Tararua Valleys S-K Report
Karl Yager 28th January 2017
The recent burst of activity on attempting the Valleys S-K route as quickly as possible had drawn my attention after Chris Martin and Iain Atkinson completed their runs 5 months prior. Reading their accounts and given the difficulty of the better known Main Range S-K, the valley route didn’t sound too bad in the scheme of things… except for the 7km section between Roaring Stag Hut and Cow Saddle. On their run, the 3.5km untracked and unmarked route following the swollen Ruamahanga River had forced them to slowly push through the bush and over bluffs and slips, only to be greeted by another 3.5km of non-existent trail to Cow Saddle. This section was obviously going to be the crux of the route. Tim Sutton’s record breaking run and an attempt by Martin Grethe soon after seemed to confirm this, then on New Year’s Day Seanoa Isaac posted up photos of his successful attempt looking like it was quite the enjoyable experience.
On Seanoa’s run the river had been low and not too cold, but more importantly, the route up Cow Saddle had been cut and re-marked. This was the deciding factor for me to get a wriggle on and have a crack at it myself. A recce of the first 14km mid-January in the comfort of the company of Seanoa and three other likely Valley’s S-K assailants (Caroline, Roel, and Callum) confirmed the route was now straight forward. A lingering summer lurgy had kept rearing its head since competing in the Aorangi Undulator in November stripping me of some of my hill conditioning, but two weeks later a dry weekend was forecasted in what has been an abysmal Wellington summer. This was an opportunity not to be passed up. A ring around some mates secured me a lift to Putara Rd end leaving Wellington at 3am on Saturday morning (thanks Oli du Bern). Written intentions and instructions were left for my wife Dani in case things went sour, and gear was checked, packed, unpacked, rechecked and packed again. Game on!
Not much sleep was had on Friday night and as we drove over the Rimutaka Hill Road early Saturday we were greeted by a light rain and mist. “It’s okay”, I kept telling myself, “it’ll burn off”. In order to gain potentially one last photo of me alive, Oli and I faffed around trying to get the flash to work on my camera at 5:20am. Giving up on our futile attempts, Oli eventually used my head torch to light me up by the sign, take a photo and then I was off running.
Putara Rd – Roaring Stag Hut: 5:24am – 6:37am
There was a constant drizzle and the stream beside the track sounded louder than when we’d been through two weeks ago. I kept reminding myself everything is louder at night… especially when you’re by yourself, but the nerves were firing up in anticipation of the Ruamahanga River section. At least it wasn’t cold and I was comfortable in my short sleeve top. I hit the first of the six climbs of the day up to the turn off to Herepai Hut. I like climbing more than I like descents as I feel like I can methodically work away at them. Rhythm and breathing make them meditative which fortunately/unfortunately distracts me from reality. However today I needed to be a bit more in tune with reality as nerves and lack experience of big days out in the Tararua Ranges led me to make a big mistake, going out too fast. I was to pay for this later. As I approached Roaring Stag Hut, the streams didn’t appear to be any higher than on my previous visit and as I exited the bush to the hut it became light enough to remove my head torch. Gaiters hanging outside indicated some asleep occupants so I refuelled the water bladder and moved on quietly.
Roaring Stag Hut – Cleft Creek: 6:37am – 7:55am
From the swing bridge the drizzle and low cloud were hiding the surrounding hills but at least the river didn’t look anywhere near as bad as I was expecting. Off at a trot down the track then on to the river bed at the big orange marker where I shortly met the first of many other park users from across the day, with the predicted fine weather bringing them out in mass. A saturated hunter was making his way back up the river to Roaring Stag. With the lack of animal activity, dampness, and the river height making things not as appealing as having breakfast with his two daughters who were asleep back at the hut, he wished me luck as I headed off with my nerves firing up again. The rocks that had been dry making for easy travel previously were this time slick from rain. Concentrating on moving briskly but safely, the fastest route down the river is a mixture of travelling beside and in the river, and where possible following animal tracks through the bush on the low terraces on the true right.
As travel becomes harder it’s necessary to begin crossing the river to keep on flatter ground. The first big crossing which had been straight forward last time was probably going to be the dodgiest. The river looked to be running swifter than last time so I headed in a bit higher up to give me a better run out if things went bad. Good decision as I waded through chest height water barely keeping my footing. Adrenaline pumping and the chill of the water on my legs sent me off again. A few more crossings and I was at the gorge that we swam through last time. Jumping in, the current was noticeably stronger requiring a faster swim than last time. Another couple of crossings and Cleft Creek appeared around the bend where you re-join the trail, just one more crossing! Expecting it to be just over waist height I was surprised to suddenly be floating. A few swimming strokes took me across the main current and I hauled out like a seal onto the far bank. Feeling a huge sense of relief at navigating down the Ruamahanga safely, I decided I’d had enough of water for a while and therefore I was not going to take the easier route (terrain wise) up the swollen Cleft Creek to re-join the trail, but rather climb straight up the 15m high bank. Legs cramping from the cold of the river crossings, physical tension of maintaining balance over 3.5km of wet slippery rocks, and the mild fear had taken its toll. But I was back on a track, I was safe, and heading into a meditative climb.
Cleft Creek – Cow Creek Hut: 7:55am – 9:05am
The freshly cut track to Cow Saddle two weeks prior had been almost completely clear of windfall so I was expecting to make a quick and easy journey of it. In the between time, the strong summer winds had been through leaving debris from small branches through to mature rimu scattered over good portions of the track. No complaints though as at least I had a track to follow unlike previous runners.
A quick stop at Cow Saddle before heading down to the Waingawa River and Cow Creek Hut where I decided to skip the climb up and over the slip to the swing bridge, opting to wade down the edge of river before re-joining the track at the bridge saving 10-15 minutes.
Cow Creek Hut – Mitre Flats Hut: 9:05am – 10:50am
Not too sure how I should be feeling physically at this point, I pushed on after refilling everything at Cow Creek Hut continuing at the pace that would bite me later. I couldn’t remember the Waingawa River Track between Cow Creek Hut and Mitre Flats Hut very well as it had been over 20 years since I’d last been here. I had vague memories of lots of dropping in and out of creeks and streams which proved to be correct. It looked like the drizzle was over with just a misty rain about, and as I was climbing over a bit of windfall that was becoming characteristic of the route so far, I smashed my right knee into a rock. A few swear words dealt to the pain but it was a deep, albeit small, cut which wouldn’t scab over in the damp conditions and continuous ripping of ferns, toetoe and hook grass. My attempts to bandage it were pointless leaving me with a gruesome looking wound that became the perfect conversation starter.
Settling in for a reasonable stint between the huts I was surprised when a boardwalk appeared meaning Mitre Flats Hut wasn’t far away. A few ice skating impersonations over the damp wood and a plank or two later and I was at the hut greeted by a tramping group who had hoped to give the hut a lick of paint if it had been dry.
Mitre Flats Hut – Atiwhakatu Hut: 10:50am – 1:05pm
I’d been at it for five and a half hours at this point and I was at the bottom of my third climb of the day. This turned out be two steep climbs as you drop back down before a solid push up to the sign posted turn off to Baldy. It was heading up this first climb that all of a sudden the forecasted sun finally came out, perfectly timed to give me a moral boost for the coming climbs; excitedly I took a few pictures.
Dropping down to Atiwhakatu Stream the track progressively became more maintained due to the popularity of this end of the park, but more importantly for me, the roots were finally drying out and I hit Atiwhakatu Hut feeling a solid sense of fatigue. My earlier hot pace had caught up with me.
Atiwhakatu Hut – Totara Flats Hut: 1:05pm – 3:40pm
I took my time at filling up before cruising off down the footpath like surface of the popular Atiwhakatu Track, but I was noticeably slowing down. I wasn’t even at the halfway point and the doubts had started. Both the track and the hut were cranking with day walkers and overnighting families therefore catching a lift back to my car in Kaitoke from the Mt Holdsworth Rd car park probably wouldn’t be an issue. No, I was going to do the 360m rooty steep climb up the River Ridge Track to Pig Flat, climb number four for the day, and tried to put the thoughts of quitting out of my head. The most technically challenging trails along the route were over and done with, the rest should be a breeze right?
Topping out I finally got cell phone coverage and received a text message of encouragement from Dani. I fired back a couple to let her know I was safe and on schedule but I was slowing down. There was still an opportunity to bail, but at the Totara Creek Track intersection a bunch of trampers heckled me about being too slow for the Jumbo-Holdsworth Race that had been held earlier that day. I laughed and replied it was my second lap and then promptly turned down towards Totara Creek to the cries of one guy that I was going the wrong way. I’d committed now. No way was I heading back past them! My feet were taking a pounding and my soles were beginning to feel it. The descent to Totara Flats Hut was brutal on them and I made a mental note to look at investing in a pair of trail shoes with a bit more padding. I started to concentrate on just moving forwards and it was a relief to hit the flats before the massive swing bridge to the hut.
Totara Flats Hut – Cone Hut: 3:40pm – 6:30pm
Past Totara Flats Hut it was out into the grassy meadows in perfect weather. A few clouds were about but they disappeared before I reached the climb over Cone Saddle. The Waiohine River looked stunning with crystal clear water with several occupied camp sites along its banks. The memory of the climb over Cone Saddle, climb five for the day, was relatively fresh after racing over it almost a year ago during the Tararua Mountain Race (Holdsworth to Kaitoke version). I knew it was going to be long and deceptive. True to form it went on for a while, but the top finally appeared whilst in the company of a father and son out doing a loop walk from Waiohine Gorge.
I was caught off guard by how long the descent down to Cone Hut was. I’d been able to run almost all of it last time, but not this time, only breaking out into the odd plodding trot every so often. The wood smoke smell of the historical Cone Hut was welcome, but not the scramble down to the stream to fill up on water.
Cone Hut – Kaitoke: 6:30pm – 10:25pm
I’d been going for over 13 hours by now and covered more than 53 km. It was mostly downhill from here with one more relatively minor climb… I was on the home straight! I’d been thinking across the day that I’d be feeling pretty chuffed by now, but instead I’d switched into “getting the job done” mode. I remembered Seanoa had mentioned he’d been shuffling from this point on, and all I had going through my head was the LMFAO song “Party Rock Anthem (Everyday I’m Shuffling)”, an incredibly irritating song to have stuck in your head. I was setting my sights on ticking off landmarks: the Tutuwai Hut sign, the big slip, the final swing bridge, start of the Puffer Saddle climb. As the sun left the valley floor and about 13 km to go I took a moment to stop and take in my surroundings. There were whitehead and tui singing, cicadas chirping, the roar of the Tauherenikau River was below me, there was a fresh fragrant smell of the summer bush, and the sun was retreating up the ridges and I was practically finished.
Even though it still hurt, I was back in to it but this time with a clear mind. I broke out the head torch as I crossed the swing bridge and then started my march up Smiths Creek. Cresting over the Puffer Saddle in the dark, a familiar smell I associate with Wellington hit me. It’s by no means an unpleasant smell, but oddly, it’s something I only tend to notice when I’ve been away from Wellington for a long time. Another burst of energy and I was descending the slippery clay track where I almost wiped out a few times. As I wasn’t in the mood for an accident I reverted back to my fast walking pace that had carried me so far today. The steps down to Kiwi Ranch and the DOC car park hurt, but finally in the glow of my head torch the fence around the dark car park appeared along with my car dropped back by Oli waiting for me. I was spent.
Strava file: https://www.strava.com/activities/846710394/overview
What I’ll take away from this trip:
I’ve done a 100km event before but this was a whole different level of abuse. I didn’t find the altitudinal changes difficult, but more that the ground was incredibly rough and almost always slippery, disrupting your ability to stride along and requiring a constantly high level of attention to where you place your feet. Over shorter distances (30km) I haven’t noticed just how draining it is. Poles may help, but I think shoes with a bit more shock absorbency in their soles (I was using Inov-8 X-Talon 212’s) would be also important, at least for me. Pacing is hugely important. I had a plan but didn’t stick to it and suffered at the end because of it. I did have a strong emergency plan in place for Dani (my wife) to follow if I hadn’t been in touch at particular times. This allowed me to confidently carry on even though I was slowing down, knowing that she knew what was going on and how to adjust the emergency plan. The thing I’m most amazed at is that I carried on. Rather than stopping when I felt like it, I’d slow down. This kept me moving closer towards the end and I’d naturally pick up the pace when I was able to.
Splits: Time: Split (mins):
Putara Rd End 5:23am
Roaring Stag Hut 6:37am 73
Cow Creek Hut 9:05am 148
Mitre Flats Hut 10:50am 105
Atiwhakatu Hut 1:05pm 135
Totara Flats Hut 3:40pm 155
Cone Hut 6:30pm 170
Kaitoke 10:25pm 235
TOTAL 17 Hours 2 min
Lastly a big thanks to the inspiring Wellington mountain running community, especially those that are having a crack at their own big adventure runs. Chris Martin for his multi-faceted encouragement of the running community. Oli for being prepared to essentially have no sleep for a day, and Dani for listening to me talk about things she’s not interested in and holding down the fort whilst I’m out.