Way back in October 2018 we (Lorelei and Jake) went on another wild escapade in the Tararuas. It had been a few months since our last overnighter and we were itching to get out in the mountains. The lovely Nana Lynley agreed to look after Shirley and we agreed to kill ourselves tramping. We have an ongoing quest to visit (‘bag’) all 50 marked huts in our local tramping haven, Tararua Forest Park. We are tracking pretty well but still have a fair few to go, and they are not easily earned. This time we were hoping to bag the ‘Mid-Waiohine Hut’ walking in via Powell Hut and back slightly more circuitously via Jumbo Hut. Probably around 7 hours each day, maybe a little less on day 1 and more on day 2. It would involve a good bit of time out on the alpine tops, with good potential for views if the weather cooperated.
About the weather…the forecast wasn’t good at all, but we were determined to bag the hut regardless. For reasons we don’t understand, despite our generous invitation, none of our friends wanted to join us on this adventure.
We knew a storm was coming and kept hoping the forecast for Saturday would change. As of Friday night the forecast for Powell Hut at midday Saturday was still gale force Southerlies and a wind chill of -14°c. Hmm…this is going to be interesting.
We left Friday night and our drive out wasn’t overly remarkable. It was a cold wet night driving over the Remutakas, but it wasn’t snowing – at least not enough to cause us any problems.
We stayed at our friends’ friends farmhouse in Carterton and had a huge sleep. When we finally awoke we weren’t moving very fast. Kolja and Miriam had a pretty sweet set up and Lorelei went out for a quick look. She found the chicken henhouse and inside was a big grunting pig sniffing at the nesting boxes full of eggs. Lorelei immediately ‘rescued’ the eggs from the potential thief. Later she learned that pigs can’t jump and the threat was actually minimal. We were moving real slow.
We had a bet on how many other cars would be at the Mount Holdsworth carpark. Usually that is the most popular entry in the east but given the forecast, Jake predicted there would be two (other groups of fools), Lorelei said there would be four. There were about eight other cars, which meant there were numerous other “wild animals” that thought this was a good idea.
Sleet started coming down as we put on our boots. We know from experience that the Tararuas mean business and that exposure is no joke in there so were both basically wearing full skiing outfits. We had thermal bottoms, rain/ski pants, thermal tops, jackets, beanies and gloves. As soon as we started climbing we got too hot and the sun came out. So we stopped and disrobed our legs. Within a few more minutes of tramping we took off our jackets and thermal tops.
Fast forward about half an hour and it was sleeting, and we put our jackets back on. Then we got higher and the sleet turned to snow. We decided we would stop at Mountain House Shelter for snacks and yet more clothing adjustments. Turns out it’s really hard to moderate your body temperature in such crazy weather and while climbing up and up with packs on.
It was snowing pretty hard by the time we arrived at Mountain House so we were stoked to have some shelter to get prepared (a/k/a fuel ourselves with food) for the final ascent to Powell Hut.
After our delicious but under-catered lunch we set off into persistent snow. Jacob led the way following the ridge towards Mount Holdsworth. Lorelei commented to Jake “I’m glad you’re leading because I have no idea where the track is”. This was unsurprising seeing as there was a heavy layer of fresh snow covering the entire mountainside. The occasional snow pole helped reassure us we were on the right track. We would occasionally find ourselves in drifts of snow where Jake would posthole, but nothing deep enough to cause real problems. It was just harder work than normal.
We encountered trail signs dressed in gnarly ice that provided an excellent exhibition of how hardcore we were. Likewise the trig on Mt Holdsworth also had an impressive icescape. While it was certainly an accomplishment to summit Mt Holdsworth in those conditions we didn’t stop for long and carried on toward Mt Isabelle. The visibility wasn’t great and as we followed the ridge toward Isabelle we had a bit of trouble finding the saddle but soon felt more assured we were on the right track and then began a steep climb to Isabelle’s summit.
Then the fun really started. Wee, we glissaded (slid down on our butts) in the snow, happy to have our snow pants & rain pants on. Wee. Ouch. There were a few hidden rocks and bumps under the snow. As we descended we soon reached treeline and then began what Jacob classified as “Grade 5 technical glissading through sub alpine forest”. There were plenty of giggles but also bumps and bruises from hidden roots and rocks. The further down we descended the snow started thinning out and glissading got harder and more technically challenging. At one stage Jake identified a Grade 6 double black diamond section and Lorelei claimed another section was Grade 12. No one is entirely sure, but we at the Glissading Centre of Excellence suspect Grade 12 glissading means there is a very high, almost guaranteed, chance of death.
Finally as the snow was truly wet and seriously devolving into just being mud Lorelei gave up. Jacob was reluctant but soon followed. Then it was just a gnarly muddy steep track down and down, one we knew would challenge us the next day on the way back up. As sounds of the river amplified we soon encountered our home for the night, Mid Waiohine Hut. The nearby river was really pretty too but it was far too cold for swimming or even really hanging out looking at it.
Instead, Lorelei decided it was her life mission to build us a big roaring warm fire so we could dry. Always keen to abide by kiwi hut etiquette she went off firewood hunting to replace the wood she was getting ready to burn. Over a few trips she brought back lots and then did some crazy axe-swinging to get it all chopped up. However, when we actually went to start the fire in the open hearth…it wasn’t all that we had hoped for. We absolutely had to keep the window open or the hut would fill with massive amounts of smoke immediately. The smoke was so intense it burned our eyes and throat, but it was so cold outside that an open window almost entirely removed the heat from the fire. It was confusing and disappointing.
Once we accepted this fate we cooked dinner ate it, loitered and got ready for bed. Unsurprisingly we had the hut to ourselves for the night.
The next day we had breakfast, packed, tidied and departed up the hill. Knowing how steep the climb was up from the hut, this time we set off with minimal clothes with a plan to change into our alpine ski gear just before the treeline. The snow was now mostly gone for much of the way up, replaced just with mud. The weather was only marginally better than the day before. Not quite as cold, but still raining and windy.
As we gained elevation we started to find traces of snow, and sure enough it was soon snowing again and time to get dressed up again. A full overhaul was required, with boots off, thermal bottoms and rain/ski pants on, thermal tops, beanies, gloves, the whole works.
Once above treeline the weather was once again attrocious. It was easy enough to follow the ridge, but there were once again some fairly decent snow drifts to make life a bit harder. From Mount Isabelle we enjoyed some more glissading down to the saddle before the climb back up to Mount Holdsworth. At Holdsworth Jake was still determined to head for Jumbo despite Lorelei’s protests.
So we headed towards Jumbo and once again we followed snow poles along the route down from the trig. Not too much later we came across a female trail runner who obviously thought this was a good day to run the entire Jumbo Holdsworth ALONE with very little gear. Lorelei commented “that looks really impractical”. She laughed and kept running – which in hindsight was a good idea since her survival probably depended on not stopping. We climbed up East Holdsworth and stopped for some snacks and to reassess our situation.
Jake was still arguing that we should push on to Jumbo, but Lorelei was pretty keen to head down the track from East Holdsworth. However, within about 2 minutes of sitting down on a snow covered rock Jake suddenly had a brain wave “What the f@#k are we doing up here?, we’ve gotta get off this ridge”. In those two minutes his butt had turned to ice and he was already getting cold, despite feeling fine prior to stopping. The glissading down East Holdsworth was pretty extreme. It was steep and rocky. The snow also ran out much sooner than we at the Glissading Centre of Excellence would have liked. Nevertheless we were soon back below treeline and descending rapidly. It was rapid mostly because the East Holdsworth track basically goes straight down.
Despite being back below treeline we both stayed cold for much of the descent. It is hard to warm up when gravity is doing most of the work. Eventually we were able to lose some layers and stop for more snacks to power us the rest of the way back to the car. Typical Tararua tramping took us the rest of the way, with a seemingly endless series of root ladders. We were both very relieved to change into dry clothes for the drive home.