The Tararua Range
The Tararua Range begins at the northern limit of the Rimutaka Range—where State Highway 2 cuts a meandering path between Wellington and Wairarapa—and stretches north to the Manawatu Gorge. Essentially, it is a 100 km segment of the North Island’s 500 km-long backbone, which extends from Turakirae Head, south of Wellington Harbour, right up to East Cape. As well as the Tararua mountains, this spine includes the Rimutaka, Ruahine and Kaweka Ranges, the Kaimanawa Mountains, and the Huiarau and Raukumara Ranges. I like to think of these as New Zealand’s Northern Alps.
Savage weather batters the range to such an extent that even those familiar with the higher and harder mountains of the Southern Alps have sometimes underestimated it. In his book Waking to the Hills (1985), tramper Geoff Spearpoint calls them “the traditional home of rain and fog”, and it’s hard to argue with that. As Spearpoint notes, the problem with the Tararuas is their exposure to weather from all directions, particularly the fierce winds channelled through Cook Strait. “Southerlies bring the snow and freeze them; westerlies bring the rain and wet them; northerlies blow until it is a marvel there is anything left.”
Note: The above map is a fantastic 3d representation of the park with tracks. Geographix (office in the Botanical Gardens) make them for you for $20! A great aid for visualising your adventures!
Having explored other areas of the park while ‘training’ I began to hear whisperings of a long Tararua route, the S-K. I tracked down this publication in Wellington library, and then spent a pleasant afternoon reading accounts from way back, written by enthusiasts who had tested themselves along the range.
More information can be found on the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Clubs webpage
These publications will give you much more insight and information about the routes and history of the S-K than I am about to. Whether you are planning an attempt, wondering whether you could or simply intrigued and want to know more, go dig out a copy and learn some more. Before I gave the route a go, the Cuthbertson and Jagger 1997 edition became a much referred to source for inspiration and advice.
The prospect of completing a north – south traverse of the Tararua range seemed to have been conceptualised way back, but like many of these ideas it was not given a solid attempt immediately. The challenge from the off seemed to be the unwritten notion that an S-K assailant should aim to leave work on a Friday night and be back in on a Monday morning having done the route in-between times. The first to record such a feat is thought to be Bruce Jefferies and Dave Capper in 1963.
There are many ways one could get from the Putara Road end (where the route begins) to Kaitoke, but three main routes are considered by most.
First option for an S-K. THE VALLEYS S-K
The first, by the valleys, travelling the rivers via the Waingawa, the Waiohine and finally the Tauherenikau.
Second option for an S-K. TARN S-K
The second, via Tarn Ridge and finishing down the Tauherenikau.
An article on S-K and Graham Dingle Tarn Ridge SK was in Wellingtonian recently
Third option for an S-K.
The ‘Holy Grail’…The Main Range S-K
The third, via the Main Range, traversing the western range from the Dundas Ridge, down the Southern Main Range finishing with the Southern Crossing. It is this third route that is considered to be the most challenging due to it’s length, total vertical climb and general exposure to the elements. It is this route that I am most familiar with and refer to now.
With weekend S-Ks being completed fairly regularly by fit trampers, human nature grabbed a few ambitious souls by their laces and encouraged a no sleep approach with a view to knocking off the Main Range S-K sub 24hours. Roger Coventry in 1975 seemed to be the first to give this method a good go arriving at Kaitoke 28 hours after leaving Putara, commenting in his write up afterwards, ‘that the prospect of a 24 hour SK is not such a dream after all’. Gary Goldsworthy in 1988 gave the route another fast pair of feet to contend with and came tantalisingly close to breaking 24 hours, arriving at Kaitoke 25 ½ hours after leaving Putara. Rob Camden in 1995 knocked off a Main Range S-K in one hit, taking 31 hours to reach Kaitoke from Putara Road. These three meritorious performances were all undertaken solo and unsupported.
Later in 1995 a man familiar with the Tararuas mustered some support groups, had a big breakfast and set off down the main range from Putara Road. Colin Rolfe arrived at Kaitoke 22 hours 59 minutes after leaving Putara Rd, with many an unforeseen hurdle on route to contend with.
The 24 hour barrier had been broken, giving credence to Roger Coventry’s postulation from 25 years earlier that such a feat was indeed possible.
It took 18 years for Colin’s record to be beaten and once again the range tested the assailants; I know much about this day as it was my good friend Laurence Pidcock and I that arrived at Kaitoke 22 hours 12 minutes after leaving Putara Road.
Our accounts are hosted on Tararua Speed Record should you wish to read them, so I will not dwell here with details, except one. We tackled this test in a supported and paired fashion, meaning we had the assistance of some of our friends, members of the Wellington mountain running community willing to offer their time to assist us on the route by taking food to various sections for us. This enabled us to travel as light as possible, a method designed to maximise speed and, it seems, to inadvertently stir up opinion as to how such matters should be tackled. The controversy we attracted from some was to my mind fairly surprising. I am not one to overtly run in the face of tradition but it seems some folk couldn’t see that our deviation from solo and unsupported was, if anything, a compliment to those that had gone before in such a fashion as we chose a perhaps less challenging method of attack. Sure, travelling light brings the challenge of speed and maintenance thereof. But it also takes away many facets of solo travel such as carrying extra weight, maintenance of morale when the inevitable dark spots arise and the backing of one’s judgement of pace and navigation decisions with nobody else to call upon for a second opinion.
I think about parallels that can be made between styles of ascent in mountaineering: the siege tactic of formal advance camps cached with supplies and then the ‘purer’ alpine style where the assailant carries all their gear for a rapid siege on the mountain. Or rock climbing; ‘sport’ climbing where one man clips into a bolted wall, compared to ‘trad’ climbing where the gravity defeater carries cams and quickdraws up a face, all the time looking for suitable protection points to place their gear. If sports didn’t progress, or traditions weren’t built upon, we’d still be climbing Everest wearing a shirt and tie beneath a tweed suit, swigging a slug of rum to warm the blood, eschewing supplementary oxygen as an unnecessary and illegal performance aid! Styles of attack are different and distinct and should be viewed as such; they bring about different challenges, in these cases none of them easy and therefore deserve to be recorded and appreciated, and for others to draw inspiration from.
The UK ‘equivalent’ (if one may permit such a comparison) of the S-K is a route called the Bob Graham Round
It is a 24 hour challenge on a route that is longer, with more vertical climbing and in my mind harder than the S-K. With the current membership list up to the end of 2013, only 1848 (since 1932 when it was first completed by Bob Graham) people have completed the round in the specified 24 hour period. Why do I mention this? Because almost all of those 1848 people completed the route with support and pacers. Why? Well, in my opinion, on an arduous and demanding day in the mountains on a route of this length, to get ‘around’ in under 24 hours many a mortal will need every inch of psychological and physical help one can be offered while still putting their own feet one in front of the other. Sure there are remarkable exceptions to the rule who seem to muster depths of strength others can perhaps aspire to, but for most, attacking such a challenge solo will not bring about their desired outcome of a sub 24 hour achievement.
There are links on this site to more formal descriptions of what constitutes supported, unsupported, self-supported etc but I would like to take this opportunity to echo Peter Jagger’s sentiments when he asked, ‘Will tramping club members carry on the challenge of the S-K?’, but I’d like to add, if you are going to take on the challenge, do it in whatever style you feel suits you best and don’t worry about what a minutiae may think. Eventually those that critique such attempts that deviate from their own perceptions of what is true and correct may come to realise that no SK is easy! And it is perhaps better to embrace evolution for what it is: a different style of approach to a traditional challenge. As Peter Jagger so rightly said, “all accounts record fitness, effort and determination to traverse the SK, ‘just because it’s there’”. The challenges of differing approaches are distinct and different and what works for and appeals to one may not suit the next.
It seems the ‘dawn of sub 24 hour SKs’ may have arrived as mountain runners sense the challenge and approach with keenness to give it a go. With the first being attained by Colin Rolfe in 1995, it took 18 years for the next sub 24 hour S-K to happen. Since December 2013 there have been three more Main Range sub 24 hour SK successes.
In November 2014, Grant Guise and Matt Bixley (whose account is also hosted here) set the then fastest known time, arriving at Kaitoke an impressive 21 hours and 33 minutes after leaving Putara Road. Just one week ago from the time of writing, Wellington man Tim Sutton left Putara for a solo and un-supported venture, battling a wind free and scorching hot day, to arrive at Kaitoke 22 hours 34 minutes after leaving Putara Road – a mighty and inspiring effort.
It is worth noting that any tramper or runner who has attempted an S-K will vouch that it is is an exposed and potentially dangerous route subject to extremely volatile weather conditions and navigational challenges, and therefore give the Tararuas the respect they deserve. Equip yourself with the knowledge and tools to tackle such an endeavour safely. Please refer to our safety section on this site for some advice and do your homework.
Recognition is perhaps a small reason why such a venture is undertaken, but should you be planning an attempt it could be a good idea to contact people who have gone before for advice, and even use this site to informally ‘register’ your attempt and intentions. We hope that in doing so we can foster a sense of community and give a home to attempts on the S-K, and other tracks in the Tararuas It would be unlikely and against the very spirit that mountain running embodies for anyone to fabricate attaining the personal challenge of a sub 24 hour S-K; at the end of the day it is only going to be formally recognised with trust and honesty, which I think is great and within the spirit of the whole thing. But could I take this moment to encourage the following (to primarily add credibility and interest, but also to serve as a verification method should you be successful going sub 24hours):
- Where possible have someone drop you off and pick you up
- Keep a record of your split times at the milestones along the way
- If going supported, have your pacers record your splits too
- Write an account of your day out – while muscle pain is still fresh. In it, name any pacers/lifts/crew that assisted you
- Of course a Garmin/GPS device records all, feel free to share GPX files
Good luck, go take up the challenge!
With 11 people now completing the Putara – Kaitoke route via the Main Range in under 24 hours we thought it time to formally recognise such endeavour with the formal launch of the SK Main Range sub 24 hour Club. The objectives of this club are as follows:
- Build on tramping club history
- Ratify Colin Rolfe as the first
- Formalise a 24 hour target for Putara to Kaitoke via Main Range
- Promote safe long distance traverses of the range
- Assist potential assailants by providing information, support and encouragement
- Keep member list current and up to date
- Acknowledge sub 24 hour successes
- Recognise sub 24hr attainment with certification
Colin Rolfe, the first member back in 1995, was conducive to the idea so an SK night was organised for (appropriately), the 24th (May 2016). Colin made the effort to fly up from the South Island and headed a line-up of talks from some of those 11, all sharing their uniquely personal experiences to a packed Southern Cross back room of appreciative punters from the tramping and running community.
The evening ended with Colin presenting the newly made members’ certificate to nine of the eleven present who have managed to attain Kaitoke before the watch clicks over the 24.
Next certification evening 24th May 2017. Will there be any to hand out? Could you be number 12?
Happy safe ridge running.
Since Chris Swallow wrote this piece, he has actually attempted again, succeeded, and is the current FKT champion of the SK Main Range. His time of 19:20:00 is hot, and I imagine will be a very tough record to beat! Watch this space though – rumour has it that a couple of keen punters are lining up some SK attempts, and we eagerly await news of their expeditions.