By Jason, 14 September 2009
Party: Jason, Chris, Terra
Being the highest point in the Rimutakas Mt Matthews is a well known walk and at only ~949m it's not particularly challenging. DOC describes the trip as "a hard days grind" from the Catchpool carpark. Many of you will know that the walk from the Catchpool into the Orongoronga and even to the foot of Mt. Matthews is flat, easy and also only 9km. Therefore access to Mt. Matthews is quite easy. Some of you may also know that I have tried, and failed, twice to climb Mt. Matthews... I can only defend myself with the fact that both weekends I chose to try and climb Mt. Matthews the scheduled trips had been called off due to bad weather and I, quite mistakenly, took new trampers or relatively unfit punters along with me. I've also always gone in from Homedale which adds a few hundred metres climb.
It had been a long time since my last attempt and somehow since then I knew that if I was going to do this the best way would be to tackle the trip in a day either by myself, or with a few good people that I knew well. On this particular weekend the plan was to summit Taranaki, camp on the summit and play around with some climbing. However the forecast got progressively worse until early Friday afternoon we called the trip off. Although Wellington was getting some rain it wasn't a lot and my thoughts turned to the Rimutakas. The rain down here was not that heavy and only lasted about 30 hours so I knew the chances of crossing the Orongoronga were good. Terra and Chris were keen to test themselves on a fast day trip of unknown duration and thus I had a small but fit party.
Being the first running trip for all of us we weren't really that sure what to expect. With a rough plan of fast walking the hills, running / fast walking the flats and down hills we set out into the rain shortly before 11am. I was expecting the trip would take 8 - 10 hours but I had a dream of doing it in under 6. Things didn't look good for the dream time up front with DOC signposting 4.5 - 5 hours from Homedale to the Orongorongo, and from memory it taking about 3 - 4 hours previously with punters in tow. As soon as we left the 4WD track I took off running knowing that it would be a good way to warm up before the first climb started only a few hundred metres ahread. We were all breathing hard by the time we started that climb and slowed to a more reasonable pace. After regaining my breath I picked up the pace again and we were fair flying up the hill (not carrying a full pack sure makes a difference). Not wanting to check my watch as we climbed it came as a bit of a surprise when we arrived at the ridge track in 30 minutes, only 1/3 of the DOC time! All of a sudden the 6 hour dream seemed like a possibility.
I set a mental target of being at the Orongorongo river in a hour and with that we took off along the ridge after a very brief water break. We interspersed sections of running with sections of fast walking, not wanting to tire ourselves too soon in the trip. A few comments were made about the amount of water running along the track and through the side streams and what this would mean for the size of the Orongorongo. It was around then that we saw really quite a terrible sight. For those of you that have been into the area you will know it is a kiwi protection zone. DOC and many volunteers are being reasonably successful and protecting and helping kiwi breed in the wild through intensive monitoring and trapping efforts. A significant part of this programme is raising public awareness. It is impossible to miss the many DOC, large kiwi shaped signs and notices up informing people of the programme, its success's, and how users of the area can minimize any adverse impact you might have on the kiwi breeding near the tracks. Amazingly DOC do not ban dogs from this area, but instead ask (in no uncertain terms) that your dog is kept on a lead at ALL times. There are even make shift leads available at several points along the track that you can use if you didn't bring your dogs lead. Now really for the protection of our most significant national icon this is a small ask. Anyway back to the story... During one running section we rounded a corner and came across a lovely elderly couple out monitoring the kiwi and had a very brief chat in passing as we hurried on by. Not 500 metres further along the track were a group of 3 trampers who must of passed the elderly couple a few minutes before. They had a dog. The dog was not on a lead. In hind sight I should have said something too them, in reality I was already 50 - 100 metres up the track before the light bulb went on. How damn arrogant of them and there "it's never my dog", "my dog wouldn't hurt a fly" attitude. Who cares!!! There are a bajillion other places you can take your dog and not worry about keeping them on a lead. You come to the one place you're asked to and you don't. Argh the more I think about it the madder I get...
So with random, abusive thoughts fuming through my head we made good time to the high point and without slowing started the descent. Here my street running shoes started failing me in the mud and slipped at least half a dozen times before making it to the river. Here again there was no stop as we continued on up the river bed looking for a good point to cross. We found a good spot directly opposite Baines Hut and remembered why tramping boots and gaiters are so much nicer than running shoes when cross rivers. Often you get away with dry feet, you don't get any gravel in your boots and your feet stay so much warmer. We took a few minutes to have a quick map check to make sure we were in the right place as an excuse for a quick breather, snack and drink. Not wanting to hang around in the breeze soaking wet for too long we were soon on our way up the stream bed to the start of the track heading up Mt. Matthews. A quick glance at the watch as we passed the DOC sign showed we'd only been going for 1 hour 45 minutes. Not bad... 6 hours still a possibility but I was less optimistic bout us being able to 1/3 the time up Mt. Matthews which was supposedly 3 hours 15 minutes.
The country here is actually really nice although I for one wasn't paying too much attention as I was focusing on powering up the hill. The cloud was very low so soon we couldn't see the valley floor or the spurs on either side. What we could see was the cloud whipping through the treetops very very quickly. It was amazingly sheltered in the bush, even when the tree tops were only a metre or two above and on quite narrow sections of the spur. Obviously we were very grateful for this and all the more so as well came out into the open for a brief section where the track to Mukumuka Saddle branches off. The wind was fair howling through here and we could see that we weren't even in the worst of it. From here the track is reasonably overgrown, although not difficult to follow and as a bonus there are track markers absolutely everywhere. There was no point even trying to run along the flatter section near the top as the track twists, turns, climbs up down and around tree roots and is generally pretty fun, just not pretty fast. We came out onto the small clearing the constitutes the summit at 3 hours on the dot and things were still looking good. I knew most the climbing had been done, but I also knew the trip back was going to be slower. Not only because we were tired, but because although the Whakanui is very quick to come down, it's very long to get back up given the extended section where it's only just too steep to run.
We gave ourselves a generous 10 - 15 minutes lunch stop tucked down out the wind before heading back. It was cold up there. Very cold. I didn't warm up for at least 45 minutes and I'm sure that had a lot more to do with the ambient temperature in the valley vs the ambient temperature near the top. Things started to feel a little clunky as I wasn't warming up. My legs, although still good, weren't quite good enough to be jumping down all the larger drops anymore which meant a lot of bending down and using my hands which slowed things a little bit. Terra also commented on the cold; her hands were frozen as well.
Wow at the bottom already... another quick time check. 2 hours 20 minutes return. Again not bad against DOC's 7.5 hours. A quick stop to take off my jacket and then I was racing off down the stream to catch up with Terra and Chris who had carried on. We kept on going back down the Orongorongo to the Whakanui and only stopped to clear out stones from shoes before starting the climb. With 1 hour 40 minutes left on the clock things were looking a bit touch and go. I lead for a bit but went around the wrong side of a tree and was passed by Terra and Chris on the other side. I was struggling to keep up with them. Things just weren't feeling right. My head ached, my mind was cloudy. I wasn't finding the climb particular tough I just simply could not go faster. I knew I was still keeping a really good pace so I wasn't too worried. My head got more and more cloudy, the headache that had been developing was really quite annoying by this stage and although I was still moving quickly things seemed sluggish. What was wrong... Dehydration? Only been going for 5 hours... Have had 1.5 litres of water... Was the sweetened condensed milk bad... Maybe... I didn't sleep to well the night before... Why does this feel so hard? How hard am I working? Pulse only 150ish so not really. Maybe my muscles aren't used the level of strenous exercise in such a short space of time... Things seem fine from a cardio perspective, heart rate fine, breathing fine... Perhaps I haven't taken in enough energy today... And such thoughts went around and around my head until suddenly I was at the top.
I knew Terra and Chris had taken off running, and I knew I couldn't. I knew there was no way I could make the final few km's within the time frame. However I wasn't about to dawdle out either so I was still pushing myself to walk pretty fast. Some 5 minutes later I checked my watch. 5 hours 30 minutes.... Maybe I could still do this... Off I set again running where I could, walking where I couldn't. It got to the stage where I needed a down hill to help push me into a run and while I could maintain it for a bit on the flats I simply couldn't keep the momentum up. My head was killing me by now and I had a stitch start in my side which I was doing my best to ignore. I think I passed several groups of people on that second to last leg towards the spur, but I wasn't seeing much by now and was focussed entirely on my goal. I wasn't looking at my watch. I didn't want to know. I arrived at the start of the final leg down the spur back to Homedale and allowed myself one peek at my watch. 20 minutes left.
Terra and Chris had been waiting for me so I let them shoot off ahead again. I kept up for a while but they soon disappeared from sight. Now I know we made in up this leg in 30 minutes on the way in. But I wasn't kidding when I said we were hauling ass. I knew I couldn't afford not to push myself as hard as I could on the way down. Remember DOC says this leg takes 1.5 hours. I was trying to do it in 20 minutes absolutely exhausted, with tired legs, a sore head and a stitch. I passed a very pleasant couple allowing slowing for a moment to respond to their question asking where we'd been before turning with a "Sorry I'm trying to make it to the bottom within 6 hours" and racing off again. The track junction came into sight and I knew I was within a minute or two of the end. A quick hairpin bend and I was on the last downhill, over the bridge and then the final few hundred meters to the 4WD track. I was spent but I dug deep and kept running to the end. Beep. I hit the stop button on my watch and didn't dare look. I just kept on going down the 4WD track for 30 seconds to regain my breath. 5 hours 57 minutes. Stoked!!!