RUNNING UP A MOUNTAIN
THE Comrade’s Marathon, the annual 54-miles road race in Natal, was over, and two of us who had taken a stab at it— we finished first and ninth—made tracks for a few days’ mountaineering in the Drakensberg. We meant to have a short spell of sightseeing before returning to our work in Rhodesia 1,200 miles away.
From Durban we went 150 miles in the train, then got into a car and travelled another fifty miles west, and there found the Government Hostel, headquarters for climbers of Montaux-Seurces 11,000 odd feet and one of the highest peaks. It was winter and freezing, but as there is seldom a cloud in the sky during May the days were pretty well all we could wish for such a trip. We didn’t need a guide, as I had been up several times before, and besides, we had no intention of trying any dangerous routes.
The Hostel itself stood at an altitude of some 4,000 ft., and early next morning we set out, climbing up gullies and on rough tracks scarped out of the mountainside, and after something like a dozen hours reached the top (11,700 ft.) and from there returned to a cave. This cave, a few hundred feet below the summit, was where parties usually camped for the night before the Mountain Club put up a permanent building. The following day we were back at the Hostel again intending to explore elsewhere.
Chatting over a gorgeous fire that night it was suggested that, being long-distance athletes, we should put up a record afoot from the Hostel to the cave at the top and back, for future climbers to conjure with. The best ” up ” time at that date was rather over 3 ½ hours. Nothing loth, we agreed.
My partner, F. C. M. Watkins, took a horse and went a few hours ahead so as to be ready with the timing ; he had a camera too, for a photo would be necessary to prove the top had been reached. Shortly afterwards I changed into running kit and was sent off at 11 a.m.
There was a mule track of sorts over a large part of the way which made things reasonably easy, though there was so much rock surface, and abominably rough at that, that the going was none too good. My training had entailed running up many a long hill, hut this was altogether bigger than anything I had yet tackled. Yet I knew that so long as I studied my wind carefully and altered the length of my stride to suit the gradient, I should have nothing to fear. One thing, however, didn’t please mo at all; there was super-magnificent scenery all around and I dared not for a moment look at it; every bit of attention had to be focussed on my progress unless I wanted a broken foot or limb.
Slowly I worked up one steep face after another until, at about 8,000 ft. the difficulty with breathing began to be noticeable. This only meant cutting down the pace still further so as not to get distressed. One or two bad bits here and there put a temporary halt to running and had to be negotiated pretty nearly on all fours ; but I never stopped moving, and after what seemed like an almost endless ascent reached the top of the pass and went up to the cave, just below which my partner was waiting with the watch and camera. Time to this point was 2 hrs. 18 min. 30 sec.
Ah me! Woe is me ! Then the trouble started. Watkins’ horse had got loose and it would certainly need two of us to catch it. So I couldn’t think of returning until I had seen him safely mounted. Several times we all but managed it, but it broke free, while we perspired with internal profanity at the delay. Eventually we did corner it, but the job had taken us a full half-hour, and I believe it was more good luck than good management then. Right away I said “au revoir” and started on the down journey.
This was much quicker and certainly easier, but I found it more than ever necessary to be careful; in fact I did what seemed to me like expert jumping on more than one occasion to get over bad spots. Some of the turns round rocks wore remarkably sudden and it was just as well for me that no one happened to be travelling in the opposite direction at the time.
Another half-mile and I should get a view of the hostel I had started from. I could spare no more than a more glance, but even that told me I was expected, for there was quite a bunch of visitors and staff on the look-out.
Ten minutes later I ran up to them. ” Time, please ? ” “4 hrs. 16 min. 30 seconds.” “Thanks, and now what price a bath? ” Pity we’d had to waste all that time over the horse !