Exercise to the Extreme: The Cape Town 3 Peaks Challenge

Dana Calabrese, IES Cape Town

Any country you choose to study abroad in will have famous landmarks plastered over every single advertisement and piece of information that is given to you before your departure. For Cape Town, the image of Table Mountain was everywhere—and rightfully so, considering it is one of the “7 Wonders of the Natural World!” As soon as my flight into Cape Town began to hover over the city, I could immediately see the ocean meet the bustling city, and then Table Mountain rising up in the backdrop. However, I noticed two other mountains on either side of Table Mountain, which I soon learned were called Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. Wherever I went, I could always catch a glimpse of at least one of the mountains stretching tall above the city, and during the second week of classes the entire group climbed to the top of Lion’s Head for the best sunset view I have ever seen. However, I was patiently waiting for a day to climb Table Mountain, the most famous and unique of the three, due to its completely flat top.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was going to be climbing climb it soon enough—smack in the middle of ascending the other two!


One day in the middle of my trip, one of the RA’s in my apartment building was talking about something called the 3 Peaks Challenge. My friends and I listened to him go on about how ambitious tourists try to climb all three mountains in less than 12 hours and how he had guided some of the previous students from the past spring semester on the trek. While he complained about the extreme soreness and fatigue that lingered for days after, my friends and I were sold. I have always been an active girl; I played varsity soccer, I ran Track and Field, and I love to go hiking with my family and friends. I believed I was ready for the challenge, as did five other girls from my building, and we cleared an upcoming Saturday for the expedition. Side note: studying abroad and food simply go hand in hand. Of course, when you’re aboard, you can’t miss out on trying out new restaurants, stopping in adorable bakeries, and indulging in local cuisine. During my time in South Africa, my friends and I did just that, but about a month into the trip we realized it was time to get active!


The night before, we put together lunches, filled up a couple of water bottles, dumped countless granola bars into our backpacks, and packed different layers to wear. We planned to hit Devil’s Peak in the morning because it was supposedly the most difficult, reach Table Mountain around lunch time, and finish on Lion’s Head, the shortest—but also the steepest—of the three hikes. My alarm woke me up at 5:30 am, and by 6:15am we were waiting for our taxi to pick us up. The rules of the challenge were simple: 1) you have to climb up and down each mountain, not cheating and taking the cable car that runs to the top of Table Mountain, 2) you have to walk the distance to get from one mountain to the next, no taking taxis in between, and 3) you have to finish in less than 12 hours. We arrived at our first mountain, Devil’s Peak, at about 6:45am, but since it was the winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the sun had yet to rise and it was pitch black outside. We waited in the taxi until we saw the sun peeking out over the horizon at around 7:15, and decided it was safe enough to start the climb. Devil’s Peak is the least frequented mountain of the three, so the trail is rocky and overgrown. All I wanted to do was watch the sunrise as we hiked, but I had to watch my footing because there are a couple of streams that run by the trail so the rocks we walked on were very slippery. Throughout the 2-hour climb to the top, all 6 of us definitely took a couple of tumbles, but forged forward until we summited at 9am. We stopped to take pictures of the beautiful view, eat a granola bar, and peel off some of our layers as the sun began to beat down on us. Walking down might have been even more treacherous, but it was definitely quicker, and we made it to the bottom at 10:30am.


The next trek was up Table Mountain, and the trailhead was luckily right next to the trailhead of Devil’s Peak. Since Table Mountain is so famous, there are many different trails one could take, but we chose Platteklip Gorge. This trail is comprised of a bunch of switchbacks that take you up the middle of the mountain, and from the top of Devil’s Peak we actually had a great view of this trail. While Devil’s Peak was more hazardous, I actually thought the combined steepness and length of Table Mountain made it more difficult. Nonetheless, we summited at around 12:30pm, and were ready for some lunch! We found a ledge where we ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and admired an absolutely stunning view of the ocean. The weather was so clear and perfect, and, honestly, I could have stayed on top of that mountain forever. We walked around the flat top and admired the beautiful ocean below, and around 1:45 we began to make our decent. 


We were all totally exhausted by the time we reached the bottom, but we now had a 45-minute walk to the trailhead of Lion’s Head. It took all of our willpower to not call a taxi to get to the mountain at this point, but we had to preserve the integrity of the challenge! By the time we reached the base, it was almost 4:30. Lion’s Head is the smallest of the three mountains, but what’s it tricky about it is that once you get higher up you have to scale the side using climbing staples and chains to pull yourself up. Despite the fatigue, we all had the most fun climbing this mountain because as were pulled ourselves up the staples, we made sure everyone on that mountain know that we were about to complete the 3 Peaks Challenge! At about 5:30 on the dot, we summited our final mountain, where there was a beautiful sunset waiting for us. After hanging out on the top for a little while, we decided we should head down so we weren’t walking in complete darkness, and so we could make it down before the clock struck 7:15pm.  Our official end time just after 6:30pm, and we had completed the 3 Peaks Challenge with time to spare!


Our taxi home took us straight to one of our favorite cafés for dinner, and we prepared ourselves for the muscle soreness that was about to hit us in the morning. However, that night we were feeling like superheroes, still in awe of what we accomplished. We feasted on sandwiches, french-fries, and chocolate cake, because we definitely deserved it after such a long day! The next morning, we were definitely hurting, but it was all worth it because it went down as one of my favorite days during my study abroad experience! I was so proud of myself for pushing my limits and getting active during my time abroad, but also this is an incredible memory that I will always share with my friends!


Dana Calabrese is a senior at Pitt majoring in Communication Science with minors in Italian and Education. She’s hoping to get her masters in Speech Language Pathology after she graduates, and is currently interning at the Study Abroad Office for the 2017-18 academic year. She studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, during Summer 2016, and then again in Florence, Italy, in Summer 2017.