortest time ever.

Tian Liebenberg, Alex Harris, Sean Disney and Adrian Saffy achieved the superhuman feat of scaling all nine peaks - which involved driving 3 500km and climbing 160 kilometres on foot - in 4 days, 15 hours and 58 minutes, beating the previous record by three hours.

We spoke to Tian to find out more about this intense, exhilarating adventure.

 

What kind of training did you do for the challenge? Did you train as a team, or individually?

Alex, Sean and Adrian are pretty much career adventurers and chances are that they can take on a challenge at very short notice. I, on the other hand, spent the four months leading up to the challenge doing a combination of gym work and time with a personal trainer who specifically focused on strengthening the areas that will take the most grinding.

Much of our training happened individually. Having said that, we did scout out all the peaks prior to the challenge starting, just to make sure that our route planning up all the peaks were on point.

Sean Disney and I did many of these together, while Adrian covered the peaks in the Drakensberg. While the physical training was critical, nothing could quite prepare us for the lack of sleep and having to operate and function in the hills with hardly any sleep. Much of the training was focused on being able to recover from a gruelling climb in a fairly short space of time.

If you did it again, what stumbling blocks or mistakes would you try to avoid?

Adventure and mountaineering is an accumulation of experience, so there are always lessons to be learnt on any expedition – and this was no different.

Some of these stumbling blocks were a little out of our control. Our route from KwaDuma (Eastern Cape) to Murch Point (Northern Cape) was quite frustrating as the area was undergoing severe roadworks. We were delayed a tremendous amount of time due to the roads being closed to allow opposing traffic through.

We couldn’t exactly put the work of the National Roads agency on hold to allow us faster passage. Our planning was good and we were able to negotiate much of the unexpected, with perhaps the exception of the roadworks.

 

What would your advice be to a person or team looking to take on the challenge?

Planning is key. Anyone can take on the challenge. There are people who have completed the 9 Peaks over a period of a year (or sometimes longer).

There have also been teams that have done the 9 Peaks over nine weeks, so if your aim is to simply complete the challenge in your own time, then time and route optimisation probably becomes less important.

If you set out to break the record, things change a little. Every stop for food, refuelling and comfort breaks become critical. A wrong turn onto the wrong roads can cost you dearly.

Then there is also the accuracy of your route up the mountain to the summit that is important.

By way of example, our route up Mafadi in KZN (SA’s highest peak) threw us off a little due to the fact that once we got there, the route we had planned on taking was iced up and unclimbable.

We had to change our plans and ended up taking much longer reaching the summit. My best advice would be to simply enjoy it while you are doing it. If you are just there to chase the summits, you may rob yourself of the extraordinary experience of getting to the top.

 

What was your favourite peak, and why? And what makes this challenge unique?

Each of the nine peaks had their own beauty and own challenges. Some of the peaks are extremely easy – you can park your car 400m from the summit and take a leisurely stroll to the top.

Others, however, are gruelling. KwaDuma in the Eastern Cape was particularly memorable. Due to access times and restrictions to some of the peaks, we had to carefully plan our routes.

Over the four days, we pretty much climbed through every night. We started on KwaDuma at around 21:00 at night. The weather was unbelievable, with wind speeds reaching 100km/h. As we reached the escarpment, we were hit by the most extraordinary winds. We decided that it was too risky and retreated to the safely of a rocky ledge below the escarpment to wait it out. This meant that we were nearing the summit as the sun rose, which was absolutely beautiful.

The other peak that stands out is Seweweekspoort, the highest peak in the Western Cape. Due to all our delays, we had narrowly missed what I recall being the worst blizzard the mountain and region had had in 50 years. There is no doubt that if we did not have the delays we had, we would have ended up at this peak in the middle of the blizzard – and that would certainly have spelled disaster for us.

 

Can you describe the scariest or most difficult moment for you?

This may come as a surprise, but I have a fear of heights. One of the peaks, Namahadi (Free State), has a section called the Chain Ladders, literally ladders of chain that are vertically mounted against a rock face. There are two of these sections, and I did not expect them to be so steep.

We were also experiencing high winds on this mountain, which made the chain ladders even more daunting. The route we chose meant that this was the only option – we were unable to change plans at that point. Added to this was the fact that we were not clipped into any form of safety harnesses – all in the pitch black darkness, with nothing more than our head torches to show the next hand- and foothold.

The scariest moment was on the descent, returning back from the summit, when we had to make our way down the chain ladders. It was exceptionally windy at this point. Alex Harris descended first and after leaving a gap of about 1.5m between us, I took to the chains.

About halfway down the chains, a gust of wind hit us from the right with such force that it pulled the chain ladder (with Alex and I midway) away from the rockface. Both of us let out a shriek that could have passed as a group of 16-year-old girls screaming at a Justin Bieber concert!

KwaDuma also had one or two scary moments. We were warned about rabid dogs that roam the lower slopes. We were constantly aware of their howling and growling. We again climbed this peak during the night and were aware of them standing, looking at us just outside of the light of our head torches.

The most challenging element of the entire experience was the lack of sleep. We would drive from one peak to the next, climb, get in the van and off to the next one. Over the four days, we had an average of about eight hours sleep each, total. This becomes a challenge when you have been sitting in a car for four hours and then need to go and climb a 56km track to the summit, and repeat.

 

How did the weather affect your experience of the challenge?

We chose to do the challenge during winter as we all felt that our bodies operated better in cold weather. Just how cold it would get, we didn’t quite expect.

The weather ended up being a major factor. On Seweweekspoort, we were waist deep in snow in some sections, which made moving a little tricky as we were not entirely geared up for those conditions.

 

How did the documentary being made affect your experience of the challenge?

We had a film crew with us and they made most of the smaller, lower peaks with us. The purpose of this was really just to capture our journey so that the four of us would have something to remember.

On some of the peaks, we took the cameras ourselves and filmed what we could.

From a logistics point of view, we had to ensure that the crew was also taken care of, so had a second vehicle that they travelled in and had all of their equipment.

With a challenge like this, there are no scripts. As the expedition unfolds, so does the story, and they tried to capture those changes as best they could. You don’t have much time to craft poetry in the hills. You are tired, hungry, sore and sleepy – so you end up saying it as it is – whether there is a camera or not.

 

To complete the challenge, all members of your team would’ve had to summit every peak. Was there ever a moment when you thought that maybe one of you might not make it, so you had to pull together to make sure you did?

Absolutely! Mafadi was that moment. Mafadi was the sixth peak we had to complete, and after pushing really hard, we had managed to do the first five peaks within the first 24 hours.

By this stage, I had not slept. There was a moment lower down on Mafadi where it was a serious consideration for me to pull the plug. Being surrounded by three extraordinary athletes, they managed to get my head right and we pushed on.

Later on that night on Mafadi, I managed to twist my left knee (probably as a result of a lack of concentration). I was in a lot of pain. I reached the summit and told the team that we have a serious problem as I could hardly put any weight on my left leg. The descent back to the cars was excruciatingly slow.

This meant that we had wiped out the entire we lead we had on the current record. I managed to get back to the camp and immediately called my doctor.

Being well supplied with medication for any kind of eventuality, we managed the pain and discomfort in order to complete the remaining three mountains. Once I returned to Johannesburg, I saw a couple of specialists and we established that I had sprained my left knee, had ITB and also tore the popliteus tendon.

Fortunately, through well-timed anti-inflammatories and painkillers/numbing agents, we pulled through and made it to the end.

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