Saturday, June 13, 2015

Exceeding Expectations - Bacon in Disguise

I was at a function a couple of weeks ago. It was lunchtime. I was hungry. And there were these little mini quiche thingys sitting on the table. Egg and bacon quiches... Delicious. I made my way to the table, salivating at the thought of bacony goodness. Then I took a bite and was sorely disappointed to discover that actually, it wasn't bacon... It was sundried tomato... How very disappointed I was. I looked around for the hidden cameras, wondering if this was some sort of sick social experiment, gauging the various levels of disappointment when people expect bacon... But get sundried tomato... I mean, I don't hate sundried tomato, but I think it's fair to say that if something looks like bacon, and you are expecting bacon, no normal person would then get a pleasant surprise to discover it wasn't, in actual fact, bacon that they were eating. No one eats bacon secretly hoping for sundried tomato.

But what about when you think you are settling for sundried tomato, and then "SURPRISE"!!! You find out that it is actually bacon? Well that, my friend is a happy day indeed.

I had a ride about a month ago that was just like that. My sister Emily, and her husband Dan were in NZ for a road-tripping holiday and I traveled down to Hanmer Springs to meet with them and hang for the long weekend. I've been to Hanmer Springs twice before, and both times to race, so I was looking forward to spending time soaking in the views, and hopefully riding the St James trail for fun, not for racing. We spent our first day on a sunrise hike up Mount Isobel (worthwhile if you like early mornings, a good climb and stunning views) and then I took Em and Dan out to camp at Lake Tennyson for the evening.

Lake Tennyson is beautiful... It's in the middle of nowhere, 50km out of town on a corrugated dirt road that disappears well into the heart of St James Station. I had an ulterior motive for a night camping out here. It meant that I got a shuttle out to ride the St James trail back into town... A tasty little 80km ride through some stunning backcountry trails.

After a morning of delicious sunshine, the afternoon turned pretty wild, and by the time we got to Lake Tennyson, a significant storm was brewing in the valley at the end of the lake, just waiting for the flood gates to open so it could come barreling across the water to where we had parked up to camp. Em and Dan had a campervan, and we spent the afternoon reading, playing cards and geeking out over topographic maps (ok, that was just me with the maps), watching the sky outside get angrier and angrier and feeling the wind buffet the campervan side to side. I had made a very poor attempt to pitch my tent where it was protected by the camper, and so I spent the night being jolted from my sleep every time the side of the tent slapped me in the face with the force of a gust of wind behind it (which was about every two or three minutes).

We awoke in the morning to a rather stunning sunrise. The way the pinks danced around the clouds created an ominous, angry-looking sky that made the thought of disappearing into the valley by myself for the day seem a little bit daunting. The storm that had been brewing in the valley on the other side of the lake seemed to be trapped there, but gale force winds were still swirling around the lake, in amongst bursts of rain.

I nearly decided not to ride that day. In fact, I went through the motions of putting my kit on and getting my bike prepared with the intention that something would happen at the last minute that would give me a genuine excuse to pike... Something more genuine than a bit of wind and rain. But nothing changed... The wind kept howling, and bursts of rain came and went. It became apparent that the decision was mine to make... And I was already in my riding kit with my bike out of the car... I may as well just ride. I was expecting it to be a bloody miserable day, by all accounts.

I threw my leg over my bike and battled into the head wind down the road, waving goodbye to Em and Dan as they passed me and disappeared into the distance. As I turned right onto the trail, a burst of rain and gust of wind simultaneously drowned me and nearly blew me off my bike... I had the feeling that this was going to be one very long day, and I spent the next 8km considering how feasible it would be to turn around and head back down the road with the possibility of hitching a ride somewhere along the way. But that just isn't my style, so I pushed on regardless, although not without first squeezing my backpack to confirm I could feel the familiar box-shape of my PLB.

It wasn't until I had been on the bike nearly an hour that I crested the top of the first climb at Maling Pass. From here, I could see straight down into the valley where the St James trail wound its way alongside the Waiau River. In front of me, where my wheel was pointed, there were patches of blue bursting through a tapestry of fluffy grey clouds. Behind me, the storm was still raging away in the valley, a dark landscape dimmed even further by the spread of dark clouds that seemed to reach from the sky to the ground. It was trying it's best to get past the Lake. But for some reason, that's where it stayed... It was like Mother Nature was giving me a massive high five for being a hard woman and getting out in it despite the weather. I smiled and rolled on my way down the rocky, loose, fun descent... Mother nature had just taken my sundried tomato and swapped it for bacon.

As I rode through the valley, I was hyper-aware of my surroundings. Everything felt wonderful. The wind frequently pushed at my back, multiple rainbows appeared in front of me, leading the way, and the long alpine grass swished along with the wind, like strands of silver bending in the sun. I felt so alive, and indescribably happy to be where I was right at that moment in time. The mountains surrounded me on either side like a surreal mural of scree-topped silver-green. And given the weather had been so poor, no one else had ventured out for the day, so the feast was all mine for the taking. I pedaled my way along the river, crossing raging torrents on swing-bridges, interrupting flocks of Canadian Geese, and popping my head into random huts along the way.

I remembered from racing the St James trail twice over the last few years that the bulk of the climbing on this trail happens right at the end, and the hills didn't disappoint. As I worked my way up the ascents, sometimes on foot, sometimes weaving back and forth awkwardly on my bike, I made up rude songs in my head about what I thought of the climbs at that particular point in time... At least it distracted my mind from the burning sensation in my legs.

Despite the fact that my untrained legs were feeling rather weary, I was nearly disappointed to reach St James Station at the end of the trail. I sat down on the fence for a bite to eat. A stiff breeze was still blowing down through the gully, carrying the smells of Autumn and the backcountry past my nose. I soaked in my surroundings before getting back on the bike for the 20km ride back to Hanmer Springs via the local trail network.

It was a rather moving day for me. Having deprived myself of true adventure for sometime now, I'd had reservations at the start of the day as to whether I was still capable of a ride that long, and whether I was capable of being hard enough to deal with a big day of bad weather, and I needn't had worried about either of those. We live in a world where we have the autonomy to choose again... To choose how we frame things in our minds... To choose how we filter the world and our interactions within it... To choose to take calculated risks... We can choose to hand back the sundried tomatoes and say "you know what? Today, I'll have bacon thanks", then make that happen. It's only when we choose to make moments great that life truly exceeds our expectations.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Biting Off More Than I Can Chew - A Collection of Stories of Overcommittal

It's been quite some time since I sat still long enough to write down my thoughts, and not for lack of stories to tell... In fact, probably much the opposite. It seems rather ironic that the catalyst for me gracing these pages again would be an "eyes bigger than my stomach" type of tale. 
I have a habit of biting off more than I can chew in every aspect of my life. I over-commit to adventures, work, catch-ups with friends, and community activities. It's in my nature to say "yep, I reckon I can do that..." And just because I can, doesn't necessarily mean I should... It seems that when I take on too much in one area of my life, I attempt to balance that by taking on more in other aspects of my life, instead of dropping a thing or two (I know right now that there are people reading this saying "oh, I totally do that!"). So after spending the last 4 months of 2014 commuting between Sydney and Auckland every week for work, I settled on a role that was based in Auckland. It was nice to be in one spot, but I can't say moving back to the rat-race was something I was entirely thrilled about. I missed my forest, my little town of Rotorua, and my people... And I missed my big crazy adventures... So it seemed the only logical thing to do was to engage in big crazy adventures at every opportunity.
Against the grain of most other blogs I have ever written, I've decided to keep my story-telling fairly concise because realistically, I just wanted to post this blog as an excuse to share some stunningly beautiful pictures with you, in amongst smatterings of amusing and enlightening experiences I have had since we last caught up (July last year?!)

So to begin with, I learned to ski last year... I obviously didn't have enough expensive hobbies on my list already, so off I went and purchased myself not one, but two, sets of skis, because by next year, I would be ski touring and would be sure to need them... Bloody lucky I wasn't too bad at it and had a blast because I really was putting myself in a rather committed position with my rampant retail therapy. A trip to Queenstown and a few lessons from my awesome buddy Ben saw me scooting down the slopes in no time, and it wasn't long before I found myself plotting ways that I could find my way out of the patrolled ski areas and into the wider world with a bit more space and a few less crowds. Admittedly, I wasn't quite ready to do this on my skis yet, but it didn't stop Lisa and I from donning some crampons for a beautiful mid-Winter hike up Ben Nevis to top off our trip.
I did myself a disservice with my partner earlier in 2014 on a trip to Queenstown when a hike up over treble cone to Black Peak and back turned from a simple day trip into a 14 hour epic... She has been cautious ever since, and often makes the (probably fair) assumption that if I am excited about doing something, it means the day will probably involve feats that most human beings would be only marginally capable of. It is for this reason that she has learned to read maps for herself to make her own assessments, and I often find my trips under an intense amount of scrutiny, sometimes resulting in me "flying solo" for the odd adventure.
One such occasion happened only a few months later, in the middle of my stint of Australia/NZ commuting for work. I arrived home from Sydney late one Thursday night and was so desperate to get out into the backcountry that I drove from Auckland to Rotorua late after work on the Friday, then Rotorua to Turoa early the next morning for a mid-winter summit mission on Mount Ruapehu. This was one of those occasions when my partner decided I was best left to my own craziness, and in hindsight, I'm glad she did because I would likely be single now had I taken her with me.
The day unfolded on dawn. The skies were clear but with the threat of a snow storm in the early afternoon. I wasn't too concerned about this, because I planned on going for a "scoot" up the mountain and being back down in time for some lunch before then hitting the slopes on my skis in some nice fresh snow. I'd deliberately decided to take the Southern route up to the summit from Turoa because it was much shorter, but in my ignorance, and my impatience to just "get out in it", I'd failed to address some rather important points. For starters, I hadn't done this route before, and was climbing by myself. Secondly, I had failed to take into account that, being on the south side of the mountain, the route wouldn't "soften" for my descent the way it would from the Whakapapa side. I also hadn't sharpened my crampons, which after a season on mixed snow, ice and scree, were now about as useful as a pair of skates.

I stomped my way up the mountain, reveling in the fresh alpine air and the feeling of my burning legs waking up. I passed another lone climber, and after some pleasantries, continued on up the face of the slope. It had been my original intention to climb the ridge, but the slope looked secure and good, so I went for it. It wasn't long before I realised I had climbed myself into a situation I couldn't get out of. As the face got steeper and icier, my hands started to sweat. I knew I'd gotten myself into trouble and I stood frozen to the side of the mountain trying to consider my options. As if that wasn't bad enough, I really, really needed to poo. I was cold, clinging on for dear life, crying, and literally about to shit my pants... It became apparent to me that clinging to the ice wasn't going to get me anywhere, so I clenched my sphincter and started traversing towards the ridge to my right. It was at this moment that Terry appeared... My knight in merino wool that I had passed earlier on that morning. He asked if I was ok, and after I sheepishly admitted I was a little out of my depth, he came across and kicked me some steps the short distance up to the summit, where I could regain my composure on some flat ground. What a top dude.

To say the view was stunning was an understatement. The blue sky encased the entire top of the mountain and a lone, foreboding snow cloud loomed up over the other side of the plateau. After a cup of tea, Terry was kind enough to agree to me tagging along with him down the mountain. The events of the previous couple of hours had really dented my confidence and my progress back down the mountain was slow enough that the snow cloud beat us to the bottom. Terry could have trucked on down at any time, but I was stoked that he stuck around to make sure I got down safely. Before we knew it, we were in the middle of a blizzard in white-out conditions. It's hard to understand just how disorienting it is until you actually experience it, but we were grateful for the sound of the lift station to guide us to the top of the ski slopes. It was all hi-fives at that moment, but it could have easily turned out very differently. I learned a valuable lesson and was fortunate enough to come out unscathed.

Needless to say, I didn't end up going skiing that afternoon.

Fast forward to the Christmas/NY break. After spending the first few days ripping out the bastard rose bush from hell that has been growing on my shed and the roof of my house for what must have been about 100 years, I set off on my yearly camping trip to the summit plateau of Mount Ruapehu with my partner, Lisa, and one of my fave adventure buddies, Edine. Given that this was just prior to the great drought of Summer 2015, there was still a significant amount of snow on the plateau. We dug out a tent platform and made a little icy table and chairs just above the crater lake and watched the clouds wash across the mountain before they kindly parted to make way for the sunset, a stunning clear evening, and a beautiful sunrise. There are few things more incredible than watching the sunset from your own little abode atop a mountain. It was a magic, albeit cold, experience... I sharpened my crampons before that trip! 

Before we had even unpacked from the mountain, a few days later, we did a two-day trip around the Motu Trails on our bikes, camping overnight in the Whitikau valley. I love packing a tent and hauling a load around (whether it be on foot, or by bike). There is something highly liberating about being self-sufficient and being able to just pull up whenever I'm ready for the evening and set up camp. Amongst the wicked riding, we met a French Chocalatier, a nosy Weka, and a couple of overenthusiastic goats that took a liking to my lycra.

So this brings me up to date to some time around March. To be honest, I've never been much into hiking long distances, but about a month before, my friend Marika rang me. She had been on a team for Oxfam trailwalker and it had become apparent the members of the team had different objectives for the event. She still wanted to do it, but with a different team, so here she was, ringing people who she thought may be capable of walking 100km with minimal preparation. As we ascertained at the start of this blog, I seldom say "no", so I was now committed to doing some form of training, and the 55km I was riding to and from work each day probably didn't really count towards "hiking miles".

In amongst small early morning jaunts in the Waitaks, we had weekend training sessions planned, our most epic by far being our "Round the Mountain in a Day". Marika is much like me in that she runs a rather tight schedule, so after I arrived in Rotorua late on Friday, we drove to Raurimu, ready for a 4am start the next morning. The weather wasn't too crash hot, but nothing beats a good set of thermals and some good waterproof gear. We dressed in our matching blue jackets, stuffed our day packs with treats and some bare emergency essentials and set off well before the sun even considered getting up for the day. Whilst our progress was good along the first 15km of track, the poled route around the east side of the mountain was slow work. The winds picked up to near gale force and were so strong that the gusts made me stumble and stop to regain my balance.

The east side of Ruapehu is a place I have spent very little time, and I was blown away by just how different it is to the west side of the mountain. The terrain is almost desert-like. Dried up riverbeds covered in sand serve a cautious reminder of just how lethal a downpour could be on some parts of the route, and the sprawling sand and rock formations likened what I would expect to see on another planet. It really was just stunning.

Back to the storm though... We made our way around to Oturere Hut and it was at this point we realised we were unlikely to beat the storm that was bearing down on us. I've always been of the opinion that adventures are only dangerous once you don't have a "Plan B" left to fall back on. We had two options here... Hike the 4 hours out to Ohakune Mountain Road, and hope that the weather didn't get worse, or spend an unplanned night on the mountain in the hut. We opted for the latter, and less than an hour later, found ourselves in sitting in the hut, with the fire lit, in the middle of a spectacular mountain storm... Good call...

It's surprising just how little you can get away with for an unplanned overnight trip. We cracked out our foil thermal blankets and settled onto the top bunks of the hut, gutted that the wine and chocolate we had bought were still sitting back in Raurimu. About 9pm, a magnificent electrical storm came over the top of the hut. The winds were so strong that we could feel the hut moving, and the lightning was so close that the thunder rolled in right on top of it, and the outline of the windows were burnt into our retinas for hours afterwards. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I was just a little bit terrified. What if the lightening hit the hut? Are we safer on the top bunks or down the bottom? It felt like there was a big scary monster reaching into the hut through the windows and we were trying to stay as far away from it as possible (whilst under our highly-conductive thermal blankets)... Terrifying, but quietly, rather exciting, too.

The next morning, we set out in the rain and wind right on dawn for the four hour hike out to the road end. Despite the weather, we were graced with a beautiful sunrise. There's a saying that I love that goes something like this "may there be enough cloud in your life to bless you with a beautiful sunrise". I found it empowering being thrust into the elements, rain battering my face, dirt on my hands, wind pummeling my ears and a beautiful sunrise before my eyes... What a magic weekend. 

I reckon the best adventures I have are the ones that I cram into my over-committed schedule... There is something I find invigorating about being behind my desk one moment, and then standing atop a mountain, or hauling a pack through mud, only hours later. It's a bit like "planned spontaneity"... I know I'm going to do it, but often question my own motives once I'm in the whirlwind of getting from place to place in seemingly unrealistic time frames. But you know what? I don't think I would change it for the world. The challenge of making an adventure happen is sometimes half the adventure...