Featured articles

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Mount Hector

We woke from a luxurious twelve hour sleep in our campsite by Otaki Forks, already deep in the foothills of the tempestuous Tararua Ranges. When I stumbled out of the tent, I was disappointed. The brilliant sunset had been replaced with a billowing, brewing layer of cloud. Then I remembered the ranges' reputation: the fog mountains, they were. All the more epic for a mountain run!

Camping at the trail start paid dividends, we hit the trail direct from our tenting field. Over the swingbridge and we instantly felt initiated into the ranges. There's not much gentle about the place - a stiff climb greeted us from the offset and didn't relent for several hundred metres of gravel-crusted ascent. Within minutes we were raised from the river-side plateau and were gazing through the gorged valleys of Otaki Forks.

It felt good. Today we were cutting into fresh, mountain blood. There's nothing quite like venturing into a new mountain range; each step falling on virgin trail - we were excited. We soon climbed higher than volunteers could be bothered laying gravel - great-walk no more - a decisive transition into native Tararua forest and the run was now properly rugged. Beech leaves garnished the moist Greywacke, tangled in roots from warped Kamahi and Montane Podocarp. But whatever it happened to be, we puffed and ploughed over it, every drop of energy aimed at sending us higher and closer to the summit. Yes, the deadly Summit Fever was beginning to take hold.

Eventually we crested TiroTiro Knob and emerged out of the bushline to meet Field Hut. No ordinary hut, this was the first hut ever to be built in New Zealand, and is today one of nine hundred and sixty roofed siblings. It was built in 1924 by Tararua Tramping Club for the popular Southern Crossing trip traversing the ranges - the Wellingtonians obviously got sick of bivvying under canvas tarps every night. In a place this rugged I almost don't blame them.

I took a quick geeze through the hut-book to find some familiar faces - Anton Gulley & Peter Luk's small group of hardy AUTC mountaineers had come by this way in the deep snow of August.

We took a quick break to scoff down some Al's Powerbars, thermal up in the chilling weather, then back to the game. The remaining subalpine Beech quickly wore thin and we were running through alpine tussock grasslands. Steering into thick fog with less than fifty metres of visibility, every change in the trail came as a sudden surprise - mostly in the form of a hill. Tough the climb was sporadic not a consistent uphill grind, giving us plenty of chances to stretch our legs over some quick going mountain marshes and the occasional knoll descent.

Now approaching Kime Hut and up to twelve... thirteen... fourteen hundred metres high the wind became ferocious and the rain followed suit, hammering into our thin jackets sideways. We were pretty glad for the shelter at Kime Hut: if I'd been going solo I'd probably have turned back at this point. It was gnarly. If some emergency struck, with only a thermal and jacket I was under-prepared for the harshness of this mountain. So close to Hector that we could taste it, we buffed up and primed ourselves for the last push. We topped and dropped Field Peak blocking us from the summit, then fronted up to the beast himself...

Our blood was pumping with anticipation of summit-dom. Matt led the assault to the memorial cross at the summit, I followed close behind, and swallowed hard when I heard his victory cry of WHAKA YEAAHH!!


Mount Hector...

Toby was stoked to reach the summit of Mt Hector
The weather was still atrocious at the peak, but our brains now well-marinated in toxic adrenaline - we revelled in it. Summit Fever had finally taken control. The two-metre high memorial cross was larger than I'd imagined - the plaque at its base commerates mountain-men who had died in the Great War. We breathed our last breath of summit, and set off the way we'd came, hoping to not suffer the same fate of those men. Hypothermia on this mountain was a real threat.

Hurrying back to the refuge of the bush

On the descent we passed a large group of school kids, Toby and Matt sprinted past giving them a shock but I stopped to find out they were from nearby Horowhenua College - I warned them to watch their step on this gnarly mountain, but I guess kids around here are bred tougher than in the north.

Opening up the hinds
From there the job was all but done. Once back inside the sanctuary of the bushline we could relax and take shelter within the plush forest again. We sped through the long downhill, enjoying the openness of the bush, and though muddy it was very runnable - a refreshing change from dirty Ol' Waitakeres. Every stride dowhill was a stride towards the warmer valley so we finally dried off and recovered after the pounding at Hector. At last at Otaki Forks we took a more adventurous route to the campsite along the Waiotauru River - with the rain it pushed a strong current that could be lethal with bad footing and a fall. Luckily we survived.

Dry underwear? Not anymore.

Exhausted,  we reflected back at camp on the incredible adventure. Gazing back towards the hills still hidden inn cloud, it was hard to imagine how rough it had been only an hour ago, over a thousand metres above. The Tararuas had proven themselves a foe worthy, and to be taken seriously. In hindsight we were lucky to have claimed the summit and escape unscathed.

Our next mission will be to repeat Graeme Dingle's impressive traverse of the Tararua Range from North to South in twenty-four hours. Scanning along the topo map... for quite some time... we have our work cut out!

With the contagious Summit Fever finally wearing off, we continued our journey south...

Definition: Sum~mit Fe~ver [suhm-it fee-ver] noun
Dillusional mental state experienced at high altitudes, usually experienced while climbing to a geographic high-point.
Symptoms may include:
-Compulsive desire to run or climb up steep hills
-Heightened sweating rate and deep breathing
-Loss of judgement, inability to turn back to base of mountain despite external warning signs
-Rise in frequency of cold head rushes, excitement, elevated heart-rate, extreme alertness
-Increased awareness of how awesome the universe is.

Now you've read the story, watch the short film: Mt Hector - The Movie.

Music: Requiem for a Dream - Clint Mansell

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alastair. (I hope this OpenID thing works, I haven't used it for a while.)

    Thanks for the write-up, t'was a great read and I'm enjoying the short film as I'm writing this. I'm stuck overseas right now so it's nice to read from time to time about what's going on in some of the places I like visiting. All in all it'd be a shame to visit the Tararuas and not be clouded in, and I kind'a think it's worth it to see places in a condition that many people don't. :) Good luck with the S.K.

    Cheers. Mike.