Sad, hor­ri­ble and beau­ti­ful

The Press - Escape - - ESCAPE - Pat Bar­rett

he wide, open plain that is Ed­wards Pass in the Clarence Val­ley of south­ern Marl­bor­ough stretches be­fore us. Mike Latty and I have a loosely formed plan which in­volves trekking in past Samoa Mound and onto Tonga Hill – a 1600m out­lier of the St James Range, to reach Mt Sadd, 1798m, which is on the range proper.

We’ve cho­sen this rel­a­tively re­mote and lit­tle vis­ited re­gion mostly on ac­count of the weather which is pil­ing cloud cover onto the ranges to the west and send­ing the odd gust of wind into the val­leys.

We hope to es­cape the bad weather thanks to the shel­ter­ing ef­fect of the St James Range and pull off a sum­mit at­tempt at the same time. The sum­mits seem a long way off and I’m not so sure this will work, but we’re keen to try.

We have 5 kilo­me­tres of de­sert­like ter­rain to cover be­fore we can even reach the base of Tonga Hill. It’s ac­tu­ally the start of the St James Cy­cle­way MTB track so the go­ing is very quick and we are soon ford­ing the small but swift Ed­wards River to reach the base of the range.

From here it’s slog time – an 800m as­cent spread over 3km of rough and some­times steep ground to reach the top of ‘‘the hill’’, but this is not the hill we want to climb. It’s only a way­point as the real sum­mit, Mt Sadd, lies some 2km far­ther north along a ridge of in­de­ter­mi­nate dif­fi­culty.

As we climb we try not to think of the names of the peaks here – Mt Sadd and nearby sis­ter sum­mit Mt Hor­ri­ble. It’s all a lit­tle de­press­ing and seems a good fit with the land­scape, which is bleak, in­hos­pitable, and bar­ren.

That, of course, is the na­ture of much of this por­tion of the re­gion, bor­der­ing south­ern Molesworth Sta­tion and tak­ing a reg­u­lar beat­ing at the hands of the ubiq­ui­tous nor’wester. The re­sult is a rather tired land­scape and, yes, sad. For all that it is still pow­er­ful and evokes feel­ings of in­signif­i­cance amid the power and raw beauty of na­ture.

Tonga Hill is close and so is the wind. Flick­ing its wings over the open ridge crest, the nor’west gale grips us as we pass over the sum­mit to reach a rock out­crop at 1691m. In this tiny sanc­tu­ary we have lunch and take stock of where we are and, most im­por­tantly, where we might be go­ing.

The ridge ahead is not wel­com­ing – snowed-up, cor­niced in places, windswept. Mike voices the thoughts of us both: ‘‘There’s a lot go­ing on along there, mate.’’ Un­der­stated to be sure, but clear nev­er­the­less. Not one to give up eas­ily, I head on by my­self along the ridge to check out the dif­fi­cul­ties and how we might ne­go­ti­ate them with the time we have.

Mike waits in shel­ter back at the rocks. I’m not gone long, though, as­sess­ing that the re­main­der of the route won’t go for us this day in th­ese con­di­tions and that, sadly, we need to de­scend into the val­ley of deso­la­tion where Hor­ri­ble Stream will lead us home.

Photo: PAT BAR­RETT

Tough go­ing: Mike Latty on the ridge checks the safety of the route.

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