Te Araroa's crisis


The summit now in front looked as if someone had stood on the top and bucketed vast tonnages of shingle down every side.

Scree. To repel boarders, as it were. To deny you any purposeful striding to the summit. Scree. After you have thrashed away at the base of the mountain for some time, scree will allow you some yardage there. But there's still the problem of getting to the mountain-top.

It all starts cheerfully enough. Your boot takes its first step up the grey, granular sloping stuff and immediately slides backwards. The intended step has rearranged the hundred bits of loose shingle underfoot, but has achieved little distance.

The next boot. Same result. Both boots are now immured ankle-deep in the shingle, but you have gone nowhere.

Ha ! If you splay your feet that achieves greater traction, but the improvement is slight, and it reduces a serious endeavour to behaviour that looks alarmingly like a clowning routine.

Okay, so run at it. This is more red-blooded. Your left boot digs in before your right boot has time to complete its backward slide. Then the right boot digs in before the left boot has stopped sliding. It works, but it's exhausting, and often enough, unbalanced by your pack, you find yourself unable to anticipate correctly the resistances underfoot, and pitch forward - a second clowning routine - on your face.

The zig zag ascent, moving across the slope, works better, but your boots still often slip away downhill, and it's slow.

Finally you simply make opportunistic use of anything that works, including the occasional scramble on all fours. And always, you keep a sharp eye out for any scree that's more coarse than the viscous stuff underfoot, or any outcrop, or ridge which may be sufficiently boney to allow genuine progress.

The three of us climbed on steep scree slopes to a 1,640-metre shoulder. Rintoul's 1,730m summit was 1.5 km further on, and I think everyone nursed the secret hope that beyond this shoulder a gentle connecting ridge would lead away to the Rintoul summit.

Rintoul Summit
Rintoul Summit

Vegetable sheep
Vegetable sheep

Kevin and Geoff at the summit

We came over the hill, and I heard Kevin mutter: "This is worse than the Tararuas!"

The connecting ridge was saw-toothed, precipitous, impossible. The poled route dropped away below it on broken rock, almost back to the bushline. To reach the Rintoul summit, we'd have to drop over 200 metres then climb again, 350-odd scree-strewn metres.

Dead legs climbed Mt Rintoul. The fifth ascent of the day was slow, dogged. Each of us took his own route. Each used his own psychology. Mine was to look for some kind of detail in the eternal broken rock. To stop. To look. To tell myself: I'm still enjoying this - this pattern of lichen here whose subtle colours and patterns would make a useful batik. This vegetable sheep. So high. So alone. As vegetable sheep go, so small, but so determined. Ah - tenacious life, etc.

We regrouped at the summit. Tomo handed out small, dense, chocolate chip cookies that he'd made himself.

"Right, and you've brought the ice cream Kevin. I just hope it hasn't melted."

"It's not the ice cream that's melted, it's what's underneath it," said Kevin. He sat looking out over the immensity of the range, fold after fold of blue, and said matter-of-factly:

"This is too hard for a pensioner."

The day's tramp was not over. We crossed over the firm rocky mosaic of the summit, then descended steep slopes of scree.

Coming down scree is usually fun. You take huge strides, do ski-style turns, you hoot and holler. But after 11 hours of slog, the strength in your legs is suddenly unreliable. A leg may lock suddenly at the knee, may momentarily turn into a jolting stick that makes your teeth clatter. May present a momentary picture of yourself, off down the slope, swinging forward from the hip, stiff-legged, uncontrollable, like those walking toys when tipped at the right angle on a board. So you descend slowly. Even so, another leg briefly threatens to bend backward at the knee, like the leg of a chook . . .

Rintoul hut was 500 metres down from the summit, well below the bushline. It was late by the time we finally made it, heaving down packs that were wet with sweat, and setting up the mountain radio.

Mountain radio aerial

We laid out the 40 metres of aerial. To solve the usual problem of raising the mid-point of that aerial 4 metres, I found a ladder, but it was Kevin's practical skills, his binding and propping with bits of 4x2 that stood the thing upright in the field.

ZKMM Base to ZKMM One. Paul Rennie, a radio ham and power company linesman in Blenheim operated a mountain radio service from his house, and before leaving Blenheim I'd picked up a radio from him, ZKMM One. Every night at 8.30 we tuned in, and Paul called, on the dot.

ZKMM One to ZKMM Base. Yes, we're hearing you loud and clear Paul. We've reached Rintoul Hut after a hard day. Should reach Mid Wairoa Hut tomorrow. Over.

Paul gave the weather, and threw in, as always, a bit of news.

The Black Caps have beaten South Africa in the latest tri-series. Chris Cairns whacked a couple of sixes. Chris Harris may have to leave the team, and come back to New Zealand for family reasons. The Aussies haven't struck a blow yet.

The Black Caps! Out in the hills, cricket, and the 6 o'clock news all seemed a long way off. What was real was the hunger. What was real was the leaping flame as I fired up the Whisperlite to cook a meal. What was real was the subtle pleasure, once the tramping day was over, of fatigue. What was real was the mountain cloud that had now rolled over the hut. We'd tramped 11.5 hours that day, and later, as we held our hot chocolate drinks in a mist-shrouded world, Kevin turned to me and said:

"Geoff - these people you're expecting might do this South Island trail - the backpacker adventurer types, or any fit New Zealander. Are you sure it's not just too hard?"

I thought back on the last five days. The big packs. The rough condition of the river track between Middy and Roebuck huts, where you descended often on slippery rock, clinging to beech roots, your pack bumping and grinding, threatening your balance. The windfalls across the track. I remembered the steep pinch coming up to Starveall. The Rintoul shoulder, where we'd had a small taste of what mountaineers call exposure - hanging your bum out over a drop. I thought of the five summits, the rockfields and the scree . . . Did all of it add up to a trail that was too hard?

"Well, it's occurred to me," I said a little grimly. "But personally, I'm still having fun."

Tomo at Purpletop summit

Next morning we hiked on toward the Purpletop summit. Kevin led out, but stopped soon after, to bandage his feet. I went on, catching up to Tomo, who was studying his map, identifying the high points that lay all around.

We dropped down to bush ridge tracks again, Kevin again leading, but an hour or so on he was waiting.

"Geoff, I've got a serious suggestion. We both feel that this track may be too long and too hard for the kind of people you think might use it. We could stay at Tarn Hut tonight, then drop down to the Goulter River tomorrow. That'll shorten the route, make it easier, and it still gets you through the range."

We laid out the maps to have a look. I counted the little blue kilometre squares from the proposed new exit point to the beginning of the next leg.

"That route would leave you 32 km short of St Arnaud," I said. "I don't want to be dogmatic about this, but I'd really like to stay on the proposed route. And I'd really like to do the Red Hills."

Another 5 km down the track, where the track branched right to Lower Wairoa Hut and the Red Hills, or left to the Goulter River, Kevin was waiting.

"I'm going to drop down to the Goulter, stay at the Lower Goulter Hut tonight, and walk out tomorrow."

"Yep. Okay."

"You know how to do the radio now. You've got Tomo as a companion. In the radio sked tonight ask Paul to ring my wife and get her to meet me at 12 noon tomorrow on the Patriarch road."

Kevin had already broken out of his pack the extra food and drink that might be useful to me for the three tramping days ahead. He handed across tea bags, chocolate powder, snack-size Crunchies and Moros, an extra BackCountry dehydrated meal.

I was sad about it. Kevin had seemed indestructible. The worst sign of stress I'd seen was on the steepest of hills, when he'd pop a Chupa Chup into his mouth, and, with the little lollypop's plastic stick issuing at a jaunty angle from his mouth, simply keep going. But I knew he had good reasons for pulling out, and I shook his hand.

"You've been great Kevin. You've led the group through a tough route, and I'm grateful for it."

"I'll go round to Paul's and listen to your radio skeds. When you're due out of the Red Hills, I'll bring the van up, and I might just tramp in to meet you."

Red Hills in the distance

Later that day I knew that the decision to go on was the right one. The beech forest opened suddenly onto a distant view that made me catch my breath.

I stopped. Tomo stopped.

I pointed towards one of New Zealand's strangest rock piles.

"The Red Hills, Tomo. Dramatic."