Lou Beckingsale’s S-K Report – 20th/21st December 2015
What led me to be attempting an S-K – the 80km north to south traverse of the mighty Tararua Forest Park – in less than 24 hours? For me it was meeting the right people at the right time, receiving a huge amount of encouragement and support from family and friends, having the belief I was physically and mentally strong enough, and most importantly having a running companion who was solid and at home in the mountains.
I have always loved to run and have always loved the mountains, but it wasn’t until this year I discovered mountain running. I entered the Jumbo Holdsworth race in January (thanks to Sharron Came) and this was my first real mountain running experience. This was also the same day Tim Sutton was running his solo S-K and the first time I’d ever heard of the route. The seed had been planted. I followed Paul Helm up the rain gauge, remember Chris Swallow flying past me on the tops and met Chris Martin after the race who invited me along to Tuesday night run, beer and banter. I turned up the following Tuesday and was hooked. These guys weren’t just runners they were adventurous – in search of challenge and fun in the mountains. The S-K was talked about over many runs and beers and people started asking if I would ever consider it. My answer went from being no, to maybe one day, to maybe next year, until I had a conversation with Al Shelton late October. He was keen to give it a go in December and liked the idea of doing it as an unsupported pair. We were both running the Aorangi 100 race early November and agreed to catch up afterwards. We ended up running the final day of the A100 together with Dave Allen. Our similar pace and Al’s general sense of calm gave me the feeling he would be a good companion for this journey.
Our first attempt on Friday 11th December was aborted. We turned back just after Herepai because of gale North-westerly wind and rain. We sat huddled by a rock and at the same time shook our heads – this was not to be the day. It was extremely disappointing but in hindsight probably a blessing. We were both on the same page – safety and enjoyment were paramount for an adventure of this size. It also helped me sort my gear – everything needs to be efficient for a sub 24 S-K, every minute counts.
Our second attempt started at 3.32am on Sunday 20th December. We said goodbye to Chris Martin at the Putara Road end. It was a dry, still, warm morning and the sky was filled with bright stars – everything felt right. We made our way steadily up to Herepai for 4.39am and by the time we got to Herepai peak it was day break – the sun was rising behind us and the vibrant orange was reflecting off the white moss on the rocks. There was also an intense sweet smell in the air and the mountain flowers were out in full bloom. This was it, we were doing it, and this was why – being self sufficient out in mountains is an incredible feeling, anyone who spends time in the mountains knows this – it is addictive. I said to Al ‘how exciting we get to spend the next 23 hours out here doing this!’
As we left Herepai the track and ridges of the northern section, which looked so gnarly and terrifying the week before, looked exciting – it was still calm and we made it up to East Peak by 5.45am – bang on our scheduled split. Al had drawn up nine splits based on previous sub 24 times and had allowed an hour buffer – this proved very important in the latter stages of the day. We carried on from East Peak, over West Peak, over Logan (the first 1500 metre peak of the day) and on to Dundas. This ridgeline is the most rugged part of the route –wading through thick tussock, Tararua speargrass and leatherwood – and it was along this ridge that we first entered the clag. Al whipped out his map and compass a number of times along this ridge and with confidence pointed in the direction we were to head. His experience in the mountains and confidence was so reassuring and not having to waste any energy on navigation was a blessing. We only took two small wrong turns the whole day – the first was a small detour off Dundas that put us 7 minutes behind schedule, but with our hour buffer and both feeling strong this was not a concern. Getting to Arete was a great feeling – the rugged northern section behind us.
Arete through to Junction Knob was the only section I hadn’t recced. I had heard about the goblin forest and looked down the stunning Park River Valley on a previous trip over the Northern Crossing. This section is also part of the Te Araroa trail so well cut and easy going. I did, however, think Drac Biv was on the bush line so this first stretch through the bush felt long and I felt the first sense of drag. However, a good snack at Drac Biv and I was right for the next stretch of bush and climb up to Nichols and over Crawford. We entered the clag again as we approached Nichols but looking back north it had cleared and we could where we had come from – we had already come a long way. In some senses not being able to see down the Southern Main Range spine from the top of Crawford was probably a blessing. We passed over Nichols just after midday now only 5 minutes behind schedule, we were making good strong steady progress and our spirits were high.
As we entered the Southern Main Range section I think we bot felt a sense of relief and terror – we had both been over this section only a few weeks prior so knew how much climbing was ahead. However, seeing Tim Sutton’s friendly footprints and words of encouragement in the mud and making it down to Anderson’s Memorial Hut in good time gave us a boost. Chris Martin has told us to give every peak and hut a fun factor rating – Al’s rating at Anderson’s Memorial was seven and a half and mine was eight, which for ten hours in was pretty high and indicated how strong we were both feeling. Onwards to Maungahuka over Aokaparangi peak, which was half way in time so another big milestone. However, for me it now became very important to focus on each small milestone, the next peak, or know or hut. My lower back started to tire here and I put on another layer at Maungahuka hut knowing the next section over the Tararua peaks would be slow and the wind had picked up. The Tararua peaks are the only technical bit of the whole route where you have to watch your footing and handholds so passing over this section without any trouble was a relief. The four peaks of McIntosh, Yeates, Vosselor and Boyd-Wilson all seemed a lot longer and harder than when I recced it with Dave Allen a few weeks prior but it was the Bridge Peak climb when I found myself really starting to dig deep–it was only 300 metre vertical but went on and on and on. It was at the top I realised Al had dropped back – he had also started to tire and was also digging deep.
We reached Kime at 7.40 now 30 minutes down on our schedule. For the first time that day it dawned on me that we might not make a sub 24. Up until then everything was going so smoothly – we were on schedule, moving well, food and fluid was going in but Al indicated he was feeling nauseous and struggling to eat. I’m not sure my words of motivation helped but I attempted to reassure him all we needed to do was keep moving forward – just up over Hector, down to Alpha and out the Marchant. While the Southern Crossing was familiar terrain I had somehow forgotten about Field, Atkinson, Aston and Alpha – turns out it is a long long way from Kime to Alpha. However, I got a second wind and felt surprisingly good – my legs were kind of numb and on automatic; the years of running on tired legs were paying off. I wasn’t sure at this point of the best approach – so I would go at my own pace then find a rock to crouch down by, and when I saw Al coming would get up, check in with a thumbs up and keep moving. While my body felt good I could feel my mind wanting to go – what if we didn’t make a sub 24, what if we didn’t make it at all? As darkness fell the sky out to the south turned bright orange again. This took me back to sunrise and reminded me why I was here. We turned our head torches on during the final ascent to Alpha peak and we reached Alpha hut just before 10pm, now 40 minutes behind schedule. Al said he wanted to stop and said I should go on. I told him there was no way that was happening – we were in this together and I wouldn’t have ever got this far without him. I realised he needed a lot more encouragement and support than I had been giving. I reassured him we were only 40 minutes behind schedule and our splits down the Marchant very generous so if we kept moving forward (very important on the Marchant) slowly and steadily we could still go under 24. At the end of the day it now really didn’t matter – we just needed to get to Kaitoke, safely and together.
It was here I realised how determined and strong Al was – he got up and said right we can do it. We agreed to stay closer together and attempted to make some small talk as we made our way into the bush. The Marchant is a relentlessly long, arduous track that sidles and dips and climbs for what felt like eternity. We got to Block XVI and had 3 ½ hours before the clock ticked over to 24 hours. We had started to move quicker. This was achievable. Each step was one step closer to home. The sky was again filled with bright stars and the moon shone out to our right, which proved to be a very helpful reference point, as at times it felt like we were going back up the Marchant. We kept moving forward and our pace really started to pick up. I now allowed myself to start visualising the end – I wished then that Nick, my partner, was there to meet us but he had already flown up the weekend prior from Christchurch to support us. Then out of the darkness came two bright head torches, it was Chris Swallow and Laurence Pidcock. My first question was ‘can we still make it under 24’ and Swallow’s reply was ‘you’ll make if you don’t dilly dally’. I continued to lead the way for the final stretch as the two Englishmen sat in behind us. Whether this warrants as support is up for debate but it really doesn’t worry me. We made it to Kaitoke at 2.57pm giving us a total time on feet of 23 hours and 26 minutes. Boom a sub 24 hour S-K completed. It was an incredible journey and experience of a lifetime.
A massive thank you to Al Shelton for journeying with me and finding the strength to keep moving forward, Chris Martin for his relentless encouragement and support on the day, Chris Swallow and Laurence Pidcock for their support in the final hour, Dave Allen and Tim Sutton for letting me tag along on many big mountain running adventures this year, my wonderful partner Nick for listening endlessly to me talk about this run and all the crazy Wellington runners who I have spent time in the mountains with this year. It is where the magic is for me!
For those who are interested in the stats:
Total time on feet – 23 hours 26 minutes
Total distance – roughly 81km
Vertical gain – somewhere between 6,500 and 7,000m
East Peak 72
Drac Biv 80
Block XVI 120
Total Time 23hr26mins
And for those who are interested in what I ate:
A small zip lock bag of scroggin
2 small zip lock bags of jet planes
12 corn thin sandwiches (each sandwich was 2 corn thin crackers with either peanut butter and salt or marmite and cheese)
1 bag of cheese and chive DeLite rice crackers
A large chunk of cottage cheese loaf (perfect mountain food)
6 mini chocolate bars
6 oat muesli bars
1 large cookie time
Nutrition is very a personal thing, but for me on these big long low intensity runs, the key thing is to keep food going in and keep it interesting. Savoury, sweet, crunchy, soft. Anything that feels good in your tum, it just needs to keep going in.
For those that are interested in what I carried:
22 litre Osprey pack
Map and compass
Water proof pants
Spare thermal bottoms
Spare thermal long top
First aid kit