"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Stirling Ridge Walk FKT

View from north: Ellen Peak on the left, Bluff Knoll on the right
The Stirling Range (Koi Kyenuni-ruff in the Aboriginal) is Western Australia's only alpine environment. It's a striking area, about 65km wide, with several peaks about 1,000m high, surrounded by utterly flat farm land.

There is a very rough route, not maintained, that runs across a set of peaks between Bluff Knoll (aka Mount James) and Ellen Peak. The route between the two peaks is roughly 16km. Access from the west side at Bluff Knoll is easy - you can drive 8km up a bitumen road and park at a carpark underneath the peak, leaving a 3km hike to the summit. From Ellen Peak in the east, the run down to the boundary fence fire trail is 6km. Until a few years ago, the public was able to park on private property 2km further north, making the traverse a minimum of 24km. Now, with private property owners declining access, the run out east is to the gravel Gnowellen Road, 6km from the fire trail junction. This makes the minimum traverse distance 28km. And it still requires car shuttles/car drops to be arranged between Bluff Knoll carpark and Gnowellen Road.
The gps log of the RTW loop. Top left corner is at Chester Pass Road

Naturally, it makes sense to forego the hassle of cars at all and loop back to the start! :-) This can be done by running west along the northern national park boundary fence (or the parallel but hillier North East track) for 14km. Though the track out is pretty flat, the running can be a welcome change in stride after a long day of hiking and scrambling. And it allows for some contemplative moments as you run with the Stirling Range on your left, "unwinding" the day's outing, passing each peak one by one, in reverse. The loop makes the outing about 43km with 2500m gain.

An out-of-print guidebook by AT Morphet from 1996 details the "gruelling walk" over "very difficult terrain" as requiring 2 to 3 days. Tracks in 1996 were described as "vague and scant" and haven't improved, from what my experience indicates! Flowing water can be found in a few places in the western section, but can't be relied on in summer. Generally, one should carry all water and look upon any natural water encountered as a bonus emergency option. There are several natural caves in ledges that can be used for camping and a few sheltered places amongst sheoak trees where a tent can be pitched. Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) notes on their webpage that it's necessary to have "a high level of specialised skills and equipment including navigation skills, a map and navigation equipment" in order to attempt the Ridge Top Walk (RTW). That's not an exaggeration. I'd say it's almost essential to have a person experienced in the RTW with you, as well.
The 2 guys who kept me alive on the 2010 traverse

In 2010 I was introduced to the RTW by a running mate. He guided me and a few others across the ridge - his 2nd successful of 4 attempts to that point. I took up the option of the complete loop - avoiding car shuttles entirely by running from the national park entry at Bluff Knoll Road and Chester Pass Road, up the 8km bitumen road, across the ridge, down to the north, and out the 14km northern boundary fence/fire trail. We finished in 14.5 hours, from memory, in the dark, just in time to get into the cafe on the corner for a pint!

After a 5 year absence from the Stirlings, I made my way back there in June this year to attempt the crossing again, leading two newbies through the route. Given the complexity in route finding and our choice to time the outing with one of the shortest daylight days of the year (late June in the southern hemisphere), we focussed on the traverse itself - Bluff to Ellen - with cars at both ends. We took 13.5 hours, starting and finishing in the dark, but doing all the complex ridge top stuff in light (navigation would be nearly impossible in the dark without having the route well memorised from experience). I was thinking to refresh my mind on the route for creating a Fastest Known Time (FKT) course, but after seeing the overgrown nature of the track, and spending much of the day slashing myself through prickly bush, I changed my mind.

But sometimes my mind changes me.

Not hard to see why I can forget the pain of bushwhacking

So it was that this week the Stirlings called me back to attempt the full loop, solo/unsupported.

My most overt goal was to create an official FKT loop (as official as they get), following the traditional route that has been in place for at least 20 years. I felt driven to do this from both inward and outward-focussed motivations. Inwardly, perhaps somewhat selfishly, I feel at home and alive and at peace when I'm in wilderness. My need to be "home" is increasing the past few years. So, spending two days alone in the Stirlings was a welcome idea.

Outwardly, I want to increase opportunities for trail hikers and runners to come "home" to wilderness, as well. To experience their own "wow" moments, where all the day-to-day laundry lists in our brain melt away and we enter the state of "being" rather than "doing."

Not everyone will approach the Stirling RTW with a goal to break whatever FKT exists at the time. Each person will come to the Stirling route with their own goals, wrapped within their own set of experiences and a personal limit on risk tolerance (the faster you go, the more likely you might be to twist an ankle or fall off a ledge). A person's fastest time will depend on a personal balance between desire for speed and desire to stand still, look at flowers and vistas, and take photos.
The bags under my eyes prove I was tent sleeping

I started at 5:11 am from the corner of Bluff Knoll Road and Chester Pass Road. Being November, it was already light. Expecting a faster traverse than previous outings, I downsized from my 21 litre pack to my UltrAspire Titan 14 litre. I packed 4 litres of water (or so I thought). My kit included a space blanket, flint, compression bandage, duct tape, mobile phone on airplane mode, painkillers and antihistamine, blister plasters, sunscreen, bugspray, lip balm, LED Lenser SEO7 headlamp and spare battery. I wore sunglasses (given the bushwhacking, even clear sunnies on a cloudy day would be prudent). I wore a short sleeve Icebreaker merino wool t-shirt (with arm warmers at the start). I hoped to wear my The North Face rainjacket all day as skin protection from very scratchy, cutting bush.

On my lower body, I definitely wanted protection from the bush. I knew from experience it could rip Compressport calf guards. I chose RaceReady shorts and Patagonia Torrentshield rainpants - very tough pants. I expected hot legs but hoped I could cope. The expected high was 26-28 degrees. Much warmer than I'd done, but I hoped the ridge top would be cooler as was typical.

I wore a Garmin 310XT with my June gps course (complete with nav errors!) on my left hand and another 310XT on my right. Though this seemed like overkill, it felt sensible somehow and turned out to be very useful. I could keep the left watch on map view and the right watch on time. At some point, the left one must have caught on a bush or rock and shut off - it wasn't long before I noticed it.

I also carried a Garmin e-trex handheld with the original "WalkGPS" file. Because gps devices can lose precision when up against cliff ledges and in gullies and such, I found having the two courses on different devices helpful.

A jacket with integral hood can be a joy on the ridge, as it can be very cold and windy and a cap won't always stay put. An ear band can be warming whilst also reducing the howling wind sound.
It went from jacket-on to jacket-off to jacket-on weather over an hour

My body hasn't felt 100% since returning from overseas a few weeks ago. Resting HR has been higher than normal. Digestion is off. As I jogged slowly up the 8km bitumen road to the early morning sounds of birds and buzzing insects, I found myself drinking a lot of my water. That wasn't usual. I had my first doubts. Maybe this wasn't my day for a big adventure. Maybe I just didn't have the mojo today.

I reached the upper carpark in about an hour, then the top of Bluff Knoll (3km uphill well-maintained singletrack) in about another hour. From there, the trail is minimally used and the navigation begins in earnest. Despite having just been there in June, I found myself lost/confused/off route quite markedly twice, early in the day. I pulled out the handheld each time and zoomed in to get precision. It was frustrating, but I was determined to backtrack rather than bushwhack back onto the course, as I'd done in June. I wanted to figure out where and why I'd gone wrong. The route is so tricky! Sudden sharp turns while descending, requiring you to scramble onto a ledge aren't intuitive. The intuitive thing is to keep heading down. Thus, many people have created dead-end "run-outs" in a few places and the result is that the run-outs look like the definite trail. Without flagging/proper signage to direct people at points where "trail" becomes ledge scramble, the run-outs will continue to be trafficked and continue to pose a serious navigational challenge for people. I spent time building more rock cairns, but unless a person turns their head to catch the view of cairns around a bend, the eye catches only the cairn directly at their feet, and the person will just continue on the most intuitive line. A cairn should be a sign to look for another cairn, as it doesn't indicate the direction to take from its position.

The "I hope this is going to end well" look at Isongerup Peak
After making a couple time-consuming errors (one was 30 minutes) and backtracking and building cairns over the first 5 hours, it was 10 am and hot. I had made it past Bluff Knoll, past Bluff's east peak, past Moongoongoonderup Hill (yes, that's spelled right), and was on Isongerup's South Peak. I pulled out my guidebook to picture the climb to Isongerup and onwards and grabbed a swig of water. The last swig. The bladder was dry. That was a surprise. I pulled out my spare water, knowing I wasn't halfway done in terms of time and the heat was mounting. As I transferred the water from my spare collapsible Nalgene, it filled my pack bladder to the 1.25ltr mark. Exciting. My worn out, trusty old collapsible Nalgene didn't hold 2 litres. I had 1.25 litres for the rest of the day.

A wave of fear rose up. I started reality-testing options as I went into problem-solving mode. I knew there was one emergency exit point off the ridge in front of me - the North Mirlpunda Track. I'd not taken it before, but had just read of some guys who had to take it as an emergency out on their traverse attempt and had found it in terrible condition. I also knew there was supposed to be a barrel at Third Arrow, also in front of me, that was located up high in a steep and narrow couloir/gully. It collected rain drops and couldn't be counted upon. Plus I had never even seen it. And foolish me, I hadn't brought my 50g Life Straw. The only time in the last 4 months of adventurous travel that I didn't carry it. Idiot.

I proceeded forward, with an eye on time. There were 5 peaks left: Isongerup, Mirlpunda (comprising three separate humped/rock lumps of peaks called First Arrow, Second Arrow, and Third Arrow), Baker's Knob, Pyungoorup Peak, and Ellen Peak. Then a long, snaking descent off Ellen, and the exposed fire trail 14km run.

On the 2010 traverse.
I was already congratulating myself on a fairly flawless ascent of First Arrow, when I reached a tricky nav point...still on First Arrow. I remembered being stumped in June, as well, when we were at this spot. I spent 15 minutes alternating between staring at the book, cursing, trying various very scary climbs (with scarier reversals/downclimbs!), and backtracking, until it finally came to me. I found the correct ledge to climb and carried on. What a route!

Second Arrow and Third Arrow were quickly ticked off the list. Third Arrow is one of my favourite spots - a lush sloping grassed gully ascent. A very peaceful place to rest for a moment in the shade. More sunscreen applied, a quick photo, and time to get moving. I placed rocks of thanks on the cairns I passed, grateful I was able to be on the ridge on a spectacular day. I had made decisions along the way to not take the emergency exit off the ridge, nor to look for the hidden water barrel. I was ready to fill my spare Nalgene with water if I found any, though wasn't expecting to in this eastern section (indeed, there were only rock drips).

Though slightly awkward for scrambling and bush bashing, I held the e-trex in right hand for the Baker's Knob ascent, as I had made a nav error here in June and couldn't afford the time and excess sun exposure. There's another "run-out" here, which I haven't seen the bottom of. I veered off the run-out and started ledge scrambling up to the top of Baker's, following the e-trex route - success!

Wet reeds and shade. It can only mean Pyungoorup!
I knew Pyungoorup's route, so could put the e-trex back in my pocket. The traverse is on the south side of this peak, making it mostly shaded. Very welcome, but it also means the whole thing is wet and covered in slick rocks, slick and steep muddy bits, and face-high reeds.

Ellen Peak appeared as I came out from behind Pyungoorup. Though it looked far away, I knew that in less than 30 minutes, I should be standing at the Boy Scout register on the summit. And so I was, 8 hours and 13 minutes into my day. I took a few minutes for selfies and thanked the universe again for the great opportunity to go across the ridge, studiously ignoring the thousand flies swarming me, trying to take away my happy factor. I had my version of celebration champagne...given I still had a lot of trekking to do - an Espresso gel with three precious swigs of water. I tried for a moment to buoy myself with the idea that I'd be done in 10 hours. But I knew that was rubbish. There was still much steep and overgrown bush to contend with and I was better to be realistic. Under 11 hours would be a pretty good achievement. I'd also had nav issues coming off Ellen Peak in June.
On Ellen Peak, looking west to the sharp edge of Bluff Knoll in the background.

The bush snagged at my arm warmers, hanging tied around the side straps on my pack. I put them inside - something I should have done in the beginning. Near the base of Ellen, one can finally get up to running speed again, albeit still pushing bushes out of the way and ducking under low hanging branches. One such "duck" wasn't low enough and the branch grabbed ahold and momentarily ripped me backwards off my feet. I felt for my SPOT tracker on the back and felt the pack and everything seemed intact. I kept going.

At the northern boundary fire trail, I turned west. 14km to go. I was finally able to remove my hot rainpants. Hooray! I had another celebration Espresso with water and decided I'd better start water rationing more seriously. Three sips every 10 minutes. This would hopefully allow me to preserve my water to near the end, preventing the mental negativity I'd experience if I ran out early and had dry mouth for a long time. Low water meant I'd have to run at a steady/easy pace - no hard physical finish. This was going to be a hard mental finish instead :-)

Melting crisis averted.
There was a shallow puddle of skunky orange water with things that looked alive in it. I soaked my hat, by letting it sit in the puddle for a minute as I ate my gel. Joyously, I found a real flowing creek a few k's later and walked right in, shoes and all! Using my hat, I poured water over my legs, chest, and down my back. I shrieked with the cold, but it was so good to get my core temperature back to normal. Probably a kilometre later, I went through another little creek. I soaked again, as I didn't think this would continue. I was already nearly dry from the last soaking.

I continued on, spooking emu periodically in the field next to me. I must have seen at least 14 in total, including 4 chicks. They brightened my spirits. Periodically, I had been in the habit of reaching behind to feel my SPOT device. With 6km to go, I felt. No SPOT. Bad SPOT, bad! I had no idea where it was, but I couldn't go back. I started to picture a recovery run coming into my future for tomorrow, replacing the relaxing picture I had of lazing in my tent in the morning. Damn. I couldn't figure out how I'd lost it, except that I'd perhaps left it on the ground at the Espresso stop. This was a lesson for the Yukon Arctic Ultra - how would I keep myself from losing critical gear or leaving gear behind when shattered from sleep deprivation and cold and fatigue?

With a few k's to go, I passed a thicker bunch of trees that had a particular smell. I can only call it the "Bibbulmun smell." When I get that smell, I'm immediately transported back to the Bibbulmun FKT with a wave of anxiety. Four years on and I'm still affected by that trip...and think about doing it again, self-supported. Nutter.

I started looking at my Garmin map, knowing I should see the bread crumb trail of my starting position appear. I zoomed out and saw it about 3k away. A few minutes later I looked again. It looked the same. I tried to wait longer, but looked again. And again. It was like a cruel joke, as it just didn't seem to be getting any closer. A watched pot never boils and a watched Garmin triangle on a map never moves. I had to take my mind off my negativity. I was running west, right into the sun, on a sandy track, with rationed water and nearly 11 hours in my legs. My shoes, gaiters, and long Compressport socks were covered in some kind of sharp, poking barbed grass that covered sections of this track. I looked like I'd been attacked by a porcupine and I felt it, too. I needed to get out of my negative talk. I pledged to sing the alphabet song five times before I was allowed to look at my watch again. Naturally, I sang in my head to prevent making my dry mouth worse. I am a sensible girl, after all ;-)

At 11 hours 6 minutes 27 seconds, I connected my loop back at the road intersection. I took the photos for further evidence to go with my GPS files and jogged the 600 metres or so back to the campground. I aimed straight for my esky, where I downed the two cold drinks I had in less time than it takes to sing the ABC's.

Done. The happy is all inside, a little shrunk with dehydration. It will expand soon :-)

The next day at 6.30 am, I went back for SPOT, having the coordinates sent to me by Rolf. About 8k back, there he was, still calling out every 10 minutes. The plastic protective case had been torn, allowing it to fall from my pack, where it was clasped. The branch that caught me on the run out was likely the trigger that started the rip and my continued running had caused it to keep tearing until it finally gave way.

So go on. Get out there and find your own personal challenge on the RTW. It's there, waiting to commune with you.

Addendum: Please, please, please, think twice if you read about my ability to manage on 1.25ltr of water for 6 hours and use that as your gauge for packing water for your RTW. Have a look at the ultra running experience I have. I know my body well and can read its signs. It has adapted. Several years ago, that would have been impossible for me. I'm not trying to be cocky. Cocky can kill. Or at least teach us very painful lessons.