Te Ao Whekere – Say Where?
The Kaikoura Ranges are two parallel ranges of mountains in the northeast of the South Island of New Zealand. The two ranges are visible from a great distance, including from the southern coast of the North Island. Te Ao Whekere is the 2nd highest peak in the Seaward Kaikouras Range. The following article chronicles an arduous journey to the top.
After an exciting first Mountaineering experience up at Mount Ruepehu, we were eager to get up in the mountains again. So when the Wellington Section of the NZ Alpine Club put out the call for folks interested in climbing Te Ao Whekere – the 2nd highest peak in the Seaward Kaikouras – we jumped at the chance to take on such a challenge with an experienced group of climbers.
With the weather looking great – sunny, no clouds and little wind – the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Our excitement was nearly shattered though when the ferry we were scheduled to take had a major power failure the day before, resulting in cancellations and delays. Luckily we ended up just being pushed to the 8pm ferry, so with the later than planned departure we opted to stay at a backpackers in Picton as opposed to the campsite at the start of the climb. Arriving just after midnight, we piled into the bunk rooms for a good nights sleep.
Up early we got on the road and headed toward Kaikoura. As we drove up the road, the mountain range came into view and we could see our destination in the distance. A distant peak, the 2598m summit felt like a world away.
Arriving at our starting point at Jordan Stream, we parked the cars and got ourselves ready for the journey. Just as we were about to take off, the Nelson-Marlborough Section of the NZ Alpine Club pulled up and we exchanged hellos before our group of 8 headed off down the gravel stream. It wasn’t long before we had to make our first river crossing, and despite my best efforts to find a dry option, I had to suck it up and just accept that I was going to have wet feet!
For 2 hours we made our way along the river bed, crisscrossing along each side making several dozen river crossings. By now it was no big deal and was a welcomed refreshing moment on my hot feet. At this point the Nelson crew had caught up to us and had pushed ahead to lead the charge. As the group started to spread out, it became difficult to communicate, and although a few of us thought the turn off to the scree had just passed, we continued on expecting the local guys to show us the way. Sure enough within 20 mins they realized they had in fact overshot the exit point due to a faulty altimeter. So we reversed back down the steep river towards the scree slope for a quick stop for lunch.
The detour wasn’t our only setback as poor Cécile had hyper-extended her knee along the riverbed and was unable to continue. It was a tough decision, but Vincent offered to walk her out to the car and let the rest of the group continue on with the journey up the scree. The steepness of the climb was very intimidating – it reminded me of our summit of Mt Taranaki – but at an even steeper rate. With the Nelson crew just ahead of us, we had a bit of a path through the scree, helping to reduce the ‘1 step forward 2 steps back’ that usually accompanies this terrain. It was a sluggish couple hundred metres, but before I knew it we were sitting in the shrubs admiring the views out to the sea
The next section was just as steep, with no real path through the bush. With the weight of the pack pulling me backwards, I grabbed onto any kind of tree, shrub or bush that I could get my hands on as I pulled myself up and through the grass. This was definitely a lot different from the well laid out paths of the Great Walks. We were basically trail blazing our way based on the map’s track description and what evidence we could find of the Nelson crew’s path. Luckily Sophie and Richard were excellent navigators and lead the group through the whole way.
For the next few hours we continued to climb higher and higher, this time making the steep ascent along a jagged rocky ridgeline. Again, reminiscent of Taranaki, however these rocks were not reliable and would often crumble in your hands or under your feet sending small boulders barreling down. It was a tense time as we had to constantly watch out for falling rocks, never truly trusting the grip we had. Anytime a shrub or tree was near, I opted for that as my hand hold, putting my faith in its roots.
At this point the weight of my pack was starting to really affect me. It was one thing to carry a pack on a fairly easy track, but another to be lugging it straight up a mountain with more gear than normal (since we had our tent and sleeping mats – not needed when we stay in the huts). With our friend Dan’s encouragement the whole way, it was the motivation I needed to keep going.
At about 1400m we reached a flat ridgeline that was a welcomed break from the rock scramble. By this point we were starting to see more snow which was exciting in anticipation of what was in store for us ahead. In the distance we could see the colors of the waters in Kaikoura swirl into almost a Koru shape. The sky was so incredibly clear I couldn’t believe the luck we had with this weather. If it had been raining or windy, I couldn’t imagine how much harder it would have made the climb.
The last few hundred metres to the campsite would prove to be the most exhausting and challenging as it was more sections of steep, loose rock. After nearly 8hrs of climbing, the day was wearing on our bodies and minds so as we came over the last ridge I was never so happy to see our campsite. Although I think Jordan was even happier than me. With nearly 25kg of camera equipment and gear on his back, this was the first time I’ve seen Jordan completely exhausted.
At just over 1800m we reached a flat section on the ridge that had just enough snow to pitch our tents, yet enough exposed rock to lay our packs down without getting soaked. We grabbed our shovels and started building a snow cave for our tent! Despite the complete exhaustion, we managed to make ourselves a little shelter and pitch our (slightly oversized) tent just on the edge of the cliff with a million dollar view of the Kaikoura coastline on one side and the snow-capped mountains on the other.
Our next task was melting enough snow with our Jetboil stove to make our dehydrated meals and a cup of Milo (hot chocolate) to warm us up. Suffice to say, boiling water from snow takes A LOT longer than the usual tap water in the huts. Our poor little Jetboil must have taken over an hour to boil our 3 rounds of water so we could nourish our poor bodies and replenish the liquids we had sweated out all day. Seriously that hot chocolate never tasted so delicious!
After making the essentials, the next hour was spent continuing to melt snow to refill our water bottles for the next day. As the sun began to set it lit the sky a fire with all colors of the rainbow – beautiful oranges, yellows and reds by the ocean, while the mountains were lit with a mix of purple, pink and blue. As I processed the day and mentally prepared myself for tomorrow, I felt pretty lucky to be able to experience this incredible view from the most beautiful campsite I had ever seen.
The plan for the following day was to make an alpine start – wake up at 3:30am, eat a few granola bars and get up the mountain to push for the summit. In hopes of getting as much sleep as possible, we enjoyed the sunset and headed off to bed as soon as the sun was down.
Unfortunately for whatever reason both Jordan and I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I don’t know if it was the anticipation of the day ahead of us or just that unlucky time when your body just won’t sleep when you need it the most, but needless to say 3:30am came way too soon. We pushed on and got our gear together, strapped on our crampons and headlamps and headed down the ridgeline with ice axes in hand.
With the full moon lighting up the mountain, it was a pretty incredible way to start the summit. Something I thought only the ‘extreme’ mountaineers would do – we were pretty stoked despite the exhaustion. About 5am the sky started to light up with another rainbow of colors and over the next hour gained more and more light as the sun came up over the horizon.
Making our way up through the snow, the conditions varied all along the way. From knee-deep powder ridgelines to steep icy sections with lots of exposure. Despite this only being my 2nd time in crampons, I wasn’t intimated by the elements, but just very focused on my footing ensuring I had as many points of contact as possible and didn’t catch the crampons on my pant legs.
The entire morning we were exactly on pace. Although Jordan and I were clearly the least experienced and conditioned to this type of climb, we did our best to keep up with the group and ensure we reached the summit. There were several occasions when I questioned whether I could make it to the summit, however not reaching it wasn’t an option for me either. I had made it this far – there was no way I was going to quit now.
The last sections of the climb were exposed to a lot more wind, making the snow very icy. A few sections were so steep we had to front point with our axes (climbing on all fours using our axes and crampon toe picks). The final 100m was the toughest with all energy completely exhausted and my body only living on a granola bar and some wine gums. However, with the destination clearly in site, it was the motivation I needed to finish. The last walk along the ridgeline followed by the peak was one of the most rewarding moments in my life. I can honestly say there was many occasions in the last 24hrs that I didn’t know if I’d make it and getting to this point was one of my great accomplishments!
Unfortunately our celebration was short-lived as we had to get down the mountain in time for the 7pm ferry. The way down was less tiring as walking ‘cowboy style’ was a lot easier on the muscles. A few of the steep sections required a reverse front point back down which proved to be more challenging than the way up with tired legs.
We progressed down the mountain at a steady pace, taking advantage of any open slopes with a bum slide down the hill. Back at camp by 11am we grabbed a quick bite to eat while we packed up our tents and gear. The way down the mountain from here though would prove to be the most challenging (and I think dangerous). With boulders dislodging down the hill, we made a very calculated decent, going down one at a time to a safe spot before the next person would proceed. Despite a few very close calls (where microwave sized boulders narrowly missed Helen), we all made it down the ridge safely before hitting the scree shoot.
One by one we ‘scree skied’ our way down the 500m shoot making great time compared to the last 2hrs. Again being very careful of not dislodging any rocks towards our comrades below, we slid down the bank towards the Jordan stream. Our walk back to the carpark was a much better route this time, taking the right side of the river mostly through the dried up river bed. With only a few river crossings we kept a little dryer this time which was a bonus.
After 12 hrs of climbing, we were all pretty shattered from the challenging two days. Talking with some of the Nelson crew I felt a bit better about myself for actually accomplishing it and keeping up with the group when they all admitted that was a pretty full on trip! Many climbs are done by driving up to 1800m or getting a helicopter into a hut at that level, but we basically climbed from sea to sky starting at 300m and reaching the near 2600m summit!
This definitely was our first true taste of mountaineering and has ignited an even more of a desire to tackle additional mountains in New Zealand and beyond! Can’t wait for our next mountaineering adventure
Here’s a map of our route to give it some perspective: