The Holdsworth-Jumbo is, arguably, the best route in the Tararua Range for a reason: it’s a loop, there’s bush, tops and river travel, and the views are sensational.
By the time the snow reaches above my gaiters, I am beginning to regret wearing shorts. In a southerly that is supposed to be dying, Peter Laurenson and I are post-holing up Raingauge Spur. As we’ve climbed, the snow has steadily gathered depth, thickly coating the ground and trees. Flakes ghost through the air in small gusts. It’s a winter wonderland, but daylight is failing, and our progress has ground almost to a halt.
Nearing the bushline, each footstep involves a gymnastic feat of hauling my leg out, lunging forward, crunching through the crust, hoping it will hold, then sinking as the snow fails to take my weight.
“Can you take over please, Peter? My thighs are cut.”
“Sure mate,” Peter replies, Sensibly, he’s wearing over-trousers.
By the time we reach Jumbo Hut, it’s nearly dark. Inside, the hut resembles a fridge. It takes some time to get the reluctant kindling to burn. At first, the wood burner produces meagre warmth and our breath steams like smoke in the frigid air. After eating dinner, we sleep by the burner, cocooned in down.
By dawn, the southerly has died, leaving behind its frozen breath. The tūpare, leatherwood, is glazed like chandeliers and the purple light of dawn steals over everything, falling to a deeper mauve in the cold shadows.
We watch the sun burst over the horizon and the purples burn to red and orange.
“Fantastic,” enthuses Peter. “It’s going to be glorious up there!”
These were the calm conditions you so often hope for in the Tararua Range and we were excited to be heading over the tops to Holdsworth.
However, what is usually a 40-60 minute climb turns into a mind-shattering grovel, especially for Peter, who doesn’t have snowshoes. I plough ahead but even with the load-spreading capacity of the snowshoes, I often sink to mid-thigh and further. Occasionally, the crust is firm enough to take my weight, but getting out of a post-hole onto solid snow involves considerable effort and grunting and swearing. In places, Peter resorts to crawling; watched from above, it would seem comical.
It takes two hours to reach Jumbo / Pukeahurangi, and we’re shattered.
The Holdsworth trig is a few kilometres away, but it would take several hours to reach it in these conditions. So we give up.
Our compensation is the snow-plastered extent of the central Tararua Range, leant greater heft and height by the clear winter air. No footprints mar its beauty, not even the least significant zephyr disturbs the air. We glory in the panorama.
“Good to be here, mate,” Peter says, slapping me around the shoulders.
“Yeah,” I reply, “I’m happy enough even without reaching Holdsworth.”
How many times have I said that?
I think back to other trips on this circuit, pondering what the place means to me; what it has meant to others.
Accessibility. That’s one reason I‘ve been here on so many occasions. In just two or three hours you can be on the tops, and the circuit is short enough to be accomplished in one day. With three good huts (Powell, Jumbo and Atiwhakatu), it can be enjoyed over a leisurely two, three or even four days and, weather permitting, it remains within the capability of most trampers.
To those who don’t know the circuit, here’s a brief description in the anti-clockwise direction.
Begin from the Holdsworth Road end, where there is a lodge and camping area, follow the well-graded Atiwhakatu Track, over a footbridge across the Atiwhakatu River. Continue up-valley, past the turn-off to Powell Hut, through the Donnelly Flat camping area.
After a couple of hours, the track reaches Atiwhakatu Hut (32 bunks). Then the steep stuff commences. Raingauge Spur is a grunty clamber up a rooty track to Jumbo Hut (20 bunks), which lies just above the bushline and has views east and towards the Tararua interior. Beyond the hut, a rocky trail leads through tūpare, zigzags onto the spur proper, and up to Jumbo / Pukeahurangi, with a few narrow spots en route.
As well as tussock, in summer there’s a profusion of alpine plants: edelweiss, foxgloves, mountain daisies.
From the signpost at Jumbo, descend into a dip, then climb again, pass the East Holdsworth Ridge (a useful escape route) and up to Mt Holdsworth itself. A moderate descent on a broad ridge leads to Powell Hut (32 bunks), also located on the bushline. The track then descends through beech forest, across Pig Flat and then down past Rocky Lookout to rejoin Atiwhakatu Track.
On a good day, it’s an excellent tramp with river, bush, tops and extensive views.
On a bad day, it’s a struggle. Or worse, impossible.
During another attempt at the circuit, also in winter, we weren’t stopped by the snow, but by the wind making fools out of us. Near Jumbo was my first experience of being physically picked up and moved by the wind, despite carrying a full pack.
But none of those occasions can match the ferocity the wind sometimes attains. It can roar over the main range and accelerate downwards in gusts that almost defy belief.
Angle Knob Hut was positioned precisely where those descending winds reach their greatest fury. In the early 1980s, it was blown clean off its perch. The deer-culler in the hut at the time escaped unhurt but was forced to spend the night in the long-drop.
Its successor was Jumbo Hut, built in 1982. While Jumbo is better positioned, it’s recently been strengthened considerably by DOC.
My friend Kathy Ombler had made several attempts, from either end, to get over the tops of the Holdsworth-Jumbo circuit, but the weather foiled her every time. We managed to rectify that in 2021, in near-perfect summer conditions.
Walking briskly through the forest with Kathy, I related earlier trips with my two sons: Tom examining the glossy shapes of the kidney ferns; Lee delighting in acrobatics to avoid the mud of Pig Flat. That was before the track’s most recent upgrade when DOC installed boardwalks and new steps.
Kathy and I arrived at Powell Hut. Named after Ian Powell, it’s the fourth on this site and the third version I’ve visited. Powell cut his tramping teeth with an infamous Southern Crossing in 1922, when aged 17. Terrible weather plagued the trip and he woke up on the top bunk of Alpha Hut to be told he should stay in bed – there was a body on the bottom bunk. One of the party had died of hypothermia.
Such incidents led to tramping clubs establishing the first huts in the range. Powell was the main instigator to build the first Powell Hut, with members of the Hutt Valley Tramping Club. It was opened in 1939.
The hut is ideally positioned for trampers to climb Mt Holdsworth. At 1470m, it’s not the highest of the Tararua summits but certainly the most popular. The record for the most number of ascents goes to Masterton tramper Eric MacIntosh, who climbed it 839 times before his untimely death, hit by a car.
The maunga holds significance because it attracted early trampers, who in 1907 cut tracks through the bush onto its tussock flanks, and erected a hut called Mountain House at about 740m. These trampers, calling themselves the Mt Holdsworth Track Committee, initiated early attempts to organise the fledgling sport of tramping before the formation of clubs. In 1910, more than 1000 people made the ascent. Historic pictures show large groups gathered about the summit; the women in white dresses, the men in hats and woollen jackets.
What they would make of plastic snowshoes, Gore-Tex raincoats and solar lighting in Powell Hut I don’t know, but I think they would have shared many of the same motivations to get into the mountains as we do.
Past Jumbo Hut, in the Atiwhakatu, Kathy and I were grateful for the good track as we headed out, windburnt and sunburnt.
It’s with some shame that I remember disparaging DOC’s efforts to upgrade this track in the late 1980s. We were university trampers at the time and dismissed the benched gravel track and wooden footbridges as a highway and bemoaned the loss of mud. Twenty years later I was grateful to have an all-weather route to Atiwhakatu to enjoy a three-generation tramp with my father and two young sons – something I would not have considered if the track had been rough and the creeks unfordable.
One year I ran up the Atiwhakatu with dozens of others. Every January, mountain runners tackle the 24km circuit in the annual Holdsworth-Jumbo race, held since 1995. Organisers say it’s ‘gnarly and tough. But you’ll love every minute of it’. You can choose to run in either direction.
Being slow to warm up, I opted to begin up the Atiwhakatu. Some 90-minutes into the race, my pace slowed on the steep Raingauge Spur ascent. I was astonished to see Eric Duggan leaping down, having already passed Powell Hut, Holdsworth and Jumbo. Eric’s legs seemed to be made of springs and his ankles of iron.
“Surely he’s going to win,” I commented to my running mate.
But Eric came in third. The winner was an English guy, on his first visit to the Tararua Range, in a time of about 2:20. Almost half the time it took me. Since then, the record has lowered to 2:14.
The slowest but perhaps the most impressive time was that of Chris Pedersen, who finished in about six hours. Chris, then in his 70s, had run every race.
For many years he served as the caretaker at Holdsworth Lodge, the comfortable hut near the road end. Both my sons had enjoyed primary school camps there and been treated to a day in Chris’s company as he took them around his trapline, explaining the nature of pest control and introducing them to the area’s native plants, including ice cream trees (a.k.a horopito). It’s amazing how many schoolchildren you can convince to chew on the peppery leaves when you tell them it’ll taste like ice cream.
As Peter and I make our way back down to Jumbo Hut, we’re content.
Down through the beech forest of Raingauge Spur, the green of the trees is slowly beginning to leach through the white frost. Melting snow trickles everywhere.
We share stories of this circuit, stories of wind and snow, of sunshine and fog, of history and more recent memories.
The conditions and companions of each trip always make the place fresh and different, but it’s familiar enough to feel like an old friend.