As some of you will know, we recently followed the Australian Alpine Walking Track FKT attempt by Paul Cuthbert and Tom Brazier, which Paul eventually completed and set a new FKT (Fastest Known Time) for in 11 days and 18 hours. Tom unfortunately had to pull mid-attempt, but Paul has written this report and very kindly allowed us to reprint it.
For those of you unfamiliar with the AAWT, Paul provides some further detail in this report, but it’s considered a brute. Around 652kms in length and would take the average fit hiker 30-40 days to complete. Thanks to Paul for allowing me to post this – what a cracking attempt and new record, totally unsupported I might add too.
Having done my fair share of ultras over the past few years it was time for a new challenge. A multi-day stage race seemed like the ticket but there were none I could find that appealed. After pondering options for a while it suddenly hit me that there was no need for this to be an organised event. Pretty quickly a plan formed. I was going to try and run the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT).
The AAWT is a 650km track from Walhalla in Victoria to the Namadgi Visitors Centre in Canberra. It covers remote and rugged terrain, including the regions around Baw Baw, the Barry Mountains (crosscut saw, the Viking), Hotham/Bogong and Kosciusko. Very few sealed roads are crossed and no towns are entered (although the track goes close to Hotham and Thredbo). Doing the whole thing in one trip is not uncommon, but most people take a month or more. Treating it like a mega long ultra race is a lot less common and was sure to provide the adventure I was after.
I mentioned my plans to a couple of ultra running friends and was surprised that I wasn’t the only person thinking this was a good idea. Eventually, the plan was settled that Tom Brazier and I were going to attempt the track unsupported. Most significantly this means we’d be carrying our own camping gear, clothes, food and other supplies that we’d need between food drops. It was critical therefore to go as light weight as possible. We were taking bivvies (no tent), light sleeping bags and mats, and just enough clothes to keep us warm and dry. Pack base weight was around 4.5kg, or in the 6-10kg range with food and water depending on how much water was needed and distance to the next food drop. Mont Adventure Equipment supported us by providing some of the essential ingredients.
We had four food drops, which were placed ahead of time. The first near Hotham was some distance into the trip, so our packs were relatively heavy at the start. An earlier food drop is possible but it would have meant an awful lot of driving which we were keen to avoid. The other food drops were at Fitzroy crossing, Dead horse gap, and Kiandra. Each food drop included the expected provisions for the next leg but also some nice heavy food treats that we planned on stuffing down at the drop. Jars of peaches, beer, UHT chocolate milk and other goodies.
With the food drops in place and gear sorted, we just had to wait until the planned departure date and hope the long term weather forecast looked good. I checked the forecast pretty much every day from about 3 weeks out. In the end, we were pretty lucky and ended up delaying the start by only a day to start with a stretch of fine weather.
Flying one way to Melbourne to run back home feels bad ass. I’ve caught buses, trains and cars before for a point to point running race, but never a plane. Best not to look out the window too much though because those mountains seem to go on forever.
The totally awesome Mel Kitchin picked us up at the airport and delivered us safely to Walhalla. We felt that a hearty Wally Pub lunch was in order. Unfortunately, Tom’s stomach didn’t agree and he spent Sunday arvo in the foetal position and throwing up. Luckily this cleared up in time for brekky Monday morning. We slept that night in the gondola in the middle of Walhalla, complete with mosquitoes, flood lights and visits from strangers. The strangers left us alone when we explained what we were about to do. They must have thought we were too crazy to mess with.
Monday morning 7am and we headed up and over the Baw Baw plateau. This was very beautiful and somewhere I’d like to go back to. After Baw Baw we met Steve Drummond (a fellow ultra runner) at Stronach’s Camp who showed us the way to the local mud puddle/mosquito breeding ground/water source. We ended up pushing hard into the night to hit 70km and stick to our schedule of camping at Red Jacket.
Blisters and bruised feet hit us hard as a bit of a shock. Our bodies are used to going hard for a race then recovering the day after. We were clearly going to have to adapt and accept that the original 10-day plan was not realistic with packs. Fortunately, ultra running is full of such experiences so no big deal. A bit of a blunder cost us time on Champion’s Spur but a wash in Black River boosted our spirits right back up. Tom started taking ibuprofen to combat some achilles pain. A misty/wet evening led to us missing a fire road turnoff that would normally be obvious. We stopped a couple of km past this to camp in a water bar on the fire trail at 10pm.
A bit of a blunder cost us time on Champion’s Spur but a wash in Black River boosted our spirits right back up. Tom started taking ibuprofen to combat some achilles pain. A misty/wet evening led to us missing a fire road turnoff that would normally be obvious. We stopped a couple of km past this to camp in a water bar on the fire trail at 10pm.
Bodies/feet decided to get on board with the crazy team and started to recover! We got our first ridge line views and a sunny breakfast on top of Mt Sunday to dry out our gear. We also bumped into three ladies hiking the opposite direction towards Walhalla and traded info about water sources. The creek near Low Saddle was dry, which meant we were entering a long hot day with limited water rations from dinner last night. Tom grabbed an extra 500ml from a muddy puddle on the fire trail just in case.
We rationed ourselves to 2 sips per hour and struggled in the 30-degree heat, stopping to sit in the shade of some bushes/rocks on the ridge lines. Later that afternoon, before climbing Mt Clear, we bumped into a ranger who offered us some extra water from his truck… what a guardian angel! This got us through to dinner at Chester’s Yard with a flowing creek. We bumped into a friendly deer hunter before settling in for the night at 8-mile creek, near some of the Timbertop kids.
Time to tackle Mt Howitt and then make use of Australia’s most beautiful toilet (glass windows overlooking the valley). We filled up our water containers at Vallejo Gantner hut before tackling Crosscut Saw and Mt Speculation, which were surprisingly easy given their fearsome reputation. After this the track became disused and hard to follow, over Mt Despair, the Razor and the Viking (lots of scrambling!). Tom ran out of ibuprofen and started to suffer with achilles pain on the descents. We made it through to Barry Saddle before sunset for a water refill from the mosquito-filled tank.
We woke up at 4am as the heavens opened. Having not seen the weather warnings, this came as a shock and we scrambled to cover up all our exposed gear. My bivvy was leaking badly so I ended up hiding under the water tank to make use of the minimal available shelter. By 6am we were wet/freezing and decided to get moving to warm up.
The rain/mist continued all day which led to blisters/chafing and no chance to dry out our saturated gear. The fire trails were overgrown which made for slow travel and the mist made it tricky to navigate off Mt Selwyn. Trudging along the fire trails towards Hotham was pretty depressing until we hit the Twins. We powered up the climbs and popped out to see the summit trig in the roaring wind/rain and it felt pretty hardcore (as far as Aussie conditions go). We hit our drop box on the Mt Hotham Rd about 8km from the summit and shivered as we swapped in/out some of our gear and picked up what we needed.
A visit from Tim Slater boosted our spirits as we hobbled up the road to find shelter and dry our gear with the rats inside Blowhard Hut. Tom smashed heaps of ibuprofen to see if that would help the achilles problems. After settling in we received an excellent surprise visit from Ella Cuthbert and Tara Sutherland (family, in Bright for the MTB Nationals).
Morning sunshine was a sight for sore eyes and cold bones. We realised that today we would see the Razorback runners and hit familiar trails to boost our speed. Down Swindler’s Spur and we started to hit the razorback gang. Dan Nunan, Dan Beard, Mick Keyte, Chris Roberts, Gill Fowler, Alex Ramsay, Steve Hanley, Andy Hewat, Tom Banks, Keira Doherty, Issy Ross, so many friendly faces!
We hit their checkpoint at Pole 333 and this was where Tom and I parted ways. It didn’t make sense for Tom to attempt the remaining 400km with achilles pain which was progressively getting worse. We traded hugs, bivvy bags and the SPOT tracker and I set off to complete the mission. Thanks to John the volunteer who gave Tom a lift back to Harrietville so he could hang out with the Razorback crew, scam some food and a bed for the night plus a lift back to Canberra. I headed off across the Bogong High Plains like a tramp with sleeping bag hanging off my pack to dry out. I made it down to Big river, up the big hill we call Bogong, and down the suitably named Long Spur which was beautiful and easy to follow in the dark with an almost full moon.
The day started following a wild dog on a fire trail for at least a kilometre which for some reason failed to notice me. I was gradually gaining on it until it got too close for comfort, at which point I called out and the dog sped off at hypersonic speed. I think I terrified it! Late breakfast was at a beautiful hut complete with kitchen sink near Mt Willis. The Omeo highway was crossed and two close encounters with tiger snakes just before and after Gill creek got my heart pumping. The first was pretty close but luckily the snake kept his cool even though I jumped about 2m into the air. In the afternoon, I made it to food drop #2 at Taylors Crossing, before heading up a big hill to camp under the water tank at Johnnies Top. The camp is right next to a telecommunications facility on the top of the mountain, but unfortunately this doesn’t include cell phone.
I woke with hope of getting to the NSW border, but knowing this would be a challenge because there were several sections of the track that have poor or no trail markers according to the guidebook. Good navigation was going to be key to not lose time. All up it wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t quite make the border. Some of the supposedly “tricky” sections were well labelled with new tracks, although there were some challenges and one stretch of 4km up a hill to Mt Hope Road in thick scrub was particularly slow, even though this is marked as having a path in the guide. In the end, I made it through all the tricky bits and camped by the side of a fire road that leads to the border. At least, it would be easy going tomorrow. Lots and lots of brumby sightings today.
After being so pleased to be done with the single track and tricky nav sections, today I was tortured by the never ending fire trail. This was probably the hardest day simply because it was a long mindless grind over the border and onto Dead Horse Gap where the third food drop was waiting. The day was made up for near the end with a quick swim in the Thredbo river (my second and last wash), and a beautiful sunset while climbing up to Eagles nest.
I was also treated with phone reception which I hadn’t had since Hotham. The phone reception came shortly after drinking beer from the drop box. Apparently my messages gave this away since I repeated several times how excited I was to be sleeping in the Kosciusko toilet block tonight.
I forgot to turn the SPOT tracker on today and you lot all started FREAKING OUT! Small detour to go to the top of Kosciusko, which seemed a little silly since I’ve been there so many times before, but I figured I probably should bag it as part of the AAWT and get a photo. After this it was straight across the Kosciusko main range, which makes for a much nicer route choice than the road and was straight forward in clear weather and having hiked it with the family last Xmas.
In the evening, I was treated by a beautiful walk around Mt Jagungal with a full moon. I had dinner at a hut and was planning to sleep at the next hut, but missed this in the night. I realised my mistake after about 200m but couldn’t bring myself to go back, so instead trudged on for another hour or so before a very uncomfortable and cold sleep next to the fire road. Didn’t see anyone at all today.
After walking around tabletop mountain and some more fire road trudging I finally made it to Kiandra and the last food drop. Feet blisters were getting pretty bad so I was really hoping for blister packs/tape/something in the food drop that would help (couldn’t remember what had been packed).
Sadly there was nothing so the best I could do was make even more effort to keep my feet and socks dry and clean. I met a couple more AAWT hikers before ending up at the Murrumbidgee where I would sleep the night. Even at this point, I was telling myself that it was two days to go. Deep down I knew I was going all the way to the finish tomorrow but I didn’t want to admit this because of the prospect of a long day.
Woke up to rain, packed up wet gear, and accepted that I was going the whole way so no point trying to dry things out. After a short stretch of cross-country nav (which was fine, but I’m perplexed as to why there are no trail markers), it was fire trails and brumbies to the border at Murrays Gap. I was so happy to see this sign I gave it a hug! From then on it was familiar trails all the way home. I was looking at finishing
I was so happy to see this sign I gave it a hug! From then on it was familiar trails all the way home. I was looking at finishing some time after midnight so was pondering whether anyone would be there to see me home. My family (excluding Ella) were in New Zealand (more MTBing), so I thought maybe Tom would be there but I’d better not get my hopes up, so be ready to sleep at the visitors centre and wait until morning before phoning for a lift.
It was a huge surprise then to see so many friendly faces that came out to lead me home over the last 20km. Thanks so much guys! Julie Quinn, Dave Baldwin, Steve Hanley, Rob Walter, Jahn Pahwa, Tim Slater, Leonie Doyle, Michael MacDonald, plus Tom at the finish who sadly still couldn’t wear shoes, and Ella with Emil Granqvist who is staying with us at home and bought Ella out. So awesome! Champagne at 1am in the morning to celebrate a very big 12 days.
On reflection, the track is totally awesome and everyone should do it. I was fortunate to be able to complete it with no injuries or other serious issues. My feet are still sore (bruised) four days after finishing but really I could have kept going if it wasn’t for the long 18 hour 85km last day.
A number of people have expressed interest in doing the track so here are my tips:
– Running with a 6-10kg pack is much harder than running with an ultra pack. Take this into consideration.
– The guide book is very good, but it still contains errors, mostly due to ever changing trail conditions.
– The “Dry Barrys” really are dry (in March anyway).
– More is better in drop boxes, especially for contingency items like blister packs.
– Storing sunscreen (and any other powders/creams) in a zip lock bag to save weight is a very good idea.
– Suunto Ambit 3 with 60 sec sampling is infinitely better than Garmin 920XT UltraTrac, both for battery life and accuracy.
– Make sure your bivvy is waterproof. Sleep with the bivvy open when possible to avoid condensation.
– Look after your feet. They are the weakest link.
Also I don’t want to sound like a gear freak but here’s the primary equipment, all of which is excellent:
– Outdoor Research Helium bivvy (Tom’s bivvy, after I switched from my less than waterproof MSR E-Bivy)
– Cumulus X-lite 200 sleeping bag (very light, and warm enough provided you have heaps of clothes)
– Exped SynMat Hyperlite sleeping mat (the insulation/comfort it provides is worth the extra weight)
– Single AA battery head torch (50-100 lumens is bright enough when moving slowly)
– Lightweight down top, lightweight synthetic tops x2, thermals, rain jacket, beanie, gloves
– SPOT tracker and potential life saver
I lost 6kg over the 12 days but ate well with the dry food supplemented by feasts at each drop box. A standard day’s diet consisted of about 1kg of dried food:
– Breakfast – zip loc bag of muesli with nuts, shredded coconut, whey protein and milk powder
– Snacks – mostly nut bars, supplemented with muesli bars, hammer bars, jerky, salty biscuits, sweet biscuits, wedges of cheese
– Dinner – dehydrated Bolognese sauce with 2min noodles. Drink the hot salty water as a soup entrée, then fill with parmesan cheese for main meal pasta
– Dessert – hot chocolate with whey protein and milk powder
– Electrolytes to overpower the chlorine and mud flavours in our water bottles