A year or two ago I was on an early morning flight from Wellington to Auckland. It was a cloudy, dreary day in Wellington, but as the plane popped out above the clouds in to the sunshine, I looked south and could see the tops of the Kaikoura mountains poking through. I immedietly imagined what it would be like to be sitting on top of the highest peak instead of in my aeroplane seat, and so began my longing to get to the top of Tapuae-o-Uenuku, or “Tappy” for short.
A bit of research taught me it was a bit of a mission to get to, a 22km hike up a river before reaching the base of the mountain.. most write ups recommending 3 or 4 days to climb. The track is also not marked, and some navigation and climbing skills are required, although many said it was doable for the moderately experienced.
I initially pencilled in a trip to Tappy for the start of my South Island trip, coinciding when a running friend (Mark) who had been up the mountain 7 times already might be in the area. However, since the 7.8 magnitude earthquake which shook Kaikoura badly in November, road closures made it look more difficult and the mountain fell off my radar for the time being.
It was fortunate then, when my brother and I found ourselves heading north from Wanaka with a few days to spare before we had to be in Nelson. A relatively short time googling, calling the land owner and getting advice from Mark, we found ourselves in Bivouac buying a Topo map, new compass and hiring a PLB. During this googling, I also learnt that Tappy was Sir Edmund Hillary’s training ground before he climbed Mt Cook (and then on to Mt Everest), so it became even more exciting.
After camping at Hanmer Springs, we drove for 3 hours in the rain along an unsealed road. The weather forecast had promised clearing in the north east, and we really hoped the river was going to be passable. As we arrived at the track head, we met Allan the farmer. A very friendly man who seemed to know the mountains extremely well and whom you must get permission from before climbing, as the start is on his land. He warned us that the river was high, but not impassible and it wasn’t meant to rain any more. He also warned of the wind forecast and that it might be cloudy tomorrow.. but off we set.
After an hour or so of walking along farm tracks, we found the marker suggesting we climb down the bank on to the river bed. We were instantly wet, and continued to be so for the next 5 hours. Neither of us had a lot of river experience and the water was flowing fast and dirty, so our first few crossings were slow as we tried to learn to pick the best paths. It was so thrilling (mountain geek alert) to know we were following the same footsteps as Sir Ed, especially as it is likely the valley still looked very similar to when he was passing through.
It was a hard slog up the river as we had to constantly be thinking about where to cross and where to put our feet on the rocks. We also had to keep an eye on the map and our progress, but Diain’s watch was able to give us GPS coordinates of our location which was super helpful.. if not a little bit disheartening when we weren’t quite as far along as I’d hoped. We also pased a few new bits of rockfall which apparently had happened in the November earthquake, making me more than a little anxious about what-if-theres-another-one and what-if-we-get-stuck. But we’d come this far now.. After about 3 hours, we were directed off the river bed to climb up and over an impassable waterfall. It was a sketchy climb up some goat tracks and Diain lost his footing on the way back down, sliding a way before a combination of a rock and his shin slowed him down to a stop. It was quite a chunk out of his shin, and I had to flick away a bit of fatty/dermal tissue nonchalantly before plastering it up enough to get to the hut.
Luckily we only had one more crossing of the river before we spent some time getting lost bush bashing then following the bank towards the Hodder Huts. The first sight of the huts was glorious, and as we got close we disrupted quite a big deer, who proceeded to bound off in to the distance. I was totally exhausted when we arrived, realising we hadn’t stopped or really eaten for 6 hours. It felt like we had already been on a massive adventure, and we were only at the 1600m base of a nearly 2900m mountain. The chance of us getting to the summit and back out again the next day was becoming more unlikely, and as people were expecting to hear from us before a certain time and we weren’t sure of the long range weather forecast, we had to be sensible. It was great to read all the stories of people’s adventures in the hut book, about 50% of them reaching the summit successfully, most spending at least 2 nights at the huts.
We survived a windy and slightly earthquake-y night in the hut (only one small one, but fun for Diain’s first!) And woke up to cloud covered mountains, and still a bit of a breeze. We decided to wait til it was light then head up for 2 hours or until we reached the cloud, whichever came first. We followed a well trodden path along some scree then up staircase stream, before heading in to the lower basin between Tappy and Mt Alarm. We climbed a little, before we couldn’t see much more than cloud so decided to turn around. At about 2100m we were about 1.4km as the crow flies and almost 800 vertical metres to the summit. Disappointing but no point risking it with wind, cloud, an unknown forecast, a damaged shin and a broken shoe (my sole took a beating on all the river crossings). I felt like we’d still had an awesome adventure and I’d got to use my hiking poles on the climb up which was great practice for Nepal.
We headed back down towards the huts for a snack and a cup of tea. On doing so we realised we only had one tea bag left, another sure sign we had to head off the mountain! We were hoping it would take us less time going downstream, but even though the water was clearer and our confidence with river crossings was growing, it still took a solid 6 hours to get back to the car. As we reached the end we both admitted our anxieties that we had along the way; mine of an earthquake and avalanche, and Diain’s of being unable to cross the river and getting stranded in the mountain. Quite cool to share an experience where we were both pushed towards the limits of our comfort zone.
We didn’t see another human the whole time, and it was pretty special to be on an unmarked route, sharing it only with hares, mountain goats and a couple of deer. Not to mention the many adventurers who had trodden the way before us. I learnt a lot about crossing rivers, and gained map and compass skills.. not to mention the importance of a properly stocked first aid kit and the reassurance of a PLB.
So Tapuae-o-Uenuku has to stay on my bucket list a little bit longer, but I feel I know the mountain a little better. And after seeing it in all it’s glory on our drive out, the desire to get to the top is even stronger. Just yet another reason to return to New Zealand I guess.