Iain Atkinson S-K Valleys report

How long can you run for?

Just to set the scene, I am planning to have a crack at the SK later in the year. This is a bit of a monster and will need me to keep going for nearly 24 hours (The nearly bit is important). So far my longest run is 13 hours (Mt Taranaki, Pouakai & Kaitake ranges to Oakura – It was great, go do it!), so a bit of boundary testing was needed.

I have kept busy through the winter chasing Paul Helm around the Tararuas working on the Hut bagging challenge, so have a reasonable base fitness and I felt ready for the challenge.

The weekend of the 3rd & 4th Sept was free so I announced the plan to do a valleys SK, did anyone want to join me?? Fortunately motivational master Major Martinez was interested and before I knew it we had a team and a plan. Meet up at Kaitoke, dump my car there and drive up to Putara road with Chris, Andrew and Roel. We drove through all sorts of weather, but predictably enough it was raining and windy when we parked up. Nothing for it but to get on with the job and we were soon running alongside the Mangatainoka stream and about as wet as a wet thing. It was fairly ridiculous being out there in the conditions, but it was only a short run of 95 minutes to get to the hut. Just as well I was brought up on Monty Python and find ridiculous amusing.

We soon had the fire going and a brew on, so got comfortable really quickly. I’m still not convinced about dehydrated food, I keep buying the sachets and then thinking that there must be something better each time I eat one.. But they do the job and are light.

Saturday morning the rain had stopped and the river level had dropped a fair bit, but was still going to make the river a challenge to cross, so I decided best to avoid that if at all possible.

Iain Chris and Roel at Roaring Stag before the start


Roel & Andrew planned to do Dundas loop and then back to the car, so that left me & Major Martinez to have a go at the Valley SK route. The first section was new to both of us and has no marked path, so we agreed to stick together as far as Mitre Flats hut.

We started around 0730 and crossed the first of many swing bridges and then soon turned left off the Cattle Ridge path and started the bush bash. We followed the edge of the Ruamahanga river until we hit bluffs and had to climb up over a slip. Having gained the altitude I was reluctant to head back to the river as it didn’t look safely crossable and if we hit bluffs again you would have another climb. We descended gently as we moved almost parallel to the river, the bush wasn’t too dense, but the terrain was steep in places with a couple of side stream crossings that delayed things. Eventually we did the last side stream crossing and picked up the path to Cow Saddle. This stared off OK and ended up in a stream bed heading towards the saddle.

 Before the track that wasn’t to Cow Creek Saddle


Markings are sparse and after losing trail a couple of times, we pulled out the map & GPS, both suggested that we should be on the ridge, not the stream bed, so we climbed out and started the search.. big mistake as we searched all the way up to Cow Saddle and didn’t find the path where it was supposed to be. Turns out it was moved into the stream some years ago and the maps haven’t been updated. I have emailed LINZ an update. The GPX trace and map with this write up have been corrected to save you having to make the extra effort we had to put in.

The top of Cow saddle was a major goal, the second of 6 climbs and descents on the route. The path was good so I took the brakes off a bit and bounded down to Cow Creek hut. Tip – when the track meets the Waingawa river, just go straight across to the hut if the river is low enough. Saves you a loop and a climb over a slip to the bridge.

Martinez soon arrived and we had a feed and look at the hut before we moved on. Apparently this hut is maintained by a team from the Fire Service, they do a good job as all was clean and tidy. Not sure I believe that it is a registered hotel in the Hilton chain as the sign suggests.

The next section is a 7km run down a slightly gnarly bush track alongside the Waingawa river to Mitre flats hut. This hut is often pretty busy as it is not far from the Pines road end and at the base of the climb up to Mitre Peak. All quiet today so I put the billy on for tea and did some sunbathing on the deck until Martinez hove into view. He was doing OK and happy that he was now on familiar territory so happy to continue solo. My plan was to get to Kaitoke in one go, Chris was planning another stop, probably at Totara Flats hut.


I broke out the trekking poles at this point for the climb up the Barton track to the junction with the Baldy track. Poles are a new thing for me, when in the UK I joined Joss Naylor on his 80th birthday run in the Lake District. Both he and Kenny Stewart used them and suggested that we gave them a try. You can’t get a higher recommendation than that! I used them when doing some runs in the Lakeland fells and found them OK going up hill and when descending on gnarly stuff, but they go back on the pack for anything I can run.

As Chris has said in his write up, the Barton track is a bit of a climb with a couple of descents to cross streams – a bit like a mini Cone Saddle. It took a while to get to the Baldy turn off, then a quick yomp down to the Atiwhakatu stream and on the Atiwhakatu hut for a quick refuel. There were a group of trampers staying, it looked like 3 generations of the same family. The old fella seemed to know his way around and told the rest of the group about some of the crazy things that trail runners do.. Even he seemed a little surprised at what I had planned, but just checked that I had a PLB and wished me luck.

As the day was getting on a bit I dug my Led Lenser head torch and spare batteries out of the pack and put them in a side pocket ready for use. I refilled the water bottle again and popped in yet another Nunn isotonic tablet. Food for the day was mainly wraps with hummus & ham.. Compact and difficult to squash. They were supplemented with mini snickers, muesli bars, jerky and chocolate raisins. I guess you find what works for you and stick with it. I don’t use many gels, but my secret performance enhancer is a No Doz caffeine pill. Pop one of them and all is well with the world and you start leaving people behind! Don’t overdo it though or you end up a buzzy mess and then the wheels fall off!

I was feeling good and the couple of Km down to the River Ridge track went well, out with the poles again and up the steep rooty climb to the top of the Gentle Annie close to the Mountain House shelter. Left turn down to the Totara flats junction and past a tent just off the side of the track, I don’t think they spotted me as it was getting pretty dark. The torch came out of the pack at the junction and my feet got wet again as I started off down the Totara Creek path in my own little pool of LED brightness. On the descent I caught up with a couple of trampers heading in to the hut, they were surprised to see me and they were the first people I had met on the trail during the trip. One of them was planning to enter the TMR this year, hope they make it.

The Totara Creek track seems to go on a bit and have rather more climbing than is absolutely necessary.. I think the old route is easier and quicker, but DOC pulled out all the markings when they built the new track & bridge.

By the time I got to Totara Creek hut I knew I had been on the trail for a few hours, so decided to have a proper refuel. That meant a cup of tea so something like a 20 minute stop. No problem and there were plenty of people to talk to, they all thought I was mad. Fair enough, they were the ones sharing a hut with a million noisy children J I suggested that they leave a few mattresses out in the common area if they didn’t want to be disturbed by the arrival of the trampers and Martinez.

On the way again across Totara flats it was now getting properly cold. There was so much dew on the grass that it reflected back silver in my torchlight and soaked my shoes again. There was no moon but the night was clear, so there were millions of stars to be seen. I turned off my light in the middle of all the swing bridges just to take in the view. Being a northern hemisphere lad, the Milky Way never ceases to amaze me, despite having spent nearly half my life in the Southern Hemisphere.

Still running well (well I thought so) I passed a hunters campsite, they had a huge fire going and were set in for the night, I resisted stopping for a ‘proper’ drink and continued into the night.

The gnarly Waiohine river track did its best to shake me off until I got to the Cone Saddle junction. Now this one was the first real test of resolve… straight on down to Thrive and beg a bed for the night off Ash & Lilla, or up the interminable overgrown track that leads up to Cone Saddle. I got my poles out and carried on up….

Yup it was quite a slog, but what helped was; being sure I was going to keep going until Kaitoke, and knowing every inch of the track. There were no surprises and I knew what was around every corner. Don’t get disappointed when the track climbs again after a false summit, take satisfaction in knowing that it was going to do that.

The signs at the top of Cone Saddle appeared eventually – that staggered junction holds no fears now. I went wrong there on the first time through years ago and nearly ended up with a bonus extra trip up Cone Peak rather than down the other side..

Turn left for glory right for Thrive


Down the other side to Cone hut and wonder of wonders it was occupied! Only the second time I have seen people stay there. The candles were lit even though it was after 11pm, so I rattled the door and wandered in to sign the book.. waking up a sleeping couple.. oops, sorry! I made my stop brief and sat outside at the table for a few minutes for another feed and to put a new set of batteries I the torch.

Here is something I learnt about torches. You don’t notice them getting dimmer as the batteries wear out. You just think you aren’t concentrating enough, stumble more and lose the track. Nope, you just can’t see! My LED Lenser H6 is good for two and a half hours on a set of AAA cells. After that it produces something that appears to be light but is just optical confusion. I started changing batteries based on time not brightness after that. Second thing is, how do you change batteries in the dark? Once you take the batteries out, that’s it – total blackness, so with cold and stiff fingers you can’t really do it by touch, you need a second small torch or run with a mate. So much to learn.

Running down the Tauhernikau is probably some of the best trail of the trip but my progress was slowing due to cold & fatigue and I had a blister starting on my right foot and had mashed my big toe by kicking a stump. I also got into a nutrition hole not long after Tutuwai hut. I stopped to sort things out – a Complan milkshake and pita bread sorted the nutrition and a jacket on over the other 3 top layers made the world into a warmer place – magic! Not much I could do with the foot as I figured I’d never get the shoes back on if I took them off.

The other thing I did was dig out the map and put the reading glasses on. Even though this was an endurance run, there is always time to bag another hut.. and this one is an off the grid secret goodie I didn’t want miss. (If you want to know more, Southern Cross, Tuesday night and Pils ‘n’ Thrills is very nice thank you)

I promptly didn’t put the glasses away properly and lost them. That’s the way it seems to go when you are tired, you need to be really methodical if you don’t want to make errors. I see now why pacers are a good idea on long runs, they can do a lot of the basic thinking for you. On the plus side, I did find the hut and even found the track again afterwards so that little risk paid off.

From there it wasn’t too far to Smiths Creek shelter (not staying there no matter how tired I am.. If I can move I’m carrying on), up smiths creek at a fairly feeble pace and over the Puffer – which is after all only a small hill, no worries (well that’s what I told myself) and then carefully down the track to the carpark at Kaitoke, being careful not to slip on the clay or kick aother stump. I finally arrived at the car and took ages to get my shoes off and change into warm dry clothes – Bliss!

Great trip, I learnt a lot and found that I could push on for much much longer than 13 hours. You need to have the right gear – still working on that. I was carrying too much weight as I was equipped for 2 overnight stops. It is good to know the load will be lighter on the BIG SK as I’m not daft enough to try it unsupported!

You need the right food and fluids, in much larger quantities than you think are reasonable. Pacing is important. The most important thing is to be in the right mental space. I kind of knew that I was going to do it before I started. I knew the way, had the tools and experience so the troubles, when they occurred were just minor difficulties to be nutted out. OK that won’t work for a real big issue, but good preparation and a positive attitude will get you past a lot of stuff.

Thanks to:

The Wellington running team – Vic Uni Harriers and the Big Sunday Run crew. You are awesome!

Paul Helm for all the hut bagging action this year, it has been great fun and taught me a lot.

Major Martinez organiser extraordinaire for pulling the group together and keeping the momentum going. Great job in finishing your own Valleys SK the next day.

Roel and Andrew for driving us to Putara and company into Roaring stag, we need to run together more.

Robyn for putting up with me and my crazy running obsession. Thanks.