Mt Difficulty Ascent

Mt Difficulty Ascent. 9 June, 2018

Pre-race banter

“This is a serious mountain mission”, so the website for the Mt Difficulty Ascent (MDA) boldly states. And for good reason. I had wanted to do this annual event for just over a year. After my marathon debut at the Mt Oxford Odyssey last year I wasn’t in a position to manage the 3 week turn around to have a crack at MDA the same season. This year I targeted MDA and had a great build up at the MOO half. It’s difficult to formulate goals for big scary events like this, but I was aiming for a sub-7 hour finish.

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The Lindis Pass, en route from Christchurch.

A large room with big fermentation tanks, and a slanted floor with excellent drainage, at Mt Difficulty Wines made for an interesting registration venue. After picking up my race number and having my gear and shoes checked, I enjoyed a fantastic briefing from the ‘proprietor of pain’ Terry Davis. Terry’s description of the increasing difficulty of the course as you progressed was a great way to build excitement. It is worth noting that he was disappointed with the video of the course that had been prepared for him as it didn’t really capture the suffering well enough.

Other highlights of the registration included committing an additional, extremely optimistic race goal to paper (top 10!) for a survey for a research student at Otago University studying flow and grittiness in endurance athletes, and an introduction to Altra Distributor and Ultra Badass Grant Guise.

The big day

Getting there in plenty of time, hanging around for a nervous portaloo visit, fretting over starting layering… it was the start of another big day out. The weather was looking good on the day and so I started with just a jacket over my usual compression top. There was time for one more wise crack from Grant (“why is there a shitting dog on the ‘crush the Cargill’ poster?”) before we were underway.

Unfortunately, I was almost immediately too hot in the jacket so promptly stowed it and was running in just a single layer. “Don’t panic on the ‘not flat’ through the water sluicings” Terry had said. This section didn’t qualify as a climb by comparison to what was to come, and it was just the beginning of a very long day so taking this part pretty chill was essential. Studying the course profile, I had determined that the four main climbs of the event approximately doubled in elevation gain each time for rough gains of 125m, 250m, 500m, and finally the VK.

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The MDA course! Image credit: event website.

There was plenty of walking on the first climb before an encouraging, but ‘deceptive’ flat section. It was too tempting to push the pace to around 5:00 as others were commonly doing, but I just knew there would come a time later when that energy would be more valuable. Oops.

Around a slight incline on the way to Nipple Hill I heard someone amongst the supporters saying “get ready for Grant to come past”. This was significant since I didn’t see Grant come past me, and subsequently I was thinking for most of the race that I was ahead of him and doing well and just wanted to keep going to stay ahead. Well, we can all check the results and conclude that this little delusion was rather far-fetched. I was grateful for the encouragement that it gave me throughout a big chunk of the race though haha.

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This cheeky bugger thinks he’s ahead of Grant Guise.

Continuing on, the second climb was steep and the descent was just too steep to open up the legs too much sadly. Steep climbs and gradual descents are the dream really, but this wasn’t a fluffy cloud, this was MDA. Heading north you could see a line of ‘ants’ rising up into the distance as you approached the 500m climb on your left. I was soon to be one of those ants. Not for the last time, I experienced the feeling of never quite being able to see the high point of the climb. It was a day for patience.

The cheery company of the 25km runners added to the fun early on. Coming down after the 500m climb was again pretty slow going, but the section with the rope was great! Some others weren’t using the rope much, but it made things way easier so I kept a hold of it all the way down – very stable and reassuring. At the bottom of this descent, the 25km runners headed for home and the marathon crew headed further along the river. I immediately felt the more spread out nature of the field.

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Are you having fun yet?

Just after passing the ant hill again, it was time to restock the water supply. This was the last aid for around 10km, which would be well past the end of the VK. Damn those ready salted potato chips tasted good. The photographers and aid staff on the course were all great! They were really encouraging and added to the experience.

OK, this was the part I’d been waiting for. As Terry said, “no need to chase the VKs in Europe when we’ve got one right here!” It was going to be tough, and I was feeling the hubris as I pondered how many people I wanted to pass on the VK. Next minute, shit this is steep. I had the exhilarating feeling of needing to take a moment to rebalance to avoid a fall backwards more than once. Ever upward we surged. (and in my confused mind I was stoked to still be ahead of Grant!).

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Getting high.

I had been hoping to be able to see the whole VK from the bottom to see where everyone was and put the task in context right from the start. It wasn’t to be. You could perhaps see up another 200m or so at a time. This is where some patience and ‘just putting your head down and getting on with it’ pays big dividends. I think this was the toughest single climb I’ve ever done. On the bright side, after the VK we would be almost halfway haha. About 600 metres up the VK there was the first traces of snow. The wind was picking up now as we ventured into ever more exposed territory. An update on that big passing plan I had for the VK: I had passed two people and been passed by one. It was hard work.

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Good honest work.

Getting up into the snow the wind was picking up and blowing my tired body around a little bit. Keep the legs moving. There was a steep section near the top with snow and ice that was really quite difficult to get a good grip on. The old fence nearby came in very handy for pushing up this part of the climb. Passing the masts and onto a slight rise, I could see the trig point not far off the track, but the course didn’t quite go there. No point dilly-dallying up here, so that summit had to go wanting!

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Not far past the summit.

Now we were into some runnable grade in not-so-runnable conditions, which is always a pain. This was the gentle descent of dreams, but the snow/slush/ice made it clear that it wasn’t quite a dream. Trudging on we go! It was fun for sure, but the novelty wore off a little at the thought that a half marathon was still required to get home. I had my watch on the secondary setting to save some battery, since I didn’t really know how long I’d be out here. Sadly, as it sometimes does in this mode, it had blown out the distance already and the obvious inaccuracy removed any useful indication of the scale of the task remaining.

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No idea of distance, no worries.

I stopped to swap over my food packs and was passed by someone looking fresh and getting it done. By this stage I was starting to get super tired and was happy to start on the jet planes to help get me through. Ed with the hot drinks was maybe not too far away. “Everyone likes Ed” Terry had said, and if he had some hot drinks (as semi-promised), I would like him too.

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Along the tops, about to get overtaken.

There was a good long section here of snow running, and walking of course, battling the slush and sliding around a bit. With no good indication of distance remaining, this was a tough section for me mentally. After the big climbs in the first half of the course, my legs were left ‘beaten, but not broken’. I was enjoying running the descents and flats, but anything with a positive grade was now seriously tough.

“Are you Ed?” “No, I’m Joe”. I embarrassed myself in my search for the milo. Joe and company were great and I made the most of my second and final water top up stop. The coke, the chips, the fruit cake, it was all on offer. Joe pointed out where Ed was hiding and guessed it would be about halfway between our current location (approx. 30km) and the finish line.

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What a battler.

Now this next part was really tough. I had been shown the peak where I would find Ed, but the route to get there was not so obvious from afar. I could just see a couple of twists and turns at a time and guess which road we might eventually follow. Each uphill grade, even the ‘runnable’ ones, was just a bit much for running at this point. This was the part where Terry had suggested that we harness our hatred for the race director, and use it as energy to battle on. Not bad advice for how you could feel during this part. How could you hate Terry though? The epic-ness of the event was fuel enough! All you need is love, and maybe more training next time.

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Epic conditions!

Eventually the path became more and more clear and so my approximations of how long it would take to get to Ed were starting to have less and less uncertainty. I guessed that to make my sub-7 hour goal I would need to be at Ed’s checkpoint by the 6:15 mark. It could still be on! ‘Down here, through this stream crossing, then I could see that windy climb, then a nice descent before a small final climb to Ed’ I thought. 15 minutes up, 15 minutes down would get the job done. It all seemed reasonable.

OK, that climb was pretty slow and now there’s not quite 15 min to get down there. Maybe not quite today buddy. It was slipping away, but there was no point doing anything too stupid when you are this tired. Ok, just that last small climb to Ed. It was small, but may not have felt that way at the time haha.

It felt good to get ticked off by Ed, and I was close enough now that I didn’t ask about that hot drink anymore. Time to get back for the pizza! Ed reckoned about 45 min to go (proving to be on the money) and I was now at 6:27, so a 7:15 looked very achievable. I was looking forward to opening things up on this final descent down into the vineyard! However, the challenges already overcome that day had to be taken into consideration. With a bit of stomach discomfort bouncing around on the descent, and knees that clearly thought they had done enough already, it was a battle right to the end.

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So many great photos!

Passing more friendly marshals and supporters, I approached the water sluicings again. This was quite disorienting haha! So many funny little cliffs and windy trails, I couldn’t really tell where I was going more than a hundred metres at a time. Damn it, I wanted to see the finish already! Back down out of the wind I was getting a bit over heated in my jacket, so stopped to take it off. Shit! There was someone coming not far behind and they definitely still had time to pass me. No one wants to get passed at this stage of a race! (or at all I should say!) I stuffed the jacket into my bag and picked it up, adjusting on the move as I took off again down the trail.

Now this last part was a real drain. Feeling so tired, but vigilant of wanting to maintain my position, I pushed on through the last kilometre of the race. Taking a left turn, I was now suddenly on the road down to the finish line! Not an impressive pace for this grade, but I was about to get over the line. I heard someone say “you’re about to get caught!”, but couldn’t do much about it. I managed to just hold off Andy (who I met at the finish line) by a few seconds, finishing in 7:12 and taking 21st place (completely AWOL Strava data here and results here). Terry was at the finish line for a handshake and congratulations, and much appreciated directions to the pizza.

I was stoked to be finished! That sub-7 hour goal went wanting, but Grant did tell me that the snow up there was worth at least 12 minutes. After a few more laughs at the prize-giving, I left Mt Difficulty with a flash new drink bottle, a deck off-cut, and some epic memories.

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Man on a mission.

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Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon!

Goal setting

With a solid 6 week build up after sporadic holiday running, I had put myself in a good space for this event. I was eyeing a sub 6 hour run for the full marathon, but had never been too sure about how realistic that was. I was conflicted between the small number of finishers under 6 hours in the last few years (maybe it was asking too much?) and my good feeling when comparing the course to that of the Oxford Odyssey MM last May, where I had a great day and finished in 7:18. Also, I was feeling that I could be in better shape now, so maybe it was ambitious, but just right? Dream big! Luckily I found one of back-to-back Hardrocker Grant Guise’s slower SMMM efforts on Strava where he had run a 6:03 and this provided some good info on possible splits!

Race day

Waking up to turn off your alarm at 5AM after ‘not enough’ sleep in a bed away from home, it must have been race day! The bumpy, cliff-laden ride in the van out to Skippers Canyon was a bit of fun to wake you up before the race. We arrived to the drop off point and I took a moment to enjoy the view and let it sink in that I was finally here. Then I turned around and the queue for the loos was suddenly massive. Better get in line and hope for a good turnover rate. I think this was not the only time I have been in a queue for the loos before a race and initially felt rather stressed at the possibility of not getting the job done before the race briefing started, only to find myself emptied and hanging around the start line with some 15 minutes to spare. It was classic pre-event nerves and time dilation.

I saw that the first section of the course was steep and narrow for the size of the field. It was obviously going to be an immediate bottleneck. I usually like to start further back and more relaxed, but I have found that with steep sections where almost everyone will be walking anyway, and forming a long chain moving at the same pace, you might as well be at the front of the chain rather than at the back! So I lined up near the front.

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167 looking good far right.

After an initial climb we were soon onto the narrow stuff that I had enjoyed watching in a video from previous years and been warned about by the RD at the race briefing. It was great fun! The care required with your footing here meant that I wasn’t looking around quite as much as I’d have liked. Running on raised open sections with views is really the best!

Some rain began not long after the start and was rather persistent. I got soaked, but it helped with cooling and in the end the day warmed up just enough after the first couple of hours. No clothing changes or up/down layering required. It was a pretty serious climb heading up to the high point of the course, but after passing that point I was pretty happy, and seemingly on good time. The steep stuff coming down Death Ridge kept me on my toes. Luckily I was with another runner at the time who was pacing it nicely.

The scree and the ladder were good interesting obstacles. I think I nailed the scree run. It’s fun when the gravel is a bit deeper and you can just dig in your heels and get some real pace. This was mostly the case for the short scree run at SMMM. The ladder and many small stream crossings just after were great too. It felt quite exciting like wandering up into a jungle. Here’s a great video of original Wild Thing Malcolm Law having fun on the scree!   (Video credit: Majell Backhausen)

My thinking was that I would need to get away from the lodge CP near halfway by 3:15 to have a shot at a sub 6. As I saw it in the distance I got a real boost as I was looking good to get there around 3 flat. I arrived at 3:01 in the end and I was stoked. Nine or ten minutes flew by here while I got some electrolyte drink, refilled my water reservoir, chowed down on a banana and investigated the fancy sporty jelly beans I had never seen before. I had coped alright with a bit of debris in my shoes and socks after the scree run, but I decided to empty them out in the interest of comfort for the second half of the long day ahead. Unfortunately this seemed to take ages! The socks clung (as they do when wet), the insoles were a pain to put back in, and the dexterity in my fingers wasn’t too flash. With that job finally all done, I got out my big green $7 Kmart hat and took off again. It was perhaps more time spent there than I wanted, but I pretty much needed it after spending some energy pushing to get there at 3 flat and coming up just short. The lovely lady who had been setting a great pace down Death Ridge passed me here, while I was playing with my socks, and I never saw her again. Kudos on a well-paced run!

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Looking a bit too focused here. I swear it was fun!

Not far after the lodge came a turn off for the marathoners to head up another ridge. Around here there was plenty of walking from me, and even on some pretty gentle grades. Sometimes you just need the break! I had seen an interview with a previous year’s runner up talking about how he had “walked all of the uphills”. This was a great thing to hear not long before the race to get a realistic view of good race strategy. This guy was 2nd place in 2013 (NB. slightly different course) so he obviously knew what he was talking about! I think that despite hearing this many times, it takes some experience to really appreciate it and not just feel weak at the time!

Ridge running can really be the best part of a trail! I had a great experience in the Tararuas with my family over the holidays walking for some hours along ridges and I just find that the views and feeling you get doing that is like nothing else! There was a lot of narrow and not quite formed ‘single track’ on this part of the run, the sort of stuff that it’s easy to get ‘trapped’ in and trip up. It was fun and challenging, but required a lot of focus really. Here are a couple of videos of SMMM champions Ryan and Lucy crushing the course around this point! (Video credit: Phillip Miller)

The steep descent down to the river to merge courses with the other events was pretty punishing. Steep downhills are not the most comfortable or enjoyable parts of a run for me, but I hadn’t avoided downhills in my training so it was all good. The last big climb up to Sefferstown Hill CP was damn steep! The track was much busier here, but there wasn’t much chat as everyone was focused on powering up the climb. I was lucky at the aid station and took up a kind offer of some electrolyte powder from a friendly stranger. You really do get some good sorts at these trail running events!

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‘Grinding’ some hills.

OK, I was getting close now! I decided I had plenty of time based on Grant’s splits for his 6:03. It wasn’t such smooth sailing though in reality. About 6 kms from the finish I had the lovely surprise of seeing my good friends and local endurance legends Felicity Thomas and Weston Hill! I snagged a high five as I ‘flew’ past them and their encouragement was a real lift! I was really happy to get that support at what was a critical time. They were letting runners know it was about 6 kms to go, but following professor Suunto’s guidance I thought I only had 4 more kilometres to navigate!

OK, I had time and the pace would need to be a bit better on average, but nothing heroic was required. I had already done the hard work really, but it was still a bit un-nerving. Settling back into my work, the pace was going fine and I was feeling good. Then the recurring river crossings struck! I had failed to learn about these before the event! (Lucky my current occupation doesn’t revolve around research…) These crossings had the effect of sporadically disrupting my rhythm, making my legs a bit heavier, and making it hard to keep a good pace. I was too close to a serious achievement here to not make it, so I pushed on despite some serious drops in energy. The last of those fancy jelly beans were soon gone. After the river crossings finally ended I was keeping an eye out to view the finish. After the surprise of how far there actually was to go earlier, I wasn’t counting my chickens on this sub 6.

I saw a building in the distance and thought that must be the finish. OK, that was close enough to comfortably make it. Then I saw people running around to the right away from the building and continuing. OK, it must go over there and through that gate and back to the building. That was close enough to make it. Then it turned out people were continuing around to the right and I couldn’t see anything for a while. Nothing seemed certain! Maybe I heard enough noise for it to be the finish close by. OK, I’ve got this. I just couldn’t quite see the actual bloody finish until I was very close! Finally, this was it. I crossed the line at 5:57 and change! I had crushed it and achieved my goal! Staying focused had been crucial, but I had the sub 6! Super stoked! Check out the full results here.

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One cheeky chap at the finish line!

Next up

I really love a quote I heard recently on the trailer for Kilian Jornet’s upcoming film ‘Path to Everest’:

A project ends well when it makes you dream even more.

After a week off I was watching running videos and getting super jealous again. It wasn’t long before another project popped up and I was dreaming of setting another ambitious goal. Surf 2 Firth was calling (largely due to a discount courtesy of Mr. Law and Wild Things – it pays to be VIP!), time goal TBD.

Bright Alpine Climb – 4 Peaks

Prologue

Keen to continue to make the most of the flexibility of postgraduate study, I had jumped on some Jetstar sale flights to Melbourne and when I looked optimistically for an event to coincide with a couple of weeks in Australia (during the sale dates…) I was stoked to see something from the ANZ skyrunning calendar pop up! I had an awesome day at the super challenging Mt Oxford Odyssey mountain marathon in May and then saw the Mt Difficulty Ascent was 3 weeks later (which looked epic too), but I wasn’t up for such a short turnaround and Achilles niggles following Oxford would not have made that a fun day out! So by now I was really keen to get stuck into an ‘official’ sky running event! The Bright 4 Peaks offered a heavy serve of elevation gain over the 4 days and was right up my alley.

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Welcome to Melbourne! Your gateway to the wonders of Bright.

Getting to Bright from Melbourne was so easy and when I arrived at Camp Crusty / Bright Outdoor Inn Caravan Park I got a warm welcome from Alex and was very happy with the cabin. Such a beautiful spot! Lucky for me I met a couple of young guys from Adelaide at the park who were also there for the event (shout out to Brayden and Gabe!). They were great company during the week I was in Bright and also gave me a ride to the events. It turned out that it would be a fun little battle between Brayden and I over the course of the four events.

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Beautiful Bright!

A short run on the evening of arrival out to Alpine park from the camp was the perfect little stretching of the legs and confirmed the start location for the first event (always useful). Everything had come together for a great 4 days of running! I was anxious to see how I would go with recovery between events, since I was not used to running consecutive days.

Day 1 – Mystic Hill

Mystic Hill: 4 Peaks – Bright Alpine Climb

It was a chilly morning as I got a lift with the Adelaide boys to Alpine park. Check in and bag collection was pretty fast and relaxed. The atmosphere was super relaxed and community feel. I just made it back from the loo in time for half the race briefing, but didn’t miss anything too major I hoped. “If you go more than 50 metres without seeing any orange tape, do not keep going.”

We were underway 1 min early and it was pretty hard to pick the pace. It was not long before coming to a steep climb – definitely not runnable. Bit of a grind here, but I knew there were 2 main climbs like this and a small one just before the top. Knowing the elevation profile helps you to be patient with the really steep stuff! Picking up the pace between the two climbs felt good, and the second climb was even steeper. The narrow track made it easy to get a little impatient here, but there was no real damage to the time.

I didn’t take any photos today! So, here is a short video courtesy of the event Facebook page.

I was looking forward to the undulation before the final short climb. My Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical was pretty spot on with the distances so I had a good idea of how far to the start and end of each climb. The last short climb was alright, but there was nothing at the top! I thought there was going to be an aid station haha. I had far too much food and water with me so it wasn’t an issue, but it was an anti-climax. The first section down was super steep and so quite slow. Lots of tiny fast steps! I was worried about the downhill for destroying quads or ankles or knees, but it went pretty well and the gradient got more friendly making for a pretty fast, and more fun than expected, descent.

The weather was pretty bomber and the winner took about 30 seconds off the CR. I was anxious to feel good for tomorrow, but it was a pretty good day, 1 hr 16 for me. Even so, Brayden took a comfortable 10 min lead after the first of four events. This was a tough course for Gabe’s first trail event and he was stoked to get back and enjoy a ginger beer.

Day 2- Mt. Feathertop

Mt. Feathertop: 4 Peaks – Bright Alpine Climb

I was feeling a little unsure about my quads and HEAPS of people passed me on the first flatter section getting out to the trail. Once on the single track it was about trying to get into a rhythm with the steady, relentless grade. This was hard with so many people to pass and from maybe 2ks in there were a lot of people slowing down. The walkers had been great both days now with making plenty of room for you to pass. Beforehand I thought 2 hours might be a good goal. About 4k in (⅓ of the way) it was looking like 1 hr 30 could be possible if I kept up the same pace, which seemed seriously unlikely.

Passing 6k (½ way) was a good boost and I was traveling OK. The steady grade, which I couldn’t manage to run all the time, was difficult to pace when to walk and when to run. It may have been near the efficiency boundary haha. Near 9k I was walking quite a lot, which was OK but felt a bit weak and disconcerting. That k was quite tough. Near 10k we passed a hut and campsite and the grade was a little friendlier. This helped me to burst back to life a bit! It looked initially as though this nicer grade may continue to the top, so I was keen for a final push. It was nice for a while. However, the final section before the summit was real steep and much walking ensued. One guy passed me who was running it all the way in. Kudos to him, but I did not have it.

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Two cheeky chaps at the top.

1 hr 40 in the end and I was happy, confident I had made ‘the front page’ (first 50) of the results today. I made up a few minutes on Brayden at Feathertop and it was really beautiful up there! There was a great panorama and you could see the peak for the next day at Mt. Hotham. I heard from Thierry (who was always miles ahead of me) about a 7500 metre miler in the area, and I must say I thought it would be an epic spot for it. After soaking in the surrounds, an easy run all the way back down wasn’t really what the body wanted, but everyone was doing it due to the lack of road access and it was fun to chat a bit with the always friendly trail / vertical crowd. Great weather and views had everyone buoyed!

The return journey

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I can see for miles, and miles, and miles.

Day 3 – Mt. Hotham

Mt. Hotham: 4 Peaks – Bright Alpine Climb

I was feeling a bit better than expected on day 3! Had a chat with Thierry before the start and he said today is a “take it easy day” day, “hard core people only” haha. Tomorrow was to be “give it everything”. The start was interesting with 6 flatish ks to get you out to the bottom of the climb. 40% of the way through the distance without any real climbing haha. I started pretty near the back and managed lots of passing in that first 6ks. Conservative habits aye. It was not too easy to get past sometimes with the narrow track.

The river crossing just before the first main climb went well, especially considering I just found out about it on the day! Seeing one guy taking off his shoes and socks made me chuckle a bit. The first climb lasted for about 3ks. I passed a bunch of the always friendly walkers in this section and it was pretty steady grinding here. After this, it was good to get going a bit faster and make the most of the undulation in between the 2 climbs. My hips were not feeling that great at times on the climbs today. Bit of a worry. Soon the undulation started to become gradual ascent, and before you knew it you were into the second climb! This was pretty brutal and I was struggling to run some of the less steep parts that may have otherwise been run on fresher legs.

Pushing on, you come up out of the trees. This was exposed and getting pretty cold so I got the beanie, neck hugger and gloves on, but didn’t bother with the jacket. From here it was close to the finish and you wanted to run it in, but I had to grind (sweet jargon for walking up hills) until I was up at the top. The final rocky part along the top was fun and pretty fast. An incline on the last 50 metres was not that steep, but by then felt pretty tough. Fortunately the ringing of cowbells got you home! No one wants to walk over the line haha. I was home in 2 hours 13 and Brayden had put a couple more minutes on me today.

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A quick snap before heading for a warmer space.

The finish was at a nice spot and there was no rain, but it was very cold today, so when the next minivan was leaving and the driver mentioned the next one could be an hour away, Brayden and I jumped on board. Three down, one to go and I was feeling surprisingly good later that afternoon. Maybe the downhills from Feathertop and on Mystic were the worst part recovery wise?! Running uphill is not so bad!

Day 4 – Mt. Buffalo

Mt. Buffalo: 4 Peaks – Bright Alpine Climb

It was the last day, and I was feeling pretty good! The first 3.3k or so was meant to be pretty steep, not so bad after that, and 2 fast flat ks at the top. Again, I might have started a bit far back. There was a bottleneck at the bridge 150 metres in, and on the steep stuff after that everyone was moving at the same pace. What I was calling ‘human centipedes’ were starting to form, where a chain of people were moving together. Might as well be at the front rather than the back when everyone was moving at the same pace haha. There wasn’t much running early on.

About 2.3ks in there was some runnable stuff and this just continued, so we must have been into the pretty steady middle section. This was a challenge of on-off-on-off running as I was not strong and fresh enough to stay at a run, but not so weak as to need to walk all the time. It really is challenging in this scenario to judge it just right. Just after 8ks it was the fast section. Just 2ks left in the whole 4 peaks, so keen to make it count! It was fun to pick up the pace. A few nasty big rock stairs in this part made for a last challenge. They were really tiring by this point, but you were keen to run them as you knew you were so close! Cowbells beckoned and the flight of stairs up to the Chalet tested what you had left. It was hot up top, but a little exposed.

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The final ‘climb’!

Watermelon, chips, coke – nice! After the presentation the ride back to Eurobin creek picnic area was fun. This involved cruising down a windy road on a sunny day, with some 80s hits jamming in a minivan driven by a friendly volunteer.

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Three hot young things up Mt. Buffalo.

With a time of 1 hour 23, I managed to beat Brayden today, so 2 from 4 there, but he was still a few minutes ahead in the general classification after the 4 events. I saw recently that he was the youngest finisher in the Ultra Trail World Tour this year with his completion of Ultra Trail Australia! Awesome job Brayden, he will be one to watch!

The results!

Epilogue

Bonus Level

No rain on course, 4 from 4 reasonable days considering the altitude, and really 3 from 4 crackers. The events really were great fun and the atmosphere around Bright was great. A while before this event I had told myself I want to train enough to be ‘semi-competitive’, whatever that means. I’m not sure if I made that goal, but I had fun and I’m super keen to crush some big events in 2018, namely the Shotover moonlight mountain marathon and Mt. Difficulty Ascent extreme marathon. Now, what to do with one last day in Bright? Bonus level time!

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More lovely trails near Bright.

For some reason I was thinking more about snakes on this run, since I was by myself… Didn’t see any snakes, but there was some other wildlife around to give a uniquely ‘Australia’ feel to the run.

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My newest Strava follower.

It was definitely a different felling to be out all alone after 4 days running with a horde of vertical lovers. This run took my elevation gain from running in Bright to 5k! Woo Hoo! To summarise my week in Bright: beautiful spot, great weather, friendly people! Given this is a hub for many great running and other sporting events, I feel that Bright has not seen the last of me!

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Bright being beautiful again.

Fansipan Adventure

You don’t have much bargaining power when you’re in Sa Pa arranging a motorbike taxi for 4:30AM the next day and they know the reason you’re leaving so early isn’t actually to see the love waterfall at sunrise, despite what you may say. I was keen to make a solo summit of Mt. Fansipan, the tallest peak of Indochina, during my stay in Northern Vietnam. The issue was that you usually need to arrange an expensive guide and go with a tour that takes 2 days. I knew this expedition was within my abilities, and I was keen for another big run during my 6 week trip through South East Asia. Time to have a real adventure!

I had been a bit unsure given I still had a bit of a cough and the conditions had not looked great on the ‘recon mission’ the day before. Rain driving into my face on the back of the motorbike in the darkness on the way up out of Sa Pa didn’t exactly act as reassurance. However, I was keen to at least give it a go. As a back up I had cleverly spent some time the day before to get myself happy with the possibility of having to turn back if required.

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No one checking guides / tickets before dawn. You have to get up pretty early to beat Cookie.

Starting with the headlamp, there was not much chance for running. The trail was well stocked with yellowy rock steps, which suggested quite some care in the maintenance. Would the whole trail be a highway? Despite reading that you couldn’t get lost cause there’s only one trail, I had a bit of a mishap before the sun was up. The quality of the route deteriorated into pretty much bush bashing, so after a couple of minutes pursuing the ‘yea it’s just here, keep pushing’ tactic, I got out my phone to check on maps.me. A great maps app that is brilliant for offline (forget messing about saving offline areas in Google maps). The Vietnam map happened to have an outline of this trail and I could see I was about 100 metres off so headed back the way I came. Back to a small clearing and there was another way. I was impressed with the GPS accuracy considering the cloud and bush cover. Also the accuracy of the trail outline on the map was very useful. In retrospect, this slight mishap of leaving the trail could have been a serious issue. However, life continues to be good to me. I was back on the trail and psyched for some daylight.

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Still looks like you should head to the right even when you see it in daylight, huh? (Taken on the way back out)

Since you are not supposed to be out here without a guide, I walked quietly through two camps that were on the trail. I heard people awake at the second one, but no one was out so no worries. As it turned out, passing a couple of guided groups was no problem too. People were friendly and maybe uninterested in regulations. Winning.

There really were a lot of stairs, and a lot of walking. So many carefully placed rocks and cuts into more stationary larger stones. Up and up and up. You couldn’t see far ahead the whole way, but you could count on more stairs. Perhaps it was a good thing you couldn’t see them all at once…

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Turns out I didn’t take any good photos of the stairs…

There were definitely plenty of more interesting bits too. Really steep climbs, steel ladders, bits of wood secured into holes in large rocks to provide some sort of stability, or even a ladder where the stick rungs were just sitting on the wood plugs. OK for just downward pressure, but looked a little iffy.

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Not quite as steep as it looks here, but definitely interesting.

There were a lot of sections where the idea of coming back down in wet conditions did not thrill me. I decided I would get the gondola back from the top.

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Feeling alive!

Pushing on I passed a couple more small groups and was getting close. There was just over a kilometer to go and I thought I must be near the peak altitude so was looking forward to the trail leveling out a bit and maybe actually doing some running. It was not to be. Suddenly there was a series of steep descents creating an elevation loss of a couple of hundred metres. You know you need to get any elevation loss back and then some when you’re on your way to a summit. Up, up and up.

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Up you go mate.

In the final stages the trail seems to be approaching the wall of a platform that could not easily be scaled. This could be a real setback. Luckily there was a very budget staircase linking to a gap in the wall. I was up on the platform and could soon make out the shape of a giant Buddha under construction through the cloud and mist. Moving along the platform I got to some stairs which linked to a serious stone pathway that appeared to lead up to the summit. There was a quite apparent ‘do not cross’ type barrier in the way though. I left the red zone and starting climbing more stairs to the summit. This section was impressive for the quantity of quality stone that had been carried up here to make it happen!

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All the way up here? Good effort.

You could not see anything at all from the top! It was super cloudy the whole time I was up there. I did have the area to myself for a while before first some wardens, then other hikers and guides appeared. No worries being alone without a guide here as it is accessible via a gondola from Sa Pa. Nothing suspicious here… The summit was nice and there were Vietnamese flags sat there for you to wave around in photos. Unfortunately I could see some hideous monstrosity of a large construction underway not far below. I thought that would destroy the special remoteness of the area. I’d worked hard to get here, I didn’t want to see some resort or whatever.

Some evidence of completion

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As good as the view got at that particular time.

After conceding there was no view to be had, I went to the little funicular station nearby. Cable car tickets were a whopping 600k VND, which I didn’t have with me so I was relieved to see a 100k option for the funicular. I didn’t know where it went, but assumed it would at least get me close to Sa Pa. I thought it was like a budget cable car option for budget travellers like me. Well, that ride only lasted a couple of minutes and took me to the cable car station not far below! I knew I didn’t have enough money for a ticket with me, so ‘hilariously’ I walked back up the way the funicular had come and waited for a couple of people near the ‘do not cross’ barrier to dissipate before heading back to retrace my steps.

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The roof of Indochina was decorated appropriately.

I knew I had heaps of time before leaving town on a night bus that evening, so I got psyched to take it slow and be careful. To make it brief, I really did not have any issues. The sections I thought would be nerve racking were not so bad in the end and my feet felt really stable. It was a test, but I had studied hard and performed well.

A safe escape

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Making friends on my way out.

One last turn of events ensued. I was too stingy to pay for a taxi car back to town so I wandered around and talked someone into giving me a ride back on their bike for a good price. He didn’t have any helmets and was making the most of the trip to town by balancing some type of carrier in one hand, which I guess he would drop off or fill with supplies in Sa Pa. So, no helmets, some unbalanced cargo, AND a couple of mid-ride phone calls made for a pretty scary moto ride home to say the least! Advice to myself: maybe be more organised and don’t be so stingy with transport costs.

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The road back to SaPa.

After so much uncertainty going into the day, followed by a successful outing, a phrase I heard from a friend came to mind: ‘outside your comfort zone, inside your competency’. A great adventure! NB. If you are planning to give this one a go, check out the other stories online too. It made for fun reading and got me better prepared.

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A safer spot near SaPa

 

Mt Oxford Odyssey

Mt Oxford Odyssey Mountain Marathon

My first marathon event!

I met my fellow marathoner Kevin Grimwood at around 5:40AM on Sunday the 21st of May when he picked me up and we headed out of town toward Oxford. We were on our way to the Oxford Odyssey mountain marathon, an epic mountain run in Canterbury with around 3500 metres of elevation gain. The start time change from 6:30 to 7:30 helped with getting a better sleep before the big event. It was pretty dark as we arrived at the carpark near Cooper’s Creek and not just a little chilly. After a gear check, nervous bowel evacuation and waiting as long as possible before ditching the extra warm clothes, it was time for the race briefing. The weather had not quite done enough to cause a route change so we were in for the full 3500 metres as promised.

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Near the start area on a chilly morning.

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The course map.

It was quite a small field, 33, and it was such a huge day ahead so the start wasn’t as much of a rush of adrenalin as is perhaps the case with other events. It still felt good to finally be there on the day getting underway and not having any niggles to complain of. It was a cruisy start from me as I was keen as to not burn any matches early. Dean Karnazes has a saying “in the first half of your race don’t be an idiot, in the second half of your race don’t be a wimp”. I had decided that it may be best to delay the onset of “don’t be a wimp” mode until the start of the third and final big climb back over Oxford.

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Jake Vargo sharing some last minute info. Anxious author far right.

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We’re under way! I’m no. 23.

It wasn’t long before we were into the first big climb. I had discovered on my Mt Herbert training run that being sensible and walking the really steep stuff right from early on allowed you to save more exertion than you might have thought possible for the later sections of a run several hours later. The conditions meant that you couldn’t really run this stuff anyway as there was plenty of snow and some ice to be wary of. It was nice to pass a few people during this fast hike and I thought I may have been pushing it a little but I felt pretty good and stuck with it. Nearly an hour and a half to the summit, but things were going pretty well. It was nice to move the legs a bit faster across the top but the snow didn’t make it that easy. Soon enough I was pointing downhill and taking some careful steps again.

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Goin’ up.

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Someone else’s summit photo.

The descent towards Wharfedale Hut was nice in the upper section but the lower part was really steep. My quads were taking a pounding like I don’t think I’ve felt much before. Also, in my mind was the realisation that this would be the start of the third big climb and the “don’t be a wimp” section.

At the track junction I passed the third Oxford SAR team and was pleased to be treated to some gentle undulation before the second climb up to Black Hill Hut. This climb went well for me and I passed some more people. I was feeling good and decided to be a bit more aggressive with this part of the run, even though I knew there was a long way to go. I was grinding away pretty happily and the only issue was that I knew I would eventually get too hot for the light fleece I had been wearing from the start. It was a nice day overhead and the sun was starting to heat up. I was going well and didn’t really want to stop but fortunately as I climbed higher it started to cool a bit and once I was back into the snow there was no problem. There was a short out and back section from the top of the loop to the Black Hill Hut. I was excited to see a few people pass in the opposite direction as they were not too far ahead and amongst them was one of the joint female winners from the Three Peaks race in Dunedin. I thought maybe I’m not doing too badly. Once at the hut I took a couple of jet planes and collected a card as instructed. It had a little star on it and said something encouraging that included the words “you are half way to becoming a legend”. At the half way point I was feeling good.

The descent to complete the Black Hill loop part of the course felt quite long and included some nice flattish undulation and some rather steep stuff. I was navigating the steeper stuff quite well and passed a couple more people on this section. Overtaking on downhill sections is a bit of a boost for me since I’m not typically very fast downhill. On the lower part of the loop it was clear that I would need to stop to stow the fleece as the sun was not letting up, despite the relatively low temperatures. Two stops on this part of the course, one to stow the fleece, swap to my second muesli bar bag and go number one, then one to refill my hydration reservoir, I think were my two longest stops in the event, which felt like a success and like I had judged my pre-race nutrition well. Back to the Oxford SAR team at the end of the loop and I treated myself to a small cup of cola and 3 jet planes. One more big climb to come. I was at about 4 hours 40 now.

OK. It was the last climb. The “don’t be an idiot” / “don’t be a wimp” cross over point. But it was really steep! Just keeping the legs moving at a reasonable turnover was quite punishing. I had a snickers bar, but I wanted to be smart with it. I think I waited to get to 5 hours before starting it, and each bite was maybe 10 minutes apart. I could barely see the competitor in front of me on and off as the track weaved through the trees. I wanted to catch up and I was making a consistent pace. She wasn’t getting any closer. Somewhere around here I remember a sign that said “You are NOT almost there”. It had a smiley face too. To be honest, I didn’t really think I was almost there, but something about seeing a sign pointing it out almost made you sigh. Got to laugh. Back up into the snow, but I didn’t need the fleece now. The sun was nice and I was working hard. It was nice to see the Oxford SAR team at the next junction and I was about to absent-mindedly follow the track that seemed to point uphill at that particular place. Fortunately they pointed me in the right direction. This track was losing elevation, but I knew it would come back. A few more slippery bits and I was heading along the top. The final climb was just about over and I was looking forward to unleashing a bit on the final descent back to Cooper’s Creek.

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A bit of fun.

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The one photo I did take.

Passing an Oxford SAR team for the final time, I started to head back down the mountain. Any thoughts of “unleashing” were put on hold somewhat by the conditions. And by somewhat I mean quite a bit. My shoes were pretty new and pretty grippy, but that doesn’t help much with ice. It was feeling like a pretty tame end to an epic day. Eventually I was down low enough to enjoy sliding around in a bit of mud. I didn’t fancy my chances of catching any more competitors but it was a little gutting to hear someone closing in on me. But I was in luck. Shortly after passing me, he noted that no one wants to get passed in the final couple of ks and suggested that we finish the race together. This was really kind and I enjoyed chatting as we closed out the last section of the event together.

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Race winner Britta Clark at the finish line. Couldn’t find any photos of me at the finish (but I did finish).

Upon crossing the line one of the volunteers set out a couple of chairs for us, and offered some rline electrolyte drink (the blueberry one tasted great) and commented that we looked far too good to have just completed the event. It was a lovely reception. The farmbake cookies were nice (and I took a bag home as there was heaps left) and complemented my chocolate milk well. After that I used my food vouchers to get a bacon sandwich, some chips and a soft drink from the Lions caravan. Hanging around at the finish line I had a chat with Sia, who finished just ahead of me (and was on the winning team at Godzone 2016!), and the race organiser Kerry, as well as the winner Brita. Everyone at these events is awesome and so nice. I also won a spot prize for a 60 minute massage at BodyCentral in Christchurch. This will be a first for me. I’ve booked it in for Wednesday, and I’m sure it will be amazing.

My final time was 7:18. This was good enough for 9th equal, and the winning time was 6:11. Of the 33 starters, 7 missed the cut off time to finish the Black Hill loop (7 hours) or didn’t  finish for other reasons. This was a truly epic event! I am so happy that I decided to go for it and stoked with how the day went for me.

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A pretty epic elevation profile.

It was such a huge mental build up, personally. I had an interest in the event for some time after a friend mentioned it, but out of respect for how serious a task it is, I didn’t want to sign up unless I got a great build up. The Run Canterbury group has been a lot of fun and helped to keep me focussed with pack runs during the week, while I planned trail missions for the weekends. Some short-lived tendon issues after a Wicked Rogaines event made for a nervous first few weeks in the programme, but some rest and a good run at the Three Peaks race in Dunedin put me back on track and set me up for some big Port Hills runs. The most serious of these was a loop from Diamond Harbour up Mt Herbert and around via Packhorse, Gebbie’s Pass, Sign of the Bellbird and Sign of the Kiwi to Rapaki and down. This turned out to be around marathon length and somewhere north of 2000 metres of elevation gain. Still a long way off Oxford, but I would rate this run as great training before the Oxford event. The high potential for a route change in the days leading up to the event due to the weather was another cause of stress for me as I was mad keen to get a run at the full course. Funny how much pressure you can create for yourself! In the end, everything turned out awesomely.

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Enjoying my custom Oxford Odyssey thir on a cold evening in Christchurch as I write about my adventure.

Disclaimer: most of the photos from the course were not taken by me and are from Christopher Innes Photography and various legends who took on the event. Many thanks!

Torres del Paine (‘Pine-aye’, the only pain is what you create)

Pre-hike

It had been a long time since I went tramping. I had plenty of experience from family trips as a youngster, though annoyingly my memories of these are a bit patchy as I was quite young. This was definitely my first solo multiday hiking trip. It would be interesting to have to organise everything myself and make sure I was well prepared. I had heard that Patagonia was not so forgiving. I had brought more warm clothes with me than I could really imaging needing, but better to be on the safe side. The food was an interesting selection. I went with muesli flavoured with nesquik powder for breakfast, rolls with cheese and salami for lunch, and pasta with soup sachets and frozen vege and tuna for dinner. For snacks I had a nice array of nuts and dried fruits from Fruta Seca, a bit of a classic for hikers departing from Puerto Natales, Snickers, some berry chocolate and a 10 pack of ‘Frac Cake’, which I had never tried. I was maybe the only person to not realise immediately that they might not travel well.

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Somewhere in Puerto Natales

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A strange array of edibles

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Readers may need this. Unfortunately it’s not the same as the one I’ve been referring to while writing…

17 Jan.

Bus: Puerto Natales – Las Torres (Camping Central)

Hike: Las Torres (Camping Central) – Base de las Torres lookout – Las Torres (Camping Central)

Distance: 18.8 km (Light bag)

It was an early start from the hostel to get one of the morning buses from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park. It is around 2 hours to reach the ‘Laguna Amarga entrance and Ranger station’ where everyone has to disembark the bus and join the queue to fill out your park entry form, pay a fee of around 45NZD and watch a short safety and etiquette video. To get to Las Torres, I collected my gear from the bus and caught a smaller shuttle bus down the road about 5km to one of the entry points for the walking trails. There’s a hotel here but I had opted for the basic campsite instead. Not so basic by NZ standards when you consider that there are flush toilets and showers with hot water available at certain times of day.

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View from the campsite

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Me inside a small but adequate tent

I set up the one man tent I had rented in Puerto Natales and packed a day bag for the hike up to the towers lookout. I was fortunate to have good weather for this hike and made great time (though I didn’t keep a track on this day), which would be a theme for my entire TdP experience. It really is a busy place and there were plenty of people to pass. I enjoyed the climb and I was really getting into the trekking poles to push myself along, inspired by seeing a guy going nuts with them in a vertical kilometre race video. My technique: plant the poles a decent way in front and move both sides at the same time, pushing quite hard to work your arms out (cause they’re not doing much otherwise). I was a fucking train. The last push up to the lookout is rather steep but I was really cranking into it now. I got a shout of ‘good tempo bro’ from a friendly passer-by on my way up. Upon reaching the lookout at the base of the towers, it really is beautiful. You know you are in a special place, even if you are not so isolated due to the high volume of visitors. Also, it was a real ‘selfie-zone’.

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A classic view of the towers

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Me looking at the towers

After getting back to camp I still had some daylight to burn so I wandered around the campsite a bit and also went to have a look at the ‘eco-camp’ that a friend had sent me a link about before my trip. It looked really cool but it’s expensive and coming all the way to Patagonia and then living in that kind of flash space really seems a bit off to me. “Yes, you did hear me correctly. I definitely want to travel to one of the most wild, untouched, beautiful landscapes on earth, but I need to stay in fancy accommodation while I’m there…” Not for me, I thought to myself, after enjoying a hot shower. (I swear, it’s there even with the cheapest camping option!)

18 Jan.

Las Torres (Camping Central) – Italiano – Britanico lookout – Italiano – Las Torres (Camping Central)

Distance: 44 km (Light bag)

Time: Map – 10 hours one way, Actual – 11.5 hours return

A bit of drama overnight. I awoke to some flooding in one corner of the tent and couldn’t understand what had happened. I was dreaming up strange scenarios and becoming suspicious of a prank by some fellow hikers as I repositioned things and got back to sleep. The cold light of day helped me to finally realise that my hydration reservoir has slowly emptied into the tent. It wasn’t an issue with the ‘lifetime guarantee’ camelback, I had trapped the mouthpiece under a bag or something I was lying on and it had emptied out onto the tent floor, eventually creating a significant puddle. The first order of the day was then to empty the tent, quickly air it out a bit and set everything up again before starting out on an ambitious day trip.

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An early riser inspecting my damp sleeping mat

I was a bit anxious to only be getting away at 9AM. Despite the ample daylight in summer this far south, what I had planned was apparently a 10 hour journey each way. Of course you can count on being a fair bit quicker than the suggested times if you are in good shape and just carrying a day bag, but was this asking a bit much on Day 2? Apparently not.

I made great time all the way around to Campimento Italiano and was feeling pretty good. It’s a nice route along beside Nordernskjold Lake. I asked the ranger if the route up to Britanico lookout was open, as I heard from a girl in Punta Arenas who had just been there that it was closed due to crazy winds some days, including when she was there. There was no issue but the weather was not looking great. The climb to Britanico is pretty steep and it was really mucky under foot in some places so the prospect of a tough, tricky climb up the valley to get a clouded view was not that appealing, but not unpleasant enough of course. I was definitely game. Again, I was a pro with the trekking poles and was probably the fastest SOB there. It was certainly a low point of the day struggling up the valley after a hot streak in the morning. I was still outbound at this stage so it was uncomfortable to be thinking negative. After popping out into the Britanico viewpoint area all was well. This was really a beautiful spot and in a more unexpected way, as it certainly doesn’t get the chorus of praise that the much hyped towers lookout does. The castle-esque peaks were a lovely surprise and made a tough day (only half done) worthwhile.

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On the way to Campimento Italiano

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A sample of Britanico beauty. Better looking than a budget camera can possibly convey

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Must be time to head back

On the way back down I stopped at the best view point for the glacier. It is quite common if you hang around for a while to hear a thunderous crash and look over to see a chunk of the glacier fall into the valley. I waited patiently with my camera ready to record but it was not to be, and standing in an exposed opening with the reality that I was little over half way through the day I moved on sans the perfect shot.

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A rather more stable glacier than one would have liked

I was inbound now and after navigating the tricky descent back down to Italiano it was a ‘pleasantly’ undulating route back to Las Torres and the cosy tent. I was making decent time but I was pretty tired and ‘you’re not there until you’re there’ apparently. I had eaten all of my food and by the time I passed back by Los Cuernos Lodge I was ready to make the most of the unique luxuries present in this popular Patagonia hiking park. I was put in a sour mood by a dull wait in the queue behind people registering for the cooked dinner at the lodge or getting shampoo or checking the food items for something dairy-free or vegan or whatever it was. All of these matters seemed trivial compared to my desire for a snickers bar. I (finally) got the snickers bar, and some peanut m&ms for good measure, and got back outside to put my trail runners back on and get going. The ‘sustinence’ went down well and I was back on a roll. I got my second wind and was back to making outrageous time. I was tired but just kept cranking and didn’t need to stop (much). I passed some people I had seen not far above Italiano who were heading to Las Torres, having met them in Puerto Natales initially before they set off on their own W circuit expedition starting from the other end. Anyway, I was not expecting to beat them back to Las Torres but I tore past them and kept going. They did have big bags, but whatever, I was clearly in charge. When I got back to Las Torres at 8:30PM after 11.5 hours out and about I realised that despite being so tired, I had made even better time coming back from Los Cuernos than I did with my fresh legs in the morning heading the other way. It seemed impossible. What a machine. The trekking poles really become a part of you. It was so satisfying to plan a really ambitious day you weren’t entirely sure about, get an unfortunate late start, and then crush it anyway. It probably went too well to be type 2 fun.

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(Partly) Wild horses couldn’t drag me away

19 Jan.

Las Torres (Camping Central) – Grey Lodge and camping zone (Camping Grey)

Distance: 35.1 km (Heavy bags)

Time: Map – 13 hours, Actual – 9 hours

This was the big day. Not quite the same kilometerage (definitely a word) as the epic day trip the day before, but I had to carry all of my gear from one end of ‘the W’ to the other! This situation arose due the strict booking system that has only been in effect for a couple of years in the national park. There are some free campsites but they also require a reservation. There weren’t any available for any of the nights I would be there so I had to look at the paid options. It wasn’t exactly expensive but ‘Camping Grey’ had very limited availability so I would need to start at the Torres end and I initially only got one night at ‘Camping Grey’. Fortunately another night opened up, thanks to much rechecking of the booking websites after my initial booking, so I could have two nights at each end of the W. ‘Camping Central’ is pretty big so I did have the pick of the nights there. For anyone looking at their own trip to Torres del Paine I would recommend booking your campsites as far in advance as possible because I think I was a bit of an exception to be able to sort something at such short notice, about 2 weeks out, and because I backed myself to have some big days I was able to make it work. Anyway, I packed up as best I could and set off for a long, heavy day. More on the packing: I had two bags with me, a 65L pack and a 34L day bag. I wasn’t able to get everything into the big pack so I wore the smaller bag on my front and used it to keep my reservoir, food and warm clothes handy. It wasn’t the setup that big days are made of but I was up for it.

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Why aren’t these photos more flattering? At least the background always looks good

After the epic day prior, I wasn’t breaking new ground until after Italiano. I made insane time up to here and felt great. The next stretch to Paine Grande is the only section of the circuit rated as easy and the weather was bringing the fun. It was nice out! Ironically this section was where I started to feel more impatient and a bit tired. I had made great time to date so there was no excuse to not relax a bit and enjoy the trip past Skottsberg lake before a break at Paine Grande. This is the point where I would be taking the Catamaran on my way out in 2 days. I had heard at the park entry point that there had been a problem with the regular boat and a much smaller one was in use at the moment, meaning that I could potentially not make it out as planned so I was keen to ask the ranger at Paine Grande about the situation. I asked about the chances of getting left behand and he said the boat took 90 passengers so relax. He was whittling wood as we spoke and seemed to embody the calm nature of the place rather well. I assumed this meant the normal boat was back in use so no worries.

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Is this one any better?

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Paine Grande at range

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Paine Grande up close

Continuing on to Grey I was on the last leg for the day, heading up a valley into an exposed area next to Lake Grey, which sits below the extremely large Grey Glacier. The view of the glacier got better and better as I approached the campsite, it really is big. I made good time all day but as I got really close to the camp I started to really break down a bit and feel the result of much rubbing on one heel and some strain through both achilles. Luckily tomorrow I didn’t need to take any bags anywhere, but I did have an ice hike to look forward to in the afternoon! I was so grateful that the weather had held up all day and I was able to set up a dry tent again. Someone had switched Patagonia to easy mode.

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You’re never particularly alone in Torres del Paine

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A rather convenient Mirador to observe Grey Lake and Glacier

I had made a reservation for dinner at the refugio as a treat after a tough day, and to lighten the load by whatever one meal weighs. I was sat awkwardly by myself waiting for the food (classic) but luckily there were two friendly couples at the table, one from Holland and one from Germany. There was a soup entre (I ate quite a lot of the basket of bread that was at the table too), a well-balanced looking main of rice, vege and beef, and some dessert that was very tasty but really wasn’t Patagonia sized. Later I enjoyed the ridiculous luxury of being able to buy a Twix and some Trition biscuits next to a huge glacier. Cheap Oreo-type biscuits are one of my real weaknesses while away, and I had already established the Tritons as a worthy choice earlier in my Chilean holiday.

20 Jan.

Grey Lodge and camping zone (Camping Grey)

I enjoyed a late start since I wasn’t really going anywhere. The cooking room was fairly busy when I went to prepare my muesli and nesquik breakfast. Had a chat with a guy who works on Nuclear subs in San Diego. This teased my desire to make the most of cheap flights to LA some time. The morning wasn’t warm but I enjoyed a hot chocolate, some biscuits and a read of ‘In Patagonia’. How appropriate. He constantly meets the strangest / most interesting people in the book, which is all over the place. The book is entertaining but not always easy going. That’s a brief summary from someone who has only read 49 pages. I may return to Patagonia again before I finish reading it haha.

The ice hike was booked for the afternoon and I went to the ‘Bigfoot Patagonia’ HQ to check it out. Unfortunately the trip was cancelled that day due to an issue with the boat. I was offered the option to change to the morning group the next day. This was my departure day from the park and I wasn’t too keen to get the late bus out as I was catching a bus from Puerto Natales back down to Punta Arenas to catch a flight the next day. I hadn’t paid yet and I took the afternoon to decide. I went for it (seems like the obvious option now, but I’m not all that adaptable all the time so I wasn’t sure). The official advice on catching the catamaran out had been ‘relax’. I decided to relax and lock it in for the next morning. There wasn’t too far to hike to the catamaran afterwards and I would have heaps of time before the late bus so it seemed all gravy. As a bonus, freeing up the afternoon allowed me to wander part way up towards Paso (that section is usually one way) and check out a couple of swings bridges with great views over the glacier. My feet were doing OK and there were no heavy bags this time so it went well.

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Quite a good swing bridge

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Glacier for miles…

A real treat of staying at Grey was the awesome spot right in front of the glacier where you could sit and look at the mass of ice. It was conveniently sized to put life in perspective.

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Beautiful nature

It was good to have a restful day after the two epic days before. I had plenty of time to relax and notice hours passing without thinking about anything in particular. I seem to have been developing this ability lately. Flight mode and minimum screen brightness allowed for some music while chilling, and left plenty of battery for the bus trip out.

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Blurry tent photo of biscuits and music

21 Jan.

Hike: Grey Lodge and camping zone (Camping Grey) – Paine Grande

Distance: 11 km (Heavy bags)

Time: Map – 3.5 hours, Actual – ??

Catamaran: Paine Grande – Pudeto

Bus: Pudeto – Puerto Natales

It was departure day from the park. A dry morning was great for the final packing and I was off for my ice hike excursion. First we took a boat out across Grey Lake to La Isla. From here we climbed over the rocky island for the better part of an hour to get to the edge of the glacier.

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Arrival at La Isla

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A glacier awaits

At this point we stopped and got out the crampons, which the guides fitted. I was wearing the TR7 trail runners that had been fantastic all hike but the lack of support around the ankle made for some very uncomfortable moments on the ice. You really need to be wearing boots for best use. We hadn’t had our footwear inspected before this point and I was told that these shoes are not ideal and that I would know for next time. I was glad to not be turned around. We made our way up onto the ice in a zigzag, keeping the ice axe on the uphill side for stability. It was a strange experience wearing crampons for the first time and I was sure to really try to dig them in with each step. Any steep descents were pretty awkward and uncomfortable and of course sidling was pretty lame with ankles exposed to the metal. In any case it was a really cool trip and we wandered around checking out a couple of features on the ice and taking a lot of photos.

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Me on the ice

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Diving was not included

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Plenty more ice

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Having fun. I didn’t leave the ice axe behind, don’t worry

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I’m on a boat

It was a great experience and the small group with 3 guides was a pretty good ratio. After we made it back to the edge of the glacier I was much relieved to remove the crampons and enjoy the freedom of the trail runners once more. After a boat trip back to the Bigfoot HQ it was all over.

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No idea what I’m doing with those

I had one of my two (increasingly stale) rolls for the day at Camping Grey and set off again with the two bags, which packed up a bit better this time due to the lack of food and a bit of experience. This was the shortest hiking day and I thought I had lots of time since I could now only make the later of the 2 daily bus departures from Pudeto anyway, and there would be several catamaran trips running during the day that would get me there in time (right?). I was feeling pretty good and knowing you’re nearly done it’s hard to slow down too much. I was cruising along taking a last few ‘panic photos’ and then had a new experience for my time on the trail. I couldn’t really recall noticing any faster hikers than me prior to this day, but it happened. I noticed that I was taking a long time to catch up to and overtake a fit looking female hiker. I eventually did pass but later when I stopped to enjoy a mirador it wasn’t long before she came by and I never caught back up despite leaving again shortly after. She was less encumbered, but I was still impressed.

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‘Can’t catch back up’ Mirador. Look familiar?

It was a nice feeling coming down the last valley to Paine Grande, the departure point for the catamaran. I remember thinking that life really is good. I’ve got the opportunity to travel to attend a huge conference, and the flexibility to stay around and enjoy exploring a foreign land for a few weeks. I’m not in a hurry to give this lifestyle up and I really don’t need any more money to be happy. Life is pretty well devoid of adversity. I don’t feel like working too hard, so I won’t. Maybe I could stop worrying about anything, and just be happy.

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It’s just down here

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This is where the catamaran comes, right?

When I got to Paine Grande I checked in with the ranger about the catamaran and he advised going directly to the jetty now, as there was one more departure for the day and the boat would only carry 16 people. This meant that not only was the usual, much larger, boat not running, but they were also not running the full normal schedule of departures. When I got to the jetty I was about the 8th person there so all good, but the boat was full when we left and I could see how this could have easily gone differently haha. Back at Pudeto I treated myself to a Cola and awaited the late bus. There are several bus companies that run the service and they leave at similar times, making two runs a day. I was booked with the ‘Buses Gomez’ company so I kept an eye out for that particular bus. As time passed, some buses came and went and there was just one bus left as we approached the scheduled departure time. It was not a ‘Buses Gomez’ bus. I had been there for an hour or so, so I knew it hadn’t just gone a few minutes early or anything, but I was still anxious. I met a couple of people who were booked with the same service and who were also anxious and contemplating paying again just to get on the only bus in sight. Eventually a couple more buses pulled up and one of them was a Gomez! Torres del Paine was really making me sweat until the last minute with it’s unreliable catamaran and pretty casual buses.

Arriving back at Puerto Natales around sunset, I still wasn’t done for the day. I needed to return my hired gear and sort myself out with a nice meal and get ready to leave early the next morning. After returning the gear to ‘Erattic Rock’ and ‘Chumango hostel’ I headed back to my hostel and enquired about the opening hours a great sandwich place I had experienced before entering the park. It was time for another ‘Completo’ at Masay. There was even a mini-market still open to provide me with a fanta. Pretty good ending. I collected the stuff I’d left with the staff during my hike and repacked everything ready for the bus to Punta Arenas and flight to Puerto Montt the next day.

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Not my photo, but it’s something like this. They are very generous with the Avo