A weekend fit for a queen
The Wellington section of the New Zealand Alpine Club summited Te ao Whekere in the Seaward Kaikouras over the Queen’s Birthday weekend in spectacular fashion.
At 2590 metres, Te ao Whekere (the world of the gods) is the second tallest peak in the range. Following a cold snap, the mountains wore a fresh coat of snow, transforming the trip from a basic tramp to a class 1 alpine adventure.
Joining the trip were Simon and Carolyn of the Wellington committee, club members Leo and myself from Wellington, and Summer and Matt from Christchurch. We arrived at the Puhi Puhi campsite Friday at 11pm and jumped straight in our bags.
In the morning, following a lesson from Simon in transceiver mechanics, we drove 30 minutes to the road-end and met Matt, operations manager at Kaikoura Wilderness Experience. Matt graciously allowed us to cross the property and approach the mountain via the most direct route, Happy Valley. He noted that had we come when the property was exclusively booked, we would have been forced to ascend the longer and steeper route up Jordan Stream.
With our boots laced and lollies at hand, we set foot at 10:30am. Matt kindly escorted us to the edge of the farm where we began our journey into the bush. We made quick work of the overgrown track, with bellbirds providing the soundtrack. Jackets were soon stripped off.
After 90 minutes, we emerged onto a 4WD track which snaked down to Shearwater Lodge, a luxury six-room accommodation ran by Matt’s company. We peered through the windows and gawked at the regal appointments, admitting we’d all be fine with canning the trip and spending the weekend here.
Despite the temptation we carried on up the poled south bank of Happy Valley Stream. At a confluence, we crossed the river and climbed a bushy spur to a plateau at 1636 metres. We spotted several deer along the way. Leo, the hunter in our group, foamed at the mouth, wasting precious water.
Our initial plan was to camp at the saddle below the summit. However, facing a setting sun and dropping energy levels, we opted to make a final push to 1910 metres and pitch camp there. This turned out to be a spectacular setting, with Kaikoura twinkling below us and the mountains towering above.
Our cookers struggled against the sugary snow and altitude. Tea eventually came, then dinner, then it was into the bags at 7pm for a long night of summit dreams.
The next morning we rose with the sun. Leaving most our gear at camp, we left for the summit at 9:30am under a still blue sky. We strapped on our crampons and traversed a snowy hill, cutting off peak 2109M and gaining the summit ridge. We marvelled at our luck – another cloudless sky and but a breath of wind.
1pm was our turnaround time. At noon, still well below the summit, we stopped for a snack and contemplated the next part of the climb – a grade 4 scramble up steep snow chutes. Not to be denied the summit, Matt led this section with confidence. In a flash, we were past the hard bits and onto the final exasperating slog up the snowy scree to the false summit and indeed the proper summit at 12:59:05 – less than a minute to spare.
From the top, we took in Wellington to the north, Tappy and the Inward Kaikouras to the west, Kaikoura to the east and the infinite snowy peaks of the Southern Alps to the south. The summit didn’t come easy and I was damn proud to make it.
After a round of summit selfies, we descended the way we came. Throughout the entire climb, the rock was loose, which raised the threat of rockfall, but we returned without incident. We arrived at camp just before sunset and enjoyed a celebratory whisky before retiring to bed at a geriatric 7:30pm.
Sunday morning, we broke camp after brekkie and made our final descent, highlighted by a screen run down to Happy Valley Stream. There we enjoyed limitless water for the first time in days and spotted more deer on the hills. Soon after, we dipped below the treeline and finished at the cars where our focus shifted from cold toes to cold beer.
This was my first trip with the alpine club and I’m so grateful for the wonderful learning experience. A special thanks to Kaikoura Wilderness Experience for allowing us to cross their land. Also to Leo for the good company and enduring my snoring like a gentleman. And finally to Carolyn, the trip leader, who did a masterful job of organising what turned out to be a weekend fit for a queen.