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Trip Report: Tapuae-o-Uenuku

By Paul McCredie

A distant snow covered monolith rising majestically from the ocean – on a crisp winter’s day, it’s a sight Wellingtonians know well. At 2885m, the highest peak outside of the Southern Alps, it was Ed’s first conquest and subsequently the climb has become something of a rite of passage in the tramper-to-climber metamorphose. As a rookie snow craft graduate, it is a most tantalising sight.

Unfortunately, the Inland Kaikoura mountains are not the easiest place to get to. So when my fellow fifty-something mate from Blenheim suggests a climb of Tapuae-o-Uenuku I can’t get my crampons on quick enough. Studying weather maps, I’m pestering David every couple of days with potential windows of opportunity – he won’t have a guilt free weekend until we’ve knocked the bugger off….

Finally, in early November, after much hand wringing about the rapidly dwindling snow cap, we’re away from the Hodder Bridge in the Awatere Valley, remotest Marlborough. The six to eight hour slog up the Hodder River to the base of Tappie is legendary. Anywhere between 60 to 90 river crossings are necessary. And by river crossings, I mean fording a fast flowing torrent trapped between narrow rock walls as the river falls 1000m in 15 km. This is no lazy Canterbury braided river system and definitely not a place to be if it starts raining.

The water is ice cold but I’ve taken the advice to wear 3mm neoprene socks inside my boots. They work a charm, my feet remain toasty while David’s are numb in half an hour. It’s a beautiful walk-in a barren, haunting kind of way. Interrupted only by the occasional family of goats and a solitary Chamois who performs a captivating display of boulder hopping.

About three quarters of the way in we meet an impassible canyon but there’s a track which takes evasive action via a punishing sidle. Back down to the river, the hut is now finally in sight, a speck at the end of long scree choked valley.

On arrival I realise it’s not just one but a pair of lovingly maintained huts belonging to the Marlborough Tramping Club. They’re sited on a commanding terrace and surprisingly, the smaller is named Tararua after the support of the Wellington based club to build it back in 1970.

It’s only 1 pm, so after lunch we scout the route for the following day, study the hut log book for clues, snooze and much later enjoy a spectator sport watching the Nelson Tramping Club stagger, one by one, up the valley.

5 am and we’re away under a clear and starry sky. One last crossing of the Hodder and we begin to follow Staircase Stream. In the dark, we blunder into the first waterfall (so much for yesterday’s reccie). No matter, we find a greasy gut to shimmy up and we’re back onto the sparsely cairned route that scrambles up scree and sharp rocks into the basin below the saddle connecting Tappie to Mt Alarm. At 2100m we reach the snow and at this hour of the morning it’s crisp enough to immediately step into crampons. Several hundred meters up we begin a long traverse below the pinnacle of 2711 as directed in the guide. It’s steep and icy. Almost immediately I suffer an equipment malfunction (read human error cockup), the toe of my crampon has come out of the boot. “Oh no! don’t panic, dig a platform, resize and reattach…” But before I can take a swing of the adze, the crampon cunningly escapes the boot entirely and begins a jaunty freewheeling escape down the slope. I look on incredulously as the little devil slides merrily away. “Surely it will grip?” But no, on and on it careens, finally coming to a halt just short of where we began.

It’s cold comfort to know crampon malfunction is how many of the famous climbing accidents begin. Still, it could be worse, at least it hasn’t gone over a bluff. There’s no choice but to down climb 150m on a solitary crampon and start over. By the time I get back to the little devil, dig a platform, resize and reattach, I could write the manual.

Meanwhile David has supposedly been perched on a rock keeping a concerned eye on my progress. When I finally catch up to him, at the base of the summit ridge, he’s done his emails and is engrossed in the Sunday Herald online. Me? I’m shattered. The extra climb has been physically exhausting and I’m mentally drained from the narrow escape from what could easily been a much worse predicament.

There’s no time to lose though, down below those Nelson trampers are at the base of the snow and there’s no way we’re going to be overtaken on the way to the summit. David leads out on what is the perfect alpine ridge for my skill level. Steep with spectacular drop-offs to keep us honest but nothing technical. After 40 minutes of oxygen depriving toil we run out of mountain.

It’s 10 am.

What a view! To the East, South and West lie the endless folds of multiple mountain ranges. To the north, across the shimmering ocean lost in the haze, is Wellington. But the poignancy of finally getting to look across at my home from a mountain I’ve admired all my life is lost. I’m too busy cursing the patchy internet connection as I try to phone home and inflict text photos on unsuspecting friends (the Everest satellite phone heresy).

It’s a thankfully uneventful descent back to the huts completed in 3 hours. After a long lunch we estimate there’s just enough daylight left to walk back out before dark. Somehow going downstream doesn’t make it any easier and the diabolical snaking nature of the Hodder simply prolongs the agony as every corner feels like it should be the last. Just as darkness falls, one last lazy curve of the river reveals the silhouette of the bridge. It’s been a 16 hour day but what an epic weekend – I’m hooked!

Thanks to all the Wellington Section instructors who selflessly gave up their weekends over the winter – I couldn’t have done it without you.

Posted: 18/02/16

Posted By: Sefton Priestley