I don’t remember much about my first time running the Broken Axe Pinnacles. It was a bank holiday weekend almost sabotaged by epic nor-westers. I’d abandoned a climbing trip down south because of the forecast. Trail running was my back up plan. I lost a sun hat in high winds on the Tip Track on Saturday. Monday/Labour Day it looked like the wind might finally abate. By the time we arrived at Holdworth Road end conditions were sunny and still thanks to us pausing for a second breakfast in Greytown giving the wind more space. What should have been an exhilarating adventure was overshadowed first by my running buddy Tony getting bad cramp just as we reached the Pinnacles then, when we stopped for coffee on the way back to Wellington, by the terrible news that the two climbers trapped near the summit of Mt Taranaki had died of hypothermia before they could be rescued.
When Martini, who I had met recently on an expedition to mark out his Aorangi Undulator trail run invited me to run the Broken Axe Pinnacles just over a year later I immediately said yes. My return to the Pinnacles changed the way I view trail running. Up until then I had mostly run trails alone or with one or two good friends. The only group runs I had done had been events/races which have a different, less personal feel. Running the Pinnacles or “Mt BAP” as Martini dubbed them, with a group of like-minded enthusiasts opened my mind to the possibility of running with companions and enjoying the social environment as much as the physical one. The adventure also highlighted one of the dimensions of trail running I appreciate the most – its capacity to challenge self-limiting beliefs.
A wise friend once said to me that some of the biggest hurdles we face are those we impose on ourselves. Arriving at the Holdsworth Road end I was nervous about how the run would unfold. Apart from Tim who I’d shared a lift with I didn’t really know any of the runners well. Most of them I had never met before. I was confident I could do the route but not confident my pace would match that of the rest of the group. Would they wait for me? Would they accept me taking pictures? Did they know how to navigate? Did everyone have the right gear? Did I have the right gear? Would anyone talk to me? My head was full of questions as we got out of the car and joined the big group which included a dog. The dog would definitely be faster than me I thought as I tried to keep my social anxiety and other insecurities at bay.
After a quick team photo we set off running towards Atiwhakatu Hut. I learned on the way that some in the party intended to do the shorter Jumbo-Holdsworth circuit and some intended to do a bit more than the Pinnacles loop seeking out the site of an old aircraft wreck. Plenty of options I thought and the people seem friendly. Tim was up the front. When we all regrouped at the hut he teased me about my camel bak full of water. I tipped half of it out. I was not going to run up the rain gauge with a pack full of water when there was a perfectly good water supply at Jumbo Hut.
From the Atiwhakatu valley floor my group strides methodically up the 800m ascent to Jumbo Hut. I love this tree root staircase climb but it is not a love shared by all. Mention you like stair climbing in some circles and raised eyebrows and looks of incomprehension are guaranteed so I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that it seems to be a love shared by everyone in our party. At Jumbo Hut we regroup to eat, drink and check gear and maps before we head onto the tops. I take a few photos of sweaty runners in the swirling mist relieved that waiting seems to be an integral part of the group culture.
Above Jumbo the track forks, those heading across to Holdsworth will go one way, those heading for the aircraft wreck will go another and the main group will head for McGregor and the Pinnacles. I have a brief debate with myself about what to do. I have been in the slowest group so far but I want to do the Pinnacles. I’m probably not fast enough for the aircraft wreck. I decide to back myself and join the group heading to the Pinnacles. I’m beginning to realise that the only thing holding me back is me. Speed is relatively unimportant. Although some of the runners are incredibly skilled and fit they seem to be inclusive by nature and more concerned with exploration, enjoying the journey and self-directed challenges than land speed records.
I chase five gorillas into the mist. Martini is one of the five and I realise that I know Robin from an ice climbing trip two years ago. All I really know about the five is the that they enjoy trail running in remote places and we’re in this together but this is all I need to know. Trail running as social paint stripper. It is only on subsequent runs that I learn other stuff like the names of the other three, occupations, marital status, political beliefs, favourite beer…
Above the bushline seagull wind whistles and swoops in random gusts buffeting us with cool air and deposits of slimy drizzle. The drizzle mingles with our sweat and sunscreen running down necks and foreheads. A mildewed curtain of dirty mist swings back and forth. I feel like a nosey neighbour playing peek a boo with the horizon. Now I see the neighbouring tussock ridges and now I don’t. The nor wester is causing the curtain to hang just on the west of the ridgeline accentuating our sense of heading into the unknown. This shuffling, shifting kaleidoscope of weather and landscape drops abruptly out of focus as we arrive at the foot of the Broken Axe Pinnacles.
There are two choices. Up and over or sidle west and rejoin the main ridge a few minutes later. There is ground trails for both options. I suspect the most worn trail is where over-confident souls head up only to down climb a few minutes later. We opt for the western sidle. The curtain partially obscures the drop off. This makes little difference though. We are all hyper aware of the airiness to the right.
Eyes focus close up searching for foot and hand placements. Thoughts turn inward as each runner summons motivation to best get them up and across. Scrabbling round for purchase like startled crabs we scramble upwards in fits and starts. This is living in the moment. Traffic halts as those in front pause to seek out better placements or more disconcertingly a hand or foothold comes off the hill and plunges into thin air. The dislodger pauses and swears while regaining composure to continue. Now is not a good time to look around and savour the landscape if heights are not your thing. The alpine scrub and tussock available for gripping is not abundant here and the ground is drizzle dipped slippery. On the bright side every really loose piece of vegetation has been sucked up and carried away by nature’s vacuum cleaner the prevailing nor wester. Robin is climbing calmly, carefully and cheerfully filming the ascent as he goes. I’m relishing the climb as well. It undoubtably helps that I’ve done many similar scrambles in other places and I’ve done this particular scramble.
Martini is looking neither cheerful nor calm. I’m puzzled. He gives a good impression of living for this type of adventure. Then I remember his obsession with the ladder below Tararua Peaks. Maybe heights are not his thing. He wants to get past me but letting him through doesn’t seem practical or safe on a narrow ridge. As if reading my mind he volunteers that he doesn’t enjoy this kind of thing. Surprised and appreciative of his frankness I offer him my hand thinking he will use it for balance. I can see him weighing up his options. Decision made he reaches out and pulls on my hand. Caught off guard by his weight I lose a foothold that was tenuous to start with. Fortunately, Martini slips out of my grip and back to a more secure footing before we both head backwards off the ridge. He definitely wants to get past me now and up to a more secure position. Better to keep climbing and point out likely holds I decide. I suspect Martini is thinking overtake her before she throws me off the cliff plus I want someone to land on if I fall.
The Broken Axe Pinnacles will forever be associated with the first guy to fall off them. The story is a good one and the inspiration behind our Mt BAP adventure. In April 1933, well before the Tararuas had been fully explored a party of four set off hoping to cross the Tararua Range. While traversing Mt BAP one of the party fell about 40 metres taking another party member with him. The second person was protected by his pack. The first did a face plant knocking himself unconscious for about an hour. By the time the party was able to move again the weather had closed in and they were unable to get to their planned destination. The ensuing storm was similar to that encountered on Mt Taranaki Labour weekend 2012 except it lasted longer and the outcome was more positive.
The missing trampers sparked the most famous and largest search ever to take place in the Tararuas and possibly in the New Zealand back country. Up to 200 people were involved. It is credited as heralding the beginning of volunteer search and rescue in New Zealand, a practice that is, in modified form, alive and well today. With limited visibility and battling wind and rain the party was determined to do whatever it took to exit the Tararuas. They managed to descend to the Waiohine river, which is gorgey, rugged and wild. In fact it is considered impassable. This was not something the group could have known and after exploring several even more difficult routes they became the first group to follow the Waiohine river back to civilisation. This epic story of tenacity, determination and ultimately survival by self rescue is textbook living in the moment, testing limits and relying on team work. I imagine at times they must have wondered if they would make it out but they didn’t want to die wondering. The story has been told in Chris MacLean’s Tararua: History of a mountain range and more recently reenacted for television.
see Sutch: The Fruitless Search
The tricky part of Mt BAP while intense is relatively short. Martini manages to squeeze past me and sprints ahead. In a few minutes we come to a notch where the ridge drops away on both sides. A small vulnerable looking sign resplendent in the dark green and canary yellow corporate colours of DoC bravely asserts via a tiny yellow arrow that “Jumbo Hut” is back the way we have come. On top of the sign is the red lid off an Ultimate Direction bottle. When I arrive at the top the others are perched either facing west with their backs resting against a large rock or admiring the view to the east. Martini has both hands firmly attached to the rock. His face a mask of tension and discomfort, his eyes darting round like pinballs. He wears a hunted expression. His jaw is clenched. This is what testing your limits looks like.
I ask about the drink bottle top. Paul replies that he has already asked and it doesn’t belong to anybody. Martini breaks from his inwards focus for long enough to realise the top is his. He makes a move as if to head down to get it. Feeling bad about the botched hand up I volunteer to retrieve it. A look of surprise mixed with relief crosses his face and he stays put. I descend back to the notch, collect the lid and return. Bottle restored to full functionality we head off into the mist smiles all round. We have conquered the Broken Axe Pinnacles.
Mt BAP behind us we are free to run again across more open uncomplicated ridges with the breeze rubbing our legs and faces. There is a sense of exhilaration and release as we bound effortlessly across the long, winding brown tussock coated hills chasing mist. The ease of travel contrasts the careful concentrated nature of the short climb on the pinnacles. This variety of experience is part of what makes trail running so enjoyable. In a sheltered dip in the ridgeline we take lunch and check our location conscious that we need to select the correct ridge if we are to pick up the Baldy track from whence we will descend back into the bush. The atmosphere is more relaxed now as everyone soaks up the views and the simple pleasure of being outdoors in a beautiful place surrounded by fresh air. Allegedly even one square meal bars taste good in these circumstances.
As we drop altitude and gain temperature we spot the marker pole identifying the start of the Baldy track and our route down to the Atiwhakatu River. While the gorillas wait for me to catch up layers are shed, more snacks eaten. Below the bushline we stumble around on slightly tired limbs struggling to find the necessary concentration to keep our footing. There are falls and near falls and creative pieces of balancing to prevent falling. These well rehearsed actions while occasionally painful are imbued with the comfort of the familiar. Again I’m reminded of the contrast between two opposing sensations. There is an informal competition to see who collects the most falls. Robin wins.
From Atiwhakatu hut it is a quick few flat kilometres on a well benched track back to the car park. We run this last piece of trail as fast as we can enjoying the ease of travel and the lush rainforest. Almost seven hours after leaving the car park we are back. New memories gathered. I will miss the gorillas in the mist. I’m not the only one to have busted some self-imposed limitations. Its been a day well lived.
You can watch Robin’s excellent video of the run here.
The loop is approximately 28km with about 1900m of ascent.