21 December, summer solstice, the perfect day for a long day in the hills.
Back in 2011 Chris and I had found ourselves running a double southern crossing in the Tararuas on this day. At the time, we only had one car available between us, so the logical solution to the fact that I wanted to run the route was to just do it twice. So it was that on the 21 Dec 2011 we left Otaki at 5am, trotted over to Kaitoke in perfect weather, ate a pizza each and slogged back to Otaki again, all in 16 hours of daylight. We learnt a lot that day, I learnt that Chris is hard as nails; starts hard and doesn’t tend to slow and I’d say Chris learnt a lot about what not to eat on a long day in the hills.
In 2012 we bunched up with some ht mates and did a big round from Otaki, to Y2YY, Junction knob, back over the southern main range, and home to Otaki. In rotten weather this was a pretty long and tough day and has become known to our Tuesdays night run group as the ‘Apocalypse Run’ – not least because Chris and Robin nearly lost their lives turning the wrong way above the ladder at Tararua Peaks.
So to 2013: on a particularly long and wet Autumn Tuesday night run Chris asked me if I’d be up for an S-K:
“up for an SK?” he said, “why not” I said.
And so it was locked in, obviously on 21 December.
Chris continued to run hard through the autumn and winter proving his strength and the power of his now well practice nutritional skills (homemade gets good enough to sell) with a second place in the Tararua Mountain run and an apparently easy 22hr Bob Graham in the UK Lake District while home for some bike racing. I’d had a more sedentary year, enjoying the lack of structured training, since stopping triathlon racing. The S-K chat wasn’t going away, Chris was in great shape and it appeared it was going to happen. An opportunity not to be missed, provided I could get fit.
Chris returned from the UK and we scheduled a few decent recces into the northern Tararuas. Long 8-12 hour days getting to know the route and filling in the gaps from our reading of the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club S-K booklet that had become our bible, guide and motivation.
From our various splits jogging around both the northern and southern ranges we had an idea we might be able to go under 24hrs. That seemed a very long time to be running (my longest being the 16hr double crossing and Chris’s being his BG) so obviously the quicker we could finish the better. We were aware of Rolfe’s supported time of 22:59 and silently this was a target. We planned to travel light and pick up food supplies from mates who would you meet us along the way. The Tuesday night boys were excited to be involved and we soon came up with a slightly complicated plan of 5 legs, each with a brief rest between as we refuelled:
- Putara Road End to Arete
- Arete to Anderson Hut
- Anderson Hut to Kime Hut
- Kime Hut to Alpha Hut
- Alpha Hut to Kaitoke
As well as provisions at the end of each leg we stashed some water and food near the Pukematawai junction, just in case it was hot and we needed the water sooner than Drac’ Bivy.
In tradition with many of the previous one and two day S-Ks we arranged to leave at Putara Rd end at 3AM. Straight from work on Friday afternoon we raced up from Wellington to Putara and crashed in Tawa College’s summer science fieldtrip hut (thank you Tawa College). The hut is perfectly situated just 5k away from the road end. A few brews (of tea – much to my missus amusement), a decent feed and we hit the sack early. Clear skies and light winds were contradicting the forecast for strong winds and increasing rain. Conditions were so fine Chris even remarked that he was going to take it careful through the bush to Herepai so as to keep his feet dry for the whole trip – a terrible tempting of fate!
Alarms at 2:15 and we were quickly up, I’d already been awake for 90mins getting excited at the challenge. Onto the road at 2:45 and immediately a pair of car lights came up behind us; Jamie Stewart our leg one orienteering and general nav’ hero was bang on time to join us on some of leg one.
Chris counted down to 3AM and with now moderates wind, a quick photo and high hopes we were off. We’d pencilled a 24hr schedule that was based on an average of Colin Rolfe’s 23hr and Greg Thurlow’s fantastic solo unsupported 25:47. What we had noticed from these schedules was that they had both slowed considerably during the last sections, averaging over 8hrs for the slog from Kime to Kaitoke. We reckoned that we could probably stay on their average schedule to Kime and then see what we could do on the bash home to Kaitoke.
On all our northern recce’s we’d had fantastic weather so it was a nasty surprise to see so much clag on the tops as we popped out at Herepai hut. However, disappointed was tempered by getting there in an easy 53 minutes, water topped up – not so crucial as we thought it’d be – we were away by 3:57AM.
Up through Herepai and Ruapae in dark clag the damp and strong winds very quickly had Chris and me reaching for waterproofs. Straight through East Peak before 5AM and to West Peak by 5:27 we were making great time, already 30mins up on 24hr schedule. The leatherwood in the saddle was no better in the dark and any dreams of dry feet had now been lost. Heading south for Dundas the weather wasn’t improving, the grey light of morning had appeared, but the howling north Westerly had our hoods up and pretty much saw the end of any conversation for the next 16hrs. It was along here that Jamie mentioned this was no day to be on the tops and that we could have chosen a better day for it. I don’t think either of us had really given much serious thought to using the back-up day on Sunday.
At the sight of the Dundas Hut turn off sign Jamie said goodbye. Hands were shaken and he was off to the shelter of the valley. As we climbed to Logan driving rain added to the wind to make things pretty uncomfortable, we paused to put on extra layers (now four each!) and pushed on up to Mt Dundas. We hit Mt Dundas at 6:48AM, still confidently on, or slightly ahead of schedule. While we were soaked and the wind was howling we were moving easily enough, so to be on schedule boded well for sub 24hrs.
The section from Dundas to Arete and down to the Te Matawai turn off south of Pukematawai was the only 3 or 4k of the route we had not recce’d, but looking on it from our previous trip (on clear sunny days), the route looked obvious, we just had to follow the ridge!
Dundas trig point was found with ease and we paused for a moment to take a southerly bearing. It was pretty cold for hanging around so with a bearing taken and an obvious looking track on perhaps a more SW bearing we cracked on. After a few hundred metres the path wasn’t so clear, but after dropping over some rocks we were on a clear ridge. We saw the odd cairn, then some ribbon marking the trail and cut back leatherwood. This had to be the track.
20minutes later we were still going down, this didn’t feel quite right. Maps were checked and a bet was made (for the obligatory chocolate fish), we were still on a ridge and any time soon we’d turn to the right and start the climb to Arete.
Whooops; after over an hour of questioning ourselves, but not believing we could be anywhere other than on the right ridge, we dropped beneath the cloud and saw bush ahead. I checked the altitude on my watch and we’d dropped to 1,016metres – should have done that a long time ago.
With masses of frustration, even more swearing and images of a sub 24hrs crashing around us, we begun to retrace our steps to Dundas, correctly guessing that we’d actually gone too far West over Brocket Rocks and through Triangle knob. Via some frustration and lots more time wasting we got back to the Mt Dundas trig point, it was now 9:12AM – we’d added an extra 6k, lost and re-gained over 450m and most irritatingly given up 2hrs 24mins for nothing.
Taking extra care Chris got us onto the right southerly ridge – obvious once you’re on it. 42 more minutes of swearing and we were on Arete at 10:02AM. But for our small error we would have been 30mins ahead of time, but instead we were 1:54 down on our 24hr schedule.
Cold and angry we charged down to the Te Matawai stash, saw the note from the boys we were scheduled to have me that they had started walking on to Drac’ Bivy – probably hours earlier. Soaked through, annoyed and cold the two bottles of coke we’d left ourselves at the stash were the last thing we wanted, Chris picked up his fermented gel and me my lollies and gel and we got back to it. I tried to remind Chris we had a long way to go, but we were both frustrated and it had to be in the back of our minds that we had time to make up as we got to Drac’ Bivy in just over 50min at 10:58 – now just 1:22 behind 24hr schedule.
Having walked on from the Te Matawai junction Al and James had been sitting it out at the hut for nearly 2 hours so were pleased to see us and have a chance to get moving and warm up. I was stoked to get a re-supply of food and frankly it was a treat to be in the bush having a chance to hear ourselves think. An 8 minute stop and we got moving again. Without doubt the half an hour before Drac Bivy and the hour or so after until Nichols was the best weather of the day. Being that bit lower and largely in the bush we were able to lose the waterproofs and talk without hoods and ferocious wind noise.
A brief conversation was held around the sense of carrying on. Chris vocalised what I’d been thinking:
“what you thinking lad? I’m battling with the demons, do we sack it in and save the legs for another attempt in the New Year or kill ourselves to try and get under 24hrs?”
It took me a long time to reply as I battled with the real option of quitting. At the time I was struggling physically and mentally, I could see the sense in pulling out at Y2YY and saving ourselves for another day. We wouldn’t be letting ourselves get lost on Dundas next time! In the end the idea of having to do all this again, especially when so many people had made an effort to support in so many ways, put me off doing it again for a while. That wasn’t to say I wanted to go on, just that whatever happened I really didn’t want to have to start all over any time soon.
“I’m not doing this again this summer” was my reply
What I’d meant by this was, ‘let’s talk some more about pulling off at Y2YY’, what Chris heard was ‘let’s finish this thing’ – a good lesson in communication!!
So it was we carried on.
We’d pulled a small gap on James, so shook Al’s hand, thanked him for the support and left him to make his own way out to Y2YY. To my disappointed there was no pause at Junction Knob to consider the retreat to Y2YY and Otaki and strangely I then started to feel better. For the first time since Dundas I was back into this thing – we were committed until Kime now.
Coming off Junction knob we bumped into Paul Helm and Jackie coming back the other way, they had given up hope on us reaching the Anderson hut and had turned back for home after a few hours warming themselves by a fire. They needed the fire as poor Jackie had gone into the river down at Y2YY and was soaked through. Paul later remarked that Chris looked furious and I looked tired – a pretty fair assessment. In 10minutes we were in Anderson hut, the fire still warm and a pan of warm water on top. We reached Anderson hut at about 2:15PM, the end of our second leg, in our minds we were halfway and just 1hr 15mins behind schedule. We dripped around in the hut for a few minutes, restocked on some grub left by Paul and Jackie and drank warm water – never has warm water from a filthy hut mug tasted so fine.
It now felt like we were back on home turf, we’d run this before in terrible weather, it was only 2:25PM and we had hot food, friends and a pacer for the southern crossing waiting at Kime. That’s not to say that the southern main range didn’t throw some misery at us. Once out of the bush after Anderson we were straight back into all our layers, hoods up and battling driving wind and rain. There was almost no conversation through this leg, we bumped into some trampers on the way to Maungahuka but didn’t stop for long as it was barely possible to stand with the wind, better to keep trotting on. Maungahuka was reached at 16:50, now just 36 behind schedule. A quick break from the wind, some positive comments about making up time and we got back out there.
On one of those miserable rises between Maungahuka and Bridge Chris suggested we might be able to get to Kime for 7PM and be back on schedule and I agreed. This being the case our southern crossing to Alpha should be in daylight and suddenly we ONLY had the misery of the Marchant to worry about. My spirits really started to lift as I let myself think that Rolfe’s record might still be attainable.
The muddy, windy, slippery mess that is the Tararua Peaks passed without incidence, or enjoyment! Chris Martini and Tom had battled from Kime to the top of the ladder and ditched a food package for us and I nailed a cheese and marmite sandwich as the wind and rain nailed us. At last I was feeling good, I was out of the darkness, the end was starting to come into sight, perhaps a very vague blurry sight, but still we were getting there. The legs felt ok, I was eating well and we were still making time up.
About 6:40PM we had a quick conference, having to practically be touching hoods to hear each other we tried to decide whether we were on the ascent of Bridge or not. The hill was going on for ever, which was a good sign, but neither of us wanted to commit to it being Bridge in case it wasn’t – that would be too much. Soon we turned a corner and I recognised the last stretch up Bridge Peak, it was before 7PM and we were cresting Bridge. Suitably buoyed on we smashed on to Kime, never have I been so happy to see a hut, or so well welcomed to one.
7:16 we stepped into a warm hut to be met by the stunned and excited faces of friends Pawel and Donna, these two have to be the most pro support crew ever. In seconds hot water was brewing, all our food was laid out. My plans of not over-eating at any point and taking on little and often were thrown aside and I constantly ate for probably 10minutes; cake, sandwiches, coke, hot broth, tea, chocolate, it all went in. Pawel and Donna were all set for us to stay the night, Chris Marin and Tom had left sleeping bags there for us having exclaimed that ‘if they get here alive they’ll never go on over Hector’. We also soon realised that the third guy in the hut wasn’t out southern crossing pacer. Our pacer had returned to Otaki 30mins before exclaiming that the S-K wasn’t worth dying for – a fair point.
This was all the motivation Chris and I needed, in our eyes all the hard stuff was done, we were back on schedule, we could nail Hector in daylight and then take our time, out of the wind getting out over the Marchant. The fact others felt it couldn’t be done was just the motivation we needed to get back out there.
By 7:25PM we were out the door, me happily wearing my spare socks on my hands, and started to really run, the highway that is the southern crossing allowing us to stride out a bit. The wind and rain on Hector was incredible, driving horizontal needles stinging cheeks and legs but we weren’t going to slow down now. We got over this section in just over 90mins walking into Alpha at 8:57PM, over 30mins ahead of our schedule and just two minute behind Rolfe’s.
Damien and Maria were astounded to see us; having received snippets of texted info through the day they doubted they would be seeing us at all. Nonetheless they did another sterling job of supporting with hot tea and treats; I did a repeat performance of power eating.
Into the bush soon after 9pm we were totally stoked, it felt like all the hard stuff was behind us and the thought of being off the tops and in the bush, albeit with the Marchant ahead, was a relief. Chris kept us cautious, reminding me and him to be careful, no falls or issues here and we knew we could beat Rolfe. Time went pretty quickly up to Block XIV, we were able to get our hoods down and actually talk. After an hour or so we stripped to just 3 and then 2 layers, it was balmy!
Hells gate, Omega and Block XIV came so fast Chris decided that he was only actually conscious every other minute, unfortunately the next couple of hours proved we were fully conscious. We weren’t moving fast by this stage, but kept a good even pace. As with the rest of the day we were quickly walking the climbs and jogging the flats and downs. Eventually we broke out of the bush and began to turn south off the Marchant and down to Kaitoke. The descent through the bush seemed to go forever, about 30mins from home Chris got a call from Jen; our girls had both come to meet us and were parked at the YMCA waiting. Just the spirit riser we needed for the run out. We made good time on the descent until the right hand corner and left turn off the 4×4 to drop down to the YMCA, coming off the track just before 1AM our dreams of breaking 22hrs were lost. We took it slow (as if there was a choice) down to the river and with huge satisfaction walked side-by-side across the grass to the cheers of the girls. Clocks stopped at 1:12AM (22hrs 12minutes).
Thank you Chris, no way I would have completed this without you.
After a week of reflection, as is often the way with such challenges, I now can’t imagine the idea of running for 22hours, let alone in those rubbish conditions on the Tararua ranges. However, considering our misadventure at Dundas, the far from ideal weather and our time I believe 20hrs should be smashed in the not too distant future.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Rolfe completed his 22:59 and undoubtedly some of the tracks are going to be better, but I’d imagine some of those in the north are worse – you certainly don’t see many people up there. There’s been recent talk of an S-K race, I believe on the right day, travelling light and supported, the real mountain runners could break 15hours for this course. Perhaps more interestingly is what a solo unsupported individual could safely achieve, sub 20…
Distance: ~90k (including 6k error)
Height Gain: ~5530 (including ~400m in error)
Watch: Garmin 310XT (battery died at Alpha after 18hrs and we reverted to Chris’s 90’s CASIO)