There is something rather spiritual about spending hours alone in the mountains. It is an atmosphere perfectly suited for distilling your thoughts. After struggling up a steep, rocky trail for hours your breath can literally be stolen by the view of the endless rolling mountains that unfold before you. Painted pale purple in the heat haze of the midday sun, layer upon layer of velour like ranges extend to the horizon. The Australian Alps is truly one of the most spectacular places on the planet. The Mind Alpine Challenge winds through some of the steepest and most scenic parts of the Alps. It is a course chosen to be as tough and challenging as conceivably possible. I took on the long course, the one hundred mile solo option.
We left en masse from the starting line in Bogong Village at 4:30am. The track quickly began climbing steadily up to the Bogong High Plains. Just as quickly, the headlamps of the front-runners disappeared into the predawn darkness. The first checkpoint of Warby Corner was reached in about 3 hours. My crew, Mal, had hiked in with some supplies for the return trip when I would come back through here some 42km and 8 hours later.
From Warby Corner the trail dropped quickly below the treeline as I began the never-ending descent into Big River down the infamous Duane’s Spur. I had climbed up this trail many times in the reverse direction but was unprepared for just how long it went, down, down, down. It was almost with relief that I plunged straight into the icy waters of the fast flowing Big River, cooling my legs at the bottom of the descent. Then began the equally long and steep climb up T-Spur towards Mt Bogong. Unrelenting doesn’t seem like an adequate description. I was lugging close to 3 litres of water on top of the food and emergency gear. My shoulders ached where the pack dug in.
I had now been several hours without seeing another runner. I was lost in my thoughts and immersed in my surroundings. At one point I thought I heard someone call out and I stopped suddenly, the rustling of my pack stopping as quickly. Nothing. Then a tree groaned and squeaked and I realised the trees were talking to me. Wow, how cool. I love this bush. It is the ultimate escapism to immerse yourself in such a natural environment.
Cleve Cole Hut was full of people having morning tea. The rich aroma of camp brewed coffee smelt great inside the hut. I reluctantly turned down a brew settling to simply fill my hydration pack and water bottles before heading off towards the summit. The camp residents looked on a little bemused and bewildered at what we runners were actually doing.
The distinctive rock cairn marking Mt Bogong, the highest point in Victoria, was visible for a couple of kilometres as I worked across the high ridgeline. Approaching the summit a runner kitted out in triathlon friendly gear closed in behind me. She had a distinctive fluoro pink theme to her outfit, topped off with the hottest of hot-pink sunnies. I quickly forgot her name but she became the pink woman. She was in the 100km race and clearly making good pace on the uphills. We checked in with the volunteers, had a photo taken and headed off down the windy exposed ridge that formed Quartz Ridge.
As the pitch of the trail dropped off more steeply, the pink lady stopped suddenly in front of me. ‘What’s up?’ I asked. ‘I’m afraid of heights,’ she replied. Oh, definitely not the best place to be then, with sheer drop-offs on both sides. She overcame her fear as we picked our way down the rocky ridgeline.
The trail eventually dropped back below treeline and we found ourselves winding slalom style down a recently cleared path. A sharp right turn put us onto the long steady switchbacking descent of the Big River fire trail. This was perfect running terrain. I felt good and simply let gravity do all the work, building momentum. I lost my friend quickly but was also lost in the sublime pleasure of the rhythmic rush of the earth beneath my feet and the trees rushing past my ears.
In true poetic fashion the descent was finally punctuated by a picturesque mountain stream that cut across the trail. I waded straight in with the icy water filling my shoes and cooling my hot legs. The polished smooth river rocks were slippery. A small grassy clearing lead to another fire trail climbing up out of the Big River valley to the high plains, via Timms Spur.
I knew this was going to be about 7km of uphill so I popped on my ipod and settled into a solid hiking pace. Up, up, up, switchback after switchback. The valley unfolded to my right with great views to the horizon. Grey, naked tree branches reached skyward, remnants from the 2003 bushfires. The endless mesh of thin grey branches protruding from the thick green undergrowth reminded me of the whiskers on an old man’s unshaven face. The whole valley was unshaven.
Halfway up the climb I had a muesli bar. Those close to me know I went into this race with some badly bruised ribs from a nasty fall on a trail a week before the race. It hurt to breath deeply. In fact it hurt just to breath some of the time. Clearing my nose or coughing forced me to stop and hold my chest. Sneezing was like death. A little of the muesli bar went down the wrong way and the subsequent coughing fit sent me into spasms of contorted pain that forced tears to my eyes. Recovered I finished the climb but ate no more of the bar.
Up on the high plains I was soon back at Warby Corner. I grabbed the drink and ate the can of creamed rice and was off. A few kilometres later and I was at Langford Gap (behind Falls Creek) where Mal was waiting with fresh food and water. I discovered a massage therapist offering services to runners and jumped at the chance to have my niggling ITBs loosened. Up on her table Mal passed me hot noodles and Greg (crewing another runner, Lisa) passed me a can of pashion-punch. This was the life!
Greg asked if I would run with Lisa, as she was worried about navigating at night. Sure. We left close together and ran hard for the next 8km along the flat path beside the aqueduct. The first short climb after the flat path and my right knee seized up. Crap. It loosened as we reached the flat narrow path through the button grass of the plain but I knew I was in trouble.
Lisa is a fast walker so I put her in front to keep the pace. I couldn’t run but we were managing 10-11 minute kilometres so I was happy. We followed the snow-poles across the plain as the sun steadily inched towards the horizon. As the light started failing silhouetted brumbies appeared moving across the trail. They looked on but kept their distance. Pole 333 eventually came into view and Paul (the race director) and his assistant where huddled in the lee of their tent, avoiding the now bitter wind. This remote checkpoint was the turnoff back to the finish where we would pass again the next day. The thought that we might not be back here for another 24 hours was daunting. I doubted my knee would last that long. We put on our head torches and were off.
We were now in deep darkness with almost no moonlight. The poles were easy to follow at about 30 metre intervals. Despite this Lisa managed to wander off at a tangent into the marshy terrain before I led her back. Her lack of navigational skill made her totally dependent on me. As we descended to Cobungra River the rough trail played havoc on her recently healed ankle.
We stopped at the river and refilled our bladders from spare bottles I was carrying. I don’t trust the rivers after getting sick over the summer from creek water. Next big climb to Mt Hotham was up Swindler’s Spur. My knee wouldn’t bend on the ups. I was reduced to dragging it behind me. It was rapidly apparent that I couldn’t go on past Mt Hotham. The climb went on forever. My knee ached and the weird movement necessary to get my leg up each step was taking its toll. Mal was waiting for me at the top in the Mt Loch carpark. I knew I had to stop there, nearly 90km and 18 hours in. I had no choice. Sometimes the choice is taken from you. This was one of those times. Lisa was getting tired so it was a short leap for her to pull out as well. It was quite clear that she could not possibly navigate through the night on her own. I felt bad at indirectly forcing her out but could not avoid it. Actually, I felt bad for a number of reasons. But I was philosophical. I had had a fantastic day of doing what I love best: running mountain trails. This course was a true test of stamina, navigation ability, mental strength and pure endurance. I had come up short this time but was far richer for the experience.