Date: 20-22 January 2018
After entering for the Ring Of Fire event coming up early in April, we thought it might be a good idea to see what we are actually letting ourselves in for. We have tramped the Round the Mountain Track a couple of times with backpacks, tenting and generally being prepared for anything the mountain throws at us, so knew the terrain we are heading into. But we were more than keen to experience the challenging terrain a bit more “light-footed”, without the burden of a heavy pack. I always associated the toughness of the track with carrying a heavy pack and wearing less agile footwear. On the down side, should something happen, we would only have our emergency gear with us which might keep us alive, but would be very uncomfortable should the weather turn to custard.
The big brother event by the same name, Ring O’ Fire, is held annually in the UK in August. It is a 135-mile coastal footrace around the Isle of Anglesey, in North Wales. Staged over three consecutive days, it is reputably one of the most challenging ultras in the UK, set in an area that “has been designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’”. 2018 will see the seventh running of this event, and man o’ man, if only money grew on trees …
Loosely basing our 3-day fat-ass event on this UK challenge, we thought it would be a nice way to do the local Ring Of Fire event as a manageable (easy?) 3-day run. Being a huge fan of this sort of thing, I naively assumed that a lot of other runners/walkers would also be keen, so we announced our intentions on a few running-related FB platforms. It is, after all, a great way to train and test all sorts of things, from clothing, hydration, nutrition, shoes, to the terrain itself. Not only can one experience the Round the Mountain Track in a uniquely different way, but it could also be a way to see how you would cope to keep going day after day for the three days. Being fairly short days in the world of multi-day staged events, this is presumably really easy. What is not to like?
One of our runner friends offered their ski-club lodge as basecamp/accommodation for every night as it seemed that quite a few runners and walkers might be interested. With some people anticipated to stay at the lodge, and other driving up for individual days only, we decided to keep things simple and meet at the carpark opposite the information centre at Whakapapa Village each morning at 7am, and depending on the amount of runners and/or walkers who pitch up, drive a couple of cars to the finish of each day, leave some there and drive back to the start with another. Once that’s done, we could all start running at about 9am.
Sounds simple enough, eh? But when it got down to business, it was only Gary and us starting day one, and unfortunately he had to pull out after the first day due to an injury.
For these runs, Gerry and I decided to up our calories (and fluid) intake, to experiment a bit more. Instead of the 155cal/hour I took on the 60km long-run, I decided to aim for 200cal/hour. Gerry carefully weighed everything in packets of 100 calories to make gaging our intake a bit easier.
And this is our best discovery yet (you’ve read it here first!) 🙂 – instead of just adding electrolyte to our water, we added 10g of chia seeds to each of our chest bottles. You may not know this, but chia seeds contain a whopping 486cal per 100g. No wonder the Tarahumara used it as the ultimate fuel for their long excursions! By adding just 10g, you have about 50+ additional calories on top of everything else.
Day 1 – Whakapapa Village to Ohakune Mountain Road
Altitude: Lowest 1120 – Highest 1538
On the Friday before our ‘event’, on the way to the mountain, we were in contact with Gary who was on his way from Paraparaumu, just a few kilometres ahead of us on the same road. We all arrived at the ski-lodge between 5pm and 6pm. At the lodge, it took a wee while to get everything going – water, hot water cylinder, power, etc, as everything is turned off during the off season. As a result it was fairly late that we fired up the stove to cook some dinner. Having a couple of glasses and chatting away, we ended up going to bed quite late. And by then I was wide awake, so not much sleep was had.
At 7am the next morning, we were ready and waiting at the Whakapapa Village carpark, in case anyone else was driving up for the day. A few people indicated that they might come along for one or two of the days. We waited a few minutes, but soon realised that it would be only us. So with three souls for the first leg of the track, it meant that we could have a car at the start and one at the finish. Easy, so off we drove to leave a car at the finish before heading back to the start.
At 9:15 we were on our way. Trying to find the route (it starts off on the Silica Rapids Loop Track) we started of at a trot in the bush. It soon turned out that we would not go through this day with dry feet. We were well aware of the gazillion stream crossing still to come, but the first section in the bush was already quite muddy. By hook or by crook, we managed to stay dry for the first roughly 6km. By then we had passed the Golden Rapids (so called due to the high iron content in the water) and were already on the other side of the forest area and onto the Whakapapaiti Valley Track, en route to the Whakapapaiti Hut. Trotting along on the wooden boardwalk, coming from the front was no other than our mate John. He was planning to run the whole track in one day and was already nearing the end of the first leg, having started at Ohakune Mountain Road and going clockwise (we were going counter-clockwise). After a quick catchup and a few laughs we were going our separate ways.
Running up the valley along the wide valley floor, we finally reached one of the more dangerous stream crossings. There are currently three potentially risky stream-crossings altogether, one being the temporary crossing of the Whanganehu River in the lahar valley where maintenance is being done to the swing-bridge. Having done the first two before, I sort of knew what was to come. These streams are usually only a problem after heavy rains when they are in flood. We crossed the Whakapapaiti stream without any problems and were on our way to the Whakapapaiti Hut where we stopped to fill up water bottles and use the loo, before being on the road again in about 15 minutes. The terrain got increasingly more technical – muddy, wet, loads of stream crossing, curvy, narrow paths in tussock, alternating with rock and stone. We were not going very fast, let alone trying to run. This is definitely not the time to throw caution to the wind and risk straining or breaking anything. Very slippery sections in muddy and narrow trenches also made for some difficult and slow going.
By this stage we were, for the most part, reduced to a walk. I guess if it was a race or if I was forced to go faster, I could have managed a slightly faster pace. Maybe. But the purpose of this three-day-fat-ass run was mainly to test out a variety of stuff, among others our own capabilities over this sort of terrain. Not something we’ve done in the past year or so.
Crossing a million valleys (among others the Manganui-o-te-Ao and the Makatoti) meant going up and down all the time. There are literally no flat bits on this track. Before long, we were surprised by Lake Surprise (a shallow alpine tarn) visible in the distance before heading down a steep rock face on a long set of steps. After rounding Lake Surprise on a boardwalk, we scrambled down the ridge and into the valley below where we had to cross the second of the potentially hazardous streams – the Mangaturuturu River. Making it through just fine, we reached the hut by the same name, where we stopped for a pee and to fill up water bottles.
From the hut it is a short walk to the Cascades. This is one of the main attractions of the track and droves of people annually make the trek from Ohakune Mountain Road past the cascades to spent a night at the Mangaturuturu hut, before heading back up. Others just make a day trip to the Cascades and back. The rocks are cream-coloured due to the silicon deposit from the stream and it is quite a spectacle. Clambering up and over the cascades, we only had a short bit of the rock strewn path left, another up and over and down and up again, before reaching Ohakune Mountain Road. By this time muscles were pulverised and knees pounded sufficiently that we just walked the 3+km down the tarred road back to the car.
The weather for our first day could not have been better; partly cloudy and warm with almost no wind, no rain and just the odd bit of mist/cloud drifting in and out of the valleys. Maybe a bit on the hot side for most, but I still managed to do the whole day with a polypropylene vest, a polypropylene T on top, and long pants.
In terms of nutrition, I ended up eating a lot less than on our 60km training long-run. Having to concentrate on the terrain makes it far more difficult to get stuff out of zip-log bags or wrapping etc, and being on high alert to watch your footing and not to trip over something, one tends to forget to eat.
In total I consumed: 1 gel, 2.5 Frooze balls, 45g jelly sweets, 50g dates, 1 apple and 35g chickpea chips. In terms of hydration: I totalled 2.2 litres of fluid, of which 800ml Nuun-chia mix. I did fatigue a bit more, but that could be as a result of the terrain rather than a nutritional faux pass.
Day 2 – Ohakune Mountain Road to Tukino Ski Road
Altitude: Lowest 1566 – Highest 1145
After a nice dinner replenishing lost nutrients, and a couple of glasses, we were ready to take on day two. With Gary’s lingering injury, he thought it best not to continue on and potentially cause more damage. That left only Gerry and myself for the section between Ohakune Mountain Road and Tukino Ski Road. Thankfully Gary offered to help us get our car to the end, and take us back to the start, before driving home to Wellington. Thanks mate, we owe you.
By 9:45 Gerry and I started off along a nice trail in the forest towards the Waitonga Falls, the first landmark of this section. It was very hot and by the time we reached the waterfall, we both took off our polypropylene vests. The temperature was once again quite high, with even less wind than the previous day, some cloud and still no rain.
From the get-go, the prospect of later crossing the hazardous Whanganehu River in the lahar valley kept gnawing away in the back of my mind, to such an extent that I soon developed a nagging headache. Due to maintenance work on the swing bridge, prospective track users have to cross the river without aid, and from past trips I knew that this was quite a fierce, fast-flowing river. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could cross it, and the thought of being swept away (or worse, as my overactive imagination had no problem coming up with all kinds of crazy scenarios), put a damper on the biggest part of the day. As if to reinforce my worst fears, we encountered a party of four trampers coming from the front, who told us that they had to find a spot about 500 metres upstream to cross thigh deep, with arms interlocked, crossing in unison. We were only two souls and knee deep streams are usually more than enough to sweep my feet from under me!
The first 2kms in the forest, crossing little streams all dry footed, should be runnable on fresh legs. But a full day of rock-hopping up and down valleys, left my legs feeling heavy right from the start. I simply couldn’t lift my feet high enough, seemed to have lost all form of agility, and generally couldn’t muster anything more than a lame shuffle at the very few spots that were runable. Again, if you are a young, fit and strong lad/lass you might be able to run a lot more. Me? Not so much. I simply don’t have the muscle strength to keep lifting my knees high enough to clear all the roots and rocks for hours and hours on end, let alone on consecutive days.
After what felt like a very long time, we reached the Manganuehu Hut where we topped up water bottles. Not long after, we emerged above the tree line and into the desert. Rock and stones as far as the eye can see made for very tough going. Another very technical day, where I was reduced to a walk for most of the way.
Going up one side and down the other over an endless array of valleys and ridges we finally reached the Waihianoa Gorge. Its shear size is mind-boggling. The swing-bridge at the bottom of the valley is just a tiny speck. As we sidled down the valley, I tried not to look down and just follow the narrow path, carefully watching the placing of my feet. Finally at the bottom (with a few more grey hair), we crossed the one-person swing bridge, only to start clambering out the other side on an equally steep slope.
From there the up-and-down track continues through the rocky landscape, more evidence that we were in a volcanic landscape. We reached the Rangipo Hut at about 3pm. Again filling up water bottles, Gerry had a chat with the two guys that were inside the hut, while he jotted down our intentions in the visitors book. One came from the front, and the other was going in the same direction as us, but was spending the night at the hut. The chap who already crossed the river said that it was okay. Although he was by himself, he managed fine. He also mentioned that he did cross at the spot that was indicated by DOC. This very slightly eased my mind, having been in a tizz the whole day.
When we finally reached the river, my stress-level was in the red. The water is a creamy white (presumably to high silica content), so there is no way to gauge its depth, and only a few metres downstream is a massive waterfall. I could feel my knees starting to shake a little. So Gerry went in first. The noise levels of the water between the rocks was so overwhelming, we could barely hear each other. After negotiating our options, we swopped places, as I thought with Gerry being much stronger, should I slip and be swept off my feet, he could pull me back. Whereas if it was the other way around, we would likely both go downstream. The water came up to my thigh as I stepped in, and as I tried to slide my leg forward agains the pull of the water, I was relieved that it didn’t seem to get much deeper. It looked as if there might be a spot in the middle that could make a dip, but with the water being white from the silica sediment, it was impossible to know. Luckily I managed to wedge my foot behind a rock which helped a bit on the next step. Gerry started to follow as I was probably crushing his hand holding on. I know we were supposed to cross next to each other in unison, with the stronger person upstream, but by this stage all rational thought was out the door. I just wanted to get across and be done with it. Besides, it seemed do-able if I could only hold on to something for balance. Which was Gerry’s unfortunate hand.
The water level stayed more or less the same – no nasty dips in the middle – and we made it over without incident and life was good. It was probably not such a major issue as I made it out to be, but fears and phobias are exactly that – irrational. Can you tell I have a very healthy (bordering on irrational) respect for water, spurred on by and overactive imagination? Thankfully the ROF race organisers promised to have the bridge fixed by the time of the race.
From here the undulations continued until we finally reached the Tukino Skifield Road around 4.30pm. Following the 4WD track down the mountain, we could finally jog a little back to the car. It was roughly 2.2km back to the carpark, but we parked further down the road as it was in a terrible state and when we dropped off our car in the morning we were worried we might get stuck. As a result we ended up having to run about 4.6km to get back to the wee white one.
This remains my favourite leg to the Round the Mountain track, despite all the hazardous spots. I love deserts and wide open spaces and this part of the mountain offers some breathtaking scenery.
At the time we were making our way around the mountain, I couldn’t help but think about the ROF event. The list of health and safety issues must be as long as my arm, and I thought the organisers very brave to take on this mammoth task. I’m really glad they did (someone had to!) and although you hardly ever hear of anyone getting injured or die on the Round the Mountain Track, it still feels to me as if a million things can go wrong. And should you fall and break something, or hit your head agains a rock, it would result in a massive rescue operation. Fingers crossed nothing like that will happen!
Overall, I can honestly say that if you’re not really strong (muscle and mind), you will battle. As I well and truly did. If the mud doesn’t make life difficult enough, the trenches will. Not to mention the sometimes waist high steps. And if that all sounds easy enough, lets talk about the boulders and rocks. We are, after all, circling a volcano that has spit out an endless supply of rocks over a great number of years.
Although I’m rather scared, I am also really looking forward to the event. With a cut-off of 20 hours, I might be one of the souls at risk of not finishing in time. But there’s still two months left, and if heaps of squats, lunges, deadlifts and the like don’t get me in a better place, then I don’t know what will.
In total I consumed: .75 of a gel, 2.5 Frooze balls, 36g jelly sweets, 36g dates, 1 apple and 20g chickpea chips. In terms of hydration: I totalled about 2 litres of fluid, of which 800ml Nuun-chia mix. Even less than the day before.
We only arrived back at the lodge at about 6:30pm, had a quick shower before heading down to Whakapapa Village for dinner at The Tussock pub. Gutted about having to can day three, we were still hopeful that something will come up. I briefly considered asking someone in the pub for a drop-off (with compensation of course), but thought the better of it.
Day 3 – Tukino Skiefield Road to Whakapapa Village
Enquiries at ROAM, one of the Tongariro Crossing shuttle services, were first met with uncertainty. They don’t really go that way but could make an exception and drop us of at Tukino Road for the third stretch of the track, at the prohibitive price of “at least $200 – probably more”. At that price, we could rather enter the Tussock Traverse and be done with it. So we unfortunately had to give up the endeavour after day two. It’s a real shame, but nothing we could do. And running out-and-back was really not on the cards. That would mean we’d have to run 52km, shower, pack up, and then still do the trip back to Palmy to start the working week as per usual the next day.
On this somewhat anti-climactic note, we decided to call it a day, so we packed up and drove back to Palmy in no hurry.