Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Alpine Mountain Marathon

I just wrote this up for Endurance Sport magazine. I am deliberately trying to break the adventure sport reporting mould. Lets just call it a more holistic approach.

Competitors in the Inaugural Alpine Mountain Marathon traversed the rugged edges of the newly formed Hakatere Conservation Park, ploughing up the slopes of Mt Somers, twisting through the streams of the Stour and the Swin before cascading from the slopes of the Clent Hills to the finish on the glassy Lake Heron.

Mountain Marathons can best be described as competitive tramping races. Teams, self sufficient with shelter and food, journey through wild terrain using their endurance, cunning and bush skills to edge ahead of rival teams competing to reach the overnight campsite first, and then the finish. It's orienteering writ large, rogaining with racing, adventure racing without the complications.

With the success of the government's tenure review programme huge new areas are being opened to the public in the back-country of the South Island. Opportunities for tramping, hunting, mountain biking and 4WDing are expanding quickly, while the potential for more exciting events whether they be commercial or not for profit, that can help to alert the outdoors community to these new possibilities is massive.

The Alpine Mountain Marathon set out with this purpose to showcase the brand new Hakatere Conservation park a vast area of rugged hills, rivers and wetlands centred on the Ashburton Lakes Region famous for its high country stations such as Erewhon and Mt Potts. The Hakatere conservation park includes the popular Mt Somers Area; replete with its unique geology, startling canyons, and startled skinks but unfortunately without its once famous sauna; as well as the nationally important O Tu Wharekai wetlands.

However the brave competitors didn't know this when they rocked up to cathedral square on a rainy Saturday morning. The location was a mystery only to be revealed by a nervous bus trip (shouldn't all event organisers internalise the transport costs and ensure environmental efficiency?). As the bus headed south the skies quickly cleared and by Rakaia the foothills could be seen clearly with a light dusting of snow. As the bush headed through Mt Somers and hung a right the Woolshed Creek start was revealed. A quick briefing and the teams were off into the beech forest.

They were soon to find this was a navigation event with an interesting twist. The organisers had chosen several interesting areas to map in fine detail, an old mining area, a giant cascade of boulders (otherwise known as the water caves), and the scenic environs of a hut where an interesting feature was an array of 44 gallon drums fashioned into dog kennels. It was straight into the old mining area, with checkpoints scattered through the flotsam and jetsam, and trolleys and sluicings.

Courtesy of course planner for the day, adventure racing world champion Chris Forne, it was then straight up the tussocky talllused slopes of Mt Somers, although not before the depths of Watershed Creek had been plummeted for a waterfall control. Out of the blocks quickly were the favourites, Aucklanders surprisingly. Phil Wood of Lactic Turkey fame is one of the countries best navigators while Ross Rotherham has been known to do well in the odd multisport race, including that little one in February they call the Coast to Coast. They were followed by a bevy of top outdoors people; the Prince family was out in force, West Coast nut bar Tim Sikma was grinning and suffering, while World Rogaine Champion Dennis de Monchy was looking mean.

Down off Mt Somers and the Aucklanders maintained a slight advantage having mastered the maze of the water caves. At Woolshed creek hut organisers were ensuring all teams were disinfected for didymo before they headed off west into the Stour catchment and around the fringes of the O Tu Wharekai. The metaphorical journey began here; a change of horizons from the wide deforested expanse of the plains to the flickering golden mountainous basin. Te Wari of the Waitaha trod this land once spreading the Mana of Aotea Roa, forging the connection between the people and land. An age ago, but a moment ago in the vast landscape that greeted teams in the setting sun.

The long traverse of the Manuka range took its toll on competitors, many greeted the moon before they finally collapsed at the idyllic campsite and warm fire of Double Hut. By moonlight the silhouettes of the mountain ranges fringed the horizon and as the sun rose the first rays of light struck the Arrowsmith range across the valley on the other side of Lake Heron. Teams brewed up again for breakfast or just sat watching the sunrise. The Aucklanders still lead the long course “the Classic” while Colin and Chris Dixon were in front in “The Charmer”.

The idea was that the Classic would challenge even the most hardened teams, with cut-offs available for those who couldn't handle the pace. In the event no team finished the full course, creating a challenge for future years. The Charmer on the other hand was meant to be, well charming. A navigation challenge in rugged and beautiful terrain for older, younger and less confident competitors. An opportunity to smell the rosehip if you wanted to. From the get go on the second day this was achieved. After teams recovered from the surprise of micronavigation at the start, the Charmer teams traversed towards the mouth of the Swin while the Classic teams quickly thought up strategies to make the most of the time available. Many completing a loop along the Longwood range before returning to Double Hut and ascending the steep ridge to access terraces high above the Swin.

Early movers were the team of DeMonchy and Robert Jarvis. A bad error early on day 1 had reduced them to also-rans but they were determined to make ammends, opening up a 10 minute lead through brute physical force. High up the Swin river as it narrowed and Clent Hills saddle loomed teams were forced to make choices over which checkpoints to chase, the highest checkpoint carving across the scree at about 1800metres intimidating many. Jelly legs from the day before forced many to retreat tumvling down the true right of the Swin joining the Charmers on the alluvials fans and terraces feeding into Lake Heron.

To the finish and it was the mornings leaders who held their nerve to be greated first by the stink of the BBQ then by the happy organisers. Also worthy of mention were Aaron and Lara Prince mixed winners of the Classic course and second overall. After a relaxing afternoon, complete with a "mountains" and "marathons" quiz to decide the spot prizes provided courtesy of Montrail. The bus rolled off back to Cathedral Square, leaving the lake and the mountains lying in the sun. To check more photos and results look at

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