The Avalanche Peak Challenge

Tired of the slowpoke on the track ahead of you? Then you may be a mountain runner and the Avalanche Peak Challenge (www.avalanchepeak.co.nz) may be the type of competitive tramping you're looking for.

Mountain running has been slowly gaining favour in many places throughout the world, but in New Zealand its popularity is soaring and there are now more than two dozen events every summer. Some, such as the Abel Tasman Classic and Kepler Challenge, are so popular that the field is filled within days of entries opening.

One of the most gruelling has to be the Avalanche Peak Challenge, a 26km run that takes place in Arthur's Pass in late February. The race begins with 11km of running on SH73 to spread out the field of 250 runners. The next stage is the steep Avalanche Peak Track. You don't run here, you climb, grabbing rocks and tree roots as you go. The average tramper needs three hours to reach Avalanche Peak on this track; top runners need only 55 minutes.

After scaling the 1833m peak, runners follow a ridge and then descend a shingle slide to Crow Hut, struggling through rocks the size of basketballs. They exit the valley, splashing through the Crow and Waimakariri Rivers, and then turn south on SH73 and sprint to the finish line, conveniently located just outside the Bealey Hotel. In 2006 the winner covered the route in two hours and 35 minutes.

The Kepler Challenge might be longer, at 67km, but many argue that the Avalanche Peak Challenge is tougher because it's along a route, not the manicured track of a Great Walk.

The event features nine divisions, including three trampers' divisions for those who want to walk it wearing a numbered bib. There are also race marshals stationed along the course to assist with injuries, and aid stations with drinks and food. At the finish line there is a massage stand to provide enough revitalisation so you can stagger up to the Bealey Hotel bar.

Entry is $45 for trampers and $75 for runners, and you can enter online.

on historic Glasgow Bridge. Just beyond the bridge you begin climbing, and keep climbing. Within 10 minutes you're looking down at Arthur's Pass village, having already scrambled up your first rock face.

The climb is unrelenting, and the only time it levels out is just before you break out of the bush-line, 1 '/i hours and 400m above the chapel. Yellow markers and a worn path replace the track here, and lead up the ridge that rises between the Avalanche Creek and Rough Creek catchments.

The climbing continues once you reach the tussock grass, and it takes one to Wi hours to follow this ridge to the base of Avalanche Peak. In the first half the route skirts a large slip that leads down to the Rough Creek catchment; at times you're treading right on the edge of it. This would be a deathtrap in high winds and poor visibility.

After passing a pair of huge cairns the climbing eases a bit and the views improve tremendously. All around you are mountains, with Mt Rolleston (2275m) straight ahead. Punchbowl Falls leaps out of the mountains to the east, and the village of

Arthur's Pass lies at your feet. If the Tranz-Alpine passes through the valley below, it's like watching a toy train.

At the northern end of the ridge, yellow markers lead you down its east side and around the tail of some rock scree. You then begin the final ascent to the prominent ridge that leads to Avalanche Peak. The ridge looks formidable, but the markers show a zigzag route up the side for an easier climb.

At the top, the yellow markers from Avalanche Peak Track merge with the orange markers from Scotts Track in a flat spot at 1680m; here you're 10 to 15 minutes from the summit.

The final leg is well poled, but you have to be careful. The ridge is narrow, falling sharply away to the McGrath Stream catchment at times, and the rock is loose. Avalanche Peak (1833m) is a rounded summit with enough space for about six people to sit comfortably and admire the views in every direction. The most impressive view is to the north, looking over towards Mt Rolleston with the icefall of Crow Glacier right below it.

If the wind is gentle and the sun is out you could spend the afternoon up here, enjoying the world at your feet. If you do stay a while, eventually a kea or two will arrive - do not feed them, and do not leave your day-pack or anything else unattended.

If you are not continuing on to Crow Hut (see below), the return trip begins by backtracking to the junction of Avalanche Peak and Scotts Tracks. Whereas the yellow markers descend the ridge south, this time you stay with the orange markers as they continue along the crest of the ridge to the east.

In the beginning Scotts Track will also have some narrow areas with steep dropoffs towards the McGrath Stream catchment, but 30 minutes from the summit the ridge eases up and the descent becomes a wonderful stroll through tussock. The bush-line is reached in one to Wi hours, at a spot where the track is well marked among the stunted mountain beech.

It's a 300m decent from here to SH73, along a track that is not nearly as steep or rugged as Avalanche Peak Track. You will also enjoy better views on the way down, as you are constantly passing small openings in the trees. Most of them are dominated by Punchbowl Falls leaping 131m out of a cleft in the mountains. It takes most people at least one hour to descend through the bush, longer if their legs are tired. Eventually you arrive at SH73, just north of Arthur's Pass village. Follow the road 200m south into the village.

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