A head for heights! SA athlete’s nerve-jangling climbing feat breaks Guinness World Record

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Thomas van Tonder climbed his way to success and became the fastest 50 m rope climber.  (Photo: Supplied)
Thomas van Tonder climbed his way to success and became the fastest 50 m rope climber. (Photo: Supplied)

It took Joburg athlete Thomas van Tonder less than 10 minutes to scale a 90m rope – bare-handed – as it dangled between the Soweto Towers, setting a new Guinness World Record in the process.

If that sounds like a daunting prospect, the rope was actually a bit shorter than Thomas would have preferred – he had hoped to shimmy up a 100m-long rope to smash the record for the fastest climb up that length of rope.

Because the towers are 100m tall and his team needed to a platform to receive him, he had to make do with 90m.

He broke the record for the quickest climb up 50m of rope, in a staggering three minutes and 19 seconds.

In all, it took him nine minutes and five seconds to climb the 100m rope – but those few minutes required nearly six months of intense preparation.

“It’s such a short thing for such a build-up and in the same breath, we are happy that I achieved it like I actually did it. It’s a bit surreal and it’s an official record, so I just want to take it all in,” he tells YOU.

When lockdown brought sporting events to a halt earlier this year, Thomas was gutted.

With nothing to train for, he felt goal-less.

“It was like I had no purpose as a professional athlete and I felt like I needed to create something that I could use for myself to stay encouraged and have a direction to train towards something and to get out of the stagnant and sluggish zone.

“I have also used that to influence the people around me to see what this might be for them, even if it’s nothing sporty, this was something to help them find the courage to find something that will pick them up again.”

Thomas, who is a world champion in obstacle course racing (OCR), found his inspiration in British adventurer Ross Edgley – who holds the record for the world’s longest rope climb –  and fellow OCR athlete Leon Kofoed, who holds the record for the world’s highest rope climb.

“I have always wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records, but the initial thought was just to have something to do during the lockdown and to inspire others to shake themselves out of the slump, and it grew into this massive project,” Thomas says.

As an OCR athlete, Thomas is super-fit, but even he needed specialised conditioning and training to climb the rope, which took nearly six months.

With gyms closed for most of the lockdown, Thomas trained at home, throwing a rope on a tree and putting in the work do the strength training required, as well as training on climbing walls.

“It was only after I saw the photos [of myself climbing the Soweto Towers] that I realised how long that rope really was. This project required a very different kind of conditioning, to physically be able to do this. It took a lot of training sessions to be able to withstand the climb.”

The climb, which took place on 18 November, started off well.

“Everything felt good, the rigging crew were on point and I fell into a good rhythm. I got to the 50m mark and I was able to lock into the rope and take a second to catch my breath and look at my watch. I knew then that I had achieved a sub-four-minute time, which for me was a huge goal.

“It was then that I realised I still had another 40m to climb. That last part was brutal, as I had spent a lot of my energy already on the first 50m section. I was battling with arm pump and trying to manage so as to not let my hands fail, but I made it to the top and seeing the team there waiting for me was an unforgettable moment.”

While he was sprinting to the top of the rope, he thought about his one-year-old son, Sebastian. “One day he’s going to look at this, and I can’t quit halfway up the rope. Years from now my son will know that you should persevere and not give up.”

Preparing for the event meant he had less time to spend with his son and wife, Alisa (28), but now he’s ready to take a break from training and spend time with his family.

“It took a lot of work to get this done, but as they say, the taste of success is very addictive – and it’s going to be hard to top this!”

Extra sources: Redbull.com, thesouthafrican.co.za, joe.co.uk, rossedgley.com, godream.com

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