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January 2022 Issue
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See more… Backcountry ladders

Tramping the Tararua Peaks ladder, Tararua Forest Park, Wellington. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Ladders have been used for hundreds of years in the backcountry. Here are four places to see modern variants.

It was the most famous ladder in the backcountry; a chain contraption that flexed disconcertingly. Cloud obscured the drop below, but the wind clawed at me, and I could barely get the toe of my boot onto the narrow rungs. Still, I was grateful for the chain ladder, which offered a safe way to negotiate the precipitous Tararua Peaks. And it was certainly a step up from the wire cable it had replaced.

Nothing lasts forever and the infamous chain ladder was itself replaced in the early 2000s; its use-by-date confirmed when a lightning strike almost finished it off. Then DOC ranger Wayne Boness had the unenviable task of designing a new ladder – one that would meet the demands of local building regulations. Boness was told that the new galvanised steel ladder (22m high and weighing 800kg) would have to have two landing platforms, and a roll cage. He knew this over-engineering would outrage the local tramping community, so pointed out that any tramper capable of getting to the Tararua Peaks on the narrow, craggy route would have no problem using a ladder without platform or cages. Boness prevailed and thanks to his efforts, the Tararua Peaks Ladder II is a fine piece of engineering: steep and high enough to be exhilarating but, unlike the old chain one, with rungs on which you can firmly place your whole boot. A nearby conduction rod attracts lightning away from the ladder. 

Ladders are nothing new in the backcountry. Māori expertly made ones out of flax and vines to scale cliffs, as shown in the famous picture of explorer Thomas Brunner and his dog on the Te Miko Cliffs near Punakaiki. Missionary William Colenso was scared of heights and appalled at a flax ladder he once had to descend into a Rangitīkei River gorge. Humbled, he noted Māori children scaling it as agile and unfearing as monkeys.

These four well-known tracks all feature ladders.

Tuahu Track, Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park

The Kaimai Range is a series of extinct, eroded volcanoes that separates the Bay of Plenty from the Waikato. In recent years, the volunteer group Kaimai Ridgeway Trust has been steadily upgrading and re-routing old tracks, building new huts and refurbishing old ones. One of the more rugged sections of the range lies north of Motutapere Hut, accessible from the Tuahu Track. Here, a metal ladder negotiates a steep volcanic plug. It’s high and steep enough to be exhilarating. 

Around the Mountain Circuit, Te Papakura o Taranaki

The 4-5 day, 52km Around the Mountain Circuit scribes the flanks of Taranaki Maunga, in Te Papakura o Taranaki (formerly Egmont National Park). Traversing gorges, goblin forests, rocky gullies and open mountainsides, the varied track offers rugged tramping and several huts. Waiaua Gorge Hut is one of these and the nearby track leading towards Brames Falls features a 30m ladder to aid trampers down a volcanic cliff.

Tararua Peaks, Tararua Forest Park

The Tararua Peaks circuit is a challenging 4-5 day tramp beginning and ending at Ōtaki Forks. Tramp up to Kime Hut, then follow the Tararua Main Range north on exposed tops. The Tararua Peaks ladder is negotiated just before Maungahuka Hut. Carry on northwards, past Anderson Memorial Hut, over Shoulder Knob, down to Waitewaewae Hut, and out to Ōtaki Forks. 

Kepler Track, Fiordland National Park

The track into the Iris Burn from the Hanging Valley Shelter on the Luxmore tops features a series of wooden ladders, which aid trampers to make the significant 800m descent. While arguably more stairs than ladders, the number and extent of them certainly forms one of the greatest concentration on a New Zealand track.