Monday, 16 June 2014

The Mountain Roared

So much to say about a few short days. Let's start with yesterday. Arrived at Ongeluksnek just after 8pm having left Pietermaritzburg 38 hours earlier and save for a 10 minute snooze on the couch at Glen Edward I had yet to get some sleep. I chatted to the guys already at the support station while I coaxed down a few jugs of tea and half a dozen vetkoek. The supplied dinner was rather unappetizing and I merely picked at it. After a hot shower I climbed into bed and almost immediately started coughing. It was clear I had started with an infection. After tossing for 30 minutes I fell asleep waking 2.5 hours later. Climbing out of bed I was aware of a strong wind blowing outside. Under the dull light of a paraffin lamp I dressed and packed in the bathroom so as not to disturb the other riders. Breakfast consisted of instant oats and Weetbix which I had in my resupply box. Fed, hydrated and trussed up warm I headed out the door just before 2am. 30 mins in I stripped down as although windy it was a warm wind. I had an easy ride through to Thabatija before climbing down off the ridge and up the drag path to Kabong. Although not yet 4am I had to move aside to allow a team of oxen and the guys driving them to pass. Such is the importance of collecting wattle for firewood. Leaving Kabong I followed the cattle tracks up to Black Fountain. Aided by a full moon I made quick time along the mountain having little trouble in linking up the myriad tracks that wend their way across the ridge. Just as the eastern sky started to glow with the promise of sunrise I picked my way through the rocky ledges down the mountain and rode across to Tinana Mission. Once there I took of few minutes to get some antibiotics out my bag. I was starting to cough up chunks and my throat was getting raw. After scrambling through a few dongas and wadding through a river I was able to enjoy an easy ride toward Setabataba. I got to the start of the Vuvu valley at 9am and as soon as I got onto the first ridge was hit by the first really strong head wind of the day. As I approached the final climb up the cliffs to the Vuvu plateau I got seriously buffeted. Every minute or so I had to stop moving and brace against the wind. Carry a bike was not an option unless you had a buddy with a GoPro who could film a million hit YouTube moment. I used the bike like a Zimmer frame which in hindsight is a good age appropriate skill for me to acquire. Once on the plateau I had to walk most of the last few km's to the school keeping an eye out for flying roof sheeting. Once at the school I was told to put my bike inside the classroom as they were worried the wind would blow it away. As I sat there drinking milky tea and ignoring the greasy scrawny chicken that Vuvu is known for the conditions on Lehana were front of mind. It's generally breezy up the mountain but if we had gale force winds down at Vuvu I could only imagine how bad it was going up Lehanas pass. For readers unfamiliar with Lehanas Pass, it's a mountain trail of some 1000 metres of climbing. Once at the top you ride down to join the Naudesnek road pass which is 2500m above sea level - South Africa's second highest road pass. There is no clearly marked path. To get up you make your way to a ridge and generally follow the ridge line for a few kilometers until reaching the last big nek before contouring around to get to a path that takes you up to the top. I walked large sections of the road to the start of the portage due to the wind which made riding impossible. At one point I got a finger wagging from an old lady when I was riding along and got turned 90 degrees into the ditch by a strong gust. I interpreted it as "ja you flippin tjop, why do you think it's a good idea to ride that thing in these conditions!" The wind at the bottom of the portage required an all out effort to get the bike up the first few contours where the earth just crumbles under foot. What normally takes 30 mins took me 90 mins. As I inched my way up the wind got to the point of flying my bike like a kite. I had to grab both the bars and the saddle and weigh it down as I made a metre or two of progress at a time. At the first nek I ended up being pinned to a bush by my bike. The wind was so strong that I couldn't push off. After a few mins the wind slowed enough that I was able to liberate myself and continue up. My wind cheater was flapping so hard that is was making constant whip cracking sounds and the loose ends of my backpack stung my face as the wind blew mercilessly. The wind was making the flesh on my face flap not unlike pictures you see of people sticking their faces out of windows of fast cars. It stung so much that I rolled into a deeply rutted cattle track and unpacked an additional buff with which to cover my face. At some stages I was pelted with gravel as if someone above me on the ridge was throwing handfuls over me. It was just the wind tearing bits off the mountain. On one grassy slope as strong gusts forced me to sit I was pushed a few metres across the grass. While amusing it was time consuming. As I approached the main nek near the kraal and the cairn I could see the effects of the wind blowing across the grass and shrubs. As I got closer the noise, not unlike a jet engine was deafening. I was getting concerned that I would run out of daylight before getting off the mountain. I had been on it for 3 hours and had only 90 mins of daylight left. It normally takes just under 3 hours to get up. As I started across the rocks between the cairn and kraal the wind won the battle ripping the bike out my grip as I tried to hold it with one hand and keep myself in place by holding on to a rock with the other while seated. I crawled behind a small rock so I could at least sit up and take stock. I never panic when things get interesting. I am far more logical and calmly process options working on a plan forward. It was clear that I was in a situation that went beyond amusement. I was trapped and had to seriously consider my options. First thing was to get my bike back. After many minutes of careful movement I managed to drag my bike closer and wedge the tyres against rocky protrusions that anchored it against the wind. It was clear I had to get out if this spot. The first time I tried getting on my haunches and dragging the bike across the rocks ended badly with the bike once again being unceremoniously ripped from my grasp. A broken saddle and power adapter reinforced the seriousness of my situation. It took me 10 mins to retrieve the bike from lower down the slope dragging it inch by inch back to my hunker down spot. One option was to abandon the bike and get myself to the shelter of a shepherds hut a few hundred metres further down the mountain. I also contemplated dismantling the bike and taking it bit by bike to the cattle kraal a mere 50 metres away. That option had little merit as it was hard enough for me to move forward without the added impediment of bike bits. It was disturbing to be pinned down by a foe whose presence I was all to aware of but could not see. After 30 mins of making no progress I decided on a final all or nothing effort to cross the 50 metres of open ground to the relative safety of the stone kraal. With the realization that daylight was running low every minute I sat there I felt a momentary lessening of the wind Intensity. I grabbed my bike with both hands and keeping low I dragged it over the rocks to the kraal. The effort left me heaving but happy to have escaped the most extreme weather situation of my life. There was still work to be done but I was sure the worst was behind me. With 45 mins of daylight left I battled the wind across the face of the mountain to the path that leads up behind the container that has been placed at the top of the mountain. I thought the wind would ease once I was over the top but that hope was dashed. To add to my woes the temperature was dropping all the time. I needed to change my gloves as my fingers were numb and I needed another later on my body. With the wind howling and no shelter to enable me to go through my back pack I simply became obsessed with getting to the lodge to shelter from the wind and change my gear. By 6pm I had made the safety of the lodge, some 3 hours later than anticipated. I took my gloves off and was hit with excruciating pain consistent with early onset frostbite. It probably wasn't below zero outside but add the windchill of wind gusting in excess of 100km/h and it's cold. I put on some glove inners to stabilize my finger temperature and ease the pain. It was then that I started with the shakes. It was apparent that my core temperature had dropped significantly. I decided to take time to get a few cups of hot stuff down my throat and spend time next to the fireplace to warm up before taking on the last stretch to the finish. While I sat there the wind picked up even more making the fireplace roar accompanied by rattling windows and creaking roof. The prospect of a few more hours of fighting the wind had no appeal. One of the hardest things I had to do in this race was to head out the door and get back on my bike when the sensible option was to hunker down at Tena Head Lodge and wait for the wind to abate. If it hadn't been for all the encouragement and pledges of support for the scholarship fund I may well have called it a day. Just before 7pm I walk out the lodge to face the wind yet again. As the wind allowed I rode down toward Naudesnek. I hoped that as I dropped lower off the mountains the wind would let up. Progress was hindered in places by the wind and I had to take care rounding corners to avoid being spilled. After dropping down the first section the wind lessened to the extent that I no longer worried about staying upright. 2 hours into the ride down from Tena Head I started nodding off, drifting away all the time and battled to keep focus for more than a few seconds. My speed, even on the downhills had slowed to a painful crawl. Going down the numerous switchbacks in that state is just plain dangerous. It is not a place to get injured as the countryside is unpopulated and passing cars rare. Last time I battled these sleep monsters when riding with Trevor in 2012 it cost us a few hours. I decided on a power nap. My phone battery was drained so I had no alarm clock. I carry an emergency kit which includes matches and fuel tablets. I made a teacup size fire and lay down close enough for it to warm my face. With the temperatures below zero it was guaranteed that when the fire went out I would wake up. After 10 or 15 mins the smoke from the now extinguished fire woke me. I jumped back on the bike and fully awake powered into Rhodes arriving at 10:15pm some 64 hours 15 mins since departing PMB. Although a disappointing 3 hours later than my worse case prediction I had arrived in one piece after a harrowing experience in the clutches of the mountain. I am left with a new respect for the trail as well as a reminder of just how frail and vulnerable we are.

1 comment:

Dave Bell said...

Thank you for the read. Thoroughly gripping.