By Blake Hose, Ultra-Runner
The ventures of this project though aren’t all just pain and suffering on Shane’s behalf. Coupling Richelle’s impeccable logistical organizational prowess with Shane’s mighty big hunger for adventure can only result in one thing- mind blowing experiences that are perfectly organized and run like a well-oiled machine. I was recently lucky enough to be a beneficiary of the culmination of these great minds in what was the inaugural Ultra Life Running adventure in New Zealand.
My eyes lit up like a Christmas tree when Shane put the idea of this trip forth. I couldn’t help but feel the question of whether I would like to go had a somewhat rhetorical nature… New Zealand? Volcanoes? Running? The Hillary Trail? I was practically on the plane before he had finished the sentence. In the blink of an eye the 3 month wait until our departure date had passed and I was on my way to the airport.
The trail snaked its way up a short but solid climb past the Soda Springs towards the South Crater that sits at the base of Ngauruhoe. Although very well maintained and easily navigated, the trail held no lack of excitement as it still possessed every aspect that us as trail runners love. We were surrounded by awe inspiring peaks and untamed wilderness, the rock underfoot and zigzagging trail always keeping us alert and guessing what could be next. Funnily enough, the number of people only added to the fun as we got to bounce around like gazelles from side to side, up, down and across as we continued to buzz by the more slowly moving hikers.
After an abundance of happy snaps, it was much too cold to hang around and so the decent began. What started out slowly, as we cautiously navigated the rocks cloaked in ice, it quickly became an absolutely scintillating express train of trailites bombing downwards on the scree covered slopes. Many odd looks came our way as we trundled downwards making noises reminiscent of a group of overly excited school girls. We were having too much fun to care though. All feeling like little kids again it was full gas to the bottom, shoes and socks heaped with crushed rock, the altitude that had taken so long to gain had vanished in an instant. The fun however, was only just beginning!
Focussing intently on the amazing hot springs and breathtaking views across the flatlands, for a few minutes we stumbled rather than gracefully descended, until we again remembered we should focus on the trail underfoot… The last 10km was a long, flowing and smooth descent to the Ketetahi Carpark. I was pleased with the ease of running to finish things off for the day as it really allowed one to just smile and be content with the trail we’d travelled and the many more on our radar…
The Shane and Terry (van) partnership came to fruition once again, this time taking us a little further than the previous day’s escapade. In contrast to Ngauruhoe - sunshine and clear skies greeted us, filling our spirits with vitality and happiness for the trip to the base of our playground for the day. Planning was done with utter ease, I think Shane’s words were something along the lines of “Let’s just go up… as high as we possibly can”. As expected, this plan prompted no rejections.
Newbies as we were, the decision was made that we’d adopt self- navigation in aiding us to the summit. Something about scrambling through head-high boulders and clambering upward on icey slopes gives us adventure clad folk some seriously sky-high levels of excitement laced with passionate enthusiasm. A start point with an altitude equivalency of the Mt Buffalo Chalet was already stupidly cool – however in fulfilling our desired vertical ascendancy to the summit, we’d be required to double this….. plus a little more.
Metres ticked way as we built tight-knit bonds with our barometers. For they showed us the prizes of our labour in every +M we gained. Feeding our souls increasingly in every step, with the vertical ascent came breath-taking (literally) sights, ear pricking sounds and smells of freshness unparalleled by anything my body had ever been fortunate enough to be a recipient of.
The boulders quickly dissipated into scree as we joyfully traversed higher and higher into the sky. Ice was more prominent at the higher altitude and according to locals is a year-round resident on Ruapehu’s slopes. It was a very distinguishing factor having masses of ice to play on in the peak of summer – just another reason I’d discovered to return in future and indulge once again. 1hr 45mins saw us to the craters edge – standing tall above the clouds it was personally one of the most purely euphoric moments I’ve ever had as a person. It’s tough to put into words, in fact I’d say nearly impossible – to describe how reaching a new summit feels. Exhausting, yes – however rapidly overcoming this is the elation of a new peak, a new achievement, a lasting experience that you can hold onto dearly and carry with you in future explorations. It’s a completely new strength that will carry you to an even higher peak in the future.
Countless awe-inspiring views greeted us atop numerous rocky, volcanic plateaus. 360 degree views all so impressive it was as though each vast expanse of postcard-worthy eye candy was trying to out-do the next – it was completely endless landscape induced salivation. After navigating a dark, soot coloured slope leading our noses for adventure skyward – our salvation was found in the highest possible altitude that could be attained on the day. Standing 2735m above sea level – a brief silence ensued, not due to lack of breath but due to moments like those epitomising why we do what we do. It’s the essence of our being as trail running adventurers - true happiness is found in these moments.
What goes up, must come down. Sadly this is true for us alpine addicted, vertical loving, lactic accumulating folk, too. One of the many things that had been learnt on the previous days volcanic indulgence though, was that descending Volcanoes is an extraordinary, adrenaline pumping high paced rush of quad battering bliss. Again our route was decided not by the trail but by our own creativity – so naturally we gravitated towards the monstrous scree slope only a stones throw away. Picture a 30-40% negative gradient – perfectly smooth and draped in an idealic depth of loose but utterly runnable scree heaven, ahead of you also a panoramic masterpiece that is the alpine region of the Tongariro national park.
Frolicking downward in leaps and bounds at a rate unconceivable on any different terrain – re-appearing was the bunch of school girls from the day before… I suppose they love the scree, too. Like one of those crazy-good dreams you don’t want to wake up from we’d soon have to break the lustful relationship that had been formed in the 5hrs we’d played on the mountain. It was a harsh departure, though somewhat softened by a big bowl of chips and some sugary beverages at the picturesque little café where the adventure had begun – and would finish for this particular day.
The Hillary Trail
Setting off into the wilderness of the Waitakere Ranges along the wild coastline – it was a stark contrast to the desolate volcanic playgrounds to which we’d become accustomed. An absolute plethora of dense forestry teaming with life, countless shades of green glistening as the sun tried to penetrate through the thick canopy around us – it was made obvious instantaneously that on this day we were all going to experience something spectacular. Weaving through the brush with finesse and fluidity – the Hillary was quite tame in the beginning which gave numerous opportunities to gaze around and soak in the atmosphere without having to worry too much about landing on your face due to a protruding tree root or rock. This was a pleasant introduction and allowed us all to get the blood pumping and warmed up for what was to come…
No longer was it an easily trodden jungle highway of sorts – large, moss draped, roots peered up to us from every direction and lack of sunlight on the forest floor meant that precipitation was going nowhere fast once it had hit home on the trail. It was the stuff of a trail runners dreams – new sights, sounds and technical trail dictated by mother nature, it could only be described as absolute trail purity in its finest form.
The fun was enhanced over and over again as the conditions underfoot toughened –Shane’s recent wish of “We better be going up that!” came true – at an alarming rate. We were most certainly “going up that” as the next 1km would have us gain 300m in elevation – for those of you who know a little about distance:vertical ratios – this one was epic. A far cry from the flat beach we’d traversed earlier - the trail continued to wind along a pronounced ridge containing endless entertainment as we bounced over roots, scaled short steep rock faces and let go and fly down winding leaf littered descents.
The next destination on our Radar was the 21km point where we’d meet Richelle and Cate – this would also be the finish line for Shane’s apprentice Landscaper, Andrew Penaluna, or ‘Penascapes’ as we like to call him. Andrew had proven in our time on the mountains that he was a seriously tough fella – coming from a more inactive background it was Shane’s influence that sparked the fire within him to get out on the trails. It’d be fair to say that it’s one more victim to the addiction of the trail running drug. I’m sure that as his explorations expand he will certainly make quite a swift trailite – an ability to suffer coupled with sheer enthusiasm and an easy going sense of adventure – he’ll be surprising himself and others in no time.
The following 11km of trail from …. To Karekare almost felt like home in some ways – the trail characteristics bared a remarkable resemblance to that of Victoria’s Great Ocean Walk – a trail here in Australia which too, is completely breathtaking and a must-do!
Having been outrageously spoilt in our time on this trail – we’d most definitely captured the sense of adventure Edmund Hillary represented. In no way were there any shortcomings to our expectations – it had more so glaringly exceeded them on every level of our imaginations. Sad to see the day end, though pretty darn knackered and full of contentment - a smashing 1800m of vertical, 1000’s of tree roots, countless magnificent views, flowing descents and leg battering ascents were all behind us having reached our exit at 34km in Karekare.
So thank you once again Shane and Richelle, for it’s the buzzing hives of adventure activity that is their brains which allowed this rad running adventure. I can’t recommend this trip highly enough!
Something to conclude with-
I think part of what makes the experience of running in a place like this so much more appealing, is that It really takes away the whole ‘running’ aspect, truly allowing you to immerse yourself in a mindset of adventure rather than training. Seeking out new sights, sounds, smells, completely revitalising all your bodies senses. As much as I love to run, to train hard and be competitive, I think that times like these are invaluable as an athlete. Disregarding how long it would take, or how far we were going to go, I was able to let go of anything telling me to ‘push’ or to continue running rather than stopping to take pictures and just enjoy the moment. In being able to do this, it gives a whole new perspective on learning to just ‘be’ in the mountains and on the trail, rather than only ever using them as a training platform. I definitely feel that in having learnt this, it has greatly improved my mindset going forward with my ‘training’ in the mountains.