Training for the trek takes a toll on the Westcliff ‘Stairs of Death’

Sibusiso Vilane will always tell you, respect the mountain. Suikerbosrand is hardly a mountain, more a collection of ridges, even if its highest point of 1 915m above sea level is the highest point in Gauteng. 

We first went there in January, as part of the preparation for the Trek4Mandela centennial climb in July this year. That’s when we will be attempting to summit Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 5 895m on Madiba’s birthday, Wednesday July 18. 

We’ve been to the Drakensberg twice since that first trip to Suikerbos; getting up as high as 2400m, so I’m a little bit contemptuous of the 12 000ha nature reserve an hour south of Joburg, near Heidelberg.

When my climbing mates suggest that we do the double, I’m in. The double for uninitiated is to do the route twice. The first time, lest we forget, I persuaded myself I’d done 17kms, hobbled into the nearest one stop petrol station on the way home, gorged myself on Bar Ones and Cokes and then lay in front of the TV that afternoon, whimpering like a beaten puppy, my feet throbbing.

This time though I am the conqueror of all I survey; the proud owner of a proper climbing haversack with a water bladder and drinking tube looping over the strap and down my shoulder, proper hiking pants, boots, poles – plus a whole bunch of other stuff I’ve bought over the last three months, because I’m a boy and boys love gadgets.

Hilary se m@#, I’m ready. Except I’m not. 

The route is actually just on 10kms, the first lap goes swimmingly well, we start the second and I’m starting to lag behind the rest. Super Vic, aka Vickey Ganesh who’s already raised his money for Caring4Girls almost twice over, summitted Kili twice and is eyeing Everest in 2020 with Vilane, is already just about out of sight – and by his own admission he’s having a bad day.

They all stop so that I can catch up. “Eat well and hydrate,” he says, “we’ve got a m@#$ of a climb at the end.”

Even then I pay no heed. Suddenly we’re on that hill and it doesn’t end. Going down is bad enough when your feet thud into the toes of your boots with every step, now we’re going up.

I am trudging. To paraphrase ‘Geoffrey Chaucer’ in the teen movie A Knight’s Tale, ‘to trudge, the slow, weary, depressing, yet determined walk of a man who has nothing left in life, except the impulse to slowly soldier on…”

I’m starting to think angry thoughts, mostly with words that all start with an ‘f’ and end with a ‘k’. I’m really starting to hate the people who suggested ever doing the double. Most of all, I’m starting to hate myself. The bag feels heavy. My feet are leaden, I dare not look up to see just how far I have to go, I dare not look down. I dare not stop, because I won’t start again.

And then suddenly, I’m not thinking at all. It’s as if I’ve squeezed a great big cosmic pimple. The feet have to keep moving. Suddenly I’m at the top with my mates.

“How do you feel?” asks Mags Natasen, solicitously.

“Now that I’m here and I’ve caught my breath – and don’t have to climb any more, magnificent,” I answer.

It’s not a word of a lie. I do feel great. We traverse the saddle and head down out of the reserve. It does feel great, but I’ve been humbled. I know how close I came to cracking on the hill.

At the cars, as we say goodbye, I tell everyone I won’t make the Westcliff Stairs the next morning. They smile pityingly. I hobble to my car, start it and gingerly drive back to Joburg.

When I get home, I’m as weak as a kitten, too weak to even rehydrate with a beer – at least for the first hour. The next morning, the alarm goes off and my wife kicks me out of bed. “The Stairs are waiting for you,” she says evilly from beneath the duvet, “and so’s Richard, don’t let him down.”

I leave for Westcliff. The stairs have become legendary – in a bad way. We’re supposed to do them more than the three mandatory times so far since January. Up and down the 210 steps counts as one lap. Richard Mabaso, the CEO of the Imbumba Foundation and the founder of both Trek4Mandela and Caring4Girls, wants us to do 27 – in honour of Madiba.

The riot that almost ensues, is averted when he grins impishly and cuts it back to 15. It’s all academic, I’ve never done more than 6.

As I trudge up the stairs of death or the ‘evil stairs’ as some of the other climber call them, I hear myself panting like a dog – only to turn around and find that there is a dog on a leash at my heels. I smile weakly and low owner and dog to pass.

The Stairs, as always, are like a highway. We’re in pre-Comrades season – when Vilane returns from Everest, he’ll go straight into preparation for the ultra-marathon. Here in Westcliff, people are running what looks like shuttle runs up and down.

I am feeling wholly and unutterably intimidated, made even more despondent as Sello Hatang’s 11-year-old son Tshego, comes bounding past. He’ll be climbing Kili with his dad in August, after Hatang hosts Barack Obama for the centennial Nelson Mandela lecture on July 18.

There are footsteps behind me. The runner passes to my left. He’s in jeans.

It’s Hatang. I am now totally deflated. Jeans.

I stop him on the way down. “It’s simple,” he says, “I’ve got a planning meeting at the Nelson Mandela Foundation that I can’t miss just now, but I can’t miss my training either.”

He hasn’t broken a sweat.

As for me, I might have seen the back of Suikerbos, but I certainly haven’t seen the last of the Westcliff Stairs – definitely not, if Mabaso has anything to do with it.

“I think we’ll just do a last 20 or so, the weekend before we get on the plane for Tanzania, just to get us in the mood!” he says.

I want to weep.

Originally published in the Saturday Star on 11 June 2018.