The North Island has so many well-established big trail running challenges that aren’t official races – the sort of objective that most inspired me from the beginning. Some of the main ones are: the Hillary Trail in Auckland’s Waitakere’s, Round Taranaki, Round Ruapehu, the Kaimanawa-Kaweka traverse, and most attested of all, the Tararua Main Range SK.
The North Island is blessed with volcanoes to circumnavigate and subalpine ridges to traverse; whereas the South Island, a far more mountainous landscape, ironically seems lacking in this style of do-it-yourself mountain challenge. That may in part be due to the harsh alpine terrain that does not lend itself well to long ridgeline ‘runs’, so most long backcountry trail runs in the South Island come in the form of long valley stretches linked by short alpine passes.
And then there are the Craigieburn and Torlesse Ranges, located in the heart of Canterbury high country adjacent to the Waimakariri River, which slice their path from Arthur’s Pass to the ocean. These craggy scree tops are easily accessible from the state highway, with several ski-field roads giving high access. They are a popular venue for skiing and mountain running, the perfect scene for an ultra challenge.
Typical terrain on the Craigieburn Round
Over in the UK, each British nation has developed what is known as a ‘Round’. A Round is a classic long-distance mountain challenge taking in all of the summits of a local area in an aesthetic loop. The Bob Graham Round, established in 1932, is the most famous and covers 100km/8200m+ around England’s Lake District. The Paddy Buckley Round in Wales and the Charlie Ramsay Round in Scotland are equally grunty. The typical goal is to complete these Rounds in under 24 hours.
The Craigieburn Round is the brainchild of the legendary New Zealand ultra-runner Martin Lukes, originally from the UK. The route is one of New Zealand’s first real ‘Rounds’ and involves a loop of the entire Castle Hill Basin. By traversing the Torlesse and Craigieburn Ranges, it includes 19 summits, with a start and finish at the Cass Railway station. This equates to 104km and an elevation gain of over 8,000m over the route.
Martin Lukes completed the first ascent of the route in January 2021. A midsummer effort, he suffered greatly from dehydration despite carrying heavy loads of water. At one point in his midnight disorientation, he stood back up from a rest on the Craigieburn range and headed off for one kilometre in the wrong direction. He staggered back into Cass Station mid-morning after 33 hours on the go, a heroic push.
Evidence of Marty Lukes first successful Craigieburn Round, 15th January 2021
After a big late summer of bagging peaks around the Southern Lakes, I was fit on the vert and felt obliged to put my energy towards further establishing the new Craigieburn Round. I determined that May would be a good season for it – less daylight and less heat, which consequently, meant less water that needed to be carried.
I drove over Porters Pass in the afternoon, opting to drop off a bag of food and water at the pass as my only re-supply. I slept overnight in my car at a nice campground just next to Cass Station, and set the alarm for 4 am. At 5 am, I was signing into the little visitor’s book in the Cass Railway station, a mandatory requirement for the Round, before beginning the long crunch down the Craigieburn Road gravels in pre-dawn fog.
First view of the lower Torlesse Range above Avoca Homestead
25km of road brings you to Broken River, a valuable water refill, just before the Avoca Homestead. Here you follow 4WD track for a little way up before a direct ascent to Bald Hill, the first peak of the Torlesse Range. I climbed through faint inversion and experienced that glorious moment of punching through the clouds, rewarded with a sight of the entire Round of peaks that lay in store.
Above the inversion and feeling positive about the journey ahead
Undulating ridges bring you closer and closer to Castle Hill Peak’s famous ‘gap’, which is accessed via a scree slope on the east side. Once at the gap proper, I met two other hikers who opted to take the regular route skirting on the west side, but I thought the rocky chimneys in the Gap itself were too much fun to pass up.
Castle Hill Peak, 8 hours in.
An hour later, I gratefully guzzled my supplies at Porters Pass, which included a Radix mixed berry breakfast and a fat avocado sandwich for the road.
Setting off from Porters Pass, feeling replenished
Crossing the highway directly, the route traverses Trig M and drops into Lake Lyndon. The lake is undrinkable, but good water is found en-route up to Mt Lyndon just off the trail below the saddle. This is the last water for the next 45km! Herein lies the benefit of an Autumn round – shorter daylight hours mean less sun and heat on the exposed tops, as well as skiffs of snow to top up water supplies. I carried 1.75 L of water from here, which was to last me until the Cass river.
Darkness fell soon after Mt Lyndon and I readied myself for a long, long night on the tops. Unfortunately for me, I was neither accompanied by a full moon nor a clear sky, and my mind succumbed to equal pits of darkness in those early hours of the night. I was struggling to stay awake already. Why?
Red Hill, endless; Coleridge Pass, desolate; Blue Hill, loose.
But I was now on the top of the Craigieburn Ranges and had reason to celebrate. A quick check in with the BSR (Big Sunday Runs Canterbury) Club at Porters Ski Field kept me motivated, knowing that others were supporting me as they nodded off to sleep, and I trucked forwards along the interminable range.
Mt Enys in the dead of night
Mt Enys was struck at midnight in gale force winds. The wind was pleasantly warm, yet the constant buffeting was numbing. The remainder of the peaks passed by in a pitch-black blur. At one point, I was so unable to even stagger over the rocks due to my sleepiness that I gave in to a quick sleep. Somewhere around Mt Izard, I flung out my 120 gram SOL bivvy bag straight onto the scree slope. I donned my extra thin layer and crawled inside, holding the foil tight against the flapping wind since there wasn’t any shelter from wind on this barren ridge. Fifteen minutes later, I felt new energy to tackle what remained of the journey.
The twists and turns of the rocky ridges were continuously confusing, with scree fanning off in every direction after each small peak. I kept my compass pointing northwards; and eventually, sly glimmers of dawn illuminated the final stretch of range beyond Mt Hamilton and the last of the club ski fields. I felt somewhat emotional on the last peak, Baldy Hill. In the full light of morning, I could see the strengthening gales approaching from the northwest, which created an eery atmosphere. But all I felt was numbness.
Emerging from a long, lonely night on the range
There is something special about questing through a long night alone, searching for the internal motivation to continue, questioning why and how . . . the temptation to descend and bail from the route always available.
But on Baldy, I had truly broken the back of Craigieburn Round. The only remaining portion was a hellish scree descent into the Cass and a short stream bash out to the main road. I met a couple of mountain bikers there, just about to start a ride up the Cass. When they saw my ragged state after nearing 29 hours on the move, they offered me sweet bakery treats, only to realise they had left them in the car. “It’s okay,” I said. “I still have a bit of energy gel.”
Walking away from the finish at Cass Station, feeling quite tired
The Craigieburn Round is Canterbury’s answer to the famous mountain challenges of Britain, taking a page out of their rich running culture that has bred inspiring personal challenges for so many throughout the generations. A great prize here still remains: the 24-hour barrier. Who will be the first?
This article originally appeared on Alastair’s ‘Mountain Adventure Blog’ on 18 January 2022 and is reproduced here with permission.