Neil Winchcombe Loop in the Snow, Tararuas

This was our third attempt to complete this ridge, I had taken the kids upto Field Hut a few weeks earlier and played in the snow. I knew the snow would still be on the tops but was unsure what the condition would be. I rented ice axes and we took our poles and micro spikes.

It was a magic day on the tops, some hard work breaking through knee deep soft snow in places but no ice.

Here is our route and video footage.

Relive ‘Neil Winchcombe loop’

Tararua SK the second attempt

 

In March after the annual Tararua mountain race we spotted a good weather window for my second SK attempt.

Inspired by Glens successful mission we decided to do a 9pm start. It was an amazing night, clear sky and bright stars. Seanoa picked us up from Kaitoke and drove us to Patara.

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The plan was to get the Northern section completed in the night and get the boast from the sunrise. After Herepai some low mist settled in and we lost the trail. We got the gps out and re found the trail. After about 30 mins out of the mist we saw town lights, we had been going the wrong way!!!!!!! Demorrised we turned around and got back on our way. This section in the dark was very tough work.

 

In the dark we had this surreal experience where every mountain looms in the distance dimly lit by the star light. There was little light from the moon. To my surprise we saw a few massive possums on the tops above the bush line, they are ugly creatures.

It took forever for us to get to Arete, the sun start to raise and warm us up after a long cold night in the dark.

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This was my first time on the next section from Arete to Junction Knob, it was spectacular. Darac was full and there were a few tents. These were the only people we saw until a runner past us near Aocap doing an SMR loop.

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We arrived at Andersons at midday and the body was starting to feel pretty tired after 15 hours of hiking. We were a long way behind our schedule and not feeling good. The sun was out and it started to get really hot.

20180311_100621 Over the next few hours I started a downward spiral that had me feeling exhausted when we arrived at Maungahuka. After talking about Ant’s helicopter mate on the drive to Patara I suggested we give him a call and see if he was working today and could pick us up. Sure enough he answered the phone and was on his way. We could see the Southern crossing in the distance, for the second time the SK had broken me.

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Kaimanawa Kaweka traverse

When you look at the map of the North Island there is a huge wilderness area East of the desert road all the way out to Hawkes Bay.

A few years ago I tramped a magic loop on the edge of this area up the Waipakihi river and back over Umukarikari.

The Big Sunday Run crew had done a few missions in the area and there was chatter about a trip in February. We circled a weekend in the calendar and started to plan.

I found a route in my Classic Tramping book, a gift from my father in law that inspired our Tararua SMR trip two years ago.

The classic Kaimanawa Kaweka traverse has a big block of private land in the middle of it. Thanks to the generosity of the land owners there are permits available when the hunting blocks are not being used. https://wilderlife.nz/2017/04/kaimanawa-ranges-access/

We found an account of a tramping group that had done the trip and started to map out our plan.

My father inlaw connected me with one of his tramping friends in Turangi to find out about possible transport options. Kevin was incredibly helpful, not only did he offer to provide transport, his son Robert had done the trip a few months earlier and was able to help with the trip planning.

After getting all the info we could, we made a plan.

We would set off from Kaimanawa Rd on Friday afternoon and if the weather was good we would bivi next to the Rangitikei river est time 7 hours. Saturday we would cover the rest of the Kaimanawas including the the island range, the high point Makorako, the river valleys of the Mangamingi and Ngaruroro and spend the night at one of the huts in the Kawekas, hopefully Te Puke to keep Sunday as manageable as possible est time 15 hours. Sunday out to the road end at Makahu Saddle est time 9 hours.

We had a group of 4 adventurers who were keen and available that weekend. Marta was keen for some more god zone training, Al is a true explorer and loves new country, Anthony was very excited about the route, one of his relatives had trekked it when they moved to a Hawkes Bay school back in the olden days. I was stoked to be doing a big adventure in new country.

The weather thumbnails were looking promising as we did our final packing, cyclone gita was going to hold off until we finished. This was my first two night fast pack trip and getting our gear and food right was going to be helpful for a successful trip.

I found a freeze dried back country adventure food pack and added my normal muesli bars, chocolate bars, 10 Kransky sausages and lots of tailwind for my drink bottles.

We meet Kevin at the Kaimanawa Rd turn off and set off up the Umukarikari range. There were two school vans at the car park.

It was a beautiful afternoon to be on the volcanic alpine tops of the umukarikari range. We had views for miles. I caught my first view of the steep rocky cone shaped Makorako, the high point in the Kaimanawas that would dominate the horizon for the whole trip. The school group were at Waipakihi hut, they had traveled from the far north that morning and were enjoying the last of the sun from the deck.

The climb to junction top 1600m was one of the most awe inspiring outdoor experiences I have had. The sun was setting behind Ruapehu as we climbed the lovely alpine ridge, the vastness of the area was starting to make its presence felt. Standing on the top we looked down into the steep Rangitikei valley, it was dark and ominous, the lights of Taupo were our last glimpse of civilisation for two days.

This is the start of the private land we had a permit for and the end of the marked track. We had a gpx provided by Robert but he hadn’t followed this route due to hunting activities that meant his permit required he cross the Rangitikei further south. We dropped down into the valley under headlamps trying to follow the gpx path. It was rough and lots of scrub meant we were bush bashing quickly. Soon we were stuck in a creek and bluffed out by a 10m waterfall. We got on our hands and knees and crawled through the scrub until we finally got back onto the spur which meant we could stand up. Marta announced rule no1 for the trip, if we have to crawl we turn back and find a better path.

Bush bashing in the dark.

We continued to bush bash down to the Rangitikei it was hard slow progress and finally we got to the river. We could see a little island up the river that looked promising for bivi spots. We found a nice spot to sleep and boiled some water for a late dinner. Sitting there in the middle of nowhere after a tough few hours brought on the magnitude of the adventure we were on. Halfway into tomorrow (Saturday) we would be about as far away from civilisation as you can get in the North Island.

We didn’t get much sleep, it was cold and we were travelling light. My experiment of not bringing a sleeping bag was a failure. My Bivi bag was fine for a hut but not for being outside at 1,000m. I setup my camera in the night to capture the stars, when I got the camera from the river bank it had been moved by some animal and was sitting upright no longer facing the stars. I hope I got the shot!

We set off with the fear of more bush bashing, the river was beautiful, so clear and blue ducks playing in a magic looking swimming hole. No time for swimming yet. We wandered down the river hoping to pick up the sign of a route where the gpx left the river. All of a sudden Al appeared at the creek we had come down last night. Al had been delayed leaving town and was planning to sleep on the tops and catch us at some point this morning. It was great to see him arrive safe. We found a cairn and to our surprise a good route out of the valley on to the island range. Today we would cover the moist alpine island range, the range with Makorako the high point in the Kaimanawas that dominates the horizon, the sub alpine scrub areas of Mangamaire, In the heart of the area we have the river valleys of the Mangamingi and Ngaruroro. We would finish the day entering the Kawekas in the beautiful beach forest with moss edged trails and tussock covered valleys.

Anthony spotted a red deer looking at us from the next ridge, the tops section were spectacular, easier climbing than our Tararuas and nice wide runnable ridges. We got caught in a rough patch of scrub heading down to the Mangamaire, I had to put my over trousers on to stop the leg pain from the sharp scrub. I had a nice dip in the river before we headed up the next hill. Anthony stepped on a wasps nest that lead to a furry of Italian swear words and some sprinting to get away. A few stings later we settled into our afternoon rhythm of crossing rivers. It was about this time I realised I had been wearing my tee shirt back to front and inside out, the brain was clearly working slowly this morning!. I got to try one of my new smoothie packets, that was a real winner, note to self always pack those.

We reached the lovely Tussock hut at 6pm and pushed onto Harkness, Robert had warned me about how slow this section was, river cross after river crossing in thigh to waist deep water on slippery rocks was tough work. It was great to find Harkness was nearly as nice as Tussock hut. We ate and crashed it had been a big day.

It looked like we had 24kms to cover on the last day and were getting picked up at 3pm. It ended up being 31km lucky we left at 7am, thanks Al. My timing estimates are often optimistic which can be problematic.

The tops sections in the western Kawekas are a nice mix of greywacke and alpine scrub.

Finally the barren loose rock of the Kawekas range that looks like another planet. In between are the beautiful beach forest trails lined with pretty moss verges.

The only people we saw from Waipakihi hut to the end were a Dad and his sons who had helicoptered in to do some hunting. We run lots of the ridges and had our breath taken away by the views.

There is a special feeling that comes from an adventure like this, a mountain adrenaline that makes you feel fantastic.

Huge thanks to Kevin and Robert for their help and to my fellow adventurers.

The trip took us 28 hours hiking time including the odd quick water stop. We started Friday afternoon and finished Sunday afternoon.

Gpx

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nUDXya0IUo3khNzO0mfcsgEDao7N0ayv/view?usp=drivesdk

Fresh crayfish, ocean swims and unbelievable sunsets!

Fresh crayfish, ocean swims and unbelievable sunsets! It’s not what I expected from my first multi day adventure event.

I have been on an adventure journey for the past ten years, it started with the Tararua Mountain Race, that got me into the Tararua’s for the first time since a school tramping trip. During the course of my journey I have meet an extraordinary group of adventurers. Every week someone is out exploring our hills and sharing inspiring photo’s and tales.

Last year I heard about the A100 event, I saw a photo of 9 folks leaving Eastbourne on a Friday morning, I felt like I was missing out on something.

My run group mates are often doing ultra events up and down the country, I hear about the Kepler, the Goat, Taupo ultra, Northburn, the Shotover marathon. A couple of the group have competed in some of the famous overseas events and spoken about them at the pub after a run.

I haven’t done a lot of events. I prefer to do big missions. The A100 had a big mission feel to it.

Leading into the A100 a few friends were signing up and then I saw a post promoting the last of the 30 spots for the event. I jumped off a cliff and signed up. I had never done a multi day event before and had never covered 100km’s in three days. Signing up gave me that scary nervous feeling you get when you have bitten off more than you can chew.

Once signed up I was on the journey, my friend Marta had a plan to add even more adventure to the three days. She was going to mountain bike the sections between the runs. I thought this sounded like an amazing idea! I was in. It was as easy as upsizing my order at McD’s.

As the weeks went on I started to worry that my upsizing was going to end with me in a pile of pain, in the dark requiring rescuing. I pulled up google maps and did the calculations, the biking legs were 300km’s! After that reality check we needed a different plan. Maybe we could bike to the train station on the last day and take 80km’s off the ride.

An event is fantastic for getting you out training, I found a new hill section to hike/jog reps on. It was brutal, 15mins of hard climb, 7mins straight down and another 15mins straight up. I got a two day Tararua mission under my belt and some magic mountain time on a trip to Hanmer. I settled into 10 days of rest before the start at Eastbourne. To my relief Marta had to pull out from the bike plan. So I just had to find a way to finish 100km’s with 5,000 metres of climb to win a new pair of undies.

The few days leading up to an adventure are filled with excitement and nervous anticipation. There is gear to pack, supplies to buy and stuff to organise. A three day adventure with my plan to camp had a big gear list. Need sun screen, it is always sunny in the Wairarapa, need two sleeping mats, (hope I can sleep ok after day 1 and 2, my legs will be sore) need lots of food, big breakfast’s, lots of dinner and snacks to replace the energy burnt. Thursday night I was ready to go, alarm set for 5am, cab ordered to get me to the railway station.

The next three days were a wonderful mix of running wild coastline, river valleys, hill top trails and hiking steep undulations this area has in abundance. At the end of the running and hiking we were greeted with screams of support, cold beer, busy bbq and the very important massage tent. We spent hours hanging out chatting about our adventures, eating and hydrating. A few of us found the cold ocean and stream pools to relieve the legs. The volunteers were amazing, we had great burgers and crayfish on day one and excellent sausages complete with table service for those of us too lazy to walk the 10 meters to get another sausage. Thanks guys!

Day one is the great journey from Eastbourne to Lake Ferry via the 545m Mt Matthews saddle. We are so spoilt in Wellington to have this on our doorstep. The Orgongorgono valley is a special place where we have enjoyed lots of family tramping trips. This was my first time entering the valley from the coast. The sandblasting we got for the first 10 kms was a good test. It was lovely to get the saddle climb for some hiking after 35kms of hard running. The wind was howling on the top nearly blowing us over. Once over the saddle we made our way down the Mukamuka valley, boulder hopping at the top and smoothing out as you get to the bottom. Then the final 7kms on the four wheel drive track along the coast.

Day two is the classic Undulator course through five valleys and four undulations among the mountains of the Aorangi Forest Park. This is a very rough route with challenging river valleys and super steep climbs. The last two undulations are soul destroying climbs of over 500m with bits that require pulling yourself up and stopping yourself on the way down with anything you can grab onto. We were protected from the wind in the valleys on a beautiful day, each river crossing provided a chance to fill water bottles and wipe the sweat from your face. We check in at each of the three huts we pass, Kawakawa Hut, Pararaki hut and Washpool hut. At the end we wind down the pinnacles track to the campground to be greeted with cheers, cold beer and hot food and the very important massage tent where Pablo is working his magic to get everyone moving.

Day three is an excellent four wheel drive track from the finish of day 2 north east on the Haurangi crossing to Sutherland hut and out to Waikuku Lodge. I was told to bring my hiking poles for this leg and they were fantastic. My legs were in some serious pain after the previous two days. We arrived at Waikuku lodge to cold beer, hot sausages and streaming sunshine. We all bathed in our glory of completing our three days and winning our undies that proclaim we kept going for three days.

The race for line honors was a humdinger with Simon Willis and Andrew Thompson going toe to toe. Simon grabbed a 8min grap on day one with Andrew getting 6 of those mins back on day two. It all came down to the last day, Andrew needed to win by more than 2mins to win. At the last marshall Simon was 3mins behind and managed to close the gap to 2mins for a dead heat after 12 hours and 27 mins. This result sums up the vibe of the event, adventurous spirits enjoying the magic country.

PLB’s are life savers

20170730_123651.jpgIt was close to 5pm, it would be dark in less than an hour. We were all cold from the freezing river crossings. We had put ourselves in a dangerous situation especially for the the youngest member of our team who was showing signs of exhaustion and hypothermia. It was time to use the PLB we carry just in case.

This is a hard decision and took a little while to pull the trigger. What were our other options? We had come down Penn Creek it had taken over an hour, it would take us at least that to get back to the safety of the hut and then hours in the dark to get out. No one was injured and yet the smart call was to use the PLB.

Once the call was made, dry clothes replaced wet and survival bags were unpacked.

The helicopter would only be able to take one or two at a time, one of our team had been recused last year so knew four of us wouldn’t fit. So two of us headed back up the creek to get out on foot. Was this the right call? would the helicopter arrive before night fall? It was safest for us to get out of the creek before dark and it was likely we had 4 hours of hiking to get out. Every moment I prayed to hear the sound of the helicopter, what if it didn’t come? What would we do? Would we turn back and get them back to the hut where we could stay warm for the night and hike out in the morning.  Our loved ones at home would now be worried sick after the calls from search and rescue that happen when the PLB is activated.  We were more than 2 hours from getting any cell phone signal. This proved to be the longest 2 hours I have spent in the bush.

The climb to get out was massive, steep and even more difficult in the dark without my good headlamp that
I had forgotten to pack. I had a small light on my bennie but it was hard work to negotiate the roots and rough ground. After an hour we heard the sweet sound of helicopter blades beating against the thick evening air, we cried out in relief that our friends had help coming. Would they be able to see them in the fadding light?

About half an hour later we heard the helicopter again,  my mind raced, were they still looking for them? Then again 15mins later we heard it again, all the what ifs raced through my mind. When we reach the ridge and cell phone coverage to find out they were still on the river bed what will we do then? I knew they had enough survival gear to manage the night but it would be freezing cold and the wait would be unbearable not knowing if they were ok. If they hadn’t been picked up we would go back and get them to the warmth of the hut.

After the steep rooty sloops we hit the wind fall from the recent storm and snow that had slowed us earlier in the day, we had to crawl under fallen trees, bash through the debris to get to the higher swampy slopes. We hit the snow so we were not far from the ridge and all the uncertainty  would end. The sweet sound of a text message notification buzzed from my jacket, I had a pile of messages from worried family and friends and one from Ant, they were safe! Wow what a relief. We called our loved ones who were worried sick, we tried to reassure them, everyone was safe, the nightmare was over, our night still had a few hours hiking in the dark. We set off down the hill under a beautiful clear sky.

How did we get into this position? Where did we go wrong?  What were the mistakes we made?

The original plan was a trip up to Hector and back, I wanted to visit the ladder at Maungahuka in snow so I thought we might do a Penn Creek loop if the weather was fine and the others were keen.

This was the first time this country for one of our team and I should have kept to the Hector plan or at least a route we had experience on. None of us had been on the track from the main range down to Penn.

When we got to the main ridge Maungahuka turn off we made the estimate that Hector return would be 4 hours and the Penn loop would be 6 to 7 hours. The loop without our later mistake was 8.5 hours.

It was so beautiful on the tops,  no wind and soft walking with the snow to cushion the normal rough ground.

We were starting to move slower than we needed to and at the Penn turn off it was clear going to the ladder was going to be a bad call.

The ridge was slow due to snow, windfall and triedness setting in.

We finally got to Penn Creek hut it was 3pm. It would take at least 3 hours to get out going up the hill. I had recently read about the river route out and we checked the hut book for any recent updates. We expected the river route would be easy travel and faster, we knew it was more risky but made the call. This was the biggest mistake we made.

Other mistakes.
I didnt get and share emergency contact details for one of our team.
I didn’t leave a map of our route options.
I forgot my headlamp.

Some things we did well.
Carried good emergency gear including 3 PLBs
We made the call to set it off.

Lessons
The back country is a beautiful and dangerous place. Never under estimate the risks. Make sure you double check your gear. Dont do routes you dont know unless you can manage the worst case scenario of turning around and back tracking.
Rivers are not for Winter travel.
Be prepared for everything. Recognise the desire to make everything ok and find a solution can stop you making the smart call.
Our loved ones go through hell when we are late or they get called by search and rescue.