29 September 2015

Early Climbing Days - Nine - Mt Tutoko

One of the great peaks of southern New Zealand is Mt Tutoko, named after a Maori chief in the area during the early days of colonisation. It is one of the bucket-list peaks for many mountaineers - and it is hard to ascend because of its difficult access, steep bluffs and the notorious weather in the area - as I found it to be.

Tutoko from the South (stolen from internet - unknown photographer!)

Rodda Route on Tutoko - Bluffs from Grave Couloir

I had four attempts on Tutoko before finally getting to the top. The first in the 1950s was via the Tutoko Valley, as were the rest. We walked in to Pawnbroker bivvi and next morning in reasonable weather started up the steep face opposite, known as the Rodda Route. We reached the glacier under the summit ridge late in the evening before opting to descend to the top tussocks for a night out. Our aim was to complete the climb the next morning. Without shelter or any gear the night was cold and uncomfortable but things became dire when a southerly storm hit us with hail and rain in the small hours. Our dry under surfaces became chilling rivulets.

The next morning we decided to descend the very steep bluffs, the most difficult part of the whole climb - and the most frightening. Back to town and so we failed.

My next attempt never got much further that Dave's Cave in the lower Tutoko Valley. The heavens opened again and I woke to find myself lying in about four inches of water and the beginnings of a stream racing down a side branch of Leader Creek. So much for a nice hollow for my hip. Once again we retreated from the valley.

Jim Wilson who'd been with me on the previous attempts asked, in 1965, if I'd come on a tent testing (Sears) expedition with Ed Hillary. For a pipe opener we all ascended Mt Madeline, an enjoyable climb. The next day we set off from Turners Bivvi for Tutoko in excellent weather. At the bottom of the SE Ridge Jim and I looked at one another. Both our wives were pregnant with our first children. With hardly a word between us we opted out of the climb. Mike Gill and Mike Hutchins continued on and did a fine traverse of the mountain - albeit a long one. Jim and I scuttled back to Turner's Bivvi where our hero, Ed, was keeping the keas from the tents. I can't remember if he was given any explanation for our defeat, but we were comfortable with our decision.

Tutoko from top of Grave Couloir

Finally some years later four of us - me with Jim Wilson, Mike White and Gordon Hassell - set off for Pawnbroker Bivvi where we spent a rather wet night and day sheltering from the usual rain, The weather started to clear the next morning so we headed to the top of Grave Couloir where we bivvied in a high position ready for the next morning and with steps plugged up onto Ngapunatoru Pass.

In the morning we were away early and made good time across the plateau towards the Tutoko massif. Over half way across Mike and Gordon decided to return - they were apprehensive about the time. Jim and I continued and late in the afternoon, after a nice climb up the final ridge, reached the summit. Below us we could see the bottom of Grave Couloir and, at its top, our bivvi site. Our return was uneventful and the light was starting to fade when we arrived at the top of Grave Couloir. The other two had descended to Pawnbroker and had very generously left us a hot soup in a thermos - wrapped in one of our sleeping bags. We settled down for the night with warm thoughts about our friends below.
Jim Wilson on the Summit Ridge of Tutoko
Next morning we made haste to get down to our friends below. All went well until a massive rock broke free of the ice at the top of the couloir and, with huge majesty, rolled past two very frightened climbers clinging to the edge of the couloir snow. It was with relief that we joined the others at the bottom, packed up and headed out to the road. Our excitement was not over yet. At one stage in the lower valley a big tree finally fell to its fate - across the track in front of us. Strangely - we felt safe all the way home in the car.
Jim Wilson on Summit of Tutoko

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