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The violent gust of wind on the tin roof awoke me abruptly. I honestly thought the roof might blow away. I rolled over and looked at my watch in the dark. What time is it asked Scott from a bed on the other side of the room? “One,” I answered. “I damn well hope this wind calms down by the morning,” he said exasperatingly. For the next few hours, we just lay there, awake, looking at the black and listening to gust after gust ripping through the valley. We were sleeping in a small, two-roomed, rural dwelling in the village of Vuvu, on the top of a hill at the base of the escarpment in the Eastern Cape. When we arose, we faced one of the notorious challenges confronting riders tackling the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa - Lehana’s Pass. 

Even though the Freedom Challenge is a bike race, we knew that Lehana’s Pass entailed almost zero riding. It's an 8km hike up the escarpment, and it is so steep that for almost every step of those 8kms riders need to carry or push their bikes up the incline. On a good day, it will take approximately 4 hours to cover the 8km. But today was not turning out to be a good day. 

We had talked about climbing Lehana’s multiple times every day of our ride up to that point. Of the four of us in our riding group, Scott was the only one who had not done Lehana’s before. Merak and Ollie Greves had done it previously in Race to Rhodes, as had I, so we had a bit of perspective of what it entailed. Scott peppered us for information. “How bad could it be?” he wondered. “Bad,” we answered, “but the views are awesome.” “Will we need to carry or push our bikes?” he asked. “Both,” we answered. We had spent the early evening in Vuvu huddled around a teacher's desk in the local school, studying maps of the pass, trying to determine the best route, before we went off to local houses to sleep for the night.

The next morning, as we assembled, we regaled about how little sleep we had. The wind was still blowing, and we all realized we were in for one hell of a day. After 12km of rolling road riding, we arrived at the mountain's base as it was getting light—just as we planned. The outline of the massive mountain overwhelmed us, and the wind was still pumping. Luckily, the first 2km up the mountain was still quite protected as the herders' tracks we followed went in and out of little valleys; even though the wind was blowing, it seemed survivable. I built up hope that we would be okay.      

With the sun rising behind us, we could look up to the top of the escarpment and see a little blue hut on the top of the mountain. This is an old, dilapidated mountain rescue hut (I think), and it serves as a bit of a target when climbing Lehana’s. When you first see it, it's miles away and way up. It seems almost impossible that it's where one needs to be in a few hours. Yet the goal is to work incrementally and systematically through the thick grass and up the steep incline to get closer and closer to that hut. It pulls you onward and upward. 

Lehana’s climbs in a step-wise fashion: steep, then very steep, steep, then very steep, steep, then very steep, and so on. The steep sections offer relief from the very steep sections. By the time we reached the third step, 3 to 4 km in, we were very exposed; the wind was pumping, and it started to get scary. Pushing my bike on the narrow goat track was nearly impossible as it was too narrow and rutted, and the wind would blow me off the mountain as I tripped over the bike's pedals. Carrying my bike was out of the question because I would be violently blown over the minute I lifted it above my head. We were moving slower and slower as we fought the wind, and I could see it would only get worse the higher that we got. I was at the back of the group, and there were times I would look up, and Scott, Ollie, and Merak would all be lying low in the tufts of grass on the side of the mountain, trying to build up strength to push forward for another few meters. It felt like were were in a ruthless war against the wind. 

The other major challenge was that the wind negated communication between us. It was so loud. Unless someone was right alongside you, it was impossible to hear what they were saying. We resorted to trying to signal to each other, but that did not work very well. Eventually, through a range of ridiculous yet desperate hand signals, we put a plan in place to take shelter in an abandoned shepherd’s kraal halfway up the pass. We stashed our bikes in the stone kraal and cowered down to try and escape the wind. 

Pulling out my phone and opening the weather app, my heart sank when I saw there was little chance that the wind would abate in the next few hours. I honestly did not think we could proceed up the mountain, and I began to imagine what it might be like to sleep in the kraal for the night. We even discussed going back down and taking the detour route around or returning to Vuvu to wait and try the next day. Had the wind defeated us? Hopefully not. 

After about 90 minutes of hiding from the wind, getting some food in our system, and considering our options, we decided that the right way was up. 

We devised a plan to have two people carry one bike, shuttle it partway up the mountain, stash it, and then return for another bike, and then do the same again. In the wind, as it was, it was much easier for two people to handle a bike at a time. The other thing we discovered was that a few hundred meters up the mountain, the wind actually abated slightly. The bowl of the mountain was somewhat protected compared to the spur that jutted out on which we had been stranded. We got the bikes into that bowl, and from there onwards, we could each handle our own bike again. It was still a struggle, but it was a survivable struggle. On any other day, the wind in that bowl would have seemed tortuous, but after having endured the wind-based warfare on the lower spur a few hours earlier, it seemed somewhat manageable. We eventually reached the blue hut at the top with high fives, big smiles, and a sense that we had somehow defeated an invisible enemy. It took us much longer than expected, but we made it.  

An hour later, we were sitting outside in the winter’s sun at luxurious Tennahead Lodge, drinking cappuccinos and eating toasted sarmies, wondering how our day would have turned out if we had picked another option while cowering in that shepherd’s kraal. I’m glad we didn't.

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