The 12-year Quest for Sawtooth Ridge
Early January 2021
Sawtooth Ridge is a classic tramp in the Ruahine Range and it has a reputation as difficult, particularly in windy conditions. Its razor-backed spine, with nasty drop-offs, demands respect and a head for heights. When combined with a traverse of the adjoining Black Ridge, there is a very compact round trip in the offing.
While on a recent trip into the Kaipo River in the Kaimanawas, Peggy raised the inevitable plan to tackle Sawtooth before legs and lungs tired. (It had been on Peggy’s list for many years). I remained silent, quietly cursing the prospect of a failed sortie due to inclement weather, and the need to return to complete the trip. It is not a particularly easy area to get to and the prospect of repeated attempts to conquer this ridgeline did not appeal. This dice was going to be rolled only once!
Our saviour was the Windy Weather App, (www.windy.com), which allowed us to set up a notification email 24 hours prior to when the selected conditions prevailed. The parameters that we nominated were a maximum steady wind no more than 10 kph, in a timeframe from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., any day of the week, and no rain. For several weeks we received alerts for when our requirements were being met. The fourth of January was our first post-Christmas opportunity to go, and a quick decision was made to head off.
Day One: The plan was to get to Howletts Hut the day before the predicted weather window, and then to go for it ... and this we did, but not before having to plan around some decent rain that raised the Tukituki River the day before. Getting to Daphne Hut via the river and a short gorgy section was accomplished without problems and the sharp climb to Howletts followed. Glimpses of the Sawtooth were seen, with occasional low cloud adding to the anticipation of the next day.
Day Two: An early start was on order and we left Howletts around 7.30 a.m. for the approach and climb up onto Tiraha (1,668m). Once on top the mist cleared to reveal Sawtooth in all of its glory (!) It was a sight, with numerous teeth of varying sizes to climb or sidle, along to Ohuinga, some two kilometres distant. There was a solid overcast sky and the wind was blowing a steady 15 kph from the west, gusting to 25 or 30 kph, and a bit chilly with it.
Pretty much as ideal as it could get.
Two ‘teeth’ into it and we got into a bit of a spot when Peggy went up a false lead on some nasty, steep, loose rock with an ugly run-out if the worst occurred. A helping hand sorted it out and we then made reasonable progress along the ridge, with some careful route-finding and recces required in several spots. There are no real pointers for the optimal way forward, with no cairns or markers, and in some spots, there are diverging faint footpads. This could be confusing in poor visibility but was an interesting and satisfying challenge for us, as the general direction of travel was obvious in our weather conditions. (Sometimes you do not want everything dished up on a plate).
We arrived on top of Ohuinga (1,686m) at noon and decided to descend onto Black Ridge, before stopping for lunch. The transit onto Black Ridge is not straightforward and presented us with a couple of nasty drop-offs and rock outcrops to scramble over or around. Completing Sawtooth Ridge was not the end of the excitement on this circuit. After a pretty average lunch of now two-day-old Pic’s Salt-free Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter, plum jam and marmite sandwiches, we pushed on towards Tarn Biv (approx. height 1,300 m), our intended overnight location.
What a lovely spot it was, a lovely two-person biv set into the stunted vegetation for a modicum of shelter from the prevailing wind, complete with a rather exposed al fresco dunny.
After seven hours we were tired and ready for a rest. Any lingering thoughts to press on to Daphne Hut were quickly overruled and we spent the rest of the afternoon rehydrating and admiring the views over the Takapau Plains. The log book had numerous references to parties being stymied by bad weather; we were pleased with our planning that made this trip happen. The meal was average at best, some packaged rice concoction with a chemical flavouring and green bits, augmented with left over pieces of Christmas ham. The highlight was a dram of Glayva to celebrate our success.
We settled in with the bivy door open. The lights of Onga Onga, Waipukurau, Waipawa and traffic on SH 50 were a rewarding sight until the wind started to get up around midnight, when the door had to be closed.
Day Three: We awoke to the biv shaking in a gusty westerly; we were glad that we were close to the bushline with an easy transit to Daphne Hut. After breakfast in bed, we quickly packed up and were blown to the bush edge by a 65 kph westerly. Soon the steep descent to Daphne began. Enticing views of Howletts Hut, Sawtooth Ridge and the drop-off onto Black Ridge were our reward. [Photo: back page.]
We arrived at the Kashmir Road carpark at 1 p.m., hot and thirsty, and looking forward to a cold milkshake in Dannevirke.
The Windy Weather app made this trip happen, with regular notifications on the most favourable weather conditions for the trip. There was no way we were going to go back and try it again if the weather had not played the game. We were pretty pleased with our planning and execution of this classic tramp.
- Party members
- Peggy and Chris Munn (scribe)