A Mountaineer’s View

There has been a lot of chat about compulsory kit lately. In our quest as trail runners to be as light and fast as we can possibly be, it is always worth remembering that the mountains and unpredictable weather have the final say.

We caught up with popular mountaineer and global adventure guru, Henko Roukema, who has just returned from a mind-bending trip to Peru, where he climbed the likes of Ishinca (5 530m), Urus (5 423m) and Nevado Pisco (4 273m). In this snow-coated, beautifully brutal terrain, he had to make choices such as setting up his tent on a glacier or granite boulders… So his perspective is a little different from the average trail runner, but his insight and advice is sound.

“So before I start this is our opinions might differ. Our acceptance of risk will also be different. I’ll also mention, trail runners are often more prepared than say hikers or climbers.  But in general you’re more likely to see a trail runner with almost nothing with him or her more often than anyone else in the mountains in South Africa.

The usual image is a runner on the mountain, gracefully hopping from rock to rock with a 5liter pack, maybe a waterproof jacket strapped to the outside. It’s all about moving fast and covering fast distances. Which is fantastic! 

But what happens when all of a sudden one can’t move so fast? The weather changes? You are injured? We are all responsible for our own safety in the mountains. I have a rule, I don’t even think of mountain rescue as an option; we climb as if there is no rescue. That is why one has to choose your climbing partner carefully; you have to trust that they will be able to get you out of a bad situation.

And now trail running has progressed in our country, paving the way for some exceptional achievements. Hell, guys are running whole mountain ranges in a matter of one long day, where hikers were taking 10 days... Fast and light, that's what it is all about. But going light at what cost? 

So there are two sides; trail running in the mountains as part of an event or just yourself and friends doing your own thing.

If you enter an event and are unhappy about the compulsory kit list, then don’t run the race. Easy. It’s not your decision to make. The organisers have decided on what kit is compulsory for your own safety. One hears about the top athletes being disqualified for not having the required gear with them. They must consider the example they are setting for others that look up to them. So if they want you take a beanie in a ziplock bag, do it. Everyone else is required to do the same.

But, now you and friends are going for a run, say running the Hexriver traverse in a day, you are the organiser, you get to decide on the compulsory kit list. You are responsible for your own safety. 

You want to be as light as possible. A few energy bars, jacket, space blanket, water, sunblock, sorted right? It’s only for a day & the weather forecast looks great! 

I understand as a trail runner one can cover vast distances, but what happens if you fall and injure yourself? Yes you are warm enough running in those skimpy shorts, hell you even look damn good in them, running along in the snow! Then you fall, your ankle is busted. All of a sudden your speed goes from 8-10kmph to 1-2kmph. That day just turned into a lekker overnight trip with no gear... #type2fun post for Instagram, right? No not really. Even if you are in a fortunate enough position to get help from our Mountain club’s free rescue service, you will probably have to wait hours for someone to get to a spot with cellphone reception, and then for the rescuers to get to you can take a few more hours, even with a helicopter. 

Are you really willing to risk it? Do you know the risks? Now you’re not just chasing a speed segment on Lions Head, you are in the bigger mountains. The mountains give a lot and can take a lot... Of course if you understand the risk, and are willing to face the consequences, then by all means, you can do whatever you like. Don’t take that waterproof jacket that weighs 600grams. You might not even use it right?

I've spent quite a bit of time in the mountains, and I ensure that I am prepared for the “what ifs”.  Our weather isn't stable and can be severe. Just a bit of cloud cover and wind can change your experience from blissful hopping along to fighting for survival.

I was asked also what gear I recommend as standard. If I'm only going for a day trip I always pack the following.

1. Waterproof jacket, 20 000mm waterhead, not a windbreaker and not a blackplastic bag.

2. Space blanket and whistle.

3. First aid supplies, not a full kit. (Rehydrate, strong painkillers, bandage etc) you don’t need plasters, if you have a small injury you're most probably just going to leave it. And you can’t take the necessary equipment to treat a major injury.

4. Sufficient food and water.

5. If I have the slightest doubt about the weather I’ll take a down jacket too. 

6. Headwear, if anything is cold, put on something warm on your head.

7. Sometimes, depending on the mountains, I'll even take a waterproof pair of pants.

In the end, you have to plan your outing properly, know the terrain, have back up, and consider the risks. Blissful ignorance is dangerous. Then you decide what gear you want to take. You are responsible for your own safety. Everything has a risk associated, just make sure you know what they are and if you are willing to accept them. 

We all want to enjoy the mountains in our own ways, and I am confident we all want to come back and enjoy it some more later, so stay safe, have fun!”