Daves talk click here
22nd January 2016
I love the character of mountains – no two gullies, peaks, spurs, valleys are the same, and no two days in the same place leave the same impression. Over 15 years I’d spent enough time among them, big and small, to have an appreciation that height doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous, nor remote mean far away. The Tararua Ranges embody this perfectly – a mountain range no taller than 1570m, with views of towns on either side from a sunny day on the main range. Clear weather reveals two features that signify these rugged hills – the ocean, bordering the range closely on 3 sides and a conveyor belt for weather systems, and the wild stretches of damp fern-rich western forest and drier eastern beech forest that rise from dynamic rivers and dark gullies to open rock and tussock tops. Travel to and from the tree line is physically difficult and time consuming – only possible for the average user by cut and marked tracks through the interior. In all but the most recent of years, oral history suggests that few people penetrated this wilderness, much less inhabited it. Over time, the dark ravines and wild ragged forests remained the realm of maero – distant Gods or hostile wild men.
Putara Road end 2:55
‘Distant Gods and hostile wild men’ – that appealed to my inclination towards wilderness and the effect it has on me. After a few memorable tramping, camping and working trips I was made aware of the Schormann to Kaitoke (S-K) Traverse – I’d never heard of the S-K but the seed of intrigue was planted (thanks Chris Martin). Eventually I obtained the book compiling past experiences of traversing the range, by three main routes, from the first documented attempts in the early 1930s. I knew then that this was a trip I wanted to make, alone and with my own experience for support and guidance, so I read and re-read accounts of those who had gone before – notably Graeme Dingle (1965), Gary Goldsworthy (1988), Rob Camden (1995) and Greg Thurlow (2008). The route that follows the main range is considered by many to be the toughest, due to overall ascent and exposure to elements, and grabbed my imagination. It was December then, but this would take preparation, so I fixed a date in the mental diary for one year’s time – Christmas 2015. Not long after, the first known person to travel the route solo and unsupported in less than 24 hours, Tim Sutton, completed his trip and provided a blueprint for a successful 24 hour traverse in this style. 2015 was subsequently crammed with long running trips, fast-packing overnight stays, multi-day tramps, and mountain races – mostly in the Tararuas. A few podium finishes later and I began to believe that a 24-hour traverse could be possible, alone and unsupported. Nothing feels more exhilarating than facing a challenge of which the outcome is wholly uncertain.
Christmas 2015 came and went, so January became the focus and I awaited good weather. And waited. Eventually a slim window appeared on Friday 22nd January – at this time discovering that I was not alone in my plans and that three friends were also awaiting the next day of good weather – Jean Beaumont (solo/unsupported) and Paul Helm/Marta Zanetti (planned support). We crossed plans to make sure we left at different times, thus keeping our approaches separate.
2:15am at Putara Road end and I nervously greeted the stars above and a darkness to the west that filled me with anxiety. A northwest weather system was due and I knew that stars above said nothing of what lay to the west, hidden behind the peaks. 3am came and after a few photos and a cursory “see you in a while” I was off into the dark bush. An hour past in the muggy forest to Herepai hut, and extra layers put on to head out above the tree line. For the next hour and twenty minutes I nervously headed up and up, in the darkness and wind, cloud whipping through my torch light as I followed the faint route through tussock, glancing occasionally at a supportive GPS, and relentlessly pushing towards a monster that I knew could wake suddenly and swallow me whole. A faint change in light and I looked back – the sky was on fire. Dawn was lighting the horizon below and quickly settled my nerves. I was no longer alone and adrift on the mountainside, I was over East Peak and could see West Peak coming to greet me. Sunrise brought with it a sense of privilege and I was off – this was what I had waited and prepared for.
East Peak first light
West Peak before dawn
I could see up to the clouds on the higher peaks and down to the Wairarapa plains. The ridge along past Dundas to Arête came and went in the clag – a beautiful section in clear weather – and I was making my split times for a 23 hour traverse with ease. I was passing over familiar ground here as a stranger – the world around me a white, cold reflection of the warm and sunny mountains I’d scouted in August. I patiently waited for the drop from Pukematawai down to Dracophyllum Ridge and what I hoped would be a descent out of cloud. Unfortunately the clag remained, but felt warm and not too damp. I drifted down and down the muddy track off the tops, free as a bird, with the weight of my pack lifted by the grandeur about me – clag may prevent a clear view, but there are few feelings like standing with your head in the clouds.
The beautiful forest ridge gave my first views since dawn – the cloud had lifted. Dracophyllum grew in abundance, and the goblin forest stood twisted and steady against the breeze. Soon the orange haven of Dracophyllum Biv came into view, 2 minutes before my 23 hours split.
Here I grabbed my MP3 player and my walking poles to give my mind and knees a break. 20 seconds into the first song – silence. Battery dead. “Well I guess I’ll be doing this the old fashioned way” I muttered. Just then I passed my first real human of the day – a quick chat put me behind schedule so I made my apology and carried on.
Out passed Nichols Hut, into clag and over Mt Crawford. I’d stared longingly at this giant of the range from Junction Knob on two separate occasions and made a mental note to come back when the visibility was better than 20m.
Drac Ridges south to Mt Crawford
I quickened my steps down to Anderson Memorial Hut, arriving just ahead of schedule and making up the lost time. Here I bumped into Mark Hearfield who’d hiked up in support of Paul and Marta – it was great to see a friendly face and hard to turn down the kind offer of coffee. I quickly passed through the goblin forest, out onto the flanks of Kahiwiroa and into warm sun and views. The change made me smile and I took off my Gortex jacket for the first time since 4am.
Sunshine at Kahiwiroa
Aokaparangi passed on schedule and I was trotting down the flanks when I became aware of a faint shadow, a second figure just out of my view. I’d felt this presence before, always alone and always far off into a long mountain trip. My mind became flush with memories of being a child, the shadow to the side, tearing through the woods with our family dog. It reminded me how little had changed, that same burning fire to heed a calling to the open and run, keep running, like a wild animal.
Now that boy finally had his day – when the embers were not to be dowsed but to burn fully, the brakes off, to run as far as I could imagine, all the way to the end of a mountain range. Memories drifted to my family, to the long journey to this place – the noise of daily life had fallen away and thoughts were crisp again. I was grateful for these moments, they gave me energy and purpose that would later help with what was to come. My body started to tire on the ascent to Simpson, but the mental imagery of Aokap helped keep perspective.
Maungahuka on a sunnier day
Maungahuka Hut passed on schedule and the chains and ladder came into view, traversing Tunui and Tuiti -the iconic peaks that share a name with the range.
It was here that the weather worsened – stronger wind, driving damp, colder temperatures, and I had my first dark moment since the pre-dawn gloom. I was tired and the constant wind, cold and intermittent damp since 6am mixing with sweat was chilling my bones and getting to my core. I rested my head on the bottom rung of the ladder, swallowed some fuel for the internal fire and took a few good breathes. The next 2 hours to Kime Hut were hard fighting the cold now that the wind was gripping the wetness in my clothes. An eternity passed holding for the promise of a dry base layer, hooded down jacket and my bivvy bag if needed. After missing the short cut in clag I arrived at Kime two minutes past 23hr schedule and I could get some respite from the relentless wind. In a few minutes I was snug in warm clothes and chatting with two good friends – Pawel Kotarba (himself in a throws of a huge day trip from Kaitoke to offer support to Paul and Marta) and Chris Martin (also completing a 3-day S-K). As I warmed up, Pawel handed me tea and told me of his crossing from Alpha Hut as I tried to decide what my next step should be. I knew I had forfeited a chance at a 23 hour traverse by stopping to warm at Kime, but nature was indifferent to my wishes and I had to respect that, willingly or otherwise. After 30 minutes of warming I decided to make the final push and prepared for the weather once again. A quick goodbye and I stepped out into wind and clag, beginning the long, slow ascent on the ‘hill of desolation’. Pukemoumou/Mt Hector honoured its name – gale winds, rain and cloud funnelling upwards over the summit, smashing sideways into my right cheek. Desolation was not a place I wished to dwell and I took off southwards, clawing back a few lost minutes over the final peaks of Atkinson, Aston and Alpha, spurred on by the hope of an end to merciless wind.
Leaving Kime (Photo Pawel K)
Finally, the bush edge appeared with open arms and I disappeared into its clutches. The forest was my home – warm, dry, quiet, stable. Another long stop at Alpha Hut to warm up, change clothes again and greet another friendly face – Ash Walker and dog Scout, who were also completing a 3 day S-K, straight to their front door near Waiohine Gorge. I was thankful to have reached there in daylight as planned, regardless of extra time at Kime, and from here I would descend the twisted, gnarled forest of the Marchant Ridge by torch light. The first half passed without issue – I’d spent enough time on scantily-marked ranger routes that a certain degree of intuition kept me from drifting off track. Here I passed Al Shelton, a big hug and a smile, on his way to offer support to others – I had to remind myself how far he’d come, right after a day’s work. His t-shirt impressed upon me how cold I’d gotten by comparison, smothered under 4 layers and a beanie. The warmth and quiet of the bush was seductive, and I couldn’t help pausing with my torch off in Hell’s Gate, drinking in the silence, when first I caught glimpse of stars. Block XVI arrived – my penultimate split. I didn’t have the sense of elation imagined – three hours to get home. Out onto smoother tracks, back into steep, rooted forest, out onto flats, moonlight, back into steep slopes, tree-falls. I was done – I cursed the forest for clawing me back time and time again, just when I thought I was free of it. Another two torches broke the darkness – Laurence Pidcock and Tom Middlemiss, also heading skywards in support, again with smiles and encouragement as I drifted past, scared to let my legs stop. Finally the Dobson’s Loop track emerged and I made myself run – I’d lost 45 minutes at Kime/Alpha and time was ticking by too quickly. Then came the steps, the YMCA adventure course, and the glorious shouts of greeting and encouragement from Marlena and Tim Sutton. I was done – 23 hours 43 minutes after leaving Putara. The distance had taken from me physically what fighting the weather had taken mentally. No emotion, just exhaustion. Regardless, the sense of having travelled the length of a mountain range was indescribable. I had set out to measure myself by those mountains, and to meet them on their terms. The conditions weren’t great, and that cost grand views and time, but this gave flesh to the bones of what I saw as a noble idea.
“Want a beer, bro?” Tim’s excited face chimes out to herald the occasion. “I think I’ll be sick”. Needless to say, we had a taster all the same.
A critical part of this adventure was preparation – for this reason my pack was relatively heavy (9kg). Extra weight will have taken a toll on joints and muscles, but gave me confidence that I could rely on myself in changing conditions. Compass and a well-used Tararua map was taken as back-up, but a Garmin 64s GPS (+ spare batteries) was employed throughout. I’d used these lots off-track and trust their accuracy in all conditions, even forested gullies. I took a waterproof/windproof bivvy bag, down hooded jacket, dry bottom and top base layers, knee-length merino ski-socks in case of bivvying out between huts, and beanie, buff/balaclava, thin merino gloves, thick ski gloves, Gortex/Nano jacket, thick mountain fleece/wind jacket, waterproof trousers, base layer, thin wind jacket as storm gear. First aid kit included straps to tie a splint, and walking poles to make such a splint – the tops provide no wood to do this – and to support me should an ankle get twisted. A knife, lighter, whistle, lightstick and headtorch (+ spare batteries) were packed, with PLB kept in a chest pocket for easy reach should an accident restrict movement. Clear emergency instructions were left with those I kept progress with throughout the day. I would encourage this spectacular and rewarding route to be attempted by anyone with sufficient experience of first aid, wilderness travel in exposed, volatile environments and with responsible gear.
Many good people helped me with advice and encouragement (Chris Swallow, Chris Martin, Lou Beckingsale, Rob Stone, Daryl Stephens), but the day was made possible by my patient partner, Marlena – all levels of support and back-up, with 13 months of boring Tararua stories to boot – and Tim Sutton – more selfless, helpful and encouraging advice I could not have wished for (he even sewed bespoke alterations onto my pack). And finally my family – I was reminded that they alone set me on a path that values self-sufficiency, respect for one’s surroundings, health and fitness, and first aid, all of which I benefit from greatly today.
Distance: Approximately 81km
Height gain: 6500 – 7000m (roughly)
Putara road end (start): 3am
Herepai Hut: 4:02
East Peak: 5:30
Dundas Peak: 7:37
Dracophyllum Biv: 9:55
Nichols Hut: 11:44
Anderson Memorial Hut: 13:00
Maungahuka Hut: 15:50
Kime Hut: 18:42 (left 19:10)
Alpha Hut: 21:20 (left 21:35)
Block XVI: 23:30
Kaitoke (finish): 2:43am
Total time 23:43