The Cone Ridge (1) The First Traverse and Subsequent Tracking
It is nearly twenty years now since the Cone Ridge first attracted attention as a possible east to west route over the Southern Tararuas and as long ago as 1915 the late H. E. Girdlestone, F.R.G.S, Government Surveyor, mentions the fact that the Greytown-Mt. Hector Track Committee, in considering the best route from the Wairarapa to Otaki, decided that the Cone Ridge(see 2) involved too many difficulties, and consequently the present route over Mt. Reeves, Bull Mound and Alpha came into existence.
This bold, craggy ridge, therefore, remained isolated and unvisited, but in 1928 its striking profile as seen from Mt. Alpha caught the attention of two Tararua Tramping Club members, A. G. Winchcombe and W. Neill, during a crossing to Otaki, and the desire to cross its rugged summits became an ambition that was not fulfilled until June 2nd, 1929.
As a full account has not been recorded of this trip(see 3), which is the first known traverse of the ridge, it is considered that the following will prove interesting as providing some idea of the hard work and endurance involved before it was finally accomplished. The Monday holiday provided by the King’s Birthday, 1929, afforded the first opportunity of doing this trip, and although a bit late in the year we decided to give it a go. Owing to the difficulty of getting motor transport to the Pakuratahi on the Saturday afternoon, it was not till 8 p.m. that we arrived at the Upper Tauherenikau Hut (see 4), which we found to be more than fully occupied by a party of ‘Varsity’ trampers who had arrived from Woodside. After partaking of the scrappy and unsatisfying meal one gets in a congested hut we settled down for the night. As it was too cold to sleep outside, “Winch.” and I had to spread our sleeping bags in a dirty, damp corner of the hut full of sprouting onions and rubbish - this being the only unoccupied place. For myself I can honestly say that I never slept a minute, partly on account of the cold, partly on account of the uncomfortable couch, but mainly through anxiety to wake up in time for an early start, and judging from the grunts and rustlings from “Winch.” he was evidently undergoing a similar ordeal, so that when 3 a. m. came round we were both thankful to get up. An idea of the intense frost that night can be gained from the fact that when we brought in a billy of water that had been left outside, it was found to have frozen solid and consequently it took a long time to boil. Not wishing to disturb unduly the slumbers of the others we partook of a meagre breakfast and packed our bags as best we could in the dark and got away from the wretched place at 5 a.m. We were thus ill-prepared for the strenuous day before us.
However, our spirits rose as we crunched across the glistening white river-flats upstream by torch-light, and the masses of bright stars overhead indicated a fine day. As we progressed up the spur leading to the Cone Trig (3,547 feet) we had to push our way through frozen leather-wood, each leaf and branch being encased in shining ice, whilst patches of snow and hail indicated a super-abundance of it further on. As there was no track even to this point then, it was not till 8 30 a. m. that we reached the trig point. Here we were confronted with a magnificent panorama of snow-capped mountain ranges emerging from gloomy river gorges whilst the rising sun, pushing up from a bank of clouds on the eastern horizon, changed the summits from cold grey to delicate pink. From here also we were enabled to pick out the ridge we had come to explore and our hopes sank a bit when we realized the magnitude of the task before us. It looked a very long way to Mt. Hector, and the Cone Ridge seemed very forbidding, with its rocky pinnacles and stunted snow-covered leatherwood, from which we were separated by a 600 ft. drop to a saddle. A grey mist gathering on the Hector Range and a freezing wind springing up did not improve the outlook and left us undecided what to do. However, after a couple of liberal slices of bread and cheese we decided that if we were to see Field’s Hut that night we would never get there by standing around thinking about it, so picking up our swags, we plunged down through the scrub and found our way into the saddle and commenced the climb on the other side. This was exceptionally steep and slippery whilst the tenacious leatherwood which seems to thrive here did not aid pedestrianism, and it was nearly midday before the top of the Cone Ridge proper was reached. The Cone Ridge, we found, is very steep-sided and narrow, running parallel to the main Tararua Range between West Peak (now Bridge Peak, Ed.) and Maungahuka, and separates the headwaters of the main Waiohine6 (now the Hector River, Ed.) and Tauherenikau Rivers. The stretch that now lay before us is very exposed and consequently the leather-wood is very short and stunted, and frequently we found that the only method of making progress was to walk over the top of it until we fell through and then either to try to push a way through or else adopt the worm’s method of getting over the ground. The small, rocky pinnacles were also an annoyance, for we usually found that on getting to the top of them we were unable to get down the other side and had to retrace our steps and struggle round the sides, where the semi-frozen snow mixed up with the leather-wood called for our last ounce of strength in order to force a passage.
When we finally gained the tussock we found that we had ruined our trousers, which were hanging in shreds from our belts, whilst our packs and oilskins also showed signs of rough use, to say nothing of our legs. As it was now getting late, being about 2 p. m., we hastily ate half an apple each and commenced the long up-hill climb of 1,500 ft. on to Hector. This proved very exhausting, for the tussock was practically covered in snow, which meant that we had to lift our weary feet much higher, only to sink down again at each step, and we soon discovered that this was a good way of getting cramp. As we got higher we encountered several steep, rocky pinches which had become glazed over with ice and which necessitated careful manoeuvering. We had now entered the belt of driving mist and before finally staggering onto the top of Mt. Hector darkness had fallen and the cold south wind had increased. We were now feeling the effects of lack of sufficient food combined with long hours of exhausting work, but as it was too cold to stop we picked up the tracks of a party that had come from Field’s, and guided thus we stumbled down to the saddle and thence onto Field Peak. As our torches had now practically failed us, owing to much use the night before and in the morning, we had difficulty in finding our way off the top, for a party had spent the morning in skiing and their tracks led everywhere, while the night was now very black and dirty. The Kime Hut would have been very welcome had it been there. However, on picking up the stakes leading down to Field’s we had no further difficulty, and arrived there at 8 p. m. - seventeen hours (see 5) since breakfast at the Top Tauherenukau Hut, and over 38 hours without sleep! After a cup of hot soup we slept solidly for twelve hours to 9 a. m. on Monday. After partaking of a large billy of rice and feeling refreshed once more, we concluded the trip by pinning and tying the remains of our trousers together, and then walking the road to Otaki.
Since then active Club working parties have cut a track over this route and an extra energetic person can now cover the distance in a week-end. Thus another link has been added to the chain of tracks that have sprung into existence throughout the Tararua Range, mainly by the pioneering efforts of small parties of members from this and other Clubs, backed up later on by slasher parties.
[A small party went as far as the top of the Cone on the week-end of May 11th-12th, 1929, a few weeks prior to the above crossing. It was then that the Cone-Hector Track was conceived and track cutting commenced in Dec., 1929.-Ed., 1933 Tramper]
Footnotes (added for this reprint)
1 First published in The Tararua Tramper Vol. 5 No. 11 September 15, 1933.
2 Today the name Cone Ridge is given to the ridge extending in a northeasterly direction from Cone, whilst the bushy ridge between Cone and Winchcombe is named Neill Ridge. Unofficially the ridge from Neill to Hector is often called the Neill-Winchcombe Ridge.
3 A brief report appeared in The Tararua Tramper Vol. 1 No. 9 July 15 1929.
4 This was sited about one km further up river on the track past Tutuwai Hut. Thanks to John Thomson for researching the whereabouts of this long gone hut.
5 In these 17 hours they covered over 18 km, much of it off track, and climbed over 2000 m,
- Party members
- A. G. Winchcombe and W. Neill(scribe).