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Monday, 30 September 2013

Storm on Makorako

Submit, and that was it. My final fourth year engineering report finished, done. I was psyched. It was time to head to the mountains to burn off some loose energy. Matt and I met up with Kristian in Taupo, we were bursting with excitement at the prospect of the giant mission we had lined up. Usually attempted over four full days, we would burst in late Friday night and go hard till Sunday evening. A weekend's fast-packing trip to the Kaimanawa's hidden jewel, the seventh highest peak in the North Island. Glorious.

We noted the less than ideal forecast, deteriorating in the Saturday afternoon, but we backed our fitness and nav to get over the exposed tops before noon, and weather out the downpours in the lower valleys. We packed accordingly, adding an extra layer and a tarp to our light loads in case we had to wait out a river. You never know what can happen in the mountains.

The KKT team amping for the mission at Umukarikari Road

Friday 8pm, Kaimanawa Road, and the clouds were ominous. Somewhere behind the layers of thick, dark clouds was a full moon, but you'd have never known. We glimpsed a flash of lightning just as we pulled off Desert Road, and began the epic traverse...

Matt and Kristian searching out the  next marker on Umukarikari Ridge

Climbing up hundreds of metres through dripping bush by headlight warmed us up for the tops, but it was deceptively wet work breaking through fresh windfall. Once on the tops, our hot sweat chilled instantly by the roar of the northerly wind. We negotiated the familiar Umukarikari ridgeline in darkness, following the reliable stream of reflective orange markers in utter tunnel vision mode. Without running a step, we flew along the ridge making great time to Waipakihi hut, a fantastic warm-up. We made a brew, flopped mattresses around the stove and stoked the fire, eagerly awaiting the 4AM alarm...

Warmth at Waipakihi Hut

It felt like a momentary lapse in time when the alarm sounded. Still dark outside the hut, but now drizzling lightly. I shivered at the prospect, but a wave of excitement followed and wiped any thoughts of the impending cold. A bag of protein oats and coffee dregs woke us to the challenge ahead. Intense. Thick fog obscured any sense of direction we could gather. The groove of a muddy bush track guided us away from the hut, and higher up to faint goat trails on the spur to Junction Top.

4:45am, ready to plunge into the darkness

 Dawn was slowly pushing through the fleeting mist as Matt confidently navigated us down the opposite side of the range, following steep fingering spurs to the start of a bush track to the Rangitikei River. The 'trail' soon disintegrated into horrendous bush bashing over piles of fresh storm debris and thick overgrown beech. We desperately tried to conserve energy, though it was exhausting work for the small distance we were covering.

Stream bashing down to the Rangitikei

A stream eventually gave us fast travel down to the main river, we jogged to make up lost time. Matt reminded us that this river represented total committment to the mission. It was only 7am, the journey had just began. But we had to decide now. Low in the valley, the wind and drizzle was light. The thought of bailing never entered our minds, this was it, we're in deep now. It was flowing calmly, but waist deep in the centre of the channel. Cold. Though from bush-bashing all morning we were soaked through already, it hardly made a difference.

Kristian marching through the storm towards Makorako

Onto the tops again. Our task was now to navigate the length of the Te More range, a classic slice of the Kaimanawa mountains - barren and exposed to the elements. Once on the Island Range, we would travel east across Te Wetenga, and descend a long spur into the Mangamaire Valley, leading towards to the Kawekas by the end of the day. It was difficult to navigate, made even harder by the low visibility, and sleeting rain. We had to keep moving to stay warm; stopping for just a minute or two to check the map or set a bearing would bring on a nasty chill. The northerly off the Tasman and high freezing level were by no means warm!

Map showing our route from west to east, with estimated turn-around point

Matt stares out into the fog trying to make sense of our position

After an hour's travel on the ridge, we re-entered the bush and began to descend. Something was wrong. We quickly retraced our steps back to the ridge crest. The first navigational error, we were now more wary and concentrated even closer to the contours. However, the winds were picking up, which limited time checking the map to a brief few seconds. Decisions needed to be made fast. We soon climbed to a crest on the ridge which we believed to be pt 1699m, we immediately turned north towards Te Wetenga.

Something didn't feel right, but we had no time to think as 80km/h gusts buffeted us unsteadily on our feet. Our pace slowed as scree turned to scrub. Through a brief clearing in the mist, a river valley appeared alarmingly close. We were far too low, and had turned off the wrong spur again. We sought shelter from the gales, and quickly decided to abort the mission. The challenging navigation and weather had overwhelmed us and gave us no choice but to turn back, and return to Waipakihi Hut...

Strong winds and constant rain - brutal conditions

Simply retracing our steps was easier said than done. After hours exposed to soaking rain and strong winds, we had noticed in each other the early stages of hypothermia. Rushed and poor decisions, slurred speech, shivering and lagging behind... It was 1pm, 8 hours since we had started, when we decided to drop into the bush and set up a quick camp with the tarp. We warmed up with hot drinks, reassessed our situation and closely interrogated the map... where exactly were we?

Attempting to retrace our steps towards the Rangitikei

We quickly packed up into cold clothes again and set off for Waipakihi, all feeling much better for the rest. After half an hour, our situation had become desperate. Features were not lining up with our estimated position, and visibility was still poor. Following the ridge further seemed pointless now that we weren't sure if it would take us to the Rangitikei again. With the downpours of the past 5 hours, we now doubted that we'd be able to re-cross the river... We couldn't wait any longer in the rain. Our task was now very simple - find shelter, and fast.

Our survival camp

A spur running off the main ridge offered tall beech forest with enough space between the trees to make a camp. Despite our plan to stay in the Harkness hut that night, I was incredibly glad to have brought my hiker-fly tarp as an emergency shelter. Propped up with a pole and tied down tight, we had constructed an excellent shelter - rain flowed straight off without pooling. Now the dreaded emergency survival bag. Matt and I had one to share...

The following 16 hours were the most uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and cold that I've spent in my life. The thick plastic was great for containing our combined body heat, but as the hours dragged on, we were soaking each other and our light down bags in litres of sweat. The puffy down had become a soggy wet suit. Roots and rocks dug into our cramped and aching bodies - foam roll mats were an indulgence that we had no space for. Every movement was awkward, and no amount of squirming was enough to find any comfortable position to lie in. Just one sniff of our brewing stench made me gag. We were literally incubating in our own body odours. It was a true test of endurance, if ever we had asked for one...

Matt prepares for a very uncomfortable night

We dazed through the night, debating about our options for escape. The waist deep Rangitikei would be a raging torrent now, as the rain bucketed down with increasing strength onto our tarp. If we did manage to descend to the Rangitikei on Sunday, with more rain forecast we predicted the rain would only drop enough by Monday. This would require a second emergency bivvy, by the river or on the steep banks of bush. The valley was steep, we could imagine no good camping spot from memory. Add to this, we now had no dry clothes or sleeping gear - the only way to stay warm was to stay in our emergency plastic sacks.

Our only option of escape would be to spend another 30 hours more in our bags till Monday arrived with promise of clear weather. If we did eventually make it out, a difficult and committing prospect with high risk of hypothermia, it would be Tuesday at the earliest - we'd have been long overdue and many Search & Rescue teams would have been deployed on our case.

It was by this logic that we decided to activate our emergency personal locator beacon. The decision was made, we regretted it instantly, but knew it was the only choice. Matt flipped the antennae, and pressed that button. The display began to flash with bursts of white and red strobe light. We propped it up at the head of the tarp, and lay down to wait...

Many hard, painful hours later, light broke through the mist. And the rain continued. We were all thoroughly depressed, and had no idea how long we'd be waiting, the choppers needed clear weather to fly. We were bordering on paranoia, every sound of the bush sounded like the whirring of chopper blades. Wind through the beech, a waterfall across the valley, even silence spun its tricks... At 8:30am, the rain petered out for a short time and again a dreamy noise rose above the wind. We stopped breathing to listen closer into the sound. 'That's not the wind. That's mechanical...'

We rushed out of the shelter and climbed above the bush-line, dragging reflective foil and bright clothes behind us. The sound grew louder, and echoed off the valley walls, giving us no clue where it was coming from. Kristian had brought binoculars, and spotted a group of men in orange overalls on a range a few kilometres away. At last the hovering beast came into view, coming close, then flying away. It was frustrating and desperate thinking the chopper had not seen us. I emptied deafening lungfuls through my whistle while flailing the ripped foil above my head. Through the binos, we spotted the SAR ground crew tramping along the ridge towards us - surely they had seen us. It was a dramatic scene as the roaring pulse of the rescue helicopter lowered from above, perched against the hillside, and a seriously clean-shaven steel-jawed air force crewman leaned out to beckoned us aboard. We were thrown into our seats as the chopper spiraled up and away from the range... the ordeal was finally over.

What the Kaimanawas should look like (Photo: tramper.co.nz)

We were ferried back to a field near Turangi, and casually debriefed by the SAR crew. They were satisfied that we were well equiped and made a legitimate decision to activate the EPIRB. But how did we get there in the first place, where did we go wrong?

Thanks Greenlea Rescue Helicopters

We realised that the major mistakes were all made in the rushed planning stage. Such is often the case with spontaneous, excitement-fuelled missions, planned only two days earlier. We should not have attempted such an ambitious traverse over such remote terrain with the given forecast. We overestimated our ability to cope with the challenging tops navigation in atrocious weather and low visibility. We should have taken a GPS as well as map and compass. The tarpaulin gave us shelter, but effectively soaked all our dry sleeping gear. We should have carried a tent if we wanted to stay dry and survive multiple nights in such poor weather.

Overall, we were pretty stoked with how we dealt with our survival situation. At no point did we lose completely control of the situation, and at no point was there anything more tense than constructive discussion within the team, even in high winds, cold and rain. After the trip began, our decision making was generally good with the proviso that we should have turned back much sooner. We were well equipped with emergency kit, including an emergency shelter, extra clothes, cooker, sleeping bags, bivvy bag and EPIRB. We made it back in good physical condition; no one ever became seriously hypothermic or injured.

The KKT is a true epic, one of the last remaining 'barely conquered' tramping feats in the North Island. We were humbled by the power of mother nature, and rightly put in our places. We have huge respect and gratitude to the Turangi and Taupo SAR teams and the Greenlea rescue helicopter. New Zealand adventurers are very lucky to have such an effective emergency service at call for emergencies such as these. We will be back, on a sunnier weekend.


  1. Kia ora Alastair - glad to read all turned out well. You guys made all the right moves once in distress. Never easy to press the button or call in help, but sometimes we have to do it. I have been there myself. Was in the Ruahine for 5 days the week before. Coming out on a nasty Saturday with rain, sleet, and gale winds I was surprised to meet two different parties heading deep in on weekend trips in spite of the nasty forecast. The best lesson I have learned in the mountains is that they will always be there another day. Glad all is well.

  2. Scaring! Your right decision to activate PLB. Though it was expensive but it did saved your precious life. Ronald Chen

  3. Absolutely insane story Alastair, very gripping to read. Very glad the helicopter was able to get to you in the morning and you had made it through such a hard night. Easier to get the picture in my head with the photos to document the story.. Oh man!

  4. So glad you guys are all safe :-) I definitely think you made the right decision as wet gear and mild hypothermia are so serious!. Its really good that you brought an epirb and some emergency shelter. I spent a night out under a rock on th east side of ruapehu one time so now i bring a small army surplus bivvy bag on even day trips and my minaret for longer ones! Hope autc has more minarets and a gps these days. I was always lending my minaret to people for their trips! Thanks for th amazing story!

  5. Great to read your blog Alistair! I was in the Search Management Team Co-ordinating the search for you your crew. The ground teams put in some hard yards tramping in all night to try and locate you. Things were seriously speed up when the helicopter was able to fly, albeit some tricky low level flying skills were involved.

    Great to hear you are ok.

    Just let us know next time you are going tramping down these ways and we'll put a team on standby! :-)

  6. Dear Nephew:
    Great writing skills, shame about the preparation! Good on ya for giving the KTT a go. I've done it twice in 'nicer' summer or autumn wx - thoroughly enjoyable country, albeit for real men.

    This epic reminds me when I lead my brother and his friends around Tongariro. Very underprepared, they ventured off -track, only to return via rescue chopper after a very wet and anxious bivvy night. They had to face the fury of the police officer in Turangi.

    I reckon this one's good enough to send to Wilderness. Just needs some dramatic stage photos.

    Cheers, UNCOOL RAY