Wilderness Traverse of Fiordland Race Report

WTF #3 - Jeribe Richson
9 - 11 January 2021

Race Report

On Saturday 9th January the Further Faster Fledglings took part in the 3rd edition of the Wilderness Traverse of Fiordland (WTF), an event run by the Fiordland Endurance and Adventure Racing Society (FEAR). This epic race is the brainchild of Adventure Racer Andy Magness and has a reputation of being brutal, risky, and highly rewarding. This year’s edition was no exception…

5:00pm Friday night before the race

We realise we have two faulty torches and will only get one set of maps!!! Panic run into town for two torches and a set of A3 maps. This was followed by the ultimate high performance food of pizza and ice cream. 

6:00am:          Packrafting the Waiau River

The race started from the Waiau dam, 10km from Manapouri down the Waiau River. We started with a hot pace running down the road after the low key ‘Ok guys, go!’ from Andy. Probably because Will was too excited to inflate his brand new packraft but let's also call it start line nerves. We paddle in MRS Barracuda R2 Pro packrafts which are fast and robust (comment to be taken lightly and highly dependent on the user skill). The Waiau River contains mostly grade 1 rapids and a fair bit of flat paddling – a good warm up for what was to come! On the river we made no feeble attempt to get to the front, and after a few kilometers of paddling fast we overtook Nutrient Rescue, however we couldn’t out paddle the FEAR youth team who put in a solid paddling effort.

7:45am:          Trekking over three big mountain ranges

In a change of heart Andy had allowed us to drop our packrafts and packraft gear at the end of the Waiau River paddle (Will and Odie were very pleased not to have to carry the packrafts over the next stage!). The logistics of this meant that one member of the team had to swim across the Waiau River. Odie took this for the team as he is the pro swimmer having put a few Brecca’s under his belt!

We started the next trek second equal with Nutrient Rescue, with the FEAR youth team having approximately a five minute drop on us. There were no start line nerves with Will’s nav, who took us on a bee line to the CP0 (located 20 meters into a cave). 

C10 IN THE CAVE! Fiordland NZ

CP0 in the cave.

After the cave we were looking at the first of three massive hill climbs of this stage. The ground underfoot was extremely spongy, a lot of moss and rotten trees. We were ascending for 1000m to some impressive tor’s (large rocky outcrops) on the tops. Again, we arrived at CP1 with Nutrient Rescue. This team of four guys seemed faster than us, however our route choices so far had been slightly more efficient. We were unsure where FEAR Youth where, we hadn’t seen them ahead of us so assumed they had taken a less efficient route. 

The descent from the tor’s took us down to the North Branch Borland River track. The second climb out of the Borland Valley took us up another 1000m of vert to CP2 which was a high point of 1614m. This checkpoint had amazing views of some large and impressive mountains! 

The CP1 Tor with Will and Brad discussing the next route choice.

The CP1 Tor with Will and Brad discussing the next route choice.

 

The team at CP2. Wilderness Traverse of Fiordland

The team at CP2.

The second descent involved a bit of sidling, butt sliding, and toes being jammed into the front of our shoes. Odie started regretting his choice of ankle socks and not splashing out on a pair of gaiters. Having your legs covered for these longer races is key for survival and enjoyment. 

The third and final ascent of the day was to CP3  at the head of the valley. This ascent had drawn a significant amount of assessment over the past week (we had been given the course maps a full week earlier). There were two possible routes:

  1. Ascend along the most direct path through a narrow and steep gorge, or,
  2. Attempt an awkward siddle about 100m above the gorge bluffs.

Andy had indicated that he had no idea whether we would be able to ascend via the gorge which would make for an uncertain ascent of the gorge. We decided to go up the gorge for several reasons; it was the most direct route, it would save us on vert, and it was uncertain and exciting! Will had also researched this section of Fiordland in Moirs Guide South which did not suggest the gorge was impassable. Our route choice paid off and as we made the climb through big boulders and rotten trees. The highlight was topping out the gorge with a little scramble next to a wicked waterwall! Huge relief! CP3 was bagged! 

 

 

Hight life of the race! Scrambling up the by the waterfall

Will, Ode and Brad heading up the gorge. This was a real highlight!

As we ascended the third and final climb of the day we saw Nutrient Rescue in the bush above the valley. We assumed they took the route avoiding the gorge out of uncertainty. Unfortunately a guy in their team had a scary fall with injuries as repercussions and they were moving slower than expected. It was a shame that this happened as their expertise and speed was proving to be very good competition for us. 

Odie was battling hard for the descent into the transition, saying he felt like he had lost coordination in his legs! Brad took one for the team and carried Odie’s pack for much of this descent. We were pushing hard to make the 8:30pm dark zone, which would allow us to paddle a small section of the Grebe River and then walk next to the river during the night. 

8:19pm           Packrafting the Grebe River & sleeping!

We arrived at 8:19pm at transition, however this didn’t stop Andy from telling us we were dark zoned! Naturally this did not go down well with the team so we compromised with Andy who agreed to let us paddle until 9.45pm. We hustled through the TA and took our packrafts and started the 30 minute trek to the river to start paddling. The Grebe River is an absolutely spectacular piece of river which was mainly Grade 1 and 2 but had two sections of Grade 3 - 400 rapids which Arno told us “Do not go down unless you want to die”. We got to the first section of Grade 3 rapids at 9.45pm.. A quick deflation of the packrafts and a hurried discussion about what to do now. Do we walk through the night and make slow miserable kilometers through the dense bush and swamp (walking on Borland Road wasn’t allowed), or do we take the option to have our gear dropped off so we can bank some sleep? Odie was struggling with his legs, so we focused on our needs and managed 5.5 hours of solid sleep right under a Borland Road power line tower. Quite a unique spot! Given the magnitude that was to come in this race this sleep was imperative.

4:40am           Packrafting the Grebe River and Lake Manapouri

Will wakes us up with a “We should have been awake an hour ago!”. It was still dark and our approach to the Grebe river after the Grade 3 gorge took around an hour of bush bashing. We rapidly inflated the packrafts and commenced some white water paddling. It had already been light enough to paddle for about half an hour so we had lost some valuable time here. We had better get a better alarm before GZ! We were uncertain how far ahead Go Fence had managed to get throughout the night (they mentioned they would travel throughout the night). Pushing this uncertainty to the back of our minds we focused on getting out of the Grebe. We portaged the second section of Grade 3 - ‘400’ rapids which looked pretty nasty. Our portage took around 1.5 hours and as we were inflating the packrafts for the second time that morning another team (Victory Vets) paddled past us - they looked to be having a lot of fun and were moving fast! In the past few races we have done we have raced closely with Victory Vets so it was no surprise to know they had been very close on our tails. After a couple of exciting rapids and drops we were on the southern shore of Lake Manapouri. Arriving at CP5, and nudging the tails of Victory Vets, we attached the skegs to the underside of the packrafts and attached a tow rope to Brad and Odie’s packraft who had been coming a close second to Will and Hayley on the packraft sections thus far. From the southern shores of Lake Manapouri it was heads down for approximately 20km of reasonably flat packrafting. We passed Victory Vets at the very beginning, and with Go Fence in sight they eventually got chopped down as well.Go Fence appeared to be having some difficulty and upon getting closer, we realized they were one paddle down. They had lost it on the Grebe River and were taking turns to do interval style paddling with a double bladed paddle while the other used an oar. They must be beast paddlers because it still took us a while to overtake them! Our focus now was on CP6, located at Lake Richter. This involved a small bush bashing trek section on the mainland. It was a nice break from the lake packrafting. Lake Richter has a very small island in the middle on which CP 6 was located. Will took this swim for the team and commented that it was “a rather peaceful swim”. Bush bashing out from the lake and back to the packrafts we came across Victory Vets and Go Fence together. We had approximately 10 minutes on them. This is no time at all so the hammer was down for the last six kilometers of the paddle to the start of the next trek section which began at the outlet of Iris Burn next to the Kepler track.

3:30pm           Trekking the Jackson Peaks

We’re now looking at approximately 22km of trekking. We grossly underestimated this to take us nine hours (actual time was closer to 17 hours). The first four kilometers were on the Kepler track heading up the Iris Burn River. We took the opportunity to knock back a dehy meal each in preparation for a massive climb and a traverse of the Jackson Peaks ridgeline. Up we went, eventually breaking through the bush line around 6:30pm. The final 200 meters of vert to the main ridgeline involved some nasty scrub bashing. We eventually emerged on the ridgeline around 7pm, giving us three more hours of daylight to assess our surroundings up here. There were two CP’s (CP 7 & 8) to collect along the Jackson Peaks, each one being progressively more challenging to reach. With the encroaching darkness it was imperative that we made sight of the last checkpoint (CP8 at 1622m) on this ridgeline to be able to assess a viable route to the top.

Views from the top of the Wilderness Traverse of Fiordland

The approach to CP 8 (1622m peak in background).

We made it to the start of an extremely rocky and jagged ridgeline leading up to CP 8 at 9:45pm (15 minutes of light to spare). Along with us were Victory Vets and Go Fence. The route via the direct ridgeline looked nasty and dangerous. Neither team was too excited to follow this ridgeline in the dark. Plan B was concocted, we would drop 150 m of vert from our current ridge and ascend up a gut that led up to the northeast ridge of Pt 1622. We couldn’t see all of the gut from the angle we were at so there was potential for hidden bluffs. This was one of the most exciting times during the race. Engulfed in darkness we ascended the peak, our headlights on and illuminating only mere meters ahead of us. As we got higher and higher we expected to get bluffed out, however somehow we emerged on the NE ridge of Pt 1622. Surprised to have picked a perfect route up to the peak we made short time of bagging it and having a much needed team group hug! Victory Vets and Go Fence had aborted their planned route and we could see their headlights on the section of ridgeline we had left from. We had managed a small lead – not sure how long it would last we kept moving forward!

1:30am           Trekking Mt Luxmore

This trek was proving to be long and slow. After completing the Jackson Peaks ridgeline in the dark we were treated to around 4km of the Kepler track to the Forest Burn Shelter. Another dehy was hurriedly consumed and we were out of there to ascend Mt Luxmore (1472 m), the last peak to bag on the course. We spotted some headlights on the tops which looked to be relatively close. Unsure of what team this was or just how close they were we were taking no lead for granted. We hit the Luxmore Hut for some much needed water at 3.30am. We accidentally woke a far from impressed DOC warden with our lights, as we tried to find the front door, we were asked to “Get out!!” several times. Sorry to anyone we woke! We descended through the bush line down to CP 10.

6:00am           Still trekking but getting increasingly slower…

Tiredness was kicking in. The cumulation of what we had completed so far was taking its toll on our energy levels and the condition of our feet. We slowed down a lot on this descent and for the first time in the race we were mildly unsure of our exact whereabouts while trying to cut across to the big lake south of CP 10. There seemed to be decent streams flowing in odd directions which didn’t line up with our map, too much for Will and Brad’s sleep deprived minds! As dawn crept in a half asleep Hayley was able to see what looked like a large lake (We assumed Te Anau). Brad and Will tossed out their meticulous but slow navigational plan and headed towards it. We happened upon the larger hidden lake first and then navigated to the smaller lake where CP 10 was located. We were back in the game! Motivation spiked, another dehy was consumed, and a few No Doze popped. We then formulated a game plan to finish the race.

9:20am           Hidden Lakes Rogaine

Andy had set a rogaine course around the hidden lakes track which he states took him “two hours to set on a fresh set of legs and a clear head”. Most of the team was experiencing very sore feet (wrinkly and blistering). We hadn’t expected to be out on course this long and didn’t look after our feet like we normally would for longer expedition races. With GZ around the corner we didn’t want to completely wreck our feet and have a long recovery period. For this reason we made the call to leave Hayley with our packrafts in Driftwood cove near CP F on the rogaine. Brad also returned to the rafts with sore feet after collecting a couple of the rogaine CPs. Will and Odie collected the remaining foot rogaine CPs in 3.75 hours. We were moving very very slow at this point. The nav was tricky in places as there was a heap of topography that didn’t show up on the map with 20 m contours.

12:50pm         Packrafting on Lake Te Anau

There were three remaining rogaine CP’s to collect via the packraft on the paddle down Lake Te Anau to the finish line. Eye’s were tired and bodies were sore but the thought of landing on the shores of Lake Te Anau and completing this race kept us going. In no time we claimed these CP’s and paddled down the lake to the red FEAR society flags.

3.30pm           Finish line feeling

We had one of our slowest finishes yet, with our bodies feeling every bit of the 130 km and 6,500 m of ascent/descent. Done!

Finish line !!

Finished!

A huge thanks to all the supporters on the shore to welcome us home. And a massive congratulations to everyone who participated in the event – especially to teams Nutrient Rescue, Victory Vets, Go Fence, and FEAR Youth who kept us pushing our limits for the entire race. Thank you Andy Magness for setting a wickedly gruelling and honest course around some incredible country.

Written by Hayley from the Further Faster Fledglings! Our amazing adventure racing team!


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