I’ve always dreamed of doing something a little bit daunting, some kind of long-term challenge that would push me to my limit. Not just another tick on an ever growing list of boxes, but something outside that cozy box that we all live in, way out on the far edge of my comfort zone.
If you meet me in person, there’s no hiding the fact that I started life on the other side of the globe, in the land of rolling green countryside, roast beef, the queen, and the ever important pub. I was thrown into running at a very early age, carried around on my dad’s back at various races and was introduced to orienteering as a youngster; which I guess was the reason behind my interest in adventure and self-competition. There’s no better way of exploring an area by than getting lost in the middle of it in the pouring rain, or fighting against the vegetation trying to push yourself hard to find the next checkpoint.
Towards the end of my teens, I’d grown (not to be a basketballer height like they’d always said I would) but in my abilities on two legs. I even chose a university that closely matched my love for running, adventure and orienteering. The local National Park while in Sheffield was a bit larger than Arthur’s Pass NP and had numerous paths, trails and hills to dig my feet into.
The problem with England is that every hillside is jam packed full of people, every path maintained, every route having been followed at least one thousand times before. I felt that there was no way to get away from the crowds, with the exception of travelling hundreds of miles north across the border. Then again, there was still absolutely no guarantee that I would even see the sky if I travelled north, let alone it being blue.
That’s what made New Zealand a breath of fresh air for me. Everything in England is established, institutionalised and preserved. Manicured to the point of no return. Don’t get me wrong, some areas are stunning; so stunning that they end up in famous films, photographs and paintings. However, as soon as I stepped off the highways here, it felt so different, so untouched by man in so many ways. Even on the popular tourist tracks and trails, I felt like a pioneer from the 18th century, and the first to climb to the top.
The Port Hills in Christchurch, my current home, have some similarities to the Peak District, which makes me feel like I’m back with family. Nicely maintained trails for me to train on, keeping my legs fresh. However, retracing my steps week-in week-out made me long for something different. After my experiences of orienteering in the dark corners of Scandinavia, to mountain marathons across endless English moorland, I decided that the usual weekend warrior adventure here on NZ soil wouldn’t suffice. The recent earthquakes also gave me a new reason to get out of town. Escapism was the perfect solution to the destruction that was visible all around, and still is visible to residents in quake city, even to this day.
The dictionary definition of a challenge is “a call to prove or justify something, usually against a person or against something”. The person was myself, and the something I was challenging was my body. My self imposed rules were simple; I wanted to run up 52 of New Zealand’s picturesque mountain peaks, all within one calendar year. The more detailed criteria was that each peak must be named, each must be at least 1000m above sea level and each peak must be different, as retracing my own steps would have felt a bit like cheating.
The clock struck on New Year’s Day, January 1st 2013, and the challenge was on.
My first peaks were local, I didn’t want to blow up straight away, after all I didn’t expect this challenge to be a walk in the park. I bided my time, running around some Cantabrian peaks that I’d heard of but not yet visited, mixing in as much adventure as I could. The weather was perfect for the first nine weeks, tracks in great condition, and my legs felt fresh. I had had so many different experiences already: I’d bivvied under the stars, ridden a helicopter, mountain biked along historic mining trails and experienced the spikiest plant known to man, or what I’ve now known to call it, “The Spaniard” (Aciphylla horrida).
Then came the twist that previously I’d not contemplated, but what ended up being the crux of the whole challenge: the weather.
Suddenly it dawned on me, it was raining outside for the first time in a little over 2 months and I panicked. What was wrong with me? Back in England we said that “if you stayed indoors everytime it rained, you’d never get outside”. Here I was worrying about getting outdoors in the wet. I own several waterproof jackets, so what had happened? Apparently I’d become accustomed to the New Zealand weather systems and how fast they moved across the country. If it was raining one day, don’t worry, it’ll be better the next. I had to learn to harden up again.
I was, however, right to be cautious. The weather in New Zealand, unlike that of the English maritime climate, is one of those things that you have to take seriously, especially when heading into the mountains. One minute it’s fine, the other it’s blowing at 100km/hr and snowing horizontally. Planning was a new requirement for my challenge, but unfortunately it’s never been my strongest attribute, so I was forced to acclimatise to my newly found situation.
I managed to get through another six weeks of fatiguing mountain running relatively unscathed. My only mishap was falling on a ridgeline in the fog, cutting up my knees and twisting an ankle. On this occasion I was alone, out of phone reception, and it was the first time I had come face to face with my personal demons. I sat waiting for the pain to subside then hobbled along the ridge in search of the summit a few kilometers away. As the pain wore off I managed to find the summit cairn in the middle of a patch of tussock in the mist. From that moment on I decided to purchase a PLB, something that I would never have dreamed of purchasing to explore England’s rolling countryside, but in Aotearoa, it’s that extra line of security if the worst should happen.
Physically, my legs were starting to become a wreck. I threw in a couple of rest weeks as my legs simply couldn’t hack the climbing. They were bruised and battered from being thrown up and down mountains every week, so much so, that looking after my body became a priority and I decided to get a much needed massage. And man did I need it. One masseuse claimed that my quads were the tightest he’d ever seen, another couldn’t press my hamstrings because every time she did, I tried to run away! Still, it kept my legs moving and out on the mountainside week after week.
Into May and I was loving the length of the New Zealand Summer. In the UK I was used to a “mixed” Summer of rain, clouds and middling temperatures. OK, lets call it Autumn. Here, in NZ I was treated to a full on Summer with no issues, and I’d not yet failed to reach a summit. I spoke too soon. I believe Sir Ed once said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”, however, on my first big alpine day in Arthur’s Pass, the mountain totally conquered me. I overcooked the route, the time and the climb, meaning that the impending weather system caught up with me quicker than anticipated. I was forced to abandon the route.
Failure reappeared in quick succession, this time in waist deep in snow. What was I doing? So out of my comfort zone and with a lack of skills. I ended up nearly swimming through the snow, while my friends on touring skis, glided with ease along the access track until we became trapped by hundreds of fallen trees. Further down the track we were met by huge snow drifts, and the more experienced amongst us felt that the avalanche risk was way too dangerous to continue. Another incomplete peak.
With two failed attempts, I was starting to fall behind my ambitious schedule.
Mountain skills were not my strong point, in fact I didn’t really have any experience of snow, avalanches, or any kind of frozen adventuring. Luckily, that’s where my friends came in. While working in the outdoor industry for a couple of years, I got to know a few people, all with incredible skill sets. I was fortunate enough to know local ice climbers, kayakers, alpine trampers, mountaineers, adventure racers; all willing to lend a helping hand and share their mastery. Within a matter of weeks I was clued up with skills for glacial crossings, ropes, arresting, crevasse rescue, and more. To be honest it all felt a little overwhelming, but it was necessary if I was going to venture more into the rugged New Zealand backcountry in the middle of Winter.
So off I went, with my accumulation of skills ready to pick off some Winter peaks.
The rest of Winter didn’t go well for my running. The lack of freedom, however, due to the snow dumps was great for my legs as mountaineering took the primary lead. This was very different from my England days; a different skill set in totally alien environments. It was one thing learning about self arresting on the grass of my back garden, but when I found myself crossing a snow covered slope, it was a tough mental battle.
The intimidation wore off as I started to pick off mountains over 2000m with utter disbelief. Alpine starts, camping on snow, using ice axes every week. It was impossible to compare my running in England with my achievements on certain peaks in New Zealand. On these occasions I’d practically climbed from sea level to a summit double the height of Ben Nevis. I was on top of the world!
After pushing through the remaining freezing mornings by climbing snowy peaks with axe and crampons in-hand, the temperatures of Summer quickly returned. As if by magic, the weather cleared and my legs were free to roam the tracks and trails again. Running never felt so easy and I’d never felt so ecstatic! October, four peaks in four weeks, and in November I doubled up on most weekends, taking out seven peaks in a row without even blinking. Even when faced with a summit plagued by loose rock that nearly sent me spiraling into the valleys below, I was in my ‘mountain running zone’.
I had hoped that the icing on the cake would be a final fling on what is claimed to be Sir Edmund Hillary’s first tramping peak, Mt Ollivier in Mt Cook National Park. Unfortunately, that was not to be. The conditions in the mountains were against me, as the weather insisted on deteriorating towards the the end of the year. Thankfully, I saw a gap between weather systems and took the gamble to venture towards Arthur’s Pass, with the view to complete Avalanche Peak. A peak that I knew well from a previous year’s mountain race.
I made it above the bushline of my ultimate peak, the cloud above still covering the summit ridge. Pushing further, my legs felt jelly like as my feet touched the summit. I let out a huge shout, echoing in the cloud. I must have startled the local Kea population as I could hear them calling above, wondering what was happening on their usual sandwich stealing spot. I had made it, and with barely a week to spare.
52 Peaks was the culmination of a year’s worth of effort, persistence and endurance I wouldn’t say I was the fastest, fittest, or best runner in the world, but my determination and the incredible scenery got me through 365 days of adventure. I’m so happy to have had such wonderful support too, and I have had my eyes opened to the endless possibilities for exploration within New Zealand. My next chapter is still to be written but if it’s there to be done, there’s nothing stopping me getting out there and doing it.
Words by Matthew Dickinson