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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Rampage in the Ruahines

Of Mi-Goreng and Mountains

Ruminations of a rollicking rampage through the resplendent Ruahines…
August 28th - September 1st 2011

Day One - I began the first day with a debut run in Matt Ogden's Red 1 course at Woodhill Forest, a good two-hours of intense orienteering. Matt set a challenging course, I stumbled into the course with a 15 minute catastrophe at the start. But I soon got my eye into the map and knocked off the rest of the course relatively cleanly, though slowly compared to Duncan Morrison's blistering 59 minute win.

I was inspired to venture to the Ruahines after watching this mesmerizing helicopter fly-over of the ranges. "I need to check that out for myself!", I thought, so I advertised the trip at the Tramping Club's spring Trips Launch. My sales pitch was easy - showing the helicopter flyover of the snow-capped ranges was enough to gather three other keen companions - Matthew Lillis, Helen Liley and Stefan Wender.

Welcome to the Jungle
We were out of Auckland by 3pm, and in the foothills of Mangaweka climbing through steep farmland by 10:30pm. Ruahine Forest Park - the old green sign welcomed us in. We crunched through the first snow about halfway up the 900m climb as we followed the Beech covered ridge by headlamp. It was incredibly still in the night, but even though we couldn't see the mountain we could definitely feel it. The bushline slowly faded into open tussock, and after a few false alarms we reached Purity Hut. 1:35 am. No better way to kick off an epic!

Day Two - We woke up with a shock of realisation: we were on top of a mountain - not your everyday wakeup call! From the angle of my bunk, it seemed that we were caught in a whiteout, the window was white. In a mad scramble across the slippery hut floor I rushed outside to the... Wow. A mad war dance ensued around the hut, an innately carnal celebration of the vista - snow covered ridges appeared from all around, with Mt Ruapehu & friends across the plateau.

Beginning the trek up the ridge to Wooden Peg
We ploughed through the deep snow along the rolling ridge towards a small peak named Wooden Peg, the great Peg-Bagging mission had begun. Iron Peg was next, followed by the magnificent Golden Peg herself: Mangaweka. We ate lunch at 1724 metres, couldn't have been a better day for it. 

Stefan, Matt, Me - Summit of Mangaweka

Helen strolls along the majestic ridgeline
And so began the epic descent. The eternal question: ridge or river? To stay in the safety and serenity of the ridge? Or the excitement and potential danger of the gushing gulley stream? We'd had enough of ridges so we dropped into Trig Creek to find it easy going, apart from several involuntary self-arrests. It was a winter wonderland walk down the snowy stream-side.

En route to the night's riverside camping spot

We later forked onto Iron Peg Creek, and set up camp at the main confluence with the larger Kawhatau River. DOC had told us there may be a shortage of camping spots by the river. Ah, that depends what you're looking for we thought, all we needed was two trees to set up our bivvy! We huddled for warmth by our blazing camp fire, and used the embers to cook bacon, smothered in cream, sautéed onion, capsicum and a feast of pasta.

Fire by the Kawhatau River

Waterfall Hut

By twilight we listened to the unique whistling of the rare Whio - blue duck, while sucking back rich Milo. Eventually we surrended to the cold and shuffled back to the bivouac...

We turned from Waterfall hut into the tight valley that channeled Pinnacle Creek. An easy going stream bash soon became challenging as avalanche paths took hold of our route. Every so often, a false step would shoot through the surface, an alarming reminder of the icy stream gushing beneath our feet. We opted for the safety of the steep tussock and scree coated banks until the avalanche ravaged gulley was our only option. We picked our way up through the upturned chunks of dirty snow into the guts of the climb. At one point we caught sight of a Karearea, a mountain falcon, swooping about the snow tops, surveying his territory.

Climbing the rugged Pinnacle Creek
We took a brief stop near the saddle, and as we taunted the mountain’s summer-like conditions, and before our eyes we witnessed the power of the range. Mist moved in from the north, obscuring the peaks above Waterfall hut. Lets go! The final push to the saddle was almost crampon-worthy but so short that we braved the climb with firm footing into the snow and solid punches of the axe through the icy crust.

We climbed towards a patch of dry rock and tussock slightly higher than the saddle, so when we crested onto the ridge we could see the signs pointing back towards Iron Peg. No way were we heading back just yet - we had unfinished business with the Ruahine.

Weather closing in as we began the traverse
What was to follow would go down on each of our records under "dodgiest thing I've ever done". When scrambling across a narrow rock slab with a loaded pack on all fours seems better than walking around, you know you're in trouble. Luckily the route was easily to follow, we could see the razor-back spine ridge trail away to the right. Unluckily, the ridges were razor-sharp and one slip either side wouldn't be pretty! And so we swallowed hard, and began the trance like procession across each ridge to the rhythm of:

Left foot
Right foot
Ice axe


Nerve racking ridge traverse...
And so this cycle carried on in almost silence, apart from calls of "You all right back there?" Yeah, fine, never been better!

Lost in mist high on a mountain ridge
This fear-fueled adrenaline march was mentally exhausting, and it was quite difficult to keep the images of falling off the slope away from my mind. Luckily the snow was soft so we could stamp deep footsteps in anchoring ourselves to the slope. When we finally descended to a solid track, we were incredibly relieved! We hadn't stopped for several hours, none of us was overly keen for a lunch break with one leg either side of a ridge top, so by 3pm we were ravenous for lunch. Glad to be in the safety of bush again, we dropped down steeply off the ridge to the Pourangaki river and began constructing camp. Here is the result of three engineers let loose in the bush:

Moments and axial forces balanced
Result: Bivvy of Champions
We chowed down vast quantities of salty Mi-Goreng inside the bivvy while reading Anton Gulley's tramping diary from 2008. Here is an excerpt: "December 27th 2008. Again I just want to point out that even though I did not have a formal tramping trip I was not being lazy this weekend. Taitomo Island is a short climb 5 minutes round the rocks south of Piha and can walked at low tide..." After a soggy night in the bivvy, we threw all our wet gear in our packs and headed towards Pourangaki hut for breakfast. Would you like oats with your oats sir?

Crossing the Pourangaki River
Our final hurdle before the sanctuary of Kelly Knight hut was the Pourangaki tops. With growing fatigue, we pushed towards the bush line for a third time, and with the altitude gain we felt the bitter whip of exposure heading into a hazy whiteout. There was no trail to follow, and slushing through steep, deep snow was a huge effort. Like a cycling peloton we cycled through leaders to share the load.

Through the whiteout...
At the peak we discovered a possum who had courageously climbed as high as he claws could muster, and upon reaching the sign he collapsed into an icy heap. If only he could pass onto his fellow possums the tale of his conquest...

Navigating the tops was tricky in the 20m of visibility we had - Matt Lillis took a compass bearing and we three fanned off in the direction to find the next pole. Eagle-eyed Stefan found his calling in life with a string of remarkable pole sightings, the rest of us squinted into the foggy distance before we could make them out, meanwhile Stefan strode boldy through the deep snow like a man on a mission.

Matt checks the bearing
We managed to avoid walking off any bluffs, and safely made it down the mountain for the final time. The relief slowly sank in that we had overcome all the biggest obstacles so far, and with hardly any mishaps - this was unheard of as far as trips to the Ruahines go, in winter no less.Until that point, Helen was pretty adamant that she was too good for the hut - the rest of us were content to spend the last night in luxury! She quietly conceded just before arriving at Kelly Knight hut - and old hunter's cabin on the outskirts of the forest park named after a famous hunter. Our relief of surviving the ranges almost came too soon, as I foolishly lit the iron fire stove with the bottle of Fuelite still on the bench! Flames licked over the fuming bottle top for a split second before I realised and quickly swiped it away... Phew - major catastrophe averted! We all stood in silence for about ten seconds, quietly internalising a series of complicated situations in our head, ranging from newspaper headlines to projectile motion equations.

Kelly Knight Hut - luckily still standing
I was soon forgiven, and we tapped into a celebratory bottle of Champagne by the roasting fire while eating a pot of ... well... everything. Bliss. The last morning was almost the hardest; our clothes were now thoroughly saturated in mud, sweat, and Ruahines - a toxic substance that. An overgrown trail sidled around the lower reaches of the Pourangaki river before spitting us into farmland. Over the last fence, and we relunctantly farewelled the Ruahines. Five days in the wilderness without seeing another soul, now that's off the beaten track.

I'd recommend a venture in the Ruahines to anyone who wants to experience some raw nature, and a top transalpine journey. For a winter mission you'll need a good amount of back country experience and basic snow skills.

Western Ruahines

And on the seventh day we rested.

And on the eighth day ... 

Further reading: Read about another trip to the same area in even more extreme winter conditions

Trip: Purity, Pourangaki, Kelly Knight (in Winter)

1 comment:

  1. Kia ora Alastair,
    Well done mate, great rip and great photos. Brings a smile to my face seeing the Ruahine in full winter glory. I have felt that trepidation of icy narrow ridges and descents many times. The Ruahine is good for that.
    I missed out on a trip last week due to weather and a few personal things, but fortunately have a 5 day traverse of the Pohangina valley and tops lined up in a weeks time. Looking forward to it. Thanks for the inspiration. Kia kaha!