Hill repeats with weights – Aorangi Undulator marshalling duties on the mountain ridge above Washpool Hut

Another year of not doing this event, but this time we opted to marshal. I’ve always been  partial to multi-day runs, which is maybe why I also love tramping so much. So while we were in no state to participate, we thought it would be nice to experience a wee bit of the event at some level. Event organiser Chris Martin (aka Martini) agreed to have us, and placed us at the peak of the fourth “undulation”about 2-3km above Washpool Hut in the Aorangi Ranges. The Aorangi Undulator comprises of a 100km event (the A100), run over the three days, and a one day event of about 32km, which is also the middle day of the A100 – the day we marshalled.

Not familiar with the area at all, we decided to make a weekend hike of it and explore the area somewhat. We ended up not having much time to explore further than the first hut, but at least we got to see that area.

Leaving Palmy a bit after 11am, it took us roughly three hours (including a lunch stop) to arrive at the Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite. Donning hiking boots and filling up water bottles, we were finally off at 2:45pm. A bit of a late start for a near 10km hike over very steep terrain with ridiculously heavy packs. In addition to carrying gear for absolutely ALL eventualities, including some emergency stuff incase a runner needs shelter, or a warm cup of tea/coffee/soup, we also had a a heap of gels to hand out, as well as a tonne of food for ourselves. Not sure why we decided to go crazy with the amount of food!

It was slow going, starting at sea level and walking across a 700 metre peak (testicle-specticle comes to mind), only to descend on the other side to Washpool Hut at 250 metres. And if only it was that simple. We got lost a couple of times, I managed to get gorse between my back and my backpack (not fun) on the gorse-laden stretch that Martini called “Gorse Alley”, saying “like taking off a plaster this is best done quickly”. I got stung twice by stinging nettle (luckily only small spots), and also traversed some scary ridges and gnarly steep terrain. None of which would be quite as daunting, was it not for our heavy packs and rigid boots.

Maybe we dilly-dallied too much going at a leisurely pace in the beginning, chatting away and just lingering on the trails, enjoying the lovely sunlight and beautiful day (how often does one get the chance to just play outside and in the mountains), but it was only about 6:30pm by the time we reached the highest point and were starting to make our way down toward the hut on the other side of the mountain. Of course if we were traveling light and with trail running shoes, it would be a different story. But boots and a heavy pack makes one infinitely less agile and any mishap can result in a spectacular face plant with a 20kg pack on top!

By 8pm it was getting fairly dark in the forest, and there was no way of knowing exactly where we were or how far from the hut (yeah … should have brought a proper map, compass, etc). I kept wondering at what point we should stop to take out our headlamps. Obviously you want to do that before it gets too dark to find it, but all along it felt like we should be very close. While slipping and sliding down the mountain, I could hear the stream far below, but was expecting to smell the smoke from the fireplace at the hut. That way we would know we are on track and not too far to go. The two hut marshals for the event were meant to be there already (or so we thought) so I was certain we were still a long way away from the hut if we can’t smell a fire.

It took all of 1.5 hours of non-stop, knee-jarring steep decent to cover the 2-3km downhill stretch to the hut and when we finally arrived a bit after 8pm, it was deserted. I found it odd and a little unnerving (where were the other two?), but without a radio and no cellphone reception there was absolutely nothing we could do. We finally figured they would probably make the trip early in the morning. Within a couple of minutes we got the fire going while getting some food on the stove, and poured a tipple.

We spent a lovely night out in the sticks, in a tiny hut (sleeps 6) in a valley between nothing and nowhere. With bursting full bellies (filled with mash potatoes, re-hydrated mixed veg and tuna), we retired to bed by 11pm in the cosy and warm wee hut. That is the good life – any other form of existence pales in comparison.

Much to our surprise, shortly before midnight, Greg and Barrett rolled in. At first I thought I had too much bourbon, but low and behold – these two decided to do just about the whole trip in the dark. And why not?

This is where I have a confession to make. We (still) don’t own a PLB. And while this trail/track might not seem like a big deal, the valley and everything around the hut does not have cellphone reception. Should anything happen to either of us two (while we were by ourselves), we would be screwed to put it mildly. People do much more extreme stuff and survive to tell the tale, but for the same price something stupid can happen and we might be stuffed. So this is my promise to us that we will not venture into the back country again without a PLB.

On the morning of the Aorangi Undulator, it was raining. Gerry fetched water from the stream and got the billy going for some coffee before we finally set off after nine to walk back up the massive hill to our marshalling spot.

Again, looking like pack donkeys carrying much more than was needed, we slowly made our way up the mountain. The wind started picking up, and sweating from effort and in combination with the rain we ended up being very wet by the time we reached the highest point. Gerry decided to forego his rain jacket, as he was soaked to the bone from sweat anyway, and thought he would “save” it for when we stop. As is the case with a hotspot, if you don’t stop and treat it immediately, you risk developing a massive blister. Needless to say, Gerry was just about hypothermic by the time we reached our spot for the day, after going all the way to the highest point before turning around to try and find a more sheltered spot somewhere on the ridge a bit lower down. And of course going downhill one doesn’t exert as much energy, so we cooled down very fast.

While I was pitching the tent, Gerry started taking photos of the runners. He was shivering so much, that some of them ended up being blurry! The moment we stopped, both of us lost heaps of our body temperature and with numb fingers it was difficult to try and do anything. While Gerry was getting out of his wet clothes to put on dry, warm and wet-weather gear, I got the stove going for some much needed tea. After a first warm cup, we almost felt normal again and the rain turned into fog being blown horizontally over the ridge. The camera lens kept fogging up, which also didn’t help for sharpness, but we had fun having a yarn with the runners. I kept on feeding us with Bliss/Frooze balls, cup-a-soup, coffee, tea, mocha, corn cakes with salami and cheese, more date balls, jelly sweets, you name it, we got it. Mostly to keep warm. Even though the day before (and the day after) were sunny and beautiful, the day of the one-day Undulator was cold and windy, which was probably okey whilst running.

Somewhere between 3 and 4pm, the tail-end Charlie brought up the rear with Greg and Barrett. I was impressed to see that the tequila they had at their aid-station was finished. Good folk these trail runners who don’t shy away from a wee challenge. 🙂

Gerry and I packed up, chucked the wet tent and clothes into a dry-bag, and started walking down the hill again. It was amazing to see what a difference a hundred people can make to a trail. Where it was very faint previously, it was now a well worn-out track where the need to scout for orange triangles ceased to exist. It was slow going as some parts were also more wet, muddy and slippery than before. We reached the hut again in 1.5 hours and immediately went down to the stream to fetch water. I got the fire going while Gerry was chopping more wood. And while the dehydrated food was soaking on the fire place (that is such a luxury!) we had a few more tipples contemplating life, the universe and everything else, but mostly agreeing to try and do the 100km next year.

The wind was still blowing, but the rain had stopped. We hung all the wet gear above the fireplace to dry out. It was after 11pm when we eventually went to bed. No hunters or other trampers made a midnight appearance, so we had the hut all to ourselves.

The sun was shining again the next day, and after a lazy start, some coffee and a bite to eat, we took on the hill yet again mid-morning. My muscles were quite sore, so the going was slow. With the dilly-dallying two days prior, and getting lost, the trip took us 5.5hours. With sore muscles and a lunch stop, the return trip back took 6.5 hours. We only arrived back at the car around 5pm, before driving back to Palmy.

It was good to get out and see a wee bit of that area. Not sure if I would hike it again. It will be much more fun to travel light and go faster. But I won’t dare complain – as Martini noted in his Aorangi Undolator website, “showing weakness will be booed”. 🙂

 

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