AJ Esler SK Valleys report

Valleys SK Report



Valleys SK Report

I’ve been aware of the SK for a while, reading with awe reports of the deed posted to the tararuafkt site. At some point, it went from being thinking an SK may one day feature in my future to doing an SK, but there was no defining moment of “right, this is happening”. Putting in an order for an SK t-shirt certainly helped though (thanks Karl and Seanoa).

Martini’s gentle nudges after the A100 helped too. He suggested I would be a good match with Kevin Fink, who I had first met at the A100. We had stayed at the same accomodation, and had ended up running most of the third day together which gave a good opportunity to evaluate compatibility. It appeared we both had similar pace, temperament and goal time. All that was lacking was a date.

Somehow, December, Friday the 22nd saw me in the company of a very agreeable set of characters in Putara base camp, eating christmas cake and chips in preparation for the morrow. Having some experienced folks around providing tips and stories was great for assuaging my fears I was way out of my depth on this one. A relaxing evening in good company did a lot for keeping the nerves at bay and not letting the doubts have time to sink their claws in.

Was good reading through the guest book, seeing names I recognised of those already immortalised in previous tararuafkt reports and BSR dot watching.

After getting a couple of hours of restless sleep, we woke at 3am and started getting ready. Miraculously did not forget to pack anything.

Despite not being a morning person, plenty of early starts for long runs has helped hone my morning routine to minimise any intelligent thought requirements.

I had everything packed the day before, just waiting the addition of my peanut butter stuffed dates from the fridge. Writing myself a list of everything I need to do before departing helps a lot. You only make the mistake of forgetting anti-chaffe application once.

A breakfast of beans and coffee provided a solid foundation for the day ahead.

My food plan was a mix of Tailwind, stuffed dates, bumper bars and Perpetuem. I had never tried Perpetuem before, but had heard good things and figured a break from Tailwind would be good if we are going for 24 hours.


Putara to Roaring Stag

[Who but dodgy characters would you find hanging about in a car park at 4am?]

Less than 12 hours after we had dropped off Marta and Jimmie, we packed into the car and drove up to the road end. There was a few minutes of checking gear and arranging ourselves for photos with the sign, and then at 4.17am it began.

Kev and I set off with Caroline, Max, and Chris. The group split up within a couple of km, as it was clear we were moving at different speeds.

With a warm morning dawning, we were soon sweating our way up the climb to the Roaring Stag/Herepai junction. We were pretty quiet along here, I think both preparing ourselves mentally for the day ahead. The legs were feeling good, warming up nicely for the long day ahead.

The rising dawn was removing the need for head torches as we followed the descent to Roaring Stag. After a quick refill of water, trying not to wake the hut occupants, we were off again.

[Dawn from the descent to Roaring Stag]


Roaring Stag to Cow Creek

I had come up to Putara to do a reccy trip a couple of weeks ago, as I had never been up this end of the Tararuas before. Getting to Roaring Stag, I did a bit of puttering about the river, scouting both sides to look at a good way down the river. I only went down less than a km, but this was enough to give me confidence that we could navigate the river easily when the big day came.

And so it proved. The low river level was very helpful, as we were able to hug the bank for most of the way down, with only a couple of sections cutting through the bush. The worst of the crossings was only mid thigh, nothing like the chest deep swims I had read about in previous reports.

This was the bit of the journey I had most been looking forward to, the promise of a good river scramble and beautiful surrounds. Definitely coming back here at a later date to explore the side creeks and swimming holes. It was glorious to meander down the river enjoying the scenery in good company, with the knowledge of full days adventure ahead of us.


[Worth getting up at a time I would usually consider a bedtime for this]



[Kevin doing a solid mountain goat impression]

Cooling our feet in the clear river water was refreshing, but I was worrying about how they would stand 20+ hours of dampness, even with a generous application of Gurney Goo.

We found Cleft Creek without issue and headed up. A short bit of bush bashing and we found ourselves on the track to Cow Creek Saddle.

Followed Iain’s tip to cut across the river rather than follow the track round to the bridge to Cow Creek hut. Here we met a couple smoking some delicious smelling fish. Thankfully they didn’t tempt us with an offer to share, not sure tailwind and trout is a winning combination.

We had a quick stop to reload water and nutrition, then after a brief false start towards Arete, set off down the track to Mitre Flats, and another section of new track for me.

Cow Creek to Mitre Flats

Had never done this section before, was pleasant but uneventful from memory. A bit of windfall, but otherwise a nice cruise through the forest with scenic vistas up the river valley at times. Some idle chatter and general good vibes kept us ticking along.

Mitre Flats to Atiwhakatu

A tramping trip a year or so ago provided memories of a night march through the forest, following bucking undulations and a track that seemed determined to lose us in the dark.

This time round, it was a much better experience. There are a few good climbs, but on fresh legs with a lighter load, it was nice. Actually being able to get a good running rhythm along parts of this section helped the feeling that we could do this. After all, we were nearing the halfway point with determination that we were going all the way.

Somewhere along here the only bit of bad luck on the day struck. Kevin rolled an ankle. He seemed managed to keep a good pace though, leading the way towards Atiwhakatu hut.


[A magical place to be]

There was a bit of relief when the hut finally hove into view, after a few false memories of “its just around this corner”.

I was expecting more people here, but there was only one family out for a day walk. Perhaps too early for others to have arrived at the hut. We had a quick stop to down some lunch and chat with the family, were daywalking in preparation for the Tongariro crossing.

Never have I tasted a KitKat so fine as the one I consumed in the shade of the hut that day.

Atiwhakatu to Totara Flats

Could actually get a bit of pace on, scaling the small hills in our way with vigour. We raced along, before climbing up the River Ridge track to Pig Flats. I enjoyed the climb; it was new track, always a bonus, and gave me a chance to use some different muscles for a break. Legs were definitely letting me know they were working, but no signs of a decline in output just yet.

A pleasant surprise to run into a Squadrun group led by Paul Stevens heading back down to the Holdsworth campground after completing their own mountain adventure, doing the Jumbo-Holdsworth loop with the Broken Axe pinnacles thrown in. After a quick chat and a short diversion down to Mountain House, we stepped off the well maintained Gentle Annie track onto something a little rougher.

Memories of a run from Holdsworth to Kaitoke supplied a track that was knee deep in mud in places. Fortunately, a very dry few weeks lead to a very different reality this time through. We were caught out a couple of times with puddles of mud that looked dried but were actually ankle deep goop, but overall, track conditions were excellent and no shoes were lost.

Dancing down the hills trying to keep feet from snagging roots, going a little faster than prudent, always brings positive thoughts for me. A nice reward for the steep uphill we had just hiked.

Totara Flats hut came into view, giving us an excuse for a rest and refuel. There was only one person here, but we had a pleasant chat about our respective journeys, before we had to shoulder our packs and set off again. You’d think after many hours consuming the contents of said pack, it would get lighter over time, but that does not appear to happen.

I was a bit surprised by the lack of people encountered so far given the splendid weather. We saw a few groups on the Gentle Annie section, but hardly a soul other than at the various huts. Perhaps the closeness to Christmas left people with other priorities.

Totara Flats to Cone Hut

Being exposed to the sun after so long in the shady bush was an unpleasant change. Fortunately we were tracking the river. It felt so good pouring handfuls of cold water over the head and back. A simple pleasure, but one embraced fully and joyfully. We crossed the river a number of times more than was necessary for navigational purposes, but sloshing down the river provided a welcome comfort to battered feet and a counterpoint to the baking sun.

After a quick chat looking over the map and with Kev’s recent memories of the trail, we decided that following the river would be a good idea and give us a change of terrain.


[Following the river rather than the trail]

5 6.jpg

[A delight having many different types of terrain to roam through]

On the climb up to Cone Saddle, Kev again proved his worth as a travelling companion. I have a tendency to follow anything that looks even vaguely track-like without worrying too much about whether it is the correct one, on the perfectly reasonable theory that adventure will happen regardless. Not so useful when racing the clock though.

Kev has a good nose for finding the correct trail (turns out “go up” is the right advice much more often than not), and steered us true through the darkening forest. There was a lot of windfall heading up, but didn’t get too lost. Glad we were doing this in the daylight, though we still had to spend a few minutes hunting round for the next marking at times.

We hit our goal of making it to Cone Hut before 9pm, before we lost the light. I had been anticipating a gnarly descent from the saddle to the hut, but it turned out I was remembering the track of a different approach. A pleasant surprise to find a nice trail heading down. We celebrated with a quick bite to eat, chatting with a hunter who reported Marta and Jimmie had a pit stop there earlier in the day for caffeine pills, jelly snakes and panadol. Not the most appealing meal, but clearly worked for them.

Cone Hut to Kaitoke

As we set off, there was no doubt in our minds that we would finish, just a matter of how long it would take us to escape the Tauherenikau valley. It was a mixed bag of emotions for me at this point. I was enjoying the peacefulness of the valley in the gathering dark, but the idea of stopping moving at some point in the not too distant future was also appealing.

I was glad we weren’t having the same menu as Marta and Jimmie, but was thoroughly sick of the sweet lemon tailwind I had been using intermittently so far. I chewed a few stuffed dates and decided it was probably best not to aggravate the stomach at this point and so just had water for the final few hours.


[Landscapes like this help justify that a 24 hour run could be a good idea]

So many possums in the last valley, scampering off into the bush or leaping around in the bush above us. Almost got possum to the face as one particularly bold creature darted across a branch at head height on the path, only a meter or so in front of me. One experience I am glad to have missed out on.

This last bit of the valley was the hardest for me mentally, I could remember certain points from previous runs, but would forget about big sections between them, and get a bit dispirited by the never ending forest. I remember being well and truly over it for a half an hour or so, but Kev’s steady pace and chat helped get me back in a good mental state. It was reassuring to have someone else nearby, kudos to those doing it solo.

Deciding not to look at the watch every five minutes certainly helped my mental state too. I started to relax again and enjoy the wonderful bush we were heading through. I enjoy running at night, it gives a completely different experience to the daylight. Floating through the forest in your own little bubble of light with another bubble bobbing ahead gives an ethereal feel. Being able to focus on your immediate surroundings with no distractions is quite a treat.

A barking dog snapped us out of whatever zen space we were occupying. As we drew closer our headlights picked out a tent ensconced in the trees by a stream. We splashed across the stream and on into the night, leaving the owner trying to silence the creature.

I was struggling to recognise familiar sections in the dark, then suddenly we were on a runnable section and Kev took off. We blasted along (not reflected by Strava, but certainly felt like it at the time), feeling spirits rise as we hit the last section. Spirits were further buoyed by a sign promising only 5.6km till Kaitoke. Kev somehow found the energy to run up the smooth bits of trail to Puffer saddle, and I was obliged to match pace or be left behind. Soon we were cresting the saddle, drawn along by the distance lights of civilisation. The descent down the slippery clay increased the hunger for the end, the completion of this audacious challenge, simultaneously so close and yet still so far away.

Elation hit as we entered the deserted car park, having met our goal of a sub 24 hour SK. With some exhausted congratulations and a swig of celebratory whiskey, we were done, we’d “knocked the bastard off”.

Was rather neat to be able to place ourselves in a long line of adventurers finishing a mission in this unassuming carpark.

Attempting to document the occasion, it became apparent that both of us had lost whatever selfie skills we possessed somewhere along the journey. A sacrifice I’m happy to make in exchange for the experiences of the trail.

[The best selfie I managed of us.


A quick meal together atUpper Hutt McDonald’s (the only thing open, and slightly more appealing than the cold pasta I had stashed in the car) provided a low key finish to an splendid day.


Massive thanks to Iain for logistics, providing tips and stories, shuttling overnight gear back down to Kaitoke, and leaving a nice note in the cars for us to find at the finish. Thanks to Jimmie for driving us up to Putara. Thanks to Chris, Jimmie, Kevin, Max, Caroline, and Marta for the company. Thanks to Chris for the nudges towards an SK and many adventures leading up to it. Thanks to Kev for being an awesome adventure buddy and fine human, trucking on regardless of obstacles. Thanks to those who have gone down the valleys and written up the learnings of the journey. Finally, thanks to all of the BSR and mountain running community for being so supportive, providing so many inspirational reports and photos, as well as being very nice people.

All in all, it was one hell of an adventure, with splendid company though some beautiful bush. What more could you ask for