Thursday, 19 November 2015

Alpine Challenge Reccy: Pole 333 - Hotham - Harrietville - Feathertop - Pole 333

Quick Stats

Run Date18th October 2015
LocationMt Feathertop, Alpine National Park, Victoria, Australia
Relative DifficultyEasy Moderate Hard Extreme
StyleSelf-supported, day out in the mountains
TerrainTechnical single trail, fire tracks, and lots of steep ascents and descents.
Time on the trail10h41m
Weather on the dayWarm and sunny. About 25C.
Course (Strava)Alpine Challenge Reccy: Pole 333 - Hotham - Harrietville - Feathertop - Pole 333
Enjoyment Rating1 2 3 4 5
Lessons LearntGoing down can be just as slow as going up!
I'm running the Alpine Challenge 100mile ultra at the end of November. I ran the 100km last year, an identical sub-section of the 100 miler.

Before running the race this year, I wanted to take the time to acquaint myself with the 60km section of the course I hadn't seen before. Below are my notes from the run, and a few pictures.

During the race, this section of course is run from Pole 333 to Mt. Hotham, then down to Harrietville, up to Mt. Feathertop, and finally back to Pole 333. In all, you take in about +3700m of ascent, and the equivalent descending.

Since you can't drive to Pole 333, I started and finished my reccy at Harrietville.

Harrietville (584m) to Mt. Feathertop (1895m)

This is a pretty easy climb. It's long, but it winds around the mountain and never really gets all that steep. I ran a lot of it, and walked when I needed to. Surprisingly, it was the only section of trail I saw a snake on.

The trail up is well defined, and easy to follow. When you come out of the tree line, as you get closer to Federation Hut, you get a good sense for how far up you've climbed.

The final climb from Federation Hut to Feathertop is a narrow and rocky path up the final ridge. It's easy enough. It took me just over 2 hours to reach the top.

The trial/ridge leading up to Mt. Feathertop

It was sunny when I got up there, and there was no-one else around. It's an awesome view and I think if you time it right during the race, you could reach the summit at dawn, taking in the sunrise.

Surprisingly, there was still some snow up the top. I dug around for some fresh stuff, and filled up one of my water bottles. It wasn't as a good as a cold beer would have been, but it was pretty close!

At the top of Mt. Feathertop

Looking across at Diamantina Spur, and the Bogong High Plains in the distance

Mt. Feathertop (1895m) to Blair Hut (1163m)

When I was originally looking at the maps, I thought this section would have been pretty fast to run. But it wasn't! The final ascent down Diamantina Spur is very steep. Sections of it required all fours (hands and feet). This is going to suck during the race when you've got 115km in the legs!

I'm glad I ran this section of trail though. I wouldn't have liked coming through there in the middle of the night during the race without having seen it before. Going down that trail at night when you're drained from running all day and feeling mentally fatigued... could be tough.

The trail from the top of My. Feathertop to the start of Diamantina Spur is easy to follow and well defined. It was fast and fun running.

After you turn off the Razorback trail, you start to head down Diamantina Spur. It starts off as reasonably easy to follow, and I had began to wonder why people said it's faint. About half way along though, and the trail begins to disappear and reappear.

If you use your common sense, it's easy enough to pick up the trail again, though that was in day light. I think it might be a bit harder at night, especially if the weather is bad and the visibility low.

The end of the trail was covered in bark and tree debris, so over grown it's hard to see where you're stepping, and so steep you can't slow down anyway! Pretty good fun to barrel down. When I reached the bottom, I was a little surprised I hadn't stepped on a snake.

I had planned 30 minutes to run this section, and it ended out taking me 90 minutes!

There's a decent stream at the bottom, and I filled my water bottles there.

This is an example of trail along Diamantina Spur... sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not!

Some sections of the trail get "rather" steep!

Blair Hut (1163m) to Pole 333 (1793m)

This section was pretty un-eventful. I never saw any sign of Blair Hut before reaching the turn off to Weston Hut (towards Pole 333). It was only going up that trail that I saw a track off to the left pointing back to Blair Hut.

I continued up the trail for what felt like a very long time. As I got to what I thought must have been the top of the trail, I started thinking I must have walked past Weston Hut without noticing it.

Not long after that, I came into an opening, and there was Weston Hut. I laughed a little. This regularly happens to me on long runs. I think I'm further through the run than I am. As it turned out, I wasn't even half way to Pole 333. You just can't cheat time and distance.

After Weston Hut the steepness of the trail eases off and it becomes more run-able. The trees thin out as you approach the high plains, and the snow poles start, which lead you to the Pole 333 intersection.

Pole 333. Approx. 30km into the run (half way), and already 2.5hrs behind schedule!

Pole 333 (1793m) to Dibbon Hut (1351m)

After taking a short 10 minute break at Pole 333, I followed the trail towards Cobungra Gap. This trail follows the snow poles along the high plains for a few kilometers. After that it drops off the side of the mountain down towards Cobungra Gap and Dibbon Hut.

This trial is mostly easy to follow, though it gets a little faint just as the decent off the high plains begins. If you keep an eye out for the snow poles, you shouldn't have any trouble picking up the trail.

During the race in November I expect a lot of runs will come through here before dark, so following the trail shouldn't be hard.

The descent is easy going and not too steep. A fairly short and simple run down to Cobungra Gap. When you reach Cobungra Gap you need to follow the trail down over a bridge into a grassy area by a stream. I filled my water bottles up in the stream before heading on.

You follow the trail across the grassy area towards Dibbin Hut. About 100m before Dibbon Hut there is a turn off to Derrick Hut. It's just a small wooden sign, so look out for it!

Dibbon Hut (1351m) to Derrick Hut (1740m)

The descent to Dibbon Hut is about 400m, which you then climb straight back up on the other side. That trail is Swindlers Spur, and it meanders back and forth through the trees as it winds up the side of the mountain.

It's a little step in sections, with the odd set of steps here and there. But it's easy to follow, and eventually you end out at Derrick Hut. It should be fairly easy to do this section of trail at night.

Derrick Hut (1740m) to Mt. Hotham (1849m)

You leave the trees behind as you pass Derrick Hut. The trail joins the ski slops, and it's very similar terrain to the Bogong high plains; grassy.

This section of trail is easy. It's only a little undulating, easy to follow, and provides a good chance to eat and rest from navigation.

The trail leads you onto the ski slops, and after passing the chair lifts, you take Machinery Spur up to Mt Hotham. It's a dirt fire trail that leads up to Mt. Loch carpark, and onto the Mt. Hotham summit.

Mt. Loch, close to the chair lifts. Close to the end of the day (light).

Mt. Hotham

Mt. Hotham (1849m) to Harrietville (584m)

I reached Mt. Hotham shortly before night fall. It was amazing being up there just before dusk, but being 2 hours behind my estimated schedule, I didn't hang around for long.

On top of Hotham, looking south west over the alps

During the race you're allowed to take the road around from Mt. Loch carpark to the start of Bon Accord, bypassing the actual top of Mt. Hotham. Possibly a good idea during the race. I couldn't find the trail down from the summit to Bon Accord, so I doubled back the way I came (roughly speaking) to follow the road around.

When I reached the start the of Bon Accord Spur, I thought (wrongly) that it would be a quick 1 hour 12km (ish) run back down to Harrietville. That was probably my only real mistake of the day.

Firstly, according to the map, it was actually 14.5km back to my car (13.5km to Harrietville). I also misjudged how long it would take to run, if not from a time perspective (it took over 2 hours), definitely from a mental one.

Bon Accord as a whole is quite easy to follow, barring a section towards the end, where you need to navigate the river. More on that in a moment.

The top section of the trail starts out with a descent for the first few kilometres, but then flattens out for quite a while. I began to wonder why it wasn't descending much, and a little bit of frustration began creeping in.

The top of the trail leading down Bon Accord

Eventually, after what felt like a quite a long distance, but according to the map is only 3km, the trail descended sharply down to Washington Creek / East River.

I had been warned that the trail disappears (somewhat) here. I saw some campers and asked them about it, and they gave me a few pointers for finding the trail on the other side of the river.

To be honest, I'm not sure whether this section would be easier or harder during the day. The trail disappears as you zigzag across the river. But there are blue reflective markers on posts. So using your head torch you can find your way through this section by keeping a sharp eye and looking for the reflective arrows. That's in hindsight though; it was a little stressful making my way through there in the dark.

After making your way through the river section, you pick up the trail for five kilometers back to Harrietville. This section is really well defined, and consists mostly of wide single track. It follows the river along, occasionally moving away to cross folds in the mountain. It makes for some nice easy running.

This section wasn't actually that hard. But the error in judging how long it would take had a surprising effect on me. It really sapped my energy, physically, and even more so mentally.

I put it down to mis-managing my expectations. I'd expected the run to take about 8 hours, and planned to be back home in Melbourne at 10pm. Running 3 hours late, finishing in the dark and knowing I had a 4 hour drive home all started to take a mental toll. By the time I got back to my car, mentally I was toast!

The End

That's about it. I must admit, I was pretty fried at the end of that day. I started the day in Melbourne at 5:30am, and I finished the run at 10pm, and then had a 4 hour drive back home. I got to bed just before 3am, only to get up at 7am for work the next day.

When I'd finally got back to my car, I look at the trail head that leads you up the 1300m climb to Mt. Feathertop and thought about doing that after running 105km (the distance covered in the race when you get to that point). It was too much, and my brain overloaded!

On the way home, I spent the first 10 minutes questioning whether I should pull out of the race. My head hurt thinking about it and I needed to shut off. I told myself to stop thinking about it, and decided to review my plans in the morning.

The funny thing is, the next day when I woke up, all I could think about was getting back up to the mountains to run again. It pretty much consumed my thinking for the following three days. There is just something special about days like that draw me back, no matter way they take out of me at the time.

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