Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Wartrail: a winter wonderland

Trevor Ball with a chunk of frozen snow
Leading up to Wartrail, which took place this past weekend in the Eastern Cape, I was quite apprehensive about "what to wear". Don't get me wrong, I'm no fashionista and this wasn't about whether my navy thermal would clash with my day-glo orange Buff. I'm talking cold and cold-weather clothing. Chilly conditions were expected and they were present; we set off in sub-zero conditions. I'm pleased to announce that my attire was suitable and got me through the 16hr trek from Lady Grey to Balloch warm and dry.

Wartrail is a district in the Eastern Cape, overseen by Senqu Tourism; "Wartrail nestles in the Witteberg range of the Southern Drakensberg. This uniquely beautiful area is fascinating in its history and culture. From Dinosaur fossils to the famous railway reverses, early settler cave-houses to the exceptional Bushman paintings that have drawn archaeologists from around the world". And it is this area, through which this 3-day race passes, that gives this event its name.

A mountain dog, owned by one of the local farmers manning the CP at Olympus
This Salomon Wartrail Tri Challenge is a 3-day, 3-discipline event consisting of 65km mountain running/trekking,155km mountain biking and 70km paddling (although this year the paddling was reduced to 30km because of the low water level of the Orange River). The race has usually taken place around March but was set for 30 June - 2 July this year to take advantage of the winter environment. The event was initiated many years back by Skyrun founder, John-Michael Tawse, who was in South Africa this year for the event to guide the tv crew around the course.

The event can be done as an individual; you do each discipline, each day - or as a team; one person does each stage. This is what I did. I teamed up with Lauren and Daleen to make up a ladies team; I was assigned to the mountain run and Lauren and Daleen would do the bike and paddle together on the successive days. It's a nice way to take part; they drove the vehicle to Balloch - end of the run - on Saturday and I drove the vehicle to the checkpoints and end-of-day venues on Sunday and Monday.

My trekking companion, Christo ViljoenThe mountain run route is the same as the Skyrun Day 1 route; from Lady Grey to Balloch across the mountain ridges. Lovely, lovely, lovely. But what made it so special this year was the snow. Yes, real, fluffy, white snow! Absolutely delightful.

The moral of this blog, is not as much about the race - which is truly fabulous and highly recommended (Adrian, good work on another well organised event) - as about apparel; just what should you wear and pack for a mountain race in sub-zero conditions with snow decorating the mountains.

We had a 4h30 start. I wore the following:
  • Salomon Trail Runner shoes; newish... had only taken them to Gauteng Orienteering Champs. If, like me, you've never settled into Salomon XA Pro 3Ds, then consider trying this model. I've been wearing Adidas TR Response shoes for years; the fit has always been good for my foot shape. The Salomon Trail Runner fit is similar; nice and snug.
  • Falke Adventure Socks; I'm addicted to them and they're no longer on the market *sob*
  • Lycra ankle gaiters; I make them myself - I loath trail debris (grass, seeds, stones, sticks etc) getting into my shoes. I do not go off-road without them. Worked well in the snow as it prevented snow getting in around my ankles and protected my ankles from getting cut by the icy edge of the crunchy snow sections (many runners has mysterious cuts; ice was the culprit).
  • First Ascent Powerstretch Tights: these tights are the absolute best for cold conditions, but it needs to be cold or you'll bake. The only other time I'd worn them without overheating was in Patagonia, Southern Chile - it's cold and the wind howls, even in summer. Here I wore them the whole day and didn't freeze or cook. Perfect.
  • First Ascent Quik-Wic long sleeve thermal; have had it for years; good, snug fit & nice and warm. Great base layer.
  • Capestorm Puffadder: light-weight fleece. Great mid-layer (won it at the Capestorm Rogaine last year)
  • Capestorm wind shell; I think it is an old version of their helium shell. It is very light, packs up tight and works to keep the wind out (I also won it a few years ago; has served me well).
  • Accessories: 2 x Buff (one around neck, other around wrist to be used when needed), 1 x ear warmer (that kind of headband with the broader section that covers your ears) and 1 x pair running gloves (my hands get really hot so I didn't want anything too thick)
I had the following packed into my Salomon 30l backpack (I decided to go with the bigger backpack, instead of my 15l Raid Revo, because I needed more space for "emergency" stuff):
  • Small first aid kit & space blanket
  • whistle, glo-toob, knife
  • First Acent AR-X sleeping bag
  • First Ascent Firestorm 100 fleece
  • GoLite Clarity Jacket and pants (wind and waterproof)
  • Shorts (incase it got warm during the day)
  • Food - lots of munchies
  • 2l water reservoir
I'd decided to pack my extra fleece and sleeping bag plus waterproof gear just incase the weather up in the mountains turned bad; a cold front was expected to arrive late Sat/early Sun.
Difficulty is always what to wear when you start; you quickly warm-up as an exercising body produces a lot of heat. My Buff came off early, on the ascent to the tower. My Puffadder came off a little later. I kept my thermal base layer + light shell on the whole day. Just before nightfall the wind picked up and it got way cold out there. I then put my Puffadder back on, replaced the light shell with my GoLite jacket, added both Buffs (one around my neck, the other protecting my face from the wind) and the ear warmer and gloves.
It is interesting to note that a number of competitiors started off in shorts... and I even saw race winner Martin Dreyer (he won all 3 stages) in short sleeves at the start, and certainly for the duration of the race...
I'm the one in the middle with a down jacket... Lauren (left) and Daleen (right) about to start the paddle. When I drove off the car said it was -5°CAll in all I was very happy with my clothing choices as I wasn't too warm and I didn't get cold; layering does work. For the rest of the weekend, while the girls were biking and paddling, I stayed bonded to my First Ascent Extreme Glacier down jacket. You haven't lived until you've worn a down jacket... I was converted by a photographer friend at an overseas race; conditions turned bad and he offered me his jacket; I bought one when I got home - it's a must-have for cold conditions.
I'm off to Rhodes on the 14th July for the Rhodes Ultra. Also mountains, also snow. I'll be doing more running here (I trekked through Wartrail) so I think the thermal and light shell should be adequate to start, if conditions are decent.

I'm no longer as daunted by cold conditions; low temperatures are manageable when you're suitably attired. Hope this gives you a little guidance should you consider a winter mountain event.

My foot in the thick, soft snow The start of the paddle on the low Orange River; I'm holding thumbs that the girls won't get cold on the water

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wartrail started in 2001 with just a handful of dedicated maverick sports, adventure addicts. Just being there for Adrians' really smooth running event and seeing the class of Adventure Athlete was a spectacular sports adventure treat. Martin Dreyer certainly enjoyed himself and that was evident from his massive smile from start to finish and that is true sports for the pure joy and thrill of participating. Well done on great sportsmanship and a truly fantastic Skyrun, never mind the bike and paddle sections. Also having a sponsor with the brand of Salomon who seemed to have a monopoly on adventure gear especially footwear stood out very clearly.

I must admit on initially hearing Wartrail Tri Challenge was to be a mid-winter event I tended to be a bit more than concerned. Extreme cold, plenty of snow - a low, slow flowing, freezing Orange River all added to the increased risk factors. A peak summer event with lots of water in the mountain and a fast moving Orange was what I had in mind with the original Wartrail. However I trusted Adrian’s integrity on this one after all he is a ‘legal eagle’ and knows the risks involved.

Congratulations are in order for Adrian for organising and also enjoying the event as sweeper. Also a definite helping hand from the heavens above regards coordinating weather extremes and keeping everyone safe. I really believe that God’s presence is more than evident in the exceptional beauty of the outdoors. This winter must definitely be one of the coldest on record in many years and we survived and in fact thrived. From the athletes to marshals and seconding crews it was the smoothest Wartrail I've ever experienced.

What really amazed me was the vast number of 'ladies' participating. The event had initially been almost a predominantly male event with the exception of Sarah Mills who I last heard had moved from Gauteng to Knysna to build her own log cabin. I really hope to see her around again.

From Lisa's blog - clothing was obviously a large part of the survival status. Bright colours stand out clearly on the rather bland winter landscape except obviously for all the patches of snow especially the southern slopes. This was very apparent in what must be a great number of pictures taken not to mention the Super Sports camera crew having a field day with perfectly clear winter weather ‘shots’.

Ultimately I'm really glad to have caught up with Lisa after following all the articles and adventures on your site. Sitting in an air-conditioned 'hootch' in central Baghdad with the outside temperatures hitting the mid fifties makes the Wartrail a mere dreamscape for the harsh reality of living and working in this uncompromising 'war zone'. Really long for the mountain wilderness encounter anyway that is where my heart is.

John Michael Tawse