Chasing the Sun: Three Passes in a Day

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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.

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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.

“I’m in.”

“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?”

“Yep.”

“You have a beacon young lady?”

“Yep.”

“Sat phone?”

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

“Arthur’s Pass.”

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.

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Queen Charlotte Ultra Race Report

 

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As the dust begins to settle from the the massive earthquake that struck near my New Zealand home and the tragic loss of a running friend in a motor vehicle accident, I have the space to pause and reflect on a bright spot of the last week: the 71km Queen Charlotte Ultramarathon. A few days before the quake struck, I joined a handful of other runners in this low-key unofficial race in the Marlborough Sounds. In what turned out to be a truly adventurous and testing day, I felt strong in an ultra for the first time in over a year and was able to set a new women’s FKT (fastest known time) and women’s course record for Queen Charlotte.

For those 9 hours and 2 minutes of running, I took in the rugged beauty of the Marlborough Sounds, reflected on the bright spirit of the friend our community had lost, and found a new steadiness I hadn’t felt before. Instead of feeling tossed around by the highs and lows, by the pain and exhilaration that characterize a trail ultramarathon, I felt like the captain of my own ship for the first time in a long time – steering myself safely through the harsh elements, physical pain, and self-doubt that swirled and crashed like the sea below me.

But let’s start at the beginning.

I woke up on race day to the sound of torrential rain hammering against the large windows of my quaint Picton Hotel room. It was 4:30 am and pitch dark. I was meant to get on a boat with a handful of other brave (or foolhardy) souls to be dropped at Ship Cove – a dock at the far end of the Queen Charlotte Track. In this self-supported low-key event, we were responsible for getting ourselves safely to Anakiwa, a small town 71 trail kilometres south of Ship Cove. Due to heavy rainfall in the week leading up to the event, the track would likely be slippery, muddy and mostly underwater.

“What were we thinking?!”, I did have a moment of doubt as we boarded the Beachcomber motor boat in driving rain. The Queen Charlotte Sound looked rough and foreboding. Once we were underway, the bow crashed and lifted jarringly over icy grey waves, and dawn didn’t do much to lighten the sky. But we chatted with the dauntless enthusiasm and chuckling irony that characterises our breed of ultrarunner  and were in high spirits despite the massive low pressure system that swirled around us.

Just before docking at ship cove, I saw a pod of dolphins playfully leaping not far from our boat. The superstitious part of me that believes in omens (only the good ones, of course) was delighted and I knew it would be a good day.

At 6:33am, the eight of us unceremoniously hopped off the dock, into the rain and onto the trail. We got to work on the first of countless steep muddy climbs and settled into a brisk pace that would warm us up quickly. I tried not to think about how many hours I would be wet and muddy, or about how many kilometres lay ahead and instead enjoyed the banter with my fellow runners as we eased into the day.

Just as I was starting to feel strong and shake off some early-race sluggishness, I felt a sharp jabbing pain on my chest and cried out. A wasp flew off. The little bugger has crawled under my running pack strap and stung me twice, right on the boob! I’m thankfully not allergic to wasps, but I knew it would swell considerably. “Get back here and sting the other one you little asshole!” All I could do was laugh, ignore the stinging, and carry on.

The next 50 kilometres felt very different from previous trail ultras. Instead of feeling slowly ground down and demoralised as the kilometres stacked up, the opposite happened. I started to come to life as it got more difficult. I shook off some of the heaviness of the last week as I focused on the task at hand. It felt so good to be out on the trails, surrounded by the majesty of the Marlborough Sounds, with nothing to do but run. My stride opened up as my competitive feisty side woke up and I got to work on the long technical downhill ahead of me.

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Settling into a rhythm, I reflected on the wonderful influence our friend Steve had had on everyone he met. His infectious smile, adventurous spirit and commitment to the sport made him a cornerstone of the growing trail running community in New Zealand. I counted myself lucky to have known him, one of those rare gems who always leaves a place brighter than it was before.

At that point, I reached a section of the course where several groups of hardy trampers slowly made their way toward the nearest shelter. A few of them cheered me on and called out “good running!”, and it made me smile. I was feeling really good and the cheers after so many hours of solo running were a welcome boost. I tried to enjoy it because I knew the pain would catch up to me eventually.

And catch me it did. At the 60km mark, it hit me like a cold hard wave. I peeked at my watch for the first time in a long time and saw that it was just after 2:40pm. My ideal day had me finishing around 3:30, and doing so would earn me the new woman’s FKT for Queen Charlotte (the previous record was 9hrs15min, set by Jean Beaumont). I hadn’t considered pushing for it until then because the trail conditions were so bad I thought it would be very slow going all day. But I found myself at the Te Mahia Saddle and Mistletoe Bay much sooner than expected.

Every part of my being wanted to slow it down, walk the climbs, and have a snack. But another part of me said “You’re so close you have to go for it. Don’t think, just go. Do what you do.” So I steered myself directly into the pain and picked up the pace, grinding out the climbs that normally would have felt like a nothingburger, and leaning into descents that made my feet scream “you bitch!”.

The pressure to keep up a more uncomfortable pace made me really really cranky, and I was dangerously hangry, as I’d just run out of food. But somehow I found a quiet corner of my mind, a place where I didn’t have to think, react or do anything at all except move forward. Sure enough, the miles melted by. When I reached a summit viewpoint that I knew was about 5km from the finish, I belted out an involuntarily and slightly scary sounding “fuck yeah!!” and started hammering toward Anakiwa.

I finished at 3:35pm. I joined the four guys ahead of me – Roger, the Ben’s and Ian — in the small wooden shelter at Anakiwa. We shivered in our wet clothes, tried to stretch, and shared war stories of the day. Ben tried unsuccessfully to rustle up a ride back to Picton with any of the many tourists milling around the trail head. We were a soggy bunch, shivering, covered in mud and probably not the freshest smelling. I wasn’t surprised that none of the tourists were jumping at the chance to invite five muddy crazy-eyed runners on board their clean dry campervans.

But thankfully Ben Kepes’ legend-of-a-partner Viv offered to shuttle us back to our cars at Picton. So after a hot cup of coffee and bite to eat, I left the Queen Charlotte Track as unceremoniously as I had greeted her, but with a newfound love and respect for her lush native forests, skyline ridges, secluded coves, and restorative beauty.

The final few kilometres of an ultramarathon always hurt. A lot. Queen Charlotte was no exception, but for the first time in a long time, I felt stronger than the pain and was able to steer my mind toward what I love. Epic days on long trails with likeminded nutters. The overflowing satisfaction of crossing a hard-earned finish line. The tireless adventurous spirit of our community that breathes light and life into the day-to-day. My family, my friends and the wild ride we share.

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Every Once in a Great While

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Every once in a great while, you have a run when everything goes right. These rare occasions feel like gifts from the fickle running gods, bestowed on us to let us believe (even if mistakenly) that running is indeed easy and that anything is possible. I was lucky enough to have such a run recently.

In training for the inaugural Taupo 100km Ultra, I decided that I needed to get in a good hard 50k day. Because I’d had a few stressful, chaotic weeks of life, a solo day on the trails in the beautiful Waitakere Ranges sounded like a soothing balm to my tattered nerves.

I picked a route from my house in Titirangi to the Piha Café, where I would meet a friend for a post-run pizza and beer (yes a whole pizza) and catch a ride home. In lieu of staying on trail the whole way, I bit the bullet and decided that I would follow hilly road all the way from Titirangi to Whatipu Beach, and then hop on the Hillary Trail the rest of the way to Piha. There would be next to no traffic at dawn on a Saturday, and it really is a beautiful stretch of road. I knew these runnable miles would be the right call to get my legs ready for the TU course.

I woke up before my alarm, feeling rested and a little giddy, the way I always feel the morning of a Really Big Run. I sipped on a strong coffee and listened to Tuis and Warblers greet day as light filtered through the kauri and manuka trees behind my house. After a quick breakfast, I loaded up my running pack with food and water and headed out the door.

As I settled in a comfortable pace, I was grateful that I’d decided to leave at sunrise, because it was absolutely gorgeous. It was one of those mornings that fills me with a sense of near-disbelief and gratitude that I actually live here in New Zealand. Catching glimpses of a bright pink sunrise reflected in the water, embraced by the total stillness around me, I had one of those moments where natural beauty finds its way through every pore of your being until you feel filled to the brim with wonder. I knew it would be a good day.

But the hills…how would they feel today? I knew I needed to just grind it out even if it wasn’t pretty, but surprisingly, my legs seemed perfectly content and I was able keep up an honest trot. And to my delight, it was a gooood day for downhilling. I had that feisty “let er rip” feeling, and every time I crested the top of a hill it was like heaven to open up my stride, let my lungs relax and just hammer. It also meant I was making great time. I chilled out a little at Huia, soaked up the views and made my way steadily over to Little Huia.

Running along the bay, flanked by dramatic bush-cloaked cliffs in the pure quiet of morning, all the mental/emotional debris of the last few weeks seemed to fall away from me, like mud that had dried and flaked off my body, brushed away by my movement and the cool gentle breeze flowing down from the forested hills of the Whatipu Reserve. I took a deep breath and felt clean and new, so happy to be out there that I wasn’t even thinking about the many kilometres that lay ahead.

As I settled into a rhythm running up Whatipu Road, I came around a corner to discover a little brown ball in the middle of the road. “What the…?” A hedgehog! The poor little fella was curled up into a tiny spiky sphere, with one little foot poking out. I crossed my fingers that he wasn’t roadkill and approached him as quietly and gently as I could. I stroked the sole of his wee foot and he pulled it into his spike-ball. He was alive! His little hedgehog body seemed terrified, but he was still breathing. I looked around and considered the pros and cons of knocking on a local resident’s door at 8am on Saturday with the request of nursing a terrified hedgehog back to health. It probably wouldn’t go down so well.

I have to admit that the thought of bringing him with me also crossed my mind, and I did kind of love the idea of running all the way to Piha with him in my pack. But the little guy probably wouldn’t enjoy it much. Running with him under my arm like a tiny rugby ball probably wouldn’t work out so well either. So I gently scooped him up and settled him into a comfy patch of grass and tried to comfort him. Just as I started to run again, I glanced back and saw his tiny hedgehog face peek out from the grass to look at me, twitching his little black nose. He just might make it!

Happy that he was alright, and that I’d made it to the top of the hill, I let the downhill rip and was at Whatipu before I knew it. I chatted with a few surfers and another runner, refilled my water, and hopped onto Gibbon’s track for some climbing. The uphills seemed to be flying by today too, and it was one of those days when your brain just shuts off and the scenery fills you up and carries you. Once atop Gibbons track, looking toward the glistening black sands and big surf at Karekare, a strong offshore wind greeted me. I outstretched my arms to let it cool me off, and as I did a hawk floated by on an updraft only a few meters away. Smiling, I carried on and really did feel like I was flying.

Before I knew it, I was splashing my way across Kitekite falls, looking forward to the final few kilometres of downhill to Piha, relishing in the fact that my legs felt good. Shockingly good. I made a note to double check the mileage on google maps once I got home, because it really didn’t feel like I had 50km on my legs. Because my watch didn’t have longer than 6 hours of battery life when in GPS mode, I hadn’t bothered to turn it on. But somehow, here I was at Piha a little over 5 hours after leaving my house.

It was one of those wonderful moments when you surprise yourself with what you’ve just done. Heading out the door, I thought I’d have an all-day slog ahead of me. Instead, I had one of the best and easiest-feeling training runs I can remember. I certainly don’t take it for granted, because they don’t come around all that often, and my next run will probably feel like death. But for now, for now I’d enjoy my pizza, grateful for my contentment, and toast to the fickle Running Gods for a damn good day on the trails.

Taranaki Terror

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*Title does not refer to the infamous 6-meter great white that made the Taranaki coastline its home, nor to the surf films by Jarred Hancox, but to the mountain himself.

 The day dawned crisp and clear. I peeked out from under my down sleeping bag and was immediately uplifted to see blue sky and buttery dawn light filtering through the trees surrounding the North Egmont Visitor Centre. The birds ruffled dew off their feathers and started their morning warm-ups. A benign puff of sprinkling mist evaporated as it moved slowly overhead and revealed the rocky northern flanks of Mount Taranaki.  His summit was still shrouded in a blanket of clouds, but the weather seemed calm and stable.

“Excellent,” I thought. “The forecast for scattered showers this morning must’ve been wrong, or it has already moved through.” It looked like I would be fine to run around the mountain today—a 50 kilometre journey of rugged alpine trail just below the lingering snow line. Despite the peaceful conditions, I couldn’t shake a subtle feeling of nervousness as I got dressed and ready, but I credited it to the normal sense of anticipation that comes from setting off on an epic solo adventure.

Equipped with maps, my phone, emergency first aid supplies, warm layers and heaps of food and water, I got moving at 6am. The trail climbed steeply up to 1,400 meters, opening up above tree line, and traversed along Taranaki’s steep cone. The smooth open line of mountain trail ahead of me gave me a giddy pick-me-up and I settled into a happy trot, looking forward to the adventures and views to come. Alone on the trail, I started singing a few of my favourite songs and it felt as if the mountain was waking up.

A few kilometres later, an eerie quiet settled in around me as a big batch of weather blew in from the sea and it started to drizzle. Although this area was close to a major population centre, I had the distinct feeling that there was no one around for miles. I’m very familiar with long stretches of solo time on the trails, but this felt somehow different…as if the mountain didn’t really want company that day and everyone knew it but me.

That flicker of intuition lingered as the drizzle overhead turned into heavy rain. By then I’d begun the descent toward Holly Hut, the first of many shelters along my route, and thankfully that stretch of trail was fast and runnable. Grateful that my legs felt great and that my body heat was up, I decided to give it a few more kilometres to see if the rain might taper off. I had dry layers in my pack, and I could get more comfortable later if the weather cleared. I actually enjoyed the raw intensity of the elements, and moving quickly through them was invigorating. Unfortunately, that feeling wouldn’t last long.

I cruised by the inviting smell and adorable puff of smoke from Holly Hut’s wood burning stove. By then, I was so soaking wet that I would have created a sopping mess in the hut, and keeping moving would keep me warmer anyway. I also wanted to avoid the questions that I would likely encounter as a solo woman runner in a pink rain jacket and small running pack at 7am in a rainstorm, miles from anywhere.

You’re going how far? Today?! Alone? Where’s your pack? Etc, etc.

It’s not so much the questions that I try to avoid, but rather the scepticism, worry or judgement that is sometimes behind them. For safety reasons, my friends and family knew where I was that day, but I didn’t much feel like strangers looking at me as if I were reckless or stupid. That said, not long after leaving Holly Hut, I would in fact start to feel both very reckless and very stupid.

I descended quickly through dense tropical bush toward the roar of Bells Falls and the Stony River. Just as the trail disappeared and the bush opened up into a rocky river bed, visibility deteriorated. Mist and fog concealed the terrain ahead, and rain pelted my eyes as I squinted to see where I was headed.  I’d arrived at the section of the route for which DOC had advised: Caution is needed in the Stony River area. Look carefully for flagged routes and be prepared for erosion and flooding.

Great. Erosion? Check. Flooding? Check. Sparse markings? Check.

I did however see bright orange markers every few hundred meters and footprints in the sand between rocks. Both encouraging signs. I carefully picked my way across the wet, loose, mossy rocks. But I started to feel a tickle of fear in my gut as I struggled to find my next marker. I knew I needed to follow the river for several kilometres, so I wasn’t technically lost-lost, but where do I go from here?

Shit. Ok, relax. Take a deep breath and use your eyes… MARKER! Sweet.

Encouraged, I decided to carry on a little further. But progress through this river bed and thick vegetation was painfully slow, and I could tell that the intended route through here had been washed away by the high, fast water of the Stony River. My safe footing options were also becoming fewer and farther between.

The next marker was harder to find and led straight into a wall of dense vegetation. I bushwhacked and wrestled my way over large slimy boulders until I was scratched and bruised from the waist down. But I’d found another marker! My fleeting sense of victory quickly turned to dread as I looked up.

The Stony River was now raging and waist deep. I could barely hear myself think over its roar. Because there was a cliff face to my left, my only option if I wanted to continue was to ford the river. Solo. In a storm. Hell no.

I was at an impasse. The determined scrappy part of me wanted to go for it and carry on. But I was dangerously close to that fine line between brave and stupid. Instinctively, I looked at other options: backtracking and crossing the river further upstream? But according to my maps, I’d have to cross and re-cross the river several times further down before making my way up toward the Kahui Hut on Taranaki’s western slopes. I knew better than to wade waist-deep into a cold, fast-moving river in a rainstorm on my own, deep in the backcountry.

It was a disappointing but easy decision by this point. I’d have to turn back and go home the way I’d come. I made a pact with myself to come back when the weather was clear and the water was low. But for now, my only concern was getting back to my car safely.

From having to stop, check my maps, search for markers, and pick my way through though icy streams, my body temp had dropped considerably. I was soaked to the bone and couldn’t feel my feet. On account of these numb feet, my footwork on the trail was extremely clumsy. More than once, I slid off slippery roots, tripped on stones or lost my footing on slick loose rocks.  Normally I would skip over this kind of terrain, but instead I moved like a shivering grumpy Clydesdale horse as I slowly worked my way back toward home. I resigned myself to being uncomfortable for a while, and tried to focus on the hot cup of strong coffee and warm meal I’d have when I was done.

But Taranaki wasn’t done with me. All the thin, vertical trickles of water that quietly surrounded the mountain like a shimmering cloak had become fast-growing streams that poured directly over the trail I was using to traverse the side of the mountain. I remembered hopping over rocks and boulders on the outbound leg of my journey, but this looked completely different. Where did these waterfalls come from? I thought for a moment that I’d overshot my turn-off and had accidentally started around toward the eastern slopes of the mountain. But then it dawned on me. The heavy rain had completely filled all the steep stream beds in just the few hours that I was out there.

Although I didn’t have the feeling of in-way-over-my-head danger at that point, as I looked around – at the loose rock, the steep run-off below, the storm, the lack of people on the trail, I thought, “this is how terrible accidents happen.” It was a recipe for disaster, and I became more grateful that I’d made the right call and turned back when I did. I was only a few sketchy kilometres from my car and knew I’d have to stay on my (numb) toes. I moved slowly and carefully across steep streams and waded through the now-flooded trail. Icy rainwater poured down the front of my rain jacket as I hugged the slope to step from stone to stone.

Just then, a large rock slid out from underfoot. No! More rocks dislodged and rolled out from underneath me, as if in slow motion. I heard them gather momentum as they crashed down the slope, carried by gravity and rushing rainwater. I clung desperately by my fingertips to a large rock above me and prayed that this wouldn’t turn into a slide. Water splashed up my nose and into my eyes. I tried not to breath, holding perfectly still, waiting for the movement underneath me to settle. Once the terrifying echoes of rock fall subsided, I slowly carefully found my footing to assess the damage.

Miraculously, all I had to show for it was a big fresh bruise and small cut on my shin. I wiggled my Cyldesdale hooves to make sure they weren’t injured. The trail was largely still intact, and there was a stretch of smooth dirt trail just beyond this unstable patch of boulders. I moved as if I were handling a dangerous animal as I climbed over the final rocks on the route. Once my feet hit the other side, I had never felt happier to be standing on flat dirt.

Finally, through the rain and fog, I caught a glimpse of the ridge I’d be descending down to the North Egmont Visitors Centre. Almost there. The trail smoothed out a bit and, revived by glimpsing safety, I started to sing again to shake off the nerves. I had to chuckle at the contrast of singing the same songs under such drastically different conditions, first on a calm bluebird day and only four hours later in a gnarly storm, beaten down by an uncompromising mountain.

After changing into dry clothes in my car, I drove straight to a local café to get that hot cup of coffee I’d been dreaming about. I was still filthy, with wet, matted hair, bruised and bleeding shins, and blue lips. But being just a few minutes from the mountain, I’m sure they’d seen (and smelled) worse than me at the Volcano View Café. Thankfully, they greeted me as they would a perfectly well-groomed patron and served me up the best cup of coffee I can remember.

As I warmed up and decompressed, I couldn’t help but think about the Maori legends surrounding the North Island’s volcanos. Fitting with the gnarly conditions of the day, Taranaki had a reputation for dramatic displays of anger.

According to the legend, Mount Taranaki used to live peacefully alongside Mount Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in the east. The beautiful Ruapehu, also known as Pihanga, elegantly wore an emerald cloak of forest. Naturally, all the mountain gods were in love with her.

One day Taranaki made advances toward her, but nearby Tongariro intervened. Things escalated and the two volcanoes fought mercilessly for Pihanga’s affections. Taranaki was defeated. Overcome with grief and jealously, he angrily pulled his roots from the ground and stormed off to the west, toward the setting sun.

Weeping, he carved out a deep gorge on his way, and his tears became the Whanganui River. It is said that his angry storms are meant to threaten Pihanga and Tongariro, and the rain is his continued weeping for his loss.

Coincidentally, the last volcano I had circumnavigated was Ruapehu. “Well,” I thought, “Taranaki must still hold a grudge, because he wants absolutely nothing to do with her, even by association. Or maybe he just wasn’t in the mood today.”

Mountains can be fickle. They might turn you away unequivocally one day, the next they might embrace you and bless your journey.

Still grateful that I was safe and dry, I got in my car to head toward home and couldn’t believe my eyes. The storm had cleared completely and I saw Taranaki’s perfect beautiful snow-capped summit for the first time. I had to laugh. Even though my timing had been completely out of sync with the mountain, I did feel like I got a friendly farewell.

 

 

 

 

Mountain of Brightness

Rhinos appear out of the mist in front of a silhouetted Mount Kenya

It’s January 2014. I’m in Nanyuki, Kenya, visiting my aunt, uncle, cousins and their babies for the holidays, a trip I’ve managed to extend to a luxurious six weeks. My aunt and uncle’s beautiful home is nestled in the foothills of Mt Kenya. I spend each morning running the red-earth trails, coaxing my lungs to adjust to Nanyuki’s elevation of 2,000 metres (6,500 ft). I spend the afternoons visiting with family and planning my upcoming climb of Mt. Kenya.

The mountain looks over us each morning as the sun catches her icy summits at dawn, and she reclines into a plush halo of clouds each afternoon. She pulls and pushes the weather and gives the air a clear “mountain chill”, even at the hottest time of year. The Kikuyu roots of her name have many meanings, but the one that strikes a chord with me is “Mountain of Brightness”, a fitting description of the way her glaciers and icy faces glitter in the thin air.

Mt Kenya is both a source of livelihood and recreation for my extended family. My cousins and many of our friends work as bush pilots for Tropic Air, a local airline. They cater to a steady stream of tourists visiting the mountain, and occasionally the pilots must take more sober flights to carry out search and rescue operations. They know this mountain well and have seen first-hand the cost of being lulled by her benevolent-feeling beauty into underestimating the effects of altitude and big mountain weather.

Mt Kenya is a massif – a group of many dramatic spires, cliffs, complex ridges and peaks. These are the weathered remnants of a large extinct volcano that last erupted 3 million years ago. She straddles the equator but is high enough to receive significant snowfall and still holds 11 small glaciers. She wears a lush skirt of forested foothills, which is an important source of water for much of Kenya.

At 5,200 metres (17,057 ft), the highest peak, Batian, gives Mt. Kenya the distinction of Kenya’s tallest mountain and the second tallest in all of Africa. Her lesser summit, Point Lenana, sits at a still-impressive altitude of 4,985 metres (16,355 ft). Point Lenana is a “walking summit”, with only a moderately technical rock scramble. This is the peak I reached in 2001 and the one I planned to visit again. While not as high at the true summit, Lenana is still a beautiful, challenging climb and logistically much easier, as it doesn’t require Batian’s 20 pitches of fifth class rock climbing. Batian beckoned to me, but I knew I’d need to save him for another day, as I didn’t have a climbing partner interested in taking on the challenge at the time.

Perhaps because my family has witnessed death, folly and injury on the mountain over the years, they were none too pleased when I shared that I planned to do a light-and-fast ascent of the mountain. The journey to Point Lenana is typically stretched into five days, giving climbers plenty of time to acclimate and rest. I had done this style of climb 13 years earlier, but was now more interested in a challenge that better suited the newfound toughness of my legs. After several years of alpine trekking and competing in mountain ultramarathons, I had a good understanding of how my body responds to high altitude, as well as what pace would be both pleasant and challenging.

After a few weeks of poring over maps, gathering gear, talking with local guides, and investigating online message boards, I decided on a route and a timeline. When I shared my plans, I was surprised by the intensity of my family’s warnings. My cousin Eston asked, “Why are you climbing it in only two days?”

In lieu of going into a long description of my climbing philosophy and my dislike of carrying a heavy pack, I gave him the short answer: “Because it’ll be fun.”

Fun?! Do you think AMS (acute mountain sickness) is fun?”

A little taken aback, I mumbled something about my experience and enjoying challenging myself. But he didn’t let up.

“How many times have you been above 10,000 feet?”

More times than I can count”, I thought to myself, but at that point I’d gotten too mad to say much of anything. I had great respect for the weeks, months and years that my cousin had spent on the mountain. Mt Kenya had been his home since birth, and he knows her far better than I. But something about being asked to prove myself worthy of climbing the way I wanted, of being asked for my climbing resume as if I needed permission to approach the mountain, got under my skin. The resilience and competency I had found in the wilderness had been hard-won through many hours up high and hundreds of miles underfoot. While I knew Eston came from a place of concern for his younger cousin, I couldn’t help but feel challenged, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I resolved to keep my plans a little more quiet from then on.

But word travels fast in Kenya, especially among my family. A few days later my cousin Louisa approached me and said, “I heard about your plans for mountain. I just hope you’ll be safe…because, you know, people die up there.” I assured her that I was well aware of the risk, of my abilities, and that I had done my homework. I knew that no mountain should be underestimated and for me, the risk was part of the appeal.

So after a few final logistical preparations and assuring my family that I didn’t have a death wish, it was go time! My perennially badass Aunt Suzanne, who has lived in Kenya since the 1970’s and climbed the mountain many times herself, drove me to my base in Naro Moru. I would stay the night at a family friend’s outdoor leadership school, called Batian’s View, and get started bright and early the next morning.

My alarm went off before dawn and I joined another climbing party for a big breakfast and coffee at Batian View’s outdoor meeting area. After checking and rechecking my gear, I sipped on another coffee and waited for my guide Elijah. I knew that the Naro Moru route up Mt Kenya was well marked and possible to complete solo safely, but I had hired a guide as a kind of compromise. And the company of a Kenyan on the mountain would be nice.

When Elijah, a wiry strong-looking 20-something with chiselled features, arrived at Batian’s View to meet me, he seemed confused. “Where are your porters?” I explained that I didn’t need any since we were doing the climb in two days. “Two days?!” He clucked and muttered something in Kikuyu and I could tell he was wondering what the hell this tiny blonde woman with no porters and small pack was thinking.  But after having a brief chat with my contact at Batian’s View, who came to my defence, Elijah seemed convinced that I wasn’t crazy and that he wouldn’t be carrying me off the mountain. I could also see a little glint in his eye that I recognized.  This was something different from the routine, something a little more interesting, this might be fun.

We piled into a matatu (one of the notoriously overstuffed minibuses that fly wildly down Kenyan roads) and headed toward the mountain. When I reached the National Park Gate to buy my permit, I had a rude awakening. There was no permit for the amount of time I intended to take. One option was a 24-hour day pass (while it was physically possible to get up and down the mountain in under 24 hours, it would be too tight, because I had my heart set on seeing the sunrise on the summit). My only other option was the $240 5-day pass. Grrr. I asked whether coming back out in thirty-odd hours was “close enough” to get the single day pass. The park ranger seemed confused and unconvinced by my line of argument and insisted that my only option was the 5-day pass. So I forked over the cash and wished I gotten better intel on permit prices. But things are fluid in Kenya, and who knows what price I would have gotten on any other day.

From the park gate, we set off through the lush forest on Mt Kenya’s flanks. We worked our way at a healthy clip toward the first camp, Met Station (3,050 m/ 10,000 ft), where we were greeted by a happy hut warden who served us up hot chai and delicious biscuits. After a chat and amusing ourselves watching the monkeys trying to sneak toward our packs, we were back on the trail. I was eager to get “the bog” section out of the way. This stretch of trail is notoriously wet and steep, with deep gullies and unstable tussocks. But we were lucky to have relatively dry trail, clear skies, and big views all the way across to the Aberdares, a mountain range to the west of Mt Kenya. I soaked up the views and enjoyed the challenge of the steep terrain in my hungry legs.

After working our way out of “the bog”, we began our trek up the majestically beautiful Teleki Valley. The prehistoric-looking vegetation and the first up-close glimpses of Mt Kenya’s looming spires gave me the chills. This was a special, other-worldly place. We were finally high in the alpine, approaching a cathedral of rock, and I felt giddy from the thin air and adventure.

We reached our base for the night, Mackinder’s Camp (4,200 m/ 13,780 ft) early in the afternoon, much quicker than either of us had planned. It had felt like a conservative pace, but we hadn’t stopped much. I had a touch of a headache but otherwise felt fine. Part of me wanted to push on for the summit because the weather was so clear and beautiful, but I knew it was wiser to hold back and stick to the plan. I loved sunrise summits, and I knew this one would be a treat.

So I settled in, drank hot tea, watched baby hyraxes (adorable marmot-like critters) pile onto their mamas’ backs, and chatted with my hut-mates at Mackinder’s. For dinner, I had dehydrated lentils and rice, which hit the spot, but paled in comparison to the meal I witnessed to my left. Trying not to drool or stare, I peeked at the meal prepared for a group of German tourists who had brought a team of three porters and many heavy-looking packs. They drank from glass bottles of Tusker beer, snacked on hot salty popcorn, and feasted on pasta. They shared an entire chocolate cake for dessert, which unfortunately was polished off quickly and completely. As much as I loved carrying a very light pack and moving swiftly, I had to admit their style of climbing had some delicious-looking perks.

I snuggled into my sleeping bag excited for the next morning. I would wake up at 3am and set off to climb the remaining 1000 metres to the summit of Pt Lenana, hopefully arriving right at sun-up, and would then descend all the way to the park gate.  Because we would pass by Mackinder’s Camp on the way back down, all I needed to carry was water, poles, and a snack. The glacier below Pt Lenana had retreated significantly in recent years, so crampons weren’t necessary either. I couldn’t wait for the rock scramble and the feeling of getting up really high. I craved that feeling of freedom, of being uncompromisingly alive.

The wind woke me up before my alarm. It shook the thin windows of the hut, howled and whistled through the narrow valleys around us. It sounded cold and foreboding, but it didn’t dampen my excitement. I peeked out the window and was delighted to discover a full moon and a shiny glimpse of Batian. Thank goodness it wasn’t raining. I would get a clear sunrise. After a hot cup of coffee and a snack, we stepped into the darkness and started walking. Milky moonlight bathed the silvery rock around us and I turned off my headlamp, easily following the footpath under moonlight and starlight. Elijah chuckled and did the same. I looked up and marvelled at the stars, grateful to the core that I was where I was, doing what I was doing. We both started to feel the altitude a bit and settled into a slow, steady rhythm while our lungs burned from the cold and diminishing oxygen in the air.

Before long, just as hints of light played at the contours of the rock around us, we reached the final summit scramble. I loved using my whole body to work my way upward and enjoyed the mental distraction of having to choose a route. The wind was still howling and my fingers were completely numb.  I couldn’t really feel my face either. And then, the moment the sun peeked its way above the eastern horizon, Elijah and I found ourselves at the summit! A tattered Kenyan flag flapped wildly in the ripping wind. In an instant, a golden glow caught Batian behind us and it seemed on fire. Light flickered across the many summits, ridges, and spires of the mountain. She seemed lit up from the inside. Over 300 kilometres to the south, Kilimanjaro said hello. The vast expanse of Africa was illuminated below us, glowing and singing.

Tears streamed down my cheeks. I felt so lucky to be there, so free, humbled, happy and welcome. I felt a sense of protection on that mountain that I feel nowhere else. Maybe because I spent my formative early years in Kenya, living at the base of the mountain with my parents and sister, something in my bones knows this place as home. I feel safe here despite the many obvious physical dangers around me. I had a palpable feeling of the ways in which this mountain nurtures the land and the people, and something in my heart sang.

But I knew better than to sink too deeply into this feeling, because when you’re at the top of a mountain, you’re really only halfway home. Elijah and I said goodbye to the view and quickly got ready for the downhill. I’ve always loved downhill running, especially steep, technical mountain downhills. So once we had cleared the rocky summit of the mountain and reached the finer scree below, I started running.  “What are you doooooinng?” hollered Elijah.

I paused to show him how I stayed balanced while running down and explained that it was easier in some ways that “putting on the brakes” with every stride. “Plus, it’s fun”, I said. He seemed to agree and we flew back down to Mackinder’s.

After a nice big breakfast, we collected our gear and set off for the journey home. With each step down toward the lush lowlands, I felt more oxygen surging in my veins. I was torn between a reluctance to leave the embrace mountain and the joyful momentum downward.

We got back to the National Park gate early in the afternoon, and I was absolutely thrilled, because it meant that I’d have plenty of time to get over to Barney’s, the outdoor restaurant at the Nanyuki airstrip, to have a Tusker and a pizza for lunch. So I hopped into a matatu, thankfully survived the journey, and settled in at Barney’s for a big celebratory lunch. While waiting for my order, sipping on the incomparably wonderful reward of a cold beer after a big day in the mountains, I looked up at Mt Kenya and was struck by the thought, “I was up there this morning.” I put my feet up and felt a quiet gratitude for the opportunity to do what I had done – to climb that big beautiful mountain in a way that made my legs happy and my heart sing, in a way that made me feel free and strong.

Mt_-Kenya

Volcano Medicine

11

Flashback to New Year’s Eve 2014.  I’m driving toward New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park, intending to run around Mt Ruapehu to ring in the New Year. I’m excited about this trip for several reasons. It will be both an epic adventure and a celebration. My running partner Shelby will be joining me in the 2-day circumnavigation on what I hear is a very technical, steep, and remote 80 kilometre trail. I had originally intended on completing the run solo in a single push, but I’m very glad to have changed plans. Shelby’s company would bring fun female banter and trail sisterhood to the adventure. And by breaking the run into two days, we would make it more of a celebration, giving us the chance to enjoy a more relaxed pace, with plenty of time for photos and social breaks, as well as a good sleep halfway around in a cosy DOC mountain hut.

I was also excited about this trip because I feel a strong sense to connection to the volcanoes in Tongariro National Park.  They speak to me in a way. Don’t worry readers, I’m not claiming to be a “mountain whisperer” and I certainly don’t hear voices from the land. The kind of “speaking” I’m referring to is more of an intuition, a sense of presence, or a concrete shift in thinking that is so sudden and distinct it causes you to pause, look around and wonder, “where did that come from?”  A sense of presence may be the most accurate description.  And Ruapehu’s presence is powerful.

At a height of 2797 meters, she is the highest mountain on New Zealand’s North Island. Considered one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Ruapehu has erupted as recently as 2006. Known as Pihanga in Maori mythology, she was the mountain that Tongariro and Taranaki loved and fought over. When Taranaki lost, he marched in shame and sorrow to the western edges of the North Island, carving the Whanganui and Patea Rivers on his way.  Ruapehu remained, very much alive, with a reputation for “moving mountains”.

A few months before my New Year’s trip to Ruapehu, I had made some massive life changes. I had filed for divorce from my emotionally abusive ex-husband, quit my job, said goodbye to my beloved dog and dear friends in Seattle, and moved to a foreign country.  I still felt pretty raw about it all, and time in the mountains was holding me steady while I adjusted to my new life in New Zealand.

Beyond a fun adventure, I looked at this run around Ruapehu as a kind of offering. I would toss all my pain, anger, grief and self-doubt into the volcano, and let it be melted down to nothing.  The endings I had endured were final, and I desperately wanted to unburden myself from the emotional debris those changes had created. This was New Year’s after all, an opportunity to start fresh and new.

On the drive down from Auckland, I thought a little bit more about the act circumnavigation and its spiritual roots in other cultures. I knew that some Tibetan communities practice the act of kora, a pilgrimage or meditative practice that involves walking around a sacred place or object (such as monasteries, temples, and mountains). Naturally enough, kor means circle in Tibetan. When Tibetans circumambulate a sacred place with a motivation that seeks wisdom and compassion, they can purify negative karma and plant the seeds of enlightenment. I didn’t have expectations as powerful as these for my journey, but the act of circumnavigating a mountain has always resonated deeply within me and I understood the draw of this particular ritual.

As I neared Tongariro National Park and saw columns of steam climbing toward the sky, I had the distinct feeling that I was driving toward something important. I could almost feel the geothermal activity rumbling just below the earth’s crust. I felt humbled and on-my-toes. I’m drawn to the brooding unpredictability of these mountains and feel like a privileged visitor when I’m on their flanks, treading lightly and listening carefully.

Shelby and I set off shortly after dawn on New Year’s Eve, carrying just enough food for the two-day run and a few warm layers for the night.  We would tackle The Goat section of the Round the Mountain Circuit first, while our legs were still fresh. And I’m so glad we did. That trail is indeed steep, technical, rutted and wild.  Shortly after leaving the lush beech forests of the Whakapapaiti track, we zigzagged our way up steep, muddy tussock land. The trail had us cross and re-cross a freezing waist-deep river.

We worked our way up and over rocky ridges and through steep gnarly gullies under Ruapehu’s foreboding western face. We climbed up the edges of the mineral white-washed Cascade Waterfall and soaked up long views down the deep Mangaturuturu River Valley. By late afternoon, we found ourselves atop a ridge in gale-force winds, leaning into a headwind that nearly pushed our tiny frames back up the mountain.  But we hollered at the wind and leaned into it, running down Okahune Mountain Road toward our next trail junction.

We reached our accommodation for the night, Mangaehuehu Hut, in the nick of time. That wind had brought with it a torrential rainstorm that pounded the roof of the hut and rattled the windows.  But we were snug as bugs in our hut, and after making friends with our hut-mates, changing into dry clothes and starting a fire, we broke out our celebratory drinks—tiny bottles of warming New Year’s whisky.

As it often goes in the wilderness, we were asleep shortly after sundown. We rang in the New Year cosily sleeping through a wild storm that thankfully died down just before sunrise. After pulling on our running gear the next morning, our lovely hut-mates graciously offered us extra snacks and hot coffee to fuel the second day of our adventure.  That coffee hit the spot, and I was positively giddy for day two, because I knew we had some dramatic landscapes ahead of us.

A few hours later we reached my favourite section of the trail: the spectacular Waihianoa valley, a heartbreakingly beautiful glacier-carved gorge that reminded me of the glacial valleys of my native Pacific Northwest USA. After the steep climb out of Waihianoa, we found ourselves in a vast expanse of desert.  For hours we traversed the moonscape that is the Rangipo Desert. With Ruapehu watching over us, we hopped from rock to rock and worked our way from pole to pole – the only markings across this stretch of the route.

As we rounded the final turns of the trail that would bring us back to the start, I got that feeling– the “she’s speaking to me” feeling. Not words, not even a specific thought, but suddenly a very clear and powerful feeling of connection to the mountain.  Although I hadn’t thought about it consciously during the run, I really had tossed all my emotional debris into that volcano. I really had made a kind of offering in running around her. Something within me had been dislodged, and I was grateful.

Whether Ruapehu was actually “speaking” to me is beside the point.  The point is that in the last few kilometres of running around that volcano, I found the ability to open up and listen, to let go, and forge a stronger connection with the world around me.  I had found volcano medicine. What is volcano medicine?  For me, it’s a balance between unbridled risk-taking and clear-headed caution. It’s a healthy relationship with anger and danger. Volcano medicine got my fight back in me by melting down all the “lost battles” and fears that had kept me frozen in doubt. It got me back my mana; it got me back my self.

A landscape of Mount Ruaphehu taken from the east (Desert Road side of the mountain). Purchase Mount Ruapehu landscape print

Double Hillary Run Report

Double Hillary Start

I have to start by thanking all of you wonderful people who came out to support, pace and crew me. Despite the toughness, you made this run SO MUCH FUN, and I was overwhelmed by love and gratitude again and again. You went so far above and beyond what I expected that I still can’t quite believe it. I feel so lucky to have been adopted so quickly and completely into this badass tribe of runners and adventurers. With your help, I not only finished the run, but we smashed the fundraising goal and raised close to $2000 for Women’s Refuge!

What some of you might not know is that this run nearly didn’t happen. I came down with a horrible cold the week of the run and was bedridden and feverish until two days before the start. Trying not to freak out, I focused on getting well and told myself that I’d make the final call about whether to run the day before I was due to start. When Friday rolled around, I was in high spirits and certainly felt better, but I still had the sniffles and a cough. So I took a short “test run” and found that my lungs were clear and that the cold was “above the neck”. I consulted with my coach Greg McNeil of Just Enough Fitness and we agreed that I had “just enough” health to complete the run. It might be a little slower and more uncomfortable than planned, but I knew I would still be capable of getting it done. So, armed with extra handkerchiefs, I was good to go!

the start
Let’s get ready to ruummmbbbllle!

Arataki to Whatipu (Km 1-­24)

When I arrived at Arataki Visitor’s Centre on a misty grey Fourth of July, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought maybe I’d see 1-­2 friends willing to set off with me, since it was, after all, pretty gloomy and pretty early. But kiwi trail runners are a hardy, committed bunch. I was delighted to find a whole crew of giddy friendly faces, both those planning to run with me and plenty who had come to see me off and wish me well.

After a few hugs and photos, seven of us set off at 8am sharp. I did my best to hold back and be conservative, but I was so overjoyed to finally be running and with my friends that I was skipping along the downhills. Thankfully, Shelby (a.k.a. Cruise Control, a.k.a. Baby Cham) Hyslop shouted “reign it in Walker!” and I settled into a good steady rhythm with the group. We chatted excitedly about what lay ahead and the kilometres melted by. I was grateful for the good company and for the fact that my legs weren’t feeling the steep terrain of this section, which I knew would NOT be the case on the return leg. We got soaked by a misty foggy rain, but the temperatures were mild and no one seemed to mind getting a little wet. Thankfully I had dry layers stashed along the way, so I enjoyed the refreshing rain.

Huia1
Still feeling fresh on Huia Dam

Whatipu to Karkare (Km 24-­34)

We dropped into Whatipu right on schedule, still spritely and in good spirits. Birgit, Shelley, Victoria, and Bryon peeled off here. I quickly filled up water and grabbed food from my supply cache (I had dropped boxes with food and supplies at Whatipu, Piha and Bethells, which I would pass by twice—once outbound and once inbound). While I had the phenomenal support of crew extraordinaire Lucy Mills, it was nice to know that my dry layers of clothing and favourite snacks would be there for me in case something prevented her from being at one of the beaches (which I now know is a foolish concern, because nothing short of a zombie apocalypse would prevent Mills from meeting her runner at a checkpoint…and even then I think she’d find a way, probably by making friends with the zombies and convincing them to come along and crew me too).

From Whatipu, Shelby, Barry (a.k.a. Spiderpig), Tatsuru and I set off toward Karekare, enjoying the trail and spectacular views along this stretch of the Hillary. My body was still feeling great, and I was grateful to enjoy the downhill of the steep technical Muir Track. Little did I know that Muir would chew me up and spit me out 24 hrs later.

MuirMuir cowgirl

Karekare to Piha (Km 34-­45)

We were treated to a warm enthusiastic welcome at Karekare. I quickly filled up water and said goodbye to Tatsuru, who would be joining me the next morning for another 30-­40km. We were joined by Phillip and Herve, two fast, strong runners who showed a lot of patience by happily trucking along at my all-­day-­all-­night-­and-­all-­day-­again pace.

While climbing up toward Log Race Road, Shelby checked the Women’s Refuge donations page and gave me the happy news that we had already reached our $1000 fundraising goal. My sister Meghan Walker and her boyfriend Tyson has been the ones to boost us over this goal. Woohoo! This put a spring in my step and the next several miles flew by.

Then, just as we had turned onto Winstone Track and got into a nice downhill rhythm, cheeky Reegan Absolum FLEW out of the bushes hollering and gave us all a good scare. He had packed up gear and tracked us down and was ready to do some night running. Happy to have his good energy and relentless sense of humour join our pack, we made great time into Piha.

Log Race Road
Happy bunch leaving Karekare

Piha to Bethell’s (Km 45‐61)

Arriving at Kitekite trail head, where I had stashed a food cache, I had another heart attack. My bag wasn’t there! Had someone stolen it? I knew I’d be fine, but I was gutted. I had been looking forward to the dry t-­shirt inside for several hours. But just then I saw Lucy’s lovely face pop around the corner smiling. Not only did she already have my bag ready for me, she had a feast waiting. After putting on that gloriously dry t-­shirt and munching on a few sausages, I rallied the troops and got going.

Barry had run ahead to get me a coffee from the Piha Café and I couldn’t wait. After a handing over the most delicious coffee ever and giving us a hug, Barry peeled off and would re-­join me at Miruwai for the night shift. With coffee in hand and still ahead of schedule, I treated myself to a walk along Piha Beach, knowing that we had the steep climbs of White Track and Kuataika ahead of us.

It was along those steeps that I started to feel the limits of my breathing/running with a cold, but I was still able to find a steady rhythm that I knew I could maintain for a long time. Shelby loved this cruisy pace and had decided on-­the-­fly that she would extend her run all the way to Miruwai – a FULL spontaneous Hillary (75km). She had only planned on running to Karekare (30km), and had had a few classic Forrest Gump moments (“well, I’ve come this far, I might as well keep going…”). Reegan was also a fan of my mellow pace: “I’ve never actually run this slow before, but it’s really nice.”

leaving Piha
Cruising toward Piha

Bethell’s to Miruwai (Km 61-­75.6)

When we reached Bethell’s Beach, night had fallen and we were treated to a warm welcome of singing, dancing and twirling glow sticks. Fleur, Mel, Myrthe and Gina (the party crew) had come out to support us. We were joined by Christian (a.k.a. Feta Go Lightly) Stockle and Shaun “The Animal” Collins as we set off for Te Henga.

This is the section that I began to struggle mentally a bit. Outbound on Te Henga, I couldn’t get the fact that I had to return on it out of my head. That pesky thought was draining. Te Henga is deceptively physically draining as well. The trail is narrow, muddy, overgrown and undulating, with a steep drop-­off from the clifftops down to the sea below. While I normally love this trail with its epic views, it mentally wore me down as we worked our way toward Miruwai. But thankfully the entertaining conversation as well as Shaun Collins’ antics and startlingly convincing rendering of hardcore hip hop lyrics kept me afloat.

And then of course we were treated to the singular delight that is The Stairs up to Constable Road. Once we reached the top of said stairs, Dan Roberts greeted us with the firm instructions to turn off all our headlamps. After doing so, we discovered a glow-­stick runway and a glowstick party happening at Constable Road! Fleur & Co. were decked out head to toe in glow sticks and dancing for us. By this point, I was pretty out of it and wondered if perhaps I were hallucinating.

Leaving the turnaround at Miruwai was TOUGH, for several reasons: it was past my bedtime, it was cold and raining, and our lovely support crew had created a warm, inviting, delicous late-­night picnic, complete with hot soup, coffee, pizza, and everyting wonderful you could ever want. Shelby had finished her “accidental Hillary”(whoopsie!), and I was only halfway done. Oof. It would be sad to say goodbye to her dirty jokes and relentless banter. It took all the discipline I had to tear myself away from that heartwarming scene, but somehow I did, and I had a band of badass runners to join me into the stormy night. By now it was windier, colder and raining. Perfect!

Acceidental Hillary
“Pacing is my jam”

Miruwai to Bethell’s (Km 75.6-­91)

From Miruwai, I set off with Shaun, Christian, Dan, Birgit and Barry to take on a midnight running of Te Henga. It was a wild ride. High winds, rain, darkness, and the thundering roar of the invisible surf below us gave it a feeling of drama and kept us on our toes. Fifteen hours of coughing had done a number on my voice and I was limited to a croaky whisper. But I had music with me and found a “happy place”, letting my mind rest and actually enjoying the harsh elements. It kept me awake, and there was something thrilling about running arms-­outsteched into a rainy headwind down a steep dark track to the sea. Pure unexpected freedom. It was here that I had my first second wind, and I had a beautiful downhill into O’Neil’s and Bethell’s.

At Bethell’s we were greeted by our crew again and bid adieu to Christian, Birgit and Dan. Barry, Shaun and I continued on into the night.

Te Henga night
Wild ride on Te Henga

Bethell’s to Piha (Km 91-­107)

The climbs up Houghton and Kuataika were a slow grind. I was tired but still feeling strong, and Barry and Shaun were the perfect night crew. With them I felt carried by momentum and no longer felt burdened by the question “do I keep going?”. I’ve often found that three is the perfect number for running in a group. It’s as if you become a little pack, forget your troubles and just keep moving.

Just before dropping into Piha, I had a “third wind”. Barry had just given me the happy news that Lucy would have coffee waiting for us. Between that to look forward to and a little bit of light in the sky, I was feeling great. Dawn is exhilirating when you’ve been running all day and all night, especially when that night is fourteen hours long. A few stars twinkled, the sea and clouds finally became visible, and signs of life flickered around us. I was feeling no pain as we cruised down the milky moonlit beach at a healthy clip.

ShaunKitekite

Piha to Karekare (Km 107-­118)

That coffee and Lucy’s smiling face were all I’d hoped they’d be. At Piha, Barry called it a day and Shaun and I were joined by the ever-­loyal and steady presence of Tatsuru. Between a coffee and light in the sky, I had a big boost of energy. I was enjoying the climbs, and the kilometers flew by. As the sun climbed into the sky, golden buttery light bathed the bush, sea and cliffs. I wondered if I’d ever seen anyting so beautiful and I was so grateful to be out there.

At Karekare, Shaun bowed out to join Barry in a celebratory (perfectly appropriate) 9am beer. I was sad to see him go, but grateful for his company on the night leg, which had gone really well. Tatsuru and I set off toward Whatipu.

BBreakfast of Champions
Breakfast of Champions

Karekare to Whatipu (Km 118-­128)

This is the leg where I began to capitol-­S struggle, and my blissed-­out dawn reverie ground to a halt. The moment Tatsuru and I set foot on Karekare beach, we were blasted by a ripping headwind. Sand cut into our faces and legs. We leaned into it at 45 degree angles and it zapped any remaining energy I had.

Once we were out of the wind, we had the steep, technical, muddy climb up Muir Track to look forward to. I slogged my way up it but had a few stark realizations: (1) my breathing was crap by now and I probably wouldn’t be doing much running in the final 30km, and (2) I would literally be clawing my way up steep, rocky, muddy tracks to get home to Arataki. I doubted that I had a “fourth wind” in me, but was glad that I’m stubborn and scrappy deep down. I did try to run a bit once we reached the flat and downhill of Gibbons Track, but it caused a coughing fit. But walking was fine and I was still moving well. “Ok”, I thought, “It’s going to be a hike home then”. The terrain between Whatipu and Arataki isn’t all that runnable away. It would be slow, and it might not be pretty, but I’d get there.

Just as I came to terms with walking the rest of way home, the “sleep monsters” hit. I got dizzy and woozy. The sea swelled like it was breathing, tree roots slithered like snakes and I thought a tree stump was a chicken. “Oh boy”, I thought. “This might not be good”. I wondered whether it was a good idea to continue like this and thoughts of dropping flirted with the back of my mind.

But as Tatsuru and I dropped into Whatipu, we were greeted by so much love and enthusiasm that my pain and doubt evaporated like mist under the bright sun. My parents were there and their smiles and cheers (as opposed to the grave concern I half-­expected) convinced me that I must look ok. Dan had returned and gave me another big handful of life-­saving cough drops, as well as a magical concontion of cold medicine. Between this and everyone’s enthusiasm, it seemed perfectly natural to keep going.

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Whatipu to Huia (Km 128-­140)

Joined by Dan (a.k.a. The Doctor, a.k.a. Wolverine) Roberts and Tatsuru, I started the steeeep climb up Omanawanui. My legs were moving better than expected, and I actually enjoyed the stunning views and turquoise sea. I periodically checked the pace of Dan and Tatsuru beside me to make sure I was walking at a normal speed and not “death marching”. Happy that I was still moving at a normalish walking pace, I embraced the sleep mosters and the visual weirdness they bring.

Just as we neared Karamatura Track, Bryon Mosen came barrelling down the trail, full of vim and vigor! His hugs, stories and good vibes were a treat and he shared some very exciting news. Shelby was back! And she would have hot, salty chips from the Huia Store waiting for us. This gave me very serious resolve to get to Huia as quickly as my sleepy, coughing, creaky body would carry me. I was also happy to discover on the steeep descent of Karamatura that my arms felt fresh and strong and that swinging from tree to tree seemed to work better and feel better than slowly lowering myself with the dwindling strength of my legs. This discovery would come in very handy later on at Parau, which I would soon discover had myseteriously become at least twice as steep as the day before!

Hulaman
Shake it Hula-man!

Huia to Arataki (Km 140-­151) The Home Stretch!

Arriving at Huia Bay was the highlight of my journey. So much love! Shelby and Lucy were wearing penguin costumes! My parents, Shaun and Christian served up hot chips and coffee (which, by the way, were the best chips ever in the universe). Bryon had decided to don a hula skirt and coconut shell bra and practiced some very fancy hip gyrations. What an entourage!

Penguin Sisters
The Penguin Sisters of Huia

Then as we approached Huia Dam, we discovered that Fleur & Co. had struck again! They had created a beach party, complete with bubbles, beach chairs, floaty ducks and beachey ensembles. I tried to thank them, but my voice was now 100% gone and reduced to a whisper. I hoped they could see the delight on my face and that they had helped me forget about the fact that I couldn’t talk, run or really breathe.

With my spirits lifted (and still walking just fine), I knew that Dan, Tatsuru, the Penguin Sisters, Hula-­man and I would get to Arataki safe and sound. I felt pulled to Arataki, almost as if everyone’s well-­wishes and thinking of me created a gravitational pull. I’d never run something with so much support or so many people rallying behind me and willing me to suceed. I could feel it, and it kept me going.

Beach partyHuia

Parau was the toughest leg of the journey, both mentally and physically. By then it was dark (again) and raining (again). The tracks seemed SO much steeper than the day before, and they were definitely muddier. It seriously made me wonder if we were on the same route. But the jokes, stories, and encouragement of my friends kept me from sitting down and refusing to get up. As tired as I was, I was enjoying my monkey-­strategy of swinging from tree to tree on the downhills and hoisting myself up by my arms on the uphills. At one point, Shelby and Lucy looked at each other and laughed because I was making entirely tree-­based footing decisions and scrambled and swung along a few steep embankments instead of walking along more reasonabley graded paths. They shrugged and mouthed, “just let her do her thing”.

After Parau, I’d never been so happy to see a flat(ish) gravel path! We were treated to bright starlight and twinkling city lights in the distance. We were almost home! Shelby and Lucy began reading me everyone’s messages from facebook and the donations page and the waterworks started. I’d been so focused on the task at hand for so long that I’d almost forgotten about all the people cheering me on (except in the abstract sense of feeling “pulled” home). I was so touched by everyone’s messages and heard them precisely when I needed them most.

At Slip Track, barely a kilometre from home, we were joined by a whole big bunch of runners and friends, who fell into step beside me. Their respect and support lifted me up the final hlls. Before I knew it, I found myself atop the last climb, and managed to run the last downhill to the Visitor’s Centre. It was such a warm welcome of family and friends, and I desperately wanted to hang out and celebrate. But after being on the trail for over 36 hours, I was pretty close to passing out cold, so after a few hugs and photos I made a bee-­line for bed and slept like a rock.

It’s now a few days later and while I’m still croaky and a little stiff I’m doing just fine. I’m so happy that the run and fundrasing were such a big success. I’m humbled and honoured by all the support I received. I’ll always be glad that I decided to share this journey with all of you instead of going at it alone.

Double Hillary Finish
Done and done.