Expanding my perception of what is possible in two days (March 2020).
Monday was a bad day for me but also the perfect time for Maddy to ask me to come on a fastpacking trip with her and Tom that Thursday-Friday. I said yes before I even knew what fastpacking really meant.
Fastpacking: Essentially, fastpacking is a combination of ultralight tramping/mountaineering and trail running. You can expand on trail running with off track travel into even more remote places and depending on what you take, you can cover every type of ground there is, from trails to glaciers. The amount of ground you can cover is phenomenal, and even on rough terrain that is near unrunnable it is easy to cover ground faster than usual by packing lighter.
After a lot of faff and an hour later than planned, Maddy, Tom and I depart for the Routeburn. I’ve tried to downplay their ambition so that I will feel better when I’m lagging behind and we don’t make it all the way around, so the primary aim is to make it to Lake Unknown via Sugarloaf Pass and the Rock Burn. It is late when we pass through Roxburgh and every shop is closed so I am still without dinner. Thankfully Dominoes is still open when we get to Alexandra, one of the only places that is, so I am able to get my second meal of the day. We make it to the old Routeburn shelter well after midnight, Tom having destroyed about three of the 30+ possums seen sprawled all over the road on the drive up [Note: Tom was not actively trying to hit the possums, they were simply unavoidable and there were many, many close calls].
“Come here ya big unit, I wanna shmush ya” — Tom en route to the Routeburn Shelter
I tilt the passenger seat back and try to fall asleep in just my sleeping bag liner while the other two blow up their mattresses inside the shelter.
We get up at 7:00, and head off shortly before 9:00. Maddy’s breakfast has been eaten by mice in the shelter so I share some of my ultra healthy breakfast cookies with her. They taste like health, but are also rather good. On top of Sugarloaf we set up for a bit of filming for which Tom gallantly falls over “for the sake of humour”, followed by a sunblock application session.
“Can I finger your sunblock?” — Tom
We begin the descent. Maddy asks if I packed the dinner. I did not. We ask Tom if he packed the dinner although I think we both know he didn’t. He did not. Tom has the couscous. Maddy has the cheese. I have the spices.
We move quickly along the Rock Burn, stopping briefly for lunch before beginning our ascent up to Lake Unknown. Tom is a slave driver and we barely finish our last bite before he has his backpack on ready to get going. We head into the forest, detour slightly through some tall relatively dense scrub that tries to steal one of my trail runners, head back into the forest, navigate a few small bluffs and then pop out above the bushline. There isn’t too much tussock traversing before we hit slab. And it is glorious slab. Grippy, dry and fast. At the saddle we get our first glimpse of Lake Unknown.
We scamper along the grippy slabs, down to more tarns and up scree to make it to the slab slopes of Mt Chaos (1995 m). The sun is starting to sink lower but we have enough time to attempt Chaos, so we drop our packs and head up. We reach the ridge and stop in awe, admiring the sharp drop down into the Beans Burn and Mt Earnslaw. We run along the ridge until we reach a section where a gendarme demands some rock climbing on loose rock over a drop. I remain on the ridge and take photos of the others clambering up and over the final parts of the ascent to Mt Chaos [North Ridge Grade I2].
It is not long before they are back, we retrieve our packs and head down into what has been nicknamed the fertile valley. A gorgeous isolated feeling valley surrounded by tall rock walls and waterfalls, with streams and hummocky hills interspersed with wetlands. Amid the rocky landscape it is the most fertile and green place for kilometers — literally.
You might think this is the perfect place to camp, and so do I at the time, but we push on. Up and over more slabs until we finally reach our goal. The tarn below pt. 1823 m. We stop to admire the view. The light is a perfect purple and the tarn a perfect glacial blue with the moon poised in the sky above. We can see the Park Pass Glacier and a campsite at the other end of the tarn so we clamber around and set up the tent, squishing into the two joined sleeping bags and enjoying our dinner of spiced couscous with cheese and a bit of vegetable fritter that Tom saved from his lunch.
“I just cumin seeded all over that” — Tom
I wake up to the sound of Toms alarm and frantically grab my bag to try to locate my phone in order to turn off my alarm that I forgot to turn off. I find it and realise it is not my phone. The stars are still out and the sky is only just starting to lighten. It is almost light when we head off, up to the base of the glacier.
Pants off, crampons on and axes out. We’re on the glacier.
This is the first time I have ever stepped foot on a glacier. We crunch up to the majestic ridge that will take us to the top of the peak that we initially thought was Poseidon Peak but is actually Sarpedon.
The first Sarpedon was born to Zeus and Europa, and with his brothers Minos and Rhadamanthus was adopted by King Asterion when he married Europa. After Asterions death Minos gained the throne and his brothers were banished from Crete. Sarpedon journeyed to Lycia where he became King and fathered two sons. He was blessed by Zeus and lived for the equivalent of three normal lifetimes.
The second Sarpedon was also a King of Lycia and one of the most highly regarded defenders of Troy. Believed to be the grandson of the first Sarpedon, he was destined to die at the hands of Patroclus in single combat and this happened at Troy. His cousin fought his way across the battlefield to recover his body and the gods intervened to return his body to Lycia for the funeral rites.
The third Sarpedon is a minor figure in greek mythology, unrelated to the first two. He was brother to Poltys, the King of Aenus and a son of Poseidon. In Thrace, nearby to Aenus, the hero Heracles encountered the third Sarpedon, although the latter was very rude to him. As Sarpedon left Thrace Heracles shot him dead with his bow and arrow. The close proximity of Poseidon Peak to Sarpedon indicates the third Sarpedon may be the namesake of this peak [Correct me if I’m wrong].
There is an unenjoyable rock traverse in crampons (the sound of crampons on rock just chills my very soul), more snow and then we reach the final section of rock before the summit. We de-crampon and head up, carefully climbing the slabs of rock with their small ridges and veins which lead us to the summit. The terrain drops off. We are on the top of Sarpedon. There are spectacular views all around us and we stay perched on the top for a while, enjoying the sun and expanse of mountains surrounding us.
It is chilly in the wind so we descend, reapply our crampons and traverse a long section of steep, hard snow that makes me feel like my ankles are about to give way. Luckily I make it to even ground before this happens.
Glacier travel. There are some small slots to step over and I take my time, uncertain on this type of terrain, the others scampering ahead. I reach a wide slot that requires a jump and it takes me a few minutes to convince myself to do it. It isn’t hard. I just don’t want to screw it up. I catch the others before the terrain gets harder, with slots on a sloped section that leads to a gravel tongue that will take us off the glacier. There are a few more jumps that push my comfort zone before we reach gravel. Safety.
We skip and jog down to Park Pass, myself deliberating about whether or not I want to push myself physically or not so much. The others are hella keen to keep going past Lake Nerine and over North Col, then out the Routeburn, rather than straight out the Rock Burn and back over Sugarloaf Pass. The thought of going back over Sugarloaf Pass sickens me so I commit to the trip extension over North Col, besides, going out the Rock Burn just doesn’t seem hard enough.
After lunch we head up towards Lake Nerine. The ridge is nice until I lose Tom and Maddy over a small rise and follow the trail to the left. I do find some absolutely banging rock bivvies but no Maddy or Tom, so I find a way up the steep slopes back to the top of the ridge. I stand around looking a bit silly then finally hear Maddy below as she spots me. They catch up and we continue along, eventually having to drop down anyway to traverse a basin and finally catch sight of Lake Nerine from the next rise.
We keep to the ridge, admiring the lake as we go, and finally ascend to sidle to North Col. Maddy takes us one terrace too high but there is a nice scree slope to descend back into the unusual rocky stream valley half way up Nereus Peak that curves around almost all the way to North Col. Tom and I scamper down the flat, gradually descending terrain until we reach the point where it drops off and we need to climb over the short section of bluffs to reach North Col.
From North Col the going gets fast. It is all downhill from here. There are some narrow chutes and some awkward (fun) drops in the stream but the main hold up is the friendly kea (Nestor notabilis) who poses for me on a rock. I catch up, we pop into a rock bivvy then hustle to the river flats. One more waterfall that makes us bash through painfully scratchy scrub and we are free. Fast riverside travel ensues, changing to grassy flat travel and finally, on track travel. Tom can’t help breaking into a run and I follow suit, albeit quite a bit slower.
We slow once we burst out of the forest and spot Routeburn Flats hut, although our walking pace probably still resembles that of a decent jog. We pause at the hut to chat to the lonely hut warden (the huts are still closed after the storm), eat some snacks and pump ourselves up for the final hour or so of running on the Routeburn.
It is not long before I need my headlamp but it’s all downhill on a nicely graded gravel track which DOC has already returned to a beyond walkable state. We run the trail except for the occasional small uphill, thrashing it out to arrive at the car at about 21:30.
For our epic route click here.