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Logan, Mt Dundas (debated), Arete, Bannister, Point 1513, Lancaster, Girdlestone, Brockett, Mitre, Peggys Peak, North King, Middle King, South King, McGregor, Angle Knob. It’s quite a mouthful really. Look at a map and these 1500 metre giants are dotted at fairly even intervals down the craggy eastern side of the Tararua Mountain Range. Then look again… Look again and you might just spot Mt Hector, the outlier. All the way across the range on the Western side. Pukemoumou it’s Maori name, means “Hill of Desolation”. A fitting name and possibly a bit of a warning for anyone thinking of tackling it as a route. Don’t take this lightly.
As with most big routes in these misty hills the name Colin Rolfe invariably comes up when they are being researched and discussed. He’s written his name into the history books and is synonymous with fast travel in the Tararuas. Colin sadly passed away at the end of 2017, leaving a strong legacy to inspire those who find themselves drawn to the mountains. I imagine him going on to bigger and better adventures, wherever it is that mountain men go to play after they leave this world. In researching the route I had heard rumours of an expedition that he was involved in, taking in all of the 1500’s in the space of a weekend some time in the 90’s. He was the only member of the party to complete the journey. I was lucky enough at an S-K talk night we were both speaking at to chat with Colin, where he filled in a few more of the details.
Colin Rolfe – Legend
He and a group of friends set out early from Putara and spent the balance of the day bagging the 1500m peaks down the Eastern Range. On arrival at Jumbo they dropped down to the hut where Colin had a sleep and then carried on alone for the lonely traverse across the range to Mt Hector. He chose to drop down off Holdsworth to Totara flats then carry on over Cone Saddle to Cone Hut in the Tauherenikau Valley. From there he climbed to Bull Mound, past Alpha Hut and on through the Dress Circle to eventually pop out at Mt Hector. Yet his journey was still not over until he emerged at the Otaki Forks road end, some 36 hours after setting out, setting a record which would be hard to equal. An amazing feat which inspired the hell out of me. Since then there had been an attempt in 1998 by Andrew McLellan and Jonathan Kennett to tackle the 1500’s as a full S-K traverse within 48 hours. Unfortunately they were forced to bivvy on Quoin Ridge after a couple of previous sleeps, missing their goal by a few hours but also becoming the only people to complete the route as an S-K.
The challenge is simple in its brief. Enter at any road end you see fit, summit all the 1500 m+ peaks in the Tararua Range and exit at the road end of your choosing. Simple. Right? Putara lends itself as the obvious start point, providing quick access to the tops and the opportunity to bag the 14 eastern peaks in daylight. But on reaching Angle Knob there are some big decisions to be made. First to beckon is the Southern Main Range, a massive drop down off Mt Holdsworth via Isabelle to Mid Waiohine Hut. Followed by a not insignificant 1,000 meter scramble up to the mighty Aokaparangi. From here the SMR sawtooths relentlessly to the big climb up to Bridge Peak, on past Kime Hut to finally bag Hector and then back down to Otaki Forks. Second option is to follow in Rolfe’s footsteps via Bull Mound and the Dress Circle. And finally the seldom traveled Neil-Winchcombe Ridge via Totara Flats and Cone.
All of these routes have their attractions and their shortcomings which any would-be assailant must weigh up. No one had ever completed this challenge in a single push, with Rolfe’s one sleep epic coming the closest. To me the challenge was to attempt to knock it off in one go, no sleep, solo and unsupported.
I first attempted the 1500’s in Dec 2015, getting as far as McGregor before doing the math and realising that I wouldn’t have enough food to get me through the night. A good lesson not to turn these things into an extended photo shoot, and give it the respect it deserved. The second was Dec 2016, thinking I was over a bug and setting out into the tail end of some stormy weather. I found myself off trail in the dark and atrocious conditions, at one stage losing the ridge in steep country, struggling to hold down food. I battled on as far as Bannister and it’s outlier as the forecast good weather rolled through, but it had already become apparent that I was still very sick and it would be madness to continue. It was still a 6 hour run out, this is a committed route. So it was that early Dec 2017 I prepared to make a final attempt on the Tararua 1500’s, there was unfinished business. It would be now or never.
Maps are out…
My good mate Dave Allen had kindly offered to drop me in to Putara. This was a big thing to me, him having faith that I could pull it off after two unsuccessful attempts, and went a long way towards putting me in the positive mindset needed to tackle this monster made of hills. A kebab and a beer in Carterton were just what the doctor ordered and within no time we were bedding down in the well appointed Putara Base Camp. For me sleep was a long time coming.
But it must have, as soon my alarm was dragging me from dreams of waypoints and drink stops.
After a coffee, fit to put hairs on the most barren of chests, we were out the door for the short drive to the Putara road end. I powered up my spot tracker to allow friends and family to follow my progress, thanks to Tony from Spot NZ for kindly supporting my attempt. Dave was making the most of being up the north end of the range and had his own epic planned, a 12hr Bannister loop via Cattle Ridge, Waingawa, Bannister and finishing down the Dundas Ridge. In the interests of keeping my attempt Solo/Unsupported I arranged to start 15 mins ahead of Dave and then carry on right to Herepai, whereas he would drop left down to Roaring Stag so that there would be no perception of company following the same route. So it was that we shared a hug, wished each other the best and as 3am ticked over I followed my torch beam onto the dusty trail. My journey had begun.
It all starts here
Putara – East Peak: 3am-4:55am
It feels great to be moving, the nerves that had been building over the last few weeks seem to slip away. I’d managed to taper well for this run and even with a heavy pack on it’s a battle to temper my pace with legs that just feel like going. Although well before dawn I’m in a t-shirt and soon my arm warmers are coming off. It’s remarkable how dry conditions are under foot with all but the biggest muddy sections caking up. I’m not a religious person but I’ve always felt there’s something inherently spiritual about heading into the wilderness on a journey where the outcome is largely unknown. Thus I send some good thoughts to whatever guardians might watch over these magic hills. Please allow me safe passage.
51 minutes to Herepai Hut is a new best for me but I don’t feel like I’m over reaching, things feel just right. With bottles topped up I am soon popping out of the bush and pushing through the dense scrub on my way to the tops. The Stan Evans memorial swims out of the gloom, announcing the beginning of what will be close to 13 hrs of ridge running before I next drop below the tree line.
Muted light is slowly creeping into the day as I follow my torch beam up and over Ruapai, navigating through intermittent clag. There is a cool breeze carrying a wetting mist with it and the arm warmers are soon going back on. Things start to clear a little as the scree littered approach to East Peak looms out of the growing light. It is with some relief that on gaining the summit the clag has partially lifted, revealing the dog legged drop down into the saddle, negating the need to navigate.
East Peak – Dundas: 4:55am-6:58am
On the climb up the other side to West Peak the clag rolls in again from the northwest but enough light has crept into the day to allow me to put away my head torch. Just below the summit, making sure I have the correct heading, I turn left and am off into the murk along Dundas Ridge. It’s nice to be on runnable terrain again and before long Walker has fallen behind me. Scaling the rocky flanks of Pukemoremore I find myself climbing out of the clag, with a good cover of high cloud and a gentle breeze keeping things cool. Near the top I get my first view of Dundas hut clinging to the steep hillside, a sight which never ceases to make me happy (even if it is a little ice box to stay in).
Dundas Hut clinging on
Coming off Pukemoremore, I once again drop off into the clag and am careful to make certain I have the correct spur, the penalty of getting it wrong would be costly. Soon I am climbing again, back out of the clag for good this time. I reach Point 1415 and the sign marking the 200m drop down to the hut. There is also a tarn just to the south of here which usually has water in it and had saved me the steep drop to the hut on a recent Bannister loop. I am still carrying plenty of water so on I run towards 1500 number one, Logan. At exactly 1500m Logan only just makes the cut, but only just is good enough and it feels fantastic arriving at the rock cairn announcing the summit to tick the first off my list. One down, 14 to go. From here I also catch my first view of the range stretching out into the distance to the southwest of me, a daunting sight but one which also promises one hell of an adventure. Before long I am down the other side and getting stuck in to the nicely graded climb up Mt Dundas, arriving at the summit a touch ahead of the loose schedule I’d set. A quick stop at the top to admire the view even though at 1499m on recent maps, she’s been robbed of her 1500 status, and it’s time to move on.
Dundas – Arete Biv: 6:58am-7:58am
Running down the ridge off Dundas I get a look at my first big out and back section to Bannister and its outlier Point 1513, via the aptly named Twins. I know from my previous attempts that it will be these clamberry doglegs that will have their impact later on in the day (and into the night), but with fresh legs it is something to look forward to. First I have to get Arete in the bag. I enjoy this section of tussocky ridgeline as the heat starts creeping into the day, with a fading breeze and the high cloud rapidly burning off. The steel waratahs announce the climb to the summit and soon I am standing on top of 1500 number two, the mighty Arete (1505m). Peak 2, tick. Again the view from the top is stunning. It’s perfect timing to put a scheduled safety call through to my wife and daughter to say good morning. I think they catch on to the fact that I’m buzzing to be up here. I feel fantastic and get a sense that the cards are starting to line up this time around.
A short drop down the boulder strewn southeastern face has me at the tiny Arete Biv, a lovely spot with amazing views over the Waingawa headwaters. A great place to top the bottles up.
Arete from Dundas
Arete Biv – Pt. 1513 Out and Back: 7:58am-9:30am
I’m carrying with me a small summit pack with room for simple safety gear, food and tracker and it’s a delight to shed my heavy expedition pack for the next out and back section (my plan being only to use this if conditions are favourable). Feeling light on my feet I trot down past the toilet with the world’s best view and begin the sidle to the Bannister ridge. Getting stuck-in to the climb up the Twins I glance across at Point 1513 and see a little figure in silhouette pop out at the top. A distant cry of ‘yeeha!’ confirms my thoughts. Dave, on his Bannister mission. Cresting the top of the twins I again plunge down into the next saddle and am soon picking my line up the steep western side of craggy old Bannister. As the summit appears it is joined by a head, and soon I am in a sweaty man hug with Dave, who has been shooting a video of his adventure for a young nephew. You don’t run into many people in these hills and it’s so cool to see a good friend enjoying an area of our country that few get to see.
Bannister from Point 1513
At 1537m and impressive to behold, Bannister feels like one of the big goals. Peak 3, tick. The clock is ticking and my little side trip is not yet complete, so I wish Dave a safe adventure and press on to my next waypoint. Dropping off Bannister the ridge narrows up and soon I am all concentration as the drops on either side focus my mind. I feel better about the last little downclimb before Point 1513, having done a Bannister loop about 3 weeks prior, but still I take my time ensuring my holds are solid. It’s funny, before my daughter, Ruby, was born I would have thought nothing of the exposure, but now with her in mind I move with deliberate caution. Down safely, a brief scramble has me popping out on Point 1513. Peak 4, tick.
Bannister to the left and Point 1513 to the right
It feels amazing to be standing back on Bannister, with one of the sketchier sections now behind me. I retrace my footsteps back over the Twins, my legs absorbing the rough terrain but still feeling fresh. Arete Biv and it’s water tank is a welcome sight as my bottle is long since dry and the day is really starting to heat up.
Arete Biv – Tarn Ridge Hut: 9:30am-11:26am
Shouldering my expedition pack with a fresh load of water feels like such a burden after running with my summit pack but it’s great to be heading south down the range again. Once out of the tussock the next section is runnable and cresting Pt.1389 I get a good look at my next 1500, Lancaster, guarding the approach to Carkeek Ridge. Before long I have powered my way up to the ridge and drop my pack for this wee out and back. It’s a lovely little ridge scramble and in no time I’m standing on top of Lancaster. Peak 5, tick. The view north to Arete reveals the mountain in all it’s craggy glory and south a peek into the rugged Waiohine headwaters.
Back at my pack I carry on south and am soon at the steep drop through the Waiohine Pinnacles. As gnarley as it looks this section is a lot of fun, it just pays to stay focused as the drops and lack of vegetation lend an air of exposure to it. Then from precipitous to pedestrian, the pinnacles are behind me and the broad and incredibly runnable Tarn Ridge opens up before me. A couple of clambers later and the welcoming Tarn Ridge Hut pops into view over the rise. The breeze has picked up again, funneling through the low point and I happily enter the hut to stay warm and sort my food for the next section, there will be no more shelter for over six hours.
Tarn Ridge Hut – Adkin: 11:26am-1:58pm
Running again it’s straight into the climb for my next 1500, Girdlestone (1546m). Before it gets steep I’m treated to views down the picturesque Dorset Ridge and can just see them nestled off the side at the bushline. The going soon becomes steep and I’m all attention, aware that this is not the place to put a foot wrong. It’s getting hot as the midday sun beats down and the wind that I hid from at the hut disappears. One last clamber and the summit arrives – I plonk myself down in the soft tussock to enjoy the moment. Peak 6, tick. An amazing view all the way to the south of the range is my reward… or the booby prize, I’m not yet decided as that’s where I’m headed. But not before my last out and back.
It feels great to shed my expedition pack again and don my lightweight summit one. I’m back on my feet, legs feeling fresh with the reduced weight and it’s a pleasure to open them up on the short plunge between Girdlestone and Brockett. In no time I pop onto the top of Brockett (1538m) Peak 7, tick. I then turn southwest down the ridge towards Mitre, Tararuas tallest peak at 1571m. As I descend I see a couple of figures at the base of the climb. As I draw near I call out a welcome and stop for a quick chat. It’s a couple of friendly trampers, a father-son team, headed for Dorset Hut. They at first seem perplexed at this runner with nothing but a hip pack and a drink bottle in the middle of the mountains. When I explain that my pack is back on Girdlestone and what I’m up to they are amused and are kind enough not to question my sanity. Wishing them a good trip I’m on my way to the base of the Mitre climb, where I drop my poles as the next section is going to be fun. The northwest approach to Mitre is steep with lots of rock and you need to keep an eye ahead and up to pick the most efficient climbing line. My legs are still feeling fantastic and I really enjoy getting stuck in, topping out in no time at the big cairn marking the summit. Peak 8, mighty Mitre, tick. Not wanting to waste time, a quick trot down the southern ridge has me standing on the top of Peggys Peak (1545m), giving me an amazing view back over Mitre, Brockett and Girdlestone. Peak 9, tick.
From left to right. Girdlestone, Brockett and Mitre Peak. From Peggys Peak.
As quick as I can I retrace my footsteps, picking my poles up at the base of Mitre. Back over Brockett and then down the ridge, I catch up to the trampers I had passed earlier in the saddle before Girdlestone. They had just found an emergency bag left by another party who had needed to bivvy overnight in stormy conditions 24 hours prior. They had shared Mitre Flats Hut following that – sounded like a harrowing time. Glad that we aren’t experiencing similar conditions, I wish them the best on their trip and carry on up Girdlestone to fetch my pack. It feels like a real milestone arriving back on the summit as that was the last of the out and backs done. I take a moment to sit in the tussock and take in the view stretching away to Angle Knob. It is a glorious day, I really feel alive.
Putting my summit pack away for good this time I carefully pick my line down the steep southern slopes of Girdlestone and before long I arrive on top of Adkin. Although a fairly minor peak, Adkin bears the name of farmer and scientist Les Adkin, who in the early 1900’s was responsible for mapping and naming a lot of the features in the Northern and Western Tararuas, with Lancaster, Logan, Thompson and Walker all named after tramping friends. I wonder about all the untold stories these hills could tell. The Three Kings beckon.
Mitre Peak left and Peggys Peak right, from Adkin
Adkin – Angle Knob: 1:58pm-4:00pm
Dropping off Adkin I find myself thinking about water. I’m still carrying plenty but Powell Hut, my next reliable water source, is around 4hrs away and I have enough for two at the most. I know there are a couple of tarns coming up but I’m also very aware that it has been unseasonably hot and dry over the last few weeks. This has been one of my biggest concerns going in to my attempt and it is with more than a little relief that as I climb towards North King, my first tarn appears and I can see the sparkle of the sun reflecting off it. On closer inspection it’s really low and the crazy cracking of the mud on it’s bed shows that it has been baked dry recently. But it’s wet so I fill a bottle, trying hard to ignore the wriggly things that float into it and throw in a treatment tab for good luck. That should see me through to Powell at a pinch. Water problems solved for now I get stuck back into the climb and am soon standing atop of North King (1535m). Peak 10, tick.
North King south face
The gentle northern approach to North King gives nothing away about the nature of ridge to the south of the summit. A series of drops keeps things interesting and the time flies as I concentrate on getting it right (my first time through here was interesting to say the least…). As I descend I spot some movement on Mid King and as I negotiate the last of the drops I come across a young party of three trampers. They’re sidling through the tussock a little off the main ridge so we call a greeting, share grins and carry on on our respective adventures. It seems like in no time I’m tagging my next 1500 as I summit Mid King (1521m). Peak 11, tick.
Mid King left and South King right
Dropping down from Mid King I come across my backup tarn and again there’s water but also evidence of it being dry recently. Sometimes you just have to ride your luck. The next peak arrives in quick succession, the last of the kings, South King (1531m). Peak 12, tick. As I descend towards the Baldy turnoff I spot the sign and also see what I think is trampers stopped near the junction. When I get closer it appears to have been an optical illusion, something that seems to happen more and more as you fatigue on these big runs. The aptly named Broken Axe Pinnacles are next to bar the way, a sawtooth series of eroded peaks which guard the way to my next 1500 McGregor (1540m). With haste being the order of the day I take the sidle option around this impressive geological feature (there will be enough character building experiences later in my journey) and find myself on the tussocky climb to McGregor. I don’t know what it is with me and this peak, but third time in climbing it I find myself off the ridge deep in tussock riddled with stabby Spaniard Grass, swearing. I can never find the easy approach… is there one? It is with a ridiculous amount of pride at escaping a bunch of native grasses that I pop out on the top. Peak 13, tick.
McGregor, Broken Axe Pinnacles in foreground
It is an absolute joy to drop from McGregor as the terrain really opens up into a plateau and I can run. I shoot past the turn to McGregor Biv, revelling in being able to really open up my legs. Angle Knob (1510m) soon looms ahead and in no time I’m deviating off the Jumbo route, clambering up the rocky approach and taking the last few steps to the summit. Peak 14, tick. Wow. Here I am at my second to last 1500 and I’m buzzing. Just the fact that I’m buzzing is fantastic. Because when I lift my head and cast my eyes across the range way off to the southwest, peeking from the afternoon haze, there she is. Mt Hector, Pukemoumou, the Hill of Desolation… I am a little over half way.
Mt Hector centre rear, from Angle Knob
Angle Knob – Totara Flats: 4:00pm-7:31pm
Despite the deep fatigue that is starting to creep into my legs, I’m feeling really confident, nothing bar catastrophic injury is going to keep me from pursuing my end goal. Hector and out. I’m out in the beautiful mountains, doing what I love. I draw my strength from all the people who have put their faith in my dream, my friends and family, and push on. I’m treated to more open running as I pick my way towards Jumbo. It’s hot and the breeze has died to nothing. Next to arrive out of the muggy evening is Jumbo. It was here on my first attempt with dwindling food supplies that I pulled the plug, dropped down Raingauge and conceded defeat. Such a long way to go to greet failure. In a totally different head space I turn right off Jumbo and relish the familiar territory, the great little tops section of the Jumbo-Holdsworth Circuit. The ups are starting to become a serious effort and I focus on the fact that once I get to Mt Holdsworth I’ll be treated to close to two hours of downhill (be careful what you wish for).
There are plenty of runnable sections but the moment it gets steep I’m now reduced to a trek, it’s inevitable so I just enjoy the change of pace. The scramble up to Holdsworth arrives and it feels fantastic to get to the junction and point myself down the ridge to Powell Hut. This is my last chance before dark to report in with a safety schedule and so I put a call through to my wife Emma. It brings you back to earth when your three year old says “Hi Dad, bye Dad!” in the same sentence. There are more important things going on in this world than some guy getting lost in the hills. Last time I was up here I was up to my knees in snow and donning a head torch in the fading light of a snowy Jumbo-Holdsworth, now I’m sweating in a t-shirt and get a good view of people sunning themselves above the hut, as I drop toward the bush line. It looks like heaven to me.
Mt Holdsworth left, Isabelle right
At the hut I douse myself with cool water from the tanks, top my bottle up and carry on into the bush. I leave behind squeals of kids who are enjoying themselves in the hut after the tramp up – it’s going to be a long night for anyone staying there! Getting stuck into the descent it’s lovely being back in the bush again after 13 hours on the exposed tops. Before long my legs are beginning to protest from the constant down hill hammering and I pause to take some Panadol (the first of the trip) and caffeine. At the Mountain House Shelter I again douse myself in water… man it’s hot in the bush.
By the time I get to the Totara Flats turnoff the painkillers are starting to do their thing and I open up my legs a bit more over the rooty descent. Unfortunately my concentration is waning at this point so I somehow miss the new track which I was intending on taking and find myself dropping steeply to the stream. ‘Ah well’ I think, at least it’s a new section of trail to me and I’ll be able to weigh my own thoughts into which is the quickest of the routes. Splashing through the stream is heaven for my hot and bruised feet and I dunk my hat in to cool my head off again. So begins an undulating route, one moment in the stream bed, next climbing high above it and back again, crossing little side streams as I go. While it’s interesting country the constant ups and downs are hard work on tired legs and each time I think I must be there soon, I round another bend and still no swing bridge. Finally I pass the swing bridge crossing from the new track (currently closed due to damage) and know that I’m almost at the Waiohine River and Totara Flats Hut. If you’re tired and in a hurry I definitely recommend taking the new track and fording by the bridge, it’s not as interesting but I believe it would cut some time. The Waiohine swing bridge is a welcome sight, always an amazing view up the valley as you cross it. In no time I’m across, through the bush and emerge at the hut, a bunch of trampers enjoying the evening sun, trying to work out what to make of this dishevelled, sweaty runner heading straight to the water tanks.
Waiohine River (from valleys S-K)
Totara Flats – Mt Hector: 7:31pm-3:14am
Plonking myself down onto the back steps my head feels a bit swimmy from the caffeine and fatigue. This is my last hut before it gets dark so I take a moment to change my head torch batteries and put it on for later. I also sort the food which I plan to use through the night as it will be much easier now than later in the dark bush. Sitting feels lovely but I’ve got a long way to go and now I’m racing the light. Waving my goodbyes to the people relaxing on the deck (that looks pretty attractive right now) I go back the way I came, heading for Cone Ridge. You’re into the climb almost immediately and I get stuck in, clambering up through the lush bush. It’s the first real climb I’ve done since the tops and as I gain altitude it’s apparent that my legs have one speed only: slow. With a dense canopy of trees the evening light struggles to get through and as the ridge broadens out I have to switch on my head torch to stay on the often faint foot trail. Twilight is a funny time in the bush, depth perception is thrown out, especially when you’re knackered and staying with the trail and its intermittent markers sees me slowing down considerably. Finally I pop out at a high point and can see the communication tower on Cone silhouetted in the dying light. It’s clear that my estimated times for this night section are a little optimistic so I put a goodnight call through to Em and advise her that while I’m still confident of getting it done, not to worry if my estimated times blow-out through the night. I have food that I can stretch out to 30 hrs, and mentally feeling really good even if the body is starting to slow down.
It’s full dark when I arrive at the big swampy tarn just to the north of Cone, my last reliable water source until Kime Hut on the far side of the range. I still have some water in my hydration pack so I only fill one bottle, an oversight which is going to bite me later on. The broad featureless top of Cone arrives and it takes me what seems like an age to locate the big orange triangle marking the drop into the bush. Dropping off Pt.1118 down towards Neill Saddle I’m appalled at the state of the trail, and find myself burning through my head torch much faster than planned just trying to stick to the ridge. It’s like a bomb has gone off, with fresh windfall everywhere, necessitating going off the trail to negotiate large deadwood. Every time I do this there is the time consuming job of locating the trail on the other side. A night mission through here a couple of years ago had prepared me for some rough travel but this had deteriorated considerably since then. At one stage I lose the trail and find myself in dense rotten wood off the side of the ridge. Trying to scramble back up, the rotten vegetation is constantly giving way to a void beneath me and progress is painfully slow. Something grunts in the bush and crashes away from me into the undergrowth… it’s probably my smell, I’d run too. Back on the track and at the saddle my battery runs out and I switch it to a fresh one. I now only have what’s left of this mornings battery and my tiny emergency torch in reserve, I’ll have to make do with low light as there is still a long way to go.
Although the trail is still a mess with only the occasional marker to confirm I’m still on track, climbing is always easier as far as nav goes and soon I break out of the bush onto the open top of Neill. Again I waste time locating the drop down the western side and it’s not until I spot a couple of cairns on the way down that I am sure I have the correct heading. Soon I arrive at the top of a giant slip which has eaten the original trail. Even on full my head torch cannot penetrate far down its steep face, and rocks I dislodge clatter away into the darkness below. From my previous trip I know that I need to stay to the north of this but I struggle to find any sign of a route down. I soon find myself on a steep face using trees like ladders to lower myself down, trying my best not to pick rotten ones and not always succeeding. It’s apparent that I’m getting myself into very steep country, too close to the slip, but going back up would be a tricky proposition. I’m using my torch on full a lot and am beginning to worry about running out of batteries. I have plenty of gear if I need to bivvy for the night but having come this far I would be gutted to have to make that call. Nope, I’m going to find this bloody trail.
Sidling north across the steep face through dense bush a trail marker flashes in my torchlight, Yes! From one thing to another, with the extra time taken I’ve now run out of water, my hydration bladder had less than I thought, so I’m reduced to eating gels with nothing to wash them through my stomach. This slows my legs even more but with the trail regained I’m going to do this dammit. After some steep scrambling down the ridge the trail levels out and I startle a deer which has been sleeping on the track. I’m elated when around the next bend a shallow tarn appears next to the trail. The water is far from clean but at this point I’ll take what I can get. I throw a treatment tab in with the slime, 30 mins until my next drink, I can’t wait! I decide I better conserve my last good battery so I switch to my emergency head torch. At first it’s ridiculously dim but my eyes soon adjust, I just have to take my time to stay on the trail. Keeping my sleepy eyes open is now my next challenge. Climbing again, there’s a sense of incredible relief as I break out of the trees and start my steep climb through the tussock to Winchcombe Peak – I’m out of the bush. Soon I’m cresting the domed top of Winchcombe and the compass comes out, I want to make sure I get this right.
Navigation off the top can be tricky as the ridge to Hector doglegs off to the west. I locate a cairn signalling the drop and use my good torch in bursts to make sure I have the correct ridge. So begins a series of sawtoothing bumps as I make my slow ascent. I regularly use bursts of my torch to orientate myself as I go, more than once seeing startled eyes peering down at me as I wake deer sleeping in the tussock. The climb seems to go on forever but finally after a couple of knife edged sections it starts to broaden out. I give a burst of my torch and there it is, swimming out of the murk, a sight I’ve been dreaming of all through the day and well into the night. The Hector Cross.
I let out a whoop! Now that I’m almost there it all seems surreal. I’m not in a hurry to summit and spotting a tarn on the approach I take my time to fill my dry bottle, there’s still a way to go. I walk the last little bit, taking my time to absorb the moment. Exhausted but elated, I lay my hand on the cross. This one’s for Colin.
Mt Hector (1529m), peak number 15, tick.
Mt Hector – Otaki Forks: 3:14am-7:08am
A cool breeze is blowing in from the west and having been in only a t-shirt for the last 24 hours I finally don my jacket. Starting the steep descent of Hector its very apparent that my trip out to Otaki isn’t going to be in a hurry. The loose rock is agony under my bruised feet and my progress is painfully slow. It’s a relief to bottom out and begin the climb up and over Field Peak. With Field out of the way the reflective trail markers down at Kime Hut float eerily in the dark, giving the illusion of people with torches on the trail. As I approach the hut a dark shape comes at me barking, a large black dog and I’m relieved when he proves to be friendly. As I sit on the steps by the water tanks a head pops out the door, the dogs owner, to see who could be causing all this fuss at 4am in the morning. He’s amused to find I’m just passing through on my way to Otaki and bids me a good trip as I sort my food and depart.
Up over hut mound I go, enjoying a break from the rocky trail. Every time I come across marshy areas I seek out the wettest sections to soothe my aching feet. Past the Maungahuka turnoff I start dropping again, using my poles as much as possible to take the load off. It’s as I’m sidling past Dennan that the first glow of the coming day starts creeping into the day. Silhouetting the hills of the Main Range to the east in a warm red. As I drop to the broad flat boardwalks of Tabletop my second dawn of the journey arrives and an amazing thing happens. While the aches and pains of my body are still very real and present, the deep mental fatigue and threatening sleep just evaporate. One minute there, the next, gone. It’s a beautiful feeling and I take a moment to be thankful for what I am doing. Soon I’m back in the bush for the last time and the familiar sight of the helipad comes into sight announcing my arrival at my final water stop, Field Hut. It’s nice to sit briefly as I have a drink and top my bottle, smelling the morning bush and old woodsmoke as the dawn chorus serenades me.
Dawn number two
Back on the track I disregard my feet, feeling a new energy flowing through me. I find something resembling pace for the first time since sundown the day before. As I start the long drop towards Otaki Forks the sun breaks above the surrounding peaks and filters warmly through the trees. My Jacket comes off. Finally the groomed section of switch-backed trail appears and I start to catch glimpses of the grassy flats below. The unrelenting impact jars through every muscle and greeting a morning tramper making an early start on the day, I think he’s left wondering if what I gave him was a smile or a grimace. Popping out onto the flats is always such a good feeling, this time even more so. I find an extra burst of speed as I run through the grassy field and drop towards the river. The goal that I’ve been working towards for three years now appears before me. As I hit the bridge a wave of emotions sweeps over me, I have dreamed of this for so long, almost discarded it, and finally followed through. My dream, the Tararua 1500’s nonstop, solo and unsupported, has come true. I stop the clock as my foot hits the grass on the far side and run into a sweaty embrace with my best mate Craig Stevenson, who has patiently waited up all night in his ute to welcome me home. Talk about amazing friends. I can stop running.
Bringing it home
All up the route I followed took in roughly 100 kms of some of the best mountain running in New Zealand. The total climb was somewhere in the vicinity of 8000 metres, summiting 36 named peaks and taking in another 24 spot heights. I visited seven backcountry huts and one shelter, only venturing into Tarn Ridge Hut to hide from the wind while sorting food. I summited 15 peaks of 1500m or greater, four of them twice. It took me a grand total of 28 hours and 8 minutes, road end to road end.
What did I take out of this? Follow your dreams. Learn from your mistakes. Draw strength from those around you. That if you want something bad enough, gain the skills and knowledge required and have total belief in your ability to achieve it, you can make it happen. That making it happen can sometimes hurt. A lot.
But most of all I am reminded that we live in the most beautiful country in the world. That we need to look after this country. That I am surrounded by amazing people who make me a better person. To never take any of it for granted.
Tim Sutton 2017
Gear Used: – clothes I run in (t-shirt, shorts & trucker) plus
-Montane Via Dragon 20 pack (modified)
-Adidas Adizero XT Boost shoes
-Led Lenser SEO7R Head torch w/ 3 battery packs
-Petzl e+lite emergency torch
-Waterproof cellphone w/ Viewranger (Spark for coverage on tops)
-Black Diamond Carbon Z – trekking poles
-North Face Thermoball synthetic hooded puffer jacket
-Inov-8 Seam sealed hooded jacket and pants
-Thermal top and bottom
-First aid kit
-Foil survival bag (not blanket)
-Topo maps and compass
-GPS Spot Tracker
-30hrs food (Hammer Perpetuem, Horleys Replace, Gu Gels & Stroopwafel)
-Ability to carry 3L water
-Aquatabs water treatment
My route, 1500’s in yellow