13 Peaks Challenge: Ryan Sandes’s love affair with Table Mountain

Exploring the Cape Peninsula’s spine of mountains is a favourite activity for locals and visitors alike, but one Capetonian has thrown down a trail-running gauntlet. SEBASTIAN BARTLETT talks to Ryan Sandes about the challenge.

In the world of international trail running, Ryan Sandes is nothing short of a household name. But his journey to the realm of elite athlete was, perhaps, an unusual one. Born and raised on the slopes of Table Mountain, Ryan – ‘Hedgie’ to his friends – spent his youth surfing the breaks of the southern Cape Peninsula, not tackling trails. It was only in his final year at the University of Cape Town that he decided, on a whim, to join friends running the Knysna half-marathon.

Ryan Sandes, 13 Peaks Challenge
After claiming trophies across the globe, Ryan Sandes has turned his attention to encouraging local runners to explore the trails of Table Mountain.

“It was a few weeks before the event, though, and the half-marathon was sold out. So, being young and invincible, I entered the full marathon,” he recalls. “I did OK and the sense of fulfilment of going out and achieving a goal felt really good.” Ryan was hooked. He joined his local running club and hit the trails of Table Mountain. Just two years later he was winning some of the world’s most prestigious races. In 2008, he tackled his first ultra-distance trail marathon: the 155-mile Gobi March, a self-supported suffer-fest across the steppes of Central Mongolia. He was first across the finish line. 

He would go on to win ultra-distance races across Antarctica, Chile’s Atacama Desert and the Sahara Desert, becoming the first person ever to win all four events in the Desert Races series. Crisscrossing the globe, he racked up win after win: the Leadville Trail 100 Run in Colorado; the North Face TransGranCanaria. In 2017, came his crowning glory in California’s Sierra Nevada when he won the Western States, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race.

It’s that passion for personal challenge, as well as the purity of adventure in the great outdoors, that inspired Ryan to create the 13 Peaks Challenge across the mountains of Table Mountain National Park. And it all began with a notebook doodle, of him scribbling out a route for what he thought would be, he says, “just a cool day out in the mountains”. 

That doodle would grow into what has become a sensation in Cape Town, as both locals and visitors, hardened trail runners and curious novices, tackle the trails of Table Mountain. The ‘rules’ for the 13 Peaks are charming in their simplicity: lace up your shoes at Signal Hill and tick off the 13 summits in order. Find your own route and end back at the rusty white trigonometric beacon overlooking the city. Done. 

Ryan Sandes, 13 Peaks Challenge
Making the most of long summer evenings on the slopes above Hout Bay. Ryan and his family live in the seaside suburb of Noordhoek and the trails up, over and around Silvermine are both backyard playground and training gym.

On your marks

From Signal Hill it’s just a few kilometres to Lion’s Head, where the crowds of day-trippers are as much of a challenge as the rocky path and network of ladders and chains that lead to the well-worn summit. After a brief interlude of tar road, runners next choose a route up Table Mountain: the endless stone stairs of Platteklip Gorge or perhaps the vertiginous India Venster. On top though, it’s a flat path to the large stone cairn of Maclear’s Beacon at 1,086m above sea level. 

The Back Table offers some of the most glorious trail running the peninsula has to offer, through forested valleys and across the shoulders of the Twelve Apostles. Grootkop lives up to its name, while Judas Peak is only a mild betrayal of the flat path before plunging down Llandudno Ravine towards Hout Bay. 

Hold on, not so fast. Klein Leeukop and Suther Peak must both be tagged first, with the steep slopes of Suffer Peak making this one of the toughest sections of the run. Down into Hout Bay, then a long slog up to Chapman’s Peak and Noordhoek Peak, where the views at least are a balm for tired legs. But the views are also across to a depressingly distant Muizenberg Peak, the southernmost point of the challenge. It may be the 10th peak out of 13, but it’s still a good 40km from the finish line. At times, the challenge is as much mental as physical.

Muizenberg Peak bagged, runners turn north and retrace their steps through Silvermine and to the summit of the Constantiaberg, across the Vlakkenberg and down to Constantia Nek. From here only two peaks remain. It requires a stiff climb to Klassenkop, and a dive down into the forests above Newlands, before reclaiming all that ‘vert’ up Newlands Ravine and Devil’s Peak. If the skies are clear and Van Hunks and the devil aren’t up to their legendary tricks, the end is now in sight, with an easy path to Tafelberg Road and on – at last – to Signal Hill.

Ryan Sandes, 13 Peaks Challenge
Key to the allure of the 13 Peaks Challenge is that runners are able to choose their own route from one summit to the next. Whether it’s a fynbos-filled valley or rocky ridge with dramatic ocean views, the journey through the Table Mountain National Park delivers no end of adventure and discovery.

All in, it’s a shade more than 100km, with roughly 6,000m of vertical gain along the way. Runners can choose their own route, tagging the peaks over multiple days, within 48 hours or in a single 24-hour run. In 2020, Ryan created a new category, The Impossible, for runners able to finish in 13 hours. Unsurprisingly, he himself came close in August 2020, with a time of 13 hours and 41 minutes. 

The 13 Peaks Challenge sounds extreme, but key to its appeal is its accessibility. To date, the list of finishers includes both hardened trail runners and walkers taking it slowly over multiple weekends. The oldest finisher is in their 70s, the youngest is yet to hit their teens. “It’s been crazy how it’s just exploded,” says Ryan, who estimates that more than 500 runners have completed the challenge. “It’s taken me by surprise just how quickly it’s grown and progressed, but it shows you how people are eager to get out there and explore what the Cape Peninsula has to offer. After all the lockdowns, people are trying to be fit and healthy by getting out in the mountains.” 

So far Ryan has created, launched and managed the project largely on his own, answering queries, applauding finishers on Instagram and dishing out the (free) finishers’ badges. With some help from Salomon, one of his professional sponsors, 13 Peaks merchandise is snapped up as fast as it’s released. “At some stage I’m going to have to look at the bigger picture. I do have some plans ahead but I want it to grow organically,” explains Ryan, who is thrilled at how the challenge is promoting Table Mountain abroad. “It’s starting to showcase Table Mountain and Cape Town as a world-class trail-running destination.”

While change may lie ahead, for now he is relishing the purity of the 13 Peaks. There is no entry fee, nor an official route. There are no prizes for finishing and no proof is required if you do. It is, as it should be, simply about being out on the trail. 

“I’ve run some of the biggest trail races in the world and they come with lots of fanfare, but what I love about 13 Peaks is the simplicity of it. Being on top of Table Mountain early in the morning, with the sun rising – it’s just magical. You’re running in this wilderness area, hearing owls calling, while the city’s waking up below you,” smiles Ryan. “It’s all about taking on a personal challenge. It’s raw and true to the spirit of adventure and trail running. That’s the spirit of 13 Peaks.”

What does 2021 hold?

Ryan Sandes has always balanced expeditions with racing. Although Covid-19 has thrown spanners into his podium plans and a tangle of red tape tripped up an expedition to run the length of the Skeleton Coast, he’s still scouting out adventures further afield. Top of his list is the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc, a race through France, Italy and Switzerland that tests runners over 170km and more than 10,000m of vertical ascent. “It’s the one big race left on my radar, the one I haven’t been able to tick off the list yet. So there’s a big focus on that and I’ll start streamlining my training towards it. That’s the immediate goal but it’s all a bit of wait and see what happens with borders.”