Friday, October 21, 2022

Rehab: the first six weeks

After breaking my pelvis, six ribs and forearm in August, I was finally discharged home after 2 and a half weeks in hospital. I was still in a lot of pain but could hobble around on my walking frame, and needed help with showering and cooking. Home help came in for the former, my flatmate Karen did the latter.

ACC also provided the services of a physiotherapist, who visited me at home once a week. Ena was fantastic, at first helping me with positioning at night so I could sleep better, and then beginning the exercises I would need to regain function.

As the weeks progressed the pain receded. Which was lucky because I weaned myself off medication rather quickly after discovering my liver enzymes were worsening not improving. Getting through the nights became easier, which meant I gradually got better sleep as well.

At about 4 weeks post injury I took my first steps outside. By now I could get around on my crutches, the walker having been retired. First I just made it a couple of houses along the footpath and back, but gradually I got to the end of the street, and then down to the river and back, and finally around the block, which included a small hill.

I even managed to make it down to the nearby Clutha River, and rest on the picnic benches before the hobble back home.

A week before my next appointment with my orthopaedic specialist I ditched the second crutch and just used the one. I was still not allowed to fully weight bear on the right leg. My rib fractures were no longer giving me any grief, and my forearm cast was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

At six weeks post surgery I returned to Dunstan to see the visiting specialist. After X-rays of my forearm and pelvis he was happy for me to begin fully weight bearing. My forearm fractures, however, were not showing signs of union, but I would now be plaster free and encouraged to mobilise.

Back home my visiting physiotherapist arranged the purchase of a stationary bicycle, and some home gym equipment I could use for my rehab. And after a week or so I was able to walk unaided.

Not that I could walk all that far. The muscles in my legs were still weak, and I was getting quite a lot of muscular pain after walking for 10 minutes or so. Slowly I increased the length of my walks, and began the escalation of exercises to increase strength and endurance.


Monday, September 12, 2022

Breaking News: Snowboarder hits skier

Late on Monday afternoon in the third week of August I was leading a group of adult students down a green run. We were working on lateral balance using outside pole drags and were using the steeper pitch as I had been warned at lunch time that the runs at Captains were diabolical. There were so many out of control riders the instructors were getting concerned for their safety, and that of their guests.

The steep pitch merged into a much wider less steep slope so I looked up the hill to the right because the easier slope to the right tended to direct people in a diagonal fashion to intersect with our more direct route down the fall line. And before I had time to respond a snowboarder straight lining at great speed collided with me side on and I went flying.

The snowboarder was going very fast, at least 40km/hour and was using neither edge on his board to turn or control his speed. He was heading straight down the hill, and when he saw me he simply ran straight into me. I always tell my beginner skiers that the best way to avoid running into people is to look at the space next to them and that's how you avoid them. This guy saw me, had no control anyway, and hit me.

Apparently I fly really well! Because of the side on impact I ejected sideways out of my skis, so my airborne trajectory was not hampered by skis. Which meant my legs escaped any injury at all. Not so the rest of me.

I landed crumpled on my right side, and was winded, finding it very difficult to breathe. I rolled over onto my back, no skis made that easy, and I could breathe better, but I knew straight away I was badly injured.

Help came quickly. One of my colleagues was teaching nearby, so she collected my skis and my students and got them safely down the mountain. Ski Patrol assessed me and called for medical assistance, as it became clear pretty quickly that not only had I broken my forearm, but also my ribs and pelvis, and there was concern that I had intra abdominal trauma.

After further assessment by the medical team I was transferred in the ski stretcher to the on mountain medical centre, where I was prepared for immediate helicopter evacuation to Dunedin Hospital. A chopper was already there, called for another patient, but they got bumped as my condition was more serious.

Luckily, my head and spine were completely spared.

The chopper flight was short and sweet, though no views for me. Soon we were landing on the roof at Dunedin Hospital and I was taken to Emergency where an ultrasound scan of my abdomen revealed no free fluid. I was sent around to CT to get a better assessment, where they found six fractured ribs and three fractures in my pelvis consistent with a lateral compression pelvic ring injury. All on the right side. My abdominal and pelvic organs were intact. No liver or kidney/bladder tears.

My forearm was well and truly smashed. Both radius and ulna were broken mid shaft, with considerable fragments and a lot of displacement and angulation. They sedated me to reduce the fracture a little and put it in a back slab, but it needed surgery to fix it properly.

I was then sent up to the ward to await surgery. Which could take days, but I had so many injuries that was the least of my problems.

Between the rib and pelvis fractures and with one arm out of action, and the amount of pain I was in, I couldn't pass urine using a bedpan, so I requested an indwelling catheter. The night house officer couldn't give his consent without checking with his superior, so in the end the nurse looking after me took the initiative and just popped one in. Oh the relief!!

I really couldn't move much, and nor could I take deep breaths, so the next day I was visited by Eileen, the orthopaedic nurse specialist, and she arranged for the pain team to see me and put a cannula in to my chest wall that would deliver a dose of local anaesthetic around my fracture site every 20 minutes. Getting into position to have the procedure done was excruciating, as was lying there whilst the ultrasound guided needle was placed in just the right position. I actually needed two cannulas to provide full pain relief, but by the time they had placed the first one I was no longer coping, and needed to return onto my back again. But the ribs that were anaesthetised were helping to improve my breathing so it was enough.

During my entire time in Dunedin I was told that I just had one fracture in my pelvis. This was obvious on the plain Xray, whereas the other fractures were only seen on the CT scan. This poor communication meant that everyone assumed I had a minor stable pelvic fracture, so there was a plan for early mobilisation. Despite the fact that I could feel things moving in my pelvis and that any time I rolled onto my left side and allowed the right buttock to not be supported I was in excruciating pain.

Tuesday and Wednesday I was fasted for surgery all day, and then told around 4:30 that I wouldn't get operated on, so a sandwich for dinner was my reward. Hard to heal when they nutritionally starve you!! On Thursday, however, I at last went to theatre, and four hours later my poor forearm was repaired with a few plates and screws, and replastered. Post operatively I struggled with the pain, and the opiate analgesia suppressed my breathing, so I ended up on a type of C-PAP machine overnight.

I hardly slept all night, as the analgesia was inadequate and the arm throbbed dreadfully. The next morning the orthopaedic registrar elevated my arm and the pain eased almost instantaneously, so Eileen organised for a good old fashioned cast sling to be pulled out of the dusty storeroom for my use. The pain team came around and changed my medication to oral opiates and increased the dose. That gave me the best pain relief of the last few days, but unfortunately also suppressed my breathing. After a few tears we at last came to a compromise of more regular doses of 10mg Morphine, and I had my first comfortable night since the injury.

Saturday, Day 5 post injury, I made the decision to take control. The physiotherapist on Friday had caused me far too much pain making me sit up with my feet over the side of the bed, and I was determined that any further mobilisation would be done on my terms, and in a way that didn't make the pain worse. As mentioned earlier, I had noticed that if the right buttock or leg was unsupported, then I was in agony, but if I braced against something, like pushing down on the bed with my feet to push myself up the bed, my pain wasn't bad at all.

So I invented "Fred"! I asked the Physio to make me a loop of webbing that I could put my foot into and brace against with my hand pulling up on the loop. That allowed me to get to the side of the bed and hang my feet over the side. As long as I supported the right leg in the webbing loop it was pretty straight forward. Without it, pure agony. 

Over the next few days my pain was better controlled through regular morphine and keeping the forearm well elevated. The operating specialist came to see me and told me it was one of the worst fractures he had ever seen and was blown away by the force that must have caused it.

I had quite a few visitors whilst I was in Dunedin. One of my colleagues dropped off a bag of things from home, I had a Geraldton friend who was visiting on a ski trip pop down for a day, and a couple of Dunedin friends made regular visits and kept me supplied with a daily flat white. Marlene, my massage therapist, came to visit, and Harry, my eye specialist, dropped off a few books for me to read. Despite there being some restrictions on visitors due to COVID I usually had someone pop in most days, but there was still a lot of downtime, in which I read Harry's books and caught up with the final week of Masterchef Australia!

From sitting on the side of the bed I graduated to standing, and then to hobbling around with a walker. Since the swelling of my forearm had gone down a bit, they sent me down to the fracture clinic to have a full fibreglass cast fitted. The chap in the fracture clinic was a professional, I have never seen a cast done so well, and it was also very comfortable - within reason....He also very kindly gave me a bundle of plastic bags to protect the cast when showering.

Now that I could hobble around on a walking frame I could sit on a chair and actually have a shower. That first one was absolute bliss. Small things really get appreciated.

After a week they removed the chest cannula, and I also asked for the catheter to be removed. That allowed me to be a bit more mobile, to hobble around the ward on my walking frame, and to go to the toilet without help. With Fred, my frame, and a chair over the loo I was relatively independent. 

The following Wednesday afternoon I was transferred by ambulance to Dunstan Hospital. There I had a lovely room with a view out the window, but a draconian rule that only allowed the same two visitors to visit me during my stay. Which meant I had to tell everyone they couldn't visit me as my flatmate wasn't able to visit for a few days and I didn't want her spot to be taken by some random visitor. One of my friends who lived in Alex did manage to visit on Saturday, but otherwise, it got pretty lonely.

The physiotherapist visited daily, and between them and the occupational therapist a raft of home aids were organised. I was to go home with a walking frame as well as crutches. I would use a crutch on the left side, and a gutter crutch on the right, and to graduate to just one crutch as I got stronger. They made sure I could safely go up and down some stairs and then I was cleared for discharge home. When Karen visited on the Monday she took home all the equipment and I waited until my appointment with the orthopaedic specialist on Wednesday. I also had a liver ultrasound, because during my stay my liver enzymes had gone haywire, and the CT scan had showed evidence of biliary duct dilatation and gallstones. These findings were considered incidental, though the abnormal liver tests had only occurred after my hospitalisation, and were thought to be due to the medications.

The Orthopaedic surgeon who visits Dunstan comes down from Auckland. He looked at my CT scan and was much more circumspect about just how stable my pelvic fracture was. He put the brakes on any further progression of my walking, asking me to put no more than about 20kg through the right leg for the next 4 weeks until I saw him again. My plaster was removed so that the wound dressings could be taken down and cleaned before a new cast applied. She did a good job but the nurse at Dunstan didn't do quite as professional a job as that chap in the fracture clinic in Dunedin.

Wednesday evening a friend very kindly came down to Clyde to pick me up and drive me home. We picked up my medication from a pharmacy in Cromwell on the way, but it transpired that there was nowhere near enough pain medication to get me through until I could see a doctor for another prescription. At this stage I was on regular oral morphine during the day, and long acting morphine at night to get me some decent sleep. I was also on regular paracetamol and anti-inflammatories, although the specialist warned that the NSAIDS would slow down healing.

It was glorious to be home at last, though I was still in a lot of pain, and getting around was quite a chore. Sleep was still my biggest challenge, as I couldn't get comfortable. Although I could lie on my back comfortably, I would inevitably need to change my position after a while, and I couldn't comfortably roll over and sleep on either side, let alone my stomach - my normal sleeping position. I experimented with lots of pillows but getting decent sleep was a real challenge. At least the medication helped.

Getting out of bed was the worst! Swinging my leg down onto the ground caused all sorts of pain in my right leg. I'd figured out (advantages of a medical degree) that my right leg pain was due to sciatic nerve involvement, and that the use of Fred, or a rigid leg lifter which the OT department leant me, to brace against helped alleviate the problem. We had briefly discussed the use of medication targeting nerve pain but decided the side effects outweighed the benefits. But I dreaded getting up each morning, and would make sure I had a decent dose of pain medication on board before I made an attempt.

Karen had offered to do all the cooking, and the Dunstan OT had organised to have home help for showering. I was also to get visits from a physiotherapist, all fully funded by ACC. New Zealand's accident insurance system really is a stellar service, when it works, for providing timely care following an accident.

A lot of people asked me about the guy who hit me. Some people got quite angry. Personally, I don't feel any anger at all about what happened, although I do think that there were some serious problems around the number of people on the mountain and about safety in general for all users. My accident highlighted the concerns others had been raising about safety out on the mountain and if that leads to changes, that will be a good outcome. As for being upset about what happened, I can only be grateful that I just broke a few bones (11 in total) and bones heal well. I knew the rehab would be long, but I was pretty sure I would make a full recovery.

So then comes the rehab. Yep, that's next...

Monday, August 22, 2022

Ski Goddess 2022

At the end of last winter I decided to work full-time this year. We had been short staffed for the COVID years and I'd worked a lot of days as a part timer, but for all my flexibility there are limitations to what I get out of the equation, particularly when it comes to the type of work I get as a ski instructor.

Every ski school has it's own system for allocating work and Cardrona works on a priority system. You get more priority points for higher qualifications, more disciplines and for the number of seasons worked, including a loyalty bonus for seasons at Cardrona. If you are part time you get half the points for number of seasons, irrespective of if you worked one day a week or four. 

When it comes to dishing out work each day, those instructors with the most number of priority points get work first, and it goes down the line. BUT, if you are part time your points are not taken into consideration until every full timer has been assigned work. A newly qualified full timer will get assigned work before a part-timer, irrespective of how many years the part timer might have been working. This means for an entire season part timers rarely get assigned any lessons at the start of the day and are constantly in the pool to pick up the overflow. That equates to a whole lot of waiting around and far too many first timer lessons.

To be fair I love first timer lessons. It's the one day of a skier's life where they will make the biggest progression in their entire skiing journey: from non skier to skier. By the end of the day most people can stop, turn, and manage a run down the easiest green run from the top of the mountain. Nobody makes that big an achievement in one day ever again. It's also the best opportunity to communicate my passion for the sport and the mountains in which we play.

But I was planning to sit my Level 3 this year, which requires teaching more advanced skiers, and requires me to be more analytical and technical in my approach to teaching. First timer lessons are fairly prescriptive, so I needed to be able to access other types of lessons. So I asked to work full-time, thus being able to utilise my priority points, few as they are.

It wasn't that easy, because the Cardrona business model relies heavily on us part timers to be available when it's busy and retire quietly away when it gets quiet. I don't personally want, or need, to work full time, but I do need access to a more varied lesson profile to gain some valuable teaching experience. Even though I asked my boss last year about working full time I was still given a part time contract this year, with the suggestion that I work full time in July and see whether they still needed me in August.

I got no rostered work in June at all, despite the mountain being open for half the month, so I got in a little free skiing. July was super busy, what with Australian and NZ school holidays, but was surprisingly not quite as busy as previous years. In the first week of NZ school holidays I did the four day kids program called Skiwees, and then spent the second week at home isolating with COVID! 

August got even busier. A consequence of all the Aussies using up their holiday credits from the last two years, and an increase in North Island skiers, forced to come south after the NI ski fields didn't open due to lack of snow. Parking became a nightmare, at both Cardrona and Treble Cone, with the need to leave town just after 7 to get a decent carpark. I carpooled again this year, which worked well.

The ski lift queues were diabolical. I was rostered to teach a number of the local school programs, and with the huge volumes of kids all needing loading at the same time it reduced the ski time available for the kids. Keeping them amused in the lift lines took a lot of effort.

I got a good amount of private lessons too. Not just one hour quickies, but a few 2 hour ones, and occasionally I managed to roll them for more hours or further lessons. When a guest requests a specific instructor on booking a lesson, that instructor gets paid considerably more money per hour than if the lesson is assigned. The private lessons gave me the chance to extend my teaching repertoire.

I decided to sit the Level 3 exam in October, although I didn't feel I would be good enough to pass. I thought that committing to the exam would provide focus to my exam preparation, and in August I joined a group of other instructors once a week for training.

I was only just getting my stride, when late in the afternoon, whilst teaching a group of three adults on one of the green runs, a snowboarder bowled me over and my season was over.

That's next.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Bikepacking first steps

I'd been toying with getting a bike for some time. Mainly because there are quite a few long valleys with 4WD tracks that are a little boring to walk up and down but would probably be fun on a bike. Also, it's an alternative transport option if a loop section involves a road section, to leave a bike at one end to use to get back to the car.

I thought about getting a cheap as chips second hand mountain bike, but then found very little available that would fit my small frame. I've had some really bad experiences with bike frames that don't fit me, leading to sore shoulders, arms and neck. So I decided to purchase a new bike.

I didn't want an e-bike, because I also liked the idea of doing some touring, or more precisely, bikepacking. The difference being more streamlined bags packed along the frame of the bike and the option to get off the tarseal and explore the backroads. I'm not into technical mountain biking, and having tramped The Old Ghost Road, The Heaphy and The Paparoa Tracks, I'd still opt to walk them if given the choice. Cycling for me is about covering distances that might be a bit boring if you walked them, though boredom really is subjective...

An e-bike requires you to have regular access to a way to recharge the battery. They are also really heavy. So if you want to go on a multi-day ride you need to stay in places where you can recharge, usually every day. No wilderness camping with an e-bike...

So I decided to purchase a carbon gravel bike. Super light, but strong, and able to absorb bumps more comfortably than a lightweight aluminium bike. I didn't want a bomb proof steel bike because of the weight tradeoff. With tubeless tyres so I can alter the tyre pressure to make the ride more comfortable. 

There are no shocks or suspension on a gravel bike, allowing you to mount travel bags easily. Due to supply chain issues in these COVID times, I ended up purchasing a Cannondale Topstone 6 which was pretty well the only bike around in my size. The guys at Bike It Now in Cromwell were awesome at helping me set it up for my body shape, changing out the stem for a shorter reach, adjusting the seat position, and setting the bike up to be tubeless.

After hitting the internet and purchasing a gaggle of bikepacking bags and some cycling shorts, I spent a few days working out how to actually pack the bike. I had all the camping gear, I just had to work out how to fit it all onto the bike.

Once I had sorted that out I decided to go for a short trip, and what couldn't be a better choice than the nearby Otago Central Rail Trail. A 3-4 day easy gravel cycle along an old decommissioned railway line from Clyde to Middlemarch.

It was late in the season and there were limited options for getting a shuttle ride back to Clyde. I rang around all the operators and at least 2 of them told me there were shuttles running on Friday, so I planned to leave from Clyde on Tuesday.

I drove down to Clyde and parked my car at the start of the trail. The guys in the bike hire place at the start of the trail, rather than sell me a shuttle ticket back, told me to email them my intentions. They were having an end of season celebration and didn't want to provide a service right there and then. Bit weird, but I just got on my bike and began pedalling.

The track to Alex is dead straight and flat. I considered stopping for a coffee at the cafe just next to the trail, but I'd only been cycling for 20 minutes so it seemed a bit early for a break. Through Alex and over the Manuherika Bridge the trail veered left to follow the Manuherika upstream, through typical Central Otago schist, thyme and tussock. 

There were a couple of nice old wooden bridges along the way, and a few cute siding buildings to stop at en route. Once past the quirky Chatto Creek Tavern the track climbs up over a small hill and then it's downhill all the way into Omakau, where I camped the night at the local motor camp. A really nice spot with lovely grassy sites, a decent camp kitchen and an excellent hot shower in the clean modern amenities block.

After setting up my tent and having that lovely hot shower I walked up the road to the pub and had a meal and a beer before wandering home to my sleeping bag.

The next morning I noticed that I had rubbed the bottom of my saddlebag on the rear tyre. It had only damaged the protective plastic and not the dry bag itself, so I made sure to strap it up much tighter so there would be even more room between it and the rear wheel. The problem with being a shortie is that there isn't a lot of distance between the seat and the tyre so I can only use a smaller 10L bag, but if I stuff the bag well so it is as rigid as possible, and then cinch the compression straps hard, then it will ride high enough to stay away from the tyre. The Cannondale bikes have a bit of suspension built in to the way the frame is built so that may also have contributed to the rubbing. Suffice to say I had no more rubbing issues for the rest of the trip, and I later reinforced the area rubbed with a couple of layers of duct tape.

I had a late start, because in attempting to add a little more air into my front tyre I unscrewed the valve and lost all the air in the tyre. That's when I discovered how hard it is to reinflate a tubeless tyre by hand pump.  I couldn't get enough pressure in the tyre to get it to seal around the bead, even after borrowing bigger foot pumps from other campers at the motor camp. In the end I walked the bike down to the local bike shop in Omakau and waited for their bike mechanic to drive over from Alex to help me out. He used the compressor to quickly inflate the tyre, which sealed immediately, and he sold me an adaptor I can use with the air compressors at petrol stations. That won't help me if I'm in the wop wops so I will need to add a CO2 inflator into my kit to cover that possibility. This trip sure was turning out to be a great experiment.

I pedalled out of Omakau around 11am, arriving in Lauder ready for lunch, but the local cafe was closed for the season. I wandered around to the local pub, where they made me a toasted sandwich and a coffee, then I set out again.

From Lauder the trail heads through Poolburn Gorge, across viaducts and through a couple of tunnels. I didn't have bike lights and ignored the notice suggesting I dismount for the first tunnel, to my own detriment, because a few seconds later I couldn't see a thing and promptly fell off my bike!! I walked the rest of the way until I could see the exit and had enough light to be able to continue riding without toppling over!!

The ride through the gorge is one of the more spectacular parts of the trail, but once through the second tunnel, which is shorter and doesn't turn a corner so is easy to cycle through without toppling over, you enter the wide Ida Valley and get your first taste of the spectacular Maniototo.

The trail heads north down the valley, is flat and fairly featureless, to Oturehua, home of Hayes Engineering, the very cute historic General Store and my camp for the night at Crows Nest Backpackers. I set up my tent on the lawn, had another lovely hot shower, then hit the pub for dinner. I actually brought enough meals to cook my own dinner each night, but I like supporting local businesses, especially if it means I don't have to cook.

The next morning, after a coffee or two courtesy of the coffee maker at the backpackers, I headed off a little later than planned after a squall of wind and rain hit. Luckily I had already packed up my tent when the squall hit, so I waited it out with a second cup of coffee and some toast courtesy of my host, then pedalled off once most of the bad weather had passed over.

Saturn, see

From Oturehua the trail climbs to it's highest point at Wedderburn and then it's downhill all the way to Ranfurly. I also had a tailwind. I passed a few cyclists pedalling the opposite direction and it certainly didn't look like they were having much fun at all.

At Ranfurly I stopped for lunch at a cafe, where I ate a very disappointing spinach and feta roll, and managed to at last confirm a seat back to Clyde from Middlemarch for myself and my bike. My emails had been misread by the person I had sent them to, and they had told me there were no shuttles for Friday. When I rang them up it turned out they had confused which shuttle I was after, and there was indeed a shuttle on Friday from Middlemarch, so I dutifully paid my money and learnt yet another lesson in this bikepacking caper. Which is if you are going to rely on bike shuttle services you need to 1. book ahead and 2. cycle during the tourist season so there is actually a shuttle service to book on!!!

From Ranfurly the trail continued straight and flat, through the mighty Maniototo, to cross the Taieri River at Waipiata. There was a pub and a campsite at the domain, but I intended to camp at the free campsite at Daisybank. This is another really picturesque part of the ride, as the trail passes through a gorged section of the Taieri.

I got to the campsite around 2pm, but I couldn't find anywhere sheltered enough for my tent, as my lightweight pegs continuously got pulled out by the gusty wind and collapsed the tent. A bit after 3 I decided I needed to up sticks and keep going. At least I had the wind behind me.

The next couple of hours saw me cycling madly along the trail, stopping a number of times to consider whether various sidings buildings would give me enough shelter from the wind for a free camp, but each time I just snacked on an energy bar and kept going. Hyde Tunnel, at the end of the gorge was whizzed through, and a cursory glance around Hyde revealed nothing open so on I went. There are no photos from this section, I just rode!

I arrived in Middlemarch just as it got dark, and managed to get the last room at the pub, the local camping place being closed for the season. After 86km that hot shower felt great, as did the massive pub meal and possibly 2 beers? The comfy bed was a bonus!

The next morning it was brutally cold, with snow on the hills and a chilly southerly blowing. It was then that I congratulated myself on pedalling all the way to Middlemarch, missing out on a chilly night in a tent and a nasty headwind on the final day.

Instead, I had another hot shower and then had a wee cycle around town before hitting the local cafe for a hot breakfast. After lingering a while over my coffee I left to wander more and await the shuttle pickup. Another two cyclists turned up, having stayed at the Waipiata pub and freezing themselves solid on the ride in to Middlemarch.

The shuttle arrived, loaded our bikes, then drove us back to Clyde.

It was a great first bikepacking trip. My bike performed well, I learnt a lot about tubeless tyre intricacies and how to load your bags properly. I realised I needed to upgrade my tent pegs to a sturdier design to cope with windy conditions, and that sometimes you need to dig deep and just keep trucking. TBH there were lots of places that I could have stopped and set up my tent, but knowing I could make it to Middlemarch before dark was really the only reason I didn't stop earlier.

BUT: It was really easy terrain, both in terms of cycling surface (hard gravel) and elevation gains and losses. Sure I'm fit, but it was literally the first time I had cycled a bike for more than an hour in years, so I was pleasantly surprised to have no saddle soreness. I wore my thermal Skins leggings with mountain bike shorts over the top and was very comfortable, even a little too warm at times. A merino thermal, fleece jersey and my rain jacket completed the upper body layers, with the addition of a neck buff which is a mandatory piece of kit when cycling to cut down on wind chill.

With a few additions and modifications I feel ready to take on some more bikepacking adventures, but with winter approaching my options locally are limited. There's always next year...

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Cutting the Paparoa in two

The Paparoa Track is NZ's newest Great Walk, and was purpose built as a joint mountain bike and tramping trail. Cyclists usually take two days to ride it, staying overnight at the middle hut. Trampers, on the other hand, usually take 3-4 days to walk it, requiring bookings at all 3 huts. As a result the middle hut gets booked out before the others, which can limit availability of the walk to trampers, who would find walking between the first and third hut a bit too long for one day.

It had taken me about 4 months to find availability, having booked my walk some time before Christmas. After my paddles at Murchison with Kelvin, Liz and Julie I headed south to Lake Brunner to ride out some bad weather over the Anzac Day weekend and took a peak at the weather for my upcoming trip. It looked like more bad weather, so I decided to check the DOC website to see if there had been any cancellations so I could change my itinerary to more salubrious conditions. Imagine my surprise to find there were indeed openings, so change I did, heading off a few days earlier.

After arranging a car relocation from Blackball to Punakaiki I received an email from the relocation providers informing me that the track had been closed partway along the track due to a huge slip and would not be open to through traffic for at least another month. DOC had yet to inform me of this!!

The relocation service refunded my money and I looked at my options. A few years ago when staying at Kirwan's Hut I had met a west coaster who had highly recommended the walk up along the ridgeline from Smoke Ho carpark up to Mt Watson and across to Croesus Knob. The closed track gave me the perfect opportunity to create a loop, so I rebooked my huts for a second time and headed up to Blackball. I stayed overnight at one of the pubs (not the Hilton) and enjoyed the hospitality of this wonderfully interesting town, with it's history of coal mining, trade unionism, women's suffrage and even being the headquarters of the NZ Communist Party!!

The next morning I headed off early, leaving the car at Smoke Ho carpark and heading straight up hill on a well marked track to the bush line a few hundred metres below Mt Watson. It was wet and boggy in places but as a result was lush with a healthy undergrowth and lots of birds. From the bush line the track followed a ridge up to Mt Watson, with views out to the west coast and to the nearby open cut mine.

Smoke Ho carpark, I would be following that ridge from bottom right to top left

Paparoa Track, southern start

Alternative track up to Mt Watson

Cool steps

Lush forest, narrow track

Nice big trees and some root scrambling

Arriving at the tree line

Grey Valley, Southern Alps in background

Ridge walking towards Mt Watson and Mt Leitch behind it

From Mt Watson the poled route headed north, bypassing Mt Leitch summit. I climbed up though so I could check out the bivy below Mt Leitch, which was currently occupied by a group of workers doing kiwi monitoring. I continued on, following the well marked route in excellent sunny weather all the way towards Croesus Knob.

Mt Leitch Biv is used by biodiversity workers doing trapping and kiwi monitoring

Looking back at Mt Leitch

Ridge walking, my favourite when the weather's good

Croesus Knob, I'm heading for that wee notch top right

Looking back south

I met some trampers walking in the opposite direction just as I stopped to repair my ripped shoe. They had come from Moonlight Tops Hut, and having been reassured that would be easily achievable I yet again changed my booking online (the advantage of being on the ridge was excellent mobile coverage) from Ces Clarke Hut to Moonlight Tops instead. That would avoid needing to backtrack from where the ridge rejoined the main Paparoa Track but would add another hour or 2 to the day. Since I was making excellent time and the walking was easy it seemed like a good plan.

My Hoka Speedgoats had ripped across the top of the shoe. This was my second pair of these trail shoes, which I love wearing because they are light and very comfortable, with great cushioning especially on hard ground. They have a weakness on the upper where they dry out and crack, causing the material to be prone to holes, and I had inadvertently caught my toe under a rock and split the whole upper part. I had some strapping tape, so I used that to repair them, and continued on.

The views all day were magnificent, and after about 5 hours I rejoined the Paparoa track after skirting around the summit of Croesus Knob. I didn't fancy the steep descent from the Knob summit, and didn't think the view would be any different to that I'd been enjoying all morning.

Heading towards that notch

Getting closer

The Paparoa Track below, heading down to Ces Clark Hut

Once back on the track I met other walkers and cyclists, going in both directions. The track closure was between Moonlight Tops Hut and Pororari Hut, so trail users needed to return the way they had come. The track continued to climb, sidling along as it continued in a northerly direction, with more magnificent views, including the Southern Alps and Aoraki. The first section of the Paparoa Track is actually part of the much older Croesus Pack Track, which soon heads off the tops for the steep descent down to the west coast at Barrytown. The Paparoa Track stays on the ridges, continuing north.

West coast cloud blowing in....

After an hour on the tops the infamous west coast mist began to blow in. These moisture laden clouds do a good job of keeping the vegetation so lush, but they kinda kill the views! They do add mood to the landscape though, and it was pleasant walking regardless. Besides, I'd been spoilt all day already.

Looking back: Croesus Knob on left, Aoraki way in the distance

One km in the moody gloom to the hut

Dracophyllum bushes

About 2 hours after hitting the main trail I arrived at Moonlight Tops Hut. There were already a few other trampers there, but no cyclists, hence why there were so many free spots in the hut. I had heard that The Paparoa Track and Old Ghost Road mostly attract the type of mountain biker who likes to ride the tracks and then skedaddle back to where they come from. Unlike less technical trails like The West Coast Wilderness Trail, where cyclists stay longer in the area and spend more money in the region. So with the thru track closed, the cyclists had all cancelled en masse!!

The evening was really pleasant, with the hut only half full, and we all scrambled up the rise behind the hut to watch the rather muted sunset. We met Jess, the hut warden, and discovered we had some mutual friends in the paddling world. She also gave me some beta on the gorges in the Pororari River, but more about that later.

There is a stunning view of the escarpment from here, but the west coast mist obscures it

Sunset from behind the hut

The next morning trampers either headed back the way they had come or, like me, they headed out along the closed part of the track along the escarpment to the shelter. The slip was actually below the escarpment, so the section of track along the top was completely unaffected, and I needed to tick that shelter off my hutbagging list!! I had booked a second night at Midnight Tops so I had all day.

Good morning!

Sunrise, Moonlight Tops Hut

It was another stunner, starting with a spectacular sunrise. The walk out along the escarpment was lovely, through wonderful gnarly mountain beech and drachophyllum, with occasional glimpses of the precipitous drop on the western side. However, the true grandeur of the escarpment is best appreciated from the hut.

Look closely and you can see Moonlight Tops Hut in distance

Pororari Hut in the distance, at the end of the first ridge to the left

There was a new shelter being built, much bigger than the current shelter, with room for a large equipment shed for DOC. The section of track down off the escarpment is where they have all the slips occurring with wet weather events, so having access to track clearing equipment is a DOC priority.

Old shelter

Enormous new shelter

After a cuppa and some lunch I headed back to Moonlight Tops. The weather stayed clear, and the hut slowly filled up with a new group of trampers. Still no cyclists, but a group on an organised tour having a very delicious looking gourmet dinner.

A small cirque and waterfall off to the east of the track

Fossil? Or explosive?

That magnificent escarpment in all it's glory

The next morning I returned back along the track, this time continuing to Ces Clarke Hut and following the old packrtrack back to Smoke Ho carpark.

Another stunning sunrise

View down to the west coast, no mist

The hazard markers are for the cyclists!

Croesus Knob on right

West coast, Greymouth, and little old Aoraki in the distance

The notch I walked down from a couple of days before

Ces Clark Hut, smoko stop

There were a few huts to visit, some off the main track, and lots of mining history. A really enjoyable, mostly downhill amble.

Back at Blackball I booked back in at the same hotel I'd stayed in 3 nights ago, and was entertained by the annual May Day debate. Topic: that the Wellington Protestors were an embarrassment. The affirmative team did a great job of dressing up as Ashley Bloomfield and Siouxsie Wiles (complete with pink wig!) and a decent argument, the negative team took themselves far too seriously with a strong anti-vax theme. The affirmative won, and no-one behaved badly, though it wasn't exactly a large turnout. The locals are wonderfully friendly, can't recommend the place more.

The next morning I headed down to the west coast. I left my car at the motor camp whilst I walked the other end of the track up to Pororari Hut and back again. I'd originally thought about bringing the packraft and paddling back out, but after speaking with Jess at Moonlight Tops I decided it wasn't worth the effort. The upper gorge was just too gnarly to be paddling alone, and the lower portion was probably better done as a half day trip, so I left the packraft in the car and just tramped it.

The track follows the Pororari River most of the way, at one point climbing up and away from the upper gorge, so I could see for myself that it definitely wasn't something I'd be paddling by myself, if at all! There were a number of rock sieves and drops, but it certainly looked portageable.

Northern start of Paparoa Track

Up through Pororari Gorge

through a tunnel

easy walking

Moonlight Tops Hut is on that ledge way in the distance

The final climb up a ridge to Pororari Hut took about an hour. There was an American couple already there, celebrating 5 years living in NZ. Later, a lone cyclist turned up, and over a few cups of tea we made great conversation and solved most of the world's ills. Awesome company!!

Random woodcarving..

The craggy limestone mountains in the north of Paparoa National Park

The escarpment, can you see the track descending off it on the left?

Moonlight Tops Hut

Sunset, Pororari Hut

We all took our time leaving the next morning, it being an easy downhill walk, even easier cycle, back out.  

I booked in at the motor camp, enjoyed a nice hot shower, and the next day headed back down to Wanaka. I had no choice, all my footwear was buggered, and there was a brand new pair of trail shoes waiting in Wanaka for me.

There was also a bike to look at. What's that?? A bike??

That's next...