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The road to Queenstown

Part 5

Driving into the Gibbston Valley for the first time, home to Queenstown

Published: 02.09.19

True to form I left Christchurch late. I had a mountain to climb and now wasn’t due into Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park until mid afternoon, so I was going to have to run to the 1,933 m summit of Mt Ollivier to make it down before dark.

 

There shouldn’t have been any need for the mad rush; there never is. I was up at 6.30am to collect spares from the bike park before packing the car, but somehow this took forever so here I was, pushing 130km/h on winding roads pulling questionable overtakes. 

 

Since fuel was my biggest expenditure (after food) I drove as efficiently as possible and usually below the speed limit. Not today.

 

On top of the stress from leaving late I was nervous; I hadn’t done an unmarked scramble to a mountain summit before, let alone along a steep and exposed ridge.

 

Unknown to me at the time, this was just the first of many mountain scrambles over the following months, and by far the safest. The Mueller Hut route delivers a true mountain experience for relatively minimal effort. From the foot of the Mueller Range are breathtaking views of glaciers, dramatic peaks, glacial lakes in the U-shaped valley below, and the Caroline Face of Mt Cook.

As I was riding blood dripped onto my grip, my whole arm was numb and I felt faint from the blood loss.

photos from the peak of Mt Ollivier, along the ridge line and Mueller hut 

Out of breath and drenched in sweat I reached Mueller Hut (1800 m) an hour and a half after leaving the car, which was now 1100 metres below. Since I made up so much time there was no need to rush to the summit. I’d read to follow the ridge so I did just that, despite sections of huge exposure on one side and some low grade climbing (and down climbing). I was enjoying the thrill so I stayed on the knife edge ridge rather than dropping below where it was safer.

 

When I reached the summit I was disappointed I wasn’t alone, but since it was the first perfect day on the mountain in weeks (it had been gusting over 120km/h only the day before), I wasn’t surprised. There was barely a breeze and the summit of Mt Cook, which is usually blanketed in cloud, was clear. Amongst those around the trig point was a German family with a 10 year old boy, which robbed much of my sense of accomplishment.

 

With the exception of one winter experience in the mountains of County Kerry, Ireland, until now I hadn’t given mountaineering much thought. Looking out to the mountain peaks around me I wished I had the skills, knowledge and equipment to venture further into them. 

 

But I didn’t, so I snapped out of my daydream and left the trig point, taking a much less hazardous route back to the hut before the main descent.

 

On the way to the campsite I picked up a hitchhiker, a Danish girl of a similar age. She’d been in NZ for nearly a year and was going home in a few weeks, but only briefly. She already had plans to go to Iceland and then Canada, admitting she wanted to continue travelling to avoid the clutch of adulthood and working a 9-5 for as long as possible. 

'As much as NZ was an opportunity to live how I wanted away from the shackles of a job title and have fun for a while, it also provided a welcome distraction and escape from my old life.'

Dean's Bank Track, Cardrona bike park and the Albert Town Campground

Talking to her made me wonder how many people are travelling because they are avoiding or running away from something else, and I reflected on the previous couple of years that ultimately brought me here. 

 

I hadn’t given much consideration to travelling when I was younger. I was content with my job, often in a solid relationship with future plans and totally focused on digging and riding BMX trails. My evenings, weekends and days off were spent in the woods and exploring new places. I was happy.

 

When life threw a curve ball I had one way of coping: BMX. It was always a big part of my life but during those times it became an obsession. If my personal life had never suffered I wouldn’t have built a line at the trails that pushed me to my limit, I wouldn’t have become sponsored, and I wouldn’t have gone on the most memorable riding trips of my life.

 

And in the autumn of 2016 BMX was going to get me through a difficult breakup. I cancelled an upcoming ACL operation and put the past 12 months of injuries behind me. That winter I had a renewed focus and was determined to come into the following trails season stronger than ever and film a section I would be proud of. 

 

Then everything changed. On a mid-winter trails trip I miscalculated a 360 and destroyed my other knee. It was a total mess of broken bones, ruptured ligaments and torn soft tissue that needed full reconstructive surgery. I wasn’t to overcome this injury and with it I lost the main focus of my life. 

 

All of a sudden my free time was no longer spent digging and riding jumps, going on road trips and visiting friends around the world. It felt like a flick of a switch I couldn't quite reach to flick back.

 

I became depressed. Every aspect of my life started falling apart and wanderlust set in. As much as NZ was an opportunity to live how I wanted away from the shackles of a job title and have fun for a while, it also provided a welcome distraction and escape from my old life, and time to reflect and move on.

blast from the past - riding my local trails (2015 - 2016)

Wanaka

 

I aimed to leave the Lake Poaka campsite early the next morning to drive to Wanaka, set up camp and ride Cardrone Bike Park without being in a rush, but I woke up feeling destroyed and barely able to walk. Riding wasn’t looking likely and I was too tired to care.

 

Wanaka wasn’t on my radar until a conversation with a guy on the chairlift in Christchurch, who’s face lit up talking about it. When I saw it was on the way to Queenstown and had riding spots and beautiful scenery I included it in my plans. The Albert Town campground, ten minutes from Wanaka on the banks of the Hawea river, was to be my home for the next five nights.

 

After setting up camp and feeling psyched I tested my legs on the Deans Bank Track, a 10km designated MTB trail loop with roller/jump sections that conveniently started and ended where I pitched my tent. Feeling awful but not wanting to miss out on the late Friday session at Cardrona I loaded up and made tracks.

Cardrona bike park

 

New Zealand’s highest bike park peaks around 1900 m, way above the tree line and warmer air. The landscape is barren and exposed to the weather, and it was windy and a little rainy.

 

I was intrigued by Boundary Rider, a unique looking enduro trail marked as a double black, so I climbed up from the lift to the highest point of the mountain above the bike park enjoying the views overlooking the Southern Alps on the way. 

 

Then the confusion started. Even with the Trailforks app to hand the trail was a major navigation challenge. It was sporadically marked with painted arrows on rocks, which were easy to miss, and since it crossed open terrain it could have gone anywhere. On a super exposed section I double checked the map as it looked like a sketchy goat track potentially ending at the edge of a cliff, but no, this was it. 

 

Despite taking more time looking for the track than I did riding it, it was fun and exciting putting full faith in the blue arrows to take me on a rideable line over blind boulder fields. After eventually making it back to the chairlift I stuck to the main trails for the remainder of the session. My favourite track combination was Dirtstar DH to Long Black, a black/double black downhill race track that shoots straight down the mountain taking you over rock gardens, drops and jumps.

 

On the drive home I was buzzing from the session and stoked I fought the tiredness and aching legs. The boys from back home, who had just made it to the South Island, gave me a call and we shared stories. Maybe at some point we’d eventually meet up.

I described the track to George beforehand, but in hindsight it was perhaps not my greatest idea to take him down it. I naively thought it would be an eye opener, a huge stepping stone, or at least a push for him to try something he definitely wouldn’t otherwise; hopefully coming out the other side unscathed, humbled and most importantly - stoked.

Isthmus Peak, the cove I went to afterwards, sunny sunny Wanaka and the sketchy jumps of Sticky Forest

27 January - Isthmus Peak, 1133m

 

After a heavy few weeks I needed a rest day. I hadn’t been in any of the surrounding beautiful lakes and the day was hot, real hot, but rather than dive straight in I wanted to work up a sweat to fully appreciate the cold water. 

 

Isthmus Peak promised stunning views over Lake Hawea on one side and Lake Wanaka on the other and bikes are permitted, so away went my rest day plan; there was no way I was going to walk something legitimately rideable.

 

By the time I left the car the sun was high, and I discovered there isn’t any shade on any part of the track midday. The ascent was brutal. I was the only person on the mountain daft enough to haul a 36lb bike up it, and received the usual looks of astonishment I’m accustomed to when I’m on my bike in unlikely places to see someone on a bike.

 

The views were amazing, but I was conscious about becoming desensitised to incredible views. After a wild descent down the mountain I drove two minutes down the road and turned off into a cove that looked picture perfect.

 

After longing it for so long running into the icy cold glacial lake felt unreal. I had the place to myself and for the first time in years I felt in a state of nirvana.

'Queenstown is hailed as the ‘adventure capital of the world’, but ‘tourist capital of New Zealand’ would be more appropriate. I expected QT to be bustling with mountain bikers, mountaineers and ski bums, but it wasn't.'

Wanaka skatepark and Queenstown

Queenstown

 

Queenstown is hailed as the ‘adventure capital of the world’, but ‘tourist capital of New Zealand’ would be more appropriate. I expected QT to be bustling with mountain bikers, mountaineers and ski bums, but it wasn't. Most of the people walking around are sight seers rather than thrill seekers; partaking in the Lord of the Rings tours, bus tours to Milford Sounds and the gondola ride to the restaurant. 

 

The town is hectic, expensive and commercial, which has pushed most locals away. Parking in the centre is close to impossible and driving standards are atrocious - you’ll frequently see drivers forgetting to turn their lights on after dark and stopping in the middle of roundabouts.

 

Given the stunning scenery of mountains and lakes it’s clear why the area had early settlers and has boomed over recent decades. The town is bordered by The Remarkables, a dramatic mountain range, on one side and Ben Lomond (1748 m) on the other. 

 

QT is also home to the most iconic freestyle riding spots in the Southern Hemisphere - Dreamline (a large line of mountain bike jumps) and Gorge Rd (BMX trails).

 

A few years ago the opportunity to ride Gorge Rd would have been a dream come true, but now the very fact it existed and I was there simply made me feel uncomfortable. These days being at a set of trails is an in-the-face reminder of what I’ve lost. Regardless, I felt obliged to at least ride one of the smaller lines for old times sake. 

 

Dreamline was a little different. I’d re-gained a lot of confidence riding big jumps on my mountain bike and surprised myself by riding everything in sight during recent Alps and Whistler trips. That confidence followed me to NZ but, other than Skyline Burial at Dirt Farm, which I’d only ridden the first two features on, nothing had been particularly testing. Dreamline was on another level. 

 

For the first time on the trip it dawned on me how scarily fast time was passing. How had it been nearly 3 months already? Was this the half way point? With so much left to do I was going to have to make some structured plans, which definitely wasn't my forte.

views from Ben Lomond, and looking up to the summit (bottom)

7 February - Mini Dream and Ben Lomond 

 

I’d been in QT a week and still hadn’t been to Wynyard (home to Dreamline and other jump lines) and Gorge Rd. I couldn’t avoid these places for much longer so I made a plan. Today’s schedule was ‘Mini Dream’ (Dreamlines little brother) and Ben Lomond.

 

Salmon Run, a long technical enduro style run that drops in from the McGazza Forever tribute bench, finishes at Wynyard so after a warm up lap I pedalled up to the start. 

 

For a line with ‘mini’ in the name the jumps aren’t small, and I was nervous about hitting them on my own. It took me an hour to get through a line that should have only taken a few runs. I was pleased I pushed through the frustration but ultimately felt disappointed that my head nearly got the better of me. If it took me this long to get through Mini Dream what chance did I have riding Dreamline. I didn’t even want to hike up the hill to look at it.

 

After a very late lunch I was back on the Gondola at 5.30 to cheat the first part of the ascent to Ben Lomond. I hoped that by now the crowds would be leaving the mountain and the temperature had dropped. 

 

On the gondola I was sat opposite a guy wearing a Loose Riders top so I asked whether he’d ridden Dreamline. ‘Yes I have done backflip’. It was such typically French response I struggled to contain my laughter.

'I dropped in committed to clearing the section, carrying my momentum up the rise and around the blind corner, but on the exit my pedal clipped a rock sending me over the bars. I picked myself up laughing, thinking nothing of it until I looked down. Before that moment I hadn’t realised I’d fallen onto a razor sharp rock.'

Queenstown and the Remarkables 

The evening sun felt as intense as it had done in the afternoon as I pedalled up the mountain and I regretted only having a single bottle of water with me. The route is long but relatively mellow until reaching the saddle. From there the last 450 m to the summit is steep and loose. 

 

After a strenuous hike and bike while scoping lines for the way down I reached the summit and had the mountain to myself. It was a glorious evening and the 360’ panoramic views, taking in Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, The Remarkables, Coronet Peak and the Southern Alps, were exceptional. I soon forgot how thirsty I was and was buzzing as much on the views as I was by the 1450 m of vertical descent that would take me back to town.

 

As I was preparing to leave the summit three Brits appeared looking rather ill-prepared. I wondered whether they knew it would be dark in an hour, well before they would be anywhere near the bottom.

 

There were technical sections that ranged from just about rideable to no way, but the challenge added to the fun. I rode about 80% of the track from the summit to the saddle, where the remainder of my near 5000 feet of vertical comprised of actual MTB trails: Upper Link, Lower Link, an unofficial ridiculously steep track in the woods and the bottom of Squid Run to the gondola. It had easily been one of the most epic descents of my life.

9-10 February - making friends 

 

It’s just gone half 9 and I just had a really satisfying dinner - a one-pan camping special of spicy tomato filled pasta, boiled and then fried with tomatoes until crispy before adding cheese and finally cracking in an egg. I rode the MTB area 7 Mile today and made a friend, George, which was nice as until then I’d pretty much just ridden solo. This was the third time I’d ridden with someone in NZ. 

 

The first time was on my first day in Queenstown, where I met a young German guy on the gondola in the bike park. Robin told me he hadn’t ridden a mountain bike in nearly a year and was travelling with none-riding friends, but couldn’t miss out on a day at the bike park so rented a downhill bike. He explained how he was keen to get his moneys worth by riding everything and do as many runs as possible. He was a little hesitant to drop into the grade 6 tracks but having someone to ride with gave him the confidence he needed. 

 

Over the next few runs I counted 7 crashes from Robin - more than I’d had during my entire time in NZ. I was impressed by his resilience. He always got back up and his optimism didn’t fade, even when he could barely hold on anymore. I appreciated having a riding buddy and it made me ride a lot more that day than I otherwise would - especially since I had just had two very poor nights sleep from camping in torrential rain and then checking into a hostel dorm only to end up with two chronic snorers.

 

Near the end of lap 19 Robin sprinted to the gondola determined to reach it before closing. I really hoped we were too late.

 

By this point I was becoming increasingly concerned by his inability to hold onto the bars. A big crash was imminent and I didn't want to see him badly hurt, let alone deal with the aftermath, so I had to hide my relief when we got down and the barrier was up. 

Coronet Peak

Coronet Peak - losing friends 

 

I agreed to meet George at Coronet Peak the following day, a skifield just outside of QT with official MTB trails. I’d ridden here a couple of times before so, after lots of trial and error, I knew my way around.  

 

George knew the area well, but only during winter. As a freestyle skier who only recently got back into mountain biking to stay strong over summer and continue carving turns, this was his first time here outside of the ski season.

 

Conveniently he was driving up the road as I exited a trail fairly low down the mountain so I jumped in. Uplifting among friends is incredibly popular in NZ wherever there is a fire road leading to trails. Vehicles frequently zipped up the gravel roads of Craigieburn, Redwoods and Coronet Peak as I slowly span the cranks with burning legs and a large amount of envy. Being a rider with a truck will for sure earn you a lot of MTB friends in NZ. Finally I was getting a go.

 

Two corners into Rude Rock George washed out but he was enjoying himself nonetheless, joking how it was probably time he invested in some knee pads. 

 

There was one track at Coronet Peak I hadn’t ridden - Coronet DH. I asked locals about it but no-one knew much about it, likely due to it being far above any shuttle access points. It was a gruelling climb to Slip Saddle and the start to Coronet DH was another 400 m of vertical to the top of the 1,649 m mountain.

 

I was keen to check it out regardless to unveil the mystery and experience the views, but on the way up it was clear George wasn’t going to make it. I gave him my last cereal bar so he could at least reach Slip Saddle, a double black diamond trail and the steepest at Coronet Peak. It points straight down the mountain over loose, rutted and rocky singetrack with some technical turns. 

'I could tell from his face he felt way out of his depth and was becoming increasingly relieved for what he had just survived and scared for what was to come. Feeling impotent I passed words of encouragement to shadow my guilt, but since he couldn't even respond with a fake smile anymore this seemed rather superfluous.'

snaps of Slip Saddle where it was possible to stop, with George finishing a section (2nd photo) the crux (3rd photo), and the track afterwards leading to the climb back to the car (last two photos)

I described the track to George beforehand, but in hindsight it was perhaps not my greatest idea to take him down it. I naively thought it would be an eye opener, a huge stepping stone, or at least a push for him to try something he definitely wouldn’t otherwise; hopefully coming out the other side unscathed, humbled and most importantly - stoked. Perhaps it would be akin to my first time down Liver Damage at Innerleithen, which at the time was several gradient steps steeper than anything I’d ridden previously, or being taken to a climbing crag as a beginner where the easiest climb is a 6c… I was also optimistically hoping his skiing skills would transfer to the bike, since riding steep loose tracks feels somewhat similar.

 

Waiting at every infrequent opportunity to check he was still alive and to give advice, I was impressed to see him clear each section. I could tell from his face he felt way out of his depth and was becoming increasingly relieved for what he had just survived and scared for what was to come. Feeling impotent I passed words of encouragement to shadow my guilt, but since he couldn't even respond with a fake smile anymore this seemed rather superfluous. Despite what was clearly running through his mind he was in fact doing really well. Perhaps his winter experience of descending steep slopes was helping after all; much to my relief.

 

As I was primarily concerned for George I wasn’t thinking much about what I was doing.

 

This was my second time down Slip Saddle so I recognised the crux section ahead. The A line drops off the main track into a steep narrow chute with a flat left turn to avoid a large rock, before dropping again into a bomb hole. At the crest is a blind 90 degree right-hand corner into a steep run out littered with jagged rocks with a very precise line running through it, which is impossible to see until you’ve dropping into it. The first time I was here I stopped on the corner to scope it out.

 

After advising George to take the B line I dropped in committed to clearing the section, carrying my momentum up the rise and around the blind corner, but on the exit my pedal clipped a rock sending me over the bars. I picked myself up laughing, thinking nothing of it until I looked down. Before that moment I hadn’t realised I’d fallen onto a razor sharp rock.

oops

A moment later my phone rang, it was Jake, a mate from back home calling to say he and the boys had just rolled into Queenstown after spending the night driving south. ‘What are you up to?’

 

I explained how I was half way down a too steep to walk trail with a deep cut in the palm of my hand, which was now bleeding profusely, with no medical supplies. So now I had to figure out how to get down the mountain with a gaping wound that wouldn’t close. ‘It's cool I'm with a friend, I’ll call back later.’

 

George suggested using a sock to apply pressure to the wound to slow the bleeding. Good thing I wasn’t wearing short socks today I thought, and even better that I wasn’t out alone, as I often was, as this would have been a nightmare to handle without help (quite literally). He wrapped my dirty sock around the wound but it still wouldn’t stop bleeding so off went my other sock. This one was strapped around my wrist to restrict blood flow to my hand. Since walking down was impossible the only way off the mountain was to ride down it on my wounded hand.

 

As I was riding blood dripped onto my grip, my whole arm was numb and I felt faint from the blood loss, while riding down a double black diamond track and also trying to put as little pressure as possible through that hand. Due to the continued blood loss I wanted to get down ASAP but I couldn’t risk another fall either, so I had to ride totally focused and committed. I was no longer worrying about George. 

the crash run would have made for some excellent gory footage, but unfortunately I wasn't filming, so here's my next run a few weeks later

As I descended I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the irony of the situation. Until the crash I was solely focused on George and worried about whether he’d make it down, yet now I was the one in need of medical attention. Perhaps it was karma. 

After we eventually made it back to the car, with myself riding one handed wherever possible, he helped me pack the car and clean the wound before giving me directions to the nearest hospital. 

 

On reflecting on his own experience I hoped it would be memorable for the right reasons, and that he left psyched rather than put off and simply relieved he survived, but I never heard from George again.