Run  A History of the ‘SK’

Epic records of Tararua traverse

S–K, Schormann to Kaitoke Traverses of the Tararua Range Edited by Megan Sety and Tony Gazley, Wellington Tramping & Mountaineering Club, seventh edition 2014. Softcover, 166 pages.

If you think tramping is a friendly, nonc o m p e t i t i v e ‘recreational’ sport, think again. If you think times, routes and records don’t matter, think again.

Once the pioneers have covered the virgin ground, a certain breed of trampers seems to gravitate towards speed and endurance records. Any idea for a fresh challenge is guarded like a state secret, gear is pruned and pride in fitness and speed lurks not far below the surface. One acronym, ‘S–K’, says it all.

I’d been tramping in the Tararuas for a couple of years before hearing the term S–K. It was the late 1980s, and I dropped Tim Kerr off at the Putara road-end, in the northern part of the range. The ‘S’ of S–K stands for Schormann, the one-time landowner who farmed in the area.

Tim, a fellow tramper from the Massey University Alpine Club, planned to tramp the length of the Tararuas over the course of a weekend, ending at Kaitoke – or the ‘K’. I waited while Tim sorted his gear, puzzled by the fact he was delaying until 5 p.m. before setting off. He was about to pack his Petzl head-torch and fresh battery, but then remembered he’d forgotten to replace the blown bulb. Next, he fossicked around for his woolly socks, without success, so had to make do with the one cotton ankle sock he found in the car. As he was wearing Buller boots, his ankles got pretty badly ringbarked, if I remember rightly. But by late on Sunday, he’d reached Kaitoke, joining an elite band of trampers who have completed similar challenges. While Tim’s trip does not appear in this book, many others do (a comprehensive list is probably not possible or desirable). By trawling through the tramping literature, Tongue and Meat members Megan Sety and Tony Gazley have collated an interesting collection of stories about the S–K, dating back more than 50 years.

Sometime in the early 1960s, Wellington trampers decided that traversing the Tararuas in a weekend was not only possible, but the next great challenge. And a challenge it is, involving some 80 kilometres of tramping, more than 8,000 metres of up and down, and traversing 42 named summits.

When records and reputations are involved, rules are sure to follow. What constituted an S–K, and what constituted a weekend? Simple questions but not always simple to answer, as editor Megan Sety writes in her introduction. Alan Stevens and Dave Capper succeeded over a three-day, long weekend in January 1963, precipitating the race to complete an S–K over the course of a normal weekend. Not only were individual reputations at stake, but there was some pretty green-eyed inter-club rivalry as well.

In October that year, Tongue & Meats members Dave Capper and Bruce Jefferies set off to claim that prize. Capper admits he was ‘happy to mislead’ a potential Hutt Valley competitor about his intentions when meeting him at the Wellington Railway Station. After setting off in weather that was ‘disturbingly fine’, Capper and Jefferies spent Friday night at Putara Hut, but the next evening couldn’t find McGregor Biv, so ‘sank down on some soft rocks near a tarn.’ The following day, exhausted but successful, the pair finally reached the Puffer Shelter at Kaitoke, feeling ‘a sort of battered comradeship.’

Various S–K routes were possible, with some gaining harder reputations than others. In contrast to the bush routes through the eastern valleys, the open tops presented a greater amount of up-and-down travel, with the added challenge of the inclement Tararua weather. A joint effort by Peter Daniel (WT&MC) and John Tristram (HVTC) resulted in the first Main Range S-K, north-to-south, in November 1963.

Co-editor Tony Gazley was himself part of a group to complete the first south-to-north Main Range S–K in 1970. While the record for the fastest time is debatable, only a handful have completed sub-24-hour Main Range S–K times, with Colin Rolfe the first in 1995. Graeme Dingle’s solo 18.5-hour dash from Putara Hut to Smith Creek in 1965 is also pretty scorching. Jan Heine (née Hardwicke) was the first woman to complete a weekend S–K in 1965, and since then only a handful of others have repeated her effort.

Despite covering exactly the same ground, trip accounts are sufficiently different to keep the reader interested. The peak called Hines seems to cause the most navigational difficulties for parties, and the slog from Tarn Ridge to Girdlestone always makes people gasp. Food and other stimulants are, not surprisingly, important to S–K endurance trampers. Garth Mumme and Neil Grey seemed to keep up their smoking pace by sucking on numerous ‘duries’ (roll-your-own cigarettes) during 1969; Tony Gazley breakfasted on peanuts and fruitcake in 1970, while Laurie Gallagher got by on lemonade. Another tramper ate cold sausages. Nick Jennings got off to a roaring start by exchanging bellows with a rutting stag during one of his several S–K trips.

Sety and Gazley have made a fine effort to collate these stories, in roughly chronological order. The range of writing styles reflects not only the personalities of those involved, but also the era in which they wrote. I would have liked to see illustrations in the book, but appreciate this would have added cost and pages to the publication. No doubt photographs from S–K trips are scarce anyway; who wants to carry a camera when speed is of the essence?

Wilderlife