Last year, Tim and a few mates attempted the infamous K2K walk in a single day. No one expected 45 kilometres of Blue Mountains wilderness to go down without a fight… But the crew, and Tim in particular, got a bit more than they had bargained for…
Lightning splits the sky, followed immediately by thunder that rumbles across the plateau and punches me in the chest. I’m hunched over the screen of my GPS, limping through a heavy downpour while attempting to check my progress in the fading light.
10 hours, 18 minutes. 31.78 kilometres down. We’ve been hiking since dawn but there are at least 14 big ones to go, probably more. I place my left foot on a fallen branch and swing my right leg over without bending it. With a grimace I fling back my hood and turn my face to the sky. I let the icy rain pound me from temple to chin for a fleeting moment, set my shoulders and walk on.
Kanangra to Katoomba
The K2K walk runs from Echo Head in Kanangra-Boyd National Park to the locked gate and carpark at Narrowneck. From Kanangra to Katoomba it’s 45-50km depending on who you ask (and how lost you get). It’s usually done as a two or three day hike and with incredible ridgeline and riverside campsites, you’ll be spoilt for locations to pull in for the night.
But ‘screw that’ we thought. Let’s do it in a day.
Well, originally that was just Mitch. His infectious enthusiasm and penchant for bonkers adventures first took hold of me while we were having a chat about the Dusky Track, the hardest hike in New Zealand.
Enticed by the siren-song of ruthless endeavour, and helped along by a dollop of machismo, we set a plan.
Welcome to Kanangra-Boyd
With the pre-dawn brekkie and coffee smashed, we flung the overnight gear in the back of Mitch’s Forester and shouldered our daypacks. His girlfriend Greer had driven us down from their place in Blackheath the night before allowing us to a) sink courage beers and b) avoid a 4-hour post-hike car shuffle.
Kanangra-Boyd National Park doesn’t mess around with foreplay. Within minutes we were powering along the plateau; massive cliffs were everywhere we looked as the sun shook off its hangover in the distance. With roughly a kilometre of elevation, it was incredible to see the true distance of the horizon. We stopped briefly to admire the sunlight reddening Kanangra Walls, but we couldn’t stay for long. I was starting to learn my first lesson of the trip…
No Time To Smell The Roses
Covering big distances is all about keeping moving. One of the best things you can do is take your breaks together to minimise the down time. I knew this, yet couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret as we marched away from the walls at sunrise, charged across the picturesque Cox’s river or blew past summit views on the Gangerang Range.
Time pressure can also lead to skipping essentials such as stretching up before starting walking, or rushing tricky sections like a gully descent. Guess which two things I wish I’d done differently?
Powering along the ridgeline we were in high spirits.
Crisp, clear weather was defying the forecast and we were making a cracking pace on a well-formed track. My knee was starting to ache but I hadn’t mentioned it to the others, it was probably just warming up.
Summiting Mount Cloudmaker (the mountains on this ridge have some truly excellent names) we took a right at a cairn down a clear track and within a few minutes were deep into uncharted scrub. Totally lost. How had it been so easy? We navigated back up to the top and started again, but it wouldn’t be the last time.
It’s Frightfully Easy To Get Off Track
On K2K we didn’t see a sign for roughly 39 kilometres; it’s proper wilderness and it had been a while since I’d hiked through something so raw. I was reminded that navigating a walk has nothing in common with the hiking-on-rails experience of easier walks.
Descending Mount Strongleg, a 1000m drop made tastefully ironic by the pain in my knee reaching a screaming crescendo, my brother Mike and I became lost. I couldn’t even tell you how it happened, one second I’m stumbling down a ridge, biting my finger so nearby hikers don’t think someone’s being murdered, and the next we’re surrounded by indistinguishable bushes, it was the Blair Witch Project with less shaky cam.
A few degrees off course can add up to hundreds of metres over a few kilometres – basically, don’t underestimate just how easy it is to get lost.
Mitch and Alex, the other two in our party, had powered ahead whilst I struggled down the mountain. But after waiting at the bottom for 25 minutes, they decided to head up to find us.
Mike and I were lost by this point, and just like that, our groups had lost each other.
A tense hour followed as both groups attempted to locate each other and I shared this sense of dread with the crew as we regrouped by the river.
I can’t remember who said it, but someone suggested that we were never in any danger, as both pairs had a PLB on them. This didn’t sit well with me.
PLBs Don’t Replace Safe Practice
Personal locator beacons are the bomb. Any adventurer heading out of range should rent, buy or borrow one of these bad boys in case things get a bit Lord of the Flies. But packing a helicopter button shouldn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. There’s never a guarantee that a rescue will be possible, or timely enough, in an emergency.
Basic hiking safety, like sticking together, bringing a first-aid kit, warm gear for an unexpected overnighter and packing a map should never be ignored. You’ll quite possibly die without them and at the very least, you’re sure to have a better time.
Hiking On Codeine Is A Thing?
After cooling my decrepit knee in the icy Cox’s river, I felt ready to take on Yellow Pup Ridge. Until now ascents hadn’t been an issue, yet with 4 switchbacks down, inflammation was at an all-time high.
Shit. How was I going to get out of this valley?
‘I’ve got some codeine in my first aid kit’ – Mitch offered. Boom. Game changer. Always hike with blokes who date paramedics.
I don’t want to say that drugs got me out of the valley. But drugs definitely got me out of the valley.
With the pain somewhat subsiding I started noticing other things. For one, I was sweating like a bull in a china shop. Rivers of nature’s Gatorade were running down my back, ready to take up residence on my gooch and provide maximum abrasion for the rest of the hike.
Fear not, dear reader, for I was rocking my secret weapon:
Wool Flippin’ Undies
Technically, it was on a practice hike the week before that I remembered the ol’ moisture-wicking undies trick. It’s easy to dress head to toe in lightweight, quick-dry, inspired-by-NASA fabrics but for some reason the tighty-whiteys always escaped my notice.
Try it for yourself, I guarantee a moisture moving synthetic or wool-based groin-wrap will keep your spirits up and the stank down.
You’ll also be cheering, as I was, when rain sets in. Wool is full of insulating air pockets and works kind of like a wetsuit to keep your wet tooshie warm on the trail.
Hectic undies could only help so much though and with the sun going down it was starting to get nippy. Through Mobbs Swamp and the Wild Dog mountains I was setting a cracking pace on the somewhat level terrain and spirits were strongly in the “might be ok” camp.
Having passed the intro and broken the fourth wall we were now smashing biscuits at the base of Mount Debert; one final ridge climb, the mysterious Tarros Ladder and some easy fire trail and we’d be home.
Well fuck me. My wild optimism had completely misjudged this one. The hike up to Tarros Ladder is a bastard. By the dim glow of our head torches, with wind-chill approaching zero, we scrambled 300 vertical metres up the hillside. With Mitch just ahead to haul me up the steep bits, and Mike literally carrying me over the rougher sections, we made it to the base of the ladders.
Halfway up the ridgeline I shed my last piece of pride. I had no interest in schlepping 9 kilometres of fire trail to reach the locked gate and some kind of “true” endpoint. Get the bolt cutters, I’m done.
Through patchy reception my brother managed to call his girlfriend and explain that his brother was a knob who had ruined his knee. Making it clear that this wasn’t an emergency (hell I’d crawl out on all fours rather than make the news), we asked her to see if she could convince anyone to unlock the gate to allow Greer (such patient girlfriends!) to come and pick us up.
Bec did one better, she teed up a police rescue.
The Police Are Happy To Help
There are many reasons we don’t like to call for help. It hurts our pride. It cements our failure. We might have to pay for it. We explained to the officer who picked us up that we were worried about creating a fuss and wasting their time.
‘It’s getting late, there’s been a storm and it’s reaching zero outside, we’d rather everyone was safe.’
Good point. It was almost like the policeman on the police rescue team did this for a living.
Always Be Prepared – Anything Can Happen
I did my best to steer away from the cliche lessons you might learn from a tough day in the mountains, but here we are. No matter how fit, how experienced or how many times you’ve done a trip, nature, or your body, can throw anything at you.
K2K in a day pushed me pretty close to my limit. Rejecting despair and anger was a constant battle and I can’t thank my mates enough for their support and cool heads when things went non-linear. Thanks to them, I only punched a tree once.