Trip: Crow Hut, McKinnon Hut and general confusion

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Above McKinnon Hut.

Getting out of Crow Hut right now is one of the more awkward climbs from a valley I’ve personally had. We more or less slid down the hill-side yesterday morning, persistent rain apparently making the topsoil absolutely sodden. A year ago I bought the cheapest Scarpas I could find, part of an experiment with getting cheap boots, but the soles are the best I’ve had on any boots to date and I’ve learned to trust them. Yesterday they often failed. Placing them flat on the soil (usually safe) was enough to trigger random acts of slipping and sliding, or sometimes not. So, now on the way up, and faced with one of yesterday’s 80 centimetre skid-marks on a 40 degree slope and no clear way around the edges, I have some uncertainty about exactly where to put my foot.

Still, in my case with hands poised in front ready to spread myself flat on the ground and slow the slide next time something slips out of place, we eventually get through the worst of it.

There’s snow up here now, which must be from last night.

Dates: 25th – 27th June, 2010
Location: Ruahine Forest Park, Kawhatau Base Road-end.
People: Amanda, Alistair, Richard and me.
Huts visited: Crow Hut (1 night), McKinnon Hut (0 nights)
Planned route: Up and around the Mokai Patea Ridge, down to Crow Hut for Saturday night. Then up and along the Hikurangi Range over Mangaweka, and out past Purity Hut.
Actual route: Straight to Crow Hut for Saturday night, up along and down to McKinnon Hut, back to the Kawhatau River via the main track, then bashing up to a farm.
[Photos]
[Download GPX] [LINZ Topographic Map in new window]

This post is a trip report. You can find other trip reports about other places linked from the Trip Reports Page, or by browsing the Trip Reports Category.

Yesterday was a short day. Camping at Kawhatau Base overnight, we’d hoped to get up over Mokai Patea — an alpine ridge which you know you’re on because it’s a kilometre wide (as Alistair put it) — drop down to Crow Hut and stay a night, then up to the tops and along the Hikurangi Range. Another trampey club group sharing our transport, with a shorter plan in mind (walking into McKinnon Hut and back), was set to drive the van further south later today to collect us. We abandoned our whole plan before it began, looking at the weather and everything. Just rain and rain and rain, not entirely claggy tops but enough to limit visibility to about 5o metres or so. We decided to ditch the idea of the Hikurangis, go straight to Crow Hut, and maybe get up early and around the Mokai Patea Range on the next day, ending up back where we began.


Amanda getting winched over by Alistair,
and Richard on the far end.

The cable-way was fun. It’s the first time I’ve been in one of them. I don’t think I’d ever want to have to winch myself over, but in a group of 4 we were able to arrange things to (usually) have people winching from both ends. It’s good that it’s there, too, because it makes this a wet weather trip for which we don’t need to worry about the Kawhatau River probably being flooded for the next few days. From there it was a very steep climb of 900 metres to the bush-line, with bits of flax to grasp in the steepest parts and token efforts at steps which seem half-buried, but maybe help to keep the slippery track together. We had a brief cruise over the tops in calm but claggy raining weather — the route is poled. Then we skidded into the bush-line down the slope where every foot placement is an entry in a lottery, as I described earlier.

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Alistair and Amanda.
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Richard and Amanda at Crow Hut.

And yeah, a big sleep-in. We sat down at lunch time, having just arrived at Crow Hut, needing to decide if we were going to cross the bridge outside the hut and continue to Wakelings Hut on the far side of the Mokai Patea Range. Doing so would mean a marginally shorter climb this morning if the weather cooperated enough for us to go that way, but it’d suck if we had to back-track. There didn’t seem much point, especially with a dodgy forecast and with the knowledge that we were already comfortably sitting in a nice, tidy hut. Amanda started tinkering with the wood burner, and we commenced a lazy afternoon. The mud-toned Kawhatau River that we’d crossed earlier via the cable-way continued its rampage below as the rain came and went. We all slept well yesterday afternoon, and last night.

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The Kawhatau River outside Crow.

The bridge outside the hut is interesting. It’s a typical New Zealand swing bridge, but without the mesh down the sides. This seems to be an area that gets fewer people — we’re the first people who’ve written in the book for a month. The tracks to the hut on either side are bordered by side creeks, which apparently can come up. One person wrote in the book that they’d been trapped behind the creek coming down from the Mokai Patea Range, and had to camp out on the far side.

We awoke at 6.30 this morning, in anticipation that we might just be able to walk out around the Mokai Patea. Alas it was not to be so. Glancing outside, things didn’t seem to different from yesterday. Perhaps worse. We went back to sleep, and for brief moments in between we discussed what we thought the others would be most likely to do based on what we thought they thought we might be doing. Eventually, we got away about 2 hours later, on the assumption that they’d hedge their bets and try to get back around mid-afternoon. We figured we’ll head up the top, and try to meet up with the others as they come from McKinnon. If we see footprints we’ll know, and otherwise we’ll turn the other way to catch them there. And thus we’re now climbing back up out of this slippery hole.

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Alistair reaching the snow.

It’s snowy though, as I mentioned. This is the first time in a while I’ve been able to get into nice snow on the tops. It feels almost criminal to tread in the frosty covering to create a muddy foot-print. We stop at the bush-line to put on extra layers. It’s becoming colder with elevation, and I’d rather be fully covered before we start getting buffeted by the wind that’s likely above the bush-line. Further up I’m appreciating it. There’s a light but icy breeze coming from the south, although the temperature’s probably not freezing yet because we’re still getting rain.

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We’re at the junction just east of spot-height 1471 at around 10am, and it’s good to have the day’s only significant climb out of the way. The tussock’s covered in ice, the poles of the poled route up here are wind-swept with ice, the ground’s covered in snow, and there are no footprints. They must be sleeping in, which isn’t a surprise since for all they know we might not be out until 4.30pm if we were to get all the way around the loop. There’s no point heading down just yet because we don’t have a key to the van, so we set off towards McKinnon Hut, expecting to see them coming towards us soon.

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Drizzle drizzle. It’s still foggy but we can see far enough to pick out one or two poles ahead in the route, so nobody’s too bent on navigating. The route climbs up to a large tarn, or maybe a lake, which is frozen over and might have looked very photogenic if there were some more sunshine. It’s not to be. Then we climb further up a gentle gradient towards spot-height 1625. We’re becoming concerned now, because we certainly should have seen them unless they were backing themselves to get out really fast. Still no footprints, until we arrive at the iced-over signpost 20 minutes above McKinnon Hut. There have clearly been a group of people here this morning. They stood around and regrouped, and then went… towards the Hikurangi Range and Mangaweka!

Eh?

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Alistair dropping to McKinnon.

Maybe they’ve just headed out to bag Hikurangi Peak, or something like that, and will be back any moment. Amanda suggests that a couple of us should drop down to the hut to check things out, for which Alistair and I volunteer. Amanda and Richard stay up the top, in case the others return. And it’s down again, into the slush. Every few steps I slip and slide sending a big splash of snowy mud ahead of me. My raincoat’s about to have a date with the washing machine, and so are my mittens. They’re sopping and they’re muddy, but they’re keeping off the wind-chill despite my numb fingers underneath. Glancing behind it looks as if Alistair’s having similar issues. We’re getting snowed on now, it’s getting colder. We get to McKinnon in about 15 minutes, a wonderful little hut on the edge of the bush-line, now surrounded by snow.

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McKinnon Hut.

It’s empty.

Checking the book. Yes, they’ve been here. Yes, the person who wrote it forgot to write their own name. Yes they were here last night. Yes they’ve left for the morning. Yes, the cable-way pulley is broken. Yes, the cable-way pulley is broken. Yes, the cable-way pulley is broken. Yes, the cable-way pulley is broken. Yes, the cable-way pull… Um, Alistair?

Yeah? Says Alistair. He’s busy putting on another thermal layer.

The cable-way pulley is broken.

What? Oww crap, we’ve got a long day ahead of us now. Alistair says something like this at about the same time that I’m thinking it. Maybe he’s using more colourful language. It’s one of those times when things spin around in my head for moment.

What the hell are we going to do now? They’ve written in the book, and I quote verbatim as best as I can read it: “Pully on cableway broken, take alternate route. Gryzoned End? Try nav to pt 1625, pt 1471, then northern spur to farmland. May if Wx bad take main track, poss try to cross river sth of pt 854.” Er, slight problem. I quickly find a map and try to figure out what they’re doing. It makes no sense. 1625 is the signpost where Amanda and Richard are presently waiting, 1471 is the junction leading down to Crow Hut, and the northern spur would take them direct to Crow Hut by the way we came up. This is not what their footprints indicated, and we certainly didn’t see them on our way here. Enough of this, we’ll figure it out later. Meanwhile we have to get back up to Amanda and Richard and figure out what to do next. The cable-way pulley is broken. Maybe we can get there and discover they’re wrong, but in the back of my mind it seems very doubtful the river’s going down any time soon, within the next few days, given the saturation in the soil. Maybe we’ll be camping out.

With some speedy thinking between the two of us there’s no way we want to try and navigate off the tops in the Ruahines without advance knowledge of where we’re going or a lot of time and good weather on our hands, of which today is not. The range is surrounded by a giant ring of leatherwood, which can slow you to a 100 metre and hour crawl, or worse, if you get stuck in an un-cut section. I note in the book that we’ve passed through, and state for the record that we’re going back to the cable-way, and if necessary we’ll camp out and wait for the river to drop. On the off chance that the others get out some other way, we’ll at least be able to wave to them since the cable-way is practically next to the road. This is probably what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll discover a crossing point.

So what else can we do? Alistair and I struggle up another slippery slope towards where Amanda and Richard wait for us. Maybe we can drop back to Crow for another night and hope the weather’s good enough to get out over Mokai Patea tomorrow. That wouldn’t be ideal because it’ll need a lot of food for the extra energy, and we’re only really stocked with the intent of a short weekend trip. Amanda’s at the top — she and Richard have been walking back and forth to try and keep warm for the last 40 minutes, and experimented with following their tracks to try and get a better idea of where they went.

THE CABLE-WAY’S BROKEN!

What?? She can’t hear me, so I give up and just keep walking towards her.

We take a guess that the others might have been trying to go out over the Hikurangi Range, despite what was written in the book, which would put them at the wrong road (Putaru, below Purity Hut) if they got out, but at least they’d be out if they got there. Or perhaps they meant to write 1468 instead of 1471, which is a spot-height on a neighbouring ridge, and would actually put them on a farm. We’re confused. For us it’s getting near mid-day, and being the middle of winter we only have about 5 hours of light left. What to do. Well, we start by back-tracking. We’ll probably do exactly what we wrote in the book. I pull out a phone to see if there’s reception, but there isn’t. We’ll need to try and get a message out if we can, to tell our contact what’s going on. We’ll try again at the point above Crow Hut.

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I took this to figure out what was wrong
with my balaclava, but it didn’t help.
Not a bad portrait, though.

This day is quickly becoming more depressing, and the weather’s changing to match. It’s not a gale, but there’s an icy blast coming from the south-west. The southerly’s coming in. My balaclava’s full up, but it’s not sitting quite right and every so often I suck it into my mouth accidentally and suddenly can’t get any air until I tear it off with my hand. We can still see, and we can mostly follow our earlier tracks, but we’re trudging through the mud. It’s about 12.20pm when we reach the junction above Crow Hut, and fluttering in the wind is a plastic bag tied to the sign. It contains a note.

The day is becoming even more confusing. Have they passed by here? That doesn’t seem possible, because we still only see our own footprints and they couldn’t have gotten over here from where they’d gone without some mammoth and ridiculous navigation effort down to a creek and up again. In the end we decide that the note must have always been here, but somehow this morning we looked through it in our enthusiasm to catch up with the others. The note confirms things. They’re aiming to navigate down the spur that heads north-west above the true left of Rocky Creek. This would drop them into a farm which they must be hoping to walk through to get to a road bridge off Smith’s Road much further down.

Amanda, defiantly removing a glove to be able to use her phone, manages to get a text message out to Jackie back in Wellington, or Sydney where she was once before, or wherever in the world she might be. It doesn’t really matter as long as she’s contactable. In the message, we tell Jackie the cable-way’s broken and we might be camping to wait for the river to go down. We continue back-tracking. I’d dropped my pack for a minute as we stood around, but picked it up again quickly because the wind-chill was coming right through the back of my soaking raincoat. That’s Gore-Tex for you. I like being on the tops and I like being in the snow, but right now I’m just looking forward to getting back into the tress. The snow’s horizontal and it’s biting the side of my face. Shelter will be nice.

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Further along the ridge Amanda’s phone beeps. We’ve heard back from Jackie to say she’s received the message, and if she doesn’t hear otherwise she’ll assume we’re camping, and let various people know we’ll be late out. Some time after 1pm we finally reach trees, and can drop lower and out of the wind. Amanda has a go at contacting Dirk, in the other group, and eventually gets through with a text message. Dirk sends back a message saying something like “others are at 1200 metres and it sounds a bit hard”.

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Amanda and Richard on
the way down.

Another confusing message, not so much hearing that they were having problems at 1200 metres… about where there could be a leatherwood and dracophyllum jungle… but the fact that he said the “others” were at 1200 metres. With some further exchanges and the application of logic, we deduce that Dirk isn’t with them at all, but is actually roaming up and down the road because he never got across the cable-way. We continue further down, and receive news that he’s talked to the farmers below the spur the other group are coming down, and also called the Police and spoken to a Search & Rescue coordinator, presumably not because of any immediate danger, but because it sounded as if there might be a chance the other group could end up stuck somewhere awkward. Fair enough. Search and Rescue should be brought in early so that they can make decisions on whether anything needs to be done or precautions taken. We later hear from Dirk that he was asked the standard 500 questions about the group’s experience and capabilities and gear so they’d be able to tick all the template boxes for their risk assessment, hopefully determining that there’s no imminent risk. It’s amazing there’s cellphone reception up here at all! You can never rely on cellphones.

By now I’m resigned to camping out and missing work tomorrow, quite possibly Tuesday. I wonder if we’ll get a chance to try and build a camp-fire in the rain. That’d be interesting, but only if it actually works. If it didn’t work it’d be depressing. As we continue downwards, we get views of the muddy brown squiggles of the flooded Kawhatau River to our right and begin trying to pick out places where it might be crossable. It doesn’t look any better. On the other hand, we get a view of the farm-land to our left, on the far side of Rocky Creek. Alistair’s behind me, and he’s inspired. If we could get off the main track, and somehow to the base of Rocky Creek (another muddy brown gutter that’s flowing into the main river), then maybe we could cross the creek and figure out a way up to the farm-land, much of which overhangs a bluff above the main river. It sounds like a possible option, and we still have a few hours of daylight left.

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Busted! (Look closely at
where the cable goes.)

Finally reaching the bottom of the spur at half-two, after a controlled slippery slide through the flax, we can see the extent of the damage on the cable-way. It’s still there, which is a relief. It didn’t collapse with anyone in it, and if that’d happened you’d assume the others would have set off an emergency beacon rather than continue on their weekend tramp. On the other hand, it certainly wasn’t anything we could fix, either. The drive cable, which fits over the large pulley wheel, has sliced right into the groove of the wheel so that it now hung around the spokes. They’ve left a plastic bag on the end with a note warning people not to use it, in case it wasn’t obvious, and wrapped a bunch of chains around the end to fully cripple it. The cart that hangs underneath is at the far end, and we later find out that although in its crippled state and with Dirk on the other side, they’d had to write a note and force it over to Dirk so he knew what was going on. The distance is too far to shout clearly over the flooded river below.

Well that sucks. My unlikely back-of-the-mind fantasy that they’d been grossly incompetent when they assessed the damage, and had only thought the cable-way was broken, was not to be. We’re still stuck.

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Amanda, Alistair and Richard.

Plan B is to drop down to the river, and survey it for any possible crossing points. This doesn’t seem likely either, but we have to look. A hundred metres down-river, there’s an island in the middle that we think we could get to, but there’s little point because the far side of the island just has a much more forceful flow, plus a steep bank that we’d have to be clambering out of, and a possibly un-climbable bluff to climb up to get back to the road afterwards. Plan C is more inviting, though less instant. We follow the main river around looking for Rocky Creek, eventually having to clamber up an old land-slip to get over a hump, push through lots of stubborn scrub and drop into the creek. The creek is running muddy, but turns out to be completely crossable. We cross in pairs, now finding ourselves at the base of a short 100 metre climb to a flattening plateau, which would be the farm-land. This could take some time.

And it does take time, because the spur’s very overgrown. Amanda’s leading up the front, basically forging a path through all kinds of yucky stuff. There also the occasional sprinkling of Onga-Onga (aka Stinging Nettle) hidden amongst it all. We stop for a few minutes some way up grabbing a bite to eat, Amanda remembering we haven’t had any proper lunch and by now it’s mid-afternoon. As time goes on and we force our way higher, the bush gives way to some more exposed bluff-like clay faces, which we’re lucky enough to be able to find a way to clamber up after Richard figures it out. Finally we spot some possum carcasses, which look suspiciously as if they’ve been thrown overboard. Sure enough, there’s just one more some-what awkward clamber up an over-hanging tree root, and we’re on the outside of a fence made of number 8 wire!

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Not a proud moment, but one I’m resigned
to accept in the circumstances.

This is such a great feeling. Hopefully the scatterings of what we’ve heard of Dirk talking to the farmers gives us some kind of informal permission to walk over their land. I don’t care if it gets dark now, I could walk over farm-land for ages, because being here means that getting out is under our control once again. Amanda checks her phone and actually has reception, so she sends a message to Dirk to let him know we’re coming through here. We have no idea if he’s received it, though. And we walk. And looking to the road on the far side of the gorge, we see the van sail back towards the Kawhatau Base road-end. Dirk can’t have received our message, and he must be going back to check if we’ve shown up at the end of the cable-way. And we keep walking.

An hour, about five kilometres, a flock of cows, several sheep, a curious horse, a pig, and a herd of excitable farm dogs later, we arrive at the farm-house and knock on the door. The sun’s low and we’re just reaching the hours of darkness, and these guys have had mis-placed trampers coming out of their ears all day. Well, Dirk and 6 other people at least. They’re very well tempered and accepting about it. The others were doing better than we thought they were, having made it down about half an hour earlier. Dirk had even managed to convince the guy to drive to the back of the farm and give them a lift. It was very nice of them. The guy’s wife pokes him and says he should give us a ride too, and very soon Richard and Amanda are crunched in the front of the ute. Four packs, Alistair, and I sit on the back with the dog, and we’re screaming down the road back to the camp-site. You can tell when you’re being driven around the back-roads by a local. The guy leans out the window as we’re passing through one of the gates, shouting to someone that they found the lost trampers.

Awesome. We hadn’t realised we’d walked this far in the last hour. The van’s at the end of the road, and they’re very happy to see us. (It means they can go home!) A couple of them have wandered down to the cable-way trying to see if we’re there, and they’ve been concerned that we’ve not yet arrived, but they come back within a couple of minutes. Now it’s just a mess getting out of all this saturated gear — we’re all still in the full storm gear that we’ve not removed since the snow on the tops.

As time goes on we find that Dirk stayed the night in Mangaweka with some students at the outdoor education centre, and it was very nice of them to put him up. Apparently they’re strategy board game and role-playing enthusiasts, and overnight they taught Dirk to play Dungeons & Dragons, or something like that. Very cool. Looking at what we did in the weekend, we didn’t seem to go that far — about 25 kilometres in all, but with an awful lot of steep climbing and descending. Apart from the farm-land, I figure we were on an average of about a 1/4 gradient for nearly the entire weekend. On the map it was like a giant three point turn with a wonky end. It was great weekend for decision making.

It was very nice for Dirk to stick around and keep track of everything, and make sure we could get out over a farm with some kind of notification. A few other people might be rather turned off if they’d organised a weekend tramp for seven people, then lost them all after the first twenty minutes. He was still helping out though, just from the other end.

It’s late, and we stop at Bulls to discover that the re-opened fish & chip shop there is actually really good. The sky’s fairly clear outside during the drive home. Which reminds me — I completely forgot to stick my head outside Crow Hut at 11pm last night and look for the partial lunar eclipse. I guess the southerly’s passed through, and tomorrow could be a nice day on the tops. Perhaps even a good day to walk along the Mokai Patea range. Next time, though. These things happen. The van’s noisy. One way or another everyone had a rewarding time, and everyone has their story to tell tonight. This was mine.

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Rain and rain and rain.
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