By Tommy Thomson, 13 August 2022
It was after the meeting on Tuesday that we collectively noticed the forecast for the weekend.
“It’s full moon this weekend, want to go for a mish in the Tararuas?”, said Dugal.
“And there’s going to be loads of snow”, I said.
“And the weather is fine”, we both agreed.
So it was born. Due to other commitments, we had 28 hours to tick as many boxes as possible. Dugal suggested Bannister, I pointed out that Tararua footprints recommends a rope in the daytime when there’s no snow. Somehow, that didn't completely discorage him. After a lot of excited scrolling of Topomaps, by Friday we settled on a loop that included the notorious Neil-Winchcombe and most of the Southern Crossing in a single day. At Alpha, we would meet with Jack and Vic, who were going there and back by the direct route. And Emma wanted to come with us, despite having no experience with Crampons or the Tararuas.
As Dugal's car powered through the Wairarapa plains, we could catch glimpses of white through the hills. It didn’t look that impressive, a light dusting ontop of green/brown tussock. Then I saw them, the actual tops gleamed a blinding white. The "light dusting" was the trees!
We set off from Walls Whare at 10:30, leaving Jack and Vic behind. We made short work of the steep climb to Cone saddle and the steep climb from there to Cone. As the temperate forest transitioned to goblin forest, it started to snow.
“That’s strange”, we agreed, “the forecast was fine.”
“Hang on, it’s coming from the trees!”
The sun was hitting the leaves for the first time that day, which melted the snow and it unstuck from the leaves, and it fell on-top of us. Sometimes a big, hard icicle would hit your head hard. As we climbed higher, the snow kept falling. It coated the leaves and the ferns, while icicles hung from the moss. We had been transported into Narnia. Then we emerged onto Cone and could finally take in the entire, magnificent view.
Every peak was pure white. The dark side of every ridge was speckled white. A snow chute plunged on Mungahuka down to well below the treeline. The small bumps of the Tararuas had become the Southern Alps.
The Neil Winchombe track started with leatherwood, which on its own is every Tararua trampers’ worst nightmare, but it’s much worse when the leaves are piled in snow. Every part of your body is covered as you struggle through it, or worse, underneath it, where the snow falls down your back. The rough, steep, snowy track down Neil Saddle was treacherous, every surface you dared step on could send you tumbling. The climb up the other side was even snowier than the last climb, then we emerged onto Neil, which pokes briefly above the bushline. The leaves on the tussock were coated in a tube of rime ice, which looked like meercats dancing on the barren gravel. Then we dropped down into the bush. The terrain got steeper, there were sections of rock climbing. The bush got scrubbier and we grew weary of struggling through yet more snow coated leatherwood. The sky grew darker. Eventually we arrived at Winchombe Biv, which is placed in a nice hollow on the bushline, 50m off the ridge on the south side.
The Biv is a replica of the “2 person” Forest Service dogbox that was built in 1967, built by exNZFS culler Paul Gush and flown to the site in April 2021. For better or worse, it looks exactly like the originals. I failed to start a fire in the stone fireplace and we cooked dinner. It felt like the end of a long, hard days tramping, but we were only halfway through.
The last light was fading as we set off up towards Winchombe Peak. We had finally reached the snowy tops, although we couldn’t see them without a torch. A squashed, orange cheeseball appeared on the horizon, the full moon was rising as promised, although it didn’t provide much light. Progress was much slower in the snow, my boots sank in at every step down to the tussock below. The ridge narrowed as we approached 1398 and a giant rocky pinnacle loomed out of the darkness. It looked impossible to traverse, we had no ropes, very little mountaineering experience and we couldn’t see. We couldn’t go around it either, the ridge dropped precipitously on either side. However, from up close it didn’t look so bad. There was enough tussock to carefully pick our way to the top, then balance along the knife edge on the other side. I tried not to think about what would happen if someone fell. The snow alternated between ice and powder, you never really knew whether it was going to support you or not. At times I felt like giving up, but the incredible moonlit mountains were a good motivator.
At one point, a light appeared on the skyline, near Mount Hector. We debated what it was, surely nobody else was crazy enough to be up here at this time of night.
As we climbed, the snow grew thick enough to don crampons, which made the ice a lot easier. Then the ridge flattened and the snow became hard enough to walk on. The snow was bright white under the full moon, bright enough to see easily without a torch. It felt surreal, like we were floating on white mountain clouds while the rest of the world was laid out in lights far beneath us. The ghostly white shape of a cross appeared against the black sky, like a sign from God. But it was, if possible, an even better sign. The top of Mount Hector.
The wooden Hector Cross towered above us, 2.5m high with half a meter of rime ice on one side. Every house, streetlight and town in the lower North Island was visible as a point of light in the inky blackness. The rest of our route gleamed in-front of us, beautiful, but exhausting. The mysterious lights were climbing towards Atkinson, it was another group. Feeling delirious by this point, we played cricket with snowballs and the cross as the wicket. Nobody won, although Patrick got covered in the most snow.
The Southern Crossing was an exercise in patience. We all felt physically fine, but mentally exhausted. The route was clear and there were no major challenges, but every step was a gamble on whether you would fall to your knees through the thin layer of snow. As soon as you felt frustrated, you started stomping and would fall on every step. This went on for hours. We traversed Beehives, Atkinson, then dropped into the dress circle. We had been walking for more than 12 hours at this point. Dugal was thirsty and sleepy since he would normally be in bed at this time of night, I was hungry and grateful for my university fuelled insomnia, Patrick was sore and tired, and Emma somehow just kept going.
After we stopped at a tarn near 1372, the mood improved. The ridge flattened, the moon grew, if possible, even brighter, and the snow hardened since it was getting colder. We were gradually catching up with the other group and reached them after the hard grunt up Alpha. They had left Field hut the day before and were staying at Alpha hut with us. Accelerated by the downhill and by hut fever, we reached the hut at about 1pm, 14.5 hours after we left the carpark.
Dugal and Emma left early to get back to Wellington, the rest of us lazily strolled out. I don’t remember much of this day, I was thinking back to the previous night and wondering if it was all just a dream. We crossed Hells Gate, which was uneventful as promised. Bull Mound was lovely, you could see the whole route from the swampy meadows, although clouds were rolling in over Mt Hector. Then, in typical Tararua fashion, the spur dropped steeply into the Tauherenikau river to Cone Hut. The water tank at Cone Hut had been infected with maggots, or something equally horrible, so we filled up on river water. Shoutout to Jacinda Adern, Chris Luxon and The Jigsaw Burner for signing the hutbook! The climb up behind Cone Hut was further than I remembered, but from there it’s a straightforward drop back down to Walls Whare.
Next time the weather forecast is good, get out there and do something. Even if you’ve only got a day and a half you can accomplish a lot.