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Tararua SK Traverse

On December 21st, 2013 Laurence Pidcock and Chris Swallow took on the might Tararuas and the famed SK Travers. Starting at Putara Rd and finishing at Kaitoke, the traverse ticks off numerous peaks and huts along the way and has been a test piece for the Wellingting tramping and running community for years. Below is Laurence and Chris trip report, written by Chris.

On this day two years ago a double Southern Crossing, last year a long run down the Southern Main Range; so a SK attempt seemed a fitting way to spend another December 21st.

Inspired greatly having read solo accounts by names such as Camden, Goldsworthy and Thurlow, it was the ‘travel light, travel fast’ approach of Colin Rolfe and his 22 hours 59 minutes record traverse that enthused us most.  A 24 hour schedule was drawn up, support parties mustered and we found ourselves rising to a 2am alarm in Tawa College’s ‘rural classroom’ (big thanks to caretaker Vince and principal Murray for the use), a quick brew and some honey bread before heading off to the Putara Road end for a 3am start.

Jamie Stewart accompanied us for the first leg and we were soon layering into windproofs on Herepai’s flanks.  Good time made across to West Peak where head torches went away and an extra layer went on as we trotted south down the Dundas Ridge, feet in the clouds and a firm wind on the right cheek.  Jamie said his goodbyes at the Dundas Hut turn off and off we headed up Dundas Peak.

The next short section from Dundas to Pukematawai was the only section of the route we had not reconnaissanced – this proved costly.  Eagerness, not trusting a compass, blundering on with an error – not exactly fine mountaincraft. We had followed a loosely cut side track and diverted off Brocket Rocks and over Triangle Knob.  My assertion that ‘this must be right as it’s the only track around here’ caused me to lose a hastily gambled chocolate fish.  I swore heavily as we re-climbed Dundas and found the correct route off towards Arete – now 2½ hours down on our 24hr schedule.

We retrieved our cached supplies from under a Pukematawai rock and pressed on to Drac Biv to meet Al Shelton and James Fraser.  I was battling some dark demons on the way through the bush towards Nichols and finally voiced my internal dilemma to Laurence:

“There’s no way a sub 24hr is on mate, should we get off at Junction Knob and head out to the Forks, save our legs and have another crack in a couple of weeks?  Or just press on and see what happens?”

Laurence murmured something about, “probably never wanting to give this another crack, ever again,” and so all was quiet once more, except for the incessant wind.

An out and back up Kelleher was a lapse of concentration by all, and we continued on with yet more cursing into the wind.  Farewells to Al in the strengthening clag and wind on Nichols and we pressed on up Crawford towards Andersons chasing the hope of a hot brew.  Looming out of the mist on their way back to Junction Knob we found Paul Helm and Jackie Holley. With delight we heard them bellow above the wind, “Fire in hut, billy of hot water on top, good luck!”  The respite from the miserable weather was lovely, but we could not allow ourselves to settling in for too long… Refuel and refill with the supplies, and back out into the bush and onwards towards the goal once more.

“You know we’ve pulled back over 30 minutes on the 24hr schedule?”

“Really?  That’s alright.”

Back into the wind up Kahiwiroa and non-verbal communication prevailed.  Aokaparangi summited, careful in the clag; I recalled having gone wrong coming off here previously. Wright, Simpson, and the temporary solace of Maungahuka Hut loomed beside the tarn.

“Mate, you know we’re now only 50 minutes behind the 24hr schedule?”

“Right, let’s go.”

Cold hands were watched very carefully so as to make sure they maintained full contact with ‘the ladder’. They had been playing up lately, swollen and a lot less willing to obey my command. Our food cache was obvious on the track just after The Peaks, kindly brought down by mess’rs Chris Martin and Tom Crumpton.  Climbing McIntosh and the first few drops of rain began to smash my right cheek, borne on that unforgiving wind that I had grown accustomed to.  We weren’t friends just yet, but our acquaintance was deepening.  Yeates, Vosseler and now the rain came on with even more fury.  Unsure up Bridge, hoping it was the last climb of this ridge and then a warratah and a 2nd and the short descent before the rise to Bridge Peak.  Compass out (trusting it once more) and a bearing cut the dog leg out for a direct line to the new Kime Hut.

Pawel Kotarba and Donna Kennedy seemed caught off guard by our arrival and we were similarly surprised by the absence of paceman to Kaitoke, Julian Davidson (it transpired that a mis-communication about our lost time placed our Kime arrival at 10pm, so sleeping bags and food had been left for our night there.  Julian, favouring the prospect of his own bed ran back down to Otaki Forks – a wise decision in light of the information available.)

In the few seconds Pawel and Donna realised we were serious about racing the darkness to Alpha they questioned us not once and a focused activity frenzy had us a hot brew, hot broth, a sleeping bag round pink legs, packs filled and an extra layer loaned.  Fabulous stuff.

Leaving Kime on a bearing up Field Peak to cut the corner off and experience as much speargrass as possible.

“Mate, you know we’re 15 minutes up on the 24hr schedule and only 13 minutes down on Colin’s record?”

“Oh.”

It was hammer down over the tops just to keep warm; horizontal rain pinging off bare legs and cheek, loud challenges bellowed at the weather in meagre defiance, keep following the obvious foot-trail to the sheltered relief of the Alpha Peak descent into the bush.

Candles alight in the hut with a welcome from Damian Clarke and Maria Heine.  Hot brew, chips, chocolate and out quick across Hell’s Gate.

“Mate we’re 2 minutes behind the record.”

“We’ve still a long way to go though.”

“Hmm.”

A mantra formed and decreed in the quiet of the bush, able to think better now, mind free from the weather and it’s imposition of that one, singular ‘just keep moving’ thought: no injuries, focus on the foot trail, scan for the orange markers, keep eating, keep drinking, don’t lose the track, think not of Kaitoke but the next landmark.  Hell’s Gate, tick.  Bull Mound track, check.  Omega, done.  Block XVI.

“Mate, we’re 3 minutes up on the record.”

“Oh.”

“Still a long way to go.”

Stick to the mantra, focus, eat, landmarks, focus, eat, landmarks: that long steep descent, that huge bog I nearly drowned in, those two climbs that are exposed to the west, the turn off the ridge, the switch backs down into the bush, that tree fall, the old Dobson’s hut site.

“Get off your heels and up on your toes Grandad!”

“You talking to me?”

“No, me.”

Down through the bush, the grey clay track rises out of it and a familiar noise sees me fumbling for my phone and the sweet voice of girlfriend Jennifer on the other end – she’s stood by my car at Kaitoke with Laurence’s missus Shailie, great news!  But not there yet, next landmark the yellow writing of the Alpha Hut sign, turn right, the downhill, then that flat section and the left turn and down into the bush once more on the steep and eroded descent to the YMCA Camp Kaitoke where my car was left.  My mind concedes for the first time that we’re nearly done and this minor relent floods my legs with all the pains and sores, niggles and limps, that had been subdued and stored far away for many previous hours.

The walk across the grass, a handshake, waiting cars, open arms, whoops of congratulations, weighing scales and no more running for a while…  The time was 1:12am, 22hrs 12mins since we had set off from the Putara Road end, all those ages ago. Putara-Kaitoke. Done.

A big thank you to Laurence Pidcock for his companionship and compatibility in both fitness and mentality.  Further thanks to all the people mentioned in this account for their support and camaraderie on a testing day in the mountains.

For the record….

Laurence Chris
Putara Rd 03:00 pre weight 80.4kg 77.4kg
Herepai Hut 03:54 immediate post weight 80.4kg 78.7kg
East Peak 04:37 day after 79.1kg 78.6kg
Arete 10:03
Dracophyllum Hut 11:18 Shoes worn Saucony Kinavara TR Inov8 Mudclaw 265s
Nichols Peak 13:02
Anderson’s Hut 14:12
Maungahuka Hut 16:46
Kime Hut 19:01
Alpha Hut 21:00
Block XVI 22:32
Kaitoke (YMCA) 01:12

Slideshow from Shailie Sanbrooks HERE

Postscript – perceptions from the pen….

Perhaps not an attempt to enthuse those who believe such matters should be attempted solo and un-supported, but I feel the sub-categories of ‘Supported’ and Un-Supported’ should be viewed as fairly distinct and different challenges as the demands of each do vary – the additional fatigue of extra pack weight on a route of this length and difficulty is significant and will account for decreased speed, particularly late in the day.

My personal experiences of mountain running has always been to keep light, keep fast, which necessitates food re-supply, hence the support team and our food cache buried under a rock just off Pukematawai.

Morale is critical to maintain momentum, I know if I feel positive I move better.  Travelling with pacers or as we did in a pair assists this as invariably one will be moving better than the next – the lead man is buoyed by his ‘progress’, the follower is inspired to not lose face and thus keep up.  Relative pace matches are fundamental to a maintained morale.  Looking forward to catching up with familiar faces at your next stop, especially in bad weather, is also a refreshing incentive to perk up one’s spirits, and it really spurs me on to know people have headed into these wild places just to assist friends in their endeavour.

Gary Goldsworthy’s account of his solo and unsupported SK closes with encouragement to become as familiar as possible with the route.  The one section I did not know caught us out in the clag, and I have learnt many valuable lessons when not kicking myself – we lost over 2 hours and put an additional 4kms and 400m vertical climbing into our legs, encouraging me to suggest a sub 20hr SK is very much attainable.

I have heard recent murmurings of the potential for an ‘SK Mountain Race’.  I will state at this point that I am very much for raising the profile of the route and encouraging potential assailants to recce and attempt, but for the route to take the form of a race I am not sure.  Perhaps it would be better to leave it as a personal challenge and echo the 3 major mountain rounds of the UK – the Paddy Buckley, the Ramsay and the Bob Graham Round, where the self-directed challenge is to cover the prescribed route in under 24hrs, club membership awarded to those who are successful.


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  1. A fantastic effort Laurence and Chris. I am intimately familiar with the SK and your effort was incredible, particularly with the weather not great and your 2 hour detour! You both must be VERY fit!

    I tried the SK record in 1988, and was ahead of your time to Dracophyllum Biv, when my partner collapsed! Even so, I could not have kept up your pace from there.

    It is true that the tops route along the Main Range is a LOT clearer then it used to be (thanks DOC), but any sub-24 SK is an amazing feat.

    Did you know that Colin Rolfe was held up by at least half an hour on the Marchant Ridge when his torch failed? Luckily he stumbled across a supporter who had come up from Kaitoke to run the last bit with him. I was at Kaitoke when he finished, and he was a VERY tired man, not altogether lucid!

    But you guys have the record now. WELL DONE.

  2. Well done!

    The Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club is seeking stories like yours and others from people who have attempted the Schormann – Kaitoke (or Putara-Kaitoke) traverse of the Tararuas in a weekend for the 6th edition of the SK Book.

    See more details on our website forum: http://www.wtmc.org.nz/phorum/read.php?2,7496

    Or contact me at newsletter@wtmc.org.nz

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