Climbing to the summit of Tapuae-o-Uenuku was the scariest hike I have ever done. Tapuae-o-Uenuku, or Mt. Tappy as some call it is the tallest mountain in New Zealand outside of the Southern Alps range. Check out the video of this epic two-day hike:
Tapuae-o-Uenuku, or Mt. Tappy as it is nicknamed, rises to a height of 2,885 meters (9,465 feet). Located in the Inland Kaikoura mountain range on New Zealand’s South Island, Tapuae-o-Uenuku is the highest point in the country north of the Aoraki Mount Cook region. The mountain’s name translates to “footprint of the rainbow” in Māori but is also believed to be named after Chief Tapuaenuku. The mountain towers above the surrounding landscape and can be seen from far and wide. Sir Edmund Hillary actually climbed Tappy back when he was training in the New Zealand Air Force in 1944. He eventually went on to become the first person to summit Mt. Everest.
I had been wanting to hike Tappy for some time. I first saw the peak from the top of Mt. Vernon in the town of Blenheim, where I worked. I saw the snow-capped mountain again on a visit to Whites Bay. After a bit of research, I discovered that a climb up the mountain is not too technical but three to five days is recommended. So I did the sensible thing and planned to complete the hike in two days. I originally planned to hike solo but several friends advised me against this. And so I enlisted the help of my buddy, Kane, to accompany me on the journey.
The easiest and most common route up Tapuae-o-Uenuku is the Hodder River route. The Marlborough Tramping Club has a great website with detailed information on this hike as well as another site. This route did require Kane and I to get permission from a farmer to cross through his land as well as booking our overnight stay in the Hodder River Huts. Here are some approximate statistics of the hike:
Total Distance: 17.7 km (11 mi) to the summit
Total Elevation Gain: 2,249 m (7,379 ft)
At 7am the two of us hopped into my car and drove south, out of Blenheim. Soon we were near the town of Seddon where we turned off the highway and into the Awatere Valley. It was here we finally got a glimpse of Tapuae-o-Uenuku towering above the vineyards in the valley. The grapevines soon became pastures for grazing cattle and sheep. Eventually we crossed a suspension bridge over the Hodder River and parked the car.
We donned our backpacks and trekking poles (mine were actually old ski poles I borrowed from Kane) and set off. Our first order of business was to cross through a farmer’s property as shortcut; we had called ahead and gotten permission from the farmer. Through his gate we walked along an easy, dirt road that followed the Hodder River upstream. After about 45 minutes we reached a rock cairn on the side of the road which was our sign to head down a steep track to the riverbed.
Upon reaching the river we immediately had to cross. The river has many bends and we constantly were encountering large rock faces and other obstacles that forced us to cross the river to get around them. This would carry on the entire day.
For hours we crossed the river, back and forth. Our feet were soaked but we expected that we’d be wet all day. We followed the river upstream through a narrow gorge that eventually opened up into a large valley of stones. The cold water felt refreshing and I was grateful we decided to hike in summer! The water levels were low and never rose above the knees.
At one point we encountered three middle-aged hikers on their way back. These would be the only people we would encounter on our trek. Our only other companions seemed to be the wild goats that would make appearances every so often.
After a nice break for lunch, the trail left the river. There was an orange sign marking this departure and we hiked high up into the hills. It became so steep that I wondered if we had lost the trail and were simply following goat tracks. But eventually we reached a precarious perch above the river and continued along.
We rejoined the Hodder River in a large valley. The riverbed was wide with stones everywhere. I sat down for a little break and fell asleep briefly. My shoes and socks had almost dried but of course we had to cross the river once more. Kane had counted each crossing and our grand total was 76 river crossings.
The trail left the riverbed and we were briefly rewarded with some trees and shade. The bush was also fraught with spaniards, also known as speargrass. These spiky plants were sharp and stabbed at our legs as we walked past; with Kane they even drew blood. New Zealand may not have all the dangerous arachnids and snakes that Australia has but watch out for the plants!
At last we saw our destination off in the distance, the Hodder Huts. The two huts sat high on a hill at the end of the valley. We followed the track along a steep hillside to the huts, arriving at 4:00pm. It had taken us seven hours from the carpark to the huts.
It felt so good to take off our shoes and socks and dry off. The huts in New Zealand are always well provisioned: there were tanks of water, stoves inside for cold nights, privies out back, and loads of books. The hike was worth it just to relax in these huts and enjoy the beautiful view of the Hodder River Valley.
I had some pizza wraps for dinner which I had pre-made and frozen. They had thawed by now and were delicious. By 5:30pm I was tired and took a nap; it had been a long day. After the sunset I had a second wind and spent some time perusing the library of literature in the huts before teaching Kane how to play cribbage.
Knowing that the morrow would be an extremely long day, we finally set an alarm for the morning and hit the hay.
Day 1 Distance Hiked: 13 km (8.1 mi)
Day 1 Elevation Gain: 984 m (3,228 ft)
River Crossings: 76
We woke up early as (the kiwis never finish their similes). Because we’d be returning to the huts, we left our gear behind and only brought some snacks and water in our day packs. It was 7am when we left the huts.
The morning was beautiful and it was shaping up to be a good day to summit. We followed the trail deeper into the valley until we crossed the Hodder River one last time. We then turned left and entered a new valley, following the Staircase Stream. It was here that we could see Mt. Alarm looming ahead in the distance.
Kane and I continued on as the cairns marking the trail became harder to find in the rock scree. There was hardly any vegetation anymore, everything was rocks. I was following the directions from the Marlborough Tramping Club’s website but they were somewhat vague.
The directions said to climb up a steep scree slope after passing a waterfall. We reached a waterfall and began our climb but there were no cairns marking the trail. The scree was loose and the slope dangerously steep. I began to wonder if we had lost the trail. About halfway up I could see another waterfall farther into the valley. I made the decision that our current route was incorrect and we should head to the newly spotted waterfall. We began to carefully make our way back to safer ground and sure enough, as we headed to the next waterfall we began spotting cairns again. Kane and I later referred to our misdirection as the Death Slope.
Once past the waterfall we began climbing up a steep scree slope with towering bluffs and scree all around us. We were in the basin between Tappy and Mt. Alarm and it was beautiful. However, the slopes were so steep that I was mildly worried about our safety. We lost sight of the cairns and found ourselves heading in the wrong direction again. A quick traverse across the slopes brought us back to the trail.
TO THE SUMMIT
It was very difficult to find the cairns amidst the rock scree. The steep slopes didn’t help and my heart was racing constantly. We were high above the surrounding mountains with only Mt. Alarm and Tappy above us. The views were incredible but also made my hands sweat seeing how high up we were. I estimated we were 9,000 feet above sea level.
Finally we reached the top of a large basin and could see clearly the saddle from Mt. Alarm crossing over towards us and Tapuae-o-Uenuku. There was a large slope ahead of us but it seemed the summit would be just over the ridge. Kane and I both remarked that neither of us would have gotten this far had we hiked solo.
Sure enough, as I crested the ridge I caught my first view of the summit as well as the Seaward Kaikoura mountain range and the ocean. However, I was also greeted with a vertical drop-off down the other side of the mountain. To reach the summit we had to hike along this dangerous ridge with a sheer cliff on one side. To make matters worse, the wind picked up and of course it was blowing in the direction of vertical peril.
It was at this point that my anxiety kicked in. I refused to look at the beautiful views and tried to keep my head down as I hiked toward the summit. I was freaking out; one wrong step or slip and I could be tumbling to my death.
Just a few meters short of the summit I sat down to shield myself from the wind. Kane continued the rock scramble to the summit. My anxiety attack was in full swing and I accepted the fact that I just wasn’t going to summit. I tried to slow my breathing and heart rate. I was so close to the summit but any farther up meant that much farther to go down. My fear was paralyzing. It was at this point I checked my phone for service and decided it was a good idea to send out a cryptic text to my parents telling them I was stuck on a dangerous mountain.
I could hear Kane above me at the summit, enjoying the view. At last I calmed myself just enough to summon a sliver of courage and peek my head up. I nearly crawled up the last few meters, trying to keep my center of gravity close to the mountain so I wouldn’t blow off.
At last I joined my companion at the top of Tapuae-o-Uenuku. It was a gorgeous day with panoramic views of the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura Ranges, the ocean, and the valleys and gullies below. I could hardly enjoy it as my anxiety attack continued. But I had made it.
After some photos and videos, I was ready to descend to safer ground. I remarked to Kane that I could hike 2,000 miles in the woods but I can’t climb a mountain without freaking out. I don’t think mountaineering is in my future.
RACE AGAINST DARKNESS
We had summited around 12:30pm. That meant it took us 5.5 hours from the huts to the summit. All of our wrong turns and lost trails had cost us. The sun would set at 8:30pm and we were going to have to hustle to make it back before dark.
The descent was easier since we knew where the trail was this time around. But the steep slopes of scree made for a slippery slide down the side of the mountain. Many times we found ourselves surfing down the mountainside on a wave of loose rocks. We were basically riding erosion down the mountain. It was apparent why the cairns were so hard to find. Descending hikers like ourselves probably wiped half of them out from all the rock slides.
Eventually we made our way back to the Staircase Stream and eventually the Hodder River. It was absolutely beautiful in the valley. By 4pm we reached the Hodder Huts. We hadn’t eaten anything besides snacks so we finally had some lunch and emptied all the stones out of our shoes. After our 30 minute break we hit the trail. It was going to be a long day.
The previous day we spent seven hours to reach the huts from our car. Now we only had four hours to make it back before dark. With renewed vigor, we quickened our pace and took advantage of our adrenaline high.
The views were stunning. My anxiety had subsided about halfway down the slopes and now I was happily hiking along. I thought about how worried my parents must be after receiving my text earlier. I wouldn’t have any service until we got back to town to inform them of my safe descent.
At the Hodder River we splashed back and forth across its banks as the sun began to cast longer shadows. We didn’t count the number of crossing this time. Eventually the sun did set and we were still at least an hour away from the car. It was going to be very difficult to find the track back up the hillside to the farmer’s dirt road in the dark.
And indeed we did miss the trail leading up to the farm road. Fortunately, we knew that we could continue along the river and eventually make it to the bridge; there was no way we would miss the suspension bridge over the river. After a while it became difficult to walk on the uneven stony riverbed in the dark. I decided to trail blaze and find our own way up to the farm road. We left the riverbank and climbed up the hillside, over a hidden barbed wire fence, and found our way to the road.
The road was a much easier walk back to the car and we arrived at 9:30pm. It had been an incredibly exhausting hike but we had completed it in two days! After a long drive back to Blenheim we rewarded ourselves with ice cream at McDonalds. Though it was immensely beautiful, I have to say that was definitely the scariest hike I have ever done. And if you haven’t already, check out the video, the pictures don’t do it justice.
Day 2 Distance Hiked: 22.4 km (13.9 mi)
Day 2 Elevation Gain: 1,445 m (4,741 ft)
Kane and I were screaming “Never Enough” up and down the mountain. There were great acoustics with the mountains echoing my every note and no one around to hear it.
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