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September 2014 Issue
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Paparoa tiger country

The Paparoa Range stretches out behind Jack as he takes the last few steps toward the summit of Mt Uriah. Photo: Jason Blair
3-4 days
Drive west from Inangahua Junction down the lower Buller Gorge, SH6. Park under the bridge over the Ohikanui River and find the vague track to the river on the true left.
BS20, BS21

Perfect tarn-side campsites are the reward for three trampers braving thick tiger country in the Paparoa Range, by Jason Blair

New Zealand weather has a penchant for foiling the forecasters. The West Coast seems to be the trickiest of all regions to get an accurate prediction of weather conditions. Living here, you get in the habit of having a few alternative trips up your sleeve. I haven’t kept track, but I’d guess that somewhere north of 60 per cent of the trips I have done on the Coast have been back-up plans. However, second options often turn out to be first-rate outings.

This was the scenario when I met Jack, my great friend and regular accomplice, one dreary Sunday morning. I arrived at his place packed and ready for a trip I suspected wasn’t going to fly. We had been trying to get a mission to the central Darrans off the ground, but patchy forecasts and difficult schedules had slowly eaten away at summer. Eventually, we settled on Plan B: heading to Mt Awful for a four-day tramp and climb. But the Sunday of our departure, the perfect forecast changed to gale southerlies and very cold temperatures. So we gathered around the breakfast table with tea and maps to throw around some ideas for a Plan C. Between Jack and I, and Jack’s brother Tom, we had a laundry list of possibilities to consider. We wanted something new to us all that was challenging, involved walking and climbing, and came with a passable forecast.

Jack raised an old favourite: the South Face of Mt Uriah, in the Paparoa Range. A central Paparoa adventure had been talked about for years but we had never pulled it off. Now we had the time, the weather and the crew to do it.

The objective was clear, but the details were vague. Uriah is awkward to approach from any direction, and we were hoping for a through-trip. That presented a number of possible ways in and out, all with big chunks of unknown and various logistical quirks as far as pick-ups and drop-offs.

We decided to head up the Ohikanui, a stunning river valley and a significant tributary of the Buller. Its crystal clear waters flow slowly from the heart of a small, but wonderfully inaccessible range of mountains, draped in verdant West Coast forest.

It was surprisingly easy travel up the river and a moderate day’s walk had us ensconced in a bush camp not far from Dennis Creek, which was our landmark confluence for climbing out of the valley. We walked up the true left and crossed the river to camp on the true right in expectation of rainfall that night. We feared if we didn’t cross now, we wouldn’t be able to at all.

As expected, next morning the river was high, dirty, wild and impassable. We struck camp and soon enough river-flats gave way to a steep, tangled, barely tracked climb up a steep spur. In classic West Coast style, the forecast was about six hours ahead of itself and the rain still hadn’t cleared.

Spirits hit a deep low as rain turned to sleet and the temperature plummeted. When we hit the first clearing, our GPS informed us we were just over the 900m contour. That put us about a kilometre short of the spot height where we hoped to be for lunch. A kilometre on the tops isn’t of much concern, but this was a kilometre of gnarly, dense, Paparoa scrub.

Bush camp on the first night. Photo: Jason Blair

Bush camp on the first night. Photo: Jason Blair

We pressed on, all quietly noting possible campsites along the ridge at various clearings in the otherwise solid scrub. The immediate goal was Pt1047 – a bare knob overlooking a dip in the ridge, but by the end of the day we wanted to be at a tarn-studded basin on the far side of a deep dip that on the map looks like it has cleaved the range in two. The thought of having to drop 250m and then climb back up to the tarns weighed on each of us.

The ridge offered an epic tussle with olearia shrubs and her brawny friends. Then, in what seemed a critical moment, the sun burst from the clouds just as we burst from the scrub. We draped our sodden layers of clothing, tent-fly and anything else accessible, over the leatherwood and dracophyllum, releasing a plume of fog into the air as the solar dryer got to work. It’s incredible how a fortuitously-timed moment of sunshine can improve your outlook.

Plunging into the forest as we began the descent to the 800m saddle, a pleasant surprise revealed itself – open beech understory with soft, springy moss underfoot.

But the ascent up the other side found us once more battling through scrub. Tom, energised by the descent, threw himself into the task. Jack and I followed happily, but with more circumspection. The scrub eventually relented, and the lip of the basin came into view. Cresting that horizon revealed the once distant tarns, dotted among rolling hummocks – a fine spot to make camp.

The evening was spectacular and we began to feel like we had penetrated the elusive central Paparoas. Hard days in the hills, heading into seldom-travelled parts of the backcountry are incredibly rewarding.

We were on the go again before sunrise. The chill air and easy terrain encouraged a quick pace and we were atop Pt1339, just north of Mt Uriah, as the sun crept above the Southern Alps. Here, we were treated to a breath-taking view of the surrounding country, and our first real look at Uriah. We spent a good deal of time scouting the line and made the call to drop off the main ridge to the east and sidle past some hairy-looking rocky outcrops. This meant committing to another skirmish with the scrub in the hope of connecting a series of clearings and threading between bluffs.

By now we had developed a scrub rating scale: TC 1-10. TC stands for tiger country, and the scale runs from a smattering of bushes you can casually wander through, to impenetrable, weapons-grade scrub which is easier to avoid by descending as far as necessary. It turns out that our scale was poorly calibrated. Having already encountered what we thought was top-of-the-scale TC10, we discovered what we could only call TC11: bouldery, steep, and thickly tangled slopes we needed to cross before we could regain the ridge.

It was a relief to get onto the open tops on the final slopes below Mt Uriah. Lunch in the sunshine on a remote and long-coveted peak is a sweet reward indeed.

We speculated on the route to the summit up the granite of the south face. Scurrying down tussock gullies, it didn’t take long to get a look at our objective. The south face is a complicated series of buttresses with a good dose of immaculate-looking rock interspersed with darker bands, which looked less reliable. The eastern end of the massif with clean, well-featured rock offering an aesthetic line through the whole wall looked most promising.

Unfortunately several factors conspired against us. Large swathes of the route were dripping wet as snow and ice melted in the warmth of the sun. And time was now pressing – it had taken us half a day longer to get to Uriah than we had hoped and we faced the prospect of more brutal scrub-bashing east along the ridge towards Stony Creek.

Tom picks his way through patchy scrub. Photo: Jason Blair

Tom picks his way through patchy scrub. Photo: Jason Blair

Even though we had come to climb Uriah, we decided to keep moving in favour of completing the trip.

I don’t know how many times we stood at a vantage point, surveyed the ridge ahead, and debated the merits of sticking high, or dropping off one side or the other to skirt an obstacle or cut a corner. The latter approach paid off when facing the gendarmes around Pt1332, at the head of Denis Creek. We opted to descend to 900m, where we could see easy tussock benches around the head of the Otututu (Rough) River. Then we climbed back to the 1100m ridge and strode out across open tops.

But our greatest decision-making challenge was just ahead. The aim was to get as close to Mt Stevenson as possible to camp for the night, but we needed to clear a significant section of rocky, broken and scrub-tangled rock outcrop at Pt1325. It was a long way down to the left to get around the obstacle, and there was no guarantee of easy travel down there. There was a high and steep traverse, also very scrubby from what we could see, on the right. The last option was to take on the ridgeline. I think all of us backed each of the options at some point in the discussion. In the end, we settled on the left. There was some grumbling on the descent, but the best decision is the one you have made so we pressed on.

In the end, it seemed to be a good call. There was one section of TC9+ and a bit of a scramble, and then we crossed a spur leading west into the Stony River. In front of us spread a terraced basin of mirror-tarns and perfect campsites. We swam, ate and rested after a big day.

There was one thing looming large in everyone’s mind. We didn’t know for sure whether there was a track down from Mt Stevenson. It occupied an increasing amount of our conversation as we got closer. Jack had some vague information suggesting local Reefton legend Tony Fortune maintained a track to the tops in the area.

After a large lunch on the western slopes of Stevenson, we struck out on the ridge between Maimai and Giles creeks. It felt right, but as we progressed no track markers materialised and our confidence dwindled again. At this point, after extensive discussion, we settled on preferring to know and to get out that night than to maintain our purist ideals. We pulled out a cell phone and put a call in to Tony, who told us we were on the correct ridge. It’s an incredible piece of track, straddling a steeply undulating ridge through the gnarliest scrub we’d seen yet.

Tractor mode engaged, we plodded on and then scrub gave way to open beech forest, and then, soon enough, the road end.