Posted by: nextbigadventure | August 29, 2016

The Haute Route: Across the Alps


The sign read Col de Prafleuri 2,987m. We had chased the last rays of sunlight up the rocky scree to the summit. Now only an orange glow came from the south-western horizon with darkness settling down the steep descent to the east. We allowed a few minutes to get our headlights ready, knowing we wouldn’t reach the overnight refugio before we would need them. The refugio still wasn’t in sight; the weather & temperature could change quickly after dark near 3,000m. I wouldn’t say we started to panic – we’re both experienced enough not to & had the gear we needed to be out there at night – but certainly settled into a more determined pace as we dropped down the Col into darkness. 


We knew when we had set out that morning from Champex Lac that 40km & 1,000m’s of climbing across scree, ice & snow would make for a very long day. A short diversion plus a few additional km’s around noon (and a detour to get better maps!) had pushed our ETA out to past sunset. 


About an hour before we started the climb up Col de Prafleuri we had passed a group of 4. The first guy we caught up to was holding a map & said that the ladies ahead were upset. We asked if he had a headlight, food & warm gear, he said he did & that we should let the refugio know they would be in late. When we pass the ladies ahead they quickly explained why they were upset – they had spent most the afternoon going down the wrong valley. Map-guy was clearly not too popular at that point. 

The group was moving slowly but seemed to have the right gear & enough food when we passed them. We would next see them climbing out of a rescue helicopter at the refugio many hours later. 

That was day 2 of our 6 day fast-packing adventure across the Alps, from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland. Arriving in Zermatt we would have accumulated over 12,000m of ascent along the 190km route. 


The first day started at Le Tour, just up the valley from Chamonix (we had hiked the valley earlier in the week so this still counts as EFI from Chamonix!). Col de Balme climbed out of the Chamonix valley, and out of France, into Switzerland. After a second high mountain pass the first day ended in the town of Champex Lac – also a significant checkpoint on the UTMB route. 


Day 3 took as away from Col de Prafleuri across very remote valleys & freezing cold lakes. We stayed above 2,500m most the day, eventually climbing back to near 3,000m up a set of ladders bolted to the rock face via Pas de Chèvres (‘Pass of the Goats’). I’m not sure goats could get over that climb. 


We next intersected civilisation – and decent coffee – at the town of Arolla, on the valley floor other side of Pas de Chèvres. A short diversion to Lac Bleu & then onwards down the valley to a good nights sleep & the best pizza in the world in Les Hauderes! 


Another two big days take us over Col de Torrent, past the massive Moiry dam, over Col de Sorebois, through the small town of Zinal, over Forcletta across the Gruben valley, then up the huge Augstbordpass and down into the bottom on the Zermatt valley, to the town of St Niklaus. 

The path meanders up the Zermatt valley on the final day, day 6. A late start, a relaxed early lunch to devour what remains of the 2.5kg of cheese & sausage we left Chamonix with, some ice cream & a not-so-cold lake swim, finally a glimpse of the Matterhorn & suddenly we’re on the main strip of Zermatt. 


The transition from quiet mountain path to busy shopping street couldn’t have been more abrupt. It felt like stepping through a one-way mirror. From the one side we could see the trail ending & the chaotic street scene ahead. Once we had stepped into the street there was no looking back to the trail. It had suddenly become a memory, an epic experience that will last a lifetime, but one we couldn’t step back to. We were part of the chaos on the street now, and could only look forward to the next adventurous exit from it. 

Posted by: nextbigadventure | March 7, 2016

Baikal Ice Marathon, Siberia

Its white in all directions. No indication of where the frozen, snow-covered lake ends and the sky begins. The only hint of which way to proceed is the line of small red marker flags hanging onto the snow while the icy headwind points them sharply back towards me. Alongside the flags the footsteps of the runner just ahead are quickly filling with snow. Progress is much slower than I had expected.  
The start of 12th edition of the Baikal Ice Marathon had been delayed by over an hour. A huge crack in the ice opened up about 3km into the course and parallel to the coast where we would start. Going around it wasn’t an option. The solution was to park three hovercrafts, which were there to support the race, on top of the crack. Runners could then climb up and over the hovercraft to cross the crack. 

We waited nervously in a small club house on the Eastern shore of Baikal while the hovercraft were positioned. A guy that had come all the way from Rio was still deciding between legging options and asked my opinion. I let him know that I’m South African and had never been anywhere near -20 degrees, nor tried to run in it (I did suggest adding the wind proof shell.) A US marine, based in Moscow, looked calm and clearly knew what he was doing. As did a Russian guy from further east who commented that he’s used to -30 so he wasn’t going to wear too much gear today. The Japanese guy I met at the airport still looked as confused as he did when I met him. 

  
The hovercraft were in position and the race ready to start. We exited the building one by one, pulling masks and gloves safely over the last pieces of exposed skin, and lined up at the edge of the lake. Seconds later it began. 

The first few kilometres were easy running but uncomfortable for me. Adjusting zips and straps, trying to find a balance between warm and too warm. In these conditions you cannot afford to sweat, which would instantly freeze between your base layers. Slowly I settled into a rhythm. 

The rhythm was to be short lived as the wind picked up and the layer of snow deepened. Suddenly there was no easy line to be found – some steps would land on hard pack ice, others would vanish calf-deep into snow. Following footsteps was the best strategy, but those were quickly covered by snow drift.

  
Support stations served hot, sweet tea. Along with frozen raisons, frozen cheese, frozen nuts and frozen chocolate! I learnt to use the hot tea to defrost what I wanted to eat. Water bottles handed out had to be consumed within seconds, before they become blocks of ice. 

The finish line lay on the Western shore of the lake. What started around a 3:30 marathon time would eventually end up just short of 5 hours for me. Hot showers and a huge dinner waited a few hundred meters further. And lots of vodka, of course.

  
Staring into the vast whiteness, struggling to put one foot ahead of the other in deepening snow, experiencing conditions I had only read about, I was was exactly where I wanted, and needed, to be. I didn’t go to Siberia to run across a lake. I went to start experiencing and learning what racing in these conditions would be like. 

There are no red flags marking the way to the where I really want to go, the headwinds will be much worse and the temperatures somewhat lower. However, at some point one needs to step out of reading the accounts of other adventurers and start getting the experience yourself. This trip to Siberia was just that for me, and there’s much more to come. 

Posted by: nextbigadventure | February 21, 2016

Gearing up for Lake Baikal, Siberia

I read The Long Walk almost 15 years ago (thanks Ciaran!) Its about a group of prisoners that escape from a Soviet labour camp in the winter of 1942. They walk South out of Siberia, along Lake Baikal, across the Gobi desert and Tibet and over the Himalayas to safety in British India. The book has since became a film (The Way Back) and the accuracy of the account challenged.

Wether true or not, its inspired me over the years to push boundaries further than I may have otherwise. It also put Lake Baikal on my map. A place I’ve wanted to visit ever since. And now – in less than 2 weeks – I will finally do so.

Fitting, maybe, that I will be there towards the end of a Siberian winter. The lake will be frozen over and temperatures can drop below -20 Celsius. Baikal is the deepest lake on earth (over a mile deep.) It lies in Siberia near the city of Irkutsk, just north of the Mongolian border.

The Baikal Ice Marathon is an annual race across the lake, coast to coast, while it is frozen. Another really good reason to be in Siberia in a couple weeks. Running in these conditions will be a first for me. As is often the case, the real challenge is getting to the start line (not between the start and finish lines.)

Working out what gear I need, having never attempted anything like this, is one part of getting to the start. Getting hold of a Russian visa also no easy task. Visa seems sorted now and, with some careful stickman planning, (appropriate?) gear has been accumulated. Certainly more appropriate gear than the Soviet prisoners had, so I should be OK.

Whatever happens there will be a lot for me to learn. I don’t know what I don’t know. Soon I will. And that will be the first step of my next project – to go South – all the way South. But more on that one later. Siberia first.

 

Posted by: nextbigadventure | October 22, 2015

Diagonale des Fous

  
The Next Big Adventure starts tonight in St Pierre, Reunion, at 22:00 (that’s 20:00 in SA.) The ultra marathon crosses the island of Reunion diagonally, over a number of volcanoes & along crater rims, to the northern town of St Dennis. Some call it the Grand Raid, the French call it Diagonale des Fous (‘diagonal of the insane.’)

163km forward and about 10,000m of climbing (& descending) makes it one of the toughest events of the Ultra Trail World Tour. Over 2,700 runners will start on Thursday evening and we have until Sunday afternoon to reach the finish line. Sleep is optional. 

Follow me live via this link, bib number 982: http://www.grandraid-reunion.com/?page=mobilec&lang=en

The only thing insane about this Adventure would be to not attempt it. 

  

Posted by: nextbigadventure | May 15, 2015

The North Face 100 – Australia 

    

100km in the Blue Mountains. Starts 6:20 Saturday morning Syndey time (that’s 22:20 Friday night in South Africa.)

Track me, search my name or race number (153) here:

http://tnf100au.livetrail.net/coureur.php 

  

Posted by: nextbigadventure | April 14, 2014

The Cederberg has been Traversed!

My white shirt is mostly black, arms and legs are laced with slashes of coal markings delivered by the burnt-out protea bushes and fynbos we’ve been running through all morning. 22km since we chased our headlights off the top of Pakhuis Pass; 8 more kilometers and the Krakadouw Pass until our lunch stop. The sun is almost overhead and it’s well past when we were hoping to already be at Heuningvlei for our first meal. Traversing a large part of the mountain that had recently burnt made for tough navigation and much slower progress. The extreme heat and hot wind didn’t help either.
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Posted by: nextbigadventure | April 9, 2014

(The inaugural) Cedarberg Grand Traverse – 100km of Adventure

The Cedarberg 100 Trail is a 7 day hike through some of the most spectacular regions of the Cedarberg. Clanwilliam is the base for this adventure, around 200 km north-east of Cape Town. The trail begins on the famous Pakhuis Pass just outside Clanwilliam.

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Leaving the pass the trail runs south through the Cedarberg, climbing technical trails and dropping into small villages along the valley floor. Hikers can pre-book basic accommodation and meals in each village. The last village, Langkloof, is at the foot of Gabriel’s pass. Leaving Langkloof the trail climbs the pass, makes a detour to the Wolfberg Arch and then descends to the finish at Driehoek. Driehoek is around 100km from Pakhuis.

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Posted by: nextbigadventure | January 6, 2014

Andes Adventure: The Conclusion

A month since I turned my phone off, instantly feeling isolated and cut-off from everything at home, and boarded a flight to Buenos Aires. No more access to bicycle shops for last minute spares, or chemists that spoke English, no more time to plot potential cycling routes south from where I would land, no more time to plan anything. The spreadsheets, maps, conversations and planning become reality the moment my phone’s screen went blank.

The adventure started.

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I cycled from Puerto Montt south through Chile to El Chalten in Argentina and then hiked the circuit of Torres del Paine. However, very little of the adventure went according to how it was planned from my ‘base camp’ in Cape Town – behind a computer screen in a first-world apartment a continent away.

Fortunately, I wouldn’t need much of the medical kit and nor the bicycle spares. Things I thought could break didn’t. Those I thought wouldn’t break did. The route I’d take would be altered by ferry-crossings, winds and luck. Some days would be easier, some would be impossible. The weather would be as expected, but ‘7 degrees with rain’ when you’re 73km away from the next shelter and food is very different to ‘7 degrees with rain’ on an iPhone screen when you’re sipping an americano in Cape Town!

But that’s what makes it an adventure.

A month and a huge adventure later, I’ve crossed the Andes on a bicycle and on foot, explored glaciers, summited mountains, bivy’d next to rivers, bivy’d in the rain, bivy’d in the snow and under star-filled skies, found border crossing few knew existed, lost a few kilograms and toenails, learnt to predict the weather in Patagonia (cold with a very strong westerly wind, everyday), learnt more spanish, found help from absolute strangers when the unexpected did go wrong, met like-minded travelers from Korea, Canada, the US, the UK, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovakia, Argentina, Poland, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Germany, France, South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil, The Netherlands, Israel, The Czech Republic, Spain and Russia, each on their own adventures at their own pace in their own way – some cycling, some walking, some using ships and ferries, some backpacking, some doing nothing at all – each with their own story to tell.

In a few minutes, and a month later, I’ll step off this flight. This adventure will end. But that blank screen will light up and with the world at my fingertips once again from base camp, I’ll start planning the Next Big Adventure!

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Posted by: nextbigadventure | January 3, 2014

Amanecer: 1/1/2014

My alarm wakes me at 3:30am on 1 January 2014, only a couple hours after I zipped into my bivy bag. I lie quietly and listen; nothing. It isn’t raining and the wind has stopped, perfect!

Next I find my headlight and cautiously peel myself out of my waterproof shelter. I sit up and look around. I’m camped in a small forest and there is snow falling softly across the beam of my headlight, but looking up I can see a few stars between the trees.

There should be a sunrise and I make the tough decision to get out of my sleeping bag. I have 2 sets of clothes; hiking clothes and ‘clean’ clothes. It’s near the end of the trip so I can no longer tell the difference between the clean ones and the hiking-in ones. Its also well below zero degrees – I’ll wear all of them.

About 500 vertical meters above me – about a 45 minute hike – lies a laguna and the base of the three towers that give Torres del Paine its name. The three granite slabs stretch vertical, going straight up almost 2,000m from the laguna. I’m going there for the first sunrise of 2014.

Torres del Paine National Park covers a large part of southern Chile. It stretches from the Argentine border west and south into the second largest ice field on earth outside of the poles (Greenland is larger.) The park is about 1,600km north of Antarctica and is buried in snow most of the year.

The map of the park shows many short hiking trails spreading out near the park entrance. However, the holy grail is the 120km loop encircling the mountains containing the towers. A couple hostels and shelters litter the bottom of the map near the park entrance. The top of the map – the back half of the circuit – is remote and few venture out there.

Leaving my bicycle behind in El Calafate and going further south with a small backpack by bus I’d made the transition from cyclist to hiker. The cycling part of this adventure was complete; but there would still be 120km of mountains, glaciers, snow, mud, rain, sun and experiences to discover on foot.

First, I needed to do some repairs. Wilson, my backpack, which has had more than it’s fair share of adventure, started coming apart at the seams. A huge needle and dental floss kept things together for what would probably be Wilson’s final adventure before retirement.

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I’d stepped out of a full bus and into the rain alone at the park entrance five days earlier. The others would continue another hour to the park’s main hotel and do the shorter circuit from there. I hadn’t come this far to sit on a bus any longer than I needed or to see a hotel; the rain on my face felt great as I began the next part of my adventure.

The weather forecast was, unfortunately, accurate – heavy rain in the morning. There would be some rain everyday but I started in the worst of it and it could only get better from there. Soon I’d be knee-deep in muddy marshes anyway and the rain would be irrelevant in comparison. Wilson and I named these muddy stretches of the trail the ‘swamps of sadness.’

The weather cleared in the afternoon and I made it to what would be the best campsite on the trail – Refugio Dickson – next to a lake and at the foot of the biggest pass along the circuit. It was my birthday and when the Chilean guy in charge of the campsite found out and heard I was South African, he sang me a piece of Die Antwoord’s ‘Enter the Ninja.’ He couldn’t speak any English (or Afrikaans) but he knew those lyrics!

Day 2 started with a long gradual ascent up a valley before the trail kicked straight up climbing about 1,000m through scree and snow. It was also the only day where I would be concerned about my safety. Somewhere around midday the trail ended suddenly in a muddy patch of trees. I’d lost the trail I was supposed to be following. Retracing my footsteps a number of times I couldn’t find a way through the trees and out in the direction I should be going.

I needed to get over the pass and drop down the other side (to where there would be less wind and positive temperature) before it got dark. I took a short break, studied the map and contour lines closer and eventually found the correct trail again.

Fortunately, losing the trail turned out to be a non-event which had only cost me maybe 45 minutes. It was, however, a good reminder of how quickly things can go wrong in the mountains, and if they did for me, that I’d be alone and need to find a solution. The reminder came at a good time – the trail was about to ascend into scree and snow and climb out of the trees and into the Patagonian wind.

I climbed the pass safely. The other side dropped down to Glacier Grey. Grey is one of the larger glaciers protruding from the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field into habitable terrain. Looking west along the glacier one can see part of the ice field which stretches away into icy nothing-ness and eventually becomes sky.

The campsite near the glacier does kayak trips and I spent the night there. The next morning I paddled right up to the glacier, past huge icebergs that had broken off it over the past few days. I was told the water was constantly between 2 and 3 degrees. Falling out of the kayak was not an option.

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That afternoon I left the campsite and headed towards where the full circuit joins the shorter ‘W circuit.’ The remainder of the hike would be more crowded but also on better maintained trails and with more regular access to coffee and warm food. A couple more days took me to December 31st and the last valley of the circuit which lead up to the base of the towers.

Starting up the valley there were two options. One is to leave your pack at the campsite at the bottom of the valley where there is a restaurant and showers and hike up to the towers and back in a day. The alternative is to take everything to the top of the valley and spend the night in the most basic of campsites. Sleeping at the top of the valley would make a sunset or sunrise mission to the towers possible.

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I decided to spend the last night of 2013 at the top of the valley and to do both sunset and sunrise. There weren’t many hikers camped at the top campsite, and even less that were awake at midnight. We shared the few half-bottles of wine that had made it up the valley and demolished whatever chocolates or rations had survived the hike up to this last night.

A couple hours sleep and then a short line of headlights made their way up to the towers to watch the first sunrise of 2014.

Dropping back down the valley away from the Torres I would start my journey back to civilization and then to Cape Town. A few hours down the valley I passed the other campsite and could get a hot breakfast and coffee. Later I would arrive at the park entrance where I had started the circuit 5 days earlier. From there I’d hitch a lift back to the Argentine town of El Calafate with a French couple in a 4×4.

Approaching El Calafate my phone would jump to life when it found a patch of reception. Many luxuries which we usually take for granted would follow – a shower, milkshakes, wifi, sheets, burgers, shelter from the wind, clean clothes and skype.

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Posted by: nextbigadventure | December 26, 2013

Video’s: Adios Chile & Paso Rio Mayer

Adios Chile! Approaching the end of road and of Chile at Villa O’Higgins:

Mountain biking between the Chilean & Argentine border posts (through the Rio Mayer pass) and then on to Argentina’s main north-south road, Route 40:

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