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Extreme mountain triathlon: From New Zealand’s north to south, using human power only

When you’ve scaled the North Ridge of Mount Everest, what else is there to prove? Ultra-adventurous Singapore resident Grant Rawlinson devised this triathlon with a difference.

The details
Grant “Axe” Rawlinson
Nationality: New Zealand & Singapore PR
Occupation: Regional sales manager, mountaineer, adventurer and motivational speaker
The Challenge: To power my way from the highest point of New Zealand’s North Island to the highest point in the South Island using human power and human power alone. That’s…
– 310km of kayaking (including the notorious Cook Strait)
– 930km of road cycling
– 6000m+ of vertical climbing and descent on New Zealand’s highest mountains


Pushing myself to the physical limit is nothing new for me, and my spirit of adventure shows no sign of waning. I get itchy feet if I’m not planning or undertaking a challenge of some description.

In the past 14 years I’ve scaled some of the highest and most challenging mountains in the world, from Iran to Patagonia, Russia to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Tibet. In 2011 and 2012, I made two attempts at climbing the North Ridge of Mount Everest; the first ended in near-horrific failure when I became gravely ill with pulmonary edema, but 12 months on I succeeded.

However, Everest expeditions come at a price. Financially the two expeditions cost me in excess of US$100,000, and time-wise, I spent nine long weeks away from work and my wife for each trip. Just to travel to the base camp of the North Ridge of Everest – located in Tibet – is a mission involving strict visa requirements and paper work, international flights, acclimatisation and long, multi-day, four-wheel-drive journeys.

At the start of 2013, I began to think about other extreme physical challenges. My wife and I enjoyed several cycle touring trips into Malaysia in January, and we also invested in an inflatable kayak and spent many a Sunday morning paddling around Singapore’s interesting coastline. As we were in such close proximity to one another for such long periods, my wife christened the boat “The Divorce Machine”! But thankfully our marriage survived, and it was during these weekend “microadventures” that I came up with the idea of a larger expedition that would combine mountaineering with my new-found pursuits of cycle touring and kayaking. However, I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars and have to travel for weeks just to arrive at the start point.

I came up with the concept of a human-

powered traverse, and the challenge would be to make my way from the highest point of New Zealand’s North Island (Mount Ruapheu), to the highest point in the South Island (Aoraki/Mount Cook) with no support vehicles or vessels, and on a shoestring budget. And the journey had to be completed as one single continuous trip by human power alone.

But I didn’t fancy undertaking this challenge on my own. I put the idea to my trusty climbing partner Alan Silva from Australia, who thought about it for a split second before agreeing to join me. However, we both knew that the odds of completing this journey would be low, mainly due to New Zealand’s notoriously extreme weather patterns. The dangers of climbing Mount Ruapehu and Aoraki/Mount Cook mean these climbs can only be safely performed in good weather conditions. We were up against it.

Another formidable challenge was sea-kayaking the Cook Strait, which has a fearsome reputation as one of the world’s roughest stretches of water. With swells in excess of 16m, wind speeds at 200km/hr and currents of seven to eight knots, Cook Strait has claimed many lives. It’s a place that huge ocean-going vessels treat with maximum respect, so to attempt it in a tiny sea kayak is intimidating to say the least.

Undaunted, on 1 December 2013, we began the expedition by climbing to the summit of Mount Ruapehu. It was a clear fine day, but windy and icy up high on the mountain. We hadn’t anticipated how hard the ice would be, and, in order to successfully reach the summit, we were forced to cut steps in the ice for the last hour. I managed the one obligatory summit photo together with Alan before my camera froze and stopped working.

The following day, after descending without incident, we enjoyed a glorious 60km cycle all the way down the slopes of mighty Ruapehu and into the small town of Taumaranui, where we swapped the bikes for our inflatable kayak, the legendary Divorce Machine. The river was very shallow higher up and we soon ran aground and, with water pouring over the sides and filling the boat, we were, for a few moments, the Divorce Submarine. However, it proved to be an isolated setback, and after five days of paddling, we’d negotiated the 245km to the coast and Whanganui town, where we celebrated with a beer, a nice meal and our first shower in five days before setting off in pouring rain the following morning on the 220km cycle south to Makara Beach in Wellington.

Over two days we ploughed on with a favourable northerly wind at our backs until we’d negotiated the distance. The journey had been largely flat, other than the huge hills we were forced to climb at the end of the second day. As I panted and struggled up those slopes I knew that this was the calm before the storm – the tiny Makara Beach was our launching point to kayak the ever-daunting Cook Strait.

To have any chance of negotiating the Strait, the tides, wind, swell and currents all have to be in your favour. This scenario requires a fair amount of good fortune. Thankfully, after only a 24-hour wait, we spotted a window of opportunity. The wind speed, sea conditions and tide all looked favourable, and would remain that way up until lunchtime the following day. If we could get away in the early hours, we had a chance of making the crossing before midday, which was massively important as several days of bad weather had been forecast.

At 3am I was out of bed, having hardly slept. I was a ball of nervous excitement. It felt windy and cold as we clambered into the kayak by the light of our head torches. We had enlisted the help of a very experienced kayaker, Tim Taylor, who supplied us with a two-person sea-kayak and also agreed to accompany us across the Strait in his own vessel.

We paddled hard through the choppy sea, stopping every hour for a small drink and a few minutes’ rest. I had to pinch myself as we sat there in the middle of the Cook Strait. It was one of the moments that, as an adventurer, I live for. Being out there in a very special, fearsome, yet beautiful place that very few people ever get to experience was an extremely precious feeling. 

The conditions were ideal and in five hours and 10 minutes we reached Arapawa Island on the South Island. A further five hours of paddling saw us pull into Picton town – a total paddle of 70km in a time of 10 hours and 10 minutes.

Over the next seven days we cycled more than 700km down through the South Island to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The sun shone brightly every day, and we passed seal colonies on the beautiful Kaikoura coastline, rode through vineyards, over rivers and mountain passes, through farmland, forests and small towns. Our legs had become brown and our muscles were sore by the time we cycled the last few kilometres to the mountain.

We stood at the base and looked up to the summit towering almost 4000m above our heads with considerable trepidation; climbing Aoraki/Mount Cook by any route is a serious undertaking – the mountain has claimed over 200 lives.

The atmosphere was one of quiet focus the following morning. It would be a marathon 11-hour climb up to Plateau mountain hut from where we would launch our bid for the summit. 

After hours of steep scree scrambling, crossing numerous crevasses and plenty of avalanche debris, we finally made it. Physically, it was a real challenge, but the following day we were forced to rest and recharge our batteries as the weather took a turn for the worse, bringing 110km/hr winds and a large dump of snow. It was something of a relief.

Once again, lady luck was on our side and the following day, the 22nd of our journey, we were gifted another weather window, so Alan and I set off at 1am for the summit by the light of our head torches.

Alan is a super-fit man, but he was slowed by a nasty stomach virus. However, he battled on bravely, and we carefully tiptoed up the hugely exposed summit ridge on the points of our crampons and ice axes until, after 12 gut-wrenching hours, we reached the top at 3,754m. This was the official end point of the expedition, the culmination of over three weeks of toil that had pushed us to our physical limits. It’s difficult to describe the feeling.

However, there wasn’t much time to dwell on our achievement – Alan wasn’t well and we still had to get back to the hut, which meant nine-and-a-half hours of careful abseiling and down climbing over seriously steep, crevassed and avalanche-threatened territory.

The relief on reaching the sanctuary of the hut was palpable – it had been an exhausting day, riddled with danger. In 22 days, as far as we believe, we were the first people to ever make the journey from the summit of Mount Ruapehu all the way to the top of Aoraki/Mount Cook, in one continuous journey and using nothing but human power. Thanks to a lot of hard work, some imagination and creativity, a shoestring budget, the willingness to take some risks, and a bit of luck on the side, we had achieved our goal. Peak to Peak 2013 was complete.  

More information on the trip can be found here. To learn more about Grant’s physical regime prior to the challenge and his nutrition, head here.