22nd March 2017
The route of the Tarn Ridge Putara-Kaitoke traverse had been on my mind for a few years – during all the prep reading for the main range S-K in 2014/15 the Tarn Ridge route was seldom mentioned, with almost no sub 24hr attempts in the trip reports. The rugged north, grandeur of Tarn Ridge to McGregor and Waiohine and Tauherenikau river valleys gave a Tarn Ridge SK potential to be more varied and enjoyable than its main range cousin that garners all the prestige. Like our hunter at Arete biv so accurately put it whilst we waxed lyrical about the virtues of the Tarn Ridge – “the main range is a dog”. Following a fantastic, scorching-hot day pre-Christmas trip from Putara to Holdsworth, Al and I quickly got to discussing a full trip. We were keen to take this less seriously than our respective main range S-Ks, but estimated a day trip at around 20hrs without pushing too hard, based on earlier recces. After four months, all the elements came together and we had a long weekend and a great forecast.
Friday night – Seanoa’s place in Greytown.
I don’t really feel very prepared for this. Compared to the amount of thinking and planning that went into my original SK in 2015, this is just something Dave and I have thrown together in the past week or so. I’m also very conscious that I did a 100mile race only 5 weeks earlier and while I feel pretty good again, I’m aware that I probably shouldn’t be contemplating another 20 hour plus run this soon. But hey, the forecast is good and it’s a long weekend, and who knows whether we’ll get another chance before winter kicks in. How bad can it be?
Saturday 5:10am – Putara Road
Beautiful night, masses of stars and no wind as Seanoa drops us off at Putara road end. The excitement kicks in and we’re off into the darkness. The aim is for about a 20-hour finish, going at a fairly relaxed pace – maybe even be finished by midnight if things go really well.
5:30am – Shortly after Putara
My fully charged headlamp issues its first ‘low battery’ warning flash. Hmm, that’s odd. 5 minutes later I’m running on the rather minimal power saving mode, which is enough to see a couple of metres in front of my feet, but only just. Not good. But it’s getting light, so I push it out of my mind and figure I’ll worry about it tonight.
6:20am – Herepai Hut
Having carried only a 500ml bottle of water from the road end, it’s good to get to Herepai where I can get a drink and fill up before the long dry section to Arete biv. Turn the tap and nothing happens. Shit. The tank is empty and I have all of about three mouthfuls of water left in my bottle. Given the amount of rain we’ve had lately, we can only assume some idiot left the tap on and the entire tank has drained out. Shit!
After an initial swearing spree, neither of us actually seem too fussed by the sudden loss of a major water source – there are too many other variables that we’re lucky to have on our side – so we quickly put our heads towards the next peak get moving, the sky brightening.
9:00am – Somewhere around Pukemoremore
There is a muddy puddle on the track. This is the closest thing to a drinkable tarn that we’ve found so far and I am seriously contemplating drinking it, but I can’t quite make myself drink the murky, brown water. At this point I resign myself to an inevitable detour to Dundas hut to refill – it’s been almost three hours without water and we’re both starting to feel dehydrated. Plus it’s a beautiful morning and it’s heating up fast so it has to be done.
9:15am – Dundas hut
After some deliberating we both decide that a detour to Dundas is less of a gamble than risking serious dehydration. On the climb back up from the hut a falcon/kārearea passes by hunting just overhead, which seems to make the extra work worthwhile.
Damn water can taste so, so good when you really need it. It’s a 30ish minute detour down to the hut and back up again, but it’s definitely the smart choice – pushing on another to Arete would have been a bad call.
11:30am – Arete hut
Passing below the summit of Arete/Hanga-o-hia-tangata we discuss the majesty of this great peak – a 1505m pinnacle of four ranges and seven rivers and a milestone on any journey. We locate our previous short-cut and bash off through the tussock and leatherwood to Arete Biv for a quick water stop and a chat with a hunter, excited by our reports of roaring stags in the upper Mangahao.
We get in about 40 minutes later than planned after our Dundas detour, but we’re rolling along smoothly. Another 15 minute diversion chatting to the hunter in Arete hut, who complains about being woken in the middle of the night by some runners coming in to bag Mt Bannister this morning – we have a quiet chuckle as we realise it must have been Iain Atkinson and Mark Greig.
c.4:00pm – Broken Axe Pinnacles
It’s been solid, steady progress all afternoon, ticking off the landmarks one by one – Waiohine Pinnacles, Tarn Ridge, Girdlestone, Adkin, the three Kings. It’s been warm but not too hot and we’re keeping up a decent pace. After Broken Axe I start to anticipate the easier ground of Jumbo-Holdsworth, and then in the bush around darkness, and an easy 7 hour trot down to Kaitoke.
Haha, little do I know…
Stood on Girdlestone, with a a steep drop to the south and sweeping view towards to Kings, we start to feel like we’re making headway, although I know this feeling won’t really fit until we’re at least past McGregor. Still, it’s nice to pass over the Broken Axe Pinnacles – the last of the day’s rough climbing. After this we’re smiling about the smooth tops travel between Angle Knob and Holdsworth – a chance to really open up and make up for lost time.
6:15 – Holdsworth Summit
All day we’ve been talking of a sunset on Holdsworth, and now we’re finally there in the still evening glow I feel on top of the world – a huge orange fire on the horizon and Taranaki making one final appearance. A few happy campers are out for a night on a tops, the air still and clear. Time for us to put on an evening layer, send some final progress reports home and get the torches out.
Stunning sunset coming up to Holdsworth and its beautifully clear and still on top. I’m definitely feeling tired by now and I can feel all the climbing we’ve done today, but things are still ok. We cruise down the hill from Powell and turn off to Totara Flats – still pretty close to our schedule and we are thinking of about a 1-1:30am finish now. Not too long to go right?
c.8:00 – Totara Creek
Things first start going wrong soon after we are turned off the new track and onto the old one. The old track sucks – rooty, muddy and poorly marked and we waste a fair bit of time losing the track a few times and trying to find it again. It’s frustratingly slow and we crawl through to Totara Flats by about 9pm.
Having done a fair bit of track marking myself, I sympathise with the temporary track being only nominally marked. But after multiple river crossings with braids and multiple exit options, the bank too far away for our torches to pick up cairns or markers on the opposite side, and the endless faffing trying to be sure of our route before we charge off, I start to curse at the track like it’s personally insulted my family. 14 hours of travel apparently doesn’t improve patience. The vague track, roaring river in my ears, total darkness and channel crossings start to play with my mind and at this point I’m more pleased than ever to have a buddy to share the burden of uncertainty.
After Totara Flats, we’re finally off the web of roots and rivers and setting a fast pace over the grassy river flats. It feels good to be running well – the map shows just how long the Waiohine and Tauherenikau valleys are if you don’t move fast.
12:00 – Cone Saddle
It’s official, the wheels have fallen off, big time. Shortly after Totara flats the effort of today and the accumulated fatigue from the 100 miler really catch up with me and my legs pretty much give up for the day. I just feel utterly drained and nothing I can do can make my body move faster. The mind quickly follows and I’m in a very dark place as I inch my way up towards Cone saddle. My tired, defeated brain feels like I am completely stationary as I move through the bush in the pitiful glow of my useless headlamp.
The climb is taking a while and I can tell Al’s not himself – we keep separating unintentionally and he’s quieter and more prone to swearing than normal. After a quick discussion, we decide to regroup at Cone Saddle and have a bite to eat, drink some fluid and assess things. I’m half expecting to see Tom Middlemiss too, who’d messaged to say he may come up from home at Thrive on the gorge road to say hello.
At the top of Cone Saddle I tell Dave that I am completely done, I just want it to be over. But after weighing up the options (it’s too far to make it worth bailing out to Waiohine and Thrive, and sleeping at Cone hut would be cold and uncomfortable, plus there’s no way to contact the outside world and let them know that we’re not coming home) the only viable one is just to keep grinding along and get the job done. Dave is remarkably patient, and even though I know he could go a lot faster and get it down he agrees we stick together no matter what.
“I can walk it fine, but it’ll take about 4 hours”. Sounds good to me – we’ll finish when we finish. With that Al gets up from a very dark place and says “right, let’s do this” with what in the darkness looks suspiciously like a half-smile. We set off downhill and the mood instantly lifts, helped by a good conversation to take our minds off the task.
2:00am – somewhere down the Tauherenikau valley
I hate the Tararuas. I really, really hate them. I don’t think I’ve ever hated them so much right now. Why the hell do we do this to ourselves?! What I really want to do is sit down in the middle of the track and have a massive, 3 year old style screaming tantrum. But what good would that do, so we keep on chugging.
I can tell Al’s tired but every time a runnable section appears he still digs in and trots off ahead like it’s any normal day. Since the saddle he’s been leading, so that we stay closer together, and to have the route ahead to keep the mind active. It’s really at this point I see the endurance that someone must have to run 100 miles – no hint of giving up, or even giving in to the urge to take it easy.
c.4:10am – Smith Creek
Finally, finally we make it to Smith Creek and I start to see the light at the end of this dark and miserable tunnel. A quick look at the watch and we’ve got almost bang on an hour to finish in sub-24.
One of my favourite memories of this route was approaching Smith Creek. I’d been keeping close eye on our progress and time, having started with an expectation of 19.5hours, then 20hrs, but never doubting a sub-24hr finish. Since the saddle we’ve pushed aside any thought of time, although I’m secretly still hoping it’ll be a cherry on the cake. But as we approach the bridge I’m slowly letting that go. It’s at that point that Al sees the sign ‘Kaitoke – 2hrs’ and yells “Come on we can do this!”. Yeah we bloody can – or at least we won’t let it go without a fight.
On a good day, this last bit is easily under an hour. I give it everything and it feels like I’m smashing it up the Puffer Saddle, even running most of it and power walking the rest. But it’s a bit of an illusion and a quick check at the top of the saddle sees the watch hit the 24 hour mark. At this point I honestly don’t care anymore – it’s almost over, and we walk out the final couple of kilometres and hit the car at about 5:30am. What a relief. Job done!
“Well that was brutal”. Handshake, change clothes, drink, sandwich. An amazing day, and big enough that all the ups and downs just add to the grandeur. We set out for an enjoyable day on a stunning route and we got a 1 in 365 day of weather – I can’t help smiling to myself as I drive back to Wellington, Rock FM blaring to keep me sharp, Al snoring in the passenger seat, sunrise for the second time.
Huge thanks to Seanoa Isaac – husband, father-of-two, full-time architectural designer still found time to be our willing taxi and host for the night before. Making the most of that weather window was down to him – thanks mate.
So what did I learn from all of that?
First of all, 5 weeks is probably not quite enough recovery time between massive 20 hour+ missions. Suffering is likely. Second, the majority of the Tarn Ridge route is simply awesome. Traversing both the main ridges in the Tararuas feels completely epic. BUT don’t underestimate the valleys. And last but not least, even when you feel like you’ll hate the Tararuas for the rest of your life, give it a week and the pain fades, and then before you know it you’ll be planning your next mission…