“What about Sunday?”
I look up at Oleg. Oleg is a bit of a mountain guru. If he’s asking this question it means that he’s fairly certain that we won’t finish in two days.
“I hope we aren’t still going on Sunday … but if that’s what it takes … I guess we keep going.” Famous last words …
It’s Wednesday and we have gathered at my place for dinner and a planning session. We hash out the logistics, and by the time the evening draws to a close Arielle and I are feeling much better about our weekend adventure. We have drawn up a tentative schedule, and it looks like we will have support throughout the entire journey. We could not have asked for a better scenario, and I find myself feeling overwhelmed with gratitude towards this fantastic trail running community.
Thursday evening comes quickly. I work until 6pm, and it’s well after 7pm by the time we’ve finished dinner and are ready to head out to our campsite for the night. The air smells of smoke from the nearby forest fires and the sunset is hazy. Arielle and I are concerned about our lungs – I’m not always the best at managing my asthma and smoke could cause it to flare up badly. We see some massive storm clouds gathering on the south end of the lake and hope that the rain will wash away the smoke.
That night it stormed violently. It was so loud that neither Arielle or I were able to sleep. When we woke up at 2:55am on Friday morning the air was smoke-free. All the pieces were falling into place.
We guzzled down some coffee and drove down to the Buller Pass trailhead for a 4am start. Patrick and Ryan were already there waiting for us, they had left home at 2:30am to meet us there. Thanks guys!
At 4:12am we said goodbye to Matt (who would be crewing us all weekend from the van) and then headed up the trail.
That morning was dark and chilly. I could see my breath in the light of my headlamp and my pack felt heavy. In addition to our extra clothing, we were each carrying 2L of water, a helmet, trekking poles and enough food to last us the next 7 hours. I started to drink water early – the more I drank the lighter my pack would get. We soon turned off the trail and began the steep bushwhack up to the ridge of Mount Engadine. Patrick picked a good route up through an old forest fire burn scar, and we soon found ourselves picking our way along the base of a cliff, looking for a weakness so that we could gain the ridge. The slope was very steep – at one point my foot slipped and I caught myself on the rocky slope with my face. Mmmm, dirt for breakfast.
We gained the ridge and discovered that the temperature was so cold that the rubber on our shoes was frozen. We had to be careful with every step to not slip; Mount Engadine is considered a difficult scramble, and a fall could be deadly. Some of the rocks were coated in ice and a thin layer of snow frosted the top of the mountain. We were not expecting winter in July, but here it was! The sun crested the horizon as we reached the summit and suddenly the early morning was worth it.
1 summit down, 9 to go.
We made a hasty exit off the peak. We were freezing! The snow highlighted a bit of a trail down through the scree, and we were able to descend quickly. We decided to take a different (hopefully quicker) route down via a drainage. I was feeling good and found myself leading the group with Ryan close behind me. Patrick and Arielle were a little ways back but I tried to make sure to keep them in sight. Ryan and I scrambled down a little waterfall and then descended a little further so we could empty rocks out of our shoes while we waited for Patrick and Arielle to catch up.
We had turned a corner after descending the waterfall so we didn’t have line of sight to see up the mountain. We waited for a few more minutes but still Patrick and Arielle did not appear; I realized I had made a mistake. Arielle has amazing endurance, but she takes awhile to warm up, and she had been struggling to keep pace on the way up the mountain. Now I had gotten too far ahead and she probably felt totally abandoned. I felt like a total jerk, and I’m certain she was thinking that as well.
Soon Patrick and Arielle reappeared and we were able to make our way down the rest of the mountain. They both let me know that I was an asshat … and then they forgave me. Friends again, we ran back down the trail to Buller Pass where Matt was waiting for us at the trail junction with water and snacks.
Total time: 4:20 (10 minutes ahead of schedule)
Total Distance: 9.7km
Total Elevation Gain: 1200m
The route up Buller was uneventful. There is nothing much to this mountain, except that it’s really steep. Arielle had finished her warm up and was moving really well; nothing like a 5 hour warm up to get you moving 🙂
Once again the summit was really cold and we hurried off the peak in search of warmer temperatures. I slipped and fell on some loose rubble, jarring my shoulder and hearing something snap. After a few deep breaths to manage the pain, the shoulder seemed okay.
The rest of the trip down went smoothly. We got back to the van so quickly that we found Matt having a nap. He hadn’t been expecting us for another half hour!
Total time on Buller: 2:45 (30 minutes ahead of schedule)
Total time on the trail: 7:09
Total Distance: 19.1km
Total Elevation Gain: 2250m
Back at the van, we decided to take some extra time to get in some calories and prepare for the long, route ahead. We each ate a sandwich, drank a Gatorade and changed our shoes. We had been wearing very lightweight shoes, but now we were headed out on a more remote and rugged, 3 peak loop so we needed something more robust on our feet. Unfortunately, when Arielle went to change her shoes she discovered that she had put two right shoes in the van (which meant that there were two left shoes back at the campsite). Rather than lose an hour driving back to the campsite we decided to just continue on with her wearing the light shoes. This was a mistake.
The 7km run from Buller to Red Ridge was actually more like 10km, I am famous for underestimating distance. We were both a little grouchy at the seemingly endless trail, but grouchiness at this point was expected.
Eventually we got to Red Ridge, and the infamous boulder field. Red Ridge has amazing views, and I think it would be a popular hike if it wasn’t for the boulder field slog. The rocks are very loose, and you have to take care with each step or a boulder may suddenly start falling down the mountain, crushing you underneath. We had been up Red Ridge twice before, but now it felt like the mountain was MUCH taller. We joked that it must be on steroids.
At some point we reached the ridge and were moving along towards the summit when suddenly Arielle yelled that her shoe had busted. We had gambled on bringing the wrong gear, and now we were paying for it. I had brought some duct tape along for emergency repairs, but it soon became shredded on the sharp rocks. Now we really had to put our creativity to the test. We had several extra buffs on us, so we used two of them to wrap her shoe like a slipper. It worked like a charm! Buffs have got to be one of the most useful items to bring up a mountain. I never go up a mountain without one.
Our friend Andrew had climbed up Red Ridge ahead of us so that he could get photos. Now he met us at the top, where he shared his peanut M&Ms and summit bacon. Mmmm, bacon. With Arielle’s new shoe/slipper contraption we were able to run/shuffle back down the mountain to Andrew’s car. Thank goodness Andrew was there for us, or we would have had to find a way to hitchhike back to the campsite!
When we finally got back to the campsite we found Matt hanging out in the van and Arielle was able to reunite her right and left shoes. We didn’t have enough daylight left to go back out and finish our 3 peak loop, however he did have enough time to go out and scramble Big Sister of the Orphan. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Once Arielle had her shoe troubles, I shifted all my focus to her and I stopped eating and drinking. By the time we got back to the campsite I was in the middle of a big fat bonk. I started shivering uncontrollably and my stomach turned sour. I changed into warm clothes, ate some food and tried to recuperate, but I felt like hell. I worried that I would start puking my guts out before we got half way up the mountain. Oleg’s voice echoed in the back of my mind. “Be safe girls.” “The mountain always wins.” The decision was made to spend the rest of the day recovering. We could push hard again on Saturday.
Total time on Red Ridge and the approach trail: 5:50
Total time on the trail: 13:00
Total Distance: 45km
Total Elevation Gain: 3250m