Climbing Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku

As we tramped along Robert’s Ridge in Nelson Lake National Park roughly a month ago, we had a chance encounter with one of the board members of the Marlborough Tramping Club (MTC).  He shared some local insights not found in mainstream tourist guidebooks and told us of climbing the highest peak in the Kaikoura Ranges: Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku (Tapi).  His description of the tramp left a lasting impression and thoughts of climbing Tapi would stay with us until we made an attempt at the summit.

At 2,885 meters Tapi is the highest mountain in New Zealand other than those found in the Mount Cook/Aoraki Chain.  Tapi is not only a challenge elevation wise but it can also be a challenge to get to its slopes.  We started out at the Hodder River Suspension bridge around 2:30 pm where we took a small path down to the river (448 meters) and got our boots wet right off the bat with the first of over 80 river crossings.  The river was swift and only got more powerful, deeper and cooler as we zig-zagged across and slowly gained elevation.  We were happy to find a well used footpath at dusk which would take us to the Hodder Huts (1,440 meters) after one more river crossing. We finally safely arrived at the huts at 11:30 pm as the full moon was rising over the dark river valley below.  It was no surprise that we slept in the next day and started out for the summit at 10:35 am.

The low clouds hanging in the valley that morning slowly lifted as we negotiated our way up the Staircase Stream to the immensely large basin between Mount Tapi and Alarm.  At times the fog was thick and we were glad to have a map, compass, GPS and the occasional rock cairn to follow.  As we grunted up steep scree slopes, we were envious of the numerous mountain goats which effortlessly traveled the same terrain with ease.  We passed some beautiful waterfalls and made our way from basin to basin before scrambling up a scree gut to a saddle 150 meters below the summit.  As we straddled the range, occasional views of the Pacific Ocean appeared through the fog to the east.  We made the final ascent to the summit where we relaxed and admired the views as they presented themselves through the clouds.

As always, going up the mountain is only half the journey and we began to head back down to the huts for the night.  We took advantage of patches of snow to glide part of the way down and made it to the huts well before nightfall.  We went to bed early and were comfortably asleep when a storm broke out at 1:00 am.  It was hard to fall back to sleep with extremely high winds, thunder, lightning and heavy rains which made us wonder if we would be trapped by an impassible flooded river the next day.  As we contemplated how to ration out our food, the rain subsided but the winds remained fierce.  Luckily, the river was passable (but only just) and we cautiously proceeded with the 22 km hike out.  We were extremely relieved to see the Hodder Bridge appear around a bend as we approached the end of our hike.  Once back at the car, a closer examination of Chris’ boots reveled many holes, including in the soles, which explained why his feet were so cold and his boots full of debris.

As we drove out of the Awatere Valley, we felt a sense of accomplishment and relief.  We looked back towards the Inland Kaikoura Ranges from the highway to see the bad weather we had escaped and looked forward to a good hot shower (instead of a cold one provided by Mother Nature).  After climbing Tapi as a stepping stone towards greater peaks, Sir Edmund Hillary later reflected that he had “climbed a decent mountain at last”.  After all the challenges overcame while climbing Tapi, we feel the same way.

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