February 15th 2017
In 1965, while cutting his teeth in the wild misty hills of the Tararuas, adventurer Graeme Dingle became the first person to traverse the range from north to south in a day, taking 18 hours 30 minutes non-stop from Putara Hut to Smith Creek Shelter – a feat of endurance never before seen in the Tararuas. He followed the Tarn Ridge route which traverses the craggy eastern range before plunging into the southern valleys. A little over 50 years later, as I studied the maps, his time still stood, a tribute to the fact that he was a pioneer of long fast travel in the mountains. As far as I could ascertain the only sub 24 hour full S-K (roadend to roadend) following this route was by a group of three. On January 25th, 1975; Ron Harding, Jim Swadling and Ken Rigby set out from Putara at 4:30am with the goal of traversing the entire range within one turn of the Earth. 23 1/2 hours later they emerged in Kaitoke; bruised and broken, with bleeding feet, but triumphant. It sounded like fun.
With weather maps showing a small window on the horizon and itchy feet for an adventure, I contacted local running Godfather Chris Martin, aka “Martini”, to arrange a lift into the hills. He was in. Loaded up, Chris and I hit the road to Wairarapa after work where we had booked into the wonderful Putara Base Camp, a converted school house located conveniently 3kms from the Putara road end and the start of the route. It was great having Chris on board to deliver me to the start of my adventure, being the person responsible for sparking my interest in big traverses through these magic hills two years prior. Back then I had no idea how pivotal a role his encouragement would play in shaping my adventure mountain running future.
After double checking my gear and laying it out for a hasty exit, I was into the sack to snatch a couple of hours sleep. It was a long time coming. With regular wind gusts whistling through the eaves my mind wouldn’t switch off, thinking maybe I’d timed my run too early for the short weather window that was on it’s way. Eventually I must have slept but it seemed I’d just laid down when my 3am alarm dragged me back into the world.
Downing a good strong coffee as I pulled on my gear had me feeling a bit better about the time and I noticed the wind seemed to
have dropped out a bit. I was in business. A bleary eyed Chris popped down from the mezzanine to wish me luck (possibly helped by my random flicking of light switches in my search for the kitchen light…). We’d brought Chris’ mountain bike to save him from having to make the trip to the road end in the middle of the night, so saying thanks I was out the door and pedaling down the metaled road following a tunnel of torch light. It was surreal riding through the early morning to the start of an unknown adventure. I startled the odd possum and sheep; probably wondering, rightfully, what this weird creature was up to.
After 15 minutes of riding the DOC sign appeared in my torchlight, signalling the start of my pilgrimage. Warm from the ride on such a chilly morning, it was great to strip back to a t-shirt for the start of my run.
Putara – East Peak: 4am-5:58am
As the clock ticked over 4am I took a deep breath and started running. It was a nice feeling starting this section of the run with muscles already warm from the bike ride. I was used to legs feeling like wood at the start of past adventures beginning at this lonely road end, so I relished the free running. With a lot of recent rain the trail was very boggy and it was only a few minutes before my feet were thoroughly saturated. Welcome to the Tararuas. The gurgling of the Mangatainoka River soon dropped away and the warm legs paid off, as in what seemed like no time I was up the spur and over to Herepai Hut, trimming two minutes off my previous best time.
I topped up my water at the tanks for the rugged northern section, which is also the driest stretch of the route, and it was time to hit the trail again. As I climbed higher the bush thinned and I was beginning to feel the wind that I’d been hearing above me since arriving at Herepai. Knowing that I’d soon be breaking out of cover, I donned a windproof vest and gloves. Good timing – as I came out of the trees at the approach to Herepai peak, a chilling wind cranked up with the promise of more to come higher up. A quick pause at the Stan Evans memorial on the summit and I was off, trying hard to keep the internal heater going. In the wind and heavy dew which clung to the tussock my hands were soon numb, a condition I’d promised myself I’d avoid on my last failed mission up here. Who was I kidding. Running the spindly ridge which seemed more eroded and thin each time I ventured into these hills, my torch was unable to penetrate far into the dark of the drop-offs on each side.
Before long I crested Ruapai and a muted glow had begun to appear on the horizon between breaks in the patchy, wetting clag (mountain cloud) . This wasn’t going to be the cloudless sunrise of past adventures but there is still something deeply spiritual about being on the tops at dawn. As I came down off the crumbly flanks of Ruapai it suddenly hit me; I was literally following in the footsteps of my boyhood hero, Graeme Dingle, a giant in my mind. These are good thoughts to have at the start of a big challenge and all of a sudden the wind, cold, damp and nerves meant nothing, as a warming adrenaline kicked in. I said a little karakia to the Tararuas asking for safe passage (not easy passage, never easy with these hills…) and continued with renewed focus and drive. East Peak loomed like a bastion out of the murk and a steep scramble up its loose scree slopes eventually brought me out to the crater-like summit.
East Peak – Arete Biv: 5:58am-9:02am
Here the clag lifted a little and light slowly crept into the day affording me some priceless visibility on a section that can be tricky in bad visibility. The route doglegs right at the summit and then left where it drops steeply into a deep saddle thick with leatherwood and tussock. In the dark it is very easy to carry on too far past the crucial turn down, as I learnt on an ill fated trip shortly prior to this one. As I dropped down into the saddle I glanced north to where I must have ended up on the steep bluffy flank, dense with mature leatherwood. Not a nice place to be, I was thankful that this time I could see most of the way up the far West Peak.
Sporadic cairns (rock pile markers) confirmed I was on the right track as I climbed the far side of the saddle. Eventually on gaining West Peak I was back in heavy clag and was subjected to the full force of the wind, a lot stronger than forecast and guaranteed to keep all feeling banished from my fingers. On went my waterproof jacket and I cinched the hood tight against the wind and mist. This wouldn’t come off again for another seven hours.
Pointing myself down Dundas Ridge it was nice to be back on runnable terrain and I made the most of being able to turn the legs over quickly. Every time the route fell to the eastern side of the ridge there was a welcome reprieve from the wind. Unfortunately for me the path of least resistance more often than not followed the wind scoured western side. Soon I had ticked off Walker and on the climb up Pukemoremore the lonely Dundas Hut came into view under the clag, clinging precariously to the side of the mountains.
While climbing Logan, my first 1500m peak of the day, the clag finally began to break and I caught my first glimpse of the range to the south. Dropping off the rocky south western ridge next in line came Mt Dundas, which at 1499m had been robbed of it’s 1500m status by the relentless battering Tararua weather (or modern surveying…). Clambering up the prominent ridge to the summit the sun finally emerged from a blanket of cloud, it felt like heaven after the constant chilly buffeting. I arrived at the top five minutes ahead of schedule.
From the summit of Dundas the whole mountain range south opened up before me, a daunting view, as my planned route took me as far as the eye could see. Windblown clag peeling off the edge of the leading ridge to Arete made the hills appear as if on fire. I took a moment to send a good morning message out to my wife, Em, and daughter, Ruby, updating them of my splits so far. I was feeling great.
Over the top and back into the wind, I plummeted down to the next section of ridge. Here thick tussock and stabby Spaniard Grass did its best to slow down progress until old rusted waratahs signalled the approach to Arete. They felt out of place in this isolated mountain setting. Breaking south just short of the summit, a quick scramble down had me arriving at the tiny two bunk Arete Biv and its much welcome water tank. This little shelter is perched in a stunning spot, with views over the Twins, craggy Bannister and the headwaters of Waingawa River far below.
Dropping of Arete
Arete Biv – Angle Knob: 9:02am-1:36pm
Keen to keep moving, I angled towards the Waiohine Pinnacles and got the legs firing. I was frequently distracted by views over Pinnacle Spur to the east, and then again over the majestic Park Valley to the west. No matter how many times I see the post-glacial Park Valley I’m blown away by it’s beauty (time to plan a trip there huh Dad, Ross, Tim?!).
Despite the distractions, it wasn’t long before I arrived at the precipitous drop from the Waiohine Pinnacles to Tarn Ridge. On first glance this section is pretty hairy with the route seemingly taking you straight down a sheer rock face. On closer inspection there is a distinct path down, albeit fairly exposed, in places the earth struggles to maintain its grip on the face. A few rocky scrambles later I popped up onto Tarn Ridge. With the pinnacles dealt to, all of a sudden the ridge opened up into a broad, flat, tussock strewn plateau. Time to run. With a couple of little bumps knocked off all of a sudden the welcoming view of Tarn Ridge Hut appeared, much earlier than expected. I made my way off the windy ridge to the safe harbour of its decks. I was 40 minutes up on schedule.
From here to Powell Hut over four hours into my future there were no more reliable water sources. I was banking on the recent rain storms having topped up the scattering of ridge top tarns (small mountain lakes, although lake is probably being over generous, mucky pond is closer to the truth), so I made the most of the plentiful tank water. Back on the ridge the next peak, Girdlestone, presented its north western face. On the approach the distinctive Dorset Ridge forked out west towards the main range and spoke of future adventures. Girdlestone is one of the more clamberry peaks on the route, with a few sections requiring you to take your time as the drops on either side are sobering. It was fantastic reaching the top, sitting in the sun out of the wind and feeling warm for the first time since setting out eight hours earlier. From here I could see my immediate route clearly; Adkin followed by The Three Kings, the aptly named Broken Axe Pinnacles, McGregor and finally Angle Knob cutting a triangle into the sky in the distance. I flicked off a couple of messages updating my progress and scouted my steep descent down the south face.
You lose altitude fast coming off Girdlestone and I reminded myself that a fall now would likely end my attempt, if not worse. Adkin came and went uneventfully and I was soon climbing the flanks of North King. The views out to the east were stunning with the craggy Mitre and Peggy’s Peak towering over the beautiful Mitre Falls, carving their way down towards the Waingawa River. I stopped at a tarn just below the summit, which was deep and relatively clear, to top up my water for the remaining stretch of tops travel to Powell Hut. Popping in a treatment tablet for good luck I was soon on the move again. The south faces of most of the peaks on this eastern ridge always seem more steep and gnarly than the northern approach, possibly the freezing and thawing of the brutal southerly storms which batter this side of the range during winter. North King is no exception. After summiting from the reasonably tame north side, the south side drops away steeply with lots of rocky clambers and sidles.
It was while dropping off this south side, during my first attempt at summiting all the 1500 metre peaks in the range about a year prior, that I made a somewhat dubious route choice. What follows is an account of that experience and a lesson of what not to do.
Instead of sideling to the east and down around a large outcrop of rock, which in hindsight was the correct and only real choice, I went west. In my haste I had mistaken a natural chute as the way forward, with water runoff and weathering creating the impression of a foot pad. As I descended it became sketchier and sketchier with an exposed drop of 100m or so to focus my attention. I should have backtracked at this point but my idiot brain was still trying to tell me I was going the right way. I found myself at a point where my only option of going forward was to jump 2m down to a small ledge. I jumped. Bad move. I was now totally committed to going forward as the way back was un-climbable. The southern ridge I needed to get to was now a few metres above me. Between me and it was a chute of loose scree about five metres wide, which fell steeply away to the gully far below. With my heart in my throat, I cursed myself for getting into such a compromised position, took a deep breath and edged my way out onto the scree face. The next couple of minutes were rough, with each movement upwards I felt the ground wanting to release its tenuous grip of the cliff face, and I pressed my whole body to the scree to spread the load. Slowly but surely I gained height on the ridge expecting at any moment the ground to fall away beneath me. I reached and grabbed. The relief as my hand closed around solid rock was immense and I dragged myself up onto the ridge to the sound of rocks clattering away to the gully floor. Big lesson learned. Sorry Mum.
Back to the present and knowing where I DIDN’T want to end up, this time I sidled to the east of the outcrop, a bit of a clamber but quite obviously the correct route. In no time I was around and back onto the ridge, where I had the opportunity to give my ill-chosen sidle of the past the hairy eyeball. It gave me the heebie jeebies just looking at it and I moved on quickly. Mid King and South King were quick to knock off and it wasn’t long before I was dropping down to the impressive Broken Axe Pinnacles.
Thankfully there is a sidle to the east which avoids all the really hairy stuff, which DOC has marked with blue poles. After a scramble back up to the ridge on the southern side, McGregor was next in line.
This was my second time over McGregor and my second time losing the ridge to the summit, instead getting bogged down in waist deep tussock and Spaniard Grass, making it a hard slog to the top. I believe I headed too far to the east where I should have stayed west and it’s still a mystery I’m yet to get to the bottom of.
From McGregor the terrain really opened up and allowed some good running. It wasn’t long before I was clambering my way up Angle Knob which I’d first sighted from the top of Dundas a little over five hours prior. As I skirted east of the summit and onto the broad ridge approach to Jumbo the pattern of being well ahead of schedule continued, a massive mental boost as the background noise of physical fatigue began to set in. The day had also finally begun to warm up and it felt amazing to finally shed my jacket which had, up until now, been baking me on the climbs and shielding me from the biting wind of the ridges.
Angle Knob – Powell Hut: 1:36pm-3:00pm
Some good open running and a couple of clambers later and I was standing on the summit of Jumbo, looking down the ridge to Mt Holdsworth and my last section of tops. This section of ridge between Jumbo and Holdsworth is well traveled and was the first marked route since I had departed Herepai Hut over eight hours ago. It’s a great entry level route for tops experience, with many people doing it as a loop starting and finishing at the Holdsworth road end just out of Masterton. The annual race of this loop, the Jumbo-Holdsworth Mountain Race, had been through a couple of weeks prior and many pairs of feet had turned the muddy sections to bog. Fortunately it was fairly easy to skirt most of this and it was great to be running freely on terrain not obscured by the never-ending tussock I’d been negotiating up to this point.
Holdsworth loomed large in front of me and it wasn’t long before I was clawing my way up the side, popping out just short of the summit. Each section until now I’d challenged myself to try to chip a few more minutes off my split estimates, a great way of breaking down such a big route and keeping momentum. Looking at my time for Powell I wondered if there was an outside chance of arriving an hour ahead of schedule. It was time to say goodbye to the tops. With no time to waste as I began my descent, I made a call to Em to tell her I was feeling strong, wish her a good night and get her to give Ruby a squeeze for me. I’d be dropping out of coverage until I was hopefully spat out in Kaitoke a few hours down the range. Passing up the tempting option of High Ridge to Totara Flats, Powell Hut appeared quicker than expected. I raced down the last couple of gnarly drops pulling up at the hut bang on 3pm, a full hour under my pace notes.
Powell Hut – Cone Hut: 3:00pm-6:50pm
It was great to be filling up from tanks again and I greedily gulped back some of the cool water before topping my bottle up and stripping down to my t-shirt. Time to get running. The bush was a welcome sight as it swallowed me up with its still afternoon warmth. Compared with the terrain I’d covered until now the trail was like a state highway and I had to hold myself back a little to preserve my legs, which still had a lot of running ahead of them. The Mountain House shelter flew by next and I was then onto the wooden boardwalks of Pig Flat. A virtual handbrake turn to the right at the next intersection put me onto the root strewn Totara Creek track. There’s a lot of good fast downhill running here and again I had to go into damage control and temper my pace. My knees were starting to feel the endless ups and downs of the day and the relentless downhill and tree roots of this section were taking their toll. After a sidling climb the trail eventually dropped steeply to the creek and across a small swing bridge to the western bank. Some nice flat running was a real relief for my legs and the long swing-bridge across the beautiful Waiohine River was a nice distraction. I’d drunk my bottle dry in the heat so it was a fantastic sight seeing Totara Flats Hut swim into view as I emerged from the bush. I was still bang on an hour under my splits.
Topped up with water I got running again. It was time to make the most of what is the flattest section of the route and I focused on leg speed. The grassy flats are a lovely place to run and the warm afternoon sun gave everything a lovely golden glow. I tried to put the climb to Cone Saddle to the back of my mind so I could soak it all in. After a few scrambly bits and some stream crossings I arrived at the intersection I’d been quietly dreading for the last hour or so. The climb to Cone Saddle is anything but direct and from a number of recent trips, I knew that the many teasing false summits and tree fall would be less than pleasant on legs that were beginning to give little warning flutters of cramp. Having had such a long break from any real climbing since coming off Holdsworth, my legs were staging a rebellion and no matter how hard I pushed, they seemed to want to go only one speed. After what seemed like a never ending, lengthening corridor of trees from some horror movie, I finally popped out at Cone Saddle. I made a quiet promise to avoid this route for a while. After that, the steep rooty descent felt like a piece of cake and ancient woodsmoke announced my arrival at Cone Hut. I wasn’t surprised to see that I’d relinquished 20 minutes on my schedule, but I was still 40 up overall and elated that the last major climb was behind me.
Cone Hut – Kaitoke: 6:50pm-9:23pm
From the hut I trotted down to the stony river bed where I topped up for the last time from the crystal clear waters of the Tauherenikau. It would be a lovely place to stop for longer but I still had plenty of work to do. Back home people would be getting dinner ready, while I had gels and the long Tauherenikau to run before climbing Puffer over to Kaitoke. I pointed myself down the valley and got the legs firing – it was now a race to see how far I could get before night descended on me. Over the relatively flat terrain I switched into automatic mode, just focusing on keeping my leg speed up and keeping the end goal in sight. I’d be delving deep into the hurt locker for the remainder of the journey. Past the turnoff to Tutuwai Hut I raced, wondering how Graeme Dingle had been feeling at this stage. In his account he spoke of “the dreaded staggers” setting in as he hit the flats and I was thankful that, despite tiring legs, this wasn’t my reality. Into the bush all my concentration went on sticking to the twisting trail. This was made easier by the fact that I was up on my time and therefore still running in the light. Across the final swing-bridge of my journey I took my time to take in the last of the beautiful Tauherenikau River. As I continued south on the far river bank it was time to finally flick my headtorch on as the light slowly leaked out of the day, plunging the trail into shadow. The trail was lovely and flowy and in no time the Smith Creek Shelter loomed out of the murk signaling the spot where Dingle had finally hung up his shoes for the night on his pioneering 18 hour 30 minute epic.
Now I was running on adrenaline, knowing that only the Smith Creek traverse and the Puffer Saddle lay between me and the goal I’d been chasing all day. I threw back some water and a caffeine fortified gel and dug deep, charging down the tunnel of light thrown up the track by my torch as fast as my aching legs would take me. Wetting my burning feet in the cool water of the last stream crossing brought a few seconds of relief and then I was grinding my way up the rutted clay track of the Puffer. The welcoming sting of overgrown Puffer gorse had never felt so good, as a light breeze told me it wasn’t far to go to the top. A fresh wave of adrenaline and emotion washed over me as I crested the saddle to witness the final burning glow of sunset to the west and a twinkling of lights, a beautiful sight. It was all downhill from here. I pulled out all the stops and went for it, skidding precariously on the slippery clay path, on the verge of disaster and just not caring. The steps down to Kiwi Ranch loomed out of the dark and I tore down them as my protesting legs assured me I’d pay richly for this later. Past the ropes course and over the last little bump, I spotted glowing park lights coming from the DOC carpark – I had company. I let out a Whoop! which was met by peals of laughter and I was able to extract a sprint finish from my legs as I brought it home, stopping the clock at 17 hours 23 minutes. I’d completed the S-K triple. All three routes, non stop, solo and unsupported in under 24 hours and in the process had an amazing adventure. I could stop running.
My best mate, Craig Stevenson, and two running friends of mine, Andrew Thompson and Seanoa Isaac, had been following my spot tracker throughout the day and decided to surprise me with a road end party complete with beers, burgers and risotto. In the dark and dusty carpark it was better than the fanfare of any race. Cheers guys.
For The Record:
Distance: 80km +/-
Ascent: 6000m +/-
|Check Point||Water Source||ETA||Actual Time|
|Putara – Start||4.00am||4.00am|
|Tarn Ridge Hut||2L||11.20am||10.40am|
|Baldy Turn (South King)||2L Nth King||1.00pm||12.45am|
|Totara Flats Hut||2L||5.30pm||4.30pm|
|Smith Creek Shelter||9.10pm||8.23pm|
|Kaitoke – Finish||10.10pm||9.23pm|
Gear: – running kit plus:
Montane VIA Dragon 20 fastpack
Adidas XT Boost shoes
Inov 8 Race Elite seam sealed hooded jacket
Alpac seam sealed trousers
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer hooded down jacket
Trimtex Orienteering Gaiters (essential tussock kit)
Long sleeve polyprop top and bottoms
Woolen hat and gloves
Lightweight first aid kit w painkillers
Survival Bag (not blanket)
Cell phone with Viewranger topo maps in watertight bag (Spark or Voda Network for Tararuas)
Topo Maps and Compass
Headtorch – LED Lenser SEO 7R with spare battery packs
Emergency head torch – Petzl e+light
Food – a mix of Hammer Perpetuem, Horleys Replace and GU gels. 240 cal/hr approx
Electrolytes and caffeine tabs
2 litre water bladder and 750ml bottle
Spot Tracker (thanks Tony from Spot NZ) with emergency beacon
When Chris Martin first mentioned to me the S-K, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the route and the history would deliver me so many amazing adventures. We’re so lucky with our wilderness, it’s something worth celebrating and exploring. Thanks to the cool little running crew that I’m a part of in Wellington that does big things, you guys are awesome. Special thanks must go to Chris for offering, without hesitation, to help me realise this dream. For a whole day it felt like I had an entire mountain range to myself, I didn’t see another tramper or hunter the entire length of my journey. Craig, Andrew and Seanoa, far out fellas that was epic, thanks for making my day.
It must be remembered that gear and nutrition has come a long way since the pioneering days of mountain running in New Zealand. Graeme Dingle was running in thin sand shoes and drinking Complan when he set his impressive time. He was also the first, so there was no time to chase, just the spirit of pitting human endurance against the wilderness. Inspiring stuff.
Finally to my family, you guys are choice. Without you the dreams would mean nothing.
Tim Sutton 2017