Friday, June 25, 2010

3 Peaks Trip Report

Warning: Possibly the longest trip report you will ever read on the 3 Peaks follows.
Provided in 5 Chapters (it may be quicker to do the 3 peaks than read this)

Chapter 1 - Introduction
After much hype, anticipation and detailed equipment preparations a group of 11 proud BMMC lined up to attempt or take part in a Three Peaks expedition over the recent June long weekend.

With a line up of expert endurance athletes from trail running and triathlon backgrounds, we set off from the gate on Narrow Neck at 8:20am. Yes I know, an “official 3 Peaks” starts 1km before the gate at the climbers car park – but hey isn’t the gate the natural modern day starting point if you’re not staring from the real/ original start on the end of Katoomba station?

Much is written about the 3 Peaks and for good reasons. It involves climbing up and down 4,000m of vertical elevation, walking at ridiculous times of the day, endurance, bush craft, self sufficiency and determination. It also has a strong bushwalker history with the first secular pilgrims completing the walk in 1957 – before Narrow Neck trail even existed.

We started with a group as diverse and hardened as the walk itself. Reading like a who’s who of Australian endurance sport, the team included, in age descending order: Old Donk, LL#2, Gunner, Tri Geek, the Animal, The Londoner, Mrs Londoner, Dr Phil, the Welsh Exchange student, Borey, and myself.

We merrily commenced out Narrow Neck on the cool Saturday morning, with the first stop at the end of Narrow Neck before descending down to Medlow Gap. Here we were caught by the final members to join the start team, mr & mrs Londoner who had had an extended breakfast in Katoomba. The first photo opportunity was taken on taros ladder.

I wondered at this point what we would be like on Monday afternoon when we got back to taros, what experiences would we have been through by then? As trip leader, I also wondered who would still be talking to me by the time we got out.

We spent the rest of the day mozieing on down to the Coxs River as everyone got acquainted with new packs, new boots and feelings in the legs not usually encountered in a typical week’s high mileage training schedule. I chatted to the Londoner about plans to traverse the Wollemi from north to south in September. He knew a fair bit too about my favourite explorers from the heroic age of exploration in Antarctica.

I am not sure where it happened, but by the time we were crossing the Cox’s we were split into 3 or 4 different groups. I brewed up a cuppa at the bottom of Yellow Pup so I could sit back and enjoy everyone independently making their way across the river and upstream to the clearing.

Only the Tri Geek knew where the clearing was from a previous trip – he charged off and most followed. Arriving where most were crossing the river I pushed up stream to avoid two river crossing (coxs and whalania) – arriving shortly after Tri Geek in the clearing. The remainder of the group eventually found the clearing by walking towards cooeeing signals from those at the camp site.

We soon settled into setting up camp, with most either collecting fire wood or filling up water bottles on whalania ck. It was a light hearted evening at camp, cooking and eating together. Gunner finished off his 2 litres of Port and set up his “tent” as he was called it.

We went over the next day, what to carry, and the chances of being out there over night (estimated at about 20%) and then all slowly went off to bed.

I’m not sure how many times I was allowed to re tell my old stories from previous adventures to anyone who would listen, but I thought they would provide light hearted entertainment as each story typically ended with me becoming: wet, cold, alone, frozen, hungry, in the wrong position, defeated, or a combination of all of these. Hopefully they had provided some idea of what “can” happen on these trips.

Chapter 2- The Contenders
LL#2 had previously decided to maintain base camp, and was now to be accompanied by Old Donk and an out of condition Gunner. Borey, possibly the fittest man in the patrol if not in Australia between the ages of 25-30, had chosen to wear Asics race flats for the walk in. These were now starting to shred into pieces and already hurting his feet. There was to be no 3 Peaks attempt for him with those shoes, plus he needed what was left on his feet to get out of Monday!

Also in doubt was Dr Phil, who was going to sensibly assess his feet condition in the morning. WES was making similar sensible claims around the camp fire that evening too.

Rumblings around the camp started at 420am ahead of our start time of 5am. High spirits and anticipation mixed well with the early breakfast and camp fire. At 501am we were off. We stepped over the wire (fence) and into the wild for an adventure. What would the day bring? The first order of the day, climb Gouoagang!

As we rose, the trail of 5 other head lights evenly spaced in the dark following me up the Mtn was a proud sight. Counting 2, 4 and 5 other head lights as I continually glanced back. Already the climb was getting tough, checking the watch at 5:24am – dam that’s only 23 mins, I was sure we were near the summit, must be the next summit, the next.

I had forgotten there were several small downhill bits on the way up Gouoagang.

We had allocated approx 2.5 to 3 hrs to be leaving the summit of Guouagang. We all paused soon after one of the hourly rest stops for a minute silence at the spot where Scambullant, had, in the infamous 2007 trip decided to turn back in full view of the summit. He has never been permitted to go camping with me since, and still refuses to discuss this trip with anyone to this very day, particularly his uncles.

We reached the summit after some time bashing through hardened wind pruned scrub on the top of Guoagang, eventually managing to find the easier path to the summit’s cairn on the West of the rough scrub. Bam – 1 peak down as we signed the log book. Time 7:57am and 3 mins within our scheduled cut off. We had no takers to turn back. We were committed now.

Time to find that South facing ledge over the Gouagang buttress, then the knife edge route down to Whalania Creek

After a bit of time doubling back onto the buttress we were dropping fairly quickly, over some beautiful rock formations. Noticing one well dug in camp site (i must come back here one time I thought, what a nice place to camp!). Here the tri geek sliced his palm open through his gloves on one of the razor sharp ledges.

As we were descending into Whalania ck, we managed to split from the rear two members of the group. We waited and agonised. What were they possibly doing? Why hadn’t they coo-eed? (obviously we had some rear echelon communication problems). Our cooees, and yells eventually establishing contact with them, they were 50-100m downstream. A further 25 mins later we were reunited on the climb up Paralyser (10:30am).

The separation experience reminded me of my favourite novel: ‘Bravo Two Zero’ when the rear 2 members of an 8 man British SAS patrol were separated from the front of the patrol as they were fleeing, on foot, from a gun fight with Saddams APC division in Northern Iraq during the Gulf War. Mind you, the SAS were in the middle of running two marathons across a dessert at night, and running for their lives through blizzard conditions. I figured the rear members of our team were in a similar state of distress.

We headed up the agonising Paralyser Steeps, where the gradient passes 45 degrees, and you are using your knees and palms as much as your quads to climb.

This time it was the front 2 members that became separated. Charging over the summit of Paralyser, missing the carin, they had ended up on/ or near Mt Cyclops. They waited 20mins before joining the dots that they had gone too far. After consulting their map they headed back towards where the cooees of the main group were now coming from (the logbook on paralyser).

At this point the “suggestion” was made that we should try and stay together. Spirits were high as we headed off Paralyser. We had experienced a few ‘group bonding’ moments, were back as one group, and now rather optimistic about our schedule.

At one stage heading down Paralyser we realised we were going off the wrong spur, and would miss Thunder Bend. We quickly adjusted and hit Kanangra Creek where we planned. We didn’t go up to Kuleatha Peak, instead going up to Mt Stormbreaker, then over Rip, Rack Roar knolls. We figured, given remaining daylight, getting onto the K2K Trail would be better.

WES lead us faithfully onto Stormbreaker and then he found the only sunny ledge in the entire National Park for a beaut late afternoon tea.

Chapter 3 – The Darkness
We hit Cloudmaker at 5.01pm. The Londoner wisely suggested we move off and use the last light to find and move along the trail. Avoiding a night time walk from Cloudmaker to the Cox River, via Mt Strongleg, had been the central underpinning of the days planned schedule. We were now going to be walking down hill in the dark, and experience why efforts had been made to avoid this.

We did reasonably well to stay on the track for the most part until after Dex Creek. I had lost the trail after Dex on two previous occasions in daylight. In some respects it was my favourite part of the trip, a bit more of an adventure. It also brought out the best of the group I believe.

We had no moonlight. Everyone, in some form was suffering due to; sleep deprivation, low energy, fatigue, feet problems or general disillusionment. We promptly lost the trail that seems to just disappear into thin air. We started bashing through some thick scrub in the dark.

Then the GPS, the only way we could navigate, started giving off strange readings. Stop. Carry out the (Immediate Aaction) procedure to fix the problem. Batteries, and cloud cover, combined with magnetic issues you can often get had meant that for a brief moment I couldn’t get a reading. This issue was nothing anyone else needed to know about I thought. Just fix it. I had been in situations far worse than this, and was prepared to bivouac if needed.

None of the group complained, or was critical of the situation, we just got on with it and eventually found the trail after an hour of walking over creeks that weren’t on the map, or that were running in the direction opposite to what the topography indicated they should be.

Dr Phil was up front towards the approach to Mt Strongleg, and was following the feint trail in the flickering headlights like a pro. He later explained how he needed to be in the front at this point, and when doing stuff like this. I completely understood what he meant by this, and how being up front can help some people. Tri Geek was now sleeping at each map check stop, with the team taking turns to confirm he got back up after each stop.

Our plan was to come down the North face of Strongleg and directly hit our camp site on the other side of Whalania Creek. It was possibly the most accurate I have ever been at descending Mt Strongleg, hitting the creek directly opposite our camp clearing.

We were down Strongleg and our cooees had already alerted base camp of our arrival and completion. After one last water crossing we were back in camp, with a large pig and its litter of piglet’s part of the welcoming party. We also passed a dead pig near the creek that possibly contaminated some water bottles filled as we crossed Whalania ck.

Chapter 4 - Completion
We were all back in camp by 10:30pm/ 11pm. Fatigued, saw and in some instances too tired to eat a lot. The warm fire and the fresh faces were a welcome end to a long day. We slept and gradually reconvened around the morning camp fire, as we slowly got packed up for the long walk home.

The advance party of LL#2, Gunner and Old Donk left a little after 8am, with the rest of us off by approx 9am. A final goodbye to Mr & Mrs Londoner, who hadn’t emerged from their tent yet, and we were on our way up Yellow Pup.

After a short detour to the Splendour Rock lookout I rejoined the group at Mobbs Swamp for lunch. WES finally shared his trips nutritional secret: a 400g jar of Kraft Crunchy Peanut Butter as we collectively finished it off. Somehow I had always seen him as a Smooth Peanut Butter man, but here he was on the Crunchy stuff, go figure?.

Dr Phil pushed it from here to Medlow gap, passing the advance party as we surged up and towards Taros Ladder. We regrouped on Taros and enjoyed our last brew in the Wilderness before the agonising trudge along the Neck.

Chapter 5 – The Neck and some after thoughts

For some reason the Neck is mentally the hardest part. It just keeps going, with false finish after false finish. The feet are unavoidably burning with hot spots and the legs are usually stiff, but knowing you will be home provides some solice.

We passed a note etched in the sand left minutes earlier by Scam and SWMBO that we had in fact missed our RV with the promised Narrow Neck Tim Tim delivery. Apparently pregnant ladies were now out pacing the BMMC in this final hour. The Careflight chopper over head conducting a search pattern, as we arrived back at the cars in the rapidly cooling evening, was a great memory. The look on the Animals face along the Neck was also another priceless memory, possibly the highlight of my whole trip!

In the final stages, Dr Phil had decided to forget any pacing strategy and just get to the finish ASAP so his ordeal could end. However, he could now be seen up ahead floundering in a state of delirium as he climbed over the final gate to the cars.

Seeing individual BMMC members climb over the gate (including the sprint finish b/w LL#2 and Tri Geek), and the looks of relief was priceless. We had done the 3 Peaks together! Finding my car battery dead however was a bit of an anti climax to the finish for me.

As with all long walks, the inevitable question one asks, particularly for a group of runners is that of speed? How fast could it be done, what is the record, could a tilt at the record be made? At 17hrs, the official record seems quite incredible. Not to mention Peter Tressedars claim to have done it in 14hrs (#anker), then again he has many claims that are humanly impossible, including a 6 foot track in “about 3 hrs”, and running 5,500km of rugged Mtn ranges down the length of Australian Eastern seaboard in 41 days (averaging 137k per day in the bush, pffft). The female record is at 20 something hours (Emma Murray a 3x World Mtn running champ).

So who is now up for a tilt at the 3 Peaks record? Roll call please?