4 Summits, 300kms, 3 days

3.30am alarm call on the Friday of Easter weekend but no chocolate eggs for me. Tea, oats, protein and final bag checks and I was ready. 5am we started trekking from Whakapapa Ski Field car park, our aim to summit Mount Ruapehu. We made good time in the dark weaving our way up through the ski lifts and to the fine snow line above 2300metres. Just as the sun began to brighten the dark cloud, we reached the scree, and my legs began to feel the first thoughts of tiredness with the repetitive sliding steps back and forth, we were 2/3rds of the way up and we pushed on. The most beautiful sunrise and brilliance of bright skies greeted us as we sidled across the last of the smaller peaks and topped out, summitting at Te Heuheu at 2732m around 7.30am.

Jelly beans eaten and we started back, running now, sliding in the scree, across, down and through, sweat freezing around my neck in my now cooling jacket which gained warmth like the strength in my legs as we descended. We knew the path here from our previous trips, and we made good time scaling down to the car park where our bikes awaited us.

1 banana, 2 banana, salted peanuts and more, refuel as we go. I found my bike, shoes, helmet and extra layers by the van and off we went screeching down the Bruce Road to the Chateau and beyond to the highway. My warm body lost heat through the speed and wind whistling around me as I flew like an eagle down the road on my bike, my legs unable to keep up with the pace and forced to rest on their pedals. A welcome rest for sure, waiting in anticipation for what was next.

A right turn onto Highway 47 and a slight incline as I tucked in and began to pedal. Not long and another right turn to Mangatepopo Road where we met gravel and dust from the cars speeding past to the car park for the Tongariro Crossing, which we too shortly reached. Bike racked, clothes adjusted and ham sandwich in hand we began a light walk/jog in and up to the Red Crater and the impending alpine environment before us. Breathing laboured for me as steps followed steps and the previous 4 hours of movement reared their head, but a slight lowering of pace and I continued. We veered to the right and began the climb of Mount Ngauruhoe, weaving back and forth on the initial path and then up the red rocky landscape in the more stable ground, merely delaying the inevitable scree that lay before us. As we neared the top, another vast view unfolded: in the foreground Mount Ruapehu in all her beauty and in the distance Mount Taranaki standing proud. Was it a sign of things to come? I willed it to be so. As we summited at 2287m the sun was in full force and the day was glorious. But Mount Tongariro was in the back our minds and so we ran down the scree, shoes full of as many stones as you can imagine, taking hold and shrinking my shoes two sizes too small until we reached the crater and caught our breath.

A right turn at the ‘cleverly disguised’ toilets and we were on firm ground and moving steadily. Trampers could be seen as far as your eye could reach on the well-trodden path that lay ahead, and we quickly made our way in amongst them until our turn off for the summit. A few sidles, mini drops, but overall a long weaving ascent and before we knew it the summit was to our right. Swathes of cloud started to fill the sky and our view was short-lived. Some final pictures and biscuits eaten, with talk of mugs of hot tea and dinner. I knew I was ready for the return stage and a swift descent if my legs would carry me fast enough.

Down we ran to the path of the Tongariro crossing, only now we were heading in reverse, passing the stragglers of the day as the sun began to burn its final few rays across the crater and towards National Park lighting our way. Down we dropped at a steady pace, step after step to boardwalk and tussock.

Before we knew it we were back at the bikes and transitioning our gear for the final stage of the day. My legs welcomed the reduced impact as they spun around freely on the bike and we returned swiftly along the gravel road to the highway. A sharp left and we knew one road stood between us and some tea. We pushed forth, headwind attacking us from what seemed like all angles, and I tucked in holding the wheel. Cloud cover blocked the once blue sky and as I glanced left at the mountains only the top of Ruapehu could be seen. I couldn’t help but smile at the events of the day past. Pedals ticking over and maintaining momentum we finally took our last turn at National Park pulling into the driveway of our bach. It was 5pm, and we knew we wanted to get going in a few hours to reach the river at sunrise. Head down and gear re-arranged and after much consultation on the bike route and whether to change it, off we went to rest our heads for a few hours. Three mountains down and one to go, what was left was almost monstrous, but the will to succeed on our journey felt stronger.

Just as my mind began to rest the alarm woke me suddenly, 11.30pm, blurry eyed I stirred and went through the motions. Breakfast of sorts and lots of tea, contact lenses back in place and I felt human once more. We had made the decision a few hours previous to change the bike route in order to cycle more of the Mountains to Sea Trail and less of a trail that was known to be rutted and muddy and could take considerably longer. As such, our first section would be road based for 50kms. Ali and I set off on our bikes with our now heavy packs laiden with food for 2 days and including a packraft and paddle each. My bag so awkward and tall it kept smashing me in the head every time I tried to look up from the road. A few adjustments later, a sense of comfort achieved and we were off in the black of the night, headtorches and the brilliant moon lighting our way.

The calmness of the evening captivated my imagination and my mind shifted through the events of our previous day and those yet to come. Hannah joined us 20km in, and straight roads became switchbacks and downhills with wind and cold spells as we sped through the fog. The cold of the night stopping me at times to add layers and re-adjust. We finally made it to the start of the Mountains to Sea Trail at the end of Ruatiti Road, and then began our steady ascent to 661m and the Mangapurua Trig.

I thought the top would never come, it felt like that road wound around and up for days.

Our relentless ascent was rewarded by the beauty of the descent as we swooped through lush forest and trail, and I held on as the clay rutted corners spun my back wheel and threw me in all directions.

As the darkness turned into light we saw the green of the trees and the bright blue sky form above us. The view from the track lead as far across to Mount Ruapehu, and the peak of Ngauruhoe could be seen as clear as day. We reached the Bridge to Nowhere some 95kms from National Park, and bid farewell to Hannah, whom we planned to meet up with on the other side of the river once through the Matemateaonga trail. We continued on a small windy path down the final descent to the Whanganui River and the Mangapurua Landing. Silence descended, the sun beamed on us and I was warmed to the core from the feeling of being surrounded by such beautiful scenery and what felt like freedom from the world around me.

My delusions were short lived, and we began inflating our packraft and preparing for the 10km paddle. We strapped the front wheels of both bikes to my single raft, and the main bikes to Ali’s double raft and sat the boats in the water re-inflating again to full capacity.

Our bikes were in the hands of Ali’s rafting skills now, anything could happen!

Ali managed to drop her GoPro in the river in the first 500m of setting off, which went down like a cup of cold sick, or should that be a lead balloon to the bottom of the river…either way I had a sense of humour failure and needed a whole packet of jelly beans and a ham sandwich to bring me back round…that and Ali’s incredible sense of humour perhaps…

Other than this the rafting was steady going, with only a few lumpy moments giving us some speed and splashes to deal with. This allowed for quite a bit of daydreaming and staring at the surrounding beauty of the Whanganui River with its lush green banks, on what felt like the warmest day of the year so far as the sun beat down on my weary face. We passed the Tieke Kainga Campsite and Marae on the left and as we turned the corner could see the green DOC sign for the Matemateaonga Track, and the bluff that towered down from above it.

It was around 1pm once we’d packed up the rafts and rearranged our bags to accommodate the extra load. We knew this track may well test us, providing some likely trials and tribulations along the way, and so we set off with this in mind and began pushing our bikes up the river bank. A short ride across a paddock followed, but was to be the only riding we would do that day. Push after lift, push and heave for 2km and ascending 400m. The path was rutted in places but overall just really overgrown and thick with branches and bush that didn’t accommodate a person walking through, let alone one pushing a bike. I’d like to say we made good time here, but we really didn’t.

The Puketotara Hut was reached in just over an hour, and it was around 2km from the start. We sat, ate some food, and wondered how long this trail was actually going to take us. I soaked in the last of the sun’s rays before it felt like the inevitable darkness would strike down upon us, making moving likely even slower.

The next few hours went by at a similar pace. Pushing and dragging my poor bike along the covered track and through the bush. Climbing over windfall, Ali coming back to help me heave my bike over and up at times. My backpack felt asthough it had become a part of me, and when I took it off to reach for food I felt almost lost without it. The sun began to set and we pushed on, like 2 lost souls wondering through the forest searching for something but neither of us knowing what. Every few steps my pedal would bring me back to reality and smack me in either the front of my shin or in my calf, never deviating, as if it knew the exact spot that would inflict the most pain.

We made the decision to rest for a few hours at the next hut, and we reached it at around 7pm that day, 6 hours after having started on the track and just over 12kms in. A family had commandeered the Ngapurua Hut that night, but they were generous with their offerings of food and tea and making room for us to sleep. I could do nothing but crawl onto the bunk and close my eyes. I welcomed the warmness of the hut and slept instantly.

We woke 6 hours later and decided to push on. Our chances of getting to Mount Taranaki and attempting a summit were being dictated by the weather front that had been forecast for that afternoon, and as such we wanted to push on as much as possible in the good weather. As we quickly changed on the deck of the hut and packed our bags, we ate breakfast. It was around 2am Sunday.

I’d like to say here that the path opened up onto a paddock and we freewheeled all the way to the finish, but that didn’t happen. Neither did the willing of someone to steal my bike in order that I could walk out without it. As if we were stuck on a hamster's wheel, the inevitable darkness of forest and bush enclosed us and we were back to pushing and climbing, clambering and dragging our bikes. Headtorches lighting the way I stumbled and scrambled at times, with my shin and knee taking the brunt as my pedals silently crashed into my now swollen legs. At times the path seemed to disappear right before us and we backtracked a little to reassure ourselves we were still heading in the right direction. It felt endless, but at the same time I knew there would be an end at some point. My willingness for that to come, and my determination to not let this trail beat me meant I kept stepping forwards. That and the fact that there was no other way out than going forwards, because I was definitely not going back to the river.

But the hours seemed to roll by and we slowly but surely ticked off the next 11kms. Just as the sun began to rise the path began to widen and we managed to pedal our bikes for the last 500m to the Pouri Hut.

We sat on the deck and could see the beauty again of our surroundings. More breakfast was eaten as we recalled our journey so far and that which was to come, to the people staying in the hut. They looked at us with bewilderment, but willed us on our way. We knew that the path from here would atleast become slightly rideable, and I was in good spirits to get going and reach the end.

As if by some sort of magic the next few kms were down hill and we were able to stay on our bikes for a large proportion of time. We weaved in and out missing trees roots and leaves and wet muddy sections. We’d be off one minute traversing a windfall and the next flying straight past one and hoping not to go sweeping off the side. Some double backs and single plank bridges to accommodate and we were back in the saddle. We pulled into the grounds of the Omaru Hut and out ran Hannah wondering where we’d been. We sat like long-lost friends telling of our mammoth journey and ate the last of the food: ginger nuts, crispies, bacon and mash, the saltiest of peanuts, anything we had it and it was gone.

The last 5kms went in a flash compared with the other 38kms. This well-trodden path was one we too had experienced before, and I was thankful I knew what was to come. Some long swooping sections and double backs with a few short pinches to begin, but overall mainly downhill. Again the path steeped close to the edge of the bluff at points, but we were able to stay up right for most of it. As we approached the last of the path and clambered over the stile we joined a 4WD track for 300m and I saw the van at the end of the drive at the Kohi Saddle. I couldn’t quite believe that we’d completed it. It felt like that track in itself had been our adventure, until I thought back about the previous day that we had completed to even get there. Nearly 24 hours had passed since we’d started on the trail. I was relieved and in some sort of disbelief over the whole experience.

But as with everything so far, we couldn’t rest for long as we wanted to get cracking towards Mount Taranaki. The sky for the past few hours had begun to grey and a few showers of rain had caught us at points. We were pretty sure we were about to get smashed by the storm that was forecast to hit New Plymouth and the South East coast that afternoon, but we wanted to make a good dent in the bike leg if we could. We lessened the load in our bags, which felt like I was leaving a part of myself behind, and wrapped up in waterproofs ready to roll.

My bike at this point was making some funny noises and I think as much of the bush had wanted to stow away in its brakes and around the frame as that left behind. I cleared what I could and made sure my brakes worked. That’ll have to do. Off we set.

Some rolling countryside was set before us as we descended on the gravel road. A nice downhill section to begin, and then a few steep pinches that reminded my lungs what lactate was and felt like an interval session. But atleast we were moving forwards, I was definitely not complaining. 2km went by and we were well within the hour, I felt like I was dreaming! We reached Makahu and took a right rolling past tall patches of forest and looking out over more rolling countryside. We continued on to Strathmore where we took a left onto the Forbidden Highway 43.

Rain began to lash down from its initial spits and spots and we kept going. Up we went over the Strathmore Saddle and I peeked at the map and then out before me as we reached the top. The view was spectacular. Greens, yellows and browns of every shade flowing on the hills as far as I could see. We stopped for as long as the rain would allow us before descending and starting to feel the first of the cold in my fingers and toes. Still we kept on cycling. Rain began to immerse me beneath my waterproof jacket and delve into the warmth of my thermal top, so we stopped in an abandoned building and put on all the clothes we had left along with doubling up on gloves, socks and hats. We set off again, but it was hard to get going and the thunder and lightening, along with the sideways rain, made it difficult to maintain momentum. We got into a rhythm but the rain kept coming. My face filled with water from the spray on the road and I felt cold to the bone, shivering with every push of the pedal. I knew that keeping this up was not a good idea, but without being picked up we had to keep going until we could stop somewhere and get warm.

As if by some sort of miracle, Hannah, who was due to meet us at the Mount Taranaki camphouse, had driven back to see where we were and to inform us that the weather was getting even worse as we approached the mountain. We made the difficult but possibly inevitable decision to call it there and stopped riding to get into the warmth of the van and drive up to the camphouse where we would sleep that night. Both of us were drenched to the core and frozen.

It was with a heavy heart that we both made that decision 45kms out from the mountain base. We knew that a summit of Mount Taranaki wouldn’t have been possible that day due to the weather, and was unlikely for the next day too. As such, we knew in our heart of hearts that we wouldn’t be able to complete our 4 summits mission. We had come so far and got so close that I had begun to believe that the weather would hold off and we would be willed to finish. But it wasn’t meant to be. Mountains are dangerous at the best of times and with the freezing level low it meant ice and snow at the top. We have summitted Mount Taranaki before and even from our small amount of knowledge from that trip and the information provided from others, we know that the mountain is steep and can be treacherous. Our mountaineering skills only go so far, and without the right equipment we would not attempt a summit of the mountain on a day like this with the weather having been so poor in the previous days. Even if we had managed a summit, the way down would have been extremely dangerous, and climbing a mountain to the top is only one half of the journey.

As we woke the next day there was a small break in the weather and cloud to see the summit of the mountain behind the camphouse. Mount Taranaki stands proud with its volcanic slopes pronounced at either side. The snow line was low and as I stood in wonder the cloud began to close in and the rain came again. I knew we’d made the right decision.

In total we completed around 300kms on foot, mountain bike and pack raft. We summited Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro and cycled between them and down to the Whanganui River, where we packrafted to the Matemateaonga track and mountainbiked/trekked out to the Forbidden Highway, where we ultimately ended our mission 45kms from Mount Taranaki. An amazing journey and what a way to see such a beautiful country. Till the next mission.

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