The rock slide happened so fast I didn’t have time to think. One second I was upright, and the next I was sliding over a drop-off toward sharp scree below me. It wasn’t that far, but it was far enough to mess me up if I kept going. I cried out and instinctively grabbed a small plant growing between the rocks, the only thing not moving. It held. I dangled there as rocks slid past me, bouncing off my hip and legs. I arched away from the path of one last big rock, but it bounced off my shin on its way down. Once the movement had settled, I looked down to see my friend Caleb just below me. He’d heard me and thankfully ran around to make sure I was ok. I tentatively found a foothold and took a look at my legs. They were scraped up and I had a massive apple-sized contusion on my shin, but I was just fine. Exhale.
I slowly down-climbed onto flatter ground and tried to shake it off. Caleb ran ahead to chat with a few hikers who had seen me fall. He described where we had come from and what we were doing and one of them said, “you guys are f*$#ing crazy!”
As Caleb poked at my leg (he’s a trained medic) to make sure it wasn’t broken, I popped an ibuprofen and thought to myself “maybe we really are.” It was approaching sunset, we had crossed three major mountain passes and we were still far from finished. One look at the fading light on the still-massive mountains and technical terrain around us made me shiver. The hard part was just beginning.
But let’s back up a few steps.
The Three Passes Route crosses the New Zealand’s Southern Alps in 50 rugged alpine kilometres. Starting from the Waimakariri River, near Christchurch, the route crosses Harman, Whitehorn, and Browning Passes and finishes on the West Coast near Hokitika. It is steep, technical, usually snow-covered and not really runnable. Most trampers and climbers take a good five days to cross the Alps. The route travels through several known avalanche paths and the year-round snow and glaciers requires axes and crampons. But that’s not all. The numerous major river crossings make it dangerous any time of year.
I didn’t know any of this when Caleb asked me to join him in a single-day attempt of the route. All he had to say was 50 km’s in the mountains of Arthur’s Pass National Park for me to be interested. I needed a big run, I was itching for something epic, and here was someone (thankfully with loads of climbing, running, and navigation experience) pitching something even bigger than I could dream up on my own. It sounded crazy. It was crazy. Whelp, we’d do our homework and figure it out.
As luck would have it, a friend of Caleb’s had just finished Three Passes and shared the happy news that it was almost entirely snow free and that the rivers were low.
“That’s great news,” I said, “when should we go?”
“Well…what are you up to this weekend?”
What else was I going to do this weekend anyway? Train on the same trails I always did? I knew we had a stellar weather window, which is rare for Arthur’s Pass.
“Oh shit!” Caleb later told me he thought, “now we actually have to do it.”
I was excited by the element of the unknown with this route. It was somewhere completely new to explore, and I had no idea how long it would take us. Caleb knew of one person who had completed the Three Passes in 22 hours, but that was all we had to go by. From my years of running trail and mountain ultramarathons, I knew that 50 km’s can take anywhere from 5 to 15 hours, depending on the terrain and elevation gain. I suspected Three Passes would be on the upper end of that, but neither of us were expecting the truly massive day it turned out to be.
That massive day began at 4:30 am on the Waimakariri River. It was a very cold, very clear morning. Stars studded the black sky, and sunrise was still a few hours away. The hush of the mountains filled me with both a sense of calm and excitement. We drove to the trail head, did a final gear check, and set off on what would turn out to be the only few runnable kilometres of the day. We happily chatted, giddy about the day ahead, both feeling great.
I got butterflies in my stomach when I could make out the inky outlines of massive mountains in the darkness around us. As we crossed and recrossed the Waimak, following it up into the mountains, we tried to watch the rocky terrain underfoot in the tiny orbs of our headlamps instead of ogling moonlight-bathed glaciers atop faraway peaks.
We reached Carrington Hut in a couple cruisy hours and chatted to the hikers inside while we put on warmer gear to head up toward Harman Pass. As soon as Caleb stepped outside the hut, I got the usual “talking to” by one of the older male trampers.
“You’re just carrying a day pack?”
“You have a beacon young lady?”
“Nope. Bye!” Fair enough, he wouldn’t want to see an underprepared runner scraped off the side of a mountain, but the thinly veiled sexism and condescension in his tone was something I’m growing weary of amongst the “old guard”. Caleb hadn’t gotten quizzed, and he was clearly carrying no more gear than me. Instead of bothering trying to prove my toughness or preparedness to the old codger, I made my exit to carry on frolicking in the mountains in my own style.
The Tapoiti River is where the real fun began. We zig-zagged up the steep river gorge, scrambling our way upwards over boulders and across the icy water until the views really opened up. Impossibly beautiful waterfalls laced the cliffs beside us, and I half expected to see goddam unicorns any minute. The day was so perfect.
The climbing was invigorating and my legs felt great. Before I knew it, we were standing atop Harman Pass, laughing at how spectacular it all was. “YYEEEEWWWW!!” Giant boulders surrounded serene glittering tarns. Pinky-white rock faces pierced the sky. Two chamois ran straight up a cliff just to our left, and they perched above us and watched as we skipped over boulders toward Whitehorn Pass, which was only a few kilometres further up a scree field.
Once we reached Whitehorn Pass, I knew we were in for a very big day, not just a kind-of big day. The steepness, scale and ruggedness of the terrain sank in. There were no runnable trails to follow. It was the first time I questioned whether we’d make it to Hokitika for sunset and more importantly, for dinner. But this realization didn’t dampen my happiness or sense of awe. We had headlamps, plenty of food, and nowhere better to be.
We took our first break of the day and sat on a rock atop Whitehorn Pass, snacking on peanut butter tortillas, taking in the dramatic view of the Cronin Glacier and Mt Rosamond looming above us. I peeked over the edge of our rock and saw an incredibly steep scree field below. “Whoa.” I said.
“Don’t worry, there’ll be a way down.” Caleb’s confidence was reassuring, and he was right, there was a safe route down from the pass to Cronin Stream. It wasn’t runnable or easy, but it was doable.
The next several kilometres down the rocky river valley to Park Morpeth Hut seemed to drag on for days. Following the rocky stream was tougher than it seemed, with its loose boulders, sharp rocks and slippery footing. I loved it at first, but after a while I felt slow, awkward and wobbly. I felt on the verge of taking a tumble any minute, and it wore me down mentally. So I tried to relax and follow Caleb’s route as best I could, focusing on finding his wet footprints on the dry white rock. Only his legs are twice as long as mine, so I high-stepped and leapt my way along as best I could.
When we finally reached the flatter expanse of the Wilberforce River and glimpsed our route up to Browning Pass, we both stopped in our tracks and I laughed. The big climb up to the pass looked nearly vertical, and the switchbacks etched into its face looked impossible. “Really?”
“Don’t worry, there’ll be a way up”, Caleb smiled. I knew that slopes can look a lot steeper in the distance, so I chose to believe him.
Browning Pass turned out to be a really enjoyable climb. It was the first time all day I was able to get into a rhythm, and it was a treat to feel more surefooted and competent again. It felt SO good to have my feet on dirt for a while, instead of sharp loose, slimy rocks. Beyond that, the views were getting even bigger and even better. I was looking forward to seeing Lake Browning on what I knew would be a very beautiful alpine plateau. We chatted as we climbed up and were both floored when we reached the summit.
Each pass was more beautiful than the last, and Browning was no exception. I wanted to strip off my sweaty running gears and jump into the cool blue inviting water of this pristine alpine lake. But instead, I broke into a trot toward our final big descent of the day.
I’d been hoping for a bit of single track to stretch out my legs and open up my stride, but this descent was every bit as technical as the last. And the valleys leading to our end point were massive. We still had a very long way to go.
I shoved these thoughts aside and focused on the beauty of my surroundings, this big, wild and untouched backcountry. Golden grass glowed in the long autumn light. Silvery rivers threaded through the valleys like necklaces. Dense West Coast bush cloaked steep mountain faces. Then BAM! The rock-slide.
We’re now back to where we started. Thankfully, beyond the discomfort of getting a little scraped and bruised, I could still run and walk, and I knew we had better get a move on. The less of this route we had to cover in the dark, the better.
The next 20 or so kilometres are when I started calling this route “the gift that keeps on giving”. It didn’t get any easier as we moved out of the high country into the Styx River Valley toward our end point at Lake Kanerie. As I got a taste of this terrain, let’s just say that I understood why it happened to be named after the mythological river that leads to the darkness of the Underworld.
West Coast bush is dense, boggy, and impenetrable, even along a “track”. We ran a few steps, bush-bashed, ran a few more steps, waded through bogs, and made our way through treacherously steep and slimy river gorges that ripped through the track every few hundred meters.
Once it got dark, Caleb’s nav skills shone. I had to trust him completely, because my own skills are rudimentary. I can read a topo map and would have been able to follow the Styx River back to civilization, but on my own I’d have no doubt ended up adding demoralizing distance to an already long route. But Caleb sussed our way around river bends and grassy bogs straight to the final hut of the day.
The scene inside Grassy Flat Hut was heartbreakingly warm and inviting. Cheerful friendly women ate, drank, and laughed around a wood burning stove. I pawed at the window longingly. Not really. Well maybe mentally I did. As much as I wanted to join that lovely scene and call it a day, I wanted to finish the route even more. When they saw us, a look of surprise and confusion crossed their faces. We were dressed in running clothes, looking hungry, going halvises on a gel at 9:30pm in the middle of nowhere. WTF?
“Where did you guys come from?”
Confused silence. “Wait, what? Why…?”
“I’m not sure anymore.”
We could have stopped there for the day. God knows it would have been the smarter and more enjoyable thing to do. But the nameless, unrelenting impulse of necessity was moving us forward. So we got our bearings and carried on. Trying to keep the morale high and make conversation, Caleb asked “What’s your favourite movie?”
My mind was entirely blank. I honestly didn’t know. I couldn’t come up with any movie, let alone my favourite. “What’s a movie?” I asked. We both cracked up and I said I’d probably be able to answer once I’d had a meal. We were pretty low on food and I most definitely had dead-brain, a state that happens late in a big run when you’re not thinking about anything at all, just putting one foot in front of the other, hoping for the best.
Those last few kilometres were much tougher than expected. There were a few short stretches of runnable trail, but for most of it we were crossing fast-moving streams, bush-bashing on steep slopes where numerous slips led to treacherous detours, and the slimiest boulders of the day had to be safely traversed. In the dark. I was mentally tired, hungry, and my leg was throbbing, but the necessity of having to focus pushed all that aside.
Then finally, after 18 hours of relentless forward progress, we found ourselves at Lake Kanerie. I was so excited to see Caleb’s truck I embraced it and kissed its dusty bumper. My dry clothes, a cold beer and a bag of chips were inside. We were done. It didn’t even matter to me that it was 10:30 at night and that we’d probably get no dinner because everything in Hokitika was closed. I was so happy. It had been one of the most beautiful and challenging days I could remember. We hugged it out and agreed that it had been a bloody great adventure.
What we had done began to sink in. We had safely crossed three mountain passes in one day, across the majestical Southern Alps, chasing the sun and perhaps becoming the fastest lucky fools to have done so.