Thursday, November 13, 2014

Running in Australia

Just finished up a two weeks visit back in Australia, aside from catching up with family and drinking a lot of coffee and beer, I was keen to get some training done. In particular I was eager to log some vertical in preparation for the upcoming winter of touring and also to revisit some of the mountains in the SE corner of Australia which were such an integral part of my upbringing.

Over the years I’ve found that most people (Australians included) are oblivious to the mountains of Australia, thinking that beyond the picturesque beaches lies a flat and arid interior. Whilst it is true that the climate in Australia is arid, the idea that it is all flat isn’t quite accurate. The area in the SE of Australia, including the Snowy Mountains (something of a misnomer) and the Victorian Alps comprise dozens of peaks with a respectable relief from the nearby valleys. True, mountain terrain is mostly quite gentle and benign with rounded “hills” rather than jagged spired dominating the skyline; and true, the snowline is usually quite high, but if you are keen there is some great trail running and some interesting ski touring to be had.

I enjoyed four standout trail runs while I was in the country:

Mt Bogong, up and down the Staircase (about 16km and 1450+ metres, 2:20)

The highest point in Victoria, and one of the first mountains I hiked up as a kid. I have many memories of this peak, such as sleeping on the summit without any water as a teenager on a summer hike over from Hotham, and on another occasion teaching myself how to self-arrest with an exceptionally long, old axe borrowed from a friend.

The run was nice, however I discovered that I’ve spent enough time out of Australia in the past years to have grown unaccustomed to reptiles and had a few frights encountering half a dozen blue tongued lizards which I instinctually thought to be snakes.

Mt Buffalo, up the Big Walk (about 11km and 1050+ metres, 1:30)

This was the first place I ever went skiing at the age of 5. Good to see it again.
Earlier this year this place hosted Australia's first ever event in the SkyRunning series.

Mt Feathertop, up the Bungalow Spur and along the Razorback Ridge (about 22km and 1700+ metres, 2:55)

The nicest mountain trail in Australia in my opinion; a perfect balance between being runnable and also steep sections which require more effort. Not much in the way of views whilst I was there though:

Mt Kozciusko and the Main Range Track from Thredbo (about 44km and 1800+ metres, 5:02)

I used to think that the Main Range track was the best trail in the Australian Alps, and it certainly does have some terrific views over the highest peaks in Australia. The trail has received an immense amount of upkeep in the past decade, to the point where a quad bike could now comfortably traverse most of the track. After a winter with heavy snowfall there was still quite a bit of it around for early November, I even saw one fellow skiing on Carruthers Peak

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Running Waikaremoana

I was meaning on getting over to Te Urewera to run around the famed Lake Waikaremoana last winter but with the logistical hassle of the car shuttle my focus always shifted to other trails closer by which were simpler to access. With Thor visiting and stormy weather forecast for the central plateau, I figured it was high time to finally check it out.

A 6:30am departure from Natty P saw us get to Murupara before 9am where our hopes of buying some electrolyte mix from the supermarket (quite ridiculous in hindsight) morphed into settling for a few packets of tropicana RARO. We hit the road again and with only 100km left to drive figured that we would be running by around 11am, however the winding, gravel road soon slowed us down and we kept recalculating our start time. By the time we stashed a few bags with clothes and some food at a lodge at the end and drove back to the northern start, it was past 1pm and it was obvious that we'd be finishing in the dark.

Lake Waikaremoana track, stolen from here
Undeterred we set out from the Hopuruahine end hoping to make up some time on the early section of the track which sounded relatively flat and simple. The trails was indeed pretty flat but this was balanced out by how muddy it was from some heavy rainfall a few days earlier. Before long our shoes and legs were caked in a thick layer of mud.

It started out muddy...

But got drier as we got deeper into the forest.

After the initial flat kms trail was gently undulating and for the most part gentle enough to run.

All the streams and rivers have cool suspension bridges, which are much harder to run on than they look.
The miles rolled by with sweet singletrack, constantly undulating through dense podocarp forest. Every so often the track would be near enough to the lake edge to offer up some terrific views over the lake, but for the most part it felt like we were running in the middle of some ancient forest in the middle of nowhere.

Did I mention it was muddy?
After 5 hours on the move we reached the Panekire hut at dusk, and with only 8.5 km of downhill left were pretty much on pace to be finished in a little over 6 hours. However with the darkness came the rain and mist, and our descent down the technical and rooty trail slowed to walking pace. Even with decent headlamps we struggled to see more than a few metres through the dense fog and sideways rain, we forgot all about our hopes of coming in under a certain time and focussed instead on not falling and twisting an ankle on the rugged trail.

We got a few glimpses of the lake from the Panekire bluff just before the sun set and the rain settled in.

Wet and cold, but stoked after 50km of stellar trails
In the end we ended up reaching the end of the trail exactly 7:00 after setting out. Soaked to the bone and a little cold we were then rewarded with a bonus 4 km to get back to the self contained unit we'd rented for the night, at 8:50pm we finally got our shoes off and warmed up with some hot soup and cold beer.

The Panekire bluff seen from the road, on the drive home the next day.
It is an amazing trail and one which ought to get run a lot more often. For next time there are a few things I'd change:
  1. By travelling in the opposite direction you'd get the major climb done on fresh legs, and would have a much more runnable descent.
  2. Start earlier in the day.
  3. Do it at least a few days since the most recent rain, to ensure a little less mud.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ngauruhoe and Taranaki revisited

Brother Thor is visiting at the moment and I wanted to show him a few of the gems of skiing on the North Island: Ngauruhoe and the 'Naki. With two days off from work and a decent high pressure system everything lined up perfectly. Ling joined us too.

Day 1: 
Ngauruhoe north slopes via the  usual walk in the Mangatepopo valley and up to South Crater. Nice corn snow.

After a sweet but relatively short ski descent (snow line is around 1600metres at the moment), we got in the car and drove over to Taranaki via the Forgotten World Highway. The 4 hour drive over on the windy road featured hitting a possum and a hare in the car, a flat tyre on one of the unsealed sections of the road and one of the dirtiest burgers I've ever had the pleasure of eating from a chinese takeaway store in Stratford. We camped out for the night in a carpark just below the North Egmont visitor centre.

Day 2:
The day started with a breakfast of espresso and a few gingernuts. Then we set out walking up to the Tahurangi lodge and were soon in the clouds with visibility down to about 30 metres, we decided to continue up in the hope that we would climb above the clouds.

Sure enough, at about 2000 metres we were clear of the whiteout and enjoyed some terrific views over a sea of clouds.

The skiing was undoubtedly the best I've had this season in NZ, perfect corn and a steady slope angle of 35°. Good times indeed. The spring skiing season is officially opened.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Running the Tongariro Northern Circuit

Just before the weekend I had another run on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. It's one of the most popular multi-day walking tracks in NZ, seeing several thousand trampers every summer who sleep in large huts spaced 10-15kms apart along the trail. In winter the trail doesn't see quite so many folk, but it is still quite runnable for the most part, even if a good portion of the track is above snowline and steep around the Red Crater area. It is 43.1 km long and involves roughly 1700 metres of elevation gain. Last year I made it around in 5:34 and was stoked to shave 20 minutes off that on this outing. Photos are quite dodgy on account of my phone having a smudged lens or something.

Flowy, well groomed trail at the outset from the Village up to Tama lakes. Then rougher and rockier but still entirely runnable over to Waihohonu hut.

From here the trail traverses through some native forest before entering the desert on the eastern side of the peak and through old lava flows up to the Oturere hut. The prettiest part of the trail in my opinion, not that these fuzzy photos would suggest so.

  Above snowline (around 1500m at the moment) soft conditions made for slower travel. Up to Emerald lake I was thankful that the snow was soft enough to kick steps. From the highpoint down to south crater conditions were much firmer and required some poise in the running shoes.

On the descent into Mangetepopo valley there was some quality, smooth trail until the junction the trail heading back over the the Village which is quite rutted and heavily eroded.

Setting out from the Whakapapa Village these were my splits
0:36 Tama lakes junction
1:27 Waihohonu Hut
2:28 Oturere Hut
3:13 Emerald Lake
4:11 Mangatepopo junction
5:13 Whakapapa Village

On the menu: 3x clif shots and 2 litres of clif electrolyte drink

Monday, May 26, 2014

Traverse of the Midnight Sun

Setting out for a ski traverse at 11pm with sunglasses instead of a headlamp- this has got to be the nicest time of the year in northern Scandinavia. Ample snow left in the higher mountains, dry trails in the valleys and 24 hours of daylight to enjoy it all. Last night I had a solo outing near Abisko, finally realising a traverse which I first dreamed up long ago.

With a week of warm temperatures and no overnight freezes the snowpack has been melting out rapidly and snow in lower elevations turned into an isothermic slushy. I had basically written off the season as over and switched my focus to trail running. Looking at a fresh forecast on Saturday evening, which was calling for a few hours below freezing in the Swedish mountains, it suddenly looked like there would be one final chance for a longer enchainment.

With the forecast only calling for a few hours with temps below zero I wasn't anticipating a very solid overnight re-freeze. I figured that by mid morning the snow would start getting too soft for fast travel, so I made the decision to do the tour under the midnight sun.

After trying unsuccessfully to nap for an hour, I left Narvik around 9:30pm and drove over to Abisko a bit over an hour to the east, on the Swedish side of the border. The snow mobile tracks had recently melted out, so rather than being able to efficiently skate on a hard crust for the 7ish km flat approach I was relegated to hiking the summer trail, a very straightforward affair despite a few patches of knee deep sugary snow with a punchy melt/freeze crust. After around 2 hours I was at Teltlägret and switched over to ski boots. Once on skis my pace doubled, with the firm conditions making for efficient travel. I wasn't pushing the pace, just enjoying myself and being on a mountain which I had spied for so long.

My view of the first 2 mountains I was going to traverse, midway through the approach hike

About 2:30am on the summit of Giron

I made it to the summit of Giron and snapped a few photos before starting down the eastern slopes, on firm but edgeable snow between rockbands. Looking to the south as I skied down I looked over where the Kungsleden hiking trail lies and  was reminded of just how awesome the mountains in this zone are and questioned why I made it over here so rarely.

Once down at the pass I made a quick transition and skinned up the north western slopes of Tjåmuhas, the temps were much colder than expected and I found myself leaving a jacket on over my speedsuit for the ascent over icy suncups and runnels. A very short descent between the western and true summits and I was atop the local favourite Tjåmuhas. 

Looking over Čoamohasriehppi towards Abisko

I'd planned to ski the east face, which is considered to be the classic steep ski line of the Abisko Alps, it offers up 700 vertical metres of sustained, fall-line skiing in the realm of 35° to 40°. Not steep enough to be intimidating or encourage any self-doubt, even on skinny race skis with a busted edge. As I made my way down the upper slopes however it became evident that the sun hadn't had any influence on the snow yet, and that the small sun cups were refrozen and damn hard, with my edges not leaving any tracks on the surface. With the slick conditions and the impossibility of making a self arrest I was careful to ski slowly and deliberately, still enjoying the descent immensely.

"Slide for life" conditions on Tjåmuhas.

The East face of Tjåmuhas definitely deserves its classic status.
Next up was the beautifully named Ballinbogičohkka, I only visited the northern summit which I guess is what most people do as its the one which is closest to civilization. Continuing over to the southern summit and making a descent on a north facing slope looked like a terrific outing though, and something which I'd happily return for.

The family friendly route I followed heads up the slopes on the left.

The couloirs on the SE face of Tjåmuhas would be nice a bit earlier in the season too.
Up on Ballinbogičohkka I snapped a few more photos of the surrounding mountains for planning future outings and then skied back down the same way I had come up. This was the only peak which I didn't climb up one side of the mountain and ski down the other, in terms of the traverse route I followed this kind of felt like I was cheating, and it certainly isn't as aesthetic as a full traverse of the peak would have been. Next time...

On the summit of Ballinbogičohkka looking SW
Back down in the valley I put my skins back on and made my way up the shady west slopes of Pallentjåkka. Topping out at about 7am I was surprised at how fresh I felt after having been on the go for 8 hours so far, through the night and not having slept for around 24 hours. Amazing what hyper caffeinated energy gels make possible!

Pallentjåkka, 4th summit of the traverse about 8 hours after setting out.

The descent down the northern slopes was similar to what I had experienced on Tjåmuhas, with a steep slope and firm conditions which dictated full concentration. The steep section is much shorter though and before long I was picking my way through bands of snow, interspersed with walking over scree, trying to wrap around the ridge to get back to my shoes at teltlägret. This ended up taking much longer than expected, with a lot of traversing over scree as there wasn't much snow left of this aspect.

Looking down towards Abisko from Pallentjåkka and wishing there was enough snow to ski all the way back there.

End of the season.
Back in my running shoes I plodded back towards the road, growing sleepy but satisfied on having made the effort to finally ski these peaks in one continuous enchainment.

My total time was nearly 12 hours(!), about 6 hours longer than a concerted effort in prime conditions will take. Elevation gain was about 3500 metres and the total distance around 40km. The approach is definitely the crux of the trip and the reason these mountains don't see the same number of skiers as roadside peaks. Ideally the trip would be done in April, when the days are long, but a more complete snow cover would allow you to ski to/from Abisko.