For those who have visited Champagne Castle Hotel, it is almost impossible to miss the ‘Big Five Honour Board’ at some point during your stay. It’s a list of women and men who have climbed the Big Five peaks in the area, made up of:
- Matterhorn (1 995m)
- Gatberg (2 408m)
- Amphlett (2 620m)
- Sterkhorn (2 973m)
- Champagne Castle (3 373m)
The Honour Board has been gathering dust for the past few years, in that no new names have been added. Not because the hotel has abandoned their duty, but rather because no new adventurers have taken up the challenge. Until recently. Very recently. Liz and Sven Wesemann. A couple from Houtbay in the Western Cape. I interviewed them over breakfast one chilly morning in June, the day after they had returned from summiting their final peak. And what a summit it had been. Champagne Castle. The largest of the Big Five. 2 different guides, a rescue helicopter and determination to complete the journey they had begun 4 years earlier.
Liz explained that their Big Five Challenge began, for them, in 2011 when they were visiting Champagne Castle Hotel. Liz had noticed the Honour Board, turned to her husband Sven and said,
Our names will be next!
During the following 4 years they returned to Champagne Castle for 4 days at a time, during winter (to avoid the summer storms) to walk their way up and down the Big Five.
Matterhorn and Sterkhorn
In 2012 they set their sites on Matterhorn and Sterkhorn. However, it wasn’t to be. The mountains had a different plan. While they summited Matterhorn successfully, Sven described how they got within 100m of the top of Sterkhorn, only to find everything iced over. This made it too slippery and when both Sven and Liz felt things were getting dangerous, they decided to turn back. Once they got back to the Hotel, Wonderboy (their guide) told the hotel that in his opinion they were close enough and it should count at a successful summit. This wasn’t good enough for Liz. In her mind the only way she was going to count Sterkhorn as completed, was when she touched the beacon at the top.
Sterkhorn and Gatberg
In 2013 they returned to tackle another 2 peaks, one of them being the second attempt at Sterkhorn, and the other was Gatberg. They elected not to take Wonderboy with them on this trip. While Sterkhorn went well, the mountain once again had other plans for Liz and Sven. As they approached the top of Gatberg the wind picked up. They roped themselves together, for support and safety, but the wind just kept getting stronger. Once again they decided to turn back. Sven said, “When the fear we were feeling moved beyond fun, we knew it was time to turn back”. This didn’t sit well with Liz. She explained that she lives her life never giving up. It’s her mantra.
But to be forced to have to give up, that was a huge life lesson.
Gatberg and Amphlett
In spite of this, Sven and Liz were back in 2014, to tick Gatberg and Amphlett off of their list. This time they took Wonderboy with them, and it was during this trip that they realised Wonderboy’s value to them. As they said, “We wouldn’t have made it up Amphlett without him. The paths don’t exist. Almost as if people don’t do the difficult summits anymore. Wonderboy new exactly where to go.”
With one more peak to summit, they returned in 2015 to get to the top of Champagne Castle (South Africa’s second highest peak). Champagne Castle is a two (sometimes three) day hike. On day one you walk to the base, and on day two you summit. You can then stay another night at the base, or you can make your long walk back to the hotel.
Sven and Liz said that on the way out to the their base for the night there was something ‘off’ with Wonderboy. They kept asking him if he was OK, but he told them he was fine. Liz said,
I knew there was something wrong with Wonderboy, because he didn’t have his usual smile
They got to their base for the night, and everything was fine. Waking up early in the morning, Wonderboy suggested they start out a little later. This was another ‘out of character’ moment for Wonderboy. A little while after they started off, on the last push to the top of Champagne Castle, Wonderboy began to stumble. “He told us he couldn’t see anything”, said Sven. It was at this point that we discovered that he was Diabetic, and all of us realised that the medication he’d been on, clearly wasn’t working. With no mobile phone signal, they could either try and turn back or push to the top where there were patches of signal. Wonderboy encouraged them to go to the top, for both signal and so that they could complete what they had come to do. He assured them that he’d be able to make it back to camp. Sven said of Wonderboy,
Even in his condition, he was still thinking about us and giving us final instructions in order to make it to the top
Once Liz and Sven summited they found a signal and phoned the hotel explaining the emergency. That was all they were able to do. The signal was so weak and patchy that they couldn’t get back in touch with the hotel, and the hotel couldn’t get in touch with them (Once they got back to an area with signal, their message service showed that there were over 20 missed calls from the hotel).
The Rescue Chopper
There was no time to spend admiring the view and reflecting on their accomplishment. Wonderboy was at the base of the mountain and they had no idea how the hotel was going to respond to their distress call? As they made their way down the mountain, they paid little attention to the helicopter coming up the valley. With an airforce training base nearby there are always Helicopters in the area doing training sorties. It was the fact that this helicopter didn’t belong to the airforce that got Sven’s attention. And of course that it kept on coming towards them. He and Liz began to discuss what the options might be, should this be a rescue helicopter? Liz’s response, as per Sterkhorn was,
I’m not getting into that chopper. The only way we’re finishing this adventure is by walking back to the hotel
What they didn’t know was that the Helicopter pilot had been given instructions to fetch all three of them. Except that just before it left, Teresa Romarin, a senior member of the Hotel Management Team, said to her team,
We better send a replacement guide, because knowing Liz and Sven, there’s no way they are going to get into that helicopter
And that’s exactly what they did. The Restaurant manager, Frans, was the most qualified and trained replacement for Wonderboy. He was located and transported to the Helicopter with some medication and supplies. When the helicopter left the base camp, Wonderboy was the only one, along with the pilot, in the Helicopter. On his return, Wonderboy was rushed to a doctor who performed a series of tests. They discovered that it was his diabetes that had gotten out of control, and his medication was adjusted significantly. He’s going through a time of observation along with regular check-ups before he’s given the all-clear to set out on any more Big Five Hikes.
The Back Story
There’s almost always a Back-Story. When I met Sven and Liz they agreed to tell their story for a couple or reasons, and none of those reasons were about themselves. As they said,
We don’t want any attention. However, the way that we’ve been treated and handled by the hotel over the past four years, and the sacrifice and generosity shown by Wonderboy through our travels together, make us want to tell our story for them.
Authors Note: It’s not the style of Champagne Castle Hotel to draw attention to themselves. This makes writing the final part of this post all the more difficult. But this was the deal when Liz and Sven agreed to tell their story. They wanted this piece to be included. This post was sent to them before being published on the blog, to ensure that the deal we struck was executed accurately.
Both Sven and Liz couldn’t say enough about Wonderboy and his commitment to them. In spite of his illness, he kept on going for as long as he could, so that they could get to the top. They spoke of how the hotel staff sent them off every morning as they walked onto the mountain, and how they welcomed them back on the veranda every afternoon / evening when they returned. They were overwhelmed with the responsiveness of the team at reception around their distress call. They were touched by the sensitivity of sending a replacement guide, knowing Liz was not going to get into the helicopter.
What an Incredible Couple
If you ever meet Sven or Liz, and you should try to, they strike you as everyday, gentle, go about their business without much fuss, friendly people, with a definite commitment to living life large that can be seen in their eyes. That’s what caught my attention when I met them. They’re the kind of people you might walk right past, but for that one thing. It’s palpable and contagious, and I hope more people catch what they’ve got. This isn’t the first adventure they’ve been on. And I’m certain it won’t be the last. Their names will appear on more than just the Champagne Castle Hotel Big Five Honour Board.