13 Peaks Challenge
Feb 08, 2023 | Cape Town, South Africa
FloRuns‘ 13 Peaks Challenge
I have spent considerable time exploring the trails of Cape Town over the past few years and still find new routes to conquer. When Ryan Sandes introduced the 13 Peaks Challenge to the trail running community it wasn’t an immediate draw for me. However, I’ve kept a close eye on its development over the years. Many friends have completed it and it’s been exciting to see their progress.
This time around, I was in Cape Town for three full months, providing enough time to properly prepare for such a big challenge. When Amy sought support for her 5-day attempt at the end of 2022, I couldn’t resist joining. It was during our run together that I finally made the commitment to tackle the 13 Peaks, and I decided to do it in three runs over three consecutive days. Last year, I ended my stay in Cape Town with the scenic skyline traverse route and this year, the 13 Peaks was to be my big end-of-stay project.
What is 13 Peaks?
The 13 Peaks Challenge is a personal adventure to connect some of the favourite peaks in the Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula region. It involves hiking or running and exploring the beautiful wilderness areas. Participants can take as much time as they need, from two days to months, to complete the challenge and the most important aspect is to have fun. The 13 Peaks Challenge is not a race, but an invitation to enjoy the mountains.
Day 1 – Friday, Feb 3rd, 2023
From Signal Hill to Hout Bay
I had everything prepared the evening before already, when the alarm went off at 5:30 am. Staying in Bellville, I had to drive about half an hour to the starting point on top of Signal Hill. Mentz and Gervais were awaiting me already. Gervais wanted to run with me, while Mentz offered to take photos along the route. Pretty much 6.30 am on the dot I tagged the Signal Hill beacon and Gervais and I headed off towards the first peak: Lion’s Head (669m). Gervais dropped off shortly into the run and we continued at our own pace. I wasn’t aiming for any particular (fast) time, I just wanted to finish. Running such a long distance, however, I really wanted to run my own pace and communicated that clearly with everybody who thought about joining for parts of the route. Gervais was cool, he said he just needed somebody to drag him out of bed and finally cross the mountain.
I ran by feel, which turned out to be quicker than I expected. In hindsight maybe a little too fast? Just 10 minutes across the Lion’s back, another roughly 22 minutes up to the top of Lion’s Head and the first of six beacons for the day was tagged. I waited a little bit on top to check in with Gervais but also give my calves some rest. They’ve been burning as soon as I hit the uphill, but I knew that this pain is going away sooner or later. Passing Gervais on the downhill we assured me that he was cool and knows the route – it was the last time I would see him on this day.
In the downhill, I flew past Mentz who was waiting there for me – click, click, click. Once on the famous red jeep track, I let my legs go and zoomed past lots of hikers going up and down the mountain with astonishing looks. The Kloof Corner steps and India Venster was next in order to reach to top of Table Mountain. As soon as I hit the India Fenster trail it felt like somebody had pulled the plug. From time to time I just had to stop for a few seconds and catch a deep breath. I was suffering. When I passed an elder person he told me that I was moving up the mountain with a jet engine. I wish, it would have felt that way – it was the opposite instead. But I pushed through and made it to the flat part on top. Looking at the stats now, I know why I felt that way: I’ve never run up this route as fast before!
As much as I love the route along the edge towards Maclear’s Beacon (1’087m), I was on a mission and not there for the views. I took the faster but less scenic route to Maclear’s Beacon (1,087m), quickly tagged the beacon, had a drink of Maurten 320, and headed towards Grootkop (857m). I was happy to get some running in again after the India Venster climb as the route was mostly downhill and flat with just a few bumps, and gusts of wind provided some relief from the heat. It was getting hotter by the minute.
After about 7km it was time for the next proper ascent. Grootkop, here I come! I ran into a woman on the way up who got frightened by my sudden appearance. I can totally understand her, who would expect another person on this little trail. It was my first time ever tagging Grootkop and I was a bit sad that there isn’t even a beacon to tag, just a rock pile. Anyway, let’s head down and to the next one: Judas Peak (758m) with stunning views over Hout Bay. I wasn’t sure, whether I had tagged Judas Peak before. Though, the last scramble bit gave it away, it wasn’t my first time. I had a little break and looked back from where I came and also looked ahead to the next and last two peaks of the day.
I messaged Heleen, that I was starting my descent now and made my way to Llandudno Ravine. Good memories: just a few weeks before, I had a solo overnighter there. And it also meant, that the aid station at Suikerbossie wasn’t far anymore. Click, click, click – the familiar sound from Mentz’ camera and soon after I saw Heleen waiting for me with cold water and coke. That was exactly what I needed at this point, some familiar faces, cold drinks and a break. I felt exhausted. 26km in and still almost 13km to go. If I’d have prepared better, I would have known, that I was still quite fast at this point, but I just thought I was having a tough day. After a longer break, encouraging words by both Mentz and Heleen, who also forced me to eat and drink more than I would have, I took off to another first time peak: Little Lion’s Head (436m). It was a short but steep ascent with quite some scrambling at the top. I love those parts. Usually. But today? Really? Tag, quick look around, let’s head down again. It was time for the last brutal climb up Suther Peak (614m).
This much upfront: it has the nickname Suffer Peak for a reason! Going up there in the middle of the day is no joke. The sun was burning down and there’s basically no shade along the way. I took a Maurten Caffein gel when Mentz sent me off at the bottom. The climb started with a little sand dune, exactly what I needed. Not. Like at India Venster, I had to stop briefly on a regular basis. But I managed to drag myself up step by step. And boy was I relieved to tag the peak. Now, it was all downhill the same route and flat road running. However, the downhill didn’t turn out to be that enjoyable. For some reason my chest felt a little constricted (maybe the heat?) and the path I had mapped out before wasn’t as easy to find either. A bit more sand dunes, fortunately downhill, some off trail bundu bashing and I was finally on the tarmac. Another 2.5km and there it was: today’s finishing point! Relieved but broken I ordered a cold coke, Mentz joined me and even Brode showed up with his South Yeaster Bakery specialty, a gruberg kimchi crossaint (I had messaged him when I was still on Table Mountain to secure one for me).
After a refreshing dip in the ocean, my legs felt much better already. Mentz and I headed back to my car at Signal Hill and Green Point for some food subsequently. It must have looked a bit strange to the other guests, that I was sitting in the restaurant with a massage gun working on my legs. But it was worth the looks, my legs felt surprisingly great afterwards.
Day 2 – Saturday, Feb 4th, 2023
From Hout Bay to Silvermine
For the weekend, I moved my base closer to my starting points and stayed in Bergvliet. Justin was so kind to not only host but even give up his bed for me and support me all weekend. Massive shout-out to him on this note!
As the day before, I wanted to start at 6:30 am to avoid the heat. Today’s leg was “only” 26km and fairly runnable, so basically a “rest day” 🙃 And my legs felt fresh. I didn’t feel the previous day at all.
On Thursday already, I saw on Instagram that Juan from Gauteng was flying to Cape Town to run 13 Peaks in one go with his best mate Albert. I didn’t know them, but reached out to him and wished them all the best. Chances were high that we would see each other along the way. On Saturday morning I checked their live tracker and realised that they’d been running behind their schedule and had only one hour advantage over me. Knowing this, I pushed myself quite a bit. I wanted to catch up with them for some reason.
Justin dropped me off at yesterday’s finishing point and sent me off. It was 4.5km of gradual uphill road running ahead – the start of the popular Chapman’s Peak Drive. Lots of other (road) runners and cyclists were out and about and I powered past all the runners and even some cyclists before I had to turn off the road onto the trail. Push, push, push. I was excited to see Juan and Albert and expecting them any moment. Reaching the top of Chapman’s Peak (592m), I saw them taking photos. We chatted a bit and they told me their war stories running through the night and arguing with security at 2 am cause they accidentally went onto private property.
Eventually, I headed off on my own again to tag Nordhoek Peak (764m) for the first time. This time I just marched, partly ran, uphill without any breaks. I felt great and summited quickly. Now, it was just downhill, primarily on jeep track, all the way to Silvermine, where Justin was waiting with ice, cold drinks and some snacks.
19 minutes later cold coke was running down my throat. I took my time to refuel, as I had barely eaten or drunk anything in the past 2.5 hours of running apart from some sips on the Maurten drink mix in my flasks. Just 9 km left, 4.5k uphill to Muizenberg Peak (507m) and the same way back down. Justin joined me for this last section of the day. I took it fairly easy, we chatted about my run this morning and about life in general. Once we turned off the jeep track and hit the single trail, it was more running again and less chatting.
I didn’t give Justin much time to recover up on top after tagging the beacon. The only thing I could see was the home stretch. Very runnable downhill trails and jeep track, what else can you ask for to finish a “recovery day”? I dropped Justin soon after and just went for it. “Pulse.tv shows the speed, so I better run quick”, were my thoughts as soon as I hit the jeep track.
Moments before I reached the car, I ran into Juan and Albert together with two mates. They were in much better spirits again. So was I. Exhausted from the last push but happy to have finished very strong and before the main heat. With ice cubes, cold drinks, watermelon and snacks I was lying in the shade next to the car waiting for Justin. Done and dusted just after 10 am – lots of time for refuelling and recovery ahead.
Day 3 – Sunday, Feb 5th, 2023
From Silvermine to Signal Hill
The weather forecast for Sunday was in my favour. Overcast and relatively cool compared to the previous days with a max of 24°C. With that in mind, I decided to start at 7 am only. When I arrived at Silvermine Gate 2, Brode and Matt were waiting for me already. They were going to accompany me on the first 15km across Constantia Berg (927m) to Constantia Nek. It was roughly 7.5km uphill (670m+) and another 7.5km downhill. Matt and Brode were running behind me chatting in the beginning. Though, I clearly remember the moment, when the chatter suddenly stopped. I was pushing it a little bit because I was excited to have company and also to finish this mission today.
The first time I went up Constantia Berg was a year earlier on one of the hottest weekends in the Western Cape and I was suffering. Having those experiences on my mind, I was surprised at how well and quickly I was able to summit the peak and tag the beacon. This time, however, without any view. The downhill was fairly quick with almost half the distance on a tar road. Like yesterday, I was slightly ahead of time. Constantia Nek was packed with cars, but Justin had found a spot and welcomed us with watermelon, watermelon Red Bull and Salami sticks. I took my time to refuel properly. When running more intensively, I completely lack appetite and can barely eat anything. I just don’t feel like it. Watermelon is one of the very few exceptions, but I can obviously not carry any around while running, which is why I have to stuff a lot into me when I get the chance. During the activity, I have to heavily rely on carb-rich drinks like the Maurten drink mix.
After I had refilled my two flasks with Maurten 320, we headed off again. This time with Armand next to me, who took over from Matt and Brode. Next up was peak number 11: Klassenkop (742m). But first, Armand and I had to climb 500m+ over the next 3.3km. I was feeling great and we went past lots of hikers on the way up. Eventually, Armand told me to go ahead and he’ll meet me on the little descent from Klassenkop. I was never aiming for any particular finish time and had told myself not to drop anybody joining me on the last day, but for some reason, it felt right to simply go with the flow.
Klassenkop is a little bit tricky, but fortunately, I had recce’d this peak and the route thereafter two weeks prior and knew exactly that I had to climb through a tree on the way to the summit. Again, no view and neither a beacon, but I couldn’t care less at this moment. I was on a mission. Armand joined me for the short descent but resigned just after Overseers Hut, he didn’t want to hold me back. I was a little bit sad not to have any company anymore and suddenly also confronted with the question of whether Ledges was still my route of choice. Should I rather drop down Nursery Ravine and run well on the Contour Path?
I stick with Ledges! It was more about the adventure and less about the time. It was still overcast and partly misty on top of Table Mountain, just like two weeks prior during the recce with Cody. Hence, I knew exactly what to expect. I made my way all the way up to Maclear’s Beacon. It seemed, that my body simply didn’t get tired today.
When I arrived at the top of Ledges, I saw a guy with ropes coming up the little climbing section. Fortunately, he was just preparing for the group he guided up and I could quickly squeeze through. Suddenly I hear “oh, that’s Flo” from the group and while searching for my next hold I turned around trying to see who recognised me. It was Scott, a co-worker from Armand. “Don’t turn around while climbing”, said a woman, “my mum instincts are kicking in at this moment!” I had to laugh a little and quickly descended to the ledge they were standing on and continued on the path. When I checked Strava afterwards, I realised surprisingly that I had run respectively climbed into 4th and 6th fastest times overall on two Strava segments including the Ledges downhill. It just happened.
Now, it was basically just Devil’s Peak (1001m) and the downhill left, cause once I hit Table Mountain Road, JJ was supposed to wait there with my Nike Vaporflys for the last 7.5km of road running. I was in very good spirits and even joked with two guys descending from Devil’s Peak whether they had enjoyed the views, despite knowing that there weren’t any views today.
Step after step I made my way up to the top. I was feeling for all the people hiking up there today without the reward of the beautiful 360° view Devil’s Peak usually has in store. It was a very quick summit for me, just a brief tap on the beacon and I was in the downhill again, very much to the surprise of the three people picnicking up there. I just mentioned “13 Peaks” while leaving and they understood. It was a very controlled downhill effort because a mistake was the last thing I wanted to do this close to the finish.
When I arrived at Table Mountain Road I looked around but JJ wasn’t to be seen anywhere. I was simply faster than anticipated and saw him running towards me around the next bend. I was relieved to see him and just putting on the Vaporfly I felt even more energetic than before already.
More or less casually I dropped 3:38, 3:42 and even 3:20 per kilometre before I switched back to marching up the road to Lion’s Head. As soon as the slope flattened out, I was back in running motion. Signal Hill (350m) was coming closer with every step. About 500m before the final beacon, I passed two other runners who looked like they could be just as crazy as I am doing 13 Peaks.
I took a shortcut through the bushes across lots of rocks – sorry Vaporflys – and there it was: the final beacon! The beacon where this adventure had started just three days ago. What a relief!
On my way to the parking lot to meet Justin and get a cold coke, the two other runners crossed aiming for the beacon as well. On top, I realised that it was Sveta, who I met during UTCT. I turned around on the dot and joined her and Dani for their last 150m to the finish celebrating their successful one-go run. What an achievement! Afterwards, we sat together in the parking lot exchanging our experiences for a while. Thank you Ryan for this incredible adventure which connects so many people already.