Third time’s the charm – SK Valleys, 8 Dec 2018
This one had been on the to do list for a while. I completed a Main Range SK in 2015, then the Tarn Ridge version in 2017, which only left the final one of the three main SK routes to tick off – the SK valleys. The other two had been tough (really tough!) but in theory at least this is the easiest of the three, so I knew I would be giving it a go sooner or later.
When the opportunity for a trip to Putara came up in early December, I figured it was about time to complete the set. Caroline and Maree were heading off for their own valleys attempt and Dave Allen was keen to finish his own SK collection so we decided to team up for it. With a great forecast for the weekend and a good amount of training in recent weeks, I was feeling pretty confident about this one.
Putara Base Camp came to life early on Saturday morning – Roel dropped team CaroMaree, ably supported by Seanoa, for a 3.30am start. Dave and I wished them well, retreated briefly to Roel’s car to keep warm and then we were off into the darkness at 4.00am on the dot.
I did want to give this one a good shot in terms of a fast time – Dave and I had some rough splits needed for a 16 hour run, but both of us were keen at the beginning to just keep it nice and easy and see how the day unfolded before we got too caught up in chasing the clock.
Roaring Stag – 5:31am
The first section went by very easily and we cruised into Roaring Stag just as it got light – perfectly timed for the Ruamahunga river section, which was new ground for me and the piece of the route I had most been looking forward to. It didn’t disappoint, this is a really beautiful spot and boulder hopping along the riverbank was fun, I was having a blast at this point and the legs were feeling really strong.
As you go on down the valley the river narrows and deepens and we had a some waist-deep crossings through some pretty icy water. There had been a fair bit of rain in the Tararuas the week before, and we’d all been been wondering how full the river would be. It wasn’t too bad in the end, but there were a few deeper sections to navigate and at one point I made the fateful decision to swim across one. The swim was fine, but my Garmin watch did not agree. Apparently it’s no longer waterproof in its old age and it went completely dead. This is the result. Bugger.
Damn. This could prove to be an expensive run…
Finally we got to the end of the river section, crossed over the Ruamahunga one final time to the Cleft Creek turnoff, negotiated the scramble up to the track without any drama and set off towards Cow Saddle. I was wet from the neck down and really chilled by this point, so I was quite happy to begin to climb and get the legs moving to warm up a bit.
As we headed up the hill we hit the sun for the first time and it was clear that this was going to be a really beautiful day. I warmed up fast and spirits were high as we hit Cow Saddle. A quick descent down to Cow Creek hut and some water and food and then it was off down the Waingawa towards Mitre Flats.
Cow Creek – 7:51am
The next section was pretty uneventful. The track from Cow Creek down to Mitre Flats was a bit nicer than I remembered it. Dave and I were both moving well and just ticked off the distance without any fuss, coming in to Mitre Flats in just under two hours.
Mite Flats – 9:47am
Another quick pause at the hut, a chat to an older couple who were heading up Mitre and were surprisingly unphased when we announced that we were running all the way to Kaitoke in one go (get in and do it while you’re young enough was their take on it – hard to disagree really).
It was starting to really warm up by this point and I wasn’t really looking forward to the Barton Track that takes you to Atiwhakatu. It’s just a muddy, rooty bit of track with some seemingly unnecessary sidling and an annoying double climb. It was on the second part of the climb, up to the Baldy turnoff that Dave started dropping back a bit. This was pretty unusual in our various missions together, but he’d been a bit unwell in the days leading up to the mission and that seemed to be taking it out of him. Getting over the top and past the Baldy sign seemed to do the trick though and we rolled into Atiwhakatu just slightly behind schedule.
Atiwhakatu – 11:44am
I’d been looking forward to this section, with some lovely smooth and easy running from Atiwhakatu down towards Holdsworth. We cruised through this, then it was slow and steady up the climb to Pig Flat, a short jog across the boardwalks and down to the turnoff to Totara Flats.
As I hit the turnoff I realised Dave had dropped back again, and he came in a couple of minutes later looking a bit the worse for wear. After some deliberating he made the tough call to call it a day at this point. I’ve no doubt he could have pushed through to the finish, but it would have been pretty slow and painful. 18 months ago it was me who had broken down badly in the valleys on our Tarn SK and it was Dave who had patiently walked it out with me, so I felt pretty bad to leave him at this point, but in hindsight I think he made the right call – sometimes it’s just not your day, and the valleys will be there for next time!
Pushing on towards Totara Flats I had my first, and only, real down point of the whole run. I felt bad for Dave, a bit thrown at the thought of running another 30ish KM solo, plus I had run out of water in the heat of the day (I only had a single 500ml bottle the whole day, which I just refilled – it worked, but it was a bit marginal in a couple of spots).
I slogged my way down the hill to the river feeling a bit sorry for myself. After dunking myself into the water and having a much needed drink, I checked my phone to get the time. Remarkably it was only just past 2pm and I was almost at Totara Flats – I had actually made up time on that downhill despite feeling pretty crap. This realisation seemed to give me a burst of energy and I stepped on the gas down to the hut, hitting it at 2:15pm, now just 15 minutes behind the 16 hour schedule.
Totara Flats – 2:15pm
Up until this point I’d been keeping things pretty easy and relaxed, but now that I was over half way and still feeling good, I figured it was time to push the pace a little bit more. A quick refuel at Totara Flats and off to contend with my nemesis from my Tarn SK – Cone saddle.
I really struggle with Cone Saddle. The climb itself isn’t so bad, but then it always feels like ages before you hit the saddle itself as the track sidles on and on without seeming to get anywhere. This had been a very dark place on the Tarn SK, but it was a different beast today. Patience was the key here, so I just kept plodding away until I saw the sign pointing towards Cone Hut and the final, long Tauherenikau valley.
Cone Hut – 4:41pm
Down to Cone Hut and at 4:41pm and I was now bang on schedule, having made up another 15 minutes since Totara Flats. That gave me comfortably over three hours to get to the finish and suddenly a sub-16 hour run seemed to be well within my grasp.
Tutuwai hut came and went without any fuss, then a long grind down the valley. The bridge to Smith Creek seemed to take forever to appear, but just as I was starting to get a bit frustrated by it all, there it was. Crossing over the bridge onto the smooth and fast track marked the beginning of the final stretch, and I gave it as much gas as I had left down to Smith Creek Shelter and onto the Puffer track. One final grunt up the last climb, down the final descent as fast as my aching legs would allow and into the glory of the Kaitoke carpark at 7:46, 15 hours and 46 minutes after starting at Putara – SK trilogy completed!
I’ve come out of this with a new found appreciation for the SK valleys route. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama and excitement of being up on the tops, but the valleys are a beautiful place to be as well and it’s a hell of a tough route in its own right. I was lucky enough to have a really good day – pretty much everything went right and I felt as good as could be expected right until the end. Super stoked to have recorded the second fastest time on the route, although at the rate people are going for it these days it won’t last long!
Thanks to everyone for company at Putara – Roel for driving the crew to the start, Caroline and Maree for their enthusiasm and for helping motivate me to give it a go (and well done getting to Kaitoke yourselves!) and of course to Dave for company on the first part of the journey. Cheers all!
Roaring Stag hut: 5:31am (1:31 split time)
Cow Creek hut: 7:51am (2:20)
Mitra Flats hut: 9:47am (1:56)
Atiwhakatu hut: 11:44am (1:57)
Totara Flats hut: 2:15pm (2:31)
Cone hut: 4:41pm (2:26)
Smith Creek shelter: 6:34pm (1:53)
Kaitoke: 7:46pm (1:12)