By Michael Baird, 20 September 2019
(This is kinda a draft, but i cbf writing anymore. Maybe I'll get around to finishing it one day.)
Driving up I'm excited and nervous. This is going to be my first real mountaineering trip. Yay. Ivan and I are planning on doing the East Ridge of Taranaki, and descending via the Northern Route to Holly Hut. On Sunday we'll do the Pouakai Circuit. I'm under no illusion this is going to be one of the hardest trips I've ever done, both physically and mentally. We've got 1500m vertical to climb which isn't a lot, but it isn't nothing and I know that once we start we will probably just want to plod on up and keep the faffe to a minimum. Then there's the exposure, I'm not having a great year with exposure. Yum, can't wait.
We also need to get a butane canister for the Jetboil. Ivan is sure there will be a petrol station that sells them. After stopping for dinner in Whanganui, we drop by Pak'n Save and the Caltex, which don't have them. The Warehouse and Bunnings is on the other side of town, but Ivan is still certain a petrol station later will have them. In Hawera we stop at a Z, who sends us on to the Countdown, but they no longer sell them. We also check out the Pak'n Save but no luck. Oh well, hopefully someone at the hut will let us use theirs, or otherwise we can cook on the fireplace stove.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP - argh where's the phone, shut the fuck up.
It's 4:50am and I've had a dubious amount of sleep since Ivan & I arrived at Maketawa Hut at 11pm. I eat a couple of pre buttered wraps while packing my bag up. Before we set off I head to the loo. 30 minutes after the alarm we head off. 1500 vertical metres to go. The suns not up but the sky is surprisingly bright. Was it daylight saving this weekend? Are we going to lose a precious hour of sleep tonight? Anyway, stars fill the dark blue sky, the moon is bright, and there is not a cloud in sight. We arrive at the Tahurangi Lodge and drop any gear we don't need for the climb; we'll return this afternoon. The horizon is now orange, and the sun is starting to pop over Ruapehu in the distance. Beautiful, we couldn't ask for a better day. I run back down to the public toilet for a nervous poo. After begging the lodge residents for some water (Ivan was sure there was a public tap) we head off. 1000m to go.
One or two (intentional) bum slides later we're at the chute we want below the Little Eiger. We put our crampons on, and I put my harness on (Ivan had put his on at the lodge). No more faffing.
A little later I check my watch. 01:17am. Hang on what? 01:18am. 1-1. oh it must have reset itself. I feel good zig, zagging our way up out of the gully. We exit the gully and have a short rest on some rocks on the ridge West of Warwick Castle and consult the map. 700m to go. We're now climbing what's probably the east face, close enough to the east ridge to count we think. Ivan yells out from 50m to my right, "Michael, this might end up being too easy". "Hmm yea, but let’s not get too complacent" I reply. We're probably around the 1950m contour, the ice is good, a little slushy, but I'm still flat footing and zig zagging up. And although we have no idea what the actual time is apart from 3 or something hours since the watch reset, we're making good progress.
A bit later we pause to catch our breathes, there's about to be a steeper section (keep in mind that it all looks like the same angle). After waiting for Ivan to get to the same elevation, actually, I wouldn't mind pitching this section, it looks like it shallows out slightly again after this point. We're a long way up, and you can see the run out all the way to the valley just north of the ski field. I'd guess 300m to the top. The lack of sleep is starting to catch up, I should probably eat something (I didn't), and my feet are not enjoying front pointing.
Putting in the snow snake was tiring, 40 smacks & about 15 hand changes later, its mostly in. Ivan wants it a little deeper. WHACK, WHACK, WHACK, WHACK. That will do. Ivan leads the first pitch without any problems. My turn to follow. A combination of front pointing, French technique and a dubious 'hybrid' French technique that doesn't involve using front points but the side ones for the upper crampon. I'm a few metres below Ivan. The snow is becoming slushy again, although still 7/10. I'm exhausted, and my heels hurt. He tells me to use the proper technique. Yea I know, but my heels. I use my hybrid technique again to move up, and bam! All of a sudden, I'm on my back head first downhill, my leg is wrapped around the rope somehow, and my front points are grazing the rope. Ah shit get that foot away. And I stop moving. Ivan's got me.
Ah bugger. 250 odd metres to the top on a perfect day. We decide that it's best to head back down. Ivan is going to lower me (it's faster than me down climbing), then I’ll belay him while he down climbs. The next 2 stakes are hard work to get in. I feel wrecked, I'm making simple mistakes, belay device has the rope the wrong way, low friction mode. Wake up and double, triple check. We then do the same thing with Ivan lowering me, I place the stake, he down climbs, we swap seats and repeat for we think 8 - 10 pitches. He's a bit grumpy about that, possibly not realising how much sunlight is actually left (thinking there is less). Admittedly It took an extra three pitches to get to where I wanted to be happy again. Eventually we get to the spot I'd been looking at for the last six pitches. I will walk down on lead which means we don't need to swap gear at the belay. "Ah you've got your legs back" Ivan says. Yep, I'm happy. Although the shadow of the mountain is getting closer to us.
We then do two more pitches. The first with a stake as a runner to traverse across the face to get to the ridge above the gully we came out of this morning. Before I leave the last bucket seat Ivan yells "I think it's 50m to that rock from the [runner] stake, but if its more and not sure you're going to like this but we can simmul [both move at the same time], if you're ok with that [for what's going to be the second pitch]" Yea that's cool. Ivan doesn't end up making it to the rock as I remove the stake for the last time. Each of us needs to walk down on opposite sides of the rock so that if we (I) fall the rope gets caught on the rock with one of us on either side. I arrive at the rock as Ivan's trying to sling the rock to set up a belay. We don’t need that anymore. The hard part of the day is over, or so we thought.…
"2hrs 15mins" I thought the sign at Tahurangi Lodge said to Holly Hut. Two hours & fifteen minutes I assumed this to mean. Nothing about a landslide making the track impassable. Having known that then we might not have headed towards Holly Hut. We'd ignored a DOC sign at the next junction saying the track was impassable, due to large boulders or something, but figured it was probably just DOC being overly cautious seeing as we were basically on a great walk. The options at the junction were still 2-3 hour detours or routes to a different hut or back to the carpark. However, we weren't there. We were now sitting down looking at this heinous slip for a potential route across it. Nothing at the top. Possibly a way through the middle, a bit hard to tell in this light. Could possibly drop down below and then up the far side back to the track. I wasn't too keen on any of these options, it looked loose as fuck.
We don our helmets again, which I'd buried deep in my pack. Ivan's putting his mountaineering boots back on (I never took them off). And head down the creek to the bottom of the slip. Ivan thinks he's spotted a route up. After closer inspection, no he hasn't, the rocks crumbly and hollow as fuck. I suggest we head down the creek and try find a way up the bank back to the track. The bush is going to be extremely thick though, otherwise we could stick in the creek for 3-4 hours. After not seeing many options we see something 'promising'. We had to cover ~200m horizontally to get back to the track, what ensued was probably the worst bush bashing we've ever done. The bush was really dense, and at times 3m vertical mossy rocks that we had to climb up. Ivan had his ice tools out and was dry tooling on tree branches at times, mine were out of the way in my bag to not get caught on anything. It felt like parts of the climbs could even be grade 14. Jugs we few and far between. I even dug out some soil and found a hand jam at one point. Ivan had used a thigh jam. Bags were off and being dragged and passed through the shrub. At least the leather wood wasn't spikey. This 200m must've taken over an hour.
15 hours after we started the day, we finally arrived at Holly Hut. My watch reads 1:10pm. I was absolutely shattered. Ivan asks if anyone has a spare butane can, no one has enough. We're informed by a couple of blokes at the hut its around 9:30pm. One of them also assures us that the slip was ‘pretty easy’ to cross. Hm yea okay. Despite what you might be thinking, for me at least there was no type 3 fun today, and only very brief amounts of type 2 and the rest was type 1. Although it was one of, if not my most challenging and longest day.
Sunday there were no alarm clocks. Although for some weird reason everyone left the hut at 7am. I however stayed in bed until 9. Sunday while reasonably uneventful by yesterday’s standards was pleasant. A break here, a break there, a break everywhere. The open sections contained far too much boardwalk/wooden panels to reduce damage from walkers. The bush sections were surprisingly like many moderate Tararua tracks which kinda felt like home.
BTW, wear sunblock in the alpine.