November 2011

Files from the vault (#2)

Me and Neville, early in the adventure

File #2 stems back to October of 2006 during my brother's visit to New Zealand.  It is 'my version of events' because of course every story has multiple versions - my wife's take on what happened is substantially different.... of course she didn't go on the trip....

Here is my version of events….

My twin brother Jason and I have adventured together for years and both enjoy a penchant for suffering. We don’t like huge risks, but aren’t bothered by a few days of cold and hunger.  In fact we’ve been cold and hungry so often in the wilderness that we’ve figured out how to effectively cope with these factors and no longer make plans to avoid them. This enables us to successfully complete ambitious trips in a style that seems irresponsible to most.  Our journey to and then down the Lochy River was no exception. 

As the helicopter descended into the narrow gorge we waited tensely and clung to our 2 kg pack-rafts to prevent them from being blown away.  We had eddied out moments before after seeing a helmeted officer lean out of the cargo area and show us his palm – a signal we assumed meant that we were to stay put. We quickly discussed who must have made the call. 

“It was my mum” said Neville with certainty, “she’s a bit like that.”  Jason and I agreed. I had been ‘overdue’ so many times that my wife, Tammy, knew not to call until I was more than 24 hours late for a one day trip, not the 12 we currently were. Jason’s girlfriend would take her lead from Tammy. Neville, though, was only 16 years old – this would all be terrifyingly new to his loved ones. 

    Jason and Neville ready to go

    I had planned this trip a month ago after pouring over Graham Charles’s 125 Kayak Runs in New Zealand.  The Lochy River was a seldom done, remote, helicopter-accessed piece of grade III/IV white-water only an hour away from my home in Te Anau – a perfect pack-rafting destination!  We’d access the river by crossing the mountains from the west, leaving from Von Nichols road. Looking at the maps, we chose a route traversing a steep, knife-edge ridge that, based on the contour lines, looked potentially technical. The hiking portion was a big unknown, but we estimated that a six hour journey would get us to the river and another six to Lake Wakatipu. Then there was just a 3 kilometre paddle to the pick-up point on the Lumdsen-Queenstown highway.

    Getting steeper
    We were dropped off at 7:30 am under fair skies and a light wind.  The forecast suggested our luck would not last; we grabbed our packs without delay, bid farewell to our shuttle driver, and headed east towards the broad, tussock-covered shoulder that led to the ridge proper.  As the slope got steeper our energetic pace slowed – the frost covered tussocks were slick under our tennis-shoe clad feet – and we picked our way up a gully on the true right of the shoulder. A short, delicate scramble through a rock band led to a notch in the ridge that we meant to traverse all the way to the river. However, a sheer wall blocked our progress, forcing us to don crampons and skirt the gendarme on 35 degree snow slopes. Neville, with almost no prior mountaineering experience, was a bit uncomfortable in his instep crampons. He was even less thrilled upon regaining the ridge and seeing another gendarme with steeper slopes to negotiate. I scouted ahead, crossing another snow patch and then narrow tussock- covered ledges perched above a precipitous gully. Jason followed and then returned to Neville with my crampons (which were much more suited to the task) and guided him across. We continued climbing more moderately until we crested a small rise and could see the way ahead. Another huge rock tower 50 metres tall blocked our way. Beyond, the ridge continued in a series of spires for several kilometres before it eased off. The wind was picking up now and we could see that weather would be moving in within a couple of hours. 

    Neville wasn't a fan of the exposure
    the proposed ridge
    Neville, normally quite shy, spoke up as he motioned to the new terrain with his axe. “Let’s get off this ridge. I don’t really want to do anything harder than that bit back there, and that, looks much worse.” Although the ridge looked pretty amazing to Jason and me, it also looked technical and time consuming. Without a rope and a good forecast we knew Neville was right. Consulting the map, we saw that we could descend directly down a valley to within four kilometres of our planned put-in point on the river. 

    The way down was fast at first and we dropped 500 metres in about 20 minutes glissading down snow slopes. When the snow ran out, we followed gathering streams through tussock and bog into a hanging valley where the bush began. The forest was fairly open and we found ourselves at the Lochy River just past noon. The weather had turned, with a cold rain blowing hard from the south, and we were glad to be off of the ridge.

    putting on a brave face at the put-in

    Taking shelter in some trees on the bank of the river, we debated what to do.  There was definitely enough water to paddle, in fact, the river was already a bit swollen. It looked easy enough but quickly disappeared around a corner and out of view. We looked at the map and saw that it entered a bit of a gorge and dropped 100 metres over the next couple of kilometres. Jason was anxious to get in, but I was a bit more cautious. We opted to scout downstream before putting in and were glad we did. Just around the bend it cascaded over a few small drops into a 3 metre falls and looked like it stayed serious for some time. We trudged out of the forest and hiked to an old road which we followed for a few kilometres to the spot where our original route met the river.
    Neville on the river

     The valley was broad and flat here and the river looked more manageable. In half an hour we’d blown up our boats, repacked our gear, donned our dry jackets, and launched into the quick moving current. The next 10 kilometres were pretty mellow; mainly class I and II white-water. A few class III boulder gardens made things interesting, as did the strong headwind and stinging hail. Neville - a proficient kayaker - was in his element and led the way, picking good lines through the rocks and successfully avoiding most of the shallows. We stopped after a couple of hours at a dilapidated hut made of corrugated metal and perched behind a house-sized chunk of rock right at the rivers edge. We were cold, getting tired, and still had a long way to go.  Although we’d been on the move for nearly 10 hours, we were only now at the start of the river section as described in the guidebook. According to Graham Charles, we were 14 kilometres and four hours from the lake, with the crux gorge still ahead. We took shelter briefly in the dry half of the hut and considered our options. At Neville’s insistence we pressed on, even though the next hut would be out of reach in daylight if we had to do any significant portaging.

    Jason on the river

    The river had risen noticeably throughout the afternoon, but the water was still running clear. It was pushier now and I was tense as we headed into the beginning of a gorge extending more than five kilometres. Jason shared my apprehension. Neville, on the other hand, showed no signs of nervousness and charged ahead. We successfully negotiated several short, technical rapids before Jason ended our lucky streak.  Pushed into a boulder at the top of a metre drop, he braced right, unknowingly jamming his paddle into a crack between submerged rocks. The force of the water piling into his now vertical boat pinned it between the boulder and his paddle, rendering it immovable. After a few desperate moments he managed to release the velcro of his spray skirt and get out of the boat, taking a beating on his way downriver. Bringing up the rear, I caught an eddy just upstream of his raft, freeing it after a few minutes. One of the blades of his five hundred dollar paddle had snapped in half but otherwise the equipment was intact. After a brutal 30 metre swim, Jason managed to climb out on some rocks in the middle of the river and escape to the right bank of the gorge. Neville, having stopped to warn of some dangerous rock sieves downstream, waited below. I ran the drop where Jason began his swim, eddied out left and joined Neville. We were now on opposite sides of a nasty-looking river with undercut boulders, strainers and continuous rapids. Scouting would eat up lots of time and it looked as if providing safety with only three of us would be difficult or impossible. We portaged without discussion. Neville and I deflated and packed up the boats while Jason fought his way along the right bank, looking for an opportunity to cross and finally finding it in a hefty log strainer bridging a narrow chute between boulders. It was nearly an hour before we were reunited and following faint goat tracks along the steep left side of the gorge. 

    Jason's pinned boat, right before we decided to exit the river.
    Progress was slow; footing was bad, the tracks often disappeared into thick bush, we were cold and tired. Despite our pace, we were very happy to be off the water – things only got much worse as we descended further into the gorge. We felt safe and even started to warm up though it was still raining and getting dark. After a couple of hours of walking we took a break at a spot where the bank levelled, the bush thinned, and big boulders formed make-shift caves. 

    Our room at the Hilton
    We sat huddled together with our knees drawn up to our chests in a metre high A-frame made of limestone and discussed what to do. I was knackered and wanted a rest. Neville thought we should just keep walking. Jason suggested a compromise – we’d stop and sleep for a couple of hours until our core temperatures dipped and woke us up, at which point we’d start walking again. It was, according to him, the way adventure racers did things when races pushed past the 24 hour mark.  We all agreed and tried to get comfortable. We pulled the rafts out of the packs and used them as make-shift blankets and for protection from the wind. I managed to fall asleep for 15 minutes before waking up cold. I shifted to let blood back into my numb leg, shivered until I was warm again, then drifted to sleep again. It was below freezing, and although our nest wasn’t exactly cosy, it never got cold enough to get us up and moving. We spent the night dozing, waking, shivering, shifting and dozing. Jason and Neville swapped positions once sometime around 2 a.m., trading warmth for comfort and vice versa. I stayed put and dreamt vividly in staccato bursts. 
    The sky was a dull grey when we finally peeled and pried our way from our pack-raft cocoons. Snow fell heavily and looked like it had been for some time.  We were all very stiff and lacking dexterity from our cramped quarters. It was half an hour before the blood flowed enough to pack up and set off towards the lake, still over 10 kilometres away. 

    Not long after setting out we started having fun again. There was no wind and gigantic flakes floated down through the forest. Where the canopy was thicker the ground was still bare, but in clearings the snow was several centimetres deep. The trees across the gorge were a perfect white, as were the boulders in the middle of the river. After an hour the rapids seemed to ease off and we considered paddling again, but decided against it - a swim in these temperatures, without the ability to warm up, would certainly lead to hypothermia.  Three hours - and as many kilometres - later the snow ceased and the sun shone. We were sweating inside our dry jackets and decided to get back in the water. 

    Judging from the map we were about to enter the final gorge, the only section marked as having rapids. As the gradient steepened and the rapids began, we leap-frogged our way down river, scouting often. The river had dropped a little but was still pushy, making the technical rapids seem more challenging to our weary minds and bodies. But we were making progress and felt confident about reaching the lake, albeit significantly later than expected. It’s at this point, while discussing our line through the next rock garden, that we first saw the chopper heading up the valley. Two short rapids later it returned, this time making a broad turn just after passing overhead. We knew it was searching for us.

    Frank, the search and rescue worker now sitting with us on the river bank was very matter of fact. “You’re overdue.  What do you want to do?”

    We looked at each other. “We’re OK”, I said, “just taking longer than expected. We’ll carry on – Neville, is that alright with you?”  Neville nodded.

    Frank asked us what we were going to do when we reached the lake. We told him we were going to call for a pick-up before paddling across in our boats. He thought we were crazy but shrugged and radioed our intentions to the helicopter pilot. He then informed us that the river looked particularly nasty for the next kilometre and told us to take care. We thanked him and pushed out into the current, catching the next eddy downstream to avoid the helicopter turbulence. We knew the folks back home in Te Anau must have been pretty worried for our safety to send for a rescue so early on our second day out. Guessing the time at about noon, we were about 16 hours late.  We were relieved that the news of our safety would soon calm their panicked minds.

    After scouting several hundred metres downstream, we decided to portage.  The next few rapids looked run-able but led to a deadly log strainer running across the middle of the only negotiable channel. Neville, by far the best paddler, was tired of being at the edge of his comfort zone and suggested we walk through the gorge to bypass the remaining rapids. We agreed—Jason with reluctance—and we rolled up our rafts setting off, once more, into the bush. 

    We eventually picked up an old road, marching in our neoprene booties. Jason lagged behind, eyeing the river through the trees with envy. When we finally crested a rise and could see the valley all the way to the lake, I convinced Neville to get back in the water. The current was still swift and we were on the eastern shores of Lake Wakitipu around 3:30 p.m.

    Neville’s mom was a combination of relieved and really angry on the phone.  She didn’t understand why we hadn’t come out on the helicopter. She asked about the weather and how we felt. She asked about the conditions on the lake. Neville answered the questions curtly and the call was over in 2 minutes. Looking out across the lake, we could see miniature vehicles heading towards Queenstown. Jason commented that the cars didn’t seem very far away. I told him they were tour busses. We were more than tired, but the wind wasn’t as bad as we had feared. It was coming from the north and causing minimal white-capping—at least it would blow us the right direction. 

    10 minutes of paddling took us beyond the modest protection of Half-Way Bay. The wind had picked up and the white-caps didn’t look small anymore. The swells were several meters high and huge gusts, heralded by furiously dancing patterns on the already highly textured surface, blew us backwards. One such gust arrived just as we crested a wave and gained a tiny purchase on the bottom of our boats.  It was more than enough to dump Jason and me into the frigid lake, and how Neville managed to stay upright is beyond me. We’d removed the paddle leashes during our previous portage, so while I held on to my paddle my raft became a bright blue poly-urethane tumble-weed, skipping across the lake. Jason had remembered he was leash-less and clung to his raft with tenacity, managing to right it and climb back in with a steadying hand from me. I motioned and yelled for Neville, now 10 metres away, to track down my boat. Although he didn’t hear me above the wind, he’d already begun paddling furiously towards the runaway craft. I pulled myself up and across the bow of Jason’s boat, feeling foolish, helpless, and lucky to be in the hands of such capable partners. Between gusts, Neville made good headway against the AWOL raft, finally catching it and tethering it to his life jacket. He was now more than a hundred metres away and struggling valiantly against the wind. Jason was unable to paddle effectively with me slung across his lap, worthless and shivering. Thinking outside the box, he broke down my paddle and wedged it between my arm and body, blades up, creating tiny pseudo sails. His short, awkward strokes combined with my upright paddles had us moving southward just slightly faster than Neville. Slowly the gap closed. After the longest 10 minutes in my not-so-well-working memory, I was able to slip off Jason’s boat, struggle into mine, tie a leash and paddle like hell to warm up. 

    We stuck close together now, getting a lucky break as the wind turned slightly from the north-west. An hour after leaving the far shore we were across the lake, at a point where huge bluffs rose up to the road, 50 metres above us. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and let the wind push us towards Kingston for a kilometre, where the climb out of the lake was shorter and more manage-able. Fatigue and cold made us clumsy as we scrambled over the guard rail, crossed the road to a small shoulder and packed up our boats. We trudged up a small rise to a larger turnout, walking apart, each lost in thought. As our ride came into view, I wondered what Neville was thinking about his rather brutal initiation into epic suffering in the name of a good adventure. I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. 

    That…..” Neville said as he dumped his armload of gear into the collective pile, “was awesome.” 

    I smiled. My sentiments exactly. 

    Files from the vault

    The 'vault' is actually a cd that i just rediscovered with a bunch of pics, videos, and stories of my exploits from 2006 to early 2007 when i was living in New Zealand.  It was during this time that i truly married the concepts of serious adventure and serious endurance.  I somehow survived.  Here is my first big adventure:

    File #1:  A very long day

    South coast of New Zealand
    A Very Long Day

    I absolutely love maps.  I can, to my wife’s occasional displeasure, spend hours scouring a detailed topo map and planning possible adventures.  It’s particularly easy to be overly ambitious when doing so too; I always imagine the best case scenario and determine what is realistic based on this optimism. 

    Being a new father, I have less play time than ever and have become even more concerned with maximizing my outdoor value.  My latest idea was to catch a Jet Boat across Lake Hauroko to Teal Bay hut, pack-raft down the Wairaurahiri River, and run out the South Coast track to the Bluecliffs car park.  A week before the trip, while considering the estimated timeline, I figured (using optimism of course) that the river would take 4 hours and the run another 4.  The boat would reach the hut at around 10:30, which would put me at the car around dark.  This sounded perfect, except that the wasted morning light weighed on my conscience.

    I decided with excitement to cancel the boat ride and instead run the Teal Bay route to get to the start of the river.  This revised plan would include running a 20 kilometre trail that, according to the DOC was ‘lightly cut through bush and scrub, 27 kilometres of class II white-water along the ‘longest waterfall in New Zealand’, and finally 33 more kilometres of running to the car.  It was a proposed 90 kilometre day and since I hoped to finish in about 10-12 hours, I told my wife I’d be home for a late dinner.

    Mark Crouchley, age 16
    My only partner was Mark, a 16 year old student of mine. It was a big risk for both of us, but as no one else could be talked into going, it would have to do. As it turned out he was the perfect choice - fit, naïve enough to accompany me, and with a penchant for suffering typical of a seasoned ultra-endurance athlete. 

    high above lake Hauroko

    We left the car at about 8:30 AM, running through the bush towards the shores of the lake and the start of the Teal Bay route.  In our packs we had our boats, paddles, river clothes, life-jackets, food, water and first aid kit; we were carrying about 10 kilograms each. 

    The route was marked by orange triangles on trees and, despite often lacking a trail, was surprisingly easy to follow.  Three and a half hours into our journey we had run and walked our way to the high point of this first leg and were rewarded with brilliant views of the lake 500 meters below. Less than an hour later we had descended steeply to the lake and paused briefly at Teal Bay hut for food and to sign the log book.  It had taken us 4 hours and 20 minutes to travel the 18 km – more than the three we had estimated, but a fair bit less than the 9 hours that signposts indicate.

    A two kilometre jog put us on rocky beach at the very southern end of the lake, right where the current starts to become purposeful.  We unloaded the boats, blew them up, tied on our gear, and shoved out into the river.  It was 2 PM – 5 hours before absolute darkness.   But we had a strong north wind behind us and were happy to be off our feet. 

    Mark on the river
    The Wairaurahiri has an average gradient of nearly 7 meters per kilometre. Although it was very fast, it was far too tame for Mark, even though this was only his second time in a pack-raft.  The main hazards were strong eddy lines, sweepers, an occasional log jam, and the two jet boats full of passengers on their way back upstream.  We reached the end of the river at a quarter to six and spent the next half an hour drying out and packing up inside the hut to escape the swarming sand flies. 

    Near the end of the river

    By this time we were fairly exhausted – having been on the go for about 10 hours straight.  It was nearly dark and we pulled out our head torches only to discover that mine was completely dead.  In an attempt to buoy our morale, we reasoned that the track would be straightforward and we could still make 8 km an hour, despite sharing the light.  Furthermore, our timing was looking to be perfect for the low-tide shortcut near Port Craig which would cut out about half an hour.  We were wrong on every count.

    The track was like a tunnel – wide as a single lane road, flanked by 2 metre high walls of earth, and domed by trees.  Although it was nearly a full moon, no natural light got through.  We felt like we were underground, an experience that was reinforced by the abundance of glow-worms inhabiting the undercut banks on either side of the path.  Our world shrank to the cone of soft white LED light coming from the torch.  It was surreal.  We ran when we could but were mostly reduced to a forced march. Although it was wide, the mud was so deep it sucked off my shoes on more than one occasion.  It took us just under 3 hours to get to the Port Craig school house, half way to the car park.

    at the port Craig schoolhouse

    We ducked into the school house for a brief rest at around 9:30.  The hut was super warm - there were two Italian trampers who had just turned in and the fire was still going.  When we told them we were just passing through they thought we were joking.  When they found out where we had begun our day they thought we were mad.  When they asked if such an adventure was the typical way Kiwis celebrated Easter, we just nodded and pressed on. 

    The low tide short-cut looked promising at first.  We ran by moonlight across flat hard sand for about a kilometre before coming to a spot where the coast jutted out and the way was blocked by slick black rocks.  Picking our way through these took either lots of time or lots of coordination and we had none of the latter by now.  As we pressed on we hit more rocks and less sand but were too stubborn (or too optimistic) to turn back.  Our tide information was probably wrong too – we had to skirt around a few sections of cliff by wading through the cold sea with water up to our waists.

    This should be on the map, right?  Viaduct near midnight.

    After two hours on the beach we decided that we must have passed the spot where the ‘short-cut’ route rejoined the main track.  Picking a break in the cliffs, we clawed our way into the bush, inching up the bluffs with our remaining strength. A couple hundred meters and half an hour later we were completely lost in the dense undergrowth.  We decided this would be as good a time as any to consult the GPS. 

    We’d travelled less than 4 kilometres in the last 2 hours and left the beach too early. On our descent back to the bluffs I managed to fall 6 meters down a broken escarpment, landing on my back.  Luckily the bush softened the landing and although my hip was badly bruised, I couldn’t really differentiate this new pain from all the other aches I’d accumulated throughout the day.

    Back at the car.  I still have the jacket and tights!

    Back on the sand, we found the correct exit only 50 meters from where we’d made our botched ascent.  It climbed hundreds of brutal stairs to the top of the cliffs, where the track continued in a straightforward manner to the car park, another 12 kilometres away.  It was 2:35 AM when we un-shouldered our loads – 18 hours and five minutes after we began – a very long day.

    I was home for an early breakfast. It was a week before I looked at another map.  

    Iceman Registration Open AND CH 2 of END-AR24 video!

    Yeah, this post is chock full of goodies!  To begin with (as advertised) registration for the ColdAvenger Extreme North Dakota Iceman Triathlon, presented by Due North is NOW OPEN!  Just visit the END-IT page to sign up.  We're going with a bit different format this year for the registration process in an effort to keep prices right where they were last year.  Make sure you have fun answering the questions!

    Presenting sponsor Due North's traction aids
    will keep you slip free all winter

    Hydroflask will keep your
    beverage piping hot during
    winter bike rides

    Early registration prices will be available until the end of the year (through Dec 31st), so sort out your team now.  Swag this year is going to include traction aids from presenting sponsor Due North as well as a custom double walled water bottle from Hydroflask.  This is the best water bottle you'll ever own (unless you buy another Hydroflask) - and we're going to recommend you put it right to use during the race.  This baby will keep hot cocoa hot for 8-10 hours even when left outside in a snowbank, and it'll  fit in your bike bottle're gonna love em!  We're working to offer some super cool special deals to racers as well (from ColdAvenger of course, Ibex, etc) so stay tuned.

    Finally, check out the second chapter of our movie that gives an inside look at the first edition of END-AR24, the toughtest race in North Dakota.

    Digging holes

    I had a discussion with Tom Fisher at our recent 12 hour Mt. Bike race about digging holes.  Tom was 10 and a half hours in to a 12 hour race and upon reaching the end of his thirteenth lap (and the nice warm lodge) had decided to quit.  Now Tom is aspiring to be a pretty hard-core adventurer/endurance athlete.  He's also only 18.  I couldn't let him do it.

    You see, Tom had a unique opportunity.  He had spent the last 10 hours digging himself a pretty deep hole.  His body was trashed - broken down from pushing through lap after lap after little sleep the night before.  Mentally he felt like he had little to nothing left to give.  He hadn't been finding any enjoyment in the race for hours, and by all accounts he deserved to be able to stop.  But if he had, he'd have missed it.  He'd have given up the opportunity that he'd worked so hard and suffered for so long to create - to see if he could dig just a little deeper.

    Endurance undertakings always end in a hole.  Some people only let themselves dig so deep - maybe so that they can still peek out of the top and feel confident that they will be able to climb out when all is said and done.  But serious endurance undertakings are a bit harder to train for, because they usually involve, at least for me - going beyond this mental safety zone.  Did Tom feel destroyed?  Sure.  But what if he'd been in the middle of nowhere?  A jungle, the desert, or a frozen wasteland like on the Arrowhead trail that he completed last year?  The option to stop because he feels destroyed is gone.  If he doesn't have the mental fortitude so suck it up and soldier on he might really be at risk out there one day.

    I, personally, am a suffer-o-phile through and through. For me the thought of stopping with an hour and a half left in a race doesn't even enter my consciousness unless i'm certain i'm risking irreparable injury.  But I'm the odd man out, and at our event many competitors with less ambition in terms of future extreme endurance undertakings stopped early because riding was no longer fun.  That's probably the right call for them and i'd never try to change their minds or shame them into continuing.  But make no mistake about it - i've got no qualms doing just that with Tom, or any like him, who dream of ten day adventure races, 'too much fun' type expeditions, or other feats of extreme endurance.

    It took nearly half a day for Tom to create his opportunity - to be able to decide to press on when 'all circuits' were off.  And as often happens when that decision is made, the hour or so afterward - his last lap - was the best of the day.

    Long overdue!

    Here, at long last, is the first video from the hardest race in north dakota - END-AR 24