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Sunday, 14 April 2013

Kahurangi Ridgeaineering - The Arthur Range

A five day traverse of the Arthur Range from Mt Arthur to Mt Soddom & Gommorrah seemed the perfect way to end summer. A 7 hour hitch-hike to St Arnaud was where I teamed up with Dulkara Martig for the trip just before she left for a 90 day trek across Nepal. Following the very crest of the ridge for the five days, virtually all above the bushline, produced a unique adventure and the ultimate way to see the Kahurangi. The traverse involved a lot of exposed climbing with a heavy pack & running shoes. The ridge was so dry that we'd carry 5 litres of water at a time, between tarns and rotten snow piles. At times we definitely crossed the line from tramping to mountaineering - standing on a ledge overlooking the Salisbury Tablelands, desperately searching for camp, we almost considered abseiling with our improv sling harnesses and prussic cord. It was only for a second look at the GPS that saved the epic...

Taking a moment above the Salisbury Tablelands
Our creativity was not bounded by the day, but each night we found an exciting place to sleep. The first long day saw us traverse from Mt Arthur to climb North Twin, and sleep in a secret cave notched between the two Twins. In perfect shelter we watched Nelson light up with a near full moon rising above Tapuae-o-Uenuku. Other nights we found adequate rest on beds of tussock in dried out stream beds, beside dirty tarns and on the final night it was a case of simply sleeping 'right here'... 

Mt Arthur Hut
 The idea to traverse the entire Arthur Range seemed ambitious enough to be worthwhile, and from our research, not many had completed the whole range - Arthur to Patriarch. Tristan Riley came close, reaching John Reid hut before bailing to the weather. Armed with beta for every peak, sidle and water point on the ridge, we felt as if we were following Tristan's very footsteps along the Kahurangi crests almost in competition with his times and way-points. Turns out Dulkara knew him from her Nelson days.

Mt Arthur

The Twins. The Cave is in the sharp notch between the twins to the right

Rock climbing on North Twin

On the summit of North Twin
Getting over one last buttress before the safety of the saddle

Last rays from the Cave

Snowberries plucked from the ground, sweet and tasty to crunch on

Feeling the exposure on a short tricky section on the ridge

Climbing back to Baton Saddle after stream bed camp. Flannagan's hut is at the end of the valley

Dusk from dirty tarn campsite
As we crossed Hough Saddle, our last two obstacles lay before us. Mount Soddom & Gommorah. Straight out of the Bible, we approached their steep slopes expecting some treachery. One short section below the bushline, first in three days, popped us out into a grove of spikey dracophyllums. The variety of plants growing on the ridge was immense. I don't know much about the flora, but I soon recognised silvery astelia and sharp aciyphylla among the tussock and snowgrass.

Mt Soddom (left) and Mt Baldy
Studying the map closely, we tried to pick a good route weaving through the great peaks. Our beta specifically told us 'Do not climb Soddom - or you'll never be able to come down'. Somewhat like God's warning to Lot and his family: “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!” It was late in the day so we fled towards the mountains, aiming to sidle at the 1500m contour, to end up nicely on Soddom Saddle.

Don't look back...
Out of nowhere, a booming noise entered the valley, reverberating off the valley walls. A helicopter sped through the valley and over the saddle with minimal clearance, and was gone. Our hearts were by now racing at a speed of knots, but we forced ourselves to keep calm.

Over the past three days of ridgeaineering we had come to thoroughly despise sidling, as it usually involved hanging onto steep hillsides gripping to flax, roots, cutty grass, spaniard, and chossy loose rock. Soddom was no exception! The salty pyramid loomed above us as we cautiously traversed its flanks until - bluffs. Dulkara kept a way behind during the exercise while we scoped out this unfamiliar territory, not sure if we'd find a way. I laughed as I saw the bluffs dropping precipitously to the valley floor, it was the logical reaction. The only option was to climb higher up the slope and try to skirt above the bluffs, knowing that a fall would be costly. Not being on rock or snow, I didn't associate this situation with danger, but the snow-grass was so slippery that you'd slide as if on ice.

"I have never been so relieved to be alive after a sidle like that in my LIFE - that mountain there is Mount Soddom..."
The high traverse worked brilliantly, eventually leading to easier ground and a good way down to the saddle. We didn't dare look back at the horrible sidle we'd endured, else we end up as another salty pillar to add to Soddom's collection. What a drama!

Gourmet dinner on Gommorah: apricot prune & cheese crackers, with iced coffee on the side

The ridge to Gommorrah was easy, thankfully, but still more elevation on the legs was taking its toll. From Gommorah we could now see Mt Patriarch - the end of the traverse - well within sight. But sadly we'd run out of time, and had to descend tonight. It was a toss up between the descent from John Reid hut via Chummies track, or directly down the Gommorah track. Chummies track I knew was DOC maintained and a breeze. Gommorah would surely be the same, right, we stretched on head-torches and prepared for a fun night run down the ridge to finish. This decision proved to be the worst of the entire trip.

Sunset over the Malborough Sounds as we race across Gommorah ridge

Dulkara anxiously searching for the trail head on Gommorah Ridge with light fading fast

As it turned out, the Gommorah track had not been maintained since 1995. We expected a great orange triangle marking the start of the track as we entered thick scrub. At last one appeared. A bright light caught my eye, and I thought my torch was reflecting on the marker. I soon realised this was not a DOC marker, but a blood red moon rising above the horizon, piercing through the tangled mass of overgrowth. Hugely demoralised, we both stopped racing, and sat in a heap in the impenetrable forest. But with the sun now gone, we resigned ourselves to darkness and accepted our fate - a long night lay ahead of us.

Permolat markers covered in black moss. You can see why DOC uses orange triangles now
The next five hours passed as a tense military style operation as we navigated the ridge by map, compass, GPS and headlight. Permolat markers on the trees were white gold. I let out a relieved cry of "MARKER" every time one appeared out of the night, confirming that we were on track. The trail was so overgrown that my only sense of direction was from my feet, feeling the slightly more compacted trail, and raising an alarm when the ground became soft and untrodden. At times I couldn't believe myself, my feet had a mind of their own and I was following their call.

The night was balmy and dry, and the moon was now high above but providing no light through our thick canopy. Progress crawled on achingly slow. Our water bottles were almost dry; we'd consumed about 4 litres each since leaving camp 15 hours earlier that morning.

At last our streak of white markers also ran dry, and with Dulkara standing post, I thrashed furiously through bush and dry branches. At the second failed return to post, I slumped onto the forest floor by Dulkara, absolutely drained and destraught. The time was now 2AM and we had less than 100ml of water left between us. My mouth was so dry that I felt like an old man as I struggled to get my words out. I was determined to keep going, downhill, at the risk of losing the 'marked trail', if only to find some water... Dulkara was calm and reasoned we should stop, and sleep there til morning. We would definitely miss the ferry. Thirsty as I was, I gave up arguing and conceded to waiting it out til dawn. That soft mossy forest floor gave the best night's sleep of the trip.

Where are we - even the GPS isn't sure

We woke to the light and the sound of birds - it would have seemed beautiful if we weren't both dead men walking from the last night's epic. Four hours later we finally stumbled out to the Wangapeka road. I polished off the last of the food, downed a cold coffee, and knocked off 8km of gravel road to the car in 32 minutes. Inside the van that Dulkara's friend had left us, were instructions to find two beers chilling in a side stream off the road. Classic. Best VB's we'd ever tasted.

Our desperate dark end made us miss the ferry, but the survival story we spun scored the next sailing. We recovered from our wilderness hangovers with a big feed on the InterIslander ferry while looking over our photos and thinking about what had just gone down the past week. An epic for sure, but would we have done it any other way?

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