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Monday, 27 October 2014

Manakau Uwerau Traverse

Dragging ourselves up a steep tussock slope, the scrub covered in icy dew, with nothing to be seen but mist clinging to the endless ridge above us… this was a most depressing start to our sea to summit attempt of Manakau, towering 2608 metres above the Kaikoura coastline.

Icy tussock climbing on the first attempt in June 2014.
Photo: Michael Eatson

Barratts Bivvy
Photo: Michael Eatson

The previous night we had slogged up the bouldery Hapuku stream bed, seriously underestimating the rugged approach for a Friday night walk-in, reaching Barrats Biv drained and strung out at 2am. But climbing higher on the Surveyor Spur ridge, our fortunes changed. Morning sun broke through the fog, suddenly revealing our Himalayan giants towering high above us against a blue-bird sky. The mountains of our dreams. Combined with the snow conditions of our dreams; solid cramponing on firm early winter snow felt effortless and we relished each kick of the boots and each swing of the axe.

Spectacular views over the Kaikoura coastline
Photo: Michael Eatson
But a climbing party is only as strong as its weakest link. Tom was new to mountaineering and was not equipped with the stiff boots required to climb such steep icy snow. His flexible walking boots wrenched with the front points struggling to find purchase. He looked insecure on the slope with each step. With Manakau looming above in the perfect windless blue skies, the summit call was strong, but I gritted my teeth made the painful decision to turn around. It wasn’t worth risking my friend’s safety. The mountain will always be there. And as it turned out, four months later in October, it still was...

Turning back on the dream
Photo: Michael Eatson

Another attempt and a new strategy. This time with new mission partners Aaron Ghattas and Ryan Taylor. Leaving Christchurch at 4am, while night-clubbers were just winding down, we were speeding along the highway Kaikoura bound, boulder bashing up the Hapuku streambed shortly after dawn. In the daylight, the same stretch of seemingly endless riverbed was now quite a pleasant approach, glistening pools and waterfalls in the sunshine a stark contrast to what was wet and gloomy in our midnight suffer-fest. 

Pleasant boulder hopping up the Hapuku north branch
Photo: Ryan Taylor

The tussock to Stace Saddle was dry of ice dew and provided easy access to the base of the Surveyor Spur. Here we could see a group of twelve Christchurch Tramping Club trampers heading up the river following our footsteps. We were being chased down – up the ante and up the ridge! Just the motivation we needed to grind out the vertical metres. Steep tussock climbing gave way to a craggy rock ridge line, now devoid of the winter snow, Tom’s soft boots would have had no trouble clambering up this fun scrambling terrain.

A peak of Himalayan magnitude
Photo: Ryan Taylor

Resting on Surveyor Spur, the Manakau massif in the background with the endless summit ridge
Photo: Ryan Taylor

The steepness did not relent until we reached our planned campsite at a flat spot in the ridge at 1965m altitude. The CTC party also said they would camp here, but they were now well out of view. We were going light-weight as always and had no tents, planning instead to snowcave. But considering there was no snow here, it would be a long cold night on the scree. The sun was high in the sky. We had four hours of daylight remaining, Manakau a further 700m higher. The decision was easy, onwards to the summit!
The craggy Surveyor Spur
Photo: Aaron Ghattas

Traversing snow on the summit ridge
Photo: Ryan Taylor

It was a liberating experience to be able to see the summit and reach out and grab it. To have a fit team that can provide such an opportunity and then take full advantage of the situation. It was a gamble though, we had no idea how long the tricky buttresses of the summit ridge would take. Being caught on a summit shelter-less would surely result in a long uncomfortable night out. With a thin margin for error providing the necessary motivation, we pushed hard for the summit into the late afternoon.

Negotiating rocky gendarmes on the summit ridge
Photo: Ryan Taylor

The cumulative elevation gain was now taking its toll, with over 2500m of climbing draining the juice from our legs, testing the limits of our endurance. Steep rock on the summit ridge tested our nerves and also inspired creative alternative route choices by the others who weren’t keen to test the friction of their mountaineering boots on small footholds. All the while the summit poked its nose in the distance but never seemed to come any closer.

Tapuae-O-Uenuku in the background left
Photo: Ryan Taylor

Ryan surmounts a vertical wall of snow
Photo: Ryan Taylor

The final few steps
Photo: Ryan Taylor

When at last the final rock barrier was surmounted, and the last stretch of snow to the summit arrived, it was a moment of sheer joy. We strapped on crampons and slowly crunched out the final few metres of the snowy summit ridge. It was a summit like no other I have stood on in New Zealand. The ocean, just 15km to the east but so far below stretched out from the North Island to the Canterbury plains, and in the west stood Tapuae-O-Uenuku, dominant over the extensive Clarence valley. It was a feeling of huge, incomparable prominence over the surrounding peaks.

Raw emotion on the summit of Manakau at sunset
Photo: Ryan Taylor
A feeling of incredible remoteness and of being at complete mercy to the mountains as the sun glared, rich and red in the western horizon, glowing scarlet through the dense clouds of an approaching storm. I could see the look in Aaron and Ryan’s eyes that they shared these emotions, without exchanging any words, we knew we were experiencing a classical mountaineering moment. Not all summits are equal. The power of each summit is equal to the effort invested in reaching it. All the more intense when you have started that morning at sea level...

Team shot on the summit
Photo: Ryan Taylor
Wasting no time while the sun hung so low in the sky, but encouraging each other to avoid complacency on the descent, we continued our traverse of the summit down the south-east ridge, in search of shelter. From Surveyor Spur we had identified a very nice snow basin 500m below the summit. As we dropped into the basin, we noted promising signs of deep wind-blown powder snow being blown into our basin.

Descending Manakau's snow aretes as the sun plunges into the horizon
Photo: Ryan Taylor

Our good fortune compounded: not only was our basin sheltered from the brunt of the prevailing winds, but we had good deep snow to dig a snow-cave. Full darkness enveloped soon after finding a good site, but within one hour of digging and excavating, we had constructed an adequate shelter out of the elements. Freeze-dried dinner bubbled away in an alcove as we worked, and hot food was ready as we snuggled into our cramped snow-cave.

Morning at the snow cave
Photo: Ryan Taylor

But unfortunately for Ryan, who was last to pile into the cave, we had misjudged dimensions, and no amount of ‘She’ll be right’ attitude would let Ryan squeeze into the cave. It was just too small. To his credit, Ryan slept outside the cave in the entrance without complaint. He suffered the longest, coldest night of all, as he was plundered with spindrift from above all through the night, and we had to dig him out of the fresh snow in the morning. His good attitude to this hardship was inspiring, and my respect for the man was held high that morning. Aaron and I emerged from the cramped albeit warm cave to witness another surreal visual sensation…

Morning light spread over the Pacific Ocean
Photo: Ryan Taylor

Predawn light illuminated the ocean from our high perch, reaching a climax as first rays pierced the horizon. I reached out my frozen hands into the light, yearning for the sun to warm them. Breakfast was too much effort, warmth was a higher priority; we just needed to move. Warmth slowly returned as we strode along the ridge towards Uwerau, waves of sleep deprivation and low energy levels bringing us to a halt. But with good wholesome food tucked away, and the sun higher in the stratosphere, energy returned to our bodies and the summit of Uwerau was soon dispatched.

A Ryan selfie on the summit of Uwerau
Photo: Ryan Taylor

I wasn’t expecting much as we approached this second, less significant summit of the traverse, but with the last few steps onto that little rounded snow patch, all of the Kaikoura coastline once again opened up, and our prominence above the surroundings was once again overwhelming. The mountain dropped away steeply in all directions, elevating us so high above the river valleys, plains and ocean.

Down climbing choss into the final scree chute off the south face of Uwerau
Photo: Ryan Taylor

From here it truly was all downhill. We embarked on what was to be the greatest scree run of all time: a 1500m descent on almost continuous scree, with just a few bands of down-climbing to interrupt the flow. Dig in the heels and fly effortlessly downhill. All those hours invested in the ascent the previous day spent in minutes…

The temperature ramped up quickly as we dropped into the hot bush, and we soon found ourselves sweltering in the Hapuku valley in full mountaineering kit. Stripping down to shorts and t-shirt by the cool stream felt like a full renewal of body mind and soul. Back in the land of life was given new meaning after traipsing barren mountain ridges for so long where the only form of life is that of avalanche and stone-fall.

Rare form of life in the alpine zone
Photo: Ryan Taylor
We debated the merits of staying overnight at Hapuku Hut. Several rounds of hot food and a snooze later, the afternoon was still young. Fish and chips by the beach beckoned. Just two hours later it was reality, the final kilometres of mind-numbing riverbed a thing of the past, and full stomachs by the rumbling surf with beer in hand, yes, the stuff of dreams. Mountains behind us, tall as ever, unmoved by our journey. But do the mountains realise where they take us? Manakau, from sea to summit, and back again. Thanks to Aaron and Ryan for the wild ride... 

Manakau Uwerau Traverse. Sea to Summit.
Photo: Google Earth
 
30km distance, 3600m vertical
Photo: Google Earth

1 comment:

  1. I was in the Chistchurch Tramping Club party having dinner at the designated camp site @ ~ 1950m while you guys were summiting Manakau. Later, after you had continued your traverse, we saw your head-lights while you were in the wind-bowl below Manakau digging your snow cave. We think you guys rock!!
    Good job.
    Warwick Dowling

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