As a warm-up to this years “vertical km” MEC Maunga man, I thought I would share my previous vertical KM run I did in Yosemite National Park last year, when visiting the states for a good friends wedding.
Having achieved the primary goal of the visit; the exhilarating ascent of ‘Half Dome’ (stay tuned for that adventures post), my climbing partner (Ryan) knackered and just the morning remaining till departure, we set a plan for a Car vs. Man race to the majestic Glacier Point. I would run the ‘4 Mile Hike’ trail straight up the valley wall, Ryan would drive the 60 miles out of the valley and back around. May the best man win.
After the brief warm-up from the trail head the the valley wall, I quickly figured out that this Hike had only two pitches; Switch backs up the valley wall and then traverses around obstacles. Starting the climb looking west out of the valley you quickly rise up above the valley floor of cedar and pine. With each progressive switch back offering higher and higher elevated views of ‘El Capitan’ and the cathedral spires.
With the steep pitch and stunning views, all I could muster was a fast hike up the climbs, sprinkled with jogging recoveries on anything resembling run-able. The view got better and better with each successive switch back, so this quickly went from a semi-serious attempt at a vertical km, to a good time photo taking adventure 🙂
The bulk of the ascent was achieved in the first 6km of the trail at a fairly consistent 15% gradient of 150m/km. At this point you complete a traverse under a sheer cliff and turn to the south looking straight up the valley to reveal the imperilous Half Dome.
Fun Facts: The whole Yosemite valley was once the giant magma chamber of a super volcano. Over millennia this granite plug was lifted up to the surface where glaciers first wore away the soil to reveal the granite and then brutally carve the valley shape that you see today. The half dome is smooth on top as the glaciers once flowed over the top grinding it smooth!
The day before, we had hiked 30km, reaching the dome and braving ‘The notorious half dome cables’ to ascend up the back of the solid granite dome and peer over the cliff, but that episode is for another day.
The view from the Top
Having broken the back of it, the last two kms you approach the busy ‘must see’ tourist stop of Glacier Point. The contrast of having run a deserted trail, to suddenly being spat out onto a tour bus lookout was quite confronting. You think, “Why don’t people bother to walk 100m down the track to unveil unique views with nobody around!”
In case you are wondering I won the race by 15 minutes. Wave after wave of tourists (dropped at the top) arrived taking enough time for their selfies before jumping back on the bus to go to their next stop…. So instead we jumped the fence, walked 50m down the point and found a spot sheltered from the wind where we soaked up the warm autumn sun. The view… was pretty darn good. We lingered for hours.
Reluctantly, the time came to depart and drive back to San Fran so I could fly home a very satisfied adventurer.
The vertical KM Maunga man will be tough! More hike than run me thinks.
If you like adventure in the outdoors, Yosemite is a must
Flying into Queenstown first thing proved to be a great way to start – a good night sleep and a reasonable wake-up time coupled with getting to the destination quickly. No one misses a long car drive or starting at 4 am! We were at the Ben Lomond trailhead before 11. We whipped off our travel gears and put on our tights and thermals on the side of the road and headed up into the hills.
The weather was very mild, temps 6-16 C in town, good bursts of sunshine poking through the overcast sky and mild Northerlies to keep things crisp. We powered up the smooth Fernhill climb under cover of pine trees, and marvelled at the view from the top before relishing the beech tree forest with roots and occasional bermed corners as we dropped back down.
We then climbed straight up the Ben Lomond track, again very steep but well graded and under tree cover. It quickly got very hot as we burst above the tree line into the open sun that was melting the snow and making the track quite muddy. We made great progress to get to the saddle (1322m) where the wind was really strong. A quick calculation revealed that if we kept going to the top we would have no time for a second run that day. We opted to ‘cut and run’ and so we enjoyed a second downhill drop back to the carpark.
Burgers and beer refuelled us in Queenstown, and then we were on our way toward Mt Dewar (head towards Coronet Peak, its on your left).
Devil’s Creek Track and Mt Dewar
Elevation Gain 994m, Max 1304m
Elapsed Time 2:35:52
Out of the car by 3pm, we knew the sun would set at 6, so we had to make good speed and check our progress before deciding if we had time for the summit. The track was open 4WD in some grassland/tussock. It rises up from the road and then drops down as you head towards skippers Canyon. A quick jump across the river and you are brought over through grassland to the nose of the climb that takes you up to the Mt Dewar summit. We could see the snow on the summit, and it got cold as the clouds moved in as we neared the top.
Our steady effort was rewarded as we made the top well before sundown, took some quick pics and then sped down the gravel access road on the north side.
An MTB single-track took us back to Coronet Peak road and the car, a few minutes before sundown. We enjoyed a tasty Indian meal, caught the last half of the Bledisloe Cup match and then showered and slept at Burton and Mel’s place (cheers guys you are terrific).
Elevation Gain 1,244m Max 1386m
Elapsed Time 3:15:19
Following a well earned rest, we started Sunday morning’s run at quite a gentlemanly hour. We were taking on the Isthmus peak track, located on the West of Lake Hawea. It’s the small range that separates Hawea from Wanaka. We climbed up from the road carpark on another 4WD farm track, but this was more grassy and less tussock as we followed the switchbacks up. There was a bit more wind than Saturday and the sun was behind the clouds so it got a tad nippy as we crossed over 1000m elevation. We could see the snow on the final ridge run to the peak, so the boys stuck on their micro/nano spikes and I clung to my poles for grip. Although moderately thick, It wasn’t too icy so not bad going and no steep runoffs so we were safe. We hit the 1386m peak, and then blatted back down again.
The cumulative toll of plunging descents struck James’ quads and he was in a bit of pain going down. As was usual for this trip, it took us about half as long to get down as it did to get up, and we were back at the car ready to hit another cafe for fuel before our afternoon mission.
Motatapu Track taster
Elevation Gain 537m Max 709m
Elapsed Time 2:03:31
We moved to a non-peak option to give the legs a bit of a rest from the punishment of steep, unrelenting descents. We thought the Motatapu track would be nice and gradual as it winds up from Glendhu Bay to the Fernbern Hut. It looks gradual on the thumbnail elevation chart and it does start off with a gradual climb beside the river on pasture land. However, once it enters the conservation area, it becomes a technical and fiercely undulating track skirting the steep valley edges. The setting was beautiful with cascading waterfalls, leaf litter padding out the trail and little piwakawaka chirping and dancing around you. We had given ourselves a one hour out limit to get to the hut, and with the slow going probably got within less than a km of it but had to turn to get back in good light. A very different trail and an excellent addition.
Elevation Gain 1,275m Max 1586m
Elapsed Time 2:48:26
On the final morning we got up with a bit more haste, as we needed to be done in time to get back to the airport. We gave ourselves 3 hours, expecting about 2 up, 1 down. James was giving his legs a different kind of workout on a MTB track around the Lake Wanaka and the Clutha river. Meanwhile, Sean and I were the second vehicle at the trailhead carpark and we took off up the grassy 4WD tracks. There was hardly a breath of wind at the lower reaches, but again after 1000m this picked up, though not as gusty as the day before. Cloud moved in at the 1300m+ range so our last kms were without views, and across melting snow, thankfully without steep drop-offs (we’re runners not alpinists!). For the final stretch you cross the ridge to approach the summit from the Northwest. This section was in deep snow and it was necessary to follow the previous tracks to avoid dropping to upper calf level. But it wasn’t very long (500m) and we were at the top – success! Our last destination reached, we grabbed some pics, turned around and cut loose on the descent. We alternated running at speed with taking photos and stopping to shed the layers of warmth as we emerged from the cloud into open sunshine without any wind – a scorcher! Sean showed his downhill mastery notching up several sub-4 min/ks and we arrived at the carpark in under 3hrs.
5 runs, 73km distance, 5350m climbed.
A fantastic trip, outdoor adventures, amazing comradery with great food and drink and comfortable beds – what more could you ask for? This format had its genesis in the Apennine adventure and I only like it more and more! Bring on the next one.
Ahh the goal race for the season. Worthy of a full race report, this one. Make your self a cuppa and sit down, this could take a while:
This race is a beautiful beast.
Vital stats: 100k, 4700m climb/descent, anticlockwise loop in Wanaka, with elevation between 270-2000m.
I saw it online when looking for a new ultra challenge to replace the Tarawera Ultra. As I said in my 2016 report, I love that race, but need to get away to be able to come back with the true hunger to race that. So, when I saw the course map, with its three massive climbs and natural loops in one of NZs most pristine alpine areas, I was in.
And my training over the summer has been focused on this one race. The goal was to log regular 65-75 km/week and try to get about 2000m of vertical each week as well. Of course it would be better to get more, but I have worked out that those numbers are about what my schedule can accommodate without displacing family, friends or work commitments. And I have to say I did well, more or less hitting those numbers for a good 10 weeks following my recovery from the Auckland Marathon.
I had a week down in Wanaka with the family to holiday and check out bits of the course. I ended up only running twice down there for several reasons:
The parts of the course I wanted to check out (Pisa range) cross private land, requiring difficult logistics to organise your own way.
I didn’t want to get weary before the big day
Holidaying is fun, so I was happy holidaying.
I caught up with Burton and we did a brief shakeout up Mt Iron, and Myles came down for the 42k as well, so we had a good MEC crew lining up.
I have to mention the weather: It was meant to be Central Otago in summer – think blue skies, low winds, hot days and cool crisp nights. Instead we had a week of significant wind and on the Saturday prior to the race, a blizzard came through and it snowed on Mts Roy, Alpha and Pisa. Interesting. So that’s why you have to take all this compulsory gear…
But on race day (the 28th) we had perfect weather. The 50 or so solo runners plus another 50 teams were sent off from the Albert Town Tavern at 0300, heading up Mt Iron, then along the Wanaka waterfront to the base of Roy’s Peak. There was a bit of a breeze blowing in from the West, and at that time of the morning it makes it kinda cold, but within a few minutes I was comfortable with my chosen outfit of merino T shirt with arm warmers plus extra merino T over the top (to be ditched once things warmed up). My bottom was covered with running shorts, my calves with compression socks and my feet with inov8 trail roc 255s.
The game plan was straight-forward: Get to the highest point (Mt Pisa) at 68km in decent shape, then use whatever is left to run the long downhill and flat section home to glory. I’ve done a few Tarawera 100s, but have limited experience in the mountains, and so wanted to make sure I wasn’t exposing myself (if you will) in the high altitude.
Leg 1 to Roy’s carpark was smooth sailing. I ate and drank to schedule, and found myself moving comfortably at about 5:15 min/k on the flats. It was interesting how fast others seemed to go at the start, I was initially left in the back half of the field. I came to Aid 1 (15k) right on schedule at 1:30 and struck my first hurdle: My drop bag was no where to be seen. No drop bag. Dang. That one had my gels, my bumbag and 600mL bottle and most importantly, my trekking poles.
This took me aback and I wandered anxiously, searching for the missing bag. The RD Terry was at the station and so the aid crew summoned him. He quickly helped me find the Aid 2 drop bags and we looked for the missing bag in there. Negative. Oh no. Suddenly, I remembered that I had dropped this bag off at the last minute, after having returned home to add my poles to it. I had absent-mindedly put it in the container on the far right, which meant I had sent it to Lake McKay Aid at 88k! Terry (what a legend) said he would see if someone could get it for me and bring it to Aid 2 at Cardrona Valley Rd. I thanked him, nervously filled my bottles and grabbed a handful of the gels available and headed up the climb. I spent 10 minutes in that Aid and really should have only spent 2. But that was my fault, so there you go. What this incident did get me to do though was flick from a ‘I need to race this thing’ mindset to a ‘this thing is a mighty challenge and I need to do whatever I can to make it through to the finish’ mindset. That was a good thing, methinks.
A word on trekking poles: these things are wondrous for mountain running (hiking). They take pressure off your legs and keep you feeling stronger for longer. Its like having someone behind pushing your sorry ass up the hills. They don’t work on tight single track or overgrown grass/foliage or over boardwalks where they get stuck, but they lap up wide open dirt roads. I got mine on Dec 31 and had worked on my pole conditioning and coordination (my ‘pole dancing’ technique) so I would be ready to race with them on Jan 28.
Climbing up Roys Peak was fun. Through switchback after switchback we gained 1000m of elevation as the sun slowly rose over Wanaka town to our East. I calmed myself down and chatted to a few folk, most of whom were faster at hiking than me and steadily moved ahead. Brad was one of these people and he kindly gave me some of his fruit Danish as we told each other of our build up to this race. By the time we hit the final ridgeline (somewhat precarious) to the summit it was light enough to turn the headlamps off. I had warmed up, and paradoxically, the wind had dropped now that we were at 1500m too. There were plenty of tourists at the top, as the conditions were perfect to witness the sunrise. It was truly spectacular to have beautiful landscapes in 360 degrees as the sun peaked over the hill and I was feeling good!
I took a pic or two and headed along the skyline singletrack to Mt Alpha, marvelling at the view of Mount Aspiring and the Southern Alps to the North West. The great reputation of this trail totally matched my experience and I felt filled up by the rich visuals surrounding me.
The ridgeline to Mt Alpha was great fun, and I started to catch back up to a few of the fast hikers. We summited and then started our descent, running swiftly to the amazing Alpha Aid Station. Co -RD Ed (co-legend) had driven his 4WD up and he was there with his missus dishing out water, chips and hot pies. Yep, they had a diesel generator at 1500m and a pie warmer. I gushed, and promptly downed two mince pasties. Then, with bottles filled, I continued my descent. It was 12k downhill to the Cardrona Valley and I steadily caught runners despite taking it easy on my legs. Again, this part of the trail was truly gorgeous and I arrived in Cardrona with the body feeling good and the mind at peace.
It was great to see the family at this point. We had been going nearly 40k and taken a good 5 and 1/4 hours. It was also great to see my drop bag had made it with my poles! I took my time to swap clothes, and top up supplies before chasing back after Brad who had already made his way toward the big climb up the Criffle Range.
We crossed the Cardona River (chilly but nice at mid shin level) and I cranked out the poles as our second 1000m+ ascent began. This one differed from the first in that you couldn’t see right to the top as it had several false summits, but you could see North to Wanaka and South to the Alps so we enjoyed some terrific views as the sun continued to rise. It wasn’t too hot though, I was fine in a t-shirt merino with the gloves and arm warmers well and truly stowed now.
I was a bit more on pace with my contemporaries on this climb, but again Brad pulled away. It sure felt nice having the poles to assist though. I got to the top of Little Criffle in just under 2 hours. At this minor aid station there was a lonely looking dude sitting on the back of a quad bike loaded with water and a bag or two of chips. I topped up the bottles, took a selfie and said a hearty thanks as I left.
The 12k section south to Bob Lee Hut was rather bland. You follow a 4WD track along the top of the range, but often so far inland that there are no views. The only vegetation is tussock, so although your first 5k of this is rather pretty, it is nothing on the visual symphony of Roys Peak and the skyline trail.
Coming into and out of Bob Lee Hut Aid I made a couple of errors – I lost the trail twice in a short period of time. The first time was my fault, I saw a crushed red cone ahead and missed the massive row of intact cones on the left hairpin when I passed through a fence. The second one could have been avoided with better markings. As I left the Hut, I was told to follow the fence line down to the track. I ran down the fenceline for 100m where the track departed from it to the right, which I took and ran downhill for half a km. Then I realised I hadn’t seen any markers and had to walk back up the hill to the station where I had departed the ‘track’. I was surprised how buoyant I was when faced with these wasted efforts. I think pacing my run to finish strong meant I had a good reserve and that helped keep me going when these things went astray.
We were now 60k in, 9 hours down. I was feeling weary but not really sore. My nutrition and fluid regime was working well (gels and water only on the go, topped up by real food PRN at the aid stations). The real milestone though was getting to the top of Mt Pisa. I remembered it being about 10k from the Hut, but the advice we got as we left was that it was 12 or so. In any case, I was keen to get there in good shape. For me, being 2000m high and 12+k to the nearest vehicle was not a place I wanted to run myself into the ground at. So I was really happy to pull up alongside Andy from Dunedin, and I took it easy while we ascended and chatted together. We made the top in 1:36, meaning it was nearly 2pm. It was still sunny but it was pretty cold with gusts from the West. My arm warmers were back on when we hit the aid station. Some poor soul had been abandoned to serve water to sweaty runners on this desolate mountain top in the wind. Lucky guy. If I thought the section to Bob Lee was a bit barren, this leg was just plain stark desert. Few tussock remained and we traversed long straights with nothing but dry rocks at our side. This was not the Southern Alps that make us romantic and misty eyed. Having run through the Rangipo desert a couple of times, I can tell you I would far prefer that environment, because you have a view. I guess what I became aware of on this run is that I like running in the mountains, but more accurately I love running where there are great views and interesting features. I want a visual feast if I am to don the ultrarunning robes. I want to at least get a buzz on if I am to drink the cup of suffering.
So no, you will not find me entering any of the masochistic ultras anytime soon. I am a trail runner, who runs ultras on occasion, but there must be a payoff. You may not care where you run, I do and I’m OK with that. Runner, know thyself!
Where were we, oh yes, top of Mt Pisa. Well, now the fun begins: a 20k downhill where we drop from 2000m to 300m ASL. It would certainly be amazing on a MTB – that Big Easy ride would be all time! Its not such a picnic running down however, especially on legs that have run for 11hrs+ and 4000M+ climb. So I changed plans and kept my poles out, hoping that they would take a bit of the bashing my legs were gonna receive over the next 2 hours. I turned the music on and started to let the legs roll. After a while, people I hadn’t seen since before I lost the trail came back to view. I was making ground! Then the view appeared as we moved out of the centre of the range and all of a sudden I was hit with the magnificent scene of Lake Hawea, the Clutha River, Mount Iron and Wanaka. The grin appeared, the arms went up. I began to hoot and cheer. This was great. The hill high carried me down to the farm at the bottom, somewhat tempered by the increase in gradient as we finished the descent. The knees were letting me know they had been abused, but there was no catastrophic damage and I was a happy man rolling into Lake McKay Aid to see my family once again.
12 k to go to the finish. I put on the MEC singlet for the heat (and to represent!). I keep the poles, as I have a hunch they will help me start up every time a stop threatens to seize my legs like rust. I pass more people and although I am well achey, I am in good spirits as my race plan seems to have been a smart one. But somewhere just before Stevenson Road Aid my knees become more than sore, and I stop running freely. Have I eaten lately? Not really, I thought I could cut back now we have just 7k remaining. Those caffeine gels are tasting gross and I’d rather not have another thanks. I will myself to the Aid and realise that I will be caught if I don’t shake this shutdown. So I smash some fluids. They don’t taste sugary enough (who makes that non-sugar electrolyte rubbish, what absolute homeopathic codswallop… rant over), and I know I need energy. So I have a half banana, and then another half. Then I make myself leave the Aid, despite the chair looking so appealing. It hurts so much to start running. The flats are the worst. I can walk hills guilt-free. I can run down hills. But flat running is not working for me right now.
And then I get caught, first by a team runner, then a guy with mini polls I haven’t seen for ages. Then Victoria, a Chilean runner who has yo-yoed ahead and behind me since Mt Alpha. She tells me to stick with her to get to the finish. I rally somewhat and start running a bit more, but she moves steadily ahead as we cover the last few km. We hit the road at Albert Town and I look back, no one behind me, and nothing left in the legs. I walk-run to the final bridge, see Heidi waiting for me and greet her and Heather gladly as the kids join me for the final walk to the finish (I would run but Beau decides that walking is what he would like and I’m a very selfless guy). So I finish, exhausted and full of running in 14:40:48, 18th place.
On reflection I’m very pleased with this run. It was by far the hardest course I have tackled, and I measured my effort 95% spot-on. Lessons include better attention to drop bags, and making sure to eat right to the end. I fully recommend this event, its got a great team behind it and the first 40 and last 32k are just sublime to spectacular.
One more thing – We used these great GPS trackers called Yacht-Bots, which enabled friends and family to follow along at home – this was awesome! I hoped you enjoyed it – I certainly loved reading up on the FB comments from those who were following live. More (all!) races should do this. Review the race
Running in the mountains with my mates makes me feel very alive. So I thought an international trip to the Italian Dolomites could be something to aim to for a 40th birthday celebration with the lads. Then Ron went to Bologna for a sabbatical, and the PHE conference lined up and suddenly serendipity happened in 2016.
RON’s editorial notes: This run was entirely Mike’s idea, as was this write-up. I’ll leave Mike’s work largely untouched and merely add a note here and there when he shows signs of senility or delusion (he is approaching 40 you know).
So there we were, Ron and I getting off the train at Porretta ready for 3 days of running in the Italian Apennines. The Apennines are not as famous as their Northern counterparts the Dolomites [RON: earthquakes aside], but the tight timeframes we were working to meant that the much closer location (and ready access by train) meant the Apennines were the way to go.
Somehow I managed to break the Indian Summer, and my arrival in Italia marked the end of the Golden weather. But we started up the hill, running alongside the river in a baking hot Emilia-Romagna day.The trails in Italy are marked by a white and red stripe sign, which is great because you often get a reminder of what trail you are on mid-run (when they bother to include the trail code). The downside of this system is that it is often hard to appreciate degraded red and white paint on a weathered, rough surface (Italy has a few) and they aren’t reflective so low light makes the visualisation task harder. But it does mean you get to play spot the marker as you run though rocky trails, and holiday villages.[RON: Now before we get started, by the time Mike actually turned up fit and fresh off the plane I’d gone through a good 15+ iterations of a possible 3 day mountain run. The original criteria of keeping to high alpine ridges had somewhat diminished as serviced lodging and lunch re-supply options disappeared following the end of the Italian vacation/trekking season. Aside from lunch and lodging requirements the route needed quick evac (as we were travelling v.light) and bad weather re-routing options. And it needed to be relatively easy to navigate in all conditions (the network of marked and unmarked trails can get overwhelming in places). So we headed for some loosely defined loops in the regional park Corno alle Scale.]
Day 1: River to Lake to Village to Mountain.
We had a bit of trouble following the marked paths on our way to Lago di Suviana and ended up on some of the local roads. Not ideal, but these roads are about as pleasant as you will ever encounter – low traffic volumes and amazing scenes of old-Italiana life as you run past small farms and orchards. The heart rate would rise with the barking dogs approaching, but only once were they not contained by a fence. Saw some wild deer in the forest once we re-found the trail which was pretty cool.
We had a late start so by the time we dropped down to the Lake we were ready for a lunch stop. This happened to be at a local restaurant, who were gracious and happy to host us sweaty runners inside [RON: nothing ‘happened’ here – this was a planned eating location]. We enjoyed a pasta [RON: I had a wild hare ragu and tagliatelle, think Mike had gnocchi in a simple tomato sauce] and beer and made our way onward.
The lake was obviously feeling the effects of a dry summer so the views at waters-edge were not spectacular. We retraced our steps up to the ridge, then onto a new track as we headed down toward the river crossing at Pavana. This was a neat piece of trail with wild berries in the open and the shade from the pine forest a welcome relief from the 25+C temps we were facing.Across the river we traversed around the face of a steep escarpment and staying on the contour, made our way from one ancient village/holiday spot to the next. This was a similar running experience to the Eastern Okataina walk away – lots of leaf litter and variations in gradient without any significant hills. Trail finding (marker finding) was an issue, but we made steady progress. This took us back to the river at Moline del Pallone and we were ready for the final run for the day – the climb to Mount Cavallo and its namesake rifugio.
This was a rugged climb, initially past some more beautiful towns, and then through more pine forest. 25+ degrees of both temperature and gradient for hours is a good recipe for weariness. Add to this the nasty horseflies who buzzed around your head and then landed to bite you (hateful hateful creatures) and it was a good bit of running slog. And we spotted more wildlife – wild boar.
[RON: it wasn’t until about lunchtime we were actually sure that the rifugio was actually open and expecting us – I had left some unanswered messages and we had our fingers crossed when we set off.]
But we made it up to our rifugio and rest point just before 7pm. Our host Maria was a character. A bit hard on the exterior (not happy with our later than guessed arrival), she was very proud of the rifugio and the region and was soon won over by Ron’s Italian [RON: I think it was more my charm than my Italian Mike] and our obvious delight and wonder for the trail in the area. So a hot shower, and cooked dinner of local delights (including locally harvested chestnut pappardelle, tortelloni, porchetta, oven potatoes, and vegetables) and a half litre of wine was just the thing for weary runners to make our sleep super sound that night. [RON: I should also note that Mike got scolded by Maria for eating the bread she left as a trap before she started serving food]
Day 2: The Weather Wins
We woke up bright and early (well I did, thanks jet lag) and had a typical Italian breakfast of cookies, cake and coffee. Then it was out into the moody grey clouds for our attempt along the ridge and into the high alpine region of the park. The clouds thickened in that first hour, and the rain started, a little drizzle becoming proper rain. But the temperature was good, we began at 1287m and climbed up to 1500m or so, but the temperature was probably in the low teens, very pleasant for rain on the mountains. Then the thunder started. Distant at first. We were taking stock underneath a hut on the ridge when the sky lit up and within 3 seconds an earth-shaking long roll of thunder made us take notice.
It’s fair to say that Ron was less bothered than I, his eyes alight at the drama around us. I was more aware of the potential for death (low odds, but still real). Our original plan was to stay on this ridge for hours and work our way up above the treeline at around 2000m. This was not such a good idea anymore so we made quick plans for a new route. We would swing down the hill to Piannaccio village for lunch before climbing back to our rifugio for the night at Segavecchia [RON: Good call Mike, I’m attacted to lightning, not sure if it’s mutual].
The run downhill in sometimes torrential rain was one of the best rain-runs of my life. The trail was gorgeous, very runnable and we were warm so it was super fun cruising along (except when the thunder would freak me again on occasion). Spotted a few fire salamanders on the way down too [RON: Despite my encouragement for Mike to give them a lick, he refused. Turns out to be a good call as they can as cause strong muscle convulsions, hypertension/hyperventilation, death, etc.].We wound our way down and arrived at the beautiful little village ready for a feed. Once again, the Italian welcome was very generous. Ron would get a good conversation going while I smiled and nodded like a simple but good tempered cousin. Some of the laughs surely came at my expense, but if that built rapport with the locals, then I would happily wear that.
We were more than happy to sit outside for our meals, saturated as we were. But Marco, the owner, got a coat rack out for all our wet gear and kindly ushered us inside by the fire. We were then treated to a glorious two course (three if you count Ron’s gelato) meal [RON: today we order a local bottle of red (premium sangiovese), I don’t recall Mike’s primo but I had a bean, ham and pasta soup, and we followed it up with crescintine (a lard fried hot bread served with cured meats, cheese), and finished with espresso]. We even had wifi (especially nice when roaming data is $10/Mb). Marco then sent us on our way with a glass of his home made mint liquor. What a guy!
The road climbed up for about 3k to the rifugio, and we were there a bit earlier than expected with our reduced course. So we did a little loop before coming back down to Segavecchia, notching up a few extra kms and some serious vertical meters as nearly everywhere went up from our valley.Another hot shower [RON: Well one of us did, you used up all the hot water] another great welcome from the proprietors. We were joined at this establishment by a group of 6 Italian hikers in their 60s. This made for a more boisterous atmosphere than the night before where we were Maria’s only guests. Another amazing meal sourced from local ingredients, three courses of bliss, red wine and noccino [RON: we had a half litre of house red pre-dinner, some local lentil and grain dish to start, tagliatelle al ragu for primi, and for secondi Mike went for the pan fried scarmorza cheese with grilled vegetables while I went with the grilled sausage and vegetables, with another half litre of house red. I don’t remember if we had dessert – suspect we did]- this is how you run in the mountains people! After a less-than-excellent sleep (sharing a room with 6 old men is rather noisy with the continual toilet stops, farting and snoring), we got up early to give ourselves time to make the most of the final day.
Day 3: Alpine Redemption
The weather was forecast to improve on our last day, and we had just one shot to try to get above the treeline and into some real alpine stuff. We awoke to blue skies with clouds whistling by in the strong breeze. It was game on. Segavecchia is at 980m and the high point in this part of the range is Corna alle Scale at 1980m. You climb straight up the valley and get there in 3.5k. You do the math, there is some grunty gradient at the end there for sure. It soon got warm as we climbed, then cold again as we got higher. Just before the trees ended at 1600m we donned warmer layers still.
And then we were out, in the high mountain tussock, climbing hand over foot as the clouds moved in and out, sometimes giving us a glimpse of the glorious valley below. I’m still new at the alpine stuff and it was a thrill but I was keenly aware of my lack of knowledge, so the stoke was mixed with fear. Ron was forging ahead, and his experience was reassuring, though the more precarious spots of our climb sent his heart racing too [RON: I’m not one for heights and the wire-rope rock sections had me in a fearful state]. We summitted around 100 minutes after setting off. The wind was howling and clouds were rolling right across the top, but Ron had the sense to grab a photo before we scurried out off the cold.
Then we followed the ridgeline path back towards where we had got to on day two. A few km in, high up on the ridge track we found red and white striped tape across the path along with some high vis ‘do not remove’ flags. As this was our only sensible way off the mountain we were obliged to cross, though crossing tape across the track was something that caused another anxious few minutes. Still not sure what it indicated, there were no rockslides or washouts to be seen.
The conditions didn’t improve, but we got to be on the leeward side of the mountain at times, including at a mountain spring of rememberance on top. I grabbed a photo and had a swig of the cool water, thinking of Bumpa, who would enjoy this tale of mountain adventure. Till then.
We re-entered the forest after an hour and a half and were treated to some really lovely smooth single track. One of the cool features of this forest was the number of different environments you pass through: baking tussock with centuries-old houses (think of a classic picture of Italy), pine forest, beech forest, alpine meadows, river wetlands… So much variety.
We took a steady descending route into the town of Casteluccio for our final lunch stop. The meals had been getting bigger and here they reached a climax [RON: this last meal was always going to be epic. I’d already done a reccie here and started a rapport with the proprietor Daniela. We had local beer, a starter of bread hot from the oven, olives, oil, and a caper/olive/tomato paste, for primi I had a Sicilian pasta I don’t recall the name of with cima di rapa, and Mike amused Daniela with his pasta sauce combo (you order them independently) which she then kindly corrected so he ended up with a pumpkin gnocchi with sage and butter. Sadly I don’t recall secondi, but we finished with torta di cioccolato].
Three courses, when one alone had me satisfied. We just about rolled out, and the Grappa certainly helped [RON: Daniela tried to dissuade me out of the grappa here for a more refined drink, no chance!]. Not the smartest idea to eat to popping point when you have a 5k, 300m descent to do immediately after [RON: it took me a good few hundred metres before I could actually break into a run]. There was some discomfort as we bounced down the semi-urban trail back to Poretta and the train.
3 days. 75km, 5500m climb.
An amazing trip, and one I would gladly do again. However, that would require an Italian translator. Ron’s language and planning skills were both essential for this mission. Many of our initial plans were changed when rifugio owners said they weren’t actually open [RON: despite indications to the contrary a week or two before]. The ones we did manage to get to (which were great) said we were the first Kiwis to visit that they were aware of. So, my appreciation to Mr King and his planning and persuasion for getting this adventure off the ground.
I think we did a great job of making the best of the opportunities we had, and feel we were also sensible in changing our plans to accommodate the conditions. We played our hand well, and the memories will fuel me for a long time. Grazie amici, arrivederci!
[RON: If there’s ever a race that requires running after a 3 course meal with wine/beer/grappa I reckon we’re in with a shot Mike.]
Auckland traverse, starting at Waharau on the Firth of Thames, finishing on Piha Beach and crossing the three highest peaks in the region. That sounds like a good idea. I could totally knock that off unsupported and in daylight hours.
After 12hrs running I was still convinced it was possible. Obviously I was incoherent and basic maths was beyond me.
No. Not possible.
Sometimes after 13hrs I had the oh cr@p moment realizing not only that I couldn’t possibly make it, but I was also 2hrs minimum from any extract point.
From the beginning…
Dawn on the beach at Waharau, and with company as Evan and Dave joined me for the first 32km leg to Clevedon over the 688m Kohukohunui. The mood was light and carefree. The wizard sticks were out. Seemed pretty easy, Dave and Evan were great pacers. At 32km the leg ended with a fantastic cronut at With Relish. Also started chatting with a guy who seemed had no degree’s of separation from the MEC (he knew Caleb).
Packed up the wizard sticks and said goodbye to Evan and Dave (thanks guys) and headed off to Maungawhau. This was the leg I was dreading – had nightmares about that u-bend bridge without a footpath on Whitford Rd. Cars tend to hit that corner fast and literally given by the piles of vehicular detritus. Ended up waiting for a decent gap and hoofed it safely – max speed of the day was here 3:32min/km.
The drag out across Pakuranga and Pamnure was long, uninteresting and hot with little shade but lots of traffic. Also was constantly on the hunt for water and tasty food options. Found a nice looking, cool, large, apple and cinnamon slice to supplement the dozens of muesli bars I’d been inhaling.
Was really starting to feel it after refilling my water bladder at Remuera library. Nothing catastrophic, just the ‘slow-down’. You know, when any extra impedance drops your pace dramatically even though running in easy conditions is still easy’ish. At 70km (9:50hrs) I dragged my arse up Maungawhau for possibly the slowest ascent of any MEC runner.
I’d anticipated the leg to Titirangi to pass quickly. I was wrong. It took forever. Deep down I think I knew I might not make it with the family pick-up schedule. But after +10hrs of running you are blocking so much out it’s easy to block out sensible thought. I was still delusional and thinking I’d be watching sunset on the beach. [fēnix 3 died on this leg]
It took 2hrs to get the 16km to Titirangi and I was feeling pretty banged up from all the road. Departing the Super Value restocked with smoothies, chips, and muesli bars at 12hrs I headed down Exhibition-Pipeline to the point of no turning back [Polar V800 died around here]. Must have been around the 13.5hr (7:30pm) point where I got the family text saying they were at Piha for fish and chips on the beach, only everything was shut [Ambit2 died shortly after]. Unfed family waiting for me. That’s not good.
Note: too tired to take any pics after Mt Eden.
It finally dawned on me that I had been in la-la land for some time. I was on Hamiltons Saddle 97km/13:45hrs into the run. It was coming up to 8pm and I was 1.5hrs from any exit point. I resolutely killed the thought of attempting Te Toiokawharu (and the triple peak crown) and started looking for the closest exit.
By now anxiety levels were high. I was actually feeling pretty solid (esp since the wizard sticks were back out), had plenty of food/fluid and a decent headlamp. But I was out of reception, night was falling and I had visions of the dark time the family were having.
Decided Upper Huia Damn Track was my best exit option. I managed to put the anxiety to good use and picked up the pace somewhat. Trying to run the Upper Huia at pace in the dark wearing road shoes is an interesting experience. Had never noticed previously but there are no trail markers on the track. Luckily it’s a pretty natural course to follow.
Got out to Piha Rd at 9:22pm (15:25hrs, 106km, 3100m climbing), unfortunately not quite Piha Beach, and no Te Toiokawharu [Ambit3 and FR910XT made it with battery to spare]. A nice finishing touch was the discovery that the support crew were also running on empty. Their petrol light started blinking on way out to Piha. Needless to say the drive back to Titirangi was tense.
So I failed the KMT Traverse. But the run was pretty successful. It’s good to fail sometimes. Think the largely unplanned self supporting aspect was key, hunting down food and water then lugging it slows you down a lot.
Immortalised in Ed Hilary’s classic ‘ nothing venture, nothing win’, (1975) climbing Mt Tapuae-o-nuku had always been a dream. ” My first real mountain” he called it, 100 river crossings later, falling chunks of ice, 16 hour days, 2 motorbike crashes and a 20 mile hike up the road to get in…I had to climb this beast. She clocked in at a mighty 2,885 m (9,465 ft), a monster in the inland Kaikoura ranges, the highest peak in NZ outside of the southern alps.
Fast forward a few years, as we pulled up at the road end in the shadow of the beast, we were filled with anticipation and a mean feed of Whoppers with extra cheese. Jason ‘Rogey’Rogers, Drew ‘the Sherpa’ Scott, Ben ‘Hard Man’ Howell, and ‘Captain Palangi’. We were amped, feeling strong and ready to tackle the moutain.
(Tuesday thrashings with Mike had helped build some confidence). A few weeks of pack marches, tramping out the Hillary trail, I had even managed a sneaky practice run up Mt Ngauruhoe.
Great excuse to get out a get amongst some of wider Aucklands epic spots !
To be in the foothills of this South Island beauty in the middle of winter made it even better. Expecting wives, and restrictive work schedules had meant we had a small window… The weather could not have been better us, a large slow moving High pressure system had parked herself over the South Island.
It had been quite a drive in from Christchurch, we were happy to be pitching our tent at midnight deep up the Awatere valley. A hard 3 days lay ahead, 2500 m ascent from the road end, 100 crossings of the freezing waters of the Hodder river, all carrying heavy packs. Jason weighed in at 27 kg, with ski touring kit and 2 sets of boots, the rest of us clocked in at not much less. We discussed filling Drew ‘The Sherpa’ s pack with rocks while he slept to slow him down, he elected to carry my spare undies instead. Always good to have a team player on these expeditions!
We broke camp at dawn the following morning and started the long slog up the Hodder valley. We climbed 1000 vertical meters that first day, crossed the river 100 + times including a scramble up over an area of bluffs. As we climbed large areas of snow and ice surrounded the river, the water was obviously freezing.
Ben carrying Snowboard and boots, snow shoes, Ice Axe, crampons and avalanche gear, and of course a fine single Malt Whiskey. What a Boss
The hut up the top of the Hodder was a welcome site at the end of the 8 hour walk in. Freeze dried mince never tasted so good. We were stuffed after hauling the huge loads in. The next day was going to be big, we tried our best to sleep but the anticipation keep us tossing and turning.
Awoken to a 5 am alarm and a stiff body this was the big day ! We wanted to set out early while the snow and ice was crisp and easy to walk on in our crampons. we climbed quickly, it felt good to be in the ascent with our loads significantly lightened after the first day. We were climbing in pairs, me and Drew went ahead without ski gear while Jason and Ben came up behind hauling there sliding gears (they were going to beat us down!)
The sun crept over the horizon, it was another stunner of a day. as we traversed up the side of the valley, we were regularly checking the map. The hut book had been full of unpleasant stories of climbing to the wrong saddle and being blocked by huge rock cliffs in strong winds. Luckily I had Drew with me, a strong mountain veteran of numerous ascents, he wasn’t called The Sherpa for no reason.
We pushed on, climbed up a steep gut then into a wide valley. It was a mint morning and we could see Jason and Ben below in their snow shoes and skis walking up the valley. We continued on a big push up to the final saddle before the summit. We were surrounded by an epic and majestic scene, had it totally to ourselves, the rugged peaks of mitre and alarm cut through the horizon to the south. We were only people for miles of epic mountain country.
We were approaching he summit ridge, with views to the north over Cook Straight and well south over the alps. For an inexperienced Jaffa who is more familiar with Mt Eden the drop offs felt exposed and the mountains wild and desolate. There was a strong wind blasting over the top of the ridge.
The final push to the top was tiring mentally and physically. As I cautiously climbed up to the summit I could hardly believe I had made it! It was an exhilarating sense and we felt so high above it all. The wind was smashing the summit at 50+ knots so we didn’t stick around for long.
On the way down we met the others, Ben was a bit stuffed after heading up a steep and icy section in his snow shoes and finding himself unable to back track, he managed to climb his way out the top, but not after being hit in the goolies by a chunk of falling ice!
Me and Drew continued the long walk home, I was so relieved and felt an immense sense of achievement in standing on top of the beast. Jas and Ben got their go sliding down the hill, it was bittersweet, after carrying their ski gear 2000 + m, the snow was a bit Icey and powder patches a bit scarce.
There was lots of tired laughter and good yarns back at the hut, the whiskey was delicious after a 9 hour slog! Not sure about its rehydration qualities but she went down a treat.
The last day was a long slog out, a couple of tricky sections and of course numerous river crossings. We decided to bypass pies in shaky Seddon and wait for a feed in the pub in Kaikoura. Cold beer and wood fired pizza never tasted so good…. Overall an epic adventure! looking forward to the next one 🙂
POSTSCRIPT: A couple of weeks back Kevin and Jaime of TVNZ’s first crossings made a reenactment of Ed Hillarys pioneering adventure up Mt Tappy… check it out on the link below its pretty sweet