19 October 2020
Muel, Luke and Deane embark on a return trip on the Old Ghost Road in the face of a questionable weather forecast. They suffered a full-noise day one but were rewarded with two magic days to follow as the storm quickly moved through. Dress up, stoke the fire and check out their chilly video.
The prevailing ranges of the Buller/West Coast cop it big time. The Old Ghost Road traverses one of these, the Lyell Range. In a testament to modern trail building techniques the crew of the Mokihinui Lyell Backcountry Trust maintain the incredibly high standard of trail that makes this 85 km ribbon of singletrack the crown jewel of backcountry bikepacking in NZ.
My long time riding companion Muel, Luke Jackson and myself set out on a full out-and-back of the OGR with maximum bang for buck out of our 3 days riding. The weather forecast called heavy rain, high winds and low temperatures - but the subtext read "fast clearing". Reassured by swanky huts that we could pin to for shelter, we pushed on regardless.
Predictably, we got slapped by Mother Nature above the bush line and dragged our butts like popsicles into Ghost Lake Hut at the end of day one as the full ferocity of the storm hit. This scuttled any chance of completing the full out and back trip. We truncated our intentions but still ended up riding 104 km of the gnarliest sections twice!
The few who had booked for this mid week period must of bailed due to the forecast. Sensible souls. We essentially had the trail to ourselves except for the toiling of the Old Ghost Road trail crews. An unforgettable way to celebrate my 48 laps around the sun with a couple of super mates.
If you’re not into techy bike blogs you might want to skip down to resume the trip diary.
Muel and I have been riding bikes to huts and in the backcountry a while before the term ‘bikepacking’ was born. Both of us have different systems. He’s the warm furry one. I'm the trembling guy wearing 4 layers to his 2. This trip certainly tested our layering systems.
Muel spent the whole time in Ground Effect Hydroslides which are the coolest wet weather baggy riding shorts. The rear half is waterproof seam sealed material and the front half breathable with zipped vents. Nothing worse than a wet arse or shammy. The Hydroslides are awesome for those after-rain puddle-dodging rides. A dry bum is a happy bum.
I had the luxury of the full length fully waterproof Ground Effect Splashdown overpants paired with the Merino Lycra Geronimos underneath. I was pretty comfortable in all but the depths of the maelstrom.
Talking of the gale force winds, sideways rain and sleet we experienced on the Lyell Range - both of us wore anti-Cyclone waterproof jackets. To be in those conditions in anything less would have been dangerous. I've also spent a fair amount of time spinning uphill in my anti-Cyclone with all four vents thrown open and not feeling like I was in a sauna. There’s no doubt about it that Ground Effect make some of the most NZ-appropriate wet weather riding gear.
Muel loves his Dogma collared shirt. He zips it open for maximum ventilation and keeps the collar up to keep the sun off his neck.
This is where we differ. I was in an Ignite base layer top that I wear in all but the hottest conditions. It wicks the sweat away and keeps my core warm. I’m a bit old school in that I see no reason to go all loose and enduro on a riding shirt in damp cold conditions - it gets heavy and clammy. Next I donned the close fitting roadie-styled merino blend Berglar top. Then I layered a Baked Alaska over that - the windproof fleece providing additional core warmth.
There were not many on the track over the Thursday-Saturday window, but we saw a few riders on our way out. Many had big or bulky loads. I wondered what on earth they were carrying. Granted I have a high quality space saving 400g down Rab Mythic sleeping bag and Zero G down jacket (proper insulation and rain gear are vital on the OGR in the unpredictable high country). The trick to enjoying your ride is to take just enough to stay safe in bad weather or in the case of an accident, but leave behind the nice-to-have knick knacks that just weigh you down. That list depends on your skill and experience but typically you need less than you think.
I use freeze dried and boil in the bag meals to make it easy at the end of a hard day when I'm knackered. The Old Ghost Road kitchens are epic though if you are inclined to cook up a storm. Don’t hurry either. I reckon take two nights minimum for your first time on the OGR. Some sections are truly worth doing twice.
Yes the OGR is an expert level ride but this is due to the remoteness and difficulty of the Lyell Saddle to Skyline Steps. That’s about 20 km. The other 65 km is flowy, beautiful grade 3 (intermediate). My opinion is that confident intermediate riders can ride the OGR with the expectation of walking considerable sections from Ghost Lake Hut to the bottom of the steps. Also keep in mind that the good buggers on the trail crew are currently working much of those bits up to a higher standard, including a reroute around the Skyline Steps.
Day 2 turned out brilliant. The weather cleared as promised. After a lazy morning sifting at the Ghost Lake Hut waiting for the day to warm and the snow to melt a little, we took on the drying trail through the gnar and a couple of hours of heavenly singletrack to Stern Creek Hut. There we dumped our excess gear, had a feed and headed out for a less-burdened blitz up the Boneyard and down to Goat Creek. We arrived back at Stern late that afternoon to light the fire, warm the hut and kick back.
On the third day we climbed back up to the bottom of the steps, shouldered our bikes for the 60 vertical metre climb back up onto the ridge. We rode some and walked some back to Ghost Lake, and had lunch admiring the view we missed on the first day.
From here we got to see more of what we missed during the storm - the crazy exposure, towering rock walls and theviews into the abyss. A two hour downhill back to Lyell finished the ride. It doesn't get much better.
It really is a world class trail, drop dead vistas (when not inclement), swanky huts, guaranteed bunks through a good booking system and groomed trail. What’s not to like?
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