A Tararua Valleys S-K Traverse, Tim Sutton, September 2016
If the Main Range is the backbone of the Tararuas then the rivers are its arteries, pumping the precious life blood through the misty Mountains. The tops are impressive in their views and crags but there is something primal and grounding about traveling along a riverbed amongst the rocks and big boulders. There is an earthy, almost metallic smell which can intoxicate with its freshness as you negotiate the tumbling rapids, deep glassy pools, and seemingly impassible bluffs. As with the riverbed the scenery is in constant change as you escape all sign of human influence on the land.
I was about to get a year older and, looking for a way celebrate 38 years of adventures, I felt myself longing for the hills. A recent southerly storm had choked up the higher Tararua passes with deep snow so the valleys were calling. Friends of mine, Chris Martin and Iain Atkinson, had recently completed a Valleys S-K and had fired my enthusiasm with talk of navigation, bush bashing, joy, pain and eventually glory. This route is a 74km North-South traverse of the Tararua mountain range beginning at the Putara (formerly Schormann) road end near Eketahuna in the Wairarapa and finishing in Kaitoke in Wellington’s Hutt Valley.
While often viewed as the poor cousin to the challenging Main Range S-K, the Valleys route is still a formidable undertaking. With an untracked river section to negotiate at the start and some big root strewn climbs between 5 major river valleys adding up to an accumulative ascent of 3473m, it’s always going to be a big weekend. Or day, as I was planning.
With a long history of crossings by different routes since the late 1960’s, the initial challenge was to do it in a weekend, with one or two sleeps along the way. Always looking for new challenges, assailants were soon trying to do it nonstop. One such group to do this via the valleys was John Busby, Jon Thorsen, Murray Doughty and led by Ross Gordon who, in 1988, set the fastest time recorded through any S-K route of 17 hours 20 mins. A record which still stood 28 years later in 2016 as I looked over the maps. With the pain of my 2015 Main Range S-K long forgotten (it’s amazing what the brain will let go of), it looked like a real adventure.
So it was I found myself standing in the predawn dark at the Putara Road end preparing to tackle the route non-stop, solo and unsupported. With fresh snow on the tops the temperature hovered a little over freezing as I thanked Dad for the long drive in. With a quick hug the clock ticked over 5am and I was off up the Muddy track.
Putara-Roaring Stag Hut: 5am-6:20am
Running along a tunnel of light projected from my headtorch, familiar emotions washed over me. It’s always the same when taking on a big adventure where the outcome is unknown. Excitement boosted by a large shot of adrenaline is mixed with a touch of apprehension at the size of the challenge awaiting in the backcountry. The nerves soon settled down as I focused on the trail ahead and I was soon reminded of why progress in the Tararuas is never fast with mud and tree roots forcing the mind to focus.
With no wind and despite the cool temperature I was soon down to a t-shirt, not wanting to get sweaty and cold this early into the run. The first section briefly follows the Mangatainoka headwaters giving the legs time to warm up. You’re then thrown straight into a steep rooty climb up a spur which had my lungs working. As I climbed a heavy cold mist drifted through the bush reflecting my light back at me and making the route finding challenging.
After the steep ascent the trail leveled off and the trees thinned through a section that had a very Blair Witchy feel and soon I was at the Herepai/Roaring Stag junction. Unlike prior adventures which had all turned right and up to the Tops, the Ruamahanga River Valley below beckoned and I veered left charging down the ridge toward Roaring Stag Hut.
Making the most of gravity and fresh legs I focussed on ticking off some fast running knowing that the next section would likely be the slowest. With a still grey light slowly creeping into the day I came out onto the river flat and a sleepy Roaring Stag Lodge. Careful not to wake the trampers cocooned on the deck in their sleeping bags, I topped my bottle up at the tanks and carried on to the swing bridge and into dawn.
Roaring Stag Hut – Cleft Creek: 6:20am-7:35am
The unknown never fails to engage the imagination. For the next 6 ½ hours I’d be running through unfamiliar terrain, but it was the immediate untracked route following the Ruamahanga river into which I was now venturing that held the most uncertainty for me.
The last 24 hours had had a minimum amount of rain in the Bannister Basin which fed the river, but prior to that a Southerly Storm had brought heavy snow and rain and I was worried what I might come across when arriving at the river. Crossing the bridge the river was looking marginal with a strong flow but I took heart from the from the fact that it was at least clear.
Soon I was onto the river bed and before long was faced with bluffs and my first river crossing. This was going to be where I made the call as to whether I’d continue via the river or take the much slower but safer option of untracked bush bashing on the old river terraces high above. Picking a likely line at a wider section of river I positioned myself above a pool in case I was washed off my feet, and plunged in with teeth gritted. The cold was bracing and in the main flow I was soon up to my thighs in icy snow melt. It was a relief to be out at the other side but I soon ran out of riverbed and it was back into another crossing. This time the water reached a height to make a grown man gasp but soon I was back to the western side and the last good opportunity to head into the bush. Time to make a call. While the river was high I could see the bottom through the crystal water. As long as I was careful with my lines I felt I could keep any danger to a minimum. The river it was.
So began a pattern of being in and out of the frigid water. Sometimes running on the rocky flanks, and others forced into waist deep pools sidling bluffs trying my best to pick the shallowest lines. There were even a couple of opportunities to leave the river bed completely in favour of following a footbed left by game along low river terraces. From time to time I was forced to cross by bluffs in my path and it became apparent that the flow was becoming increasingly stronger fed by regular streams and creeks as I headed further into the unknown.
As I progressed further down the river the sides of the valley closed in and became increasingly gorge like. The main flow was constricted into a swift deep channel making crossing points more limited and I found myself more often in the water than out. My hands and feet had gone completely numb, impairing my dexterity as I couldn’t feel the surfaces underfoot.
Finally I came to a section of river which was blocked on both sides by smooth vertical bluffs. After scouting up the western side and finding no way of going ahead I backtracked and found a crossing to the other side where I hoped that the pools would be wadeable without having to swim. Here I decided to try climbing a section of bluff to avoid the river but with no feeling in my fingers and no real handholds on the vertical face I had to retreat.
As I lowered myself down my water bottle suddenly caught on the rock and was flipped out of its pocket. I watched as it seemed in slow motion to tumble into the deep pool below. In one moment I felt my whole S-K attempt slipping away as I helplessly watched the current slowly catch my bottle and pull it into the main flow to be whisked away.
While I was carrying a small amount of emergency solid food most of my nutrition was based on powdered drink, which made me totally reliant on my bottle if I was to complete the traverse. My only chance as I dropped back onto the riverbed was if I could outpace my bottle, hoping that it would get caught in an eddy further down. I didn’t rate my chances. With it apparent that my way was barred on both sides by deep pools and rock faces a swim was inevitable.
It certainly created a strong feeling of commitment.
I couldn’t waste any time so I quickly got to transferring any loose items into the main compartment of my pack. I couldn’t afford to have the water stealing anything else from me, especially things like my head torch which would be coming back into use later in the day if I was successful in reaching the south end of the ranges and nightfall. Hoisting the pack above my head I steeled my nerve and plunged into the deep oily pool, my breath stolen by the freezing water. As quick as I could I swam my way around the bluff and dragged myself up onto the rocks at the far side, relieved to be out of the water but now chilled to the bone. Another quick crossing above the rapids which had swept my bottle away and I was starting to think of other solutions to my problem. Maybe a tramper would have discarded a bottle at Cow Creek Hut that I could scavenge.
All thoughts were banished from my head when, looking further down the river, I saw my bottle bobbing slowly through a long pool at the base of the rapids. I also had a clear line down the side of the river. I was off like a shot, totally forgetting how cold I was, I was a man on a mission. Pretty soon I was surprised to find myself drawing even with my bottle and angled into the flow just downstream of it above the next set of rapids, oblivious to the chill. The sense of elation as I closed my hands around it is hard to put into words, my S-K was back in business!
Back on the riverbank warmth became the immediate priority as I was truly drenched. Not wanting to break into my emergency gear unless I truly needed it (wet emergency gear this early in would probably mean bailing) I pulled on my Jacket and cinched the hood snug, had some solid food and got to running in an effort to bring my core temperature back up. A few more crossings and the bend signaling Cleft Creek and my exit point from the Ruamahanga came into view. The rivers parting blow was a chest deep dip across to western beach and it was a relief to give it one last glance and head up the steep bank and into the bush.
Cleft Creek-Cow Creek Hut: 7:35am-9:15am
Scrambling up tree root ladders is an amusing undertaking with frozen hands but it was such a relief to have the cold and nerves of the river behind me. I’d had enough adrenaline for one day. With a smile on my face I spotted my first trail marker since Roaring Stag, as I popped out onto the high river terrace. It soon became apparent that this section of the Tararuas didn’t get much foot traffic, with all my concentration going on keeping to the overgrown trail. It was due to this that I was surprised when emerging out of the bush towards me came two heavily laden trampers.
It’s always a great feeling running into company when you’re in the middle of nowhere. They’d come in via the Ruamahanga track on the way to Cow Creek Hut but had recently turned back after struggling to find the route from Cleft Creek to Cow Saddle. Knowing that Chris and Iain had had a hard time of it through this section the week before, I’d spent a good amount of time studying the map and told the trampers of where I believed the best way through was. However it was pretty apparent they’d had a guts full and were intent on heading back to their car. When they saw my running shoes and heard where I was heading they chuckled and wish me well as we parted ways.
Soon after passing the trampers the trail became very overgrown and hard to follow. Popping out into the creek I followed it briefly upwards but soon decided I wanted to be further to the east on what showed on the map as an area of shingle subsidence, so I pushed back into the scrub. Eventually emerging from the new growth I found myself in a ray of early morning sunshine which was finally trying to penetrate the mist. I was still really cold and it felt fantastic taking a moment to bask in whatever warmth it offered and take in the magic scenery around me.
I dropped into a branch of the creek a little further up where there were intermittent markers. I followed these until a large blaze suggested a big climb to the true left over a huge slip. On the map this looked like a significant detour so I instead decided to push straight up towards the saddle through the bush. It was great to be climbing as I was still trying to get myself warm, but heavy undergrowth and treefall made for slow going. After a lot of crashing around it was great to pop out onto the trail as it dropped down from Waingawa to the saddle below. I could finally get running again. A short trot down and I was at the saddle. Not much there, but I felt like I’d just got through the crux of the trip and I had a quiet little celebration.
It’s worth noting that different maps have the route up to Cow Saddle marked in conflicting places. My approach was different to Chris and Iain’s a week earlier, but in both instances there was a decent amount of unmarked bush bashing up to the saddle. DOC has this section of track scheduled for cutting at some stage in the future which should make travel a lot easier.
The descent down into the Waingawa Valley was quick with a much better track under foot and the glistening river soon came into view. Here I should have got the map out again as I lost a bit of time by following the high water siddle to the swing bridge.
The more direct route cuts straight across the river but when I realised my error I wasn’t very bothered. It would have been a high crossing and the chill of the Ruamahanga was still in my bones. It was fantastic to step from the bridge and see the little Cow Creek Hut welcome me to the next stage of my journey.
Cow Creek Hut – Mitre Flats Hut: 9:15am-11:00am
Dropping down to the river to fill my bottle I was bathed in the morning sunlight. I took a decadent couple of minutes to mix my food while trying to soak in some heat on the grassy river flats. Re tying my laces which had been pulled loose by all the river travel was a formidable task as I still lacked any feeling in my fingers. With housekeeping taken care of it was time to get back on the move.
The feeling of being out of the dark bush and running in the morning sun was uplifting and it wasn’t long before I was stripping off my jacket. My base layers steamed as they finally started to dry and for the first time I felt the invigorating sting of warmth finally returning to my fingers.
Life was good.
This section of the route promised to be much quicker as the track undulated along the western side of the Waingawa, and I relished the opportunity to open my legs up. Occasionally the track would climb high onto old river terraces and a I was treated with some stunning views of the river.
Interspersed with rocky stream crossings time flew and before long the Hut at Mitre Flats came into view, drenched in sun. Complacency brought on by my arrival meant that I missed the Tātarāmoa, or Bush Lawyer snaking across the track and it gave me something to remember my trip by, tearing a good amount of flesh from my hand. Aside from this painful encounter it was great to check another waypoint off my list. Having been on the move for 6 hours now I felt a little envious of the tramper reading his book on the sunny deck with his morning coffee, but it was nice to have somebody to say gidday to.
Mitre Flats Hut – Atiwhakatu Hut: 11:00am-12:52pm
Having topped my bottle up at the tanks I got moving again before the sunny deck became too attractive an alternative. From studying the map the following section looked slow and hilly. It didn’t disappoint. Following another small swing bridge crossing it was straight into a steep climb, unrunnable with the gear I was carrying, and it was nice to have a change of pace.
After 6 hours of running all your aches and pains tend to blend into one which is a bit of a blessing as the mind finds it difficult to focus on any one thing. Switching into power-climb mode I entered an almost zenlike state, simply focussing on my breathing and climbing as efficiently as possible. After a decent amount of climbing and snaking through the bush the junction below baldy came into view and it was back into some fast technical downhill running.
Soon I was crossing the Atiwhakatu swing bridge and the trail flattened out following alongside the stream, eventually spitting me out at the Hut. It was busy with trampers making the most of stunning conditions to take to the snow on the Jumbo-Holdsworth Circuit.
Atiwhakatu Hut-Totara Flats Hut: 12:52pm-3.00pm
I’ve never been a big fan of highly groomed trails but hitting the graveled surface that spans the route between Atiwhakatu and Holdsworth Lodge was a treat for my tired legs. After the slow pace of the previous hilly section it felt great to be running at speed. Coming across a family helping their daughter cross a slip, I remarked on how different the track was compared to when I’d come here as a kid. The Dad laughed and said that when he used to run it in his teens there wasn’t even a track! Great to see that mountain running isn’t just a new fad.
I reached the River Ridge track and turned uphill again. From here it was a quick but steep scramble up the rooty spur to Pig Flat and the Gentle Annie track. I found cellphone reception at the top and was able to send a message out, saying that I was on time and feeling good.
Heading down towards the Totara Flats turnoff I passed a couple of runners on their way down from a trip up to the Holdsworth Trig. They said there was a decent amount of snow at the top as we ran amongst some remnant snow surrounding the boardwalk. I wished them a good run and pushed on, shortly coming to the turnoff and the drop down to Totara Flats. This provided some lovely running, down through a relatively open section of bush clad ridge. Following a swing bridge crossing of Totara Creek I was plunged back into cool shady bush as the afternoon sun dipped briefly behind the hills. The trail meandered along the side of the creek until, still drenched in sun, Totara Flats Hut came into view on the far banks of the majestic Waiohine River.
Totara Flats Hut-Cone Hut: 3:00pm-5:00pm
A quick stop to mix some food and I was off, again relishing the easy going under foot of this well traveled section. The sun was still warm on my back as I came out onto the grassy flats and it felt great to be running freely this far into the day. Some beautiful vistas opened up as I climbed onto a high river terrace, with a glimpse of the snow covered tops adding to the magic.
Arriving at my last big climb of the day I began my long ascent through the bush to Cone Saddle. Having traveled this way recently on a previous adventure I knew that it always took a lot longer than you’d think it would. With a false summit two thirds of the way up it certainly makes you earn it and I again went into power climb mode, just focusing on going up.
It was a relief to come to the crossroads at the saddle with it’s intriguing signpost and begin the much quicker descent to the Tauherenikau River Valley below. I scrambled down the steep rutted trail until the smell of ancient woodsmoke revealed the historic Cone Hut a minute or so before I saw it. I felt like I was getting closer to home.
Cone Hut-Kaitoke: 5:00pm-7:43PM
I trotted down to the river to mix some food and soak in the still evening. With Cone Saddle to my back and the long Tauherenikau Valley and climb out over Puffer the only things standing between me and my goal, I felt I had broken the back of this monster.
It felt like a magic place to be and my spirits were high. With what I’d put my body through over the last 12hrs, fatigue is a relative thing and I felt ready to go. I changed my headtorch battery out so there’d be no fumbling in the dark when night fell, hoisted my pack, and headed off down the track. Making the most of the last of the daylight it was good to be running on relatively familiar terrain and I started to push the pace. Shortly before twilight I passed the turn off for Tutuwai Hut and soon was given one more chance to take in the river as evening descended.
Back in the bush and a couple of near falls told me that it was time to crank the headtorch out. Twilight running in the bush certainly focuses the concentration as the fading light affects your depth perception and I found myself looking forward to full dark. It wasn’t long before I was saying goodbye to a long but satisfying day and running into the night.
While cool, there was no wind to stir the evening and it was nice to still be running in a t-shirt. The bush scents seemed magnified in the dark and I enjoyed knowing that I probably had this valley all to myself while others were getting Sunday dinner organised. The trail twists and turns at the southern end of the valley and I had to stay focussed to pick up these sudden changes in direction. With concentration levels high time flew. In no time at all I was at the last big swing bridge of my journey carrying me across the mighty Tauherenikau. Half
way across I had to stop. With a half moon lighting the sky above me and the river gurgling noisily below it suddenly hit me how beautiful this all was. I spent a quiet minute or two thanking the universe for all the good things in my life.
Hitting the trail on the far side of the bridge I felt energised. The ground was a lot smoother underfoot and I decided to really push this last section home.
The cold looking Smith Creek Shelter drifted by in the dark and I was soon beginning the long climbing sidle to the base of the puffer. Always taking longer than memory serves, this climb is usually at the end of some big adventure or another, and it was a relief to splash through the last stream marking the start of the climb to puffer saddle. This close to home I just put my head down and went for it. A cool breeze, the first I’d felt all day, welcomed me to the saddle and the twinkling lights of the Hutt Valley.
I prepared for the final charge and raced my torchlight down the slippery clay track. The Dobson track flew past and soon I was hitting the muddy steps which descended steeply towards Kiwi Ranch. Past the ropes course looking spooky in the night and into the last little pinch climb which was gone in an instant. Running out of the bush towards the road end, emotions washed over me as I saw the solitary park lights of Dad’s car glowing in the dark.
My adventure came to the end in the quiet, dusty parking lot with a big hug from Dad and I stopped the clock at 14hrs43min, trimming over two and a half hours off the 1988 record. I could stop running.
For the Record: Strava file: https://www.strava.com/activities/707976229/overview
Gear: Shoes: Adidas XT Boost W
Headtorch: LED Lenser Seo 7R
Watch: Garmin Fenix 3
Prototype superlight fastpack (X-Zero)
Seam sealed Hooded Jacket & Pants Extra Thermal top and bottoms
Hooded Down Puffer Jacket
Woolen Hat and Spare woolen socks
Headtorch with spare batteries
Emergency headtorch (lightweight)
First Aid Kit (lightweight)
Emergency Bag (not blanket)
Map and Compass
PLB (personal locator beacon)
Thanks must go again to the amazing Wellington mountain running community I’m proud to be a part of. It’s seeing other normal people like myself out doing big things every weekend that inspires and motivates me. While a record is a great motivator to push for when you’re out there and starting to hurt, it falls into insignificance to just being out in the beautiful wilderness pushing our own personal boundaries. We’re very lucky with what we’ve got here in this little country of ours and it’s important we make the most of it. Em,Ruby and Mum, I thought of you guys on that bridge. Finally, thanks Dad. You’re so often there at the dark road ends that mark the start and finish of these adventures, I can’t wait to share some of our own…