Extreme adventurer Jamie Marais faced violent weather conditions and came close to suffering from hypothermia when he recently broke his own record of four summits of Sani Pass in the Drakensberg.
The Cape Town-based athlete, who made his attempt to raise awareness for Headstart Kids, reached the top of the pass five times in just over 12 hours. The route up begins at around 1 900m and climbs nearly 1 000m to an altitude of 2 876m.
“I reckon I could’ve achieved six to eight summits if the weather had played along, but this project turned more into an exercise in survival.
“It became more about the cause and purpose behind it than about breaking my record, which thankfully we did.”
Marais said he chose Sani Pass as it had all the elements of a “really extreme challenge”, including the altitude, technical climbing, sheer drops, challenging weather and steep gradients.
“The mountains I do these challenges on represent the challenges people are facing in life and I’m always on the hunt for the hardest, the highest and the toughest.
“Sani Pass is the number one-ranked most dangerous road in South Africa and the toughest climb in the country, which pretty much ticked all my boxes.”
Last year Marais completed four Sani summits in gale-force winds. “I had to battle an 80 to 100km/h headwind the entire way,” he said.
He added that last year they stopped the challenge at four summits after 10 hours as it was “just too dangerous to continue”.
“I almost got blown right off the edge of Sani Pass several times and my bicycle was just about ripped out of my hands while holding it.”
This year he also woke to gale-force winds. “It was absolutely soul-destroying knowing what I was in for.”
He said what they did not know was how extreme the weather would get later on.
“There were gale-force headwinds, torrential rain, hail, mudslides, rivers of water rushing down the pass that I had to ride against and it was freezing cold.
“It really took its toll on my support crew and me.”
Marais said according to local tour guides the pass was in the worst condition it had been in 10 years.
“That made it even more challenging. There were 1km stretches with elevation pitches up to 33% where I was literally riding up a 1km rock garden at 3.8km/h.”
He said after four “challenging summits” he was close to suffering from hypothermia but felt he had to do one more summit.
“The darkest point for me was riding through a massive hailstorm on summit four and being hypothermic at the summit, knowing I still had to do one more to break my record.”
With regards to maintaining momentum he said he had to be disciplined and force himself to eat and drink, even when he did not feel like it.
“Planning your nutrition is key and I actually allocated someone to manage that aspect of it for me on the day.”
Marais felt the advantage of undertaking a challenge of this nature was that he learnt to dig deeper than ever before and he realised what he was capable of.
One disadvantage was that there were many risks involved for his support crew, which added to the stress.
“The greatest lesson I learnt on this extreme endurance challenge was that it doesn’t matter how slowly you move, as long as you keep moving.”
Marais said he had “some awesome” projects planned for the future, one of which included riding up the highest paved road in the USA.
“It’s 4 300m [high] and I would like to see how many summits I can do on a bike in 12 hours.”
Challenges he had achieved included 22 summits of Table Mountain in 28 hours over two days (a total of 16 000 vertical metres) and 12 summits in 12 hours up Lions Head.