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Monday, 17 October 2016

Three Peaks - A Blue Mountains Challenge

I pedaled frantically through the streets of Sydney with no regard to the precious glycogen stores I was burning through. I had stayed at the party for too long, and now had only fifteen minutes to reach the train station six kilometers away. I dashed onto the 10pm train with minutes to spare, regretting the adrenaline overload that would prevent me from getting any valuable sleep before I was to embark on this epic journey. At over 90 kilometres and 5000 vertical metres of climbing, The Three Peaks challenge is a true test of physical and mental stamina, involving a committing element of remoteness and off-track navigation in the mix. Since the 1960s, the challenge has forged legends and broken souls and remained a classic in Blue Mountains lore ever since.

At a stroke past midnight I rode through the flickering lights of Katoomba’s nightlife, ditched my bike at the official start on the Narrowneck Plateau, and set off into the darkness. Solo, onsight.

Heading out from Katoomba at midnight, excited about what is to come...
Jogging along the mind-numbing 10km stretch of gravel road along the Neck, it wasn’t long until the natural urge to sleep began to gnaw away at me. Even the prickly road side seemed a tempting place to lie down. Soon after 2AM, a toilet block at the end of the road came into my headlamp beam. Out of the cold wind, I curled up on the concrete for ten minutes to recharge, before topping up my electrolyte supply with potent energy drink and popped a 100mg caffeine pill, resolving to push on through the night.

I would need to be alert as a dropped off the Narrowneck buttress, descending steep rocky trails, and down-climbing a vertical cliff thanks to the ancient Tarros Ladders – iron rungs and spikes cast into the sandstone. After that brief excitement I was well and truly awake for the long undulating trail traversing the Wild Dog Mountains. Running alone through the bush at night can become lonely, so I cranked up the music to keep my spirits high. But every so often, a loud rustling from within the bush would break through the head-phones and startle me. Kangaroo, wombat, wild dog? In my caffeine-induced sleep-deprived trance, my mind was taking me for a wild ride.

Mt Yellow Dog, nearing the end of a long caffeine-induced night
I checked my watch on Mt Yellow Dog, 5AM. Dead of the night. But the exhilaration of the Yellow Pup Ridge descent to the Cox’s River pumped much needed adrenaline through my veins, and as the river came into view so too did the first glimmering of dawn. Here many choose to rest as their first stop, but I decided instead to down a bag of muesli and start up the long Strongleg Ridge to Cloudmaker, and crash when the time came. Sure enough, as the sun rose on me atop Mt Strongleg, I fried instantly, and collapsed on the trail, sprawled out flat on the bush floor.

I awoke to the sound of Coldplay, and hoped I hadn’t missed too many tracks as I staggered back to my feet, dazed. Fortunately, since this was also the route for the popular Katoomba to Kanagra (K2K) crossing, there was a vague trail along most of the undulating bush ridge towards Cloudmaker, the first of the three peaks. The final stretch of navigation to the summit was testing, and doubts crept into my mind that I had gone too far, there was no clear peak amongst the flatness… when the rocky cairn and its metal log-book holder appeared through the trees I clenched my fists in jubilation. Having travelled through the night to arrive at the first checkpoint in good time felt sweet indeed. 

Cloudmaker, peak number one

Reading through the Cloudmaker log-book there was an entry from another hiker made on today’s date… Was someone else also on the Three Peaks quest? This riled me from my rest, and I quickly set off again in search of the second peak – Paralyser. I followed the compass to end of a long spur which abruptly dropped off in steep cliffs, forcing me to backtrack to find an easier descent. All the while, my jaded mind was constantly scanning the bush ahead for any sign of the mystery person from the log book - surely he couldn’t be far ahead? Eight hundred metres down into Kanangra Creek saw me shoe ski scree slopes, plough through scrub and dodge stinging nettles to reach the tropical creek floor of the valley. Still no sign of the man, but it had provided incentive to push the pace. The sun was now scorching, so I doused my cap in the cool river water and filled up another two litres for the next slog, a nine-hundred metre ridge climb to the top of Paralyser.

Paralyser, the second summit

I tapped into new energy on the ridge, swallowing up the vertical as the valley floor fell from my feet. Ninety minutes later I was on Paralyser, starting to feel the burn of the ascent, but keeping well hydrated despite the heat. Now 12 hours in, I reminded myself that this was only halfway. And the crux was just ahead - the final 1000-metre un-tracked ascent of Guogang.

Guougang appears through the bush

I raced off the flat summit of Paralyser to the north-east, keeping an eye out for a ridge to begin forming that would lead out to the Whalania valley. Once out on the narrow ridge, I scanned the opposite side of the valley to pick out Nooroo Buttress, the acclaimed ridge towards Guougang. A quick scan of the map to match up my view to the map, and I was flying down into the Whalania, and then up towards the third and final peak.

Exhaustion setting in on the third ascent of Guougang

The day grew late as I approached the, again, rounded summit of Guougang. But something didn’t line up. An un-mapped fire-trail appeared, heading west. The summit was to the north, but in that direction the terrain dropped away. Had the magnetics in my phone distorted the compass? What was going on? After a night without sleep and 16 hours on the go, my shattered brain couldn’t handle this. I checked the GPS for the first time, and my blunder was revealed. I had climbed the wrong mountain. I had climbed a spur one parallel to the Nooroo buttress, which had later veered away towards Mount Krungle Bungle. With the compass stowed on the ascent, I hadn’t noticed my bearing change.

It was 4:45pm, I was now racing time to reach Guougang by dark. The situation was recoverable, but I was faced with an extra four-kilometre ridge traverse through complex and unknown terrain, using up precious day light. Cursing my careless error, I gulped down a gel, desperate for an extra surge of energy. Once I had accepted the situation, I plotted out the new route and set off along the vague and undefined ridgetop. The gel was metabolized like fire and I blazed like a mad-man through horrendously thick scrub, I could no longer feel my shins, all that mattered was finding the third cairn of Guougang before night-fall.

The best moment of the journey, emerging through the dense bush to the hard-earned summit pyramid of Mt Guougang
It was just after 6pm when the glorious summit cairn appeared. I was so relieved. But my problems weren’t yet over, unfolding the map revealed a long and complicated 6-km ridge-line descent to the Cox’s. My heart sunk. Almost immediately the navigation proved difficult and the scrub dense. And as darkness descended on me, so did the rain.

In the twilight, my headlamp almost made it more difficult to see, droplets of rain and fog reflecting the beam of light and soggying my map. After several hours of thrashing around in tree fall, bluff zones, slimy creek waterfalls and fields of stinging nettle, becoming totally drenched and exhausted while making little progress, I finally decided to call it a night and find somewhere to bivvy until dawn. Thankfully I stumbled upon a fallen tree whose dry straw-like leaves formed a dry base and a meagre shelter from the elements. My foil space blanket ripped instantly as I curled into an awkward cramped position in my suffer-bivouac, my warmth slowly draining away.

When dawn eventually rolled around, I couldn’t find my compass. I clawed through the straw in vain for my most important tool. But as the light began to reveal the shape of the land, a route through to the Cox’s revealed itself. I knew I only needed to navigate to the river before I was back on the safe return trail to Narrowneck. I set off anxiously without my compass, and thankfully, a couple of hours later emerged at the banks of the flooded Cox’s river. Upstream I found a safe crossing and clambered up to the Yellow Pup ridgeline for the long grind home to Katoomba.

In the day, the Wild Dog mountains passed at a swift jog, the Tarros Ladders were a mere scramble but the long gravel road of the Neck was a mind numbing final hurdle. Back on the bike, I slowly peddled my way back up the hill into Katoomba, for a round trip time of 38 hours. Wow. What a wild ride it was. But even before I’d arrived home on the Blue Mountains train, I couldn’t help myself from plotting out the next attempt. Lighter, faster, less-sleep, and less-lost. A sub-24 hour Three Peaks. It had to be done.

Three Peaks - 90km distance, 5000m vertical


  1. Hi Alastair

    Sorry I couldn't find your contact details. Just letting you know you’ve been nominated for the RunUltra Suunto Blogger Awards. You’ll soon be added to the list here: http://www.runultra.co.uk/News/October-2016/The-search-for-the-best-running-blogs-worldwide

    For more information on the awards please head over to this guide: http://www.runultra.co.uk/Articles/October-2016/Guide-to-our-RunUltraBlogger-Award-2017

    Cheers and good luck

    Luke Jarmey

    RunUltra Community Manager

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