This race was actually off the calendar; I’d made a lousy promise to limit races until April in lieu of family time. That is until I got an email from Mark Wilson around Xmas asking if I’d like to join their team for Alpine Quest the month later.
Fortunately the words “unsanctioned activity” gets thrown around a lot in the house now, so perhaps it has lost its meaning somewhat.. It could have been good timing when everyone is relaxed at Xmas that it didn’t take much pleading to get a free pass ? .
In actual fact, there were a few great things to help with approval..
1. Firstly the team with Mark, Adam Power and Paul Guard was always going to mean great company and a chance to learn ✔
2. Falls Creek is a beautiful area and a nice setting for a race ✔
3. Over the Australia Day long weekend is probably a good time for many reasons work isn’t crazy, no other plans, help is around,etc. ✔
Alpine Quest s a new race on the calendar, however since we had a DNF last year at X-Marathon (same organisers) there was every chance it was going to be tough! Despite that it’s very easy to underestimate a race, as I turned up without a jumper and nearly froze the first night we arrived.
Arrival was via. driving down with race kayaks from Brisbane, some ~20 hours in an afternoon 4hr + next day 16hr stint via a Goondiwindi donga night stop. Even with 4 drivers, a 10pm bed and 4am wake up a couple of days in a row really knocks you around for the big day.
We had accommodation at Falls Creek in a unit block ‘Cedarwood’ that could be identified by a giant flashing snow flake in the window, which contrasted nicely to the 30+ deg days outside. But here we were, prologue day to follow after some early morning competency and gear checks.
When the notes came out pre-race we saw the prologue listed some estimated times – which you expect to be generous at the slow end – then we guessed we would be done in 3.5hrs or so. Not so. It took us nearly double that! There was a plan to take it easy anyway, as our prologue placing for the following race day start didn’t mean much to us as our team.. “profile”.. didn’t fit with bashing anything out at pace. Suited me.
The midday start worked well in the end, as the small airport/plane arriving to nearby Albury left a few key items (bikes) behind for other teams and it was unfortunate to watch them scramble at the start/TA as a truck arrived with bikes barely 10mins before 12pm.
With the map in hand, bang, we were off! A small 40min run rogaine around town was up first and we made a steady start navigating the dry ski village, stumbling across the roving checkpoint dragon (yeah..?!) and comfortably ticking things off. Mind you, it was hilly and hot with the sun beating down, so ‘comfortably’ is used lightly. With the good nav of Mark and Paul that we had an efficient route.
Onto the bikes and this leg was going to be a bit longer covering a fair bit of ground including some of the awesome MTB trails in the area. One sad note about the race is; all I knew Falls was that in the ski off season it was ‘MTB mecca’, and after the prologue and race was over, I would have liked to ‘play’ more on the single track.
On a long spiny one-way track we thought for sure should have been 1-way in the opposite direction as we did our share of hike a bike, sweating it out eating loads of dust. What foreshadowing for the next race day, it was just hot hot hot!
Happy to see the kayak, we chose an anti-clockwise direction around the lake and all went fairly well until the wind picked up and small waves crashed over the bow. After being ridiculously hot all day, suddenly wind and water chill was the issue! Again we took it steady and arrived back a little confused with our placing due to the number of other kayaks – it had turned out they were telling people to come back early so the day could be finished.
Whilst others had been bumped off kayak CPs and then bike CPs following, we cleared all the course, finishing the very short MTB back on the only really awesome single track of the entire race, winding down the mountain berm-y flow trails (reminiscent of Derby) into the finish line.
Back to the timing – we basically arrived 10 mins before food was on the dinner table, so despite being dusty and dirty in our race kit, we got it over and done with so we could hurriedly prepare for the following race day.
Right! That was a bit more than expected, 6hrs just to separate 20 teams by 30sec, but the next thing is – how long is the race if the prologue is 6 hours… The race is now 36 minus 6?? Not really.
Up at 4am for the 2nd day in a row, ouch!
Onto a bus we jumped on for the 2hr journey to the kayak start… The team joke is that this was my worst and best moment ever in AR.
Worst = drinking a barrel of water pre-bus and spending the last hour in desperate agony.
Best = the moment we stopped and I could get off. Even after a brutal and rewarding race I still think the relief was a pinnacle moment. Yeah, it was that bad!
It had turned out our mid-pack prologue guess was right; we started in 10th spot. Apparently being forced to skip the checkpoints during the prologue gave teams time penalties, but really once you hit a rapid and had to drag a boat, that 30 seconds comes and goes easily.. So the prologue meant bugger all for the 6hrs of racing it was. Luckily we took it easy.
The paddle wasn’t easy.. With all of us having done XPD Townsville 2015 there were flashbacks of the Burdekin River – as with many rivers right now – there was bugger all water. It was scrape-drag-bash through shallow sand, pebbles, and big submerged rocks. With my paddle partner in Adam who owned the kayaks, I cringed for him at the stringy plastic kayak remnants on rocks all the way down the creek.
When there were rapids, it was fun. At the end we took the opportunity to just have a quick float to actually enjoy the water one last time before a full day ahead. It was mid morning and a big bush bike ride faced us.
Before leaving the TA, a volunteer enquired if we knew which way we were going – only a few minutes earlier Wild Earth Tiger Adventure had flown past in a blur, having done a 1hr detour in the wrong direction!
Safe to say we weren’t in a rush and all navigational challenges could be thought through.. Mind you, navigation wasn’t a key component of the race. After now having completed the course it seems the vibe of the race was more ‘mini-expedition’ than skill via. athleticism or navigation.
The bike is a little bit of a blur of hill after hill in extreme humidity, some vaguely ride-able, but best walked to avoid blowing the top off the radiator.
A couple of small down hill bits were rewarding (rather than walking/crawling down) including one into a shin-deep creek which provided a chance to refill bottles and wring out shirts.
Finally with our cycling willingness nearing its tether, we arrived to the TA in the late afternoon.
Provided with hot water and a chance to have a real meal, we were fuelled to start the big trek. This one was 12-22hr estimated, with Race Director Serge saying he did it in 11hrs with a ‘big pack’. Judging by everything so far, we could only expect he’s super human, and we’re mere mortals.
First we went up to a Mt Wills CP for a really nice view across the lands as the sun was setting – this is what AR races should always provide; a high point or feature CPs that reward you for all the struggles. On the way back down we saw our friends Rogue Adventure, and struggling Liam used the word of the race to describe himself – “cooked”. Just about every team had a cooking story!
The first majorly steep downhill of the race followed the Wills high point – it was that steep, plus slippery and toe jammy, before levelling out and turning back up again to find a CP in the most dense of scrub; just plain bashing.. Tough going but a great nav/luck combo meant we hit it spot on and bashed back out of there.
A short time later we had one of our first breaks, with everyone happy to have a rest for a moment and I snuck in a 5min nap which was very refreshing. At this point we saw team Tiger Adventure and we would play tag with them a few times before hearing after, that Trevor in the team was ‘cooked’ from the big day (and probably RedBull Defiance the week earlier).
The trek leg featured much of the ‘Australian Alps Walking Track’ which were semi-established, as we wandered through the night there were a few really nice ridges that we were sure had a good views during the day.
Hence, perhaps a function of the only way to setup the course, but really the spectacular trek should have been during the day and the less interesting bike during the night, as the trek is called “Australia’s most pristine mountain scenery”!
We passed the time playing quizzes, which invariably ended each time with Paul going solo eg. naming all the locations and years of the Olympics back to ancient Greece.
On and off sprinkling rain increased as epic steep decent #2 took us down to one of the features of the trek, the Big River.
In increasingly pouring rain, DWR failure and new-found chilliness, Mark and I donned our thermals for a 3+ hour trudge up the river, slipping and sliding off rocks in the stream, as there was no bank to scout along.
With a lighter morning sky we reached the end hut CP, which meant time for a very steep climb up out of the creek! Bonus feature was no real track, and very dense bush for a good half an hour+ where we spent most of the time hunched walk-crawling through the close together thin trees.
The following part of the track to Mt Bogong had an incredible number of fallen tree trunks at waist level, turning it into an obstacle course each time leaving us choosing up and over or crouch and under. Whilst Mt Bogong itself had no real established track and just dense shrubbery to further scratch our already raw legs. At least with this Mt you only needed to try and get up, without having to find a defined path – a CP was there however the view was somewhat blocked by clouds.
Hit with the cold again despite it being around 9-10am (30deg-something the day before), some layer adjustments were made again before final very steep decent #3 took us winding down a spur to Bogong village – despite steep it was a wide fire trail and easier going as the temp rose closer to the end.
Marching into the TA we learned of the carnage of other teams (many were down to 3 members), and so we had a team chat on the next SUP leg.
Again, memories of XPD with the same 2-to-a-SUP team paddle around the lake for CPs – estimated time 1 hour! A SUP doesn’t hold 2 people with gear well and since we knew what it would be like, the novelty wore off before we’d walked the SUPs down to the lake edge.
Our chat comprised;
1. The next bike/final leg was to surely take at least 6 of the 3-6hrs (in fact 2nd place took 5hrs!), probably 8hrs for us
2. It was going to be 1pm (cut-off to leave the TA) by time we were on the bikes, the final dinner was 6pm. Packing up would also be required.
3. We have to drive ~20hrs back to Brisbane the next day at 5am
4. There isn’t a team of 4 behind us that could take our then-5th place and leave by 1pm
5. The bike map suggests a huge amount of up and down elevation for our already tired legs
Conclusion: Take the ‘short course’ option to cycle straight up the road to the finish.
We were the sort of team which wanted to finish the course as laid out to us, however with those 5 items stacked against us, it just didn’t make sense to go anywhere but up on the road. And so we did a slow crawl up, with some entertainment provided via. watching road riders endlessly zip down past us in a race.
Some time in the afternoon a few hours later – the Finish!! The finish line is always a sight for sore eyes, and after approx 32hrs we crossed to news we held 5th and were the last team of 4 with some 15 other teams un-ranked or DNF. Hooray!
All credit to the organisers Adventure Junkie, whose organisation of it all you couldn’t fault (safety priorities right with sat phones provided,etc.) and they set out a tough race – having now done X-Marathon and the alluring-named Alpine Quest, you can be sure that their events are a 100% challenge of your toughness in a mini-expedition format.
Best of all, I went into the race with Mark, Adam and Paul friends, and came out even closer which is a bonus.